BANGKOK - When I arrive in Asia, the contents of my luggage includes six pairs of high-heels, two kilograms of jewelry and hundreds of dollars in hair products.
When I depart 10 months earlier than planned, I’m hoisting five tightly rolled T-shirts and a personal safety alarm in one sturdy red backpack.
I have never slept in a hostel, never tried “couch surfing,” and I speak an impressive zero Asian languages. But I refuse to stay living in the same country as the boifurendo who’s just dumped me.
So I scrape together my savings, load up on vaccinations, dub myself the “Lone She Wolf” and make a commitment to my one and only, me: Be open to adventure.
I launch my recovery mission from China, where I’m lavished with attention as an Amazonian six-foot-tall blond woman. Young ladies in saucer-sized sunglasses order me into poses and drape across me for pictures to post on social media.
Above: Our writer Tamsyn gets a quick boxing lesson from a Thia champ.
I distract myself from heartache exploring the fastest developing country in the world. I ride bullet trains, planes, tin-can taxis, riverboats and bicycles through a dizzying 12 cities over the course of one month.
I scramble up the cliffs of the Baoshi Mountain in Hangzhou, a terminus city on the east coast, on a day when holiday crowds surge through ancient pagodas that festoon a lotus-lacquered lake. As dragon boats race, a famished insect snacks on my left foot. I seek out ancient Chinese remedies, but only survive the diagnosis – some kind of flesh-eating disease – with a prescription of Western drugs obtained in Shanghai. Then I’m dashing from the clinic and rocketing up to one of the world’s highest observation decks, my scare vanquished. I feel liberated gazing down upon skyscrapers from the 474 metres height, inside the Shanghai World Financial Center.
But my skin prickles as I inspect sculptures of human-ghost hybrids that beckon visitors up to the entrance of Nanjing’s massacre museum. Its evocative exhibits dramatize the horrific slaughter of an estimated 300,000 townsfolk by Japanese invaders during World War II. My mood lifts in the metropolis of Tianjin, where I spot beauties among beasts along the downtown promenade adorning its scenic Haihe River. Summertime brides snap photos while somehow ignoring potbellied men in barely-there swim trunks. The marauding bathers somehow ignore the stench of polluted water.
I’d be remiss not to trek along the Great Wall of China. So I meet up with a Canadian friend and we travel to a section called Mutianyu, northeast of Beijing. We hike an astonishingly steep 1.4 kilometres from towers six to 14. The mostly granite path, a feat of human construction refurbished between the 14th and 17th centuries, dips and rises above a spectrum of creamy clouds that layer the mountains like icing.
Above: Wedding parties gather along Bangkok's main river to have their photos taken.
Science has shown that novel experiences stimulate endorphins. And at some point, I forget I’ve been intentionally triggering highs. I’m half laughing when I shoo away hawkers like flies, and yelp bu yao to exclaim “I don’t want.” I forgive overgrown, frankenfruit strawberries for dribbling vitamin-less juice down my chin. And I’m heartened when amused bus drivers rescue me after circling entire cities in the wrong direction. We communicate with a smartphone app that translates English into Chinese characters.
But at night, lying on the top of three oven-tray bunks as the train speeds forward in stealth mode, I cradle a stinging loneliness in my chest. No one around me speaks enough English for me to confide in. I rally by giving myself props for still being there, doing it. It’s close to midnight when I meet two hapless Europeans as we alight. We’re in the deserted outskirts of Xi’an, city of the famed Terracotta Warriors in central China. I herd them into a pre-arranged taxi and usher the young ladies to dreamland at my lodging. It’s the inaugural episode of Lessons in Successful Backpacking; the tagline is Pay It Forward.
No rest for me. I fly next to Chengdu’s research base of giant panda breeding, in southwestern Sichuan province. I get my lifetime fill of the undeniably adorable but useless creatures as they feast up to 16 hours daily on anyone else’s lifetime fill of bamboo. As the teddies tussle in orgiastic messes aboard wooden tree houses, I’m drawn into an evolutionary debate with another visitor. We weigh the merits of the state pouring vast funding into its artificial insemination program. In the 1980s, the base generated 172 newborns from just six rescued, starving pandas.
But for all the outdoors, it dawns that I’ve not seen blue sky in weeks when I enter an open-air shopping mall where the ceiling is plastered with an enormous HD flat screen. Jet planes and colourful hot-air balloons whiz by, until disrupted by pixelated corporate advertising.
I still crave more, and find it cruising by boat down the Li River to Yangshuo. I do-that-thing-you-do and pose against the majestic backdrop of the Guilin region’s sublime karst landscape flourishing an RMB 20 yuan banknote. The same scene adorns the bill and it’s like we’re floating through a classical Chinese ink painting. I meet a fashion designer on arrival in this storybook town and he invites me to a “kissing fish spa,” wedged between hopping nightclubs. Slipping bare feet into tanks, we shriek with repulsed laughter as dozens of tiny Garra rufa swarm and gulp away our dead flesh. Dance music pounds next door.
When I touch down in Thailand, nicknamed the land of 1,000 smiles, my feelings instead are a cacophony of blahs. China was an exercise in satisfying problem solving. But the Thais’ breezy sabai, sabai mantra draws more foreigners here than any other Southeast Asian destination. I cringe at their ubiquitous elephant-print pants. So I challenge myself to go greater lengths to make my unplanned “gap year” truly meaningful. Solution? Be open to adventure.
Left: Our writer and her friends have fun at a fish spa. Right: A local artist proudly shows off his work.
I start off easy, scrubbing rescued elephants clean at the Baan Chang rehabilitation center in the heaving heat near Chiang Mai. Then I zip south to the island of Koh Tao, where I learn to scuba dive directly in the open ocean. We navigate thriving coral forests inhabited by fish with pretty names like butterfly, trigger and angel.
But I’m still going through the motions until I meet Suwan “Phu” Chansri, a 500-fight Pan-Asian Thai boxing champion. He whisks me on his motorbike into the verdant jungles of Koh Pha Gnan to cavort with his band of Muay Thai fighters. For the first time in months, I feel a sense of belonging. I bounce my new friends’ tots on my lap as we play cards at their shacks, slinging shots of Sang Som whiskey and plucking fresh-roasted chicken off the carcass. Phu tosses me boxing gloves and teaches me how to punch and kick.
I discover that openness to adventure means actively creating and embracing opportunities. It’s about plotting a course, crafting intentions and then going for it, but rearranging the map pins when unfathomably epic options begin to materialize. No sooner do I adopt this attitude when it’s put to the test.