Thailand – ‘solo’ but never alone

My Thailand travels can be summed up in one appropriate quote – ‘Solo but never alone’

I won’t lie as I sat in the plane from Delhi to Bangkok, I was afraid.  The doubts had trickled back in and this time the internal voices were louder than usual.  I had spent the past 2 months in overtly comfortable cocoon of family.  Last time when I ventured on solo travels, it was the first but was so very different.  I was traveling within a country I was familiar with, language I could speak, no currency conversion and was coming from a life of total independence, I was flying from Toronto to Atlantic Canada (read about that adventure here Start of a Solo Adventuress)

I was coming from two months of life with family, living with parents, surrounded by constant activity and social life.  I was having a great time doing nothing, but a part of me was also craving some ‘Me time’.  Suddenly, I remembered comments, that some of my girlfriends would make back in TO, about the luxury of sipping wine and reading a book, one I took for granted on most days.  The time home had made the doubts around loneliness of solo travels a bit more pronounced.  So, as I sat in that plane on the first day of 2018, I had conflicting emotions.  I was happy to be on my way to some much needed me time, mental space, independent living and yet I was nervous, anxious and doubtful about my ability to navigate an Asian country outside India, with a language I didn’t speak, all alone.  I wondered if I will get bored, not be able to explore any night life scene and get lonely.  I was hopeful yet anxious, excited yet nervous, I guess in one word I was – Alive.

Sky view as I leave Delhi

Just as I was letting my empty mind roam around on these tangential thoughts while typing my Happy New Year messages to friends across the world, one such exchange resulted in what is a good example of when heart desires universe conspires.  As it happened a few friends from the road, who I met during my travels in Mumbai, were also in Bangkok. And just like that even before my plane took off my anxiety and doubts were converted to excitement.  I was not thinking beyond the first day I was just excited to land and meet up with few familiar faces and grab a drink.  The new year and the trip was off to a great start. I still did my solo gig for the remainder of my 15 days but I was eased into it.  It’s funny this thing called confidence, it is not something you either have or you don’t it grows as you deal and navigate life.  I can safely say that on this trip I could feel my confidence grow with every passing day.

Total # of days – 15

Total Cost – $2500 (Accommodation: $480; Flights both from India and internal: $817; Personal discretionary expense like shopping: $180)

# of new and interesting people I met – in double digits

Companion on the road – ‘The Beach’ a Novel by Alex Garland – Set in Thailand

First time experiences  – in essence all but to call out 2 (Rafting and Caving)

There is enough written about Thailand as a travel destination and backpacker haven .  For me my trip of Thailand was personally about new experiences, random encounters and breaking comfort zone.

Reality is often better than perception

As someone who grew up in India, I think subconsciously had assumed Bangkok will be like Mumbai, Delhi but I couldn’t have been more wrong.  It was more like Toronto / Chicago.  My first impression as I landed was to notice how clean, less polluted & populated the city was.  It was also well developed for tourists and that’s true for the entire country. It’s amazing how the country has retained its culture yet developed itself for tourists from all over the world.

The street food in Bangkok is how to go. I only ate at a fancy restaurant once and honest opinion didn’t enjoy it half as much as the pad Thai from the stall of this lovely woman.

Bangkok was on my itinerary as stop for onward and return journey, but it turned out to be an interesting discovery.  From checking out the grand palace, a pretty impressive architecture with buildings spread across over 2 million sq. ft. to joining a street party on Khao San Road.  Checking out the city in a tuk tuk, way more comfortable than an Indian Auto rickshaw and way more expensive too, Tuk Tuk’s  are the ‘sexy’ thing and their drivers know it :).

Not having a plan sometimes is the best plan

One evening in November while sitting in my living room and feeling the need to get away I booked my tickets to Bangkok, given my current no income status, I went with the cheapest ticket in January I could get and that is how I ended up on a flight on the first day of 2018.   I had not spent much time planning where to go while in Thailand, I had a broad idea on areas to cover but no specific itinerary.  I knew I was going to check out Chiang Mai in the north, may be head to Cambodia and Vietnam if I can get the visas in time.

4 days before flying from Delhi all I had was a return ticket to Bangkok, first 2 nights stay booked at Chao hostel, that’s  about it.  Not saying it is the best way to travel, I think I could have saved some money with some advance planning but going with the flow worked out in its own way.  On a cousin’s recommendation I decided to add Pai to the itinerary last minute and that became the highlight of the trip.

