During these last 3+ months of travel, I have found the solo travel lifestyle to be a perfect way to deviate freely and openly. Without surprise, I have spent very little time traveling alone. Even traveling between locations, like my overnight train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, I have rarely been by myself or kept to myself.
I meet couples, other solo travelers, old friends from back home, and locals. I strike up conversations, exchange contact info, and sometimes I even temporarily combine travel plans. But not being tied down to people in a permanent way has led me down alternative paths to other exciting adventures.
In this post I am going to highlight one of the best parts about solo travel through a moment when I was in Thailand and my plans with another traveler went awry. Why would being a solo traveler be a good thing in this case? Read on to find out.
Bailing on the Mae Hong Son loop plan
After spending an entire day getting over my fear of motorbikes by riding one up Doi Suthep near Chiang Mai, I was ready to travel the over 500km Mae Hong Son loop. The trip is rich with surprises—beautiful scenes, hill tribe peoples, waterfalls, canyons, jungle treks, swimming holes, small villages, temples, and all kinds of unknown adventures.
One group of guys who took the trip told me about their experience getting lost on a side road. By nightfall they had nowhere to stay but were taken in by a Hmong family who spoke no English and lived without electricity. Despite the family’s limited resources, they gladly offered a place for them to hang their hats for the night and cooked and fed them a traditional Thai meal.
I was looking forward to taking my time traveling the loop to experience all of this and more.
Meeting up with the Argentinian man, Stefano, we set off down Rte 108 out of Chiang Mai to start our journey in a clockwise direction. Before completely exiting the area, Stefano wanted to stop for lunch. I wasn’t hungry, but Stefano dug into some street food. As we sat there he said, “So I want to hurry up on this trip.”
“What do you mean ‘hurry up?’”
“Well, I have a bus leaving Chiang Mai back to Bangkok. I have to be back here in 3 days to catch it.”
My jaw nearly dropped like the Genie when Jasmine pretends to be attracted to Jafar. I’ve done all this preparation, even climbing a mountain to psychologically prepare myself for this trip, and now I find out he needs to go quickly? True, you can do the Mae Hong Son loop in two days if you want to drive 7 hours each day rarely stopping to explore along the way. But this is not my idea of an adventure at all.
Adventures need time to unfold—they cannot be rushed.
“Seriously? I was planning to take my time on this trip. I wanted to spend at least 5 days doing it plus a few days in Pai.”
“I figured if you want to take your time, we can go our separate ways at some point during the trip.” He suggested.
This was completely the opposite of what I wanted to do. I was not yet comfortable enough motorbiking to be potentially alone out on the road. And I didn’t want to drive fast and drive so much each day with only half a day of motorbiking experience.
I told him I wasn’t going to do this trip with him since he was going to have to go that quickly. And just like that I was standing up putting my helmet back on.
I drove my bike back to Mr. Mechanic before it was due for the 24 hours I had rented it. I wouldn’t need it anymore now that I was staying in the city—at least not until I came up with a new plan.
On the ride back, I thought about how lucky I am to be traveling solo. If I was traveling permanently with Stefano, I would have felt obligated to go with him. I don’t usually bail like that on friends. But with no obligation to Stefano, I had complete say over what would fly and what wouldn't. Having total control is one of the best parts of traveling alone. I get to find my own path. If I want to follow someone else’s path, I can choose to do so. And at any moment, I can deviate.
Chatting with a monk
Although I didn’t get to experience the Mae Hong Son loop (maybe in the future!), my decision not to go ended up being an excellent one.
I got to experience the Loy Krathong and Yi Peng festivals in full swing across the city—the events I had come to Chiang Mai for in the first place. I had the opportunity to get hosted by a Thai local and participate in festival traditions. I even got to spend a week in Pai where my motorbiking adventures continued and I bumped into a friend I had met at the festival.
Before I experienced any of this, however, one of the first things I did when I got back to Chiang Mai was go chat with a monk.
I took a walk to Wat Chedi Luang, a Buddhist temple in the center of the old city. The inside of the temple is large, filled with Buddhist shrines and a few monks. But these weren’t the monks I spoke to.
Behind the main temple, I found the old Chedi ruins and to the right of the temple an area with seating and tables I found monks ready and willing to chat with strangers.
Above this area was a sign describing the “Monk Chat Program.” I thought the description was clever, “Chat with us about Buddhism, Monk's life, Thai culture and anything. Don't just stand looking from afar and walk away.” They get to practice their English and I get to learn about a day in the life of a monk. I couldn’t resist the opportunity.
Many travelers think women cannot talk to monks one-on-one but this is not true. One of the many rules of conduct about women that monks must follow is they are not supposed to be in a room alone with a woman. I was not limited by being a solo traveling woman at all since the monk chat program is outside. I was perfectly allowed to chat with a monk in this context—just not touch him.
For example, a monk I met in Sukhothai took great effort not to touch me when I offered to take a photo of him. He held out his iPhone at arm’s length. I held out my hand flat and just under the phone so he could drop it into my palm without his fingers touching mine. I handed it back to him in the reverse motion.
Here he is, hiding his phone under his robe!
At the monk chat program, I saw a young monk standing to the side of a table. “Do you have anyone to chat with?” I asked.
We sat down across from each other and I introduced myself. He was Patchai, a 22 year old monk living at a temple just outside Chiang Mai.
Patchai told me about how he’d been studying and living as a monk for the last 8 years but he’s not sure he will continue to do it after graduation in the Spring. He wants to travel and was very interested in hearing about my travels and seeing photographs.
At one point he even called over a few monk friends to look at my photos of Iceland. He’d never seen snow before! But it’s very difficult for monks to find the money to travel. In fact, monks make no money except whatever is offered to them by the public.
Their meals also come from the public.
At 4am in the morning, Patchai begins his day with meditation and chanting. He and other monks then go out into the town where local people offer them food to "make merit." They bring the food they collect back to the temple, share it with the other monks, and eat together. So if they are given a loaf of bread, the bread is divided up between all of the monks in that order. If nothing is offered, they do not eat.
At noon, Patchai is allowed one more solid meal and then he is only allowed water until the following sunrise. The rest of the afternoon is spent at school. Prayer is at 6pm and then he studies or does various chores around the temple for the remaining hours of his day.
I gave Patchai one of my blog business cards. Perhaps he'll see this post! He has Facebook and, as I saw all over Thailand, many monks use modern technology just like everyone else. I was already aware of this, but it was still fun to see monks in their traditional garb taking photos with their tablets and browsing the web on their smartphones.
Feelings regarding the traditions surrounding women versus the traditions surrounding modern technology are obviously not one in the same.
Solo travel has benefited me at every corner on this trip. In the above example, I was able to deviate from plans with another traveler without reservation and find my own path to follow. I wasn't even limited by being alone in a context like meeting a monk one-on-one—at least no more than any other woman would be, solo traveler or not.
As my journey goes on, I continue to make friends and travel with others at my own discretion. I can’t imagine traveling any other way!