An Adam Abroad

From Boston to Budapest and everything in between…

Archive for the month “July, 2013”

… on Traveling Solo vs. in a Group

Location:  Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Music:  The Police – So Lonely

I vividly remember my first ‘solo’ traveling experience.  It occurred on a family trip to Las Vegas in the summer after I graduated high school.  I was still 17, so too young to gamble and really venture off on my own, and our family-centered itinerary didn’t really allow for it, either; however, on one rare night I got the opportunity to sneak away alone.  I didn’t get far — I just marveled at the volcano show at our hotel, the Mirage — but the experience changed me.  I loved being able to stand there and gaze at it for however long I wanted.  I enjoyed the freedom and the anonymity afforded among a crowd of strangers.    For once I relaxed, soaked in the present moment, and sliced off a little piece of our family vacation to keep all for myself.

Fast forward to ten years later, and I would once again be faced with a similar opportunity.  With the desire to travel the world but nobody with the means or the free time, it would force me to tackle the journey solo, and that meant the whole journey.  From planning an itinerary, packing, money management, sickness, and a myriad of other travel obstacles, at the moment I stood alone in the airport terminal, it would all have to be faced head-on by me.  I stood confident at the prospect.  Now, with six months of backpacking, both solo and in a group, under my belt, I can adequately reflect on the pros and cons of both.

One of the few pictures of me solo around Europe

One of the few pictures of me solo around Europe

Traveling solo is a daunting prospect for most.  I often get asked how I can do it, and responses of, “I could never do that,” are quite common.  Trust me, you can.  Stepping off the plane in Copenhagen on the first day of my trip, I have to admit, I was petrified.  Suddenly the liberation from everything familiar was overwhelming, and just the short, easy train trip into the city center was raked by anxiety and near panic attacks.  What am I doing with my life was a theme that popped up frequently on that first day, and even into the second as I experienced a crippling hangover trying to silence that voice in my head.  The worst part was that I had nobody to voice my concerns to.

So, yes, the worst part about traveling alone is the long periods of silence and creeping loneliness that wax and wane like the tides.   The loneliness is easily assuaged by staying in hostels, one of the best things to happen to traveling since Google translate.  Hostels are similar to college dorms except that it’s more common to have to share your room with three through nine other smelly, snoring travelers versus just one.  They range from famous, clean, near-hotel status to cockroach, dirty, bloody-sheet dumps.  Fantastic websites like HostelWorld make weeding out the good ones a much easier process than the trial and error of past.  Traveler reviews also help you make educated decisions so you don’t end up in a party hostel (yes, they exist) when all you wanted was some peace and quiet.

Fellow vagabonds = instant friends

Fellow vagabonds = instant friends

However, for an introvert like myself, the freedom of solo travel is intoxicating.  If there is somewhere I want to go or something I want to see, all I have to do is make the decision and it is final.  There are no arguments, compromises, or miserable acceptance.  I am free to explore, or, if I am tired and need to recharge, free to stick around the hostel all day napping and getting my fill of  Family Guy reruns.  Dinners alone turn into the perfect time for introspection, and amazing scenery can be enjoyed without interruption.  But bad can’t exist without good, and I’ve suffered through the amazing because, again, I lacked anyone to share it with.

One of the best views of my life, drowned in booze  with no one to share it with

One of the best hotel balconies of my life, drowned in booze with no one to share it with

The isolation of a solo traveler will always spawn a desire for company at some point, and I’ve done an equal amount of time traveling with a group.  Usually composed of a few different cultures and ages, group travel can be a great way to learn more about the world and its beautiful diversity.  Especially when the beers start flowing and the group dynamic loosens up, a range of topics is usually discussed once the basics are covered.  The five basic questions that permit admittance to any group are:

1)  Where are you from?

2)  What do you do at home?

3) Where have you been?

4) Where are you going?

5)  How long have you been traveling?

After these are answered, getting to know a fellow vagabond is one of my favorite aspects of travel.  Everyone has something to offer, and I’ve met some people with incredible stories.  Meeting the right traveler or local always seems to put things in perspective and offer invaluable insight into one’s own life.  Sharing a good meal, interesting conversation, and unique experiences with a group of like-minded travelers helps to increase the fun and cement memories.  All the sharing can also breed contempt, however, as different personalities clash, new bonds form and others are neglected, and only some interests are pursued when creating the group’s schedule.  Also, I have found that the bigger the group while traveling, the more shut off they become from having authentic interactions with the locals, which is the most fulfilling part of travel for me.

