I’m being swallowed up by a crowd of people who are sticky with sweat and excitement; the air carries the faint aroma of sewage and stale beer; vendors occasionally grasp my arm with needy fingers, imploring me to buy a suit or come with them to a ping-pong show. It’s my first time alone in Bangkok on Khao San Road, and I feel overwhelmed.
Aside from a few summers spent working out in the west coast of Canada, I’ve never traveled alone. Whenever I had read stories and blogs by solo travelers, I complacently imagined that if I could travel well as part of a couple, I could easily hack it as a solo traveler too. Of course, I had never put this theory to the test until a few days ago.
After 15 months on the road and with many more laid out ahead of us, Brent and I decided to take 2 weeks to visit our friends and family in Canada for the holidays. Our work schedule created a situation in which Brent flew home 5 days before I was able to. When we planned our separate itineraries months ago, being alone in Thailand for a few days didn’t seem like a big deal. But then suddenly I actually was, and it felt very different than I had expected.
As soon as I parted with Brent at the airport, it felt like everything hit at once: The upheaval of being separated after over a year of constant togetherness; the knowledge of being so far from any kind of social support system; and the burden of handling all the travel arrangements completely alone. Instead of being excited by Bangkok’s electric vibes, I suddenly wanted to draw the curtains and curl up in the fetal position inside my hostel room.
I’m proud of how I’ve grown as a traveler over the past year and a half on the road, but I began to realize that I evolved with Brent always by my side. We travel well together because we have complimentary strengths. Unspokenly, there are aspects of travel that Brent usually manages, and others that are my forte.
One aspect that normally falls in the Brent domain is shopping. Haggling is common practice in Thailand, but I still loathe it. I’m not very good at playing indifferent towards something that I know I want to purchase. It feels so pushy to make a counter-offer to the initial price; then this is usually followed by further uncomfortableness when the vendor shakes his head at me and presents a second price. I feel like I don’t know the steps to a very elaborate dance. This is why I usually let Brent take the lead in purchasing. Plus, he speaks better Thai than me, which is also an advantage in negotiating.
But here I was alone in Bangkok and I needed to go shopping. I had to pick up a few more Christmas gifts before heading back to Canada myself, so I had no choice but to put on a brave face, venture out and haggle by myself.
So I did. At first, I quickly accepted the first offer, and then slunk away, knowing that I had overpaid. Then, I made meek counter-offers that were quickly shut down. Then, slowly, I grew bolder, the Thai phrases I needed came more easily to mind, and the discounts grew bigger. It was empowering and exciting. By the end of the day, I was standing my ground with a taxi driver as we negotiated over the price of a ride to the bus station.
Soon I was back in the relative comfort of our temporary home in Ban Pong. My experience was barely an adventure, but I still feel a little stronger for having successfully made it through 24 hrs. on my own in Bangkok.
Although it was a brief experience, it still managed to shake things up and shine a spotlight on my current weaknesses as a traveler. I’m a pro when it comes to planning, organizing, researching, as well as generating the raw passion that keeps us seeking out new adventures. Yet, among other things, I rely on Brent to never be intimidated by unfamiliar situations, to attempt conversations in foreign languages, as well as to keep us level-headed when we encounter a problem.
Traveling as a pair had lulled me into forgetting to challenge myself. It’s strange how even when you’re 1000s of miles away from home, you can still find yourself sinking into comfort zones and clinging to routines. I had come to depend on co-decision-making and the safety of knowing that I wasn’t alone if something went wrong.
In many ways, I pushed myself more during that day in Bangkok than I have in months. I rediscovered some of the joys of having some time to myself. I certainly have a newly enhanced respect for the guts it takes to be a solo traveler. I also have a fresh desire to take more solo excursions in order to continue to grow as a traveler, and, as a person.
Have you traveled both alone and in groups? Which do you prefer?