I have always loved airports. The surge of excitement just before boarding a flight as you begin a new journey, the taste of a creamy pint in the beer garden of Terminal 1, tucking your meal deal safely into your carry-on bag, or the smell of a newly purchased book for your inflight read.
This time was different. Standing at the security gates of Terminal 2, I tried to control the steady flow of tears streaming down my cheeks as I said goodbye to my family and best friend, embarking on my first solo trip to Southeast Asia, not knowing when or if I would be back.
It had always been my dream to travel but I had never envisaged doing it completely alone. Covid-19, a turbulent time for us all, delayed any prospect of it. Before I knew it I was five years into my career, approaching 27, with the sudden realisation that it was time to push myself out of my comfort zone. My desire to see the world had outweighed my excuses not to. With many of my friends at different life stages and not ready to travel yet, I couldn’t wait any longer and decided to go solo.
Jetlagged and emotional, I made my way to the queue of taxis, and after poorly translating my destination to the driver who made two wrong turns, I arrived at my first hostel
Arriving in Bangkok in early October, the dense heat was the first thing that hit me, followed by the noise and clamour of people shifting through the airport. This was my most vulnerable moment; all I wanted to do was call home and say: “I can’t do this by myself.” It was the first time in my life I felt truly alone.
Jetlagged and emotional, I made my way to the queue of taxis, and after poorly translating my destination to the driver who made two wrong turns, I arrived at my first hostel. Walking into a crowded space on your own could intimidate even the most confident person and feelings of uncertainty and loneliness, once again, came creeping in.
I questioned how I would live like this for the next few months, in a dimly lit crowded dorm with all my belongings shoved into a tiny locker. Indecisive about my next move, I encouraged myself to go to the common area and sat at a table. Within minutes I was surrounded by a group of people — four from Egypt, one from New York and an Irish girl studying in Bangkok. The relief was instant.
My first stop after the hustle and bustle of Bangkok was Ko Samui, Thailand’s second largest (and in my view, most beautiful) island, with its palm-fringed beaches, crystal blue waters and mountain views.
Each new destination has brought new emotions. Excitement is always one, but there’s also a feeling that you’re starting back at square one. You meet great people and make strong connections only to leave them behind and start all over again.
Four islands, three cities, two towns, a lost phone, a minor hospital visit and many emotional ups and downs later I felt I had finally found my feet
One day at a bar while ordering something to eat I heard a strong Belfast accent behind me: “Are you from Ireland?” Within the hour I had made my first real friend in Thailand with whom I travelled for three weeks. The Irish really do always end up finding each other no matter where we are in the world.
Four islands, three cities, two towns, a lost phone, a minor hospital visit and many emotional ups and downs later I felt I had finally found my feet and began the journey north to the beautiful city of Chiang Mai. This has always been on my list of top destinations to see, for its elaborate and architecturally beautiful temples, friendly locals, dense jungles and magnificent scenery.
I met a Thai woman outside the airport who told me and my two new Irish travelling companions about an elephant sanctuary deep in the jungle outside the city, inherited by a young man whose father had died during the pandemic. He had struggled to keep it open and provide for his staff during the coronavirus pandemic. On the spot, we decided to make the trip.
Next week I will take a night bus to Laos before heading to Vietnam to celebrate my 27th birthday on the Ha Giang loop
Being so close to an animal twice your size is a humbling experience, but what I didn’t expect from the day was to see a whole other way of life. This family and their staff had built a whole community whose purpose was looking after the elephants, living on the grounds of the sanctuary with them. They instantly made us feel welcome. We shared a meal, listened to their stories and in turn shared ours. Spontaneous experiences like this have been the most memorable of the trip.
I am sitting in the back of a cafe run by a local woman, who offered me a quiet space to write as I train at the Muay Thai and mixed martial arts camp across the road. Trying new things, like Muay Thai, is key to having the best solo experiences, I’ve discovered.
Next week I will take a night bus to Laos before heading to Vietnam to celebrate my 27th birthday on the Ha Giang loop. I am excited to see what this next part of my journey will bring.