Lonely in Pai - Part two

Pai, Thailand

Last week I talked about how I combat feeling a little lonesome on the road. This week I'm trying a new strategy cheerily entitled "letting the loneliness in!"

KK Hut (situated up in the hills of Pai, Thailand near the circus school) is run by quite possibly the nicest two people you could ever hope to meet. Kwan and Kon are a husband and wife team who are accompanied by their psychotic rooster Shalong at all times (warning - do not wear black flip flops*.) They offer a mosquito net suspended over a mattress in a bamboo bungalow with hammock and the three quid price includes a fab breakfast of fresh fried eggs with toast and jam. It’s the cheapest place to stay in Pai and also one of the friendliest.

First thing in the morning I brush my teeth at an outdoor sink in front of the toilets in the breeze block shelter and feel like I’m at Glastonbury. It’s amazing how far I’ve come from the Champagne and Chanel of my London corporate life. If some of my city friends back home could see me now they’d hold an intervention. After travelling the world for a year I’ve spent the last 6 months in Thailand working on what’s next and now the rainy season is upon us.

It’s Forrest Gump kind of rain. You know the type:

"Little bitty stingin’ rain… and big ol’ fat rain. Rain that flew in sideways. And sometimes rain even seemed to come straight up from underneath"

The corn fields opposite are lit up from the thunderheads. I spend the rest of the day lying in my hammock watching the broad leaves of the banana trees drip and glimmer in the drizzle and reading "Remains of the Day" with a steaming mug of hot tea. It’s all making me feel very homesick for Britain. A central tenet of Buddhism is trying to accept things the way they are - because it is our craving for our present situation to be different that creates "dukkha" or suffering. But I am not being very good at accepting things the way they are! Right now I don’t want to be in Thailand. I miss roast lamb dinners, a crisp glass of Chablis and cups of PROPER English breakfast tea! I want to see fine art and wear mohair jumpers and hear the crunch of autumn leaves under my boots. I miss dancing the night away with girlfriends or snuggling up on the couch with a boyfriend and the latest HBO dvd box set. How can you accept something when you don’t want to be here?

Recognising Resistance

I come to realise that recognising my resistance is the first step. There is a difference between being alone and feeling lonely and perhaps loneliness is actually my resistance to being on my own. Eventually after tiring myself out with feeling miserable I gradually come to realise why most spiritual practices harp on about acceptance and letting go - its actually rather practical advice. If all we do is stay in the negative mind set of not wanting to be where we are - how can we find the perspective and clarity needed to find a way out of it. The Tibetan Buddhist teacher Rinpoche gives this example: Buddhist travellers used to have to take an isolated path in Tibet high up in the hills and invariably those crossing it would get attacked by bandits but they had no choice but to make the voyage. The clever ones made friends with the bandits, and offered them money to escort them safely to the other side thus warding off other bandits and allowing the robbers to make more money as well.

The lesson he says – is to become aware of our problems and then let them in:

"Once you've made your enemies your friend there is nothing left to fight anymore..."

Understanding Impermanence

I'm helped in moving to a state of acceptance by remembering another tenet of Buddhism, Vipassana meditation. This technique encourages us to focus on listening and reflecting on the impermanence of the world around us and in ourselves. Listening to, for example, the sudden whirring into life of a cicada's wings or noticing the sensation of a flaring up of pain in one of our joints and then also noticing when the sound subsides or the pain dimishes. Right now because I’m alone I’m able to do exactly what I want and when I want. I spend long lazy days, swimming and writing and reading and eating amazing Mango Pie (found at Art in Chai.)

Who knows when I’ll get the chance to do this again or even where i'll be this time next year. Soon I may be married with a couple of kids in tow or living abroad with an exotic argentinian lover (here’s hoping!) Maybe i'll be ensconced in another capital city working on my own business. The times in our life where we really get to pare everything away and be by ourself are few and far between and I may not have the beauty of this alone time again for a very long time.

Appreciation through Mindfulness

Pai Chan Cottage, Pai, Thailand

I move to a beautiful place in Pai called Pai Chan Cottage. For just four quid a night I get a little wooden bungalow with big ensuite hot shower and they have a great chill out area with hammocks, a swimming pool and restaurant that does some seriously good breakfast bagels. Now that I’ve become conscious of how temporary this state is I know I can truly begin to appreciate it.

Mindfulness is a non spiritual form of meditation that encourages us to let go of thoughts and just concentrate on what we are experiencing in any given present moment. When I wake up in the morning I try noticing the intense luminous green of the sun light filtered through the melon tree outside my bungalow, how the crisp water of the pool envelopes my skin as I go for my early morning dip and the ripples on the water left by the dragon flies that skate the surface. In the distance the rice fields are filled with bright yellow butterflies. I feel truly blessed and lucky to be here.

