When I landed in Bangkok the air sucker-punched me with humidity. I whimpered at taxis to take me to the hostel while my bags jostled around me.
I awkwardly hailed a pink taxi and told the driver I needed to go to Soysam Road 2, which wasn’t correct but close enough for him to nod his head. I didn’t know if the man understood, he said he did, but I don’t speak Thai. We had two one-way conversations for a short bit, but then just decided to sweat in silence. For a moment I thought I was going to be dropped miles (or kilometers, I suppose) away from my hostel, but the man pulled through.
The measly directions to the hostel, or my poor interpreting of them, led to me wandering for a half hour until I stumbled across it. I got to my bed after walking through a spattering of hostel guests, almost all with their eyes locked onto their phone. I fell into bed, hot, sweaty and glad to rest for a bit.
I had a distinct feeling of isolation walking up to my room. It’s like walking into a new school for the first time, unaware of friends or cliques, wondering what social survival takes. I felt like a mismatched puzzle piece. So I sat up, packed my camera and water bottle then set out to see Bangkok. And it was exciting, the independence of walking by yourself in an entirely new city is uplifting, but there’s no doubt a small bit of loneliness trailed me.
Bangkok is a fun place. Temples decorate the city with ornate, golden rooftops. There’s one around every corner. In the tourist hotspot, motorbikes, tuk-tuks, and taxis buzz angling for business. Street vendors cover popular sidewalks, forming dingy makeshift malls. At night Kho San Road becomes a party street and the clamor dissolves into drowsiness all the way to six in the morning. And even though the city isn’t pristine or clean there’s a sense of contentment throughout the inhabitants. Many sidewalks have disruptive breaks in the concrete, but walking over it seems fine to everyone.
A tuk-tuk driver named Charlie took me around to some of the temples, their notorious, more-than-you-bargained for style was true in my experience. I got a damn cheap price, 50 baht, but didn’t expect the three, almost four, visits to suit tailors and tourist agencies. It’s not too much of a problem, though, I saw a tremendous golden Buddha for next to nothing in terms of U.S. dollars.
The streets of Bangkok seem to have only two rules for driving: don’t hit anyone and don’t get hit. The cars, tuk-tuks, motorbikes and pedestrians flow throughout the asphalt canals in an almost violent fashion. And I haven’t seen or heard a crash happen, not even a story of one.
The experience of sightseeing is uplifting and freeing when you’re alone in a new city, but once back at the hostel, or when eating food a sense of loneliness creeps into the air. You’re left sitting with hot food, sweating, unsure if the pit in your stomach is from repressed despair or the questionable curry. But make a quick move and it’s gone. The isolation is a fickle fiend and disintegrates after a slight poke. After just returning from my tuk-tuk ride I sat with a guitar in the hostel, trying to focus my time somewhere. A couple of other travelers returned from an outing, talking about going to Golden Mountain in a couple minutes. It’s more of a temple on a hill, still beautiful, but “mountain” is a small misnomer.
I interjected and asked about the trip. A quick conversation turned into an invitation, possibly just out of respect, but I took it. And then I was not so alone.
And while I rather not summarize everything, the initial loneliness is an important piece of solo traveling. It is called solo traveling for a reason, there may be many friends met throughout nights in hostels and venturing throughout foreign countries, but inherently you are alone. It’s not a bad thing being on your own, but in exchange for the freedom you accept a social challenge. There is no safety net. If you want to lone wolf Thailand you can keep to yourself, but for many, the charm of freedom becomes bland without the spices of conversation and relationships.
That’s what I had to realize. Accepting solitude means understanding how to work with it and informs your choices about reaching out to others.
At first, it seemed that solo traveling was not for me. I had a few passing desires to just be done with Bangkok and move on to Bhutan, with guaranteed traveling buddies. But that thought vanished quickly. Once I started reaching out the friends kept coming. Travel plans get made together, home countries are discussed and a community forms.
A while back I came to the, probably premature, conclusion that traveling no different from life back in California or Colorado. Life back in the States is filled with the same tensions and fears. Being alone still sucks and talking to strangers is still hard.
Going to a different country doesn’t fundamentally change who you are. Nor does it turn you into a different person. It simply moves you to an entirely new geographic and social place, again and again, ensuring that you either live the way you want to or have a shit time traveling. The world is no more open in Thailand than it is in the United States. Nor in Finland. Or Canada. Or the Faroe Islands. It is merely unassuming in new places. You don’t know the country and the country doesn’t know you.
While it’s entirely too early for me to assume I understand solo travel, this is what I have felt from the first week. Without a doubt traveling, especially solo, is an experience worth growing through. It brings forth the fact that we are all just individuals, looking to understand ourselves and others without social conniptions or assumptions, which can be just as suffocating as the humid air in Bangkok.
In other news, I saw a monkey at Erawan National Park. It’s a gorgeous environment, full of waterfalls and swimming pools filled with medicine fish. I went with eight other travelers and had a blast enjoying the blue waters with new friends.