What I Did When I Got Stranded in Thailand
It was one in the morning when the bus pulled over to let me off on the side of a dark and mostly deserted road. The attendant spoke apologetic Thai as she rushed to hand me my bag, and while I understood little of what she said, the implication was obvious: I was stranded.
This was Klaeng, a neighboring town 30 kilometers past where I live in Wang Chan. The short distance home brought me a measure of relief as I watched the bus prepare to pull away. Unfortunately, standing there alone and more than a little anxious on the side of the road, I realized my list of options was even shorter. I had no connections in Klaeng. I was fairly certain hotels didn’t exist here, and even if taxis did it was far too late to catch one or to find a place where I could wait out the night. I was seriously considering the risks of trying to walk home when a 20-something woman appeared almost out of nowhere and offered to drive me back. And so it was that for the second time in a week, I found myself accepting a ride from a stranger.
My heart rate accelerated a few paces. He started hitting on me and patting my leg. I ignored him and repeated the street name over and over.
Six days earlier, I had stepped off the bus in Chiang Mai on a traveler’s high. It was my first big solo trip and everything was going impossibly smoothly. My timing was so flawless I neither waited nor rushed transferring between buses and motorcycle taxis. The ticket north cost several hundred baht less than I’d expected, and my seat in the front of the upper deck was the best on the overnight bus. I shared a tuk-tuk into the heart of the Old City with a nice German guy I’d met on the ride. When I checked into my guesthouse and opened the door to my room, I found the most luxurious bed I’d seen in months.
For a few glorious days, I was invincible. I rented a bicycle and guided myself around temples off the main circuit without getting lost, indulged in almost every mango lassi the city had to offer, and fell into unexpectedly reflective conversations with strangers in all the bars I visited. My trip was going so well that by the fourth day, when I decided to hike to Doi Suthep by myself, I almost believed nothing could go wrong.
Wat Doi Suthep ranks among Thailand’s most respected temples, its gold-plated chedi made all the more brilliant by the foggy, nearly alpine aura of the sacred mountaintop where it sits. Most tourists hire songthaews for round-trip transport to the summit and back, but I’d traveled to Chiang Mai determined to hike. Thailand isn’t big on hiking. The tropical climate means that most people prefer driving to scenic overlooks and taking photos rather than sweating their way up a mountain and back. Trail systems aren’t very developed in most national parks here, so real hiking often requires a guided trek.
Thailand isn’t big on hiking. The tropical climate means that most people prefer driving to scenic overlooks and taking photos rather than sweating their way up a mountain and back.
Doi Suthep is an exception. The trail winding its way up the mountain isn’t well-known, but with just a little googling, I was able to find some remarkably clear instructions. They led me to a trailhead with a promising national park sign. Trees dressed in the orange sashes of monks’ robes lined the well-worn dirt path. I met an American named Nick on the way and we hiked to the top without incident, encountering neither other hikers nor the poisonous vipers he warned me to watch out for on the way down.
As it turned out, I didn’t have time for the return hike. I was so occupied walking around the temple that I didn’t notice evening’s approach until the grounds were nearly empty. Rather than chancing time on the way back down, I decided to do the smart thing: I would take a songthaew to the bottom of the mountain, walk the short distance to my bike, and ride back to my guesthouse.
It should have been easy, and it would have been, if only the language barrier hadn’t gotten me dropped off on an unfamiliar street. I knew I was close. I was standing in between the campus of Chiang Mai University and the zoo, the very neighborhood where I’d left my bike, and I figured it could only be a couple of kilometers away at worst. So I walked. The thing is, that as I walked, every building and food stall and street corner retained that comforting almost-ness, a certain familiarity that encouraged me to keep going until I had walked for too long and found myself probably further away than where I’d started.
I was walking around the university when a young and friendly-seeming guy offered me a ride on his motor scooter. I’d given up on my map and hadn’t seen any motorcycle taxis. He looked like a student and spoke a little English, and while I knew it wasn’t a conventionally safe decision, I got a good vibe from him and noted that there were a lot of people around besides. I accepted. He examined my map and whizzed me around the campus. I was feeling pretty secure with my decision until I started noticing the same streets and people and realized he was completely lost.
He seemed put off by my sudden thank-yous and insistent departure, and while he did try to sneak a kiss on my cheek as I hurried off, he didn’t protest. I was safe.
My heart rate accelerated a few paces. He started hitting on me and patting my leg. I ignored him and repeated the street name over and over. Finally, breathtakingly, I saw it: a 7/11, a street, a direction that I recognized. I could have burst with relief. He seemed put off by my sudden thank-yous and insistent departure, and while he did try to sneak a kiss on my cheek as I hurried off, he didn’t protest. I was safe.
Back on the sidewalk, my relief quickly gave way to reality. By now daylight had dissipated into a deep wash of plum and ruby, leaving several very dark kilometers between the bike and me. I all but ran down the sidewalk, and when I reached the steep, poorly-lit street to the trailhead, I thought about paying a couple of students to walk with me. Instead, I kept my keys close and wished with all that I had for my bike to be waiting at the top of the hill. My first glimpse of its clementine-bright backend felt like an avalanche of an exhale. It wasn’t until passing through the northern gate of the Old City– until I’d pushed through the black night riding downhill without hitting anything and maneuvered my way through columns of motor scooters riding back in dense city traffic–that I felt like I could really breathe again.
Two days later, standing on the side of the highway in Klaeng and feeling increasingly anxious, I thought of that bike ride. My circumstances were more or less the same. My bus seat had lacked a proper window, so when the driver forgot my stop and breezed through my tiny blip of a town a half-hour ahead of its usual schedule, I hadn’t even noticed. The truth is that no matter how much we prepare, no matter how easy we think something might be, plans can fall apart. In travel, we are very rarely in control.
In Chiang Mai and in Klaeng, I found myself facing unexpected situations in which I had few resources and fewer options, and I chose to put my faith in people. In Klaeng, I accepted a ride back home with Apple. Her mother and sister were in the car with us, and we had a conversation so genuinely friendly that we exchanged numbers when she dropped me off in front of the school where I work and live.
The truth is that no matter how much we prepare, no matter how easy we think something might be, plans can fall apart. In travel, we are very rarely in control.
For women, solo travel means taking on certain challenges. There are obvious and inherent risks in taking public transportation, being outside alone at night, and seeking help from strangers, but sometimes these are inevitable. These are experiences that have taught me to trust, and to trust most of all my own intuition. On a purely rational basis, accepting rides from strangers wasn’t my smartest travel decision. It’s fortunate that Thailand is a country full of generally hospitable and well-meaning people, and so I had some freedom in choosing to trust my read of both my anonymous motor scooter driver and Apple. In both cases, my intuition served me well.
The world of female solo travel is full of smart travel dos and don’ts, but sometimes we find ourselves in situations that are unexpected and less than ideal. Sometimes, when that happens, you just have to trust.
What I Did When I Got Stranded in Thailand