The Pain of Being Human

As I've got older I've come to believe in the Jungian concept of the collective consciousness. Somehow, somewhere - I believe that on a spiritual level we are all connected. Or to put it in a more poetic way - No man is an island, Entire of itself, Every man is a piece of the continent, A part of the main. As written by the 17th century poet John Donne. Yet the very nature of taking earthly form in a human body and becoming an individual means that from the beginning of our life we bear the pain of our separateness from the whole. It is this pain that we feel - I’ve come to realise - when we are truly alone with out any distractions. it’s easier to work a 50 hour week, read a newspaper, jam our ears with our ipod , row with lovers, watch mindless tv,or drink the night away than face the fact that - as Rilke said:

We are all unutterably alone.

When we peel all of that away and just connect into silence and being alone we also connect into that deep emptiness and pain of isolation that is a natural part of the human condition, that is both exquisite, and terrifying in equal measure. And then something else happens too. With no job, no lover and no family around to make demands on me and having stripped my life of all external influences I’m able also for the first time to see clearly the internal obstacles I create all by myself. Who would have thought that it would be my perfectionism or my need for recognition or a million other little insecurities that have probably been so much more expert, insidious and skilled at holding me back from achieving what I want all this time than anything the external world threw at me. And yet up until a couple of years ago – it was so easy just to blame the shitty job or the wrong lover. How much more insightful and valuable to know that its actually me that's my own worst enemy! And scary too - but at least once you see that part of your self you can take responsibility for it, own it and change it - see the darkness and shine a light into it.

There is a great interview on Conan with the stand up comic Louis C.K on what it means to face up to the deeply exquisite pain of what it means to be human. I highly recommend a quick look here if you haven’t seen it :) The truth is this year has been difficult at times, for all those travel blogs out there who witter on about how easy it is to make friends on the road and how you’ll never be lonely the truth is however many new friends you make there will always be times when you find yourself alone and if you end up doing some long term travel there may well be points where you find yourself feeling lonely. But that doesn’t need to be a bad thing. Let the loneliness in. Because what better opportunity do we have than when we are off travelling the world and have left behind all of our relationships, work, friends, family and the bombardment of media that assaults our senses on a daily basis to take the space and time needed to live with ourselves and see ourselves just as we really are.

Have you had a similar experience on the road or off? - I'd love to hear your stories in the comments below.


  • PS Shalong the Rooster thinks black flip flops are other roosters and tries to engage in a cock fight by racing at your legs, flapping his wings and pecking you on your feet (the little b****d.)



Lonely in Pai (part one) or "How to make friends for travelling introverts"

Pai, Thailand

Just ask any traveller you bump into what the best thing about solo travel is and you can bet your bottom baht that at least one bright - eyed buddy will pipe up:

"Ooooohh you’ll never have a moment alone if you travel by yourself - You’ll meet more people than you ever would with friends!"

So it was I came to be sipping a fresh brew of crystallized ginger tea in a bookshop cum cafe aptly named - Lonely in Pai - pondering this most common of travel platitudes in hippy hang out Pai - Northern Thailand and coming to the conclusion that…well for me at any rate… it ain’t necessarily so.

Now before you throw your hands up in despair and say you thought this site would encourage and inspire solo female travel let me just say this - OF COURSE its easier to meet people on the road. Whereas smiling, making eye contact and inviting someone out for dinner may have had me pegged as a nutter in London - its practically de rigeur once on the road. If you are a natural extrovert: gregarious, charming and full of the joys of spring and being around people is what charges your batteries - then you can easily manage your travels to make sure you are never alone.

But I’m an introvert. I prefer to build a few, deep friendships rather than hit the 1000 friend mark on facebook and I need plenty of time and space alone to recharge. This has had some distinct advantages for solo travel. I like to think its my independent, pioneering spirit that has had me confidently tackle 15 strange new countries in 19 months, got me through 3 days of mountain trekking in Southern China and survived 7 days of silent meditation in Thailand.

But I’ve also realised that its my need to "vant to be alone" that can become my own worst enemy when constantly travelling to and settling in new places. I’ve found it all too easy to use the comfort of being in my own company as "my go to" default setting. How much easier it is to sit and read a book than strike up a conversation with someone new, so much more hassle free to organise the days activities by myself than compromise with a group, so much less work than having to answer "and where have you travelled to so far" for the umpteenth time that day. And because its so damn easy to have dinner by myself that is what I will then do for 5 days on the trot with nothing but a voice in my head for company until suddenly I realise I’m feeling not just alone but…lonely.

And the realisation strikes that what is most easy for us isn’t always what’s best for us. I find when I’m by myself for long periods of time that it gives that voice in the head free reign to rear its ugly head. That’s the problem with us innies (introverts) we have a tendency to ruminate - and before you know it my harmless analysis has turned to anxiety and wondering to worrying.

If, like me, you don’t always find it the most natural thing in the world to make five new best friends an hour ;) then here are 7 ways I’ve found useful in getting myself out of the loneliness trap and out there connecting with people on the road.

