We are Bailey and Denise, the creators of this blog, and enthusiasts of all things Van life. This is our story of How We Met: Love and Backpacking During COVID-19.
How Did Our Love Story Begin?
We met in Thailand, both as backpackers. Both on our path though, the night that we met may have changed our lives significantly!
Bai’s Story: Before We Met
To give a bit of a back story – I (Bailey) Arrived in Thailand at the beginning of January 2020. Six months earlier I was living in a shared house in the hills of Byron Bay, a tourist hotspot on the east coast of Australia.
Saving for a Gap-Year
Living in a place like this, it is inevitable that you will meet hundreds of interesting people from every corner of the world. Hearing their stories and of course, following them on social media lit a burning desire inside of me, to see some of the things they had seen. I loved my job, though I had been working in the same restaurant for a few years and wanted a change. I asked my boss for extra shifts and spent the next 6 months working heavily and living frugally to save as much money as possible.
A New Adventure
I was committed to the new adventure. I put everything up for sale: my car, furniture, and all the little things that I had collected over time, keeping only clothes and memories. To prepare, I wrote a shopping list. It was very small including some essential things like sturdy good shoes, a rain jacket, and a 70L backpack to fit my life into. When my mother heard the news, she of course wanted to join. We drove to the airport and got on a plane for the next 9 hours.
The first week was lovely, by the beach and in the pool of a lovely resort in Phuket. Of course, this was not the travel intention that I had in mind, though it was a nice way to start with my mother. The week had passed and it was time for my mother to fly back, now my time as a solo traveller would start.
The Place We Met
The next stop would be Koh Phangan. I took my backpack and got on the bus, followed by a boat towards the island. Upon arriving, I had no plans, only a hostel booked for the night and an intention to head north.
I spent the night befriending other travellers. They gave me some tips to get a rental motorbike and invited me to join a road trip around the island the following day. Of course, I couldn’t resist. Weaving our way through the traffic on our motorbikes, we hopped from one beach to another until the sunset. We were all tired, though a barbecue event kept us outside a little longer.
This was when I met Denise.
Den’s Story: Before we met
Now, Denise was never one to settle. She was the person who always wanted to see new places, never sitting stuck with a job or a home.
After graduating, she landed a job at “Natuurkampen” (Nature Camps). Guiding schools with fishing and other outdoor activities. “I love the job.” She says “It fits with my ways. Awareness and working with and in nature.” “The job is seasonal so I do a lot of hours in the autumn and spring. In the summer I would work as a travel guide, each year at a different location. This was ideal, I could see many places while making enough hours to leave and travel in the winter.” This time going to Asia, hoping to advance in diving and maybe even work as a divemaster.
She started in Indonesia for its awesome diving locations and of course the good price. “I stayed in Pulau Weh for 3 months to do my rescue and dive master course. It was amazing. I met such lovely people that I would love to meet again. I had a simple room, no hot water, but a view over the ocean next to the dive school -Lumba Lumba.” Getting excited, she continues “It was a small village where everybody knew each other. After three months though, I was ready to see more, so I flew to Malaysia.”
Landing in Kuala Lumpur, she made her way through Malaysia by public transport. Carrying a backpack from hostel to hostel. “Malaysia was beautiful, and the diversity in landscapes was fascinating. From the highlands and jungle to the islands and urban cities.” Along the way, she got a tip that a dive centre was looking for interns on the island of Koh Tao. She packed her bags and headed towards Thailand.
“On the way, I wanted to see some of the islands”. Through Hostel World I found this amazing hostel in Koh Phangan, with colourful dorms, and a bar on the beach! What more do you want? I was excited to meet some more people so I sat at the bar enjoying my beer.
“That was when I met Bai.”
How We Met
Let’s go back to Koh Phangan. That night that we met. The barbecue gave us a reason to eat too much and stay up late, while we shared our stories and made plans to explore more of the island.
Exploring the Island
Back to the motorbike rental we went. Those beaches would never get old. We drove and swam the day away, keeping our stomachs full along the way. Before we knew it, the sun had set so we parked ourselves up at a bar. Little did we know, this was a Rasta bar. It was fun while it lasted, though not exactly our scene, so we continued onto another, and another.
