The Indian Night Bus Experience

The first night bus I took in India was from Palolem to Hampi. All of the people waiting at the bus stop were backpackers and I started talking to a Brazilian girl, Deborah. Like me, this was her first night bus in the country and we had both been cautious in booking seats rather than beds.

However, when the bus arrived, we discovered it was entirely comprised of double beds. There was no allocated bedding so we agreed to share a top bunk for the night. The beds were built into the wall, with curtains you could pull across for privacy.

bus
“I feel like I’m in a coffin!” Deborah said, once we had assumed our positions for the night. We laughed. It was true that the berths were small – there wasn’t enough room to sit up straight. We were lucky we were both small and fit on the narrow mattress.

“Aren’t you going to take off your shoes?” she asked.

“No they’re my only pair, I don’t want them falling out of the bed.”

Fortunately it was a smooth ride and I got an uninterrupted night’s sleep. Although my travel agent had obviously lied, trying to sell me a single bed, I’d saved some money by insisting on a seat and it had all worked out fine.

It was early morning when we arrived in Hampi. A large group of rickshaw drivers had assembled outside the door of the bus, blocking our exit. Still half asleep, I was one of the last to file out of the bus but I could hear the rickshaw drivers working themselves into a frenzy.

“Where are you going? Where are you staying? Have you booked a hotel? Are you going to the temples today?”

Stepping off the bus, I realised we had been dropped off right outside some UNESCO listed temples. It was a bizarrely serene backdrop to the throng I had found myself in. I pushed past the crowd and joined Deborah.

“I’ve never seen anything like this before,” she said. “And I’ve been travelling India for a while.”

“Yeah it’s crazy. Do you still want to walk to the river?”

“Yeah it’s not far. Let me look it up on my phone.”

Luckily for us, most of the drivers had honed in on a Russian couple who were on a day trip. They trailed the four of us as we walked into town, but they mostly directed their sales pitch to the couple.

“Yes we’ve already booked a guesthouse,” I lied when they turned their attention to us.

“If you don’t go away, I’ll call the police!” said Deborah. I laughed, not sure whether she was serious or not.

Although it was still early, the streets were lined with locals in simple dress, mostly headed in the opposite direction to us. After spending the past week in Goa where you could almost forget you were in India, Hampi was intoxicating.

Photo Credit: Living Draftily

Photo Credit: Living Draftily


We reached the river, which is where I saw my first ghat. We were greeted with the peculiar sight of men and children stripping off to bathe in the river. The women remained fully dressed and mostly helped with scrubbing the children. Later I learnt the river was a pilgrimage site for Hindus and bathing in the river was thought to be purifying.

A boat took us to the other side of the river, where most of the accommodation was situated. We found a cheap guesthouse and had breakfast. I was glad we were staying on this side of the river; it was quiet and tranquil.

Leers

It soon became clear that the harassment of my first day was fairly uncommon in Anjuna. Locals were generally relaxed and pleasant to deal with, and if there were Indians visiting from other states, as my two friends had been, they kept to themselves. Although I was careful to walk in the company of others at night, I continued my solitary walks in the day and was left alone.

The only harassment I experienced, if I can loosely call it that, came from two Canadians at my hostel. The first was a guy in his forties who quickly grew unpopular with the other backpackers for being antagonistic with the guys and sleazy with the girls. If it hadn’t been for one drunken conversation, in which he euphemistically asked me if I would “date” him, he would not have been particularly noteworthy – all the other girls felt uncomfortable around him.

The second guy was decidedly more selective. From the moment we met over dinner, he made his interest in me very clear when he persisted in having a stilted conversation with me from across the table.

As I came to realise over the next few days, in many ways, he embodied the worst qualities of a veteran traveller. Just as travel can make a person more open minded and easy going, I firmly believe it can also make someone a bit of a wanker.

Like other travellers of his ilk, Canadian #2 had a tendency to relate everything, no matter how mundane or innocuous, back to his travels. Several times I tried to turn the conversation around to other topics but without much success.

I should stress – it’s not that he wasn’t a pleasant enough person. He had altruistic desires (as he told me multiple times, he had plans to start a charity in Asia) and I didn’t mind short conversations with him.

But I think the considerable length of time he had spent in South America had rubbed off him in the wrong way. A very serious person, he lacked the laid back charisma I had found endearing in South American men, but on the other hand, I was often disconcerted by his very forward approach.