Sharing a meal and stories with new friends, one of my favorite parts of travel

Sharing a meal and stories with new friends, one of my favorite parts of travel

In summation, there’s really no right or wrong way to travel.  Extroverts may be more comfortable traveling in a group, while introverts will need some time alone to recharge so they don’t implode.  Whatever you choose, before setting off it is wise to have a test run with your potential traveling partner.  All too often I meet two or more miserable people who can’t stand the person or people they’re stuck with — that is, until the beers start flowing again.

“No man is brave that has never walked a hundred miles. If you want to know the truth of who you are, walk until not a person knows your name. Travel is the great leveler, the great teacher, bitter as medicine, crueler than mirror-glass. A long stretch of road will teach you more about yourself than a hundred years of quiet introspection.”

— Patrick Rothfuss, The Wise Man’s Fears

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… on Koh Phangan and the Full Moon Party

Location:  Koh Phangan, Thailand

Music: RJD2 – Ghostwriter

The Jungle Club, Koh Samui

The Jungle Club, Koh Samui

As soon as we touched down in the beautiful southern islands of the Gulf of Thailand, the stress created from the past five days in Bangkok immediately lifted.  One of my favorite spots in the world has always been the Caribbean for its white-sand beaches and crystal clear, warm water.  I knew that was exactly what I came here looking for, and I wouldn’t stop until I found my paradise.

My first stop was the large, touristy island of Koh Samui.  I didn’t have any other choice, as it’s the only island in the chain that can support an airport.  They say it’s the ‘Phuket’ of the east — and for good reason; the “best” beach on the island was packed with resorts and Aussies dressed in banana hammocks dancing wildly to blaring techno music.  Luckily for me, I had booked the perfect resort for Koh Samui, The Jungle Club.  Nestled in the mountains overlooking Samui, the only way to access the resort is by calling ahead and having one of their 4×4 vehicles pick you up at the bottom of the hill.  From there it’s a short, exciting ride to the top, and beautiful views, above-average food, and good people await.  I had arranged a ride from the airport, but apparently someone else swiped it; so I was greeted by the news that I would be upgraded to the deluxe sweet, a $40/night room for the price of $10.  I was ecstatic as I was nervous about the rustic quality of the bamboo huts that outlined the resort’s grounds.  Needless to say, most of my time was spent perched high above the chaos, enjoying the views and swimming in the infiniti pool.

View from The Jungle Club

View from The Jungle Club

A quick, 20-minute jaunt on the Lompriyah high-speed ferry and I had arrived on the smaller, less hectic island of Koh Phangan.  Koh Phangan is the next island in line in a chain that ends with Koh Tao in the north (which I hear is excellent for diving).  Phangan also plays host to the famous monthly Full Moon Party that apparently started with a group of Thai friends on what used to be a secluded beach.  Now, although nobody directly owns the rights to the party, it is a large commercial undertaking and a huge source of revenue for the islanders.  I arrived a week early to claim my spot on what would soon become a popular destination.

Using agoda.com, which is great for booking accommodations in Asia, I found a small place nestled on the western side of the island, far away from the parties in Haad Rin.  Suitably named Nice Sea Resort, I was welcomed into a family-run affair that consisted of two rows of bungalows, of different quality, facing each other.  Nice Sea Resort also sports a private beach, a welcome luxury after coming from the bro-infested Koh Samui.  Paradise found.

Where I happily wasted countless hours

Where I happily wasted countless hours

I would love to say that I got a lot accomplished now that I had the life I was looking for, but most of  my days consisted of lounging on the beach, reading in my hammock, or swimming in the beautiful tropical waters.  Mr. Nice, a younger, English-speaking Thai, took on most of the managerial duties, while his mother and grandmother manned the kitchen.  Grandma Nice made the most amazing strawberry smoothies for me every morning and also a mean Pad Thai.  In the two-and-a-half weeks (yeah, it was hard to leave) that I stayed there, I watched a lot of people come and go, developed some good friendships, ate some amazing food, and did a ton of reading.  Towards the end of my stay, it was time for the reason I was there — to experience the Full Moon Party.

Literal buckets of alcohol

Literal buckets of alcohol

As more partiers trickled onto the island, the stage was set for the monthly full night of ectasy on the southern-most tip of Phangan, Haad Rin.  I went with six others from Nice Sea, and it was a long, 40-minute ride in the back of an open-air taxi down to the beach.  It began with the ritual of covering ourselves with pyschadelic Day-Glo paint.  Two French girls I had met decided to paint a face on the back of my head, who they affectionately named Francais.  Everyone bought literal buckets of hard liquor, while I opted for a beer.  I had heard stories of what to expect — namely, a load of drunken gap-year teenagers free from supervision, urinating in the water, passed out on the beach, while others danced to crappy techno beats — so I was prepared for the worst.  It turned out to be a pretty accurate depiction.

