My girlfriend, Samantha, and I had started to plan the trip to
Thailand together, but soon into the planning process, she broke up with
me. Her reasons fell primarily into the "It's not you, it's me" category,
but she added just enough "Well,
actually, it's you, too" jabs to keep my wounds fresh and grisly. A week
after the initial split, we saw each other at a bar -- and she proceeded to
hug me and give me Eskimo kisses, our lips just barely brushing. It was
enough to make a man go insane, which I promptly began to do.
Good old Samantha informed me that she was taking the trip to
Southeast Asia anyway, without me. At first, I was simply stunned -- this
was a girl who could hardly make it from bed to the coffee shop without
a crisis. Then the awe turned to anger as I
realized I would spend the next eight weeks disgustingly wondering where the
hell she was and what crazy things she was experiencing that I
I couldn't sleep. I felt
unappreciated, disrespected and now, jealous -- I was going to miss out on
all the fun of our trip. So in the middle of the night, the
semi-sinister solution came to me -- I too would travel solo to the same
area. Hey, Thailand's as big as France -- I figured we could keep our
When I arrived in sweaty, crowded, 110-degree Bangkok, I discovered
that I wasn't to be taking this trip alone after all -- I was accompanied
by the ghost of Samantha wherever I went. I could almost smell the damn
girl at the magnificent Grand Palace, and there she was, lying next to me
at Wat Pho as we experienced our first Thai massages. As that first wave of
solo travel panic flooded through me (what the hell am I doing here, all by
myself?), I carried on silent conversations with the ghost. When the
frantic tuk-tuk driver almost tipped the three-wheeled beast en route to
the Jim Thompson house museum, I squeezed her hand.
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E-mail abounds in Thailand. The typical "Noi's Internet Hut" charges
the equivalent of $2 an hour. Samantha had sent me an e-mail describing her
initial adventures. Though I had informed her of my own similar travel
plans, I had pledged to myself not to e-mail her when I was in Thailand --
and not to plan any sort of meeting. If we saw each other, it would be
destiny. Otherwise, it just wasn't meant to be.
I e-mailed her as soon as I got to Bangkok. "I'm on Khao San Road," I
wrote (yes, that Khao San Road -- where Teva-clad youth from all points of the globe
convene to buy tapes, drink beer and check their e-mail before catching a
bus to Surat Thani or a plane to Ho Chi Minh). "Where are you?"
There was no immediate response. I met up with my friends Mikey and Jen, who
were three weeks into a six-month trip through Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, India and Nepal. We went out drinking in
steamy Patpong, Thailand's red-light district.
The pudgy, bored women on the stage of our bar of choice danced
listlessly in ugly cotton underwear. Other women rubbed our
shoulders and legs with about as much zeal as a Burger King employee
assembling his 2,000th Whopper of the day. When Jen excused herself
to go to the bathroom, Mikey leaned over to me.
"Man, I really envy you," he confided. "You're a hot young bachelor
from San Francisco, ready to woo women the world over."
"Yeah, I guess so," I said. "But I'm kind of wrapped up in this
Samantha thing at the moment."
"Forget her, man," Mikey responded, straight out of a million
movies. "You've gotta make an effort not to
meet women on the road. Besides, I have to live vicariously through you."
I spent the next week or so taking short journeys out of Bangkok --
northeast to Kanchanaburi and the famous bridge over the River Kwai, then
a taste of island life on Ko Samet to the south. The island was so romantic
I almost couldn't breathe. Walking down the shore by moonlight, couples
nuzzled at ocean-side bars, leaning against each other on straw mats next to
candle-lit tables. I was at a low -- halfway across the world, experiencing
fantastic exotic culture, and all I could do was pick at my broken heart.
In "The Beach," Alex Garland remarks on how therapeutic traveling is for
getting over relationships. How wrong he was.
When I returned to Bangkok I checked my e-mail, and Samantha had
finally written back. She was also in Bangkok, having just returned from
northern Thailand and Laos. "Let's meet up," she suggested, suggestively.
"Want to head south together?" These words blared so loudly at me from the
screen, I had to look around the air-conditioned e-mail shop to make sure
they weren't disturbing anybody else.
I knew not to take anything from Sam at face value, but my hopes
rose faster than the ash from a slash-and-burn Chiang Mai field. The woman
had loosened the vice grip on my heart a couple of twists. That night, as
travelers on Khao San road traded adventure tales over 50-baht Carlsburgs, I
went for a stroll.
She was impossible to overlook, walking down the sidewalk, tan,
strikingly familiar and yet unreal. I didn't have time to think before I
was smiling. "Hi, Samantha," I said. She processed my image, let her
eyes sparkle a moment and hugged me. Then, abruptly, she asked me to follow
her while she phoned her parents.
I followed her around for a while as she ran errands --
apparently not moved much by the fact that we had just randomly bumped into each
other -- and ended up back with her current traveling group, a nice gang
of regular folks drinking at a bar. One Kiwi guy played with Sam's
dreadlocks teasingly. I tried to sit casually and drink, as Sam and the
rest were doing, but I couldn't. Samantha played the cool, experienced,
befriended traveler, while I must have exuded the nervous,
never-been-anywhere vibe. Had she really forgotten all about me?
"I've been thinking about you," I told her.
"Yeah?" she answered. And that was all.
I should have left right then and there, but some scabs are meant
to be tugged at.
"So, do you want to head south, perhaps?" I asked.
"Oh, yeah, I'm definitely going south," she shrugged.
"I meant, did you want to head south together," I sighed. It was obvious I
had no hand here.
Confusion over the last drink order with the transvestite waitress offered Samantha a chance to
ignore my last question. Maybe she
didn't want me there, but didn't have the nerve to ask me to leave her
alone. Maybe she wrote that inviting e-mail knowing that the chances of our
meeting up were slim. But here we were; there she was.
