Immediately after stepping off the plane, the reverse culture shock began. Milo and I were overwhelmed at how different Thailand felt and sounded compared to India. It took us a few days to begin to process the foreign, high tech environment surrounding us including its steep escalators, digitized public transit tokens, monstrous 7-Eleven mini markets, countless displays of the country’s king, sanitary street vendors, and once again, the availability of beef (as it had been in Egypt and countries explored in the past). One thing was familiar though, the heat and humidity were reminiscent of Mumbai. But unlike Mumbai, people seemed happier here, it was cleaner, and much more was available in terms of food, attractions, culture, toilet paper, you name it, anything.
The Couchsurfing Hostel
Our first three nights, Milo and I stayed at a hostel we found through Couchsurfing, but we weren’t the only ones surfing there. All fifteen of the beds were filled with couchsurfers also staying for free with couples sharing the same bed. At least twenty people were staying each night.
Throughout our four day stay, we met people from all around the world from the ever-changing cast of surfers. Meanwhile, we each tried to figure out how Hero, the host, could afford to maintain his “no fees required” hostel. Not only was it free for all of the guests, but it was well-kept, had a fully equipt kitchen, AC units, fans, plenty of power outlets, and even a free-to-use washing machine. Upon arrival and checking in, Hero provided a map of Bangkok and offered advice to his guests free of charge on the highlights to see just like a guest at a hostel or hotel would expect.
Exhausted from our past three days in transit (of desperately trying to avoid missing our flight to Thailand due to seemingly endless train issues and delays), Milo and I spent our days at the hostel very relaxed, catching up on sleep for the first time in a real bed since leaving Varanasi. Our stay at the hostel was over once we had confirmed volunteering at a homestay in another part of the city. Unlike the hostel environment that Jonas had been working in in Bucharest, this homestay was actually situated in a local’s home, specifically to create a warmer environment for travelers. We both immediately fell in love with Bangkok and since no other work exchanges had responded in rural Thailand, we decided to stick it out in the massive metropolis and see what we thought of working at a homestay.
Two Weeks at the Homestay
Over our two week stay, our days usually went as followed. We’d wake up around 7:20am and be ready to work downstairs by 7:30am. Our first task was moving the carpets, tables, and cushions outside to clean, disinfect, and dry them in the sunlight while we continued to work. Next, we’d divide and conquer the remaining tasks between Nina, a German volunteer, Milo, and me. Nina was nineteen and had also decided to work and travel before heading into university. With this immediate common ground, the three of us clicked.
While I swept, mopped, and cleaned the upstairs dorm room and middle floor double room, Milo would do the same on the bottom floor and outside. Meanwhile Nina would wash the dishes, clean the windows, clean the fans, and run any other errands for Jekky, our host. Each day we switched around tasks and took turns doing the chores.
Jekky was a small, fierce Thai woman who was kind as a friend, but when it came time for working hours, her friendliness wasn’t always so apparent. More often than once, Milo, Nina, or I would have to redo tasks if they hadn’t been done precisely to how she wanted. Unfortunately we were also faced with tasks that hadn’t been discussed and agreed on prior to us working like managing, cleaning, training, and caring for two, two month old wild pups and force feeding a sick and blind bird. The pups were fine, although I didn’t miss cleaning up accidents (from recently having a puppy back home), keeping them confined to a space (outside), and apologizing profusely when they bit a guest. The bird on the otherhand, Milo and I were uncomfortable with. We tried to care for it but with little to no success, two days later, the bird was no longer one of our responsibilities. We hadn’t signed up for that task.
On both Saturdays at the homestay, our five working hours from 7:30am to 12:30pm suddenly extended to nearly the entire day. Jekky organized weekly dinner parties where she invited international guests to shop, cook, and eat with a local for a little more than the price of a meal out. Jekky wasn’t just any local though, she was a professional chef and before starting her homestay business, she had been the top chef at her own restaurant. Some guests would arrive as early as 3pm to go out shopping with her before she began cooking. While they were gone, Milo, Nina, and my responsibilities included staying at the homestay to check in and socialize with newly arriving dinner attendees. As more and more guests arrived, we’d be responsible for collecting money from each for the meal. When the dinner was ready, we’d have already set up all the bowls, plates, glasses, and utensils outside for everyone to use.
