I spent most of the first five weeks of traveling through Southeast Asia with others, including my boyfriend, my sister and my best friend from college. Traveling with these loved ones was definitely a treat, and I felt so grateful to be able to make amazing new memories together. Yet, as an introvert, being glued to other people 24-7 became trying at times, and I found myself craving some time and space for myself. Thailand was a perfect place for some solo journeying, and the many moments of solitary joy I felt in that magical country were oddly among my favorite memories of that whole nine-week SEA tour.
Whenever I travel I always visit ruins–I guess I just love to see Man’s work wrecked by Time and Nature–so I went to explore the old capitals of Siam. A short public bus ride out of Bangkok brought me to Ayutthaya, where I rented a bike. Nothing says independence and freedom like a bicycle. With the wind in my hair, I rode all around the historical park. The second capital of Siam, Ayutthaya was a bustling, magnificent city from the 14th century until sacked by the Burmese in the late 18th century. I saw Angkor-inspired towers leaning, chedis lopped off by time, a Buddha’s head in a tree, red Buddha murals down in the crypt of a pyramid, a huge stone reclining Buddha and a stately complex where school children were roaming on a field trip.
I biked around the modern town, which is on an island at the confluence of three rivers. I biked by brutalist-leaning concrete buildings, and the local market where locals were breakfasting and selling fruit. I biked by more golden wats, by low, wide schools, by small storefronts selling coffee. I biked through residential areas crammed full of vaguely Asian two-story houses light in color, with slightly sloped corrugated roofs; a handful of open-air restaurants and a few traditional wooden, pitched-roof Thai homes were scattered among these residences.
A lot of bile had been building up in me due to difficulties handling a certain travel buddy who had been suffering anxiety attacks, but with this adventure I felt the bile was beginning to drain. At the root of this healing was mainly distraction, but if that sounds too cynical, you could call it some kind of experiential immersion: To physically exhaust oneself. To tackle new logistical and spatial problems. And most importantly, to fill one’s brain with a host of new, interesting sights, sounds, tastes, etc. The more I experienced of this huge world, the more I forgot any dramas in my head.
I took an overnight bus up north to Chiang Mai, a popular tourist destination and base for trekking between hill tribe villages. The place is rife with Americans chatting loudly and other various white folk on yoga retreats, but I couldn’t help but fall in love. Chiang Mai is so mellow. With just a little walking from the tourist center, the gangs of farang thinned out and I got to appreciate the city’s street art and lovely tropical brutalist buildings in whites and pastels. I also visited the various wats scattered around Chiang Mai. Built by the Lanna kingdom (separate but allied with Siam), these temples boasted intricate wood carvings on the pediments and steeply pitched roofs. These temples never bored but were full of wonderful details like stone elephant statues, colorful banners hanging and wise but whimsical proverbs on placards. And of course, they all had As Many Buddhas As Possible.
I took to meditating and donating at these Theravada temples, and with this practice, I felt emotional poisons finally left my body. When people go on solo travel journeys to find themselves, one might think they are trying to think about their problems and find paths to resolution. Well I began to feel most at peace by meditating, by not thinking about anything whatsoever. I eventually felt, maybe for the first time ever, that my mind became clear. “Problems” just didn’t seem to exist anymore.
Chiang Mai is not only amazing for these “spiritual” reasons; it’s also just a lot of fun, and I think fun is pretty good for the soul too. I smiled my face off while riding an elephant, bamboo rafting and hiking among beautiful rice paddies and cliffside forest on a tour (most hilarious part of this day: the mahout gave me distilled longan liquor which he was swigging from a water bottle; it appeared he was drunk driving our elephant!).
Chiang Mai also boasts some of the best food in Thailand, which remains cheap and authentic despite the tourist factor. When in Chiang Mai one has to try khao soi, noodles in a rich coconut curry. Outside Wat Phra Singh, I also feasted on a grilled omelette, spicy sausage and deep-fried pork with green chili thread sauce from a small market. Yet, the best food selection is on offer at the Saturday night market, which is a food paradise that is also fairly happenin’ due to the slate of bands and performers–I caught a very cool and talented young band while chowing down on fried rice. The Sunday Walking Street also has food vendors, plus stalls selling actually covetable products and various musicians who are performing every ten meters or so. I felt so happy there, walking among the throngs of young, Chinese-leaning tourists, who also seemed so happy to be there, hearing musicians expressing themselves and eating amazing food.
Finally, I visited Sukhothai, the old capital of Siam, to look at more ruins. Because I was lucky enough to go at about 7 AM with zero people around, this experience, for me, was less about ruins and more about the feeling of total tranquility. My world was bathed heavily in morning light. The images of Buddhas, stupas and palm trees were reflecting in lightly lily-padded reflecting ponds. I walked and biked around, wandering across small bridges, to tall brick chedis, among all sorts of trees, even plumeria. Cranes flew by, a few dogs were resting in random spots. I just so calm and happy to be alive experiencing this peaceful place.
I realized that for the first time in my life, I was truly living in the present, not thinking about the past, nor what I should do weeks, months, years in the future. Typically on vacation I might stop thinking about work for a while, but I am still usually thinking about the future, what is the next step in my life and what I should do differently going forward to fix the mistakes of my past? But after more than four weeks of this condition, traveling had finally become my life, my only reality, so it seemed dumb to think about what I should do in my non-travel life. In fact, non-travel life just seemed to be full of cycling trivialities; at least that is what I felt while meditating before these centuries-old monuments to the universal struggles of Man.
Of course, this zen feeling, one that came about after a very long break from routine life, is probably not easily replicated. I have no grand lessons to impart, no hippy-dippy ideas about healing. Just go out and explore! That goes a very long way.