The party

The party

Don’t get me wrong; I truly enjoyed partying with my new friends, and the atmosphere was incredible.  But after six hours of pounding bass, drunk Aussies tripping into you, everyone just relieving themselves in the water, and other debauchery, I felt out of place at my age.  I travel to experience new and unique cultures and to see beautiful locales, but I felt like all that was being violated for the sake of some foreign coinage.  It’s like going to the strip club with your friends, only to be disappointed at the beauty that’s being desecrated for the highest bidder.  So, as one of the French girls pulled my arm to stay, I insisted that, at four in the morning, I had seen enough; and there was no way I would make it to sunrise with  my sanity intact.

The Life, Koh Phagnan

The Life, Koh Phagnan

So, I retreated back to the safety of Nice Sea Resort, to the quiet and untouched beauty of my own little slice of paradise.  After all, once you’ve found everything you ever wanted, what’s the point in continuing the search?

Sunset at Nice Sea

Sunset at Nice Sea

… on Bangkok

Location:  Bangkok, Thailand

Music:  The Getaway People – Soi Cowboy

Welcome to Bangkok...

Welcome to Bangkok…

The smell.  It’s the first and most oppressive thing you will notice about Bangkok.  From the minute you leave your hotel, it is your ubiquitous compass everywhere you go in this congested, incredibly busy metropolis.   The best way to describe it is a combination of raw sewage; a potent, very sweet ginger; and some other unidentifiable Thai smell (rotting street food, perhaps?).  Needless to say, my first few jet-lagged days were quite an overwhelming introduction to southeast Asian travel.

Seeing the sights, Bangkok, Thailand

Seeing the sights, Bangkok, Thailand

After checking into my moderately-priced four star, my initial night was spent in the confines of the comfort zone that was my room.   I ordered some spaghetti carbonara from room service and laid down in my plush bed.  Exploring the depths of Bangkok could wait until the next day, which my internal clock decided would begin promptly at four in the morning.  Dream Bankgok turned out to be an excellent choice, however, with their breakfast buffet that included one of the freshest, most delicious omelettes I’ve ever had.  The coffee suffered for it, but overall, I would stay there again.  The friendly Thai manager helped me with learning some key phrases and also pointed me to the closest mall to purchase a few things that I neglected to pack.  After my omelette and two cups of stale insta-coffee, I set forth into the cesspool that is Bangkok.

My hotel room at Dream Bangkok

My hotel room at Dream Bangkok

There’s something to be said for your first day in a new country; it’s an exhilarating, eye-opening experience.  Weaving through the maze of street stalls selling everything from Valium to Viagra (plus a wide selection of vibrators); past the strong stench of random beef on a stick complete with assorted flies; to a lone Thai vendor selling socks for $1 a pair (picked up three pairs); I finally made it to Central World.  Central World is a very westernized shopping mall, but I use the term ‘mall’ loosely.  I think ‘world’ definitely more accurately summarized the seven floors of shopping that greeted me.  Waking up at 4, I was disappointed to look down at my watch and realize it was only 10 in the morning, roughly the time I start my day in the western hemisphere; but my fatigue was assuaged when I discovered the top floor of Central World contained “Happy Time” movie theater and that Jurassic Park 3D was playing.  I had heard that the Thais take their movie-viewing experience seriously, so I quickly bought a ticket and anxiously awaited to be allowed into the theater.  I was not disappointed.

Bangkok 2495

Happy Time movie theater

I had the whole theater to myself until two other westerners showed up right before we were called to rise for the King’s anthem.  I previously read about a man who was arrested when he failed to stand for the anthem, so I made sure I rose poignantly to my feet and motioned for my fellow farang (foreigners) to do the same.  The viewing experience definitely lived up to expectations, and my brain quickly adjusted to the Thai subtitles before adequately filtering them out.

Tuk Tuk adventures, Bangkok

Tuk Tuk adventures, Bangkok

Day three started a little later, roughly about 6:00 a.m.  I killed time until breakfast by perusing the internet and planning my day.  It was finally time to venture out of my familiar hotel and experience all the city had to offer — at least to tourists.  Luckily, on my way out of the hotel, I met a fellow American and solo traveler named John (named changed to protect the innocent).  After striking up conversation, he had arrived on the same day as me but was just switching hotels.  I told him I was going to check out the Grand Palace and asked if he wanted to tag along.   He agreed, and we quickly bonded over talks about life, spirituality, and why everything was always closed for a Buddhist holiday in Bangkok (insider hint: it’s not.  Never listen to Bangkok tuk-tuk drivers).