Although I tried to keep things between us strictly platonic, he was heavy handed in his early interactions with me, coming out with some cringeworthy lines that I won’t repeat.

Realising he would only become more intense under the influence of alcohol, I left with the first taxi from the hostel the following night, hoping we would end up at different bars.

However, he appeared at our bar an hour later. The first thing he did when he spotted me was stroke my hair and ask where I had been. Using as few words as possible, I told him and walked away.

Shortly afterwards, he sat down next to me while I was in the middle of a conversation with another girl and started stroking my waist. I immediately froze, before deciding not to react in the hopes the girl I was speaking to would not notice.

A third person joined our conversation and Canadian #2 seized this opportunity to take my hand and kiss it.

“Did you like that?” he asked, as though there was a possibility that I would actually say yes.

“No,” I said. “I don’t like public displays of affection.”

“No one saw.” Unfazed, he continued, “I’m interested in you, are you interested in me?”

If he was drunk, I would have laughed it off but I could tell he was quite sobre and very serious. I refused to answer his questions, telling him he was being too forward. In retrospect, I was probably a little blunt but I felt it was important someone was honest with him so he wouldn’t be too out of touch with women if he ever went back to a Western country.

I spent the next hour going between different groups. I wished the English guys in my dorm hadn’t checked out. Ever since they had left, there wasn’t anyone at the hostel who I really clicked with.

My mood gradually soured as the night wore on. Getting very drunk didn’t help. I’m not sure why but the tipping point came when a smug fedora-wearing Canadian (hereafter referred to as Canadian #3) told me I should smile more. I decided it was time to leave and loathe to ask someone to accompany me back to the hostel, I went out the front to look for a taxi.

Without giving it any thought, I got into the closest cab and took the front seat, as I usually do when taking taxis. The driver was a young man wearing a turban. He asked me the usual questions, where I was from, what I was doing in India. His voice matched his appearance; benign and unimposing.

I was monosyllabic with my answers and we fell silent. He placed a hand on my thigh. Everything I had ever read about calling Indian men out on lecherous advances suddenly flashed through my mind but having walked back from the bar the night before, I knew we were only a block away from the hostel and decided against saying anything.

As soon as we pulled up at the hostel, I leapt out of the taxi and sprinted away, announcing I had to go inside to get some money (which was the truth). This particular hostel had non-existent security but I was just relieved that he had brought me to the right place.

After I had carefully counted out my money in my room, I returned with the exact change and passed it to him through the window. He took the money and then for what seemed like a very long time, took my hand and kissed it.

I pulled away and went to bed.

Afterwards, I couldn’t help but wonder whether my time in India would change me and if so, in what way.

Fears, Jeers, Sneers

Earlier last month I flew to India by way of my favourite low cost carrier Air Asia. Ever since I booked it, I had dreaded this journey – I’d opted for two back to back flights to avoid spending any time in Calcutta.

As a result, I had to spend a night in Calcutta airport. I was a bit apprehensive about this. I didn’t know what to expect and safety concerns aside, I knew I would probably be bored out of my mind. But even so, I figured it was a better alternative to getting a late night cab to a hotel.

To my pleasant surprise, the airport was very modern and secure. With only a handful of food stalls, it was extremely bare but to be fair, it had only been refurbished a few months ago.

Because there isn’t much information on the new airport, I will write a bit about it now (it seems that a lot of people find this blog when searching logistical stuff so hopefully this will be useful to some):

After clearing immigration and picking up my backpack, I went upstairs, where the departure counters are located. Unlike most airports, this area is not open to the public – I had to show a staff member evidence of my flight to Goa before I was let in.

By now it was well past midnight. There weren’t any flights running until morning and the counters were unstaffed. However, there were quite a lot of people spending the night in the airport and a few guards patrolling the area as well.

Most of the seats had arm rests, meaning the few seats you could lie down on were already occupied by the time I arrived. I sat down in a chair, intending on reading a book, but somehow I dozed off after reading a couple of chapters.

The next morning, I boarded my flight to Goa. I’d chosen Goa as my starting point after hearing about its popularity with backpackers and reputation as a Westernised beach destination.

The long cab ride to Anjuna confirmed all these things – it bore a striking resemblance to beach towns I’d visited in other countries. But even so, I was intensely curious. I couldn’t believe that I was in India, until recently, a place I thought I would never visit.

