I’ve been traveling alone in Thailand for a little over two weeks now. I came here to escape a nagging sense of idleness that I felt back home in Asheville, NC.
This journey was supposed to be a life-changing trip for a long-term partner of mine and me, but morphed into an exploration of my own loneliness and an opportunity to grapple with my need for constant companionship.
I was in Thailand for five days before I really felt as if my trip had begun. I spent the first few days and New Years in Bangkok ambling about and partying my ass off: watching lady boy shows and wandering around Sukhumvit attempting to find peace of mind amongst depressed prostitutes and desperate teenage boys. I didn’t find it.
The bus ride from Bangkok to Chiang Mai was almost unbearable. No one on the bus spoke anything but Thai, and the construction of the seats made it clear that this particular spaceship was meant to serve the local population; the headrest sat uncomfortably between my shoulder blades and my hips poured over the margins of my seat. After ten hours of enduring a chorus of snores and dodging rogue water bottles, violently tumbling back and forth in the aisle, I prayed for sunrise. It turns out that bus ride was worth it. I finally found my peace in Chiang Mai. After stumbling my way to the most raucous hostel I’ve found to date (Deejai Backpackers), I quickly rented a scooter and took off to meet a new friend (word to the wise: when traveling solo, Tinder is an excellent resource). We found each other for coffee at Infigo Café (excellent coffee, do recommend) and it was immediately obvious that he and I would be able to tolerate each other’s company for the day.
We took off for HWY 1269 and stopped at the High Veranda Resort. We swam for hours and enjoyed the crisp waters of the most pristine infinity pool, tucked away in a quiet valley of endless mountains. We talked photography and purpose, travel and exploration, restlessness and fulfillment. After a couple of hours sipping on complimentary “mocktails”, the most expensive Singha I’ve had to date, and the cutest portion of freshly made mango sorbet, we parted ways and I headed up the mountain on my own. The next three hours changed my life forever.
Carefully placing my headphones between my eardrums and helmet, I sped off up the mountain knowing that what I came looking for in Thailand would be found on this highway. Whipping around turns with Courtney Barnett’s encouragement, I let the mountain air fill me up with a breath so deep I could hardly contain it. It was at that moment that I finally understood the impetus for traveling alone: you’re not bogged down with conversation or a preoccupation with another’s happiness and wants; the only person that you have any obligation to in your journey is your own self.
Climbing further up the mountain I quickly became overwhelmed. Mac Demarco’s “Let Her Go” was pulsing through me and I let out a scream as tears streamed down my face: I finally felt free. For months I had felt tethered to a man with whom I had ceremoniously cut the cord. Moving on had felt impossible and being truly comfortable with being alone seemed entirely out of reach.
Not so any longer.I pulled over to the side of the road and took in the overwhelming beauty of my surroundings as I grasped the apples of my cheeks, sore from my incessant smiling, and decided that immediately upon my return to the United States I would be purchasing a motorcycle. After a long while staring off and admiring the landscape, I saddled back up. I slowly made my way back down the mountain and through the gates of Chiang Mai, higher than I’ve ever felt.
What ensued for the next week was an excessive amount of biking about. I spent hours at Huay Tung Tao Lake outside of Chiang Mai reading Murukami and dipping my toes into cool water. I made a new friend named Caroline from Australia and we waded in the tepid water of the Grand Canyon south of the city. I motored about Chiang Mai for hours on end in an attempt to leave no stone unturned. Eventually I met up with two brothers that I had made friends with in Bangkok in my first few days and we made the same trip I had made through the mountains of Chiang Mai. I didn’t object as we made the trip in the opposite direction and my vantage point would be entirely different. Half way through our trip we stopped to take in the sights and my motorbike failed me. Zoli, Zach, and a new friend Elliot sped off in front of me and I honked maniacally (thankfully, Zoli heard my cries for help and turned around immediately). We tried our best to kick-start the bike, but it wouldn’t turn over. Eventually Zach and Elliot realized we were no longer trailing them and made their way back. Zach busted out his multi tool and attempted to find a solution, but there was no figuring it out on the side of the road. We flagged down a couple of locals scootering by and they ran through the same motions to no avail.
