For the sixth time in thirty-two days, I’m on a plane. After three weeks in the North, the Andaman coast, and then Bangkok, my time in Thailand has come to a close, at least for now.
I find it hard to sum up my thoughts in on the country, except to say that there are a lot of them. From my time at Elephant Nature Park to my mixed-up week in the South to my long weekend in brash, sprawling Bangkok, Thailand has been many things to me: pure and polluted, quiet and deafening, relaxing and stressful. Above all, though, I think: easy. Easy to navigate, easy to find anything I need, easy get help in my language even though it’s not the native tongue of any locals. The reason for this is clear: major swaths of development, thousands of businesses, and entire cities have been built up just for me and the other tourists, who fuel a major part of the country’s growth. Thailand is immensely popular with travelers of many kinds, and the path to almost anywhere is well-worn. The result, at least for me, is a feeling of insulation from Thailand as the locals experience it, and also a bit of guilt because the whole thing feels, somehow, like cheating.
I don’t mean at all to say that I didn’t enjoy myself. I loved the varied cities and climates, delighted in crossing paths with friends old and new, and adored the food. I appreciated the convenience and low prices – delicious smoothies or entire meals for $2 on every street corner, $6 massages and pedicures at any time of the night. I relished the complete lack of dress code and wore flip-flops everywhere like I haven’t since getting a big-girl job. I discovered the joy of zipping around on a motorbike. I nearly always felt completely safe, even at night in the city. Despite all this, though, I do feel ready to go somewhere that’s a bit more of a challenge.
And what perfect timing, because the plane I’m on is an hour away from landing in India, a country that made it onto my itinerary as the result of a random thought I had while sitting on my couch in San Francisco. I wonder how much it costs to go to Bangalore from Bangkok.
About $300 round-trip, it turns out. Seeing the numbers on the screen, I knew I had to do it. I had always been interested in India, but had thought of it as a far-off fantasy, something I probably wasn’t ready for or would do when I was older or had more time. But here it was, within easy reach, a few clicks and a credit card number away. There was no good reason not to do it, so after thinking about it for a few days, I did.
After deciding to go to India, I started telling people about it — and that’s where I ran into a bit of trouble. Cocked eyebrows, widened eyes, and wow from dozens of people I knew, none of whom had gone before. They had heard stories, from varying numbers of years ago, about women travellers there who had gotten into serious trouble. They didn’t know much else, but they knew it was unorthodox for me to go on my own. They told me to please be careful. I said I would, and gradually learned to stop mentioning India voluntarily. When asked exactly what countries were on my list, I learned to say “Southern India…?…!” a certain way, conveying that I was surprised as they were and also making a bit of an intonation-apology. I know it’s weird, I was saying without saying. But I guess I’m doing it.
When I got out on the road, I started talking to other travelers, and the reaction was different. These were people from many different places, some close to India and some far, several of whom had gone recently or knew someone who had. While they also told me to be careful, it was just as an aside to a completely different feeling: they were happy for me. They told me about beautiful beaches and jungles, incredible food, and the stress and hassle and rush of the cities. It would be hard, they told me, but I would love it.
So, here I am, a few thousand feet above a country that seems to scare a lot of people. My itinerary is really only a tiny slice of the huge subcontinent, and I’ve deliberately chosen places that are considered somewhat more laid-back and Westerner-friendly – whatever that may mean. I’ve read the encouragement of many solo lady travelers before me, and learned the rules to keep myself safe. I have my plans. I am nervous, and I am excited, and I am not sorry.