When my plane landed in Thailand a few years ago, I received a little surprise.
Stepping out of the cabin after an 18 hour flight, my body uncertain the day or time, I wandered down to the baggage claim with a small Jansport daypack to wait for my much larger travel backpack. I waited. Then waited some more.
My luggage didn’t come.
Although this was my first time to lose a bag, it was clearly not a novel situation at the China Airlines help desk. I didn’t receive much sympathy, all I got was a tiny slip of paper with a claim number and a phone contact that had more digits than I expected. Basically, my instructions were to wait some more (and cross my fingers for good luck).
As a solo traveler in Asia for the first time, I expected a wave of general culture shock. Finding your way to a hostel armed with one hour worth of Duolingo language skills is stressful enough, but now I was walking out into Bangkok for the start of a three week trip with essentially just the shirt on my back, a few electronics too valuable to check, and very thankfully, my malaria medication.
Khaosan Road, Bangkok
Like many travelers looking to start their trip on the cheap, I choose a ridiculously affordable, ridiculously dirty Khaosan Road hostel. I checked in then wandered out to find dinner and buy a much needed toothbrush, but as soon as I exited the curving alley outside the hostel, a torrential downpour soaked my one outfit. Another nice surprise: the fall rainy season is no joke. I remember cowering under an awning of a pharmacy trying to wait out the rain, thinking that this whole vacation was a terrible idea.
After an itchy night of sleep (seriously, do not stay in a Khaosan Road hostel), I put my damp clothes back on and headed out into the city. In 2019, Bangkok officially surpassed London and Paris as the most traveled destination in the world, partly because of its friendly reputation as “The Land of Smiles.” It took about 15 minutes wandering around before an older Thai lady chatted me up on a street corner. When I explained the plight of my lost clothes, she told me just what to do.
I was the first person in the history of Thailand tourism who actually really needed to take part in a Tuk Tuk scam.
Scam might be a harsh word here, because if you’re not short on time it’s a great deal, but the hustle works like this. You pay the driver the equivalent of 50 cents and he takes you to several major tourist sites in the city for most of the day. The catch is that along the way, he also introduces you to Thailand’s world famous tailoring industry, and in the process receives a healthy kickback from shop owners.
At the first store we visited I bought three customer dress shirts, lightweight enough to handle the Thai humidity, tailored to fit, and cheaper than anything I’d find in the States. I’d need to return for them the next day, but I didn’t have much faith in my airline, so I was planning for the long haul. My driver then dragged me to three more shops, eventually giving away the game and just telling me to feign interest so he could score some gas money. But he made good on his part of the bargain, I did get a nearly-free trip to see the reclining Buddha at Wat Pho and a few other memorable temples.
Wat Pho, Bangkok
As yet another afternoon rainstorm hit, I tipped my driver goodbye and continued in my double-damp clothes to explore around Bangkok. Losing my luggage basically gave me liberty to go on a guilt-free shopping spree, which was made even more fun by one of the other main reasons so many people travel to Thailand: the affordability. For less than the cost of lunch in the US, I picked up a wardrobe of surprisingly cool essentials and bootleg t-shirts, plus another mini travel bag at an insane price (which I would soon learn was because of a broken zipper).
My lost luggage was still on my mind though. Once I returned to the hostel, I badgered the manager into calling the airline on my behalf. I spent more time than I’d like to admit failing at navigating their website. I made an entitled Twitter post, and even Facebook messaged China Airlines begging for an update. After a few beers with some strangers at the hostel, I nestled in for another itchy night, thinking of all the clothes and travel gear that I’d lost.
The next day I woke up and bothered the manager again, still no news, so I stumbled out of the hostel in my new clothes. Before I even left the alley, I was sitting down at a street food vendor eating a steaming bowl of Khao Tom rice soup. And that’s when I realized that I was actually having a great time.
As I sipped the soup I felt a wave of peacefulness, content with the knowledge that I really didn’t need a giant backpack full of stuff to enjoy the city. And I felt much more confident knowing that in a few hours I’d solved what seemed like a devastating problem. That sense of peace was disrupted when I walked out into the chaos of the Bangkok streets, but the confidence remained, and if you’ve ever traveled by yourself, you know that confidence is the single most important travel tool you can have.
I explored Bangkok for a few more days, dressed at first like a caricature of a tourist, then like a buttoned-down Thai businessman. I went to the gigantic Chatuchak market and bought a much-too-small swimsuit, hit up a late night jazz bar, and met up with a friend who gave me a coffee shop tour and took me to a legendary street food corner for char-grilled oysters that I still dream about. At no point did I actually need that lost luggage.
After five days in the city, it was time for me to continue my trip on an overnight train to Surat Thani, then island-hop for a week in a swimsuit that I’d be embarrassed to wear anywhere else. I’d accepted that I’d never see my backpack again.
Then as I was checking out, the manager of the hostel got a phone call. China Airlines had finally hunted down my bag, and it was on its way to the hostel, packed precariously on the back of a motorbike. I literally jumped with joy at the news.
The backpack arrived minutes before I needed to leave to catch my train, but when I opened it, I didn’t feel relief. That wave of stress I’d worked past came rushing back. My newfound levity faded when I realized that I would need to carry this massive pack around for the next two weeks. Of course I was happy to have my things back, but I left Bangkok with the knowledge that maybe I was better off without them.
Dan Gentile is a writer and coffee enthusiast based in San Francisco, California.