This is the second post in a series of blog posts about my travels as a single 40+-year-old woman travelling alone in Asia. You can read the first post here.
It turned out I was in a place called Hat Yau, still in Thailand. Not a bus station, but a bus centre, a cafe of sorts where travellers of all kinds come and go, just near the Malaysian border. I was the only white person there, which wasn't unusual.
A family affair
Before I set off to Asia I'd spent months researching the many aspects of being abroad, and it seemed, from the multiple blogs that I was reading, that there would be thousands of white people everywhere. I'm not quite sure why I came to this conclusion, but it's not accurate. On most of the internal flights, bus journeys and even at restaurants where I ate, I was often the only white person. I'm not mentioning it for any specific reason other than it's surprised me.
In the cafe, there was a large Muslim family, consisting of around ten women and two men who it turned out would be joining me on the next leg of my journey.
A large woman sat behind a cluttered and dirty desk and looked at me: "Penang, yes?"
I looked behind me, yes she was speaking to me.
I still have no idea how things work in Asia, most things, transactions, arrangements, and anything else is done on a piece of paper, or if it's very modern organisation, such as the immigration office, they have weird looking clunky databases reminiscent of something from the eighties. And yet, and yet, it all seems to run and work seamlessly. This woman knew who I was, where I was going, and also that I had already bought a ticket.
One of the men in the family had the strangest looking hair, and I found it hard not to look. It was thick as a brush and also long, maybe chin length, and it was black. However, from the roots there were at least three inches of ice grey, it was an unusual look, in London I'm sure it would be the hairstyle of the moment, but here, in the deepest darkest depths of Thailand, it looked decidedly odd.
I had been wondering why I hadn't seen one Asian person with grey hair and decided that they simply didn't go grey? But when I spoke to my Vietnamese friend, Giang, she told me that Asian men do have grey hair, but they dye it to look younger, which is a stark contrast to the West.
The silver fox
I've never met a man who doesn't suit grey hair - it implies experience, sophistication, and perhaps even wealth? Think George Clooney or Richard Gere. It's relatively rare for a British man to have a full head of grey hair because disappointingly most start to go bald or receding in their twenties or thirties, but when they do manage to retain it, and especially paired with a well-trimmed grey beard - well they seem to have the whole world at their feet those silver foxes eh?
What a shame women with grey hair aren't' perceived in the same way hey? But no surprises there.
How old are you?
When I first arrived in Vietnam and started to meet Vietnamese women I was very taken aback with the first question any woman gets asked: How old are you? Us British aren't comfortable talking about age, indeed I was challenged at a dinner table in Thailand recently when I questioned someone's age (it was their birthday dinner!) and told I was very rude to ask such a question. I was laughing inside obviously. God us British - we are so uptight.
Vietnamese women use the question as a form of bonding, the next question they ask: Do you have any children? We then compare ages, compliment each other on how good the other looks, discuss marriage, divorce and men, and then chat about our children and smile and laugh - it's a wonderful experience.
Whilst travelling in the Ninh Bin area I came across a woman at the side of the road selling vegetables, she spoke no English whatsoever. We managed to communicate the ages of our children by snapping a leaf off a tree and writing their ages on the stone floor in sap - Vietnamese women are the most resourceful women in the world.
After an hour at the makeshift cafe we set off on the bus to Penang - it was another minivan, but the atmosphere was decidedly different. The family (who seemed like they actually liked each other) were going on holiday, and they were laughing, eating snacks, and showing each other videos on their phones. Not one of them could speak English, but they regularly smiled at me and offered me some of their food. The driver made sure I had the best seat on the bus and kept checking to see if I was OK.
The driver was dressed in a short-sleeved checked shirt tucked into his jeans with a belt and brogues. He spoke fluent English and told me that he makes this trip every single day. He drives from Malaysia to Hat Yau and back again every single day, and he does it with boundless enthusiasm, professionalism and a smile on his face. I had so much respect for this man. I feel like this is the epitome of living a profound spiritual life - doing the same task, day after day, enjoying it and being thankful for it.
Monotony and drudgery
I worked as a social worker every day for ten years, and it made me utterly miserable. Not just the job itself, but enduring the hideous commute, the relentless office politics, and where the only thing you have to talk about with most of your colleagues is what to have for lunch. The thought of doing the same thing day after day again fills me with dread and fear, no matter how meaningful working as a Social Worker is perceived to be.