Saying Our Goodbyes
Eventually, the night was gone and Denise had to get the next boat to a neighbouring island. We said our thanks and goodbyes so that she could start her next venture as a diving instructor. The days were tough and long, working from the earlier hours of the morning until the sun would set in the evening. The pay was low of course, though what a great experience, practising a hobby all day.
We both quickly ran into the same problem, missing each other’s company. After receiving an invitation to join Denise at Koh Tao, I was quick to arrive on the boat.
Over the next 2 weeks, Denise continued with the internship while I explored the island, using TripAdvisor to indulge in the local cuisine. After meeting some other travellers, we were convinced to head north. We took a ferry back to the mainland then a 10-hour bus ride to Bangkok. A few days around the city were enough for us. It was nice to be in the hub though neither of us handles cities very well.
A New Month
At this point, our visas were almost expired so we made an appointment to extend for an extra month before taking another bus straight to the north. We arrived in Chiang Mai which was surprisingly comfortable for us. We planned to rent motorbikes and make a loop around the north for the remainder of our visa. Renting a motorbike in the centre of a city is not always the smartest idea, though this is exactly what we did. Driving circles in a car park to get comfortable before making our way out of the city.
Beautiful Thailand: The North
The north of Thailand is spectacular, though we were not prepared for how rural it would be. We found ourselves in the middle of nowhere with our bikes and backpacks as the sun set in front of us. Now we had to worry a little until we came across a small village where we were able to rent a tent to sleep in for the night. We lay there freezing, it was 5 degrees on the top of a mountain, and neither of us packed for the cold.
The next day we prepared ourselves a little better. Our new best friends were on our phone, booking.com, Agoda, and Hostel World. For the next 3 weeks, we drove from village to village, being welcomed by the locals at every stop. Northern Thailand doesn’t always provide so many options for backpackers so we were often excited to see another tourist.
At this time COVID-19 had started spreading. We saw this online, though we overlooked the impact while in the rural areas. When we returned to Chiang Mai, we noticed things were not right. Most shops were closed and finding a restaurant or place to stay was becoming more difficult.
It was the last day of our visas and it was time to say goodbye to each other. Denise needed to return to the Netherlands for work and I intended to fly to Vietnam to continue my travels. We had a great experience together which made it difficult to part though we were confident that we would meet again.
Stuck in Asia
Shortly after our goodbyes, I received an email about the cancellation of my Vietnamese visa. Cancelled due to COVID-19 restrictions. With only a day to leave Thailand, risking an overstayed visa, I started looking at other options. Singapore, Malaysia, or back to Australia was my initial options.
I chose Malaysia. Flying into Kuala Lumpur was awakening. The airport was full though everything was closed. The tram ride to my hostel was similar, to see most shops closed in the centre of a city was shocking. I arrived at the hostel and was informed by the staff of the new restrictions that were quickly being enforced, meaning my stay in Malaysia would be cut short.
Back in the Netherlands
Denise had arrived back home by this point and we shared our concerns about the worldwide situation. I had considered heading back to Australia though, together, we had a crazy idea. It seemed that Denise’s work would be postponed due to the pandemic and her parents agreed to host me at their house.
A New Start in the Netherlands?
The next day I staggered my way back to the airport, to hear if it would be possible to fly to the Netherlands. Coming as a non-EU citizen seemed to confuse the airport staff, as most were evacuating to their home countries. They were unable to give me a clear answer. I was told that I could buy a ticket, though the decision would be made by the staff at the check-in counter.
Taking a chance, I bought a ticket, knowing it could be exchanged if I was denied. I waited, biting my cheek while the staff processed my ticket.
Nerves or Excitement
We all knew that Europe was going into lockdown at this point, though the restrictions were still very vague. I was asked some questions by the confused staff who were trying to find a reason to let me through.
After some talk in a foreign language, they printed the boarding pass and let me in. I spent the next 13 hours sitting on a half-empty plane, wondering what would happen when I land in the Netherlands.
What Came Next?
The story of how we met in Thailand during COVID-19 is indeed one that we will never forget. Fortunately, our story doesn’t end there. We continued to build ourselves a life in the Netherlands which will continue in our blog – How we came to van life.
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