Creeping Loneliness in Thailand
Nakhon Ratchasima, Thailand
For a solo traveler, especially a woman, twilight is the pivotal moment of each day. The next forty-five minutes determine which way the delicate balance of alone versus lonely will tilt for the upcoming evening. Stores close, buses stop, and streets are no longer filled with commotion from the local workforce. At night it is harder to safely stumble upon human connections.
It was during one such twilight in Nakhon Ratchasima, Thailand, that I left my room to evade that slide towards loneliness. A few hours earlier I had arrived from Loei, a small town in north central Thailand. I hadn’t seen another westerner for five days. My muscles ached from a week of rain. I itched from the water-borne gnats and smelled of two-week-old dirt and sweat. The sleepless night in my sketchy room above a nightclub, left me tired. The echo of a TV, a deep-throat hacking, and the faint hum-tic-tic-hum of the ceiling fan still rang in my ears.
For six hours I had sat in a tiny bus seat next to a teenager that wanted to practice his English. I was irritated from constantly talking at a second language pace and answering the same questions, “Where are you from?” “How long have you been here?” “Do you like Thailand?” I shortened my answers then withdrew to the sounds of my Walkman.
Thinking back now, it was then, on the bus, that my isolation began. Choosing barriers instead of connections, I stopped seeing. I forgot about the female passenger who eyed my body, smiled and said, “Pretty” as she touched the shimmering strands of my arm hair just when I felt large and clunky in the land of slight, olive skinned Thais. With fading amazement, I stared at the passing construction sites overlooking the worker’s one thousand ingenious uses of bamboo. I ignored the ambitious boy to my right, innocent and eager, only wanting to improve his verbal skills. On that bus, I retreated within the selfishness of loneliness, blinded to the humanity surrounding me.
When I first arrived in Nakom Rachissima, as I do in every new city, I set out to find a place to sleep. I selected a local hotel straight out of my guidebook. As I entered, I noticed only men loitering around the lobby. The prices seemed too high for the hard bed, cold-water-only shower, and the scattered dead cockroaches lining the baseboards. With sore shoulders, I trudged to another hotel hoping for a fantastic room to trump my creeping isolation.
The room I found peered out from the third floor of a large building. On top of the rust spotted linoleum tile sat a double bed, which sank in the middle like a spoon. The ceiling fan provided escape from the humidity, if one didn’t mind droppings of dirt and spider webs off the chipped gray walls. I paid my first nights fee, dropped my pack and sat on the edge of the mushy bedbug-infested mattress. Then I wiped my nose of the musty smell from the dust covered curtains and thought.
“Go outside,” a blarring inner voice said, “If you don’t get out now, seclusion will win the game.” Tired and angry from my long travel day and my misguided hotel choice, I just wanted to rest. Through the window, the sun swagged towards the skyline. It was 6:30, an hour before dark.
Getting stuck, at night, alone in a hotel, on foreign land when I desire company but have nowhere to go, is a petri dish for loneliness. I must connect. Head towards the popular restaurant seen earlier. Before the streets grow black from night, attend the advertised cultural dance performance beginning at 7:00 or search for the traveler community. Simply being around other foreigners, wards off loneliness like repellent to a swarm of mosquitos.
I stepped out of my room into the twilight.
Lights began to flicker on. Shop owners drew down their metal storefronts. People rested in their homes, waiting for the cool nighttime air to drop. I couldn’t find any travelers out on the soon-to-be-deserted streets. I kept walking, counting the minutes until the end of the day, the beginning of night.
Before long, I passed a covered market. The stalls boarded up, their stands cleared for the day. Men in overalls squirted the dead fish scales and pungent guts off the cement with long silver hoses. A flower shop bordering the sidewalk was the only stall still open. A bare light bulb dangled over the orchids and roses. Easter lilies and tiger lilies jumped from the tall jungle green buckets. Plants hung from the rafters, their vines slithering towards the floor.
I crouched and fingered through the container of small bouquets. A strung-out man, with bulging eyes and matted hair stepped off the wooden platform from behind the display. I fondled the purple orchids arranged like large, long corsages. Each bouquet was wrapped in a banana leaf, holding the stems tightly like a baby bundled in a receiving blanket, only the head shooting out for air.
“How many baht?” I asked in a clear, concise tone. From previous experiences with flowers I knew that this type of bouquet would cost about ten baht or twenty cents in American money.
The stall attendant selected two bouquets and held them out to me. “Frity,” he said.
I popped my head up and with a smile said, “Fifty, nahhhhh, it’s not fifty.” My entire body slumped in defeat. I didn’t want to bargain. My day had already been too long. It would soon be completely dark and I had no place to go. I dreaded the return to my dingy room. I just wanted some flowers.
“Ten baht,” I said with a smile to cover my assumed defeat.
The man looked at me, his wrinkled forehead pleading with each crease. Holding the bouquets up like a stop sign. He said, “No, no,” and lowered his head with each shake. “No. Frity,” he said again then held out the overstuffed flowers and put on an even larger grin.
I replaced my fake smile with a genuine one, “Free?” I asked, raising my eyes in disbelief.
He nodded his head yes and tried to pronounce the word again, “Frity, frity.”
I took the bouquets, placed my hands together in a prayer position and bent at the waist, just a little to give the shop worker a Thai Wai in respect. I said, “Kohp kuhn ka,” thank you, and skipped away.
My flowers looked fabulous set in the beheaded water bottle on my three-legged nightstand. I stayed four more nights in that room until the flowers died, experiencing the simple pleasures of this forgotten industrial cousin of the flourishing Bangkok. I savored the “halos” from the gaming high school boys in the internet cafÃ© and relaxed to the touches of the hard working massage woman at the mall. I took the offered seat next to the street man at a table in the public library then read the English newspaper. I found some English speakers at an Irish pub up the block and shared conversation over a few beers and a game of pool.
Alone but not lonely, I again heard the faint purr of mopeds blocks before they ever crossed my path. I smelled lunchtime preparations of fish or eggs, rice, even beans. A nod from an old man as he fed his bird in the grassy park, welcomed me. That simple, kind gesture was enough to catapult me across the void, the destructive desolation of loneliness, and back to the streets as a solo traveler open to connections.
Born and raised in Wisconsin, Ellen Peneski’s earliest memory of traveling is at the age of six, when her parents said at 11:30 p.m. one evening, “Get ready kids we’re going to a baseball game.” The author didn’t question the midnight departure, nor the fact that they were driving to Toronto, Canada…over twelve hours away. Since then, Peneski’s journeys have taken her to 48 of the United States, and more than 35 countries in South East Asia, Europe, Central and South America.