As famous as the country is for its sprawling gorgeous beaches and islands in the south, Northern mountain clad cities of Chiang Mai and Pai were my favourite spots.  Nestled as valley towns, Chiang Mai is big yet small city and Pai is a tiny town apparently now on the hippie trail some 3 hrs. Away from Chiang Mai, offering great day adventures and street full of cafes and street food haven.  In Chiang Mai, check out the T.U.M one day adventure it was great and included an up close and personal experience with the elephants at a rescue camp (no ride), river rafting, trek/hike to a gorgeous waterfall.  At Pai, a must visit place is Lod Caves, this was my first experience exploring caves with Stalagmite and Stalactite, it almost seemed like I was on the set of the film Moana (Yes! I know what Moana is, I have a 5 yr. Old nephew 🙂 and I love animation)

If there was one thing I regretted while in the hills of northern Thailand, it was not knowing how to ride a scooter.  The best way to get around, especially in Chiang Mai and Pai was on 2 wheels.  What I couldn’t do on an automatic I compensated with the manual 🙂 with rather lofty ambitions rented a bicycle but happy to say I achieved the stretched goals of riding up to check out the mountain views (note to self:  next time gear up and rent the right bike for the right ride, a city bike up a mountain wasn’t the smartest move)

Exploring new cultures through taste buds

Usually I stick by my philosophy of, best way to see a city is on foot.  Walking around with a map in hand, getting lost in the streets, discovering turns and random sites, finding your way back to familiar roads, its the best way to get to know a city.  Observing people on the road, blueprint of its markets, exploring street side shops and just taking in the noise, the smell and the vibe of a place. This time though, I discovered another great way to experience a new place, via taste buds.

As great as it is to explore a city on foot, similar is a journey through spices, ingredients and chopping to explore culture.   My last few days were spent in Koh Samui island, otherwise a rather touristy spot offering great white sand beaches, excellent fresh grilled seafood and extremely effective Thai massages, in addition to that it also is a home to Samui Culinary Art Institute.  Being walking distance away from the institute I decided to not pass on the opportunity of learning a few finger licking good thai recipes/

Did you know that there is a type of mushroom that offers no taste but is added to give texture to the soup, or you cut lemongrass differently for a soup since it is to add flavour but not eaten vs. For a curry where its actually consumed?  I didn’t.  These were just few tricks of the trade.  One thing was obvious during the 3 hrs class, food was not just a thing you consume or a task, it was an integral part of the culture.  Also, it was amazing to learn the reason and health benefits of different ingredients.  Every little thing that went in a dish has a purpose.   At the end of few hours of hard work, I got to enjoy the fruit of my labour in a delicious lunch.

I think I am going to try and find a similar experience everywhere I travel now, nothing tells you more about a culture and people than how they eat their meals :).

Beyond comfort zones lies freedom

Beside the very nature of my travels being outside my comfort zone, I decided to literally ignore the nagging doubts in my mind during these 15 days.  From jumping into a waterfall in my swimsuit to being the one woman with 3 guys rafting down a river stream, from hugging an elephant to getting a tattoo via the traditional Thailand bamboo tattoo art form. I said yes to all experiences and very quickly realized that no one but you yourself are your biggest hurdle.

There is a legend of the tattoo and to me it stands for ‘solo but never alone’ – ask me about it and may be you will get one too 🙂

Tips and learning from my Thailand adventures:

  • Less is more, especially when packing for travels: I could have easily avoided a few kgs.  Even though I only carried 1 30 Liter backpack, i had 3 jeans too many.  My learning, for Thailand you can carry clothes for first few days and buy the rest.  Trust me, you will be buying those rather comfortable drop pants and pyjamas anyways.
  • Hiking boots – such a waste to lug around. For the treks in Pai, I carried my LL Bean boots so not required.  Can do with a good pair of sports shoes
  • Tuk Tuk are more expensive than taxis. All taxis and tuk tuk try to rip you off as tourists, better haggle.  After getting ripped off day 1, I had to awaken the Indian in me :).  Try and go by meter.
  • If you can, make sure you learn how to ride a two wheeler before heading to Thailand or may be you are daredevil enough to ride your first one in the hills of thailand, in which case kudos!! I missed out on the experience of riding a scooter, which is definitely the best way to get around especially in the north cities like Pai and Chiang Mai, plus its an experience.

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