Travel Did Not Change Me, Freedom Changed Me
I didn’t grow up thinking, ‘I’m going to be a solo female traveller’, it’s something that happened purely out of circumstance. While my friends were in school, working, getting married, and having children, I craved freedom, independence, adventure. Sure the whole marriage and kids thing has popped into my brain a few times over the years, but I have a hard time justifying a need to stay in one place, working a job I don’t really enjoy, all in the hope that at some point marriage and kids will magically happen.
Unfortunately it took most of my twenties to realize that dreaming of exploring was simple not enough. I needed more. I needed to break away, stop waiting, and just live my life.
I remember my very first night as a full-time traveller very well.
It was after dark when the plane landed in Bangkok, Thailand. I remember getting my passport stamped, collecting my bag, and then walking through the airport. When I stepped outside I was hit by a wall of intense heat that quickly surrounded me, swallowing me up in mere minutes. Holy wow, it was hot. A lot hotter than western Canada.
I had read that there was a bus one could take from the airport to the hostel near Khao San in the district of Banglamphu for only 150 THB. It was too cheap to pass up, so I sat outside and waited for the bus, reading and re-reading the instructions on where to get off.
I sat in the bus and watched Bangkok roll by, no concept of where I was or where I was going. I vaguely remember something about a 7-eleven, which I thought was a great landmark, until I saw like a gagillion of them.
I got off at the wrong 7-eleven. I opened my Lonely Planet guidebook to the Banglamphu map and started walking. No idea where I was, or where I was going. After about 45 minutes of wandering, I found myself on an empty street, desperately searching for the hostel. When I saw an elderly Thai man on the other side of the road I quickly crossed, showed him the name of the hostel and asked where it was. As a resident of the area, he knew exactly where it was and walked me there. As it turned out I was only two streets away. Yay!
I had booked a lower bunk in a 6-bed dorm room on the first floor. It was nice. Almost boutique-ish. The room had air conditioning, a bathroom, and as I was about to find out my five roommates were guys. And thankfully none of them was doucebags.
That night one of the guys convinced me to go with him to get a Thai foot massage. It was after midnight, I spent a lot of time clenching my teeth and grabbing his hand, and making the ladies laugh. I haven’t had another Thai foot massage since.
Those first few days in Bangkok were hot. I remember buying spicy pad thai from a street vendor near Khao San road and thinking, ‘why am I eating this when I am already intensely hot, sticky, and sweaty?!’.
I only spent a couple days in Bangkok before taking an eight-hour bus ride into Northern Thailand and the city of Chiang Mai, a place I had heard about three years earlier from a co-worker.
I remember the sketchy hostel I stayed in that first night. It was only 100 THB a night, the door to my room didn’t lock, there was a hole in the door, and a couple of huge bugs that had me laying in bed, wide awake, all night long.
The next morning I quickly checked out, found a guesthouse with private air-conditioned rooms for 350 THB a night. The compound was secure, the biggest dog decided he enjoyed sleeping in front of my door, and I could hear the sound of monks chanting each morning. The knowledge that I had nowhere to be, nobody to impress, nobody to answer to, it was absolutely fantastic.
It was freedom.
When I quit my job in 2010 and bought a plane ticket to Thailand, I was putting an escape plan into motion. I had spent the better part of a year and a half constantly under stress which was starting to effect my health in very physical ways. I loved working but hated the bureaucracy, the politics, and feeling tied down. It was suffocating. I have always been an independent spirit, and my job was keeping me from being that person.
Until I said, screw this, and quit my job to travel full time, a long time goal of mine.
Freedom, in all its forms, is electric. For me, it was freedom from stress, worry, and emotional strain. It was the freedom to wake-up whenever I wanted. Freedom to walk anywhere, eat anything. Freedom to change my mind as much as I wanted and not feel guilty about it.
My time in Chiang Mai was filled with discovery. I wandering random allies and into temple compounds. I ate a lot of street food. I spent time with bloggers I had been chatting with online for several months.