Wat Arun, Bangkok

Wat Arun, Bangkok

That night John suggested we visit a street only known as the Soi Cowboy, the street where scenes from The Hangover 2 were filmed.  Questioning the contents of this street, I found out it’s where all the Thai prostitutes hang out awaiting their usually overweight and upper-aged customers.  Always up for exploring the seedier side of society, I tagged along and was not disappointed. From the moment you turn the corner onto the Soi Cowboy, you are met by throngs of all types of women vying for your attention.  Many of them wore the uniform of their associated bar; others were just walking the street, grabbing your arm (among other things) as you passed by.  John decided to indulge his curiosity with a lady of the night, and after escorting he and his date off the street, I stopped at the last and seemingly least shadiest bar on the street to have a night cap.  Drinking with Thai prostitutes was an interesting experience, but they were surprisingly good company.  They spoke good English and make a mean drink, and if you tell them you have a girlfriend at home, they won’t be too pushy when you get up to leave.

Truly a different place...

Truly a different place…

After only four nights surrounded by Bangkok’s smell and pollution, I needed a respite.  The overnight train down to the islands in the south was full, so I booked a cheap flight on Bangkok Air direct to Koh Samui.  Later that day, 45 minutes into my taxi ride to go a few miles, stopped dead in Bangkok traffic, hungover from the night before, my thoughts drifted to something my father said before he dropped me off at the bus station in Providence: “If you find that traveling in Asia is too uncomfortable, you can always come home.” If only I had listened, I would have never left the airport…

Bangkok, Thailand

Bangkok, Thailand

… on Arriving

Location:  Bangkok, Thailand

Music : Fun – Carry On

The first picture I took on my travels

The first picture I took on my travels

When I left for what would turn out to be four months in Europe almost a year ago, I was emotionally exhausted.   I had incurred so many recent changes and turmoil that any emotions I should have been feeling dissolved into cold indifference.  I don’t remember thinking about much on the ride to the airport; and it wasn’t until my parents had pulled away, I had checked my bag, and I had my boarding pass to Copenhagen that a smile crept across my face.  I was excited; I was finally really doing it.

But then I moved back home.  I met a girl and we soon started dating.  I shared many fun nights with old friends and easily acclimated back to a level state of comfort, a comfort that I knew travel didn’t afford.   So, when it was time to leave again to fulfill the second part of my journey, I procrastinated.  I made excuses why I couldn’t go yet or questioned if it was what I really wanted.  I had intimate knowledge of the difficulties of long-term travel on the mind and body.  You go so through many emotional highs and lows that any rational person would ask themselves if it’s truly worth it to do it all again.

The answer is always a resounding Yes.  After almost 24 hours of buses, planes, and airports, landing in Bangkok to start another few months of solo travel was an incredible feeling.  Surrounded by an unfamiliar language and  foreign customs, I was once again greeted by that bewildering freedom of being totally alone in a strange place with nothing but uncertainty ahead.  It’s a high unlike any other to navigate through the yelling tuk tuk and taxi drivers, find a metered taxi stand, just to exchange poor Thai greetings and pleasantries before the first attempts at being scammed occur.  “500 baht,” the taxi driver says as I close my door — around $17. a reasonable price for the 45-minute ride into the heart of the city — but I am prepared for this.  “Meter na klap,” I respond in my best Thai.  My driver offers no resistance, and the meter is switched on.

Leaving the airport, I get my first experience of being only 12 degrees from the equator.  A stifling heat chokes the air and makes the air conditioner work extra hard.  We pass rows of thatched-roof houses and monks in all orange walking to ornate temples before we jump onto the highway and I get my first glimpses of my destination.  My head is spinning from a combination of the heat, motion sickness medication, and jet lag; but I am finally here.  I have arrived, and I am ready for all the unknown has to offer.

“My name is Richard. So what else do you need to know? Stuff about my family, or where I’m from? None of that matters. Not once you cross the ocean and cut yourself loose, looking for something more beautiful, something more exciting and, yes, I admit, something more dangerous. So after eighteen hours in the back of an airplane, three dumb movies, two plastic meals, six beers and absolutely no sleep, I finally touch down; in Bangkok.” — The Beach

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