I shift uncomfortably in my seat, wedged between my backpack and a sleeping stranger on a busy Bangkok bus, the smell of warm palms on metal railings mingling with the air-conditioned breeze that gratefully blows across my face. Outside, the sights of a city I’ve never been to before pass by in a blur, but I don’t look out the window. Through the hustle of human traffic that shifts around me a moment of peace has caught my eye, and I am transfixed.
An old man cups his hands together and brings them to his bowed head, pauses for a moment, then sweeps his hands back across his face, as though bathing himself in prayer. He does this repeatedly as we make our way through the crowded streets, turning in his seat to face temples and royal portraits, honouring a land that is entirely new to me.
It is beautiful to watch his quiet devotion, and I find myself wondering if I will be able to do the same – to love his country as deeply as the one I just left. India is such a special place to me, her grit forever ingrained in my skin. I can’t help but wonder, will she be the yard stick to which I hold every other place we visit? How will I be able to travel with an open heart when I have given it to India so completely?
We have booked five days in Bangkok, holed up in a hotel room on the infamous Khaosan Road, chosen for its cheap price and proximity to even cheaper street food. I expected to hate it. It is seedy, loud and jam-packed with tourists, everything I would ordinarily loathe, but I find myself inexplicably enamoured with its energy, a welcome interlude before we head to our next destination.
But where should our next destination be? We thought we knew, planning on heading south to Koh Tao for a few months. We even came close to renting Torre DeRoche’s little slice of island paradise while she embarked on her book tour, but were pipped to the post. Now we have a deadline and a decision looming.
Hours melt away as we pour over Google searches and travel costs. North? South? Chiang Mai? Train? Bus? Options sprawl infront of us, tangled in the mess of the web, waiting for the right one to be shaken loose. Each time we peruse a new option I find myself asking am I going to love it? But the more we look, the more I enjoy the act of simply looking, and I begin to fall in love with something else instead: the freedom of choice. It dawns on me for the first time that we can go anywhere we choose; the world really is our oyster, just waiting to be cracked open.
Suddenly Lee has a solution. “Fuck it,” he says. “Let’s just got to Cambodia. It’s cheaper than Thailand and I love it there.” And with that, the cup that was neatly containing all our options suddenly starts to overflow, spilling forth an endless stream of new possibilities. We redirect our search and I begin to daydream about living in Siem Reap for a month and eating my weight in French bread.
But then we change our minds again.
We board a sleeper bus and open our newly replaced laptop. We have 20 hours ahead of us and a wealth of new movies to help us pass the time. We make our way through Argo, then begin watching The Impossible, based on the truse story of a family who survived the 2004 tsunami that devastated South East Asia.
Probably not the most sensible choice, considering we are en route to Koh Phangan.
The sun is slowly beginning to rise as we make our way from the bus to the ferry that will take us the rest of the way, just in time to light the turquoise waters of the Gulf of Thailand. I stare out of the window in search of dolphins, then promptly fall asleep.
When I wake up I can just make out the hazy outline of land in the distance, and I feel my excitement begin to rise with every wave that laps at the side of the boat. There on the horizon is the next stage of our journey, and I can’t wait for it to begin.
We haven’t booked any accommodation, our decision making quota filled for the time being, and as we disembark we allow the choice to be made for us by the first tourist tout we meet. Tomorrow we will begin the search for a more permanent base, where we hope to stay for at least a month.
As my bike-taxi winds up over the hill away from the port of Thong Sala I can’t help but compare Koh Phangan with India – but am surprised by the results. The trees are more green here, the bougainvillea more pink, the sea more blue.
We made the right decision. This is a new place to fall in love with, where we can be more… us. A place less about my own personal journey, and more about my shared journey with Lee, as a couple. I feel my heart shift inside, making space for new feelings to form.
The warm air rushes past me, and I catch a handful. I bring it to my bowed head for a moment, then sweep it across my face, grateful for the many choices that led us here, and for all the choices still ahead.