A Month Alone In: Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand

Edith Zimmerman: Tumblr’s Meredith Katz, you traveled alone in Southeast Asia for a month last year. How’d that happen? How’d you get from sitting in your apartment in Brooklyn to getting off the plane wherever your first stop was? And how did you find the ticket, and did you make any hotel/apartment/whatever booking in advance? And and and!

Meredith Katz: The company I was working for at the time was nice enough to give me a month-long sabbatical after I’d been there for five years. It was perfect, really, because I was dying to go to Southeast Asia, and I knew I wanted to go for at least a month, and obviously opportunities to take a month off don’t present themselves often.

I met a friend of mine who’s been living in Asia for years in Bangkok, and we went to Laos together for a couple days. Then he left, and I stayed in Laos a bit longer, then went to Cambodia and the Thai Islands. I chose Koh Lanta as the island I wanted to spend the most time on, because it seemed low-key and less crowded. This guy’s site about islands was helpful (enjoy — I got lost on there for days). I had also started volunteering for a bit at Badass Brooklyn Foster Dog in New York, and when I read that Koh Lanta had an amazing animal shelter where people come from all over to volunteer and walk dogs on the beach, I knew it was my island. I decided to go, bought my flight, and left just a couple weeks later. I obsessively read FlyerTalk forums and SeatGuru for advice on the best airline to fly coach to Asia (all the flights hovered between $950-$1300, and there were so many options), and I went with Asiana and really liked it. Great Korean airplane food, and the Seoul Incheon Airport is a pretty glorious place for a layover (on the way home I bought a pass for the lounge and had red wine, cereal, and kimchi at 8 a.m., and wasn’t alone in my breakfast choices).

How big was your bag?

I took a backpack, but wished I’d taken a rolling bag. I wasn’t doing any intense treks, and I personally would choose to roll something rather than carry it. Also, twentysomethings carry backpacks and thirtysomethings roll. Can you be too old for backpacks? I felt that way. 

Did you have to get any kind of medical approval or anything? (I don’t know anything!)

Typhoid shot, and I was due for a new Tetanus shot. I also brought some malaria pills, although I didn’t take them, because where I went the chances of getting it were slim. I’m also answering this from memory, though, so please check the CDC website if you go, because I could be missing everything essential.

Did you travel mostly by train?

I took buses within countries and flights on Air Asia between them. I booked some places in advance with Agoda — but changed my mind a couple times. The places I found through it looked so lovely, and the $60 a night seemed relatively cheap at the time, but I definitely sometimes felt like I was on someone else’s honeymoon or family vacation. It’s so much better to book while there and figure out where the fun people are.

What’s your most vivid memory from the trip? Like the mental equivalent of a snapshot/Polaroid?

Hmmm. This trip had QUITE a few polaroid snapshots. I’ll give you several:

Having an insane all-night Michael Jackson dance party with a group of kids between the ages of 6-16 at The Enkosa River School, which a friend helped build in order to teach kids in Siem Reap English, in case they one day wanted to work in the tourism industry there. (If you go, definitely pay them a visit — get in touch with me and I’ll introduce you to the wonderful man who runs it, Yorn Chea. He teaches at the school along with the other Buddhist monks in the Enkosa pagoda.)

Sitting at the top of a hill in Koh Lanta in the pouring rain for five hours with a lot of Swedish people during a tsunami warning. It was a weird end to a magical day spent exploring the island with a friend I’d met in Cambodia who’d just flown over to meet me.

Crying while riding on an elephant in Laos in front of the most amazing couple from Dublin, Dan and Dave, about a breakup. We ended up traveling from Laos to Siem Reap together, so really I didn’t annoy them too much. Well. Oh — and then there was the night at a rustic meditation/yoga retreat called Hariharalaya, near Siem Reap. During an absolutely insane rainstorm they had this beautiful idea to lead us in a group meditation, which I then proceeded to ruin for everyone with my weeping. Everyone else there actually knew how to meditate. I still don’t know how, but I would like a do-over.

Spending a lot of time with dogs. Mostly strays who would hang out by restaurants and hotels. Also, walking dogs for that amazing animal shelter in Koh Lanta, Thailand (Lanta Animal Welfare). They give you a map and let you take the dogs who live in the shelter down to the beach to play.

