What is it like to travel in the dark? How different can a destination be at night compared to during the daytime? What kind of surprises are we looking for when we travel?
The sixth day was the first time he’d seen Bangkok in daylight – or so he claimed, traipsing into the hostel common room towards the mass hangover in the far corner. The group had arrived the week before, taking full advantage of the local nightlife and cheap exchange rate; they were planning to move on to Ko Pha Ngan in a few hours, to the party that claims to celebrate night’s most iconic symbol. I wondered if our Thai experiences would have any overlap at all, given my recent habit of rising and falling with the sun. I imagined neon lights and euphoric highs battling piercing dawns and crisp mornings. I daydreamed about what was still hidden from me, deep in the Bangkok night. For the first time, I craved the enigma, the mystery, the dark.
As a solo female traveller, the night held nothing for me.
By the time the taxi had rolled to a stop outside the hostel, it was already past eleven. The entrance looked completely alien to the photos posted on the booking website. The road was deserted. A single streetlamp flung its light haphazardly across the pavement, tracing the edges of prayer flags hanging in the humid air. I dragged myself inside the hostel, fumbling groggily through the check-in process and completely failing to hear the staff’s repeated requests to take off my shoes before going into the dorms. In the back of my mind, I knew those few minutes would be my first and last glimpse of Bangkok at night, but I didn’t care. I’d never really cared about savouring the dark. As a solo female traveller, I was used to sticking firmly to the security and warmth of the daytime: the night held nothing for me.
I was already wide awake by five the next morning. Somehow my jet lag had completely inverted itself and I couldn’t lie still. I dressed slowly, lazily to stretch out the hours but traces of the indigo night still dragged across the sky as I slipped into the street. I noticed the enormous tree that reclined over the entrance to the hostel; invisible in the night, unmissable in the new day. Maybe it was just sleep deprivation, but Bangkok seemed to be holding its breath. Inertia hung heavily in the almost-silence of the early morning, just the muffled sounds of stallholders breakfasting and the odd bike whistling past me. I hadn’t ever realised that Asia could be so quiet. I sipped an orange juice and waited for the city to open its eyes and brush the night aside.
It had been a long time since I had last travelled with company; I was grateful for once to be with my family, that week in Marrakech. For months before, my head had been filled with visions of exotic Arabian nights from childhood stories and Disney movies, and now we had finally arrived. We were exhausted. The sun had disappeared long before our taxi approached the medina; to pass through those walls is to enter another world. We snaked through four lanes of traffic crammed side-by-side in the narrow streets, before stopping abruptly by an anonymous red mud wall, no hotel in sight.
There were only mud walls on either side and black Moroccan sky above to orient us.
A porter appeared from thin air and silently took our luggage from the car; we followed his vanishing shadow through hidden alleyway after alleyway, breathing in and contorting our bodies just to fit through the skinny arteries of the city, pausing every so often to give way to an oncoming donkey or scooter. After a few dozen turns we were hopeless victims of the unforgiving labyrinth, relying completely on the porter leading us ever onwards; only mud walls on either side and black Moroccan sky above to orient us. Finally, we stopped in front of an ornately engraved wooden door. He knocked twice, loudly, confidently. The door swung open, and we walked into low light, the sugary scent of mint tea, the smokey waft of incense: paradise. The high walls of the riad sheltered our oasis from the dust and noise of the outside world; we were safe from the night, for now.
After our dramatic arrival, the Moroccan morning seemed completely foreign, as if the sunlight had stripped away its magic and colour along with the night. We dutifully visited ancient tombs, museums and mosques, but the life of the city seemed restrained somehow, held hostage by the plain and obvious day. But the sun always sets, and when it sets in Marrakech, it washes the sky in impossible turquoise and saffron and rose; the colours are so strong, so vibrant that they hurt to look at. And as the light fades, the spark of the city swells in a frantic rush of activity centred around Djema El-Fna: snake-charmers, monkey trainers, street food stalls, lantern-sellers, musicians, dancers, and the people – the ordinary people who come from everywhere and nowhere, just to feel alive in the dark.