How I Fell in Love with Solo Travel
How I Fell in Love with Solo Travel
“I didn’t always know what I wanted to do. But I knew the kind of woman I wanted to become.”
-Diane Von Furstenberg
Back in my 20’s, I went to Thailand with two of my best friends from high school. Only I flew in a week before them ~ and thus had that first week all to myself (which I neglected to tell my parents at the time…completely on purpose). It was the first time I’d ever traveled internationally on my own.
Though solo female travel may be more common now, when I took this particular trip (over fifteen years ago), the idea of being a woman traveling alone seemed like a bit of a radical idea.
“You’re going by YOURSELF???!!” This is something you will hear ALL the time if you are a solo female traveler. You sort of get used to it, but the implication is that you must be halfway insane to even attempt traveling on your own.
And yet, as I looked back on that trip many years later, I realized that that week I spent traveling alone in Thailand was one of the best weeks of my life.
Even now as I think back to that trip, which took place over fifteen years ago ~ the week I spent alone is something that I can recall vividly, in full color. The time spent with my friends, while fun and a great bonding experience, is not something I can recall as easily; it is more of a cohesive blur, the three weeks I spent with them. I think this is because, when we are with friends or family, we tend to sink into a much more comfortable rhythm (even in a foreign country) ~ and comfort, for some reason, does not lend itself to heightened memory. I am not saying we don’t create great memories with our friends ~ obviously we do; but in trying to recall them years later, it seems that the moments that are exceptionally different are the ones we recall with the most clarity, and comfort and safety do not usually mesh with “exceptionally different.”
When we travel with friends, we feel more safe; we are insulated, to some extent. When we travel alone, however, it does not feel as safe (or rather, we perceive it as being less safe than traveling with others), and the truth is: it is all up to us. There is no one to watch out for our belongings if we fall asleep on the train; that is our job, and ours alone. Thus, all of our faculties must be employed: we are more watchful; we observe more; our subconscious is noticing and filing away all kinds of little details that may be helpful to us later on, and in situations that are more adventurous or tense, our adrenal gland is busy pumping out adrenaline to keep us alert and fully aware of all that is going on around us, making us able to respond quickly to whatever situation arises ~ because after all: there is no one else to look after us.
It turns out: this is quite an exhilarating feeling. It makes one feel alive and truly awake to life.
During that week I spent alone in Thailand, these are but a mere handful of adventures I managed to wrangle my way into:
- Riding elephants with strangers (who became friends) in the jungles of northern Thailand;
- Scaling the walls of the Four Seasons Chang Mai after purposely ditching my tourist group at a butterfly farm, meanwhile escaping the notice of the armed guards who patrol the resort ~ simply because the grounds looked too beautiful not to go;
- Climbing onto the top of a train in the middle of the night to smoke a cigarette with a new friend, as we traversed from Bangkok to Chang Mai;
- Getting amazing Thai massages for $5 nearly every day of the week;
- Going on a date with a guy I met on the train and ending up in a brothel ~ not a massage parlor;
- Being escorted around Ayutthaya in a tuk-tuk, marveling at the former capital’s glorious temples from day until dusk, getting my picture taken with all kinds of Thai school kids because seeing a blonde in Thailand is apparently an unusual thing.
I can remember all of these moments with great clarity, even today.
One I will speak of though, is a moment that I always remember ~ a moment, maybe, that I’m always trying to get back to. When life at home feels especially tame, or banal, sometimes my mind returns to this moment: I was in the train on the ride back from Chang Mai to Bangkok, going back to meet up with my friends. The bathroom on the train had a window above the latrine which opened up and looked out upon the Thai landscape. As the sun was setting, I could see golden temples in the distance rising up out of a lush, green countryside. How I felt at that moment matched the beauty of that scene: it was probably the most exhilarated and I alive I had ever felt up to that point in my life. I hung out the window as much as I could fit, and I remember that moment so well that I can tell you exactly what I was wearing: a white halter top, a white peasant-bohemian-type skirt I’d bought at a night bazaar in Chang Mai, with a turquoise belt studded with seashells around my waist. I felt entirely free in that moment ~ and I do not know if would remember it so well if I had not been alone. That moment capped off the end of my week alone, and perhaps it was the first time in my life that I felt like a true adventuress ~ the heroine of my own novel, living the life that I always knew I was meant to live.
Years later, I would always think fondly of Thailand; I always said I wanted to go back. And I still do.
But I think what I actually wanted was not necessarily to return to Thailand itself: what I really wanted was to return to that feeling I had on the train ~ that feeling of awe and of wonder, and the victorious sense I had felt of having navigated successfully in a land that was so foreign to my own; I wanted to return to that feeling of immaculate confidence in myself, that initself was a discovery, as much as anything I had discovered in Thailand.
And luckily, I have been able to do that, in many, many countries all over the world. With each new country, each new trip I take, I build upon that initial confidence, as though I were building a worldly fortress all of my own. Each new country, each new experience I have teaches me something I need to know, and thus provides a valuable new building block as I fortify the estate that is my mind.
Without Thailand, I don’t know that I ever would have discovered the joy for and love of solo travel. It is where I fell in love with being really and truly on my own, a feeling that, once found, can never be lost.
“The most important relationship in your life is the relationship you have with yourself. Because no matter what happens, you will always be with yourself.”
– Diane von Furstenberg