Uni is finally in full swing here in Sydney, and what felt like a six-week holiday – Commonwealth for “vacation” – has sadly come to end.
You may be thinking, "It’s the beginning of March. How could school just be starting?" Back in the States, your semester’s likely nearing its halfway point, and spring break is just around the corner.
Down Under, it’s been summer. March 1 was actually our first official day of autumn. So although I’ve been here since the beginning of January, I was only enrolled in one summer-term course for that first month. I spent more time at the beach than in the classroom, even without skipping any lectures.
When that summer class ended, I had a two-week break before the real term began in mid-February. So I did what anyone would do: booked a flight to Bangkok. By myself.
I quickly learned that the proper term for this is “solo travel.” Whenever I’d tell classmates or fellow travelers throughout Thailand that I was going “alone” or “by myself,” they’d respond using the word “solo” instead. This happened enough times that I took notice, and something about it seemed funny to me. But as my trip went on, I came to love the socially acceptable label and found it felt most accurate. I was almost never truly “alone” during those two weeks, simply “solo.”
Thailand is not particularly close to Australia, a fact I didn’t fully grasp until I started the more than 10-hour journey there. Still, it’s closer to Australia than to the U.S., a point I used to justify my decision to friends and family who didn’t seem to understand why I had chosen that particular destination.
I’ve always wanted to visit southeast Asia. I’ve always wanted to visit most everywhere, really. Southeast Asia, in particular, sounded interesting, but felt very far away. The more I prepared for my trip, which would take me from Bangkok up to Chiang Mai at the northern end of the country and all the way down to two of its many southern islands, Phuket and Ko Lanta, the more I realized how little I knew what to expect.
In the end, my ignorance was a gift. It’s a lot harder to judge a place when you don’t go in with a predetermined picture in your mind, which is something I too often do. I just accepted everything I experienced for what it was because it never occurred to me that it should or could have been any different. Without those expectations, I was able to be more present.
Bangkok, in hindsight, was overwhelming and chaotic, in both good and bad ways. Because it was my first stop, I had nothing else to compare it to.
I’d been to big cities in the U.S. and Europe, but it didn’t even occur to me to draw comparisons from those. It felt totally new, so I took it all at face value: the food, the smells, the people, the traffic, the architecture. I didn’t feel that I really liked or disliked anything those first few days. It all just was.
A couple days later, when I arrived in Chiang Mai via a very long overnight train ride, everything felt totally new again. There were still, of course, tuk tuks, also known as auto rickshaws, and motorcycles filling the streets, smells of curry in the air and Buddhist temples, but I immediately realized it was a vastly different city from Bangkok. It felt so quiet and small.
In the five days I spent there, I walked the entirety of the gated Old City and learned my way around. I found favorite restaurants and familiar faces. There was even someone from Bloomington staying in my hostel. I met elephants, took a cooking class and ate a scorpion– at least a crunchy, salty bite of one– at a night market. By the time I was leaving, much to my surprise, Chiang Mai felt a little bit like home.
As I flew down south to Phuket, I was sad to be leaving. Out of that feeling came the realization that I felt absolutely comfortable, both in Thailand and in solo travel. A similar sadness returned as I headed back to Australia after a few days of island-hopping, and of course, more temples, in the southwestern corner of Thailand. This time, though, I wasn’t sad to be leaving any particular spot. I was sad because I didn’t want to stop traveling. Obviously I know I still have many months of my abroad experience ahead of me, but this trip was different in the most beautiful ways.
I don’t want to say I came back to Sydney a different person because that’s what everyone says. But I certainly came back a stronger and wiser version of myself, which, more than all the incredible sights I saw and people I met on my trip, was the best thing I got out of my first “solo travel” experience. I say first because it definitely won’t be the last.