“I didn’t always know what I wanted to do. But I knew the kind of woman I wanted to be.” ― Diane Von Furstenberg
Back in my twenties, I went to Thailand with two of my best friends.
I flew in a week before them, though, which meant I had one week all to myself. It was the first time I’d traveled internationally on my own.
Though solo female travel may be more common now, when I took this particular trip over 15 years ago, the idea of a woman traveling alone seemed like a radical idea.
“You’re going by YOURSELF???!!” You’ll hear this ALL the time if you’re 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 look back on this trip many years later, I realize that the week I spent traveling alone in Thailand was one of the best weeks of my life.
Even now, that week is something I can recall in full, color. The time spent with my friends was a great bonding experience - but I don’t remember many details about it; it’s more of a cohesive, three-week blur.
I think the reason for this is: when we’re with friends and family, we tend to sink into a comfortable rhythm, even in a foreign country. And comfort, for some reason, does not lend itself to heightened memory. I’m not saying we don’t create great memories with our friends - obviously we do. What I am saying is that the moments we remember most are ones that are exceptionally different than all the rest. And comfort and safety do not usually mesh with “exceptionally different.”
When traveling with friends, we feel safer; we’re insulated, to some extent. When traveling alone, however, it doesn’t feel as safe. It’s all up to us. Thus, all our faculties must be employed: we’re more watchful, we observe more. Our subconscious mind is busy noticing and filing away all kinds of details that could be helpful to us later on. And when we find ourselves trekking through the Andes or navigating a new city alone, our adrenal gland is busy pumping out adrenaline to keep us alert and aware of all that’s going on around us, enabling us to respond quickly to whatever situation may arise.
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, here are some adventures I wrangled my way into:
- Riding elephants with friendly strangers in the jungles of northern Thailand,
- Scaling the walls of the Four Seasons Chang Mai after purposely ditching my tourist group, barely escaping the notice of the armed guards patrolling the resort,
- Climbing on top of a train to smoke a cigarette at midnight with a new friend,
- 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 instead of a massage parlor.
I remember all these moments with great clarity, even today.
And then, there are other moments I recall even more fully: ones I will never write about, and will rarely speak of, because they stand fully on their own, and because I do not want the feeling I had at those times to be diminished or lost somehow in the retelling of them. They are the moments that will never make Instagram, but will instead be etched into the very core of who I am.
One moment I will speak of though, is one I’ll never forget - a moment, maybe, that I’m always trying to get back to. When life at home feels especially tame, in my mind, I return to it.
I was riding back on the train from Chang Mai to Bangkok, returning to meet my friends. The bathroom on the train had a window above the latrine that opened up, and looked out to the Thai countryside. As the sun was setting, I could see golden temples rising up out of a lush, green landscape. I’d never seen anything like it. And how I felt at that moment matched the beauty of what I saw: it was the most exhilarated, most alive I’d ever felt.
And so I hung out the window as much as I could fit, taking in that Thailand countryside. I remember the moment so well that I can tell you exactly what I wore: a white halter top, a long, white bohemian skirt, and a turquoise belt studded with seashells, bought at a Chang Mai bazaar.
And here’s what I remember the most: I felt entirely free in that moment. In that moment, I belonged to no country, and to no person other than myself. I was completely untethered. In that moment, in my mind: I became a true adventuress. I became the heroine of my own novel, living the life I was meant to live.
After returning from Thailand, I always said I wanted to go back. And I still do.
But I think what I really wanted wasn’t necessarily about Thailand itself. What I really wanted, was to return to that feeling I had on the train: the feeling of awe and wonder ― the victorious sense I had of successfully navigating in a land so foreign to my own. I wanted to return to that feeling of immaculate confidence in myself, which was as magical, as wondrous, as anything I discovered in Thailand.
And I’ve done that again, in countries all over the world. With each new country, each new trip: I build upon that initial confidence, as though I were building a worldly fortress all my own - a fortress that does not exist on any maps, but that I bring with me everywhere.
Without Thailand, I don’t know that I ever would have discovered this love for solo travel. It’s where I fell in love with being really and truly on my own. A feeling that, once discovered, 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