On Losing Yourself While Traveling

I hadn’t originally planned to go to Koh Lanta during my two-week trek through Thailand, but my decision was heavily influenced by the fact that I made the mistake of visiting Phuket.

Don’t get me wrong—the beaches there are beautiful, as is everywhere in the south of Thailand. And sure it’s very tourist-y, but so is Chiang Mai, so why be so hypocritical about it? It’s tough to say what exactly about it sat the wrong way with me, but I believe it was strongly linked to the type of tourists one finds in Phuket as compared to Chiang Mai. Chiang Mai felt like the global epicenter of zen young people chilling with each other, and while I’m not absurdly zen at least I’m young and could pretend to blend in once I bought some elephant merch and let my hair be all wild and free. But Phuket felt like the center of fat sunburned middle-aged Russians who have no interest in actually being in Thailand. I found it difficult in Phuket to find either other tourists in their 20s or Thai food, and since Thai food is pretty much the best food, Phuket was a no from me.

But Koh Lanta was undoubtedly the strangest leg of my trip, and I blame it on the quirkiness of my hostel. It was built haphazardly with creaking pieces of wood above the water, with a prime view of all the boats coming in and out at the pier. The walls were decked out with all kinds of abstract art, and a few large hammocks in view of the ocean provided a spot to dream the day away. It was also what some might call “rustic”—there was no hot water, no flush toilets, and an overabundance of mosquitoes. But that simply added to the feeling of being far away from everything, as well as the feeling that none of it really mattered after all.

The hostel was so peaceful that it barely seemed worth it to leave and see the rest of the island. So I became obstinately unmotivated. For the most part, I sat around doing pure nothing, apart from having lazy conversations with my bunk mates (which was everyone, because the dorm had 18 beds). Our normal schedule involved sitting in hammocks looking out at the ocean for hours on end, only getting up to get another beer or eat dinner. The things I ended up seeing in Koh Lanta were the street the hostel was on, one beach, and the ferry pier where I both arrived and left. My memories of the place exist in about a 100-foot radius, with the rest of the island left as a big question mark.

My personality type is interesting because I’ve learned over time that much of it depends on context. In many situations I can be diligent, competitive, and determined, ready to make a real impact on the world around me. Alternatively, I can be lazy and apathetic, opting to ignore my responsibilities, choosing to care about nothing at all rather than pin my hopes high on things I’ll probably never get anyways. I had discovered at the beginning of my trip that Hong Kong brings out the former qualities in me, the qualities I love about myself—my passion, and drive, and vitality—and now I was discovering that Koh Lanta brought out the less fun bits, the aimlessness, the uncertainty, the fear of commitment, these seemingly contradictory traits which are still a very real part of who I am.

The others at the hostel may have helped to highlight these qualities because they were travelers of the directionless variety themselves. They were mainly the type of wanderers who have been out on the road for months if not years, the type who have some intense stories to tell, the type who are pretty rough around the edges. I was here on a two-week vacation—these people were running from breakups, addictions, unemployment (most of them didn’t have real jobs), or just plain fear of mediocrity. We became close over the few nights I hung around in Koh Lanta, staying up late with nothing but candlelight and talking over our deepest fears and worst memories.

As I saw on the island, there is a part of me that will always be an aimless wanderer, with only the fragility of external circumstance tying me to who I really am. But maybe that’s not just me; maybe it’s everyone, and maybe I shouldn’t separate myself from others so much anyways. In a lot of ways travel makes you stop caring so much about who you are and who “they” are. In a place like Koh Lanta, you just exist, letting your preconceptions fall into the ocean and be cast out with the tides.

My identity became blurrier the longer I stayed there, as I began to lose myself in the peace and stillness of the place. If I hadn’t already bought a ferry ticket to go to Krabi a few days later, I’m not entirely positive I would have even made it out. Maybe I would have opted to let my identity fade away entirely, existing in the present with no past or future.

Luckily, by the end of my brief stay in Krabi I had recovered enough fragments of myself to recall the rest of my existence, and I set on home to Shenzhen to continue my status quo life, pulled along by a thread of insincere certainty.

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Chilling in Chiang Mai

My first night in Chiang Mai, like all good nights out in the city, began at the night market. The weekend night markets in Chiang Mai were a sight to behold, with vendors lining the streets for what must have been miles, selling crafts, trinkets, and so much flowing elephant clothing. The backpackers like me passed right by the goods, and went for the real treasures—the alcoves with all the street food, vendors making sizzling pots of Pad Thai right in front of you, or seasoning and grilling skewers of meat, or mixing together fresh fruit smoothies for less money than you’d believe. You could sit out under the open night air and eat to your heart’s content, surrounded by tourists who’d flown the world over to do the same.

