The feeling you get when you’re about to set foot on a new continent for the first time is one of the greatest rushes you can experience. As you exit the airport and head into the unknown, there is a palpable sense that the world is about to open up to you in previously unimaginable ways.
But first, the flight.
At my gate at SFO, I could already feel the difference. I noticed others noticing me, with curious looks that said, “Who is this young black woman by herself on her way to Asia?” I was thinking the same thing. Fear doesn’t necessarily go away as you travel more, it’s just that wanderlust triumphs in the end.
I made some last minute phone calls at the airport and as soon as I hung up, a group of people from the Philippines asked me where I was going and what I was doing when I got to my destination. That was just the beginning of the curiosity. I have never gotten asked so many questions about my travel plans as I did before and during that flight.
Sharing my row on the plane was an elderly couple from Hong Kong. They didn’t speak English, but they nodded and smiled at me profusely. I quickly bonded with two American women sitting behind me as we settled in and waited for the flight to finish boarding.
They asked me where I was going and I explained that I was traveling through Southeast Asia. Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos. They told me that they were off to an ashram in India. Wondering where they’d gotten the inspiration from, I asked them if they’d read Eat, Pray, Love. Indeed, they had. They said that unlike Elizabeth Gilbert’s ashram experience, theirs would be more of a relaxed spiritual vacation.
When we’d gotten past quick formalities and discussing our trips, one of them said to me, “We saw you and thought, ‘That girl knows what she’s doing.’” I was glad that my feigned confidence had convinced at least two people even though internally, my nerves were rattling.
Traveling into the unknown means giving up control. It’s the scariest and best part of travel.
At meal time, the food was delivered in delightful little green and white dishes, some with cute cutout designs. I marveled at them because I’m a sucker for that kind of thing. Apparently, my seat mates liked them as well. When they finished eating, they rounded up all of their pretty dishes and shoved them into their carry-on bags. I was surprised that they’d take them so audaciously without even trying to hide it. They continued to nod and smile at me profusely as I watched them load their bags with the dishes.
Many hours later, as we approached Hong Kong, my excitement rose a few notches. It was dark and foggy so I couldn’t see anything, but somewhere below was Asia.
In the last 10 minutes of our final descent, the woman sharing the row with the American women behind me unbuckled her seat belt, stood on her seat, and began to open the overhead compartment to get her carry-on. A petite flight attendant quickly ran up, tackled her, put her back in her seat, and buckled her seat belt while screaming, “What are you doing?! The plane is landing!”
Before we’d even touched ground, it was clear that my trip would be a memorable one. It really is all about the journey.
With the entertaining plane happenings behind us, I continued to hang out with with my two new friends at the airport. We blindly led each other through the airport, dragging our jetlagged selves around in the wee hours of Hong Kong’s morning. After immigration, we parted ways. They were going to attempt to see Hong Kong during their 6 hour layover and I was going to try to rest during my 4 hour wait. I wished them good luck and said goodbye.
On the way from Hong Kong to Bangkok, I tried my first new food of the trip. It was a chunk of white fruit with lots of black seeds. It tasted a little sweet, but not like much else. I later figured out that it was dragon fruit. With it’s pink spiky skin and white and black speckled interior, it won in the cool looks department but it always tasted bland.
After a few hours, I arrived in Bangkok. A bored immigration officer stamped me in. I got a little panicky at the baggage claim when backpack after backpack came tumbling out and none of them were mine. Finally at the very end, my new backpack appeared. I knew I’d overpacked, but from a distance, I could clearly see how it was bulging. It was my first time traveling with a backpack and I was about to learn the hard way just how much I didn’t need. Already, I could barely move around the airport with it on.
I asked various airport workers where to go to catch the transportation I had pre-arranged through my hotel. Someone directed me to an area where a man asked to see my receipt and then motioned for me to sit down without really confirming anything. I had no idea if I was in the right spot, but sometimes you have to hope for the best and just wait. And wait. Eventually, a driver came to pick me up.
“Whoa!” he exclaimed as he lifted my bag. I gave him a sheepish look in return. We drove into the the smog and traffic of Bangkok and it was every bit as steamy and chaotic as all the guidebooks described. It felt like a modern metropolis built on top of a busy village. I was in awe that I was there.
Where do first time backpackers go when they arrive in Bangkok for the first time? Khao San Road. I wasn’t staying there, but it wasn’t far from my hotel. After settling in and a little exploring, I ended up on Khao San. I made may through crowds of backpackers who all seemed to be wearing dropped-crotch pants, past the hair braiding stands and stalls selling all kinds of bootleg items, and found a restaurant that had been recommended to me by a Bangkok local.
So there I was in this restaurant, sitting outside in rainbow-striped chair on an balmy Bangkok evening, enjoying a green coconut curry with a side of rice that was inexplicably shaped like a bear. Bliss. There were so many simple joys to be had that evening, and so many adventures yet to come.
Author’s note: I am not currently in Southeast Asia and I’m not planning on traveling in the region any time soon. I visited Southeast Asia in 2008 and recorded my stories from that trip on another site before I started blogging independently. I’m rewriting and sharing my favorite stories here.