Many guests we met were either on similar trips themselves and passing through Bangkok, or they were living in the city for work or study. Stomachs full from the always hearty meal, the remaining tasks included collecting and washing everyone’s dishes, cleaning the outside area and table surfaces, and lastly, tidying up the living room. With our seemingly endless day of work over, focus turned onto Bangkok’s infamous nightlife. Although work required us to wake up early, this never stopped Milo, Nina, and me from exploring a new district of town each night. We’d often return home past 3am, which made waking up the next day from our little sleep so enjoyable. After normal working hours, you could usually find us resting for several hours more in the dorm before going out to do it again.
The Sunday following our first dinner party, Jekky informed us was one of our two days off a week. We ventured outside of the city to Samut Songkhram Province, famous for its Amphawa Floating Market and many temples alongside the river.
A little under a week into our stay, Nina traveled north to Chang Mai leaving just Milo and me as volunteers to work at Jekky’s Homestay. Two days later, on my way into town since it was my day off, Milo approached me to ask if I had a few minutes to talk. Sitting outside, he opened up to me about how homesick he had been feeling the past few weeks and how he wanted to celebrate the holidays with family. He explained how he had experienced amazing moments with me that he’d remember for the rest of his life over the past four months, but continuing forward traveling another six months didn’t feel right for him. He had booked a flight home and was to leave only days later.
Reacting to this was tough. Obviously I wanted the best for my friend, but at the same time, in twenty minutes, our plans for the year which we had spent months organizing suddenly were shattered. Without prior notice, I was on my own and although I was more than ready to continue on solo, I was totally caught off guard by the suddenness of the news which I only assumed that he had been internalizing for quite some time. His decision now impacted the next six months of my plans and life. The rest of the day I spent wandering around Chinatown, attempting to wrap my head around what had happened.
That night I went to see Claptone, the DJ from Berlin that Jonas and I had been denied entry to seeing over the summer in Belgrade. At the show, I met Carlo, a Swiss graphic designer who joined me in eating vanilla Fun-O’s (Thailand’s best knock-off oreos, but for half the price) after the show. As we enjoyed our oreos, we started realizing how much we had in common. Not only were we both passionate about design but he had also been traveling since June. Starting in Switzerland, he headed down south by land passing through many of the same countries and cities throughout Montenegro, Albania, and Greece before exploring Turkey and Thailand. While I had been in India, he had traveled through Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Laos, and now it just so happened that our paths crossed in Thailand. With our quick connection, we exchanged contact info before parting ways.
As Christmas and New Years approached, Milo had safely arrived back home to Pennsylvania to celebrate with family and just like that, our trip became my trip. I spent my remaining days working at the homestay becoming close friends with a group of German travelers staying there. One day, I invited one of them, Moritz, to see Bangkok’s Museum of Counterfeit Goods with me, a 4,000+ collection of constantly changing counterfeit goods and their genuine counterparts. The museum housed everything from fake medicines to entire counterfeit motorbikes and the visit was free since I had emailed the organization to schedule a tour a week prior.
Later on in the week, I decided to extend an additional day through Christmas to help Jekky with her annual holiday party. I was able to spend more time with my new German friends and also assist Jekky while enjoying her extraordinary selection of Thai Saturday dinner party specialities including sticky blue and yellow rice, curries, soups, and of course, her legendary blue mango sticky rice for dessert. My Christmas plans turned out to be an unexpected surprise as I had plenty of time to enjoy hanging out with the German guests.