I returned to Bangkok to cat-sit for three weeks and fell in love with the city, meeting refugees who would changed my perceptions of life, eating, even more, street food, wandering down random allies, discovering the delights of Shawarma, and loving the BTS train system within the downtown core. It was while I was in Bangkok that I discovered that there was a Mongolian embassy and I thought, why not?!
My Mongolian visa only cost 1,400 THB and I had it within three days. I had no clue how I was going to get there, or what I was going to do when I did.
I read a small paragraph about a boat in Northern Thailand that travelled from Chiang Saen up the Mekong River and into China. Once I was in China I could travel to Kunming, then by bus to Beijing. I had read about how to cross into Mongolia overland by car share and decided to go for it.
I am free. Why the hell not?!
The travel gods were on my side. I arrived in Chiang Saen by bus, found Gin’s Guesthouse and arranged a ticket for the boat which was leaving the next morning. One of four boats that were travelling to China that month. I tossed and turned that night, excited about travelling up the Mekong River, Laos on one side and Burma on the other. At 4:00 a.m. I climbed into a tuk tuk with two other travellers. It was pitch black outside and we were being taken to the port. I remember being tired, catching my foot on a railing, and falling out of the tuk tuk face first. Good times.
Our passports had been taken the night before in order to arrange our tickets, as there was nobody to greet us, we wandered around the port desperately looking for the man with our passports. It was a harrowing thirty minutes in which I thought I would never see my passport again. Thankfully they appeared just minutes before we were to board the boat.
After falling face first out of a tuk tuk in the pitch blackness of morning, walking down the step steps to the boat with a heavy backpack was a tad scary. And when I came to the long wobbly board that connected the shore with the boat I had doubts about making it across. Until a Chinese man walked across, grabbed me by the hand, and led me onboard. Oh, the shame of it. Ha!
Thirteen hours later we were docking in a small port town in China, walking through five freight ships to get to shore. Customs was a woman behind a desk, and when we had our stamps we were put on a van for a windy ride through the darkness to the city of Jinghong, where I was then put on an overnight bus to Kunming.
After a week or so in Kunming, discovering the delights of the marriage market, I boarded a train bound for Beijing where I would stay in the same hostel I had stayed in on my first trip to Beijing two years earlier. After a short time in Beijing I headed to the bus station serving Inner Mongolia.
The bus ride to Erenhot/Erlian on the Mongolian border was insane. Luggage stacked in the aisles, my backpack in a small compartment near the bus engine, a lot of locals and a few travellers. When we arrived it was roughly 6:00 a.m. and I was hustled into a black pick-up truck. Normally five people would fit comfortably, however, this was Inner Mongolia and car sharing is often the transportation of choice. By the time we left the train station there were about nine or ten of us in the truck. Our driver took us to a hotel and dropped us off. I had no clue what was happening, but a group of you Mongolians took pity on me and arranged a room for me, making sure I was comfortable before bidding me good night.
Crossing into Mongolia meant hitching a ride with a couple from Erenhot to the Chinese border with my not-so-skinny-arse hovering above the gear shift, with the husband driving on my left, and his wife sitting to my right. Thirty minutes later I was going through the border and then funnelled into another vehicle, this time a van with an elderly couple who dropped me off at the main square in Zamyn Uude, Mongolia where I would buy a train ticket to Ulaan Baatar.
Here I was, a solo female traveller making my way from Beijing to Ulaan Bataar by bus, car share, and train. All because I had read that is was possible, and the time and freedom to do it.
Having complete freedom is, for me, life altering. It’s travel that changes me, it’s freedom. Freedom allows me to open my mind to a world filled with endless possibilities. The destinations I ventured to are merely a foundation, a canvas in which I paint the life I wanted for myself.
This is why I travel. This is why I say ‘Why the hell not?!’. Freedom.
I’ve had many adventures in the last four and a half years, and I am by no means done with travel. In fact I doubt I will ever be ‘done’ with travelling and exploring the world around me. Just as I will never be ‘done’ with enjoying my freedom.