For all of its familiarity, every now and then, I would catch a glimpse of a cow wandering the road or women, young and old, dressed in jewel coloured saris. It provided a strange contrast to the skimpily dressed Westerners who increased in numbers the closer we got to Anjuna.

After checking into my hostel, I chatted to a couple of English guys in my dorm and asked them if they could recommend a place for lunch. They told me that most places were sanitary but offered to walk me to one they liked, as it was on the way to where they were headed. I didn’t want to keep them waiting and didn’t think it was necessary so I told them to go ahead without me.

Alhough it appeared most foreigners were very relaxed in their dress, I decided to play it safe and changed into loose pants and a tshirt. I had lunch and realised I only had just enough cash to pay my bill.

Walking around town, looking for an ATM, I began to realise Anjuna was quite a strange place. It was not so much a town as it was a couple of long winding roads by a beach. The lack of development was refreshing but I couldn’t see what the appeal was for the Russian package tourists who made up the bulk of the foreigners in town. It lacked the infrastructure that you’d expect in a package destination – for instance there were only a few ATMs scattered in the outskirts.

Nonetheless, the longer I walked, the more I felt at ease. By the time I reached the ATM, I’d shed all of the mild anxiety the English guys had probably detected in me. I withdrew enough money to last me a few days and decided to walk back a different route to the way I came.

Even at the best of times, my sense of direction is far from reliable so this proved to be a stupid decision. My feet carried me further and further away from the centre.

Before long, I’d stumbled upon a beach and was tempted to check it out but decided to continue walking before it got dark. I only stopped when I heard someone call out, “Nice tattoo, where did you get it?”

I turned and saw a young Indian guy, dressed in Western clothes.

“Australia.” I gave him a half smile but continued walking briskly, only pausing long enough to work out who had asked the question.

“Can I ask you something? Why don’t foreigners like talking to Indians?”

Reluctantly I stopped.

“What do you mean?” I asked, trying to look neutral. I figured appearing friendly or unfriendly would only encourage him to drag out the conversation.

“Foreigners, why do they come to India if they do not wish to speak to Indians?”

“I don’t know. I would talk but I’m kind of in a hurry.”

“Where are you going?” He offered to take me on his moped. I turned him down, saying I preferred to walk, but he continued to hound me.

“All I want to do is offer you some chai and talk to you.”

“Oh…well I’ll be on the beach tomorrow. If we see each other we can talk then.” I started to walk away.

“I won’t be here tomorrow, I’m here on holiday. I’m from a different state.”

He trailed me for a while but disappeared after I’d turned a bend. A few moments later, he pulled up next to me on his moped, repeating his offer to give me a ride.

I turned him down again, picking up my pace. Finally, he left.

About ten minutes later, I was stopped by a second Indian guy. For some reason, I thought of Bob Marley when I saw him, though his hair and dress were dissimilar.

“Do you know where Curlies is?” he asked.

I had, in fact, seen a Curlies sign but thought it would be kinder if I did not attempt to point him in the right direction.

“Sorry I don’t… Hey do you know which way is Flea Market Road?” By now I was desperate – since leaving the restaurant l’d walked almost an hour in the heat.

He replied he didn’t but offered to give me a lift on his moped.

I politely declined.

“Why is it that foreigners don’t like speaking to Indians?”

“Not this again!” I wanted to shout but instead I resumed walking, telling him I preferred to walk so I could get my bearings.

This time, it didn’t surprise me when he reapproached me on a moped, insisting I accept a lift.

“I am from a good family in the north of India, I know how to respect a woman.” When I didn’t respond, he continued, “If I went to your country and you started talking to me, I would speak to you.”

He sped away, then reappeared, telling me he had asked someone for directions. I didn’t trust him and began to walk in the opposite direction to the way he had indicated. However, I doubled back when it occured to me that the direction I was headed in was vaguely residential.

It was now dusk and I found myself in what appeared to be an abandoned market. I could just make out the silhouette of Bob Marley in the distance. He caught up to me, asking me the same questions, which I ignored. I probably should have shouted at him to leave me alone but I was totally focused on finding my way back; so much so that I didn’t feel any fear.

Up ahead, I spotted a middle aged white couple and joined them. I asked if they knew where my hostel was. They replied I was very far and gestured in the direction I had come. Afterwards it occurred to me that it was very possible that Bob Marley had intentionally directed me away from the main road and into a deserted area. But at the time, I was only glad that I had people to ask for help.