My last night at Jekky’s ended with just the two of us sipping on imported wine and chatting. The next morning I awoke, packed my bag, said goodbye, and headed off to the same Couchsurfing hostel that Milo and I had began our Bangkok trip at. With the sudden departure of Milo, I was now spending many hours researching and planning how best to cover Southeast Asia and when and where to work/explore. Milo and I were going to make these plans together before the holidays but now I was continuing on alone, or so I thought…
On a few occasions after seeing Claptone, I met up with Carlo again to explore night markets or cook Thai food with his couchsurfing host and him. With a visa expiration date only a few days before mine, he planned on traveling to Myanmar next. Myanmar (Burma), a country that I had only seen on a map, yet when Carlo explained it, mentioning how it was the Albania of Southeast Asia, I was instantly hooked. The more research I did into this country shrouded in mystery, the more I found myself also drawn to it. Similar to Albania, its doors had only been opened to foreigners in recent years, meaning it was still a country unspoiled by mass tourism as many of its neighbors had fallen victim to, especially Thailand. With no more convincing needing, I visited the Myanmar embassy that week to get my visa. Carlo and I would be crossing borders to Myanmar on January 4, 2016.
Back at the hostel, I was sleeping on a beach chair in the middle of two beds since it was high season and especially with the holidays, the place was packed. One night, over thirty people slept in the fifteen bed dorm. But staying a week for free, I couldn’t complain. These days provided me with the perfect opportunity to plan upcoming travels without having to work for five hours daily. I put together an itinerary for Myanmar and played with other potential plans after I’d be leaving Myanmar.
One morning I awoke to a text from Aidan and Sabrina, the Australian couple that I had met while working at Lisinia (the lavender farm), saying that they had just arrived to Bangkok. We had been keeping in touch recently as we were both in the same region of the world again and didn’t know when that’d be the case next. They had just crossed borders from Cambodia and now that we were in the same city, they wanted to meet for a picnic in Lumphini Park. I quickly got out of bed and took a bus to meet them.
Over some beers and fruit, catching up was great. We both told stories from after our times of working at the lavender farm together. They told me about their travels through Iran, India, and Cambodia as I told them mine about Egypt, India, and Thailand. As quickly as they had come to Bangkok, they had left. The next day they were on a bus to the north but I was happy to had seen them at least once again on my trip.
My last few days in Bangkok, I spent with a Turkish and Ukranian couple. Each day I noticed they were cooking all of their own meals, which looked and smelled amazing. After spending New Years celebrating with people from the hostel, including them, I asked the next day if I could join them in grocery shopping and cooking. The next two days/my final days in Bangkok I was eating amazing meals. As I began to know them, I learned that they had met while working at the same hotel in Istanbul, Beydil the chef, and Veronika, the receptionist. Now they aimed to travel for as long as they could before returning to Istanbul, cooking as many meals as they could along the way. During my last day in Bangkok, I said goodbye to Beydil, Veronika, Hero, as well as some other friends I had met over my second stay.
An hour and a half bus ride later led me to one of Bangkok’s main bus terminals where I met back up with Carlo. My time in Bangkok was finally coming to a close and although I had loved my time there, I was more than ready to move on. Waiting for our bus, we befriended another foreigner, Oscar, a nineteen year old from the UK who worked for a year before traveling and hoped to continue alternating between work and travel for the next few years. He didn’t have plans for Myanmar yet, only a flight booked out of the country for January 17.
An hour after our scheduled departure time, our late bus finally arrived. Two other foreigners seemed to be having difficulty with their bus tickets having the wrong time but right bus. They boarded last. A quarter before midnight, our bus departed and our journey into the land of unknown began.
I had been doing lots of research into the country during the week and feared the prices for accommodation. The government had imposed mass foreign sales taxes, hiking up the prices of nearly everything, specifically accommodation and attractions. Carlo and I worked out a daily budget that we were each comfortable with but could only hope for the best. Onwards we went, to a country whose doors for tourism had only recently been opened, whose wifi signals were supposedly very weak, whose information could only be discovered from within, and whose stories would unravel into the next six months of my solo travels abroad.