Are we in the UK?
As we crossed over the border into Malaysia, the scenery changed significantly, and surprisingly, it reminded me of the UK. Although, it's probably not that surprising as Malaysia was a British colony until 1963. There were trees of many different varieties, sloping hills, streams and valleys, little worn footbaths, and ferns and grasses. Yet, amongst all of this, and so I knew it was Asia, there were banana trees and palm trees dotted in between, like a hybrid of two worlds.
My initial thoughts were that it looked very civilised, the roads were well-maintained and clean, there were blooming flowerbeds at the sides of junctions, and the streets were precisely like ours, with our road signs, bridges and tunnels. It was a lovely journey, the remaining four hours.
As we neared the island of Penang, which is accessible from the mainland by a bridge, I could see the largest expanse of crystal blue waters and in the distance, tower blocks, many many tower blocks, it wasn't what I expected at all, and I felt somewhat disappointed.
Female Solo Travel
As a female travelling alone, I have the constant dilemma of where to stay. As a 40+-year-old woman, who's never shared accommodation in my life and has spent the last 20 years running a home and being a parent, the thought of staying in hostels gives me the shivers, but, the thing is, if you don't, you're going to find it challenging to meet other people.
Some of the people you meet in hostels you won't want to speak to or have much to do with anyway, I could write a whole post about this and maybe I will at a later date. Nevertheless, occasionally, you will meet someone that you're going to really connect with, someone who is going to enrich your trip, perhaps even your life, and it's going to be a great experience. Don't forget you're away from home, for sometimes months on end, and human physical connections begin to become more and more important.
I ended up finding a balance of having my own space and being sociable by spending my time alternating between apartments and hostels, and if I did choose to stay in a hostel, then I only ever stayed in female rooms.
And so it was that I'd booked to stay at 'Lucy's Mansion', a female only hostel, it had great reviews on Booking.com, and after two months spent mostly alone in Thailand, I was ready to meet some new people. I was under no illusions that it would be a mansion, I've stayed at many other 'mansions' in Asia and really it just means accommodation...
The bus driver seemed to know exactly where it was when I said the name, and he very kindly dropped me off right at the door. It had a beautiful ornate cast iron gate with an intricate heavy wooden door behind it. Unfortunately, it was locked.
I couldn't get to the actual door to knock on it, due to the gate, and there was no bell. Hmmm.
I tried to get on Whatsapp, to let the host know that I was here, we'd already communicated some days before, but I frustratingly realised that my phone had no signal, I was in a new country now, and my sim wasn't working. And of course, my email was the same - inaccessible.
I pounded heavily on the gate, no answer. I stood in the road, with my three bags, perspiring heavily, it was 34 degrees and no shade to be seen.
The quiet street was peaceful and beautiful, similar visually to a rustic Italian backstreet you might see in Florence, rows of intricate buildings with sophisticated and clean decay. I sat down on my suitcase on the edge of the road.
As I sat waiting for someone to show up, people were walking past, tourists, well -dressed white people. It was both disappointing and reassuring. Disappointing because every curious traveller wants to have an authentic experience of the place that they're visiting and to see so many white people concentrated in one area is often a clear sign of it being overtouristed and possible gentrification. But reassuring because it means there's a good chance people will be able to speak English and you'll be able to get by more comfortably.
Dressed in rags
I was hot and sweaty and sticky and scruffy.
I looked down at my dress, which was now saturated in sweat and realised that I despised it. I'd left a suitcase of my best clothes in Vietnam as I knew that Thailand would be incredibly hot and I'd be on the beach most of the time anyway? So I had three dresses, which had been my favourite dresses when I'd left the UK, but I'd been wearing them on rotation for months now, and I'd happily have thrown them all in the bin I was so sick of them. Judging by the way people were dressed here in Georgetown, it seemed like I would need to up my game considerably.
Hours went by.
My back started to ache and my ankles were swollen from the 12-hour journey.
I was exhausted, starving and dehydrated.
I had no phone, no internet and no Malaysian money.
I wasn't sure what to do, so I did what I often do in these situations.
To read the next post please click here.
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Hannah Anstee is a former British Wellness Journalist turned Women’s Midlife & Wellbeing Coach.
You may know her from her work as Beauty Editor at YOGA Magazine or her contributions to The Independent or Psychologies Magazine.
Hannah uses a kind and candid approach to help women rewrite their stories.