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The next stop on that first night was a rooftop bar overlooking the walls of the old city. To get to the top of the bar, you had to go into a shady, shabby building, and climb about four rickety flights of stairs. At one point all shoes were removed and left in a massive heap sprawling halfway across the floor. After removing both your shoes and your inhibitions about protecting your stuff, you could head up to the top floor and see the bar in all its glory, a dark room lit by a few colorful lanterns, open to the night air, walls sprawled over with graffiti, with everyone either drinking or smoking something or other. There were no chairs here, just cushions on the floor, and a few tiny tables on which to rest your drinks. As the night went on the floor filled with dancers streaked with glow-in-the-dark paint, waving their dreadlocks around like travel badges of honor.

When I first rolled up to Chiang Mai, I wasn’t sure I’d like it. The impression may have been due to my unconventional method of entering the city. See, I’d just taken the overnight train from Bangkok, which after a two-hour delay or so at boarding time had finally arrived in Chiang Mai the next morning. Taxis from the train station were being obnoxious and telling me they couldn’t bring me exactly to my hostel—just nearby—and I wasn’t sure at that point how big the city was (it’s not very big, but how was I to know? I don’t prepare for these things).

I went to the information guy for help, and he just shrugged and said, “Why don’t you walk? It’s only about an hour.” So I hefted my large backpack onto my shoulders and traipsed into the old city on foot, already beginning to sweat in the hot Thai sun.

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The road into Chiang Mai

Walking into Chiang Mai did feel really legitimate. It involved taking a bridge over a moat and then eventually approaching the ancient city walls surrounding the core of the place, which had been standing for centuries and looked like it. There also had just been a parade for the flower festival that’d been going on, and the ground was sprinkled with confetti. So it lent me the illusion that I was an ancient wanderer, entering a new city with a warm welcome.

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Despite the pretty picture my mind was painting I still arrived at the hostel sweaty and worn-out, with just about no clean clothes left after my first several days in Hong Kong and Bangkok where I had done no laundry at all. Once I’d showered and changed, though, Chiang Mai became easy and fun to explore.

On my first day in the city I found the flower festival, most of which was tucked in one corner of the old city. All the floats from the parade earlier that day (which I’d apparently just missed) were out for display on the road, decorated with vibrantly colored flowers in all shades. Scenes depicted Buddhas, dragons, and praise for the King (Thai people do not mess around about the king). The floats were all really beautiful, and after the flowers was about a mile-long stretch of all the street food anyone could ever want, even more beautiful to me than the flowers.

My other favorite part of Chiang Mai was all the Buddhist temples lying around the city, which tended to be free and open to tourists. There are a lot of cool little places that are worth checking out, with ancient Buddhas and murals and jeweled decorations. Other than that, the highlight of Chiang Mai is definitely the relaxed vibe, the other travelers, and the quietly exhilarating nights out.

Chiang Mai was a place where people took the idea of backpacking pretty seriously. I think I saw more people within the city limits with dreadlocks than I have seen throughout my entire life combined. It’s like about 50% of the travelers there got their travel inspiration from a hippie’s Pinterest board which insisted wearing long, flowing clothing was the key to a successful backpacking trip. Not gonna lie, it totally helps you feel legit. But you can also get the real backpacking deal in jean shorts, I promise.

The city totally embraced that hippie vibe, though. I saw a French guy ask a street vendor for no meat on his Pad Thai and she asked if he wanted no egg too. Any Asian city that works to cater to vegans has seen its fair share of backpackers, but that wasn’t exactly a drawback for my first solo backpacking trip. From the street food everywhere, to the cheap, cheap clothes, to the overabundance of massage places and ice cream stands (best appreciated back to back) it is definitely catered to tourists, but it’s far enough away that you can still feel like a real traveler.

I did a few planned activities in Chiang Mai, including taking a cooking class and viewing a Muay Thai fight. But the rest of the time was pretty relaxed, and nothing there feels hurried or stressed. It just feels easy, and peaceful, and safe.

I think honestly feeling that way set a dangerous precedent for me, because now I’m just like, “alright, let’s take on a difficult country, like Laos, or Chad, or maybe like, Afghanistan.”

Or maybe I’ll just do Vietnam like everyone else I met in Chiang Mai…

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Moat outside the city of Chiang Mai