Even though Bob Marley was nowhere to be seen, I explained he had been following me, unsure whether they would believe me. They were an English couple who had lived in Anjuna the past five years so they must have felt very comfortable there. However, they immediately took me seriously and told me to stick with them.

They walked me to a restaurant and spoke to some local friends to see if someone could give me a ride. At this precise moment, a rickshaw passed by and I waved it down – it was the first one I’d seen since meeting the first Indian guy.

The English guy negotiated the fare for me and explained to the driver where to go.

“Be careful,” he said, as I got in.

Smiling, I promised I would.

Baring Is Caring

The End, For Now

As soon as Songkran was over, Pai began to fill up with backpackers once again. In some ways, it sprang to life, even if it lost a bit of its charm with each incoming busload of tourists.

Most activities started running again and I went on a zipline of the forest canopy with two guys from Melbourne. My first impression upon viewing the zipline was that it was too small, though once I was up there I was a little scared and glad I wasn’t any higher.

Afterwards, we went for a swim at a waterfall where a third guy, Jack, also from Melbourne, approached us. He immediately struck me as annoying but because it had been a month since I’d last met people from Melbourne, it was nice to talk about home.

Later that evening, I was sitting in a restaurant with two Canadian girls when I spotted Jack at the entrance. I waved when he looked in my direction and asked if he and his brother wanted to sit with us. I didn’t particularly want them to but the restaurant was full and there weren’t any vacant tables.

We talked while we ate dinner and I noticed that Tess, one of the Canadians, had fallen silent. Exchanging looks with her, I assumed she found Jack just as annoying as I did and felt a twinge of guilt about inviting him to have dinner with us.

Afterwards, the Canadians and I went for a stroll and browsed the night market. I discovered that contrary to what I’d assumed, Tess was very taken with Jack, which was why she hadn’t been her usual self at dinner. She told me it was obvious that Jack had a thing for me but I dismissed this, eagerly telling her I would make sure the two of them got together that night.

Given Pai’s size, it was inevitable that we ran into Jack and his brother several times on the way back to our hostel. Each time I was careful to flash him a big encouraging smile, thinking he would surely look for us that night if I appeared friendly enough. When the topic had come up at dinner, I’d mentioned to him where we were going for drinks – not that it was really necessary because there were very few bars that were open late in the town.

I was confident that I would be able to broker something between Tess and Jack but after a few drinks at the hostel, Tess decided to go to bed so she could be up early the next day.

Although I’d denied it to Tess, Jack had come across as a bit too interested in me at dinner – and it was likely that he had interpreted my strategic friendliness as reciprocal interest. The problem was that I no longer had anyone to foist upon him so I started hoping that we simply not cross paths that night.

When he did approach me a few hours later, I wasn’t fazed but I remember finding our conversation a little tedious. He offered to buy me a drink and I refused several times. I don’t like to accept drinks from guys, regardless of whether I like them or not. But he insisted so I let him.

Having just received some bad news from home, Kaitlin, the other girl from Canada, had been drinking steadily that night and was becoming progressively drunk. The whole time I was talking to Jack, I kept an eye on her, worried she might get herself into trouble. After some convincing on my part, she finally agreed to return to the hostel.

By now Jack had disappeared and I felt a little disappointed. I had to admit he was good looking, even if he was a little obnoxious. On our way out, I ran into him again and asked him if he wanted to accompany us.

We put Kaitlin to bed and walked back into town. He put his arm around me and once we were over the bridge, we stopped and kissed. Hearing the approaching voices of people who were most likely from my hostel, I told him we should keep on walking and agreed when he suggested going to his bungalow.

We sat out the front and to my disappointment, he got out his guitar. Earlier that night, I’d listened with interest as he talked about his band but I hoped I wasn’t in for a long acoustic session. Not wanting to appear rude, I hid my disappointment but fortunately, he put it away after playing a few cords and asked me if I wanted a drink. I said no and figuring we might as well get straight to it, suggested going into his room where we had very mediocre drawn-out sex.

I woke up the next morning and walked back to my hostel. With only four days of my trip left, I had to be up early so I could get a bus to Chiang Mai.

I packed up my things and said my goodbyes. I was especially sad to say goodbye to Annie; she was a lovely woman and it made me sad seeing how deeply unhappy she was in her marriage. Since returning from Mae Hong Son, I’d helped her make beds and clean rooms whenever I had a spare hour and got to know her pretty well in that time. In a way, she was like a much nicer version of my mum.

