This is one of those stories I like to bring out over a beer or something with friends. It’s one of the scariest experiences I’ve had while travelling – and looking back at it now, it’s pretty funny. It was one of those times when everything lined up in just the wrong way.
Let me set the scene for you. I was at the very start of my first real solo trip – ten weeks around South-East Asia, filled with beaches, hiking, curries and temples, before I began my first full-time job back in Australia. I was really excited. But naturally, I was also pretty nervous.
I had hit a few hiccups in the planning stages. I was originally headed to Ayutthaya to start with, but major floods just before I left forced me to change my plans with only days to spare – thank you, travel insurance!! Instead, I was headed to Phuket, which you probably know has a much seedier reputation. I actually booked my hotel for the night on the phone with a travel agent on my way to the airport, and wrote down the name she told me – Roam Place Hotel, in Old Town, Phuket.
My flight took me via Singapore, and on the first leg I was seated next to an older Australian couple. We got chatting, and I told them excitedly about my plans for the next 10 weeks. Now, anyone who has travelled solo – especially women – can guess how they reacted. Shock that I was travelling alone. Confusion as to why I would want to. And concern for my safety.
That concern for my safety led to the man regaling me with tale after tale of horrible things that had happened to his kids’ friends while travelling.
“One of our daughter’s friends – he’d be a bit older than you – he was travelling by himself in Bangkok,” went one story. “He had a pretty big night out, and woke up the next morning feeling really sick. He couldn’t remember what had happened, so he decided to cut his trip short and head home to Sydney. After a few days, he still felt really sick, so he went to the doctor. And he only had one kidney!! Someone in Bangkok had drugged him and stolen his kidney!!”
The moral of the story? This will definitely happen to you. According to this man, at least.
(But – really? How did that guy not notice he had had surgery until several days later? And if he was that sick, why wouldn’t he go to the hospital in Bangkok? Some things don’t really add up here – but it’s still DEFINITELY not the story you want to be hearing at the beginning of your first solo trip to Asia!)
“And as for our son’s friend! Well, when she went to Vietnam…” he continued.
“No, stop,” I said. “Please, I really don’t need to hear this.”
“But what happened to her was…”
“No, really, I don’t want to know!”
“But it was…”
“Honey, stop,” said his wife, to my eternal gratitude. “She doesn’t want to know.”
So as you can imagine, I was feeling a little bit extra nervous as my flight landed in Singapore.
When I booked, I’d carefully lined up my flights to make sure I arrived in Phuket mid-afternoon, with plenty of time to get my bearings before dark. Unfortunately, my flight was delayed a few hours leaving Singapore, and a storm over Phuket delayed our landing for another hour while we circled the airport and watched the lightning out the window. So by the time I was on the ground, it was well and truly dark, and pouring rain.
Take an official taxi, my guidebook said. Don’t risk a tout, buy your fare inside the airport at the kiosk. So I showed the girl at the desk the name and address of my hotel, and she sold me a ticket to give to the driver showing I had paid my fare. Stepping out of the airport, I was bombarded with touts, but I showed my ticket to someone official looking, and was ushered over to an un-marked car. The driver put my backpack in the boot and I took the front seat. There was no metre. It didn’t look like a taxi.
“So where do you want to go?” asked the driver in his unfamiliar Thai accent.
“Roam Place Hotel,” I said, proffering the prepaid fare ticket and the slip of paper on which I had written my hotel’s address.
“Here!” He took the paper, squinted at it, and handed it back.
“Ok, ok,” said the driver, and pulled out from the kerb.
Have you ever been in one of those newish cars that have that safety feature where once the car goes over a certain speed, all of the doors automatically lock? Since Thailand, I’ve been in one of those a handful of times, so I know that yes, they definitely are a thing. But I didn’t know that at the time. So when all the doors suddenly locked as we picked up speed, my heart skipped a beat.
“Unlock the doors please,” I said, wishing suddenly that my backpack was in the front with me rather than in the boot.
“Unlock the doors please!” I’m pretty sure there was a small note of panic in my voice at this point.
“Oh, the doors just lock. That’s how the car is.”
I didn’t believe him, but decided not to argue as we drove down the busy, rainy, dark road.
“So, we just have to go somewhere else first,” said my driver after a little while.
“No, just take me to the hotel,” I insisted.
“It will just take a minute,” said my driver.
My mind was filling with the image of single-kidneyed Australian guys left for dead on the streets of Bangkok.
“I don’t want to go anywhere else. Please just take me to my hotel.” He must have been able to hear the panic in my voice at this point.
“Yes, but first we make one stop.”
I’m all alone, I thought. I’m all alone, in a locked car, somewhere in Phuket. No one knows I’m here. I’m in an un-marked car that might not even be a taxi. And he wants to take me somewhere else.
“NO. Just to the hotel!”
“I don’t know where it is! I need to go to the office and ask.”
HOW COULD HE NOT KNOW WHERE IT IS?? The travel agent who organised the hotel for me had said it was one of the most well-known in Old Town. And his job is taking people from the airport to their hotel. Surely he must know it!
My heart was racing now, but what else could I do? “Ok,” I said nervously. “One stop. Then straight to the hotel!!”
After about 10 minutes, we left the highway and took a dirt track. This did not fill me with confidence. The rain had lessened a bit, and I could see the lights of a building in the distance. We pulled up in front of it. “Wait here,” said my driver, and got out of the car, and went inside. Heart pounding, I waited.
After a minute, a smiling Thai woman emerged from the building, came over to the car, and opened the door. “Which hotel are you going to?” she asked. (Her accent was a lot easier to understand than the driver’s!)
“Roam Place,” I told her, and showed her my slip of paper.
“Oh!” she said, looking at the paper, and she laughed. “Roam Place! Right?”
“Yes,” I said. The same thing I’ve been saying the whole time!! I didn’t say that part out loud though.
“Roam Place. Great!” She said something to my driver in Thai. She smiled again, and my driver got back in the car.
We got back on the highway, (the doors all locked again,) and twenty minutes later, we were pulling up in front of a bit old hotel with large letters on top.
ROME PLACE HOTEL.
Rome. Not Roam. Rome Place Hotel.
Same pronunciation, but it must have looked like a completely different word to my driver with his so-so English.
Relief washed over me. It was all genuine. He really was a taxi. The doors really did automatically lock. He really did just need to stop at the office and ask for directions!!
Still, it took me a little while to get over my fright. My driver got my backpack out of the car boot, I thanked him, and almost ran inside. I checked in, got upstairs, triple locked the door, and sat on my bed and hugged myself.
I had made it to Thailand, alive, kidneys intact. That’s enough for Day One, I told myself. I’ll be adventurous tomorrow.
A perfect start to the adventure, right? Haha not so much. But it’s pretty funny, looking back at it. And I am lucky that that’s the closest I’ve come to being kidnapped, because it can actually be pretty serious.
Have you ever had a situation where you thought you were going to end up in serious trouble, but it all turned out ok? I’d love to hear about it in the comments! 🙂