The Country That Irrevocably Changed the Way I Travel

When I think back to my two-month-long journey to Thailand, what I remember most is how much it changed the way I travel.

It was the trip I grew from a tourist into a traveler. For the first time, I went away with only my flight and one hostel night booked. The rest was unwritten. It was also the longest time I had ever been abroad.

And what an adventure it was.

‘What is a traveler?’, you may ask.

To me, it is someone who comes to explore, not just to see the highlights. Who meets a country as it is, willing to look at the locals as equals, without judgment. Someone who has no schedule, only a heart full of curiosity, ready to go wherever the wind takes them. Embracing uncertainty. Someone with the humbleness to learn and a deep appreciation for the strange wonders of the world.

I believe you can recognize a traveler when you meet one. They’re the ones with glistening eyes.

A market woman in Bangkok, Thailand, reaching for a pile of spring onions.
A market woman in the busy streets of Thailand’s capital Bangkok.

Getting lost in the buzzing streets of Bangkok

When I went to Thailand, I was younger still. Life was a party to be lived. I had barely arrived to Bangkok, jetlagged and sleep-deprived, and was already out on the roads, drinking in the busy streets of this overwhelmingly big city with strangers I had only just met.

The next day, I got a few single dreadlocks done in my hair, not knowing yet that a few years later, they’d cover all my head (but already dreaming of it).

The buzz of the city excited me, but it was also overwhelming. The smells, the crowds, the chaos. So I headed northwards, into more quietude.

Phones back then were not as smart as they are now, so every train ride, every attempt to find a hostel, every walk around town was much more of an adventure as it is today.

In a way, I am nostalgic for those times. Travel is more accessible now, but how many things are we missing by not getting lost once in a while?

Falling in love with the stories of full-time travelers along the way

Town by town, I made my way up north, meeting fantastic travelers along the way who deeply impressed me with the sometimes unbelievable stories they shared. They told me about their adventures traveling around the world. They shared stories about how they finance themselves only working a month a year, how they’ve been doing it for years, some of them decades.

I was hooked. The silent longing within me got louder and louder: I wanted to be a full-time traveler. And now, meeting all those wild souls who were living that dream, I could finally see that it could be real for me, too.

Discovering mindfulness

Today, traveling has a lot to do with mindfulness for me. But the whole concept of that was rather blurry to me before I started exploring it in Thailand. Welcome to the traveler cliché of doing yoga on paradisiac beaches? Well, not quite yet.

I don’t even remember how I came across that yoga studio, but one morning I was standing on a yoga mat in a wooden pavillon, sweating and suffering and feeling absolutely relieved when it was finally done. But I felt fantastic.

After that first yoga class in Thailand, it took years before I started practicing yoga regularly – now I do it almost daily, whether I am traveling or not.

A buddhist monk taught me and a few other English-speakers the principles of meditation in a temple in Bangkok – and it was a whole new experience to be able to quiet my mind for a moment. Until today I remember his calm voice slowly saying ‘breeeaaa-thiiiiing’ in the rhythm of our inhales and exhales.

Mindfulness can help us to process the many new impressions we face while traveling. It is a mental break for the mind and can help us to come back to our bodies when we are a little lost. Now, I am very grateful to have learned those practices and to be able to apply them whenever I need to center myself.

The gift of courage

Thailand also taught me to step out of my comfort zone. In the beautiful village of Pai, I gathered the courage to ask random beautiful strangers that caught my eye in the streets if I could photograph them. To my big surprise, everyone said yes. Some of them shyly, some of them with a wide grin on their face.

It showed me how, when you dare to conquer your fears, you usually get a reward much bigger than the scary scenarios in your head. Some strangers gave me a big hug, some a silent smile that went straight to the heart, one guy even drew a portrait of me in exchange. I still keep it in my diary somewhere.

A beautiful old Thai woman sitting in front of her house. She did not understand English, but let me know that I can take a photo of her without words.

Changing the way I travel – by trusting strangers

Before Thailand, I had only stayed in hostels and bed & breakfasts. But I had decided to finally try Couchsurfing for the first time. As an inexperienced traveler, it sounds like a wildly scary concept. Meeting up with a stranger and staying at their house? Yes, it’s for free, but doesn’t that make it even more suspicious as a female solo traveler?

Once again, my worries were proven to be unnecessary. The first guy that agreed to host me straight away invited me for lunch and shared his guitar and humble space with me – no ulterior motives. I brought him apple cake in return, and we exchanged stories about our cultures, travels, and languages.

Some weeks later, around the halfway mark of my trip, I was heading south, trading the mountains for an island paradise. On Koh Pangan, my next Couchsurfing host, who literally looked like Tarzan, took me to hidden waterfalls in the jungle on his scooter. When we lost each other at a party that lasted till the morning hours, I happily danced with strangers until we found each other again. I was enjoying life to the fullest.