1) Just Say YES 

It was Guatemala - Antigua, he was a tall, gorgeous, twenty something German with a goatee. I was wearing a strangely ok looking long black vest dress. They were all going off road quad biking and they’d invited me to join them… "I can’t ride a bike" I stammer… eyes locked onto his chocolate browns. "It’s ok, you can ride on the back of mine" he answers. So of course I said…………. "Er no thanks," Whhhhhyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy? Perhaps it was not being able to think that quickly off the top of my head or because I was still mooning after my last romance . More likely than not it’s because I was afraid. Afraid of saying yes to the unknown connection. So make a decision to just SAY YES and be spontaneous to whatever offer comes along and not just if the asker is a tall, gorgeous German dude with a goatee. 

2) Get Out there and Do Something less Boring Instead!

Even if no one else has made you an offer - make a decision to get out there and do an activity anyway. One of the best ways of taking my mind of …well my mind… and meeting new people is to do a day excursion or an activity. If you’ve been travelling or living somewhere a while on the road you may have decided that your adventure is oh so much more authentic than the hordes of other tourists and holiday makers passing through and heaving themselves up to the temple on the hill or the cooking class - BUT it’s still a great way to meet a bunch of new people and just get yourself out in the (hopefully) fresh air…

3) Have an Impromptu Art Lesson in Hoi An.

hoi an, Vietnam

Or rather say Hello to someone you’d never normally meet. I ended up having an impromptu art lesson in Central Vietnam when I wandered into an artist’s back room by mistake and asked him where I could buy some drawing paper. He cleared out his own beautiful ink drawings, got out some scraps of rice paper and handed over the brushes to me patiently watching my own half assed attempts at minimalist art with the instructions "no wrong only right." :) Try to cast judgements aside on the road, you may not be sure the strangely bearded man in the bob marley tee and the luminous board shorts is going to be your next best friend, but you never know. Part of the fun of travelling is meeting people you wouldn’t normally ever meet and they could at least end up making a very interesting dinner companion.

4) Slum It in Shared 

can be tempting as an older traveller - to go for a private room but staying in a dorm for at least the first night of your arrival somewhere new makes it so much easier to meet people. If the thought of "getting down with the kids" makes you come out in a cold sweat then take heart that not all dormitories are created equal. Some - notably the IHA branches - seem to deliberately cater to teens on their first trip abroad but many are suitable for older travellers as well as being cheaper than a guesthouse. They’ll often have communal hang out areas as well as organising group activities and entertainment.

5) Put down the shield and smile

Portland, Oregon

I read once that if you are attending a networking function you should never eat the canapes because in group situations we retreat back to our primate days and animal behaviour dictates that we leave each other alone when we nosh.(Just think how growly and riled dogs get when you try and get near their dinner bowl while they are eating!)So if you are dining alone be sensitive to that and strike up a conversation before the food arrives. Likewise if people see you glued to a computer screen or engrossed in a book then they are unlikely to start chatting. It can be tempting to take some reading material along for company but its easier to make new friends without the shield of glowing screen or spine of book to hide behind.

6) Surf Couches, Meet UP

Couchsurfing was a godsend when a 3 week trip around Colombia was canceled at short notice and I found myself with an unexpected month to hang out in Buenos Aires. I joined and posted a notice saying I was soon to be arriving in Argentina and got a flood of 30 or so invites out. Yes - if you are a solo female traveller - you may need to pick through the dodgy romantic offers but it’s worth it and when I decided to settle in Chiang Mai for a little while I made a couple of close female friends through the site who helped me discover the eclectic and jazzy nightlife of the little city.

Pai, Thailand

7) Find the Communal in your Community.

There are some places both on and off the backpacker trail that become legendary in traveler circles as natural hang outs where communities form. Pai in Northern Thailand is one such place. Here - as Otto (a long haired, beared Thai hippy and owner of Art in Chai)explains: "It doesn’t matter who you are…what you look like, where you from. In Pai no one judge you. If you love Pai…Pai love you." Perhaps that’s why travellers who visit this village nestling in a valley of Northern Thailand intend to stay for a few days and find themselves here days, weeks and even months later.

It isn’t just the attitude of the cheery Thai Hippies with their skinny tie dye clad frames and long hair that makes this place so relaxed and welcoming, there are some great communal hang outs where you can meet other travellers too. "Art in Chai" that Otto owns is a great place for coming and chilling for an hour or three. They make fresh chai latte with delicious soy, vanilla or coconut milk and grind up the spices in front of you. There are bookshelves for reading material, art (designed by Otto) to browse and its also a place where local and travelling musicians are welcome to turn up and jam. As one long term expat Mike said:

"This is the kind of place where its easy to make new friends."

It stays open late though most regulars move on to the live acoustic music sessions at Edible Jazz off the main walking street once the sun goes down. Another great communal hang out. So there you have it - that’s 7 ways to deal with loneliness on the hoof but the truth is however many friends you make there are inevitably going to be parts of your trip where you find yourself alone.

In Part 2  I'll be looking at how to embrace and accept those moments of down time on the road.