I left, hoping things would work out for her.

Best/Worst

I wasn’t around for most of it but there was a bit of a stir in the hostel my first night in Pai when a group of Brits trashed their room, left used condoms lying around and fled without paying. The room was left in a filthy state and the Thai woman who owned the hostel, Annie, was understandably upset.

In many ways, this incident felt like the beginning of a very odd chain of events. As I mentioned before, the town quickly cleared out during Songkran; it was a time of year that locals travelled home to be with their families and most foreigners chose to spend the festival in Chiang Mai.

pai

A little town in the mountains, Pai was very peaceful, as long as you avoided the main street during the day, which was where most of the water festivities occurred. My hostel was located just out of town and had a great view of the paddy fields. If it hadn’t been for some eccentric people at the hostel, my stay would have been very tranquil.

Apart from me, there were four Brits, a Dane and an elderly Dutch hippie at the hostel for the duration of Songkran. I spent most of my time with Clara and Harry, both from England, and a couple of days into the festival, we were joined by an American guy, JJ.

As soon as he arrived, I felt sorry for Clara, who was sharing a dorm with him. Although he was in his late thirties, JJ was incredibly immature and boastful. We didn’t realise it at the time but he was already drunk when he met us and most of the things he told us were completely false.

Accepting our polite invitation to come out with us for some drinks, JJ was quick to exchange some angry words with the Dutch hippie on our way out of the hostel. To be fair, the Dutch guy’s anti-Americanism was obvious the moment he started talking to JJ and it was pretty funny listening to the two men insult one another.

I’d pegged JJ as your typical obnoxious older male traveller but it was soon clear that he was a very odd person. I’d never seen anyone get so drunk in such a short period of time. Not caring whether he was insulted, I told him he was the spitting image of Pablo Escobar and his nonchalant response to this was that this had been his nickname when he was younger because he used to deal cocaine.

Convinced his story about being a self-funded retiree was a cover up, we then found out that he had come to Pai after being arrested in Chiang Mai. By now he could barely form coherent words and was increasingly lewd with Clara. I got a great deal of amusement when I successfully convinced him to approach a group of young girls and attempt to pick them up but watching him stumble around the bar, we had to agree that the kindest thing would be to take him back to the hostel.

It was a long walk back and when we were finally there, JJ seemed barely aware of what was happening around him. Clara moved her things to my bungalow and Harry walked him up to his room.

Meeting us at the foot of the hill, Harry said he was confident JJ would go to bed. At this precise moment, JJ began screaming at the top of his voice, “Where did everyone go? … Where is everyone? …. WHERE AMMMMM I?” There was no way everyone in the immediate vicinity couldn’t have heard.

Crouching behind some bushes, I did feel bad for him. He genuinely sounded anguished. But after spending a good portion of the night trying to get rid of him, we didn’t want to risk him latching onto us again and quietly slunk away.

Having decided that I would ignore him from then on, I thought it would be easy enough to have nothing more to do with him. Our hostel was a huge sprawling jumble of buildings and bungalows so it wasn’t like we were living on top of one another.

However, this resolve was short lived. I was in the middle of chatting to Annie the following evening while she was making beds and at first, it seemed to be a normal conversation. She was complaining about how her husband seldom helped her but by now I was used to it as this was something she often did.

She was particularly aggravated by JJ’s dorm; in his drunken stupor he must have rolled around in a few of the beds because most of them were unmade. Upon entering, she resumed expressing her grievances with renewed vigour which escalated into a hysterical fit. Startled, I realised she was screaming that she’d had enough and JJ had to leave. After the trouble she’d had with the Brits trashing their room, I figured this relatively minor nuisance had tipped her over the edge and tried to console her.

Although it wasn’t my natural instinct to do so, I hugged her which calmed her down somewhat for a few moments. But she continued crying and pulling away, she forged downstairs, shouting that JJ had to get out.

I ran after her and found JJ sitting in the downstairs common area drinking beer and wearing a very puzzled look on his face. I blurted out that he had to leave. I had no idea how he would react and wasn’t sure where Annie had gone but I figured she was in no state to talk to deal with him and that the sooner he left, the better.

Looking bewildered, JJ said he wasn’t leaving and asked what was going on. For some reason this only made me more furious and I told him he should leave now because he was about to be kicked out anyway. When he asked what he had done to upset everyone, I realised he was genuinely clueless about the previous night’s events and was at a loss for words.