"Wanna go?" she asked me.
"Sure," I said, not knowing where she meant.
We walked out of the bar, and she turned to face me.
"Reuben ..." she started. Here it came -- whatever it would be, I
was anxious to hear it and move on. "All I can tell you is, I'll e-mail you
when I'm back in Bangkok next week. Good luck to you."
We hugged and walked opposite ways down Khao San Road. I turned to
look back but she didn't.
Heading north alone, I trekked in Chiang Mai, took a massage course
in Pai, hiked through a hailstorm near the Burma border and returned to
Chiang Mai to plan my route to Laos. There I met a crazy English guy named Wilt,
who was also traveling with a broken heart. We traded tales of our honeys
over Chang beers until sunrise. It turned out he and a small group he had
formed were heading to Laos. In addition to three other English types
there was Katarine, a dark-haired Norwegian girl with a lovely smile.
The two single English guys had been trying to win Katarine's
affection since Bangkok. I wasn't very interested, which is probably why
she picked me.
The gang traveled through hot, dry Laos together, and then Katarine
and I took an overnight train back into Thailand as visions of the islands
danced in our heads. Maybe it shouldn't have, but traveling with a
beautiful girl improved the trip dramatically. Though I am a loner at heart
and quite content to enjoy loneliness in melancholy satisfaction, I
couldn't turn down this opinionated Scandinavian, who had fair skin, red lips,
dark black eyelashes and the sexiest English I've ever heard. We
traveled to Ko Tao together, a postcard-quality island in the Gulf of
Thailand. We took a scuba course together, sharing bungalows, cozying up to
each other and, one night on a very quiet beach, kissing slowly,
pacifically. It wasn't as much sexual as it was comfort; I didn't have
strong feelings for her, she didn't have strong feelings for me and we'd be parting soon
-- but it felt nice, for the time being.
After our last day of scuba diving, I bid Katarine farewell as she
boarded the ferry, her first step towards Malaysia. I myself was to head to the limestone cliffs of Krabi on the west coast of Thailand the following
That night, a bunch of scuba instructors celebrated their
graduation to dive masters at the black-lit AC Bar on the beach. I drank AC
Buckets -- an amphetamine-charged combination of Sangthip Thai whiskey,
Coke and Red Bull. I was amped and buzzed and shirtless when I hit the
dance floor. Yet another movie moment enveloped me as I noticed, through
the flashing strobe lights, a blonde girl dancing next to me, smiling at
me. She pulled me aside and we sipped from the bucket.
"What's your name?" she asked.
Within minutes we were rolling around on the beach, groping each
other through the sand and kissing each other's gritty lips with impatient
gusto. Fishing boats slurped in the lazy surf, drunken travelers whooped at
the distant bar and Claudia, the girl from England, and I made out like it
was the last night on Earth -- an easy fantasy when you're on a strange
island. Claudia was the perfect make-out partner: forward and voluptuous, with a wildly disproportionate chest and a knack for sassy back talk. We carried
half the beach's sand back to my bungalow, where my crappy boom box
warbled Burning Spear over our moans and groans and a gecko
peered at us from behind the fan. The next morning, we walked down the
quiet beach and then parted without trading e-mail addresses or making plans
to meet up again. It was perfect. Maybe Alex Garland was right about
traveling after all.
In Krabi, limestone cliffs plunge directly into the sea, encircling
gorgeous beaches along the way. I climbed into lagoons, drank
pineapple shakes and read J.G. Ballard. I was traveling solo again, and
the ghost of Samantha was making only the occasional visit. Fewer
passersby were resembling her, and less of my day was
spent replaying old conversations in my head.
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It was the start of monsoon season, and fat rainstorms were
hitting the west coast every afternoon. It didn't take long to head out of
back toward the Gulf of Thailand islands, destination Ko Phangan.
The infamous Full Moon Party was approaching, and I wanted to snag
a decent bungalow before the prices soared to $10 a night.
My first day on Haadrin beach started normally enough. I was lazing
on the beach, watching a large, white yacht approach the island. Deirdre, a
Dutch girl I had met at a restaurant the night before, joined me. The scene was
straight out of "Spring Break
VI: Bottoms Up." Deirdre was taller than me, dark-skinned and clad in
nothing but a white thong bikini bottom. She asked if I'd like to join her
in the water to smoke a joint. I'd be curious to view the population of
single men who would turn down such an offer.
We spent one juicy week together, waking up late in bungalow No. 4,
dancing all night at the glow-painted carnival that was the Full Moon
Party, eating coconut curry, throwing the Frisbee and spearheading a new
era of American-Dutch relations whenever the moon would appear and glitter
off the translucent jellyfish in the ocean. And then Deirdre
had to return to Bangkok to pick up her Vietnam visa, and I had to prepare
myself for my return to San Francisco.
Back in Bangkok, I checked my e-mail. Samantha had written once
again, telling me about her adventures in the south and suggesting that I
"do myself a favor" and check out southern Thailand, if I hadn't planned to
already. Silly girl. I had filled one journal with "SamAngsttha" and had
spent the first half of my trip trying to nudge fate toward a reunion with
her. But my attitude had changed somewhere on those white-knuckled
highways, where the bus drivers pass on two-lane roads on blind turns,
their offerings to Buddha swaying from the rear-view mirror. At some point
between the sparks of romance and the 30-cent pad thai, I suddenly didn't
care where, or who, my ex-girlfriend was.
On the plane home, I dug in my bag for my Krishnamurti book and I
noticed someone sitting down next to me. Had the ghost returned for one
more jaunt together? I looked up. An elderly Filipino woman smiled at me as
she sat down. I smiled back and opened my book.