I have always felt loneliest in the presence of other people – people I can’t connect with, people I feel unseen by, people who make me feel insincere or uncomfortable. For me, loneliness comes from a sense of missing something. I never miss anything when I’m alone.
– Kate Christensen
Exactly one month ago, I was on a plane to Bangkok for a one week solo backpacking trip. The key words here are solo and backpacking, two words that would seem daunting to most people.
Strangely enough, I’ve found comfort in being alone. I relish being with myself, to listening to what my soul needs and doing what’s best for me. I’m the one sitting with a book in a crowded restaurant on a Friday night, the type of person who enjoys taking solitary long walks or watching a movie alone. There’s a certain peace that comes with it, to learning how to be happy on your own.
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On my first day in Bangkok, I found myself standing in front of the BTS and MRT route map at the station nearest to my hostel. The commuting options are flawless so it’s easy to get from one point to another in Bangkok. There are signs, maps and guards, all ready to assist you if you ever feel lost.
It’s empowering, to be alone in a city as big as Bangkok. The pulsating city makes it easy to be swallowed in the maze of the trains and tuktuks and temples. There’s just so many things going on at the same time: a rush of devotees to a Buddhist shrine in the corner, the mad post-work race to dinner, a stranger’s massive shopping bags hitting your legs.
But being alone grounds you. It reminds you to take a deep breath and to pay attention.
Because there’s no one else you have at this point. It’s just you and the city.
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After a day and a half in Bangkok, I move on to Malaysia. I intentionally set a day for being on the road, as I booked a 22 hour train ride from Bangkok to Butterworth. There aren’t many travelers who have taken this route, most of them would either take the short plane ride to Penang or Kuala Lumpur.
And while I love taking the plane and seeing a city from above, I’ve always felt train rides are more romantic and mysterious. It forces you to be in an enclosed space for a period of time, nothing but the scenery moving by the window and the tracks rolling underneath you.
I ended up reading Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven in between writing in my travel journal and watching Thailand’s spindly tall trees give way to Malaysia’s commanding plateaus.
The train ride was quiet, a solitude I’ve never had before. I was the only non-Thai and non-Malay Asian on board, which made it difficult to converse with the staff and the locals. I could speak English, but the English speakers were all couples or families, and I didn’t want to intrude.
I thought it would be easy to be an Asian traveling Southeast Asia. I know the geography, the weather, and I’m familiar with the people. But they don’t know how to deal with a backpacking, English-speaking Asian. I’m in the gray area – not blonde or white enough to be a farang, but not Thai or Malay to be a local.
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In Butterworth, I find myself struggling to find my footing. I spend half an hour lined up outside Butterworth’s ferry station, hoping to buy a ticket and cross to Penang. The men are looking at me and my backpack, and they push and shove to get in front of the line. At one of my weakest points, I’m close to calling it a day and getting a cab, no matter how expensive it will get. Luckily, one of the guards see me and flag me to the front of the line – women apparently do not need to line up in the same line as men.
Upon disembarking and reaching Penang, I walk around the jetty station looking for a tourist center or an information office. Both offices are closed, it’s Chinese New Year. I know the buses are safe and cheap, but I don’t know which one to take. I consider walking from the jetty station, but I didn’t have a map with me and I didn’t know how long it would take.
Close to panicking and losing my head due to a really bad combination of hunger and fatigue, I text my mother with a quick SOS. It’s times like this when I start wondering why I ever signed up for something as crazy as this. People my age travel all the time, but they don’t feel the need to do it this way.
Then I remind myself: I already rode a 22 hour rickety overnight train. And I went through a border crossing and a hundred or so men pushing and shoving.
I’m here. I’m alone. And I feel infinitely alive.
— — —
I didn’t really connect with other travelers, not because I met the wrong people, but more out of choice. It felt futile to be building a relationship with these strangers, all of whom I won’t be meeting again. I never asked to keep in touch and they never asked for my contact details. I didn’t ask them out to dinner, or took them up on offers of sightseeing together. I ocassionally talked to my roommates out of courtesy and while I liked them enough and could’ve been friends with one or two of them, I didn’t really make an effort.
I know most solo travelers love the possibility of all these friendships, but it was never that for me. It was always me and the world, getting to know it as much as I could while carving out a little space for myself.
The joke was on me though,when, a few hours before my flight from Kuala Lumpur to Manila, I meet someone interesting. We hit it off, and I found myself being attracted to this perfect stranger. I had the power to make it something more than happenstance, or leave it as it is.
And while I will forever be a romantic, it didn’t feel right to be tugging this thread all the way to Manila. We were just two people crossing paths in a city far from our respective realities. Our stories and spaces don’t include each other, we’re merely a postscript.
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It is enough for now, taking these adventures on my own. To having the freedom to see the world and letting it seep through my veins. Maybe someday I will find someone who I can share all of this with, someone who will take 22 hour train rides because why not. Until then, there’s so much I have yet to explore. It is possible, you know, to be alone, strong and happy.