I looked at Clara and Harry who were also in the room, hoping they would jump in but they were silent and I could tell the last thing they wanted was to get involved. JJ continued to press me so I told him he made everyone uncomfortable and told him he should stop drinking before it got out of hand again.

Although I’d assumed the Italian guy who was married to Annie would promptly kick him out, I wasn’t too surprised that JJ was allowed to stay. The Italian guy barely did anything to help out and I suppose he figured they couldn’t afford to lose JJ when there were already so few people staying at the hostel.

I was apprehensive for the rest of the evening and was glad to discover that night that my bungalow had a lock on the door. Even for a bungalow, it was a pretty basic structure so I’d assumed the door wouldn’t lock and hadn’t bothered to check when I’d first arrived.

In the days that followed, I began to realise that JJ was rather harmless. He drank heavily every day; one night he had to be carried home by some guys who’d found him passed out in a bar, but he was simply lonely and didn’t know how to properly interact with people. Despite our tense exchange, he still tried to hang with us and after a few days had passed, we felt sorry for him and began to include him in our plans again.

I spent the last day of Songkran in Mae Hong Son, a town close to the Myanmar border. Harry decided to come so we got the bus together and arrived early in the afternoon.

There was a distinct Myanmar influence about the town and it felt different to the rest of Thailand. Walking around after lunch, we stumbled upon a group of long necked Karen girls throwing water in the street. Although we’d decided against going on a tour of a nearby Karen village, feeling it was exploitative, I was glad to see that the girls appeared normal and in high spirits.

We discovered that there was a huge festival on the waterfront; there was a parade, performances, row boat races and kids boxing on stilts suspended over the lake. I’m not sure how it is most of the year but there were very few tourists in Mae Hong Son. There were hundreds of people at the festival but I only saw ten other foreigners.

Harry and I spent the day on the waterfront, had street food for dinner, and only left once the festival had ended. On our way back to our guesthouse, we passed lots of drunk people celebrating in the streets. The highlight was watching a group of Thai men dance around a barrel; it was almost like a cheesy overchoreographed music video. All they had was a boom box, some beer, a hose and a barrel but I’d never seen anyone so happy before.

Being a small town, we felt that one day there was enough and got a local bus back to Pai the next day. But we had a brilliant time and agreed that it was definitely the best day of our respective trips.

Race Against Thai New Year

Although its hippie vibe felt a little contrived, Tonsai was a welcome change of pace from Phi Phi. Following the recommendation of a guy on our boat, Katie and I found a really nice bungalow for the low price of $15. It was hands down the nicest accommodation I’d ever stayed in as a backpacker.

To be honest, I would have been content just relaxing on our balcony but we also explored nearby Railay and spent a night hanging out in a couple of rasta bars.

As luck would have it, it was someone’s birthday that night and to celebrate, the bar provided free happy pancakes. Going against my better judgement, I ate a piece, thinking I’d stop at one, but I couldn’t help myself and scoffed down a few more.

I’m not sure why but I felt pleasantly high for the rest of the night. This was a first. On previous occasions, I’d become acutely paranoid on marijuana but maybe it helped that I felt very comfortable around Katie.

We then moved on to a different bar where some rock climbers had congregated and even though there wasn’t anything funny about them, we started convulsing with laughter. It was fortunate the rock climbers didn’t notice because there wasn’t anything I could do to make myself stop.

After Tonsai, we travelled onwards to Koh Tao. Of all the places I’ve visited in Thailand, Koh Tao is probably my favourite. I liked its chilled out vibe and went snorkelling every second day.

I could have easily spent another week in Koh Tao but running out of time, I booked a flight to Chiang Mai. The New Year festival, Songkran, was fast approaching and very few buses ran during this period, meaning I had to be quick if I wanted to see the north.

Chiang Mai is reputed to hold one of the best celebrations for Songkran but my plan was to spend the festival in Pai, a small town north of the city. I did consider remaining in Chiang Mai; I’m sure I would have found accommodation if I looked hard enough, but the idea of crowds wasn’t very appealing to me.

I spent a few days in Chiang Mai, before catching the bus to Pai. Arriving a couple of days before Songkran, I discovered that most people at my hostel were about to travel in the opposite direction. This didn’t surprise me but I’d underestimated the pull of Chiang Mai and hadn’t expected the exodus to occur on such a grand scale.

But I didn’t regret my decision to spend Songkran in a less popular place. The water festival was a lot of fun but it was also low key enough that you could avoid it if you didn’t want to participate.

