“I THINK ONE TRAVELS MORE USEFULLY WHEN THEY TRAVEL ALONE, BECAUSE THEY REFLECT MORE.” – THOMAS JEFFERSON
380, 42, 6, 380, 42, 6. I waited timidly at the bus stop as I quietly repeated the numbers I was looking for. As the bus pulled up to my stop, I boarded with semi-confidence and asked the woman collecting fares if this bus would take me to the Sky Train stop I needed. She stared at me, trying to decipher my broken Thai, then nodded once and took my money without a smile. At least I was headed in the right direction.
I’m not a solo traveler. I did it once, but it didn’t stick. I prefer traveling with those I love so we can share moments together.
In 2014, my husband and I spent 6 months traveling through Asia and we loved it. We experienced new things and made so memories together and while discovering more about ourselves. One of my greatest accomplishments from life on the road in Asia, though, was when I conquered the streets of Bangkok on my own.
My husband had a meeting and I found myself with an unplanned and unaccompanied Saturday. Would I spend it in my hotel room, catching up on correspondence, reading a new book or lounging by the pool? No; I decided to venture out into the city on my own.
I saw the Sky Train rails high above and recognized the area; my stop was approaching. I got off the bus and looked around nervously, wondering how to board the railway in the sky. When presented with an unfamiliar situation, I tend to just wait and watch. In this case, I watched the crowds of Thai locals make their way up a covered flight of stairs and then followed suit. At the top of the platform, there was more chaos: people were coming and going so quickly, some stopping at the ticket window, but many just breezing past. I stayed grounded to my spot. We had only arrived in Bangkok a couple of days earlier and so I hadn’t yet mastered public transportation in the city – a city nearly as populous as New York City.
I looked over a map of Sky Train stops and my anxiety increased. The map was primarily written in Thai characters, which I didn’t understand at all. But I felt that I had come so far already; I had to get to where I was going. I needed to get to where I was going. I waited in line at ticket window.
When I arrived at the front of the line, I released the breath I had been holding and spoke the street names I was hoping to find. The woman at the window paused, then broke into a smile and laughed. Then – in English – she told me the same of the stop I needed. Relief washed over me and I laughed as well, grateful for a brief moment of understanding. I slowly counted my baht [Thai currency], purchased the ticket, and boarded the train.
As skyscrapers and rooftops flew by, I felt a sense of satisfaction spread through me. I was doing it; I was navigating and traveling solo through the largest city we had yet to find ourselves in. Not only was I gaining confidence, but I was feeling even more excited about the day ahead.
When I disembarked the Sky Train, I found myself at a busy crossroads with taxis, motorbikes, pedestrians, and bicyclists surrounding me on all sides. With an air of confidence, I began searching for my first destination: a cafe I had spotted on Instagram. I walked up and down side streets and alleyways, through intersections, and around corners, sometimes knowing what was ahead but more often, walking without a clue. Then, I found it. I ordered a delicious strawberry and honey iced tea. Accomplishment tasted so sweet.
Bolstered with newfound confidence, I set out for a bookstore meant to be within walking distance. As I walked, though, the numbers on the street signs didn’t look right. With each block I passed, I became more and more convinced that I was lost. What now? I had no idea what bus would take me back to the familiar and taxis were nowhere to be seen. Just then, I saw a man on a motorbike waving. Was he waving at me? I knew no one in this city! I looked around in confusion. He began to approach me and I realized he was wearing some sort of official vest. He asked if I needed to go somewhere – and then it clicked! He was a taxi driver – a motorbike taxi driver! I’d never traveled that way before. I vaguely explained the intersection that I was looking for and he nodded. Precariously, I climbed onto the back of his bike, and he began to weave down the city streets from which I had just come. When I arrived at my destination, I was glad to be back on the ground again; motorbike ride through Bangkok’s chaotic city streets was not something I wanted to repeat.
Over the course of the rest of the day, I browsed bookstores, sipped iced lattes, ate a delicious meal at an outdoor cafe, and stumbled into an adorable ice creamery to discover Thai Tea ice cream (the very best treat of the day). As I began to journey homeward, back the way I came with buses, the Sky Train, and a taxi yet again, I smiled to myself. I had done it; I had accomplished something that just 24 hours before, I had doubted that I could do. I felt like I knew Bangkok so much more than some of the other cities my husband and I had traveled through. My solo explorations left me feeling empowered and inspired. I started to understand why others are obsessed with this style of adventure.
Ultimately, we left Bangkok for other parts of Asia, but I took the experience with me and used it as encouragement when I was feeling timid, or found myself without my trusted travel partner for a day. I ventured out on my own in many other cities – Phuket, Siem Reap, Kuala Lumpur, and Densapar – feeling the same rush of excitement and accomplishment. It’s the best of both worlds really, traveling with someone you love and taking time to explore solo. You learn and you grow and you challenge yourself, and can still share those experiences with your loved one after the fact. I know so many great adventures lay ahead of me, waiting to be discovered and I now have the confidence to take advantage of those.