Dinner at a restaurant on a lovely beach in Koh Phagnan, Thailand. I’d met an awesome South African guy who was also traveling alone, and he’d convinced me to take a bus across Thailand to hang out with him, leading up to the full moon party (I didn’t want to stay for that party), even though I had to meet some people back on the side I was already on two days later. It took about nine hours to get across, but I was just going for it because he was adorable and great, and these are the things you’re supposed to do when you’re traveling alone and free to be completely spontaneous. The dinner was lovely and romantic, but then it was just lovely and not-romantic because he asked if I was hoping for a travel romance, and I said that although I wasn’t into 23-year-old backpacker dudes (which so many people traveling in Southeast Asia are) — he cut me off to say “GREAT! More for me,” and I learned he was gay. But I had the best few days with him and am still in touch with him now.

Probably random, but: Did you ever feel like you were wearing the wrong clothes?

I think I made some flawless ensemble choices on this trip. My friend let me borrow this pair of white flowy pants that gave off the exact vibe I wanted to give off each time I wore them. I spilled so many things on them, though, so I couldn’t give them back at the end, but I’m very appreciative that she let me borrow them. And I wore lots of sundresses. I did, however, do a LOT of pretending that bathing suits were suitable stand-ins for underwear and bras. Even when I wasn’t doing any swimming. Additionally — every day I wore my hair in a side braid, which I had been planning to do a couple weeks before I left. I was steadfast in my commitmet to the side braid, and I wasn’t even trying to be Katniss Everdeen, because I didn’t read all three of those books until the actual trip. I know that’s what you were thinking.

Okay, Katniss. This might be an idiotic question, but did you ever drive a moped and think you were going to die? Maybe it’s just my terror of bicycles, but it’s incomprehensible to me that newspaper articles aren’t like “Still, Sadly, 100% of People Who Get on Mopeds in Foreign Countries Die.” Oh my god, they’re so scary!

I agree. They’re scary. I met a lot of people along the way during this trip who were quite adept at moped-driving, which was great, because they are, indeed, the best way to get around, and I had many memorable days focused around the moped. However, just before the alarm went off in Koh Lanta to alert us to the potential tsunami, I was trying to practice my moped skills and went a few feet, tipped over, and almost fell into a wall, in the most pathetic moped-related accident Thailand has ever seen.

What’s your favorite part about traveling alone?

I appreciate the intense loneliness that you get sometimes. Feeling so incredibly awkward and antisocial while sitting at a bar or a restaurant when you first get to a place. When I’d travel alone, years before, I was much better about being friendly, and proactive about meeting people. This time I wasn’t as good about it; I was always immediately tempted to leave. If those feelings of loneliness weren’t so intense, then the feeling I get when I meet someone new and amazing wouldn’t be quite as special. I met so many wonderful people on this trip, each place I went, despite my newfound unfriendliness. They were all just fantastic.

I decided to go on this particular trip during a period of intense change in my life, on a couple different fronts. And feeling fragile made taking full advantage of this opportunity more challenging — and made it harder to be quite as outgoing as I would have possibly been otherwise. That’s part of what made traveling alone at this time so great: I found that a lot of the people I met who were traveling solo were doing so after a period of great change or turmoil, too. Not to get all Eat, Pray, Love here (because God knows I got that reference a million too many times), but many of the best conversations I had on this trip would probably never have happened had I been traveling with other people. I hope I was as good of a listener as other people I met were (see above elephant story, I’d say it’s doubtful).

I’m also a huge pain in the ass, and always late, so not having to worry about being a bad travel companion is fantastic.

Have you ever met anyone cool on a plane?

No, but I also fall asleep immediately on airplanes and suspect I sleep awkwardly with my mouth open, so it’s probably better that someone interesting doesn’t sit next to me, ever.

Did you throw up in Asia? Or anywhere interesting, recently?

No, I did not throw up in Asia, however I’d like to note that you’ve asked a lot of questions about getting sick and throwing up. What’s that about?

I’m not entirely sure. [Note: Questions that Meredith didn’t answer include “Did anything you ate make you sick?” and “Did anything make you sick?”] There’s something vulnerable or interesting about throwing up, but it’s also maybe kind of a cheap question.

When I was in Brazil in 2002 I got food poisoning from dende oil and tiny lobsters, which was awful, and on my 17th birthday my boyfriend at the time and I drank 17 shots of Jameson, and I spent the entire day on the floor of the bathroom. I hope that this satisfies your craving for vomit stories. Weirdo.

It does! Basically. Basically. Is there something from your travels in Asia you really liked that you’d bring back to America, if you could?

New York is actually pretty great for this, too — but the inexpensive and insanely strong massages. I wish I could transplant the fact that I found it acceptable to have one daily.

Do you want to go back?

Yes, please. I have intense regret that I didn’t go to Burma, and I’d like to go right now.

Previously: Eight Days Alone in London

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