Coinciding with the hottest temperatures of the year, Songkran is classically Thai in its lack of regard for safety. People throw water at other pedestrians, cyclists and vehicles; anyone is fair game. Unsurprisingly, fatalities are quite common in the larger cities.

It’s not the sort of thing I could have done for days on end but I bought buckets and water guns with some people from my hostel and got really into it for a couple of days. There was something deeply satisfying about ducking behind cars and getting people when they least expected it.

It was almost like a street party. Undeterred by the water assault, people set up sound systems in the street and stood around drinking beer. Best of all was the infectious energy of the kids; it was hard not to feel cheerful watching them have so much fun.

Brits (Australians?) Behaving Badly

Frenetic, overdeveloped and overrun with tourists, Koh Phi Phi was the complete opposite of Koh Rong. Because my stamina for staying up isn’t what it once was, it wasn’t really my kind of place but once there, I found myself enjoying it for what it was.

Being a party island, I’d anticipated Koh Phi Phi to be teeming with drunken Australians; much like the parts of Thailand I’d visited three years ago. But strangely enough, I encountered very few Australians over the course of that month. Presumably most had returned home at the start of the month to go to university.

The tourist contingent in Thailand was predominantly comprised of people from England – some of whom could only be described as chavs – but this I didn’t mind. It’s not that I don’t like Australians but I can’t help but feel that there is something very boring about constantly running into your own country people when you are travelling.

I mostly hung out with a cool English girl, Katie, in Phi Phi and at night, we hung out with a group of guys from our hostel. Some of them were pretty chavvy, but they were easy going and even if not always intentionally so, pretty funny.

One guy was particularly memorable for spending his entire time on Phi Phi drinking to excess, which culminated in an unfortunate penis tattoo on his thigh one night. Some of the drunken things he used to say before falling asleep were priceless. Returning to our dorm late one night, I remember sitting on my bed, trying to shut the door with a broom and his response to this, naturally, was to start slurring, “Wingardium Leviosa!” at a volume loud enough to wake everyone in the room.

The only other non-English person in the group was an Australian guy, Dean, who I found attractive. This might sound hypocritical given my well documented dislike of Australian tourists. But I liked him – he was easy to talk to and laid back. Going by some of the disparaging comments he made about bogans in Phuket, I think it’s fair to say he was even more anti-Australian than me. Which, I suppose, makes it all the more strange that on an island full of Brits, the two of us got together.

As far as these things go, it was a pretty natural progression of events. I think we both realised there was a mutual attraction early on but it never felt like either one of us actively pursued the other. I had one last night on the island and stayed up to talk with him after everyone else had gone to bed. We kissed and he then asked me if I wanted to go into his dorm. I wasn’t so keen on this idea and suggested using the shower instead. It was a little uncomfortable lying down in the cubicle; I would have preferred to have stood up, but the sex was alright.

The next day, Katie and I left for Tonsai, a small town on the mainland which is only accessible by ferry. As we soon discovered, getting there was no easy feat. Because it was low tide, we were asked to wade about fifty metres into the sea. I’m not sure why they couldn’t have timed it better because we then waited for what seemed like a very long time for them to bring the boat to us. Like everyone else, I was a bit paranoid that my backpack would get wet.

But standing mid-thigh in the sea against the dark backdrop of the sky, I almost felt like it could have been a scene out of The Beach. I had to admit it was pretty cool.

Choose Your Own Adventure

After a pleasant couple of days in Kep, the Irish guys and I left for the capital. With the exception of the cities I visited in Ecuador, Phnom Penh is the only place in the world where I haven’t felt completely safe and wouldn’t walk around alone at night.

It’s strange how revisiting a place can trigger long forgotten memories. That night we joined a group of people who were adamant about finding a place with $1 beer and promising them I knew where to go, I surprised myself by successfully leading them to a bar I’d visited three years ago.

The next morning, I said goodbye to the Irish guys before leaving for my bus to Battambang. I felt a little sad that we were parting ways but after spending the past fortnight in the constant company of other people, I was looking forward to having some time to myself. I spent the next two days exploring the city on foot and rode the bamboo train, which was very cool.

This brought me to the end of my second week in Cambodia. I’d tentatively planned this first part of my trip but it was now time to decide where to go next. After giving some thought to a second visit to Siam Reap, I made up my mind to cross into Thailand.