Finally, we decided that the best course of action was to flag down a truck (but the trick would be to find one that wasn’t loaded down with palm frawns, strawberries, or cows) to take us a little ways back to Pong Yaeng where we had spotted a mechanic earlier. A truck with an empty bed zoomed past and as I ran to flag them down they and two other trucks pulled over immediately on the side of the road. I ran to catch up to where they had stopped and peered inside of the truck: six young Thai guys all dressed in burgundy uniforms. Every single one of the boys inside of these three trucks was on their way to school. I had managed to flag down a convoy of fourteen mechanical engineers.
One of them, named Arm, spoke particularly good English. I explained that my motorbike wouldn’t start and he glanced about the cabin. Suddenly, all fourteen of them were headed back towards my bike to solve the problem at hand. I was totally dumbfounded by my luck. In five minutes flat they had ripped my bike apart (meanwhile, I was studying the ingenuity in their fashion: one boy’s pants were held up by rope, another had zip-tied the seat of his pants together where they had previously been split in two) and diagnosed the problem. The fuel injector had gone to shit and would need to be replaced. They put Bumble 93 (the name I bestowed upon my precious rental scooter) back together as quickly as they had taken her apart and skillfully tied her down in the back of one of their trucks. I rode in the back with Boom, Kah, and Som (three giggly teenage Thai boys with lots of questions for me) as their friend in the driver’s seat screeched around the corners of the mountain down towards Pong Yaeng. My three friends followed on their scooters.
Upon arrival, Arm explained my bike’s problems to the mechanic and informed me that he and his thirteen comrades were running late for school and had to depart. I exchanged Kop Khun Khas and Krups and they were on the way.
The four of us sat and ate fried rice at a shack with no menu on the side of the road and waited for the gruff mechanic to get my ride back into shape. I apologized for my bike’s mechanical problems but Zach reminded me of the vast beauty we were surrounded by and the ridiculous adventure that those troubles had created. In an hours time we were back on our way, taking in the sun and enjoying the ride.After we returned to Chiang Mai, what ensued was an evening filled with debauchery–a trip to our favorite bartender (Naam) at Cosy Cafe, Muay Thai with Ozzy, and WAY TOO MUCH SangSom (cheap Thai whiskey). But I’m here to talk about scooters.
I headed up north to Pai the following day and rented a scooter on arrival. This one didn’t feel as if it fit me as well as Bumble 93 had and the women working at this particular rental shop were total bitches, but I took off anyways after shelling out 200 baht for the rental and insurance.
Immediately I made my way a few kilometers south to the land-split and the canyons where the mountains seemed endless, but the light was too bright to take any worthwhile photographs. I headed on, eventually making my way up to Lod Cave to explore the stalactites and stalagmites and float on a bamboo raft down a river that seemed to be composed entirely of catfish. When the tour through the caves had finally ended, the sun was beginning to wane. My scooter wouldn’t turn over, but a quick kickstart got her going (I would have to do this every time I started this forsaken bike from here on out). Down the mountain I went, looking over my shoulder every few minutes, trying to take in as much of the golden light that drenched the valleys as possible.
On arrival, I parked my scoot for the evening and made my way out on the town in search of a fabled mushroom shake at a bar I’ll leave unnamed. I enjoyed the company of some wonderful ladies from the Purple Monkey Hostel (which would provide my lodging for the next few nights) named Vicky and Dervla. We drank Chang’s and gin and tonics and exchanged stories late into the night.
The next day we slowly assembled an amazing group of humans (Wally from New Finland, Vicky from Canada, Dervla from Ireland, Tom from England, Gaby from Holland, and two other Dutch girls whose names escape me) and motored single file up to Sai Ngam Hot Springs and soaked in bath water.
I shared good conversation with a handsome Canadian as I waded in waist-deep water, picking up stones with my toes and tossing them from hand to hand. The subjects ranged from travel to politics to the insane amount of scooter accidents that has seemingly happened in the previous 24 hours in Pai. We exchanged numbers and I floated back over to my friends. After a short while we decided that our hands were sufficiently pruned and assembled the cavalry.
We lined up our scooters and steadily made our way back down the mountain. About 10 kilometers from Pai, Dervla and Wally in the lead, a truck came onto our side of the road in an attempt to pass the car in front of them. Dervla and Wally broke abruptly and I did too, but my back brake wasn’t engaging quickly enough so I hit the front. As I did, going 70 kilometers an hour, my bike came crashing down on top of me as I hit the pavement, leaving pieces of my flesh behind as I slid ten meters down the road with my arms outstretched in an attempt to protect my face.
