Moving to Chiang Mai, Thailand, was surprisingly easy.
(I don’t mean moving here permanently; I’m just staying in Thailand for two months before I have to go to another country, and I’ve only got six months total before I have to go back to Canada. (But then, after another five months in Ontario, I can travel the world for two whole years!!!))
Anyway. This is my first time traveling alone, except for when I was 11 and flew to New York alone to visit my best friend and her family. But I was dropped off and picked up at the airport, so that doesn’t count.
The 24-hour journey to get here passed quickly. I’m naturally quite a paranoid person, so every time I make it to my destination without anything going wrong, it’s a pleasant surprise.
I arrived around 10:30 am local time and got a taxi from the airport to my hostel. I knew it would be a rip-off, but it was still less than $5 (dollar sign signifies USD).
I had booked a well-reviewed hostel with a reputation for being quiet and peaceful, and it was just as lovely as it appeared in the photos.
My first two days were fun, but kind of lonely and disorienting. My hostel was near an intersection where cars and motorbikes drove every which way, and there were no sidewalks, so venturing outside was mildly terrifying. My biggest adventure the first day was finding a 7-11 to buy water, and trying to stay awake until past dinnertime.
Turns out buying water was a waste because most hostels, including mine, had containers of drinking water that you could use to fill up your water bottles for free. The only time I’d been in Asia before this was when I went to India four years ago (for two weeks with my ex-boyfriend) and I was used to not trusting any water that didn’t come in a sealed bottle.
But then! Around 7 pm, a nice girl in my room asked if I wanted to go to the night market with her! I’d been here less than 12 hours and I was already making friends! (I didn’t eat anything at the market because I didn’t want to get food poisoning on my first day, and the girl was leaving in two days, but still, I was impressed with how well my plan—of coming to Chiang Mai to meet people—was working.)
On the second day I enjoyed the free breakfast with my new hostel friend and another nice girl, found an excellent bakery nearby for lunch, went on multiple trips to 7-11, and walked around the Old City by myself. Everything was new and exciting and I felt happy to be here.
On the third day I moved to the other hostel I had booked, Haus Hostel, which was supposed to be a great place to meet people. (I thought I’d spend the first two days acclimatizing and the second two days socializing, then find somewhere to live for the rest of the month. Or decide to leave the city and fly to the comfort of Europe, if for some reason I hated it here. But I was pretty sure that wasn’t going to happen :P.)
The pictures online showed friendly-looking people having a good time. And it had a rooftop deck. How could it not be awesome?
Alas, June is low season (for tourism) in Chiang Mai, and there was no one else in my room. I found myself alone on the rooftop deck. (Not that this was that bad—it’s definitely preferable to being surrounded by idiots—but it was disappointing to leave the “quiet” hostel where I’d made friends and come to a “social” hostel that was empty.)
But no matter. I had resolved to do everything in my power to meet new people. Step one was moving to a place that seemed to attract the kinds of people I wanted to meet (done!). Step two was staying at hostels with free breakfasts (as recommended by Rich Meadows in his post on how to make friends as a solo traveler). Now it was time for step three, which I arbitrarily decided was to sign up for Tinder.
I had heard that Tinder is a good way to meet people (even if you’re not interested in dating anyone), so on the third day, sitting on the rooftop deck alone, I made an account. I was immediately confused. Should I just swipe right on anyone who seems friendly? Or should I only swipe right on people I think I could actually be friends with? (Loose criteria: has a profile description, in English, containing more words than emojis. And has photos other than non-smiling close-ups and shirtless bathroom-mirror selfies.)
Should I put that I’m interested in girls as well, to try to make some girlfriends? Or would the other girls on there think that’s weird? Would I be rudely invading their girls-interested-in-girls-as-more-than-friends space?
I signed up for Bumble BFF as well, which was even more confusing, because you only have 24 hours to message someone after you match with them. How am I supposed to keep tabs on when exactly I matched with people? I also didn’t see anyone on there who I particularly wanted to be friends with. They either didn’t seem to speak English, or were only in town for a week (to see elephants and drink).
After two hours of crafting my profiles and swiping, neither of these sites had yielded anyone remotely worth meeting up with. (Not that one can necessarily expect these things to happen so quickly, but still. You’d think after hearing “Tinder is great for meeting people!” from multiple sources that two hours of hard work on there would result in something.)
I decided to put my phone down and move on to step four: going to coworking spaces to meet people in real life. I wanted to leave the Old City and see a new neighborhood, and the CAMP cafe/workspace at Maya Mall seemed like a non-scary place to start, so I took a Grab there. (Of course I had to stop for lunch and check out all the interesting stores first before venturing into the unknown, potentially full-of-intimidating-professional-people CAMP location on the fifth floor.)
