I needed to get away, to be somewhere else, and more importantly to be on my own. I knew I needed to stand on my own two feet and to give myself some space. My heart was battered and bruised and my options seemed to be 1. Curl up in a small ball and sob for months, or 2. Go. Go far away. Thankfully I had the funds formally known as my wedding savings to allow me to escape. I decided that as well as giving myself time to float around and generally get lost, I needed a purpose.
And that's how in June 2010 I was waving goodbye to the man I would have married, standing completely alone in Manchester Airport, preparing to fly to Bangkok. I would be spending a week in the city itself before catching a flight to Phuket, followed by a five-hour minivan journey to Koh Lanta, where I would spend a month volunteering at a shelter for dogs and cats (and two monkeys, I later discovered). After this time I would take the minivan again back to Phuket, where I would spend a further month volunteering at a dog shelter. I wanted my time to be busy - I wanted it to be packed full of activity, so that I didn't have the time to be sad, small and angry.
My parents were furious - I was heading to Thailand in the midst of a red shirt rebellion, against the advice of the foreign office, I was facing up to flight delays due to an angry Icelandic Volcano and perhaps most upsettingly of all to my sun-worshipper dad it was the rainy season.
The minute I sat in the departure lounge in Manchester I burst into tears. I was scared, excited, anxious and still sad. I cried over my (already) soggy chicken sandwich, I cried over my lukewarm tea, I cried over my crumpled issue of Grazia. Basically, I cried, a lot. It was like someone had turned on a tap in my face.
In fact I cried away the full two hours it took to finally get me onto the plane. And then, as I snuggled into the seat I had a realisation. I could spend the next two months sobbing into cats, dogs, random people or I could forget the past and enjoy the experience for what it was. So, wallowing in pain, or new experiences. I chose to be happy.
I don't have the time to cover my entire two months in Thailand, but here are some of my stand-out moments:
My First Moments in Bangkok
My extremely jetlagged first impressions of Bangkok are giant grey skyscrapers, vibrantly bright mosques, golden bridges and billboards of smiling Thai models, all under tumultuous, sultry, charcoal rainclouds. Gold and grey everywhere. The sky darkens through dusk to evening as fat raindrops begin to fall. I'm sweating, even in the back of the air-conditioned taxi as it leaves the busy main roads to swerve down a side street. The air is thick with the smell of sewers and the heavy blossoms of frangipani, and the lights of motorcycles and wooden houses with the doors thrown open shimmer in the rain-speckled windows. We pull to a halt outside of a lush, plant-festooned wooden house. I was home.
The Missing Night Bazaar
I'd been in Bangkok all of three days when I decided to pitch my (terrible) sense of direction on a night-time expedition. I'd heard about the almost mythical night markets of Thailand, bustling with life in the midnight hours, gone in the morning. I'd read all about the Suan Lum Night Bazaar in my guidebook, which included a sidenote on how the bazaar was set to be demolished, so I was understandably worried when I picked my way through rubble after exiting the train. I check a nearby map and start to feel a bit lost and sad when a hawker approaches me offering tickets to Thai boxing. When I decline, he obviously notices the quivering corners of my mouth as I try desperately not to cry all over the map (I should have kept a checklist of things I did/did not cry over really) and with the famous Thai smile asks if he can help me. I pull myself together and he points out that the bazaar is literally just a few steps away. Phew. I wander through lantern-lit aisles full of stalls, and sellers playing card games and bingo and test my haggling skills and pick up a few bits and pieces, have my first ever fish foot massage and then trip away (on lovely fresh feet) to the food area. I slurp down lemon juice and pork gyoza while watching an incredibly bizarre rendition of My Humps (by the Black Eyed Peas) performed by a local band. Then the sky breaks and a tropical storm begins to wail, so I gather myself and slosh by to the train station, as the lanterns wink behind me.
