Our first two and a half months, we were going non-stop in the Balkans and the UK, moving every 2-3 days. In Europe, every location, every route, and every Airbnb had been pre-planned (by us) before we left the US. This is exactly how we wanted the road trip portion of our trip to be, and it was absolutely perfect.
We anticipated that by this point in our trip, we would be ready to switch things up in a major way. We wanted to give ourselves the opportunity to travel as slow or as quickly as we wanted, without being moved along by any previously made decisions. Since we had no idea how we would feel at this point in our adventure (would we want to go home? Would we have blown through all of our savings?) we thought the best idea was to pick a region, and leave the rest wide open. Travel without an agenda, and make the decisions as we go.
Enter Southeast Asia.
Southeast Asia was the perfect choice for the next phase of our trip. I’ve mentioned this already, but I lived and worked as an English teacher in Bangkok when I was 23, and when my contract was up, I spent 7 weeks backpacking with friends through Vietnam, Singapore, Cambodia, Indonesia, and Malaysia. You would think I had my fill of Southeast Asia after that, but instead it just left me wanting more.
7 weeks is not enough time to see these countries. We whipped through them so fast, that it all feels like a blur when I look back on my time there. There was so much I didn’t do and so much I didn’t see, that I knew I had to come back. It also happened that Southeast Asia was at the top of Al’s bucket list; so the decision was made.
We decided to pre-book 3 days in Bangkok and a little over two weeks in Chiang Mai, to give ourselves time to slow down, adjust to our new surroundings, and figure out what our next move would be.
Even though I was beyond excited for our Southeast Asia phase, part of me was a little hesitant to return to Thailand, a place that I had already spent a significant amount of time in. I struggled with the idea of re-treading old footsteps, when there were so many other places in the world I haven’t seen yet. On top of that, I was wary about revisiting that time in my life. I mentioned it in this post, but my time living and working in Thailand was one of the most amazing experiences of my life, but also one of the most difficult. For some inexplicable reason, I still felt a pull to return with Al.
When we arrived in Bangkok, I had no idea how I would feel; it has been almost seven years since I last stepped foot in this humid, hectic, insane city in Southeast Asia. I kept reminding myself that once upon a time, in another life, I actually lived here.
As our taxi driver wove us through the freeways and traffic, I looked out the window trying to get a glimpse of something, anything, that would remind me of that fact. Everything looked different, while somehow looking exactly the same. No matter where I looked, I couldn’t orient myself.
That was how I felt all the time when I lived in Bangkok. As much as I learned about the city, as much as I explored it, I never really understood Bangkok. I could never position myself correctly (this may partly be due to my horrible sense of direction). I would always look out on the skyline and just see a haze of grey smog floating over the seemingly random skyscrapers. I have always been a fan of skylines, but I have never been a fan of this one. I once wrote a blog post comparing the cities I had lived in to different types of relationships; and in this scenario, Bangkok was the ex-boyfriend that ate me up and spit me out.
If you can’t tell already, I have a complicated relationship with Bangkok. My time living here was one of the biggest growth periods of my life, but also one of the hardest (funny how that always seems to go hand in hand).
Once we were settled into our Airbnb, we decided to tackle some of Bangkok’s streets and markets, and I was overwhelmed with how familiar everything felt.
I can’t really explain it, but sometimes when you travel, you often feel like you leave little parts of yourself scattered around the world. Essentially you are the same person, but when you move to a foreign country, you are in a state of constant adjustment. Your personality is not necessarily exactly the same as it would be at home, because you are having to use different skills, different senses, different parts of your brain. You are surviving and learning and trying to keep your head above water all at the same time (at least this is how it can often feel for me). This inevitably brings out new parts of yourself, and your personality that you don’t access regularly when you are at home, because you don’t need to.
Walking around, I was hit with the smell of of grilled meats, hot garbage, curry spices, and car exhaust, all while randomly being dripped on by an unidentifiable liquid from above. Every single part of it felt so familiar, yet so far away at the same time.
It is one of the most bizarre feelings I have ever had. I could connect with my surroundings, because I had seen, smelled and experienced it all before. But I could not connect with the person, the girl, that I was when I lived there.
One of my first thoughts was, how the hell did I ever live in a city like this? I took Al around to my old neighborhood and regular spots, and the memories came flooding back. I could remember myself walking around in my teacher uniform, jumping on the back of a motorbike to meet friends, ordering food like a local, using broken Thai to barter with a vendor who was trying to rip me off. Was I ever really that person?
It’s almost like 7 years ago me, and current me are two completely different people, but somehow I was able to access vague memories of that person. I have never felt so disconnected from who I once was. Remembering that time made me realize just how complacent I had become in my life since living in Bangkok, how little I have really challenged myself, or forced myself out of my comfort zone since then.
I am by no means glorifying the person I was at 23, or wishing that I was the same person I used to be. There are so many things about my life and who I was that desperately needed to change. I am glad to have grown as much as I have, but I didn’t fully realize how much I have changed until I walked the streets of Bangkok and could no longer connect with who I used to be.
It sounds cliché, but it was like I had shed an entire skin and grown a new exterior in those passing years. Except, when I shed my previous skin, I forgot to hold onto the good parts. The part of me that was fearless, independent, and chased every type of adventure.