Discovering buses to the border only ran late in the afternoon, I opted for a share taxi instead. I immediately regretted this decision the moment three Cambodian men squashed into the back seat with me. It was only a small Toyota Camry but they somehow managed to cram four people in the front as well. It seemed entirely possible that they might try to add a ninth person and I swore to myself that this is where I drew the line but fortunately it never came to this.

It was close to noon when I arrived at the Poipet and Aranyapathet border, the most popular border crossing between Cambodia and Thailand. I braced myself for a long wait but it was relatively painless. I was over the other side an hour later.

Although I knew it was ambitious, I hoped to make it to Phi Phi the next morning. I took a long haul bus to the northern bus terminal in Bangkok, followed by a shuttle service to the southern bus terminal.

I then got a taxi after getting off the shuttle too early. I had just under an hour to make the night bus to Krabi – a goal which seemed increasingly unlikely the longer we were stuck in traffic.

I’d just about resigned myself to spending the night in Bangkok when we pulled up at the bus terminal. Thanking the taxi driver, I got out, dashed into the station and located the office that sold the bus and ferry combination for Phi Phi. I bought the ticket with about twenty minutes to spare.

It was now seven in the evening. I’d spent the whole day travelling and hadn’t showered or eaten anything since lunch. But none of this mattered to me at that moment. Getting on that bus, I felt a great sense of exhilaration. I’d made it.

Not As Free As I Thought

I spent another three days on the island before returning to the mainland. Having arranged to meet the two Irish guys and the English guy who had caught an earlier ferry, I located an internet café as soon as I arrived in Sihanoukville to find out where they were staying.

After spending some time trying to decipher a vaguely worded email, I was frustrated to discover that they had decided to spend an extra day in Sihanoukville and hadn’t bought the bus tickets to Kep for the following day like we discussed.

To be honest, I wasn’t all that keen on joining them. I’d enjoyed hanging out with them as part of a larger group and genuinely liked two of them but I found the third guy, Patrick, a bit grating. It was very clear that he had a thing for me and hopeless with money, he often complained about being broke.

Over the past couple of days, I’d made subtle hints that we travel separately and leave it up to chance whether or not we saw each other in Kep. But failing to pick up on my reluctance, Patrick continued to suggest that that I join them. Then it turned out we all planned to leave Koh Rong the same day – I’d made the decision to remain on the island an extra day, meaning our travel plans synced up perfectly.

Patrick was apologetic in his email, writing that if I wanted to, I could move onto Kep the next day and he would pay me the money he owed me that night. But this seemed like more trouble than it was worth. It was now late and neither one of us had credit to text each other. I told him we’d sort it out the next day and found my own hotel room for the night.

As much as I wanted to be laidback about it, I couldn’t help but feel annoyed. I was moody the following day when I saw him and didn’t try very hard to hide my annoyance. In fact, I don’t think I really snapped out of it until we were on the bus to Kep.

In retrospect, I probably needed the extra day to rest – my back was sunburnt and my legs were still sore from the jungle trek – but I guess I chose to direct all of my frustrations at him, which wasn’t fair.

Upon arriving in Kep, we found a guesthouse near the beach. We checked into our rooms and I checked my email. I discovered my sister had sent me a message a day ago. Because it had been a while since she last contacted me, I’d had a feeling that something was up and my suspicion proved to be correct. Our mother had had a serious fall, the email said, and was having trouble walking.

Rereading the email a few times, I composed myself enough to tell the guys to go for a walk around town without me. Then I tried to ring my sister several times without success.

After what seemed like an eternity, my sister texted me to let me know that they had just returned from the hospital. Our mother was fine. She was given some painkillers and the doctor said she would make a full recovery.

Gradually, I felt my panic subside. I was relieved that my mum was going to be okay and on a more selfish level, I was relieved that I could continue with my trip. But I also felt guilty about my strained relationship with my mum and decided to call her that afternoon. It was the first time I’d ever contacted her while overseas. Because my mum isn’t very supportive of my irresponsible lifestyle (as she sees it), it wasn’t an easy conversation but it was good to hear her voice.

Having convinced myself that I would have to fly home immediately to be with my family, I began to look at my trip in a different light. I realised that I’d spent the past few days getting irritated by small things when really, every day I got to do exactly what I wanted. I was completely free from most responsibilities and obligations – I never had to think more than a day ahead. My family was fine, I was fine. I couldn’t ask for more than that.