A young, smiling woman on a swing by the beach in Thailand.
My happy younger self living the island dream.

Confronting fears when traveling and surrendering to the unknown

But not all was happy-go-lucky on the trip, either. When I took a night ferry back from the eastern islands to the mainland, I had to learn how to surrender to scary situations you can do nothing about. As we put to sea, the waves got wilder and wilder. The wide, flat ship rocked heavily, its sides alternately dipping deep into the dark water underneath us. Nothing to worry about, I tried to tell myself despite my queasy feeling. But even the Thai passengers on board looked unsettled.

Whenever I travel, I trust the judgment of the locals. After all, they know the dangers of their country best. However, when I saw their concerned looks and the heavy trucks on the ferry’s cargo area started sliding loosely from side to side, I knew not all is cool. Silently, I composed a mental goodbye message to my parents – which of course I could never send, not having cell service this far out on the sea. I knew there was nothing I could do about the situation.

I had to surrender. Take a deep breath and see what happens. Luckily, in the end, nothing happened. It was a rough, uneasy journey, but we made it to the shore safely. The ship and even the trucks on board somehow withstood the powers of the sea.

A beautiful purple sunset over the sea in Koh Lanta, Thailand.
Some of the sunsets in Thailand, this one on Koh Lanta, felt almost too incredible to be true.

The loneliness of long-term traveling

Almost two months into the journey, I also experienced the loneliness of long travels for the first time. In an empty hostel on Koh Lanta, I did not meet any other travelers. I felt lost in a culture I did not understand, a stranger drifting through the streets. It was not homesickness I felt, only a wish to connect to others. The only beings interested in me were a bunch of monkeys who threatened to attack me as I tried to cross their path. Needless to say, I was back in the hostel way quicker than I had planned. I walked away as quickly as I could without breaking into a scared run that might annoy the monkeys even more than my pure existence.

Despite the magnificent photos, traveling is not a constant state of happiness. I learned that you can sit by the most beautiful beach, watching the sunset in a tropical paradise, and still feel sad. While I was there, I also received the news that my great-grandfather had passed away. It left me thinking of the little time we have with the people in our lives. To this day, I know that occasional loneliness is part of being a long-term traveler. It’s a life of constant goodbyes and hellos. It teaches you to savor the moment and to not be attached when the moment of letting go has come.

How trusting yet another stranger led me to paradise

After many nights out in the first weeks of my time in Thailand, I wanted to end the trip in a peaceful place. A friend from Germany had recommended me a quiet, not very touristy island in the Andaman Sea. A boat took me and my backpack to the tiny island cars had no access to. As I got off, a Thai man with long, grey hair approached me.

To my surprise, he spoke to me in German. He was waiting next to his scooter, checking if any new tourists arriving would need a bungalow. Sensing my skepticism, he offered to take me to his bungalows on his scooter for free – I did not have to stay if I did not want to. When moments like this come on a journey, you need to make a decision. What does your intuition tell you? Once again, I chose to trust this stranger. I hopped onto the scooter.

As we rode across the narrow, bumpy road to the other side of the island, he told me his life story and how he spent 13 years living in Berlin as a young man. He was funny – I liked him. And when we arrived at his place, I could not believe my eyes. It was paradise. Of course, I wanted to stay. He gave me a cheap bungalow with a hammock right in front of the sea. The other guests welcomed me into the family – it really felt like that, being there amongst wonderful, caring people. And the owner did not only have a big heart, but he also made the best curry in all of Thailand.

I trusted a stranger and found nothing but kindness. On top of that, I found the peace I so desperately needed to process everything that happened in the seven previous weeks all over Thailand. Having arrived in heaven, I felt no need to move from that beach for an entire week.

True traveling, essentially, is magic.

It was a time of beautiful encounters with strangers and unexpected magic. One night, a young mother invited me to join her for a skinny dip. It was a warm night under a bright moon illuminating the dark sea. Maybe she had sensed my pensive mood – it was the day my great-grandfather had died. I felt like she knew exactly what I needed. As we waded into the water, all of a sudden, the world lit up around my feet.

The sea was full of bioluminescent algae that glow softly in the dark and react to oxygen, meaning they light up whenever waves break or when you touch the water. It was otherworldly. Diving into the wonderfully warm water, I watched the glittering lights around me as my hands moved softly through the waves. I felt like a child, fascinated by something it sees for the first time. A magical experience.

As I swam in the sea of a million lights, stars above me, I knew this trip in Thailand had transformed me. I had made memories for a lifetime but also learned so much about who I am and how I want to live my life.

A seed has been planted – the initial spark of becoming a long-term traveler.

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