I don’t know if it is just part of growing up, but I felt like that aspect of my personality had become completely dormant. Over the years in Chicago, I became so settled in my routine and lifestyle that I rarely ventured outside of it, or sought out experiences that made me truly uncomfortable. I stopped really trying. As a result, I found myself feeling like I was sleepwalking through life at the ripe old age of 28. Basically, I had become a little too comfortable being comfortable.
After we left Bangkok, we flew to Chiang Mai for our gloriously long two week stint. Since I had spent weeks training here before moving to Bangkok, I was flooded with even more memories upon our arrival. Chiang Mai is in the Northern hills, and the 2nd largest city in Thailand. We had only three objectives to accomplish during our time in the North. 1) relax and recuperate from going non-stop 2) volunteer with elephants rescued from human abuse and slavery, and 3) explore Northern Thailand for an extended period of time by motorbike. This area is infamous for its stunning mountainous scenery, and the best way to explore it is on a motorbike. It is something I always dreamed of doing, but except for a few times, never had the chance to while living here. It was something Al and I talked about doing together for years.
Except once we got into the city, I took one look at the insane traffic and started questioning everything.
I had completely forgotten how intense the driving was. Hundreds of motorbikes weave in between cars and trucks, cutting each other off and darting around at all different speeds. Dozens of bikes will form in clusters at once, and then when you least expect it, they will all randomly speed up to try and out run each other. You have to constantly be on alert for stray dogs jutting out into the middle of the street. Entire families (including pets) pile up and wobble to maintain balance on a single bike, everyone drives on the left, and roads turn and then turn again at random points, and there seems to be no clear cut set of rules for any of it.
Once again, I found myself in shock. I could not believe that I had ever confidently navigated these streets on a motorbike by myself. There was no way I was going to be able to do it now. My heart rate started increasing just imagining myself trying to do it. I spent all night mentally questioning if I could still do it, trying to avoid thinking about all of the worst possible outcomes. I couldn’t even use the fact that I had successfully done it before to encourage myself, because I still felt like that person wasn’t really me. That night, I had restless dreams where I tried to scrape Al off the sidewalk with a shovel after he dove off a cliff on his bike. The fear had even worked its way into my subconscious.
The next day I woke up and I knew I had no choice. I felt so frustrated with how much I was doubting myself that I simply had to prove that I was capable of doing this. I knew there had to still be a part of me that believed in myself. I was tired of the back-and-forth doubt fueled mental battle I made myself endure each time I faced a new situation. This time, I wouldn’t be as reckless and overly-confident (or stupid, as some might say) as I was at 23; I would be cautious and go slowly when I was nervous. I would take my time driving in the city, and make smart decisions. But no matter what, I would still do it.
We headed straight to a nearby bike shop, Mr. Mechanic, the same place where I had rented a motorbike back in 2009. They brought our two bikes around and the shop assistant looked at me in the eye and said, You’ve done this before, right? Even though I was being honest, I still felt like I was lying when I nodded my head yes.
When I got on the bike and she handed me the key, I realized quickly that I had no idea how to turn it on. ‘Can you just refresh me on how to start this?’ She eyed me suspiciously, probably mentally calculating how much it was going to cost to repair the bike after this crazy foreigner crashed it.
Hold the left break. Turn the key. Flip this switch. Turn the handle. Go.
And so, I did. Pulling out of Mr. Mechanic is the scariest part; you are jutting out onto the middle of one of the busiest roads in the center of the city. Motorbikes, tuk-tuks, tourists, buses, cars, and bicycles are all fueled together, competing for space, and you have to be constantly alert to find your half-second opening to join them. My heart was pounding for the first 15 minutes as I tried to remember how to lead us to Doi Suthep, our temple destination on top of a mountain a few miles out of the city. I went slow at first, over correcting myself with every turn. I started getting more nervous as a light rain fell, but once we left the busy city streets behind and began to wind up the mountain, I slowly regained my confidence. Before long, riding my motorbike and navigating through the busy streets of Chiang Mai felt like second nature again.
We spent the next several days exploring everything northern Thailand has to offer by motorbike, and it has been one of the most fun and freeing experiences of my life. We rode up winding mountain roads, and through rocky red dirt roads all while being chased by dogs and dodging wild chickens. We drove through temples and past groups of monks drying their clothes out on the line. While on our bikes we saw wild animals roaming, water buffalo wading in a shallow lake, and endless stretches of Thai farmers working rice fields. We spotted a rainbow as we drove through pouring rain in the middle of some of the busiest intersections in Thailand, with the mountains all around us.
Throughout our biking adventure, I couldn’t help but grin every time Al and I would pull up next to each other at a red light, the heat from all of the surrounding engines blowing on my ankles, and one of us would inevitabley ask the other ‘what song is in your head right now?’ I know that these days will be some of my favorite memories from our trip for decades to come, and I wouldn’t have had any of it if I let the nervous voice in my head convince me I shouldn’t do it.
So, there it was. Getting back on the bike was proof that I could still do it, and I hadn’t really lost the adventurous, confident part of myself that I once had in spades. I felt a surge of motivation knowing that this aspect of my personality wasn’t completely gone.
I think it was important for me to be here and experience this right now, to remember how to trust myself and my decisions. Fear takes form in a million different ways, and can be so crippling if we let it take over. It can prevent us from really experiencing things, and I can’t think of a worse way for me to live than in constant fear and doubt of something created in my own head.
Sometimes it is as simple as forcing yourself to get back behind the driver’s seat of a motorbike to realize that you are capable of doing anything. (Except if you’re in Bangkok, because that’s just insane).