I had originally made the bold plan to travel solo to Thailand. I figured it would be the hardest thing I’ve ever done, something that would test my independence. I also didn’t want to keep putting the trip off based on other peoples’ schedules. As tends to happen, the day I made the decision to go by myself, my friend Cherylle raised her hand to join me. I was psyched then, but I am super thankful now for her companionship on the trip. After the past two weeks we experienced in Thailand, enduring three overnight train rides and three long ferry rides to visit four separate regions, I’m not ashamed to admit that I probably couldn’t have finished the trip without her. We had no idea what we were getting ourselves into, and we have some ridiculous travel stories to prove it.
You know those blind spots of the mind, the things you don’t know that you don’t know? It turns out, we had a lot of blind spots between the two of us. We walked out of the airport in the middle of the night, day one in Thailand, ready to party rock our way through Bangkok. Two hours of a jarring taxi ride later, we got our first taste of what trying to get around Thailand is like for two American girls who only know street addresses, not actual landmarks or Thai words: it doesn’t work.
Even with Cherylle by my side, to laugh our way through the absurd and downright painful parts of travel, this was the most challenging trip I’ve ever had to make, both physically and mentally. We missed our connecting flight in Korea. We walked onto a train and started unloading our bags, only to find out we were supposed to catch it the day before. We spent one evening in a hot, humid train station from 6pm until 4:30am due to a ‘slight delay’ that turned into a crazy-ass delay. Needless to say, we spent a good chunk of our trip delirious and sleep-deprived, unsure of who we were, where we were going, or why we were laughing so hard. Like anything that pushes you and forces you to desert your creature comforts, it was a huge growth experience. Honestly, I can’t wait to go back again and actually know what I’m doing.
Hopefully you’re laughing as you read this, rather than talking yourself out of visiting one of the most amazing countries in the world. I should mention that we rode elephants, cuddled with tigers, and partook in the biggest water gun fight / dance party you can imagine while there. We also spent very little money, yet managed to experience amazing Thai massages, eat delicious food, and stay in nice beach-front and centrally-located places throughout our entire stay. That all being said, if you plan to brave Thailand alone or with another newbie, here are my top ten tips for a smooth trip:
1. Less is more: Pack lightly and if you bring a suitcase, 4-way rolling wheels are key. If you plan to jump from city to city, the ‘shuttles’ and buses you take will often more closely resemble pick-up trucks without seat belts, sometimes overly packed with other foreigners and offering little space for luggage. In trains, there isn’t room for large suitcases in the overhead bins, so instead you might be that guy or girl with the huge bag obstructing the narrow walkway for the entire 12+ hour ride. Not ideal.
2. Make friends and save money by staying in a hostel, couch surfing, or finding cool AirBnB hosts. Meeting people is tough when staying in a hotel, and we found that they were full of honeymooners and families on the islands. We stayed with a couple of ex-pats in Chiang Mai, who we found on AirBnB, and they were a blast. They took us to lively bars with local bands and dancing at night, then set us up with guide books and maps during the day. They had amazing recommendations for food, shopping, and local attractions that you can’t find in Lonely Planet. We loved them so much we were tempted to move into their third bedroom, check out their digs here.
3. Know the landmarks. We quickly learned that most Thai people even in the big cities like Chiang Mai and Bangkok do not read maps and do not know places by address. You will get much further by asking how to get to nearby landmarks, such as temples and popular neighborhoods.
4. Flying is by far and away the most painless way to get from city to city, if you’re going from one part of the country to another. Taking the overnight trains is the second best mode of transportation, as long as you buy first or second class sleeper cars. The trains are safe and clean, but delays are common. And if you’re stuck in one of the smaller stations, you may end up waiting in the heat, sans wifi, falling asleep on your luggage.
5. Plan your trip around the festivals. It’s much easier to meet foreigners and really experience the culture of Thailand. Songkran in Bangkok was the highlight of our trip, whereas we went too early to experience the Full Moon party in Koh Phangan. The island was surprisingly quiet as a result and instead of young backpackers, we were surrounded by honeymooners.
6. Don’t spend more than a couple days in Bangkok. This time of year especially, the heat and humidity weigh down hard on you if you plan to do anything during the day. The language barrier also felt particularly limiting there. Take the water taxi to see the Grand Palace. Catch a Muay Thai fight. Do some shopping. Then move on.
7. If you take the overnight trains, check out the party car. Most trains have a car that turns into a full on club scene at night. Think disco lights, Singha a’flowin, drunk people swinging and swaying to Gangnam Style. Have a couple drinks, dance til you’re sleepy, then make your way back to the sleeper car to tuck yourself into bed.
8. Don’t drop your iPhone in the ocean. Sometimes all I wanted to do was FaceTime with my close friends or catch up on my twitter feed, but I lost that luxury the night I drank a little too much at a castle party in Koh Tao. As I stumbled my way home, I lost my balance due to the unseasonably high tide and rocky water along the narrow beach walkway. My purse and I got soaked, and for the rest of the trip I lacked my trusty iPhone camera.
9. Lean into the new experiences, and appreciate them. You will be hot, lost, and frustrated at many points during your trip, sometimes all three at once. It could be from a train delay, the language barrier, the absence of guacamole and chips from your diet. Accept that discomfort, and if at all possible, embrace it. Because nothing worthwhile is easy, and it takes a real appreciation for life to say fuck yes to all of it, not just the comfortable parts.
10. If you start to feel lonely or emotionally drained, like I did, recharge your energy levels in one of the following ways: (1) sign up for a group activity, such as a Thai cooking class. In our class of 12 people, two women were solo traveling through Thailand for their first time, looking for companions. (2) Spend $5 to soothe your mind-body with a traditional Thai massage, meditation, or a yoga class. (3) Work a daily ritual or two back into your schedule that reminds you of home, such as listening to your favorite podcast or dancing to your favorite music to kickstart each day. Daily rituals like these rebooted me so that I was able to explore and stay positive, even after stepping off an overnight train. Showers also have a powerful healing effect; we recommend taking two to three per day.
With courage, love, and intensity,