It completely shook my confidence and, as a female traveller, it made me question if I was as competent or worldly as I thought I was. But I’m tougher than that, and so are you!
First of all, let me just say, that this was absolutely not as bad as you might be thinking. Physically I was unharmed, but mentally it left me shaken, questioning what I had always taken for granted: I am a strong, independent woman, so why shouldn’t I travel solo?
Here’s what happened…
Just after Christmas last year, I headed off on a three week trip with my boyfriend, exploring Thailand and Myanmar. It was New Year’s Eve on Khao San Road. We’d survived bells, more than survived, we’d had an amazing party, dancing and drinking in a small bar full of young Thais, wishing the throngs of backpackers who passed us by a “Happy New Year!”
We went off to find some street food at about 1am, and after securing the most delicious chicken skewers ever (not at all improved by the Chang we’d drunk I swear) we headed home.
Walking down a side street, not far from Khao San Road, slightly ahead of my boyfriend, I can only say that one minute I was upright, pottering along the street minding my own business, and the next I was staggering towards to ground, the wind completely knocked out of me, the concrete rising towards my face. I managed to recover myself in time to swing round and see a small Thai man, maybe 40-50 years old a few feet behind me on the ground.
Later, James (the bf) explained to me what had happened: this guy had seen me from an alley off of the main street, he’d eyed me up and down and then ran headlong into me. On purpose. Full force. I guess what he wasn’t banking on was the fact that I’m 5’11” and not exactly built like a ballerina. So he hit the deck, but then tried to come at James, who managed to peacefully restrain him and push him off of me until the older man decided to quit it and scurry off back into the alley.
His motive? All sorts ran through our minds in the days following. I was walking ahead of James, so did he think I was alone? Was he trying to knock me into an adjacent alley way so that he could beat me up or rape me? Was he just drunk and simply fumbled into me? But it was the way he had deliberately measured me up and then ploughed into me. It could not have been an accident.
It’s also worth pointing out that neither myself nor James were excessively drunk or being loud and obnoxious – there was much much worse out in Bangkok that night I assure you! And I was dressed rather modestly, mid-length dress, flat sandals, James in a shirt and jeans. Which brings me on to the real reason this happened…
Rewind to October 13th 2016, the day King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world’s longest-reigning monarch, died. Long after the official ceremonies marking his passing were over, many residents in Bangkok and all over Thailand continued to wear black, or at the very least pinned a black ribbon to their clothes as a sign of respect. We knew that New Year’s Eve 2016 would be a much more subdued affair and had been following all of the Foreign & Commonwealth Office’s advice on travel in Thailand during this period of mourning. But for some locals in Bangkok, this incident proved to us that any display of celebration, even in backpacker central Khao San Road, was an affront to the memory of their beloved King.
If this was the reason why I was almost knocked to the ground (recovering from a broken collarbone at the time) by a complete stranger at 1am on New Year’s Day, then I am truly sorry. We did not mean to cause offence. But another reason that a someone gave a few days later was, to me, slightly more chilling, with important repercussions particularly for solo female travellers.
A Bangkok local (whom, I should point out, was not of the same opinion) told us that residents in Bangkok simply hate tourists, and that is why this man, old enough to be my dad, attacked me. He picked me out as a target for all of his pent up rage and frustration. Apparently they hate western morals, drunken antics and, in some cases, our supposed arrogance and lack of respect for Thai culture. We’ve all met these types of travellers, and would agree that this stereotype gives all of us a bad name. But I’ve never been tarred so broadly with the same brush. I’ve been to Bangkok a number times and even have expat friends who live there, and I’ve always found the locals to be kind and accommodating. I’ve never felt threatened in this vibrant, bustling city. And this is what frightened me the most.
Had I been so naive to think that all Thais people love tourists? Had I been travelling in a bubble, oblivious to the real dangers that surrounded me? As a solo female traveller, I’d never taken my safety for granted in the past, and what, now that I was with my boyfriend I’d somehow let my guard down? How could I have been so stupid?!
And then I stopped blaming myself.
Woman or not, solo traveller or not, Thailand, Australia or Europe: there will always be some people out there who will pray on vulnerable people. There will always be those in certain countries who feel defensive about their culture, or, regrettably, jaded by the impact of tourism. I wasn’t attacked just because I was a woman, or alone, or because I was being loud, or disrespectful. I was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
I still shudder to think what might have happened if James had not been there – and if anyone has any theories on the guy’s motive then please feel free to leave a comment! But I refuse to let this incident destroy the confidence – that I can go out there and be me, I can be independent and self-reliant – that travel has given me over the years.
Things will go wrong, and we might end up in trouble (hopefully not too serious) and circumstances beyond our control might change – all I’d wanted was a late night snack and a tuk-tuk home! There are plenty of precautions solo travellers can take to stay safe (and I’ll be blogging about them very soon so stay tuned). But when this happens you can trust yourself to get out of it and to roll with whatever the situation is.
I hope that all female travellers realise this. I hope all travellers and backpackers realise this. It’s our job to travel responsibly, to respect local cultures and to adapt to them – learning to do this is one of the best parts about travelling. So I hope my NYE tale is a warning to stay vigilant, but also a reminder that you can’t always predict these things and that if they happen you should never let them undermine your confidence or ruin the great joy in exploring our world.