It was packed, but silent! Everyone was typing away on their laptops and barely looked up when I walked past. A great work/study spot—but not the place to strike up a conversation with a stranger.
I bought myself an oatmeal-chocolate-chip cookie, asked a guy (wearing headphones, typing furiously) if I could sit at his table (since practically everywhere else was taken), and got out my phone to see if anything new had happened on Tinder. Nope.
[Update 3/9/2020: Lol, past me was so timid 😛 There was nothing to be afraid of! After three weeks I’d made friends with five regulars at CAMP, and after that I could pop in anytime and be assured of finding a friendly face.]
It was time for step five: Couchsurfing Hangouts.
And here I must pause, because it’s 4 pm and I told myself I’m just going to post whatever I’ve written today at 4 pm anyway even if it’s not finished (because otherwise I might not ever post it at all).
So you’ll have to stay tuned to find out the details of what happened next. But long story short: Couchsurfing Hangouts are AWESOME!!! The next seven days comprised possibly the best week of my life. Now two more weeks have passed and the friends I made that night have left the city—my days have been a lot quieter since then—but the point is it only took five steps, and four days, to succeed (well not permanently, but in the interim) at getting what I wanted out of this trip.
I was telling you about the third day, which is when I met some supercool people. That first day we just walked around a night market and went to a bar. There were some other random people there too but I didn’t become friends with them 😛 Everyone seemed nice but at the end of the night we went our separate ways and I didn’t know if I would ever see them again.
However, the next night we were all online (on CS Hangouts) again, so we met up at a bar again. And then we were friends—and we went to a Muay Thai match, karaoke bar, cooking class, market, jazz bar, Thai massage place, VR cafe, swimming pool, and movie theatre (to see Toy Story 4).
But where did I live, you may be wondering. I spent my fourth day looking for accommodation. I checked out some apartment buildings…
and was in a Grab (local version of Uber) to see another building in Nimman when the driver said “You get out here” (whether it was a question or a command, I can’t remember).
I’m not sure what happened—whether the driver was scamming me, or whether I seemed like I wanted to get out. I was disoriented (and didn’t realize I was still four blocks from my destination) so I did what he said… and found myself on a side street in Nimman, in front of a chalk sign advertising “Simple Simple Cafe—hostel rooms available.” As I had nowhere to sleep that night, I went to see what it was.
Inside I met the delightful owners, Julian and Natalie. The building was a four-floor townhouse with a cafe on the ground floor, a kitchen/communal space on the second floor, and hostel rooms on the top two floors—which were totally vacant! I had found my home for the next 6 weeks.
My new friends left the city (going north to Pai, south to Krabi, or back home to Japan) but I started a writing group (Writers of Chiang Mai), which met in the cafe in my building, and made more friends that way.
…With whom I explored various cafes and coworking spaces:
Ate bingsu (Korean shaved-ice ice cream):
And learned to ride a songthaew (“red truck,” the local transportation method):
I also joined a gym (well not “joined”, since it was pay-as-you-go, but I went regularly):
Hung out with Julian and Natalie and their friends at the hostel:
And met some more cool people on Couchsurfing and explored the city by night:
I also shared my hostel room with a few nice girls from time to time, went on two week-long trips—one to Bangkok, one to an island resort—which I’ll write about later, and spent a lot of time on my own.
Was it all absolutely perfect? No. I got pretty bad food poisoning in my second week (I recovered after 24 hours, though). I came down with a cough that wouldn’t go away until I got to Laos (could be because I was hanging out with smokers and not getting enough sleep…).
My beloved hostel, Simple Simple/Texture Inn, is no longer open; Julian has launched a clothing business instead.
I also found out recently that one of the people I became friends with in Chiang Mai died by suicide 🙁 Which makes me terribly sad.
So this post has taken a sad turn. Chiang Mai was my home, for those first two months of my trip, but I can’t go “home” to it again. The people and places I loved so much are gone. (Not all gone from this world, of course, they’re just no longer there for me if I ever go back to Chiang Mai/Thailand—like how I’m not there for them, either.)
I realize this comes with the territory when you’re traveling. I’m also immensely privileged to be able to move whenever I feel like it and go home to my actual family (and so on with the “I acknowledge my privilege” and “I don’t get as wrapped up in my own melodrama as it may sound” disclaimers :P).
Anyway, ’tis better to have loved and lost than never loved at all—and I will love again, I’m sure.
Shoutout (in order of when we met) to the following people for being awesome: Aurora, Carson, Sarah, Stephen, Jake, Ming, Katsu, Julian, Natalie, Elly, Resi, Maya, Gaetan, Josh, Tommy, Kristyn, Lauren, Benjamas, Beki, Gillie, Fabian, and Marcus.