Goblins in the Grand Palace
I ended up at the Grand Palace & Wat Phra Kaew quite unexpectedly. I managed to hail a taxi (using a weird hand wiggle halfway between the British hail, and the Thai hail) and ask to be taken to the zoo. The taxi driver has no idea what I am talking about, so asks me to talk into his radio. I repeat my request, which is translated for the driver. And we're off, zoo ahoy! Or so I think. We actually arrive at the Grand Palace (which was on my itinerary, but for a different day!). I decide to let fate take over, and go with it. And it turns out to be one of my best decisions I have made. The entire complex shimmers in the hot sun, gold tiles and rainbows of glass mosaics glow. I trace my hands over a lavish mural (which like most things in the Grand Palace, is trimmed with gold), and find myself in front of a huge goblin. For the first time since I arrived in Thailand, I laugh. I can't explain why, there's just something so ridiculous about that huge goblin. I compose myself and spend a gorgeous afternoon wandering the halls of the complex, before entering Wat Phra Kaew (The Temple of the Emerald Buddha). I slip of my shoes, and sit in the hazy, smoky half-light, with the fertile smell of lotus flower lingering in the air. It's peaceful, and I just sit and think. Quiet and alone.
To Lanta, To Lanta!
I could write an essay about my time volunteering at Lanta Animal Welfare. I should start with the bone-shaking five-hour minivan journey. I start out in the early afternoon, it's exciting (if a little jerky). I chomp on chill-sprinkled mango, bought through the window of the minivan from a roadside seller, I watch lush green mountains, jungles and valleys spill past the windows in the glorious, scorching sunshine. As night falls the streets bustle with activity of daily life. I cross the sea on a ferry adorned with whale, dolphin and jellyfish paintings. All while bumping along the road, squashed cheek-to-cheek with locals, chattering in cheerful Thai. When I finally arrived at the shelter I am so exhausted, I fall into bed almost immediately. I am housed in a small room with bunkbeds that are pretty much just a board of wood covered in a thin sheet and well-worn pillow. A small red fan chases hot air around the room and cats lay lazily all over the floor. I spend the rest of my days steeped in love and loss. It's hard to put into words what happened at the shelter - I felt joy at the recovery of animals, and a deep pain at the loss of them. My life became dedicated to the needs of the animals. I forgot my pain, and gradually began to heal. I walked dogs, I swept floors, I shovelled poop. I changed bandages, groomed monkeys and made friends. It was hard. Very hard, but so worthwhile.
Iguana for Dinner
One of my absolute highlights during my time at Lanta Animal Welfare was the day I went dog-catching. The shelter had teamed up with Soi Dog (the people I volunteered with later in Phuket), to catch and neuter street dogs. I jumped into the back of a pick-up and we sped through forests, jungles and dusty little villages all the while picking up stray dogs. The most memorable of these stops was at a small sea gypsy settlement, the sportswear-bedecked residents watched as the dog-catcher loaded up his blowpipe and sent out anaesthetic-loaded darts at the evasive island dogs. I waded though slurpy sand, chasing half-asleep dogs, while the village children wound through my legs and ran alongside me. As we prepare to leave the gypsies invite us to stay for dinner and gesture towards a campfire. As I look closer I see the slightly-charred body of an iguana, roasting gently and huge vats of home-brewed spirits. I feel equal parts disappointed and pleased as we politely refuse and make our way back to the shelter with the dogs.
Mojitos at the Shake Shack
By this point I had moved onto Phuket and was volunteering with Soi Dog. I was becoming friends with the other volunteers and had been joined in Nai Yang (the area I was staying) with friend I had made back at Lanta Animal Welfare. The days were long, dusty and hard. The nights still hung thick with the oppressive, damp tropical air, but were a time to relax and unwind. It was during a night-time jaunt with my friends that we stumbled upon the Shake Shack. We'd reached a dusty road, after eschewing all of our usual evening haunts, and were tempted by the faint strains of reggae and the distant glow of fairylights. Following the road we found a riverside, wooden bar with huge cushions just ready for sprawling. That first night we were introduced to all of the workers at the bar, and became firm friends with most of them. Night after night we lounged back in the faded cushions, as we were served ice-cold mojitos. The owners of the bar always shared their meals with us, and chattered until the wee small hours. It felt more like home than home at that point, and I will be forever grateful for their gentle, natural hospitality.
So, that's my stand-out moments from an amazing experience. What could have been a sad, hopeless time for me became an experience that was of huge benefit. I learned to be satisfied with myself, I developed myself spiritually, emotionally and physically. I didn't return home a different person, I didn't achieve spiritual enlightenment and I didn't lose 2 stone. But, I did learn more about myself than I ever could at home and I returned home much more centred and independent.
This post is an entry into Travel Supermarket's Holiday Postcard's competition.