It seemed like an eternity. I remember begging momentum to have mercy on me as I counted every stone that studded the asphalt below me. Tom came tumbling down behind me, trying to avoid running me over (he ended up being okay).
All of my new friends hurriedly pulled over to the side of the road and came running towards me as I screamed hysterically and cried in the middle of the road. They helped me get out from under my bike and walked me over to the side of the road where I crouched down, attempting to catch my breath.
Dervla poured a bottle of water over my right thigh (the skin was all gone) and I let out a yelp, the rest maneuvered my scooter off of the road and collected my things strewn about. They asked me if I was okay and I assured them I would be. They then asked me if I wanted to go to the hospital, and after thinking about it for a second, I said no. The Dutch girls called me crazy and hailed down a car.
Immediately someone pulled over. The nicest young Thai man (whose name I fail to remember) carefully placed me in the front seat of his car and kindly distracted me from my pain the entire ten kilometers to the hospital. He asked me where I was from, how long I had been in Thailand, what my plans were for the rest of my holiday–the usual questions. He told me about how he came to be living in Pai and where he was from, but all I can remember was that he works as a receptionist and that Lady Gaga was singing through his speakers.
He walked me through the emergency room doors and delivered me to the most barebones hospital I have ever seen. They scurried me away and scrubbed the dirt out of my wounds; I screamed like a banshee. They cut away pieces of skin that resembled anything but. Black with tar my flesh looked more like the bits of food you find lying at the bottom of your oven after three months of continual use.
All seven of my new friends arrived at the hospital to lend support. Dervla held my hand as I winced and welled up. Vicky went to fetch me food and water. Tom tried to take a photo and was quickly scolded by a nurse. I felt lucky–what an ideal group to have surround me after I had made such a grave error.
Thirty-five US Dollars later I was cleaned, mummified, and on my way back to the Purple Monkey. My friends fed me Valium and SangSom to ease the pain. Needless to say, I didn’t feel any discomfort that evening.I returned to the hospital the next day to have my wounds cleaned and redressed, and to relive the pain all over again. It was then that I realized the severity of my wounds. “Ten days”, the nurse said. I would have to return everyday for over a week if I wanted to prevent my wounds from getting infected.
My vacation was ruined.
I wept in the bed as they dabbed iodine on my open wounds (all the while Gaby patiently waited out in the hall).
After returning my tattered motorbike I limped half a mile back to the hostel. What awaited me there was a table full of encouragement. Caroline, my crass and beautiful Australian friend, remedied the wrap job they gave me at the hospital and my buds told me I was the most beautiful mummy they had ever seen. Wally made ghoul sounds. It was so nice to laugh.
I decided then that I wasn’t going to let some physical injuries ruin the next few weeks. I would (carefully) fight though the pain and the misery. The next day I would go to Chiang Mai to a better equipped hospital to get proper medicine and care and to find comfort in a familiar place.
It’s been five days since my fall and five days of hospital visits: of sterile rooms and strangers, who every day peel away what little skin has managed to grow back to redress my wounds.
Now I lay here in the bottom bunk of a first class sleeper car that I share with a retired prize-winning Muay Thai fighter with a strong French accent (I’ve decided that tonight I deserve such luxury) on a train to Bangkok. I’m struggling to quiet my toxic thoughts, asking myself what I would be doing and how I would be feeling if I hadn’t made that one false move, but there is no way I will let those thoughts govern the remainder of my journey. Today a friend reminded me of something he once read emblazoned on someone’s flesh: “nothing bad happened.” Something happened, and the outcome of that something, of this event, and the affect that it will have are entirely up to me.
I’m borrowing some words here, but those what-ifs are now a part of me. The ugly scars that will adorn my legs for some time to come will be a reminder of my time here in Thailand, and they will be tokens of my journey.
Strangely, I feel stronger now than I have ever felt. I’m now learning to power through physical pain far away from the comforts of home and in the presence of only strangers. I’m learning to accept that which I cannot control and finally coming to understand how to tap into the positive of everything that I am.
I rode (and crashed) a scooter in Thailand. If it happens to you I promise you’ll (probably) be okay, too.
Daniella Trimble lives in Asheville, North Carolina. She’s a drummer, guitarist, gardener, chicken wrangler, 35mm film photographer, and traveler who makes her living pouring drinks.