You probably have read recent articles on the web telling you why you should travel alone at least once. I’m pretty sure you’ve even retweeted and reposted these in all your social media accounts, then added ‘to travel solo’ in your never-ending list of things to procrastinate with.
I could give you a thousand more clichés on how exciting and empowering it is to travel on your own. But I’m sure you’ve heard enough from others that say traveling solo provides the perfect opportunity for self-discovery and all that metaphysical, new age-y stuff.
Exploring a new city by yourself has that certain je ne sais quoi.
Just recently, I visited the cities of Siem Reap and Phnom Penh in Cambodia and (re)discovered the joys of going solo. ‘Seeing the silhouette of the Angkor Wat outlined by the picturesque sunrise behind it’ is now ticked off my bucket list.
While all these may sound too idealistic, traveling solo still has its own perils. These concerns — getting lost, safety issues, and the dreaded table-for-one dinners — easily intimidate many. But with ample preparation and some common sense, going solo may turn out to be that once-in-a-lifetime adventure you’ve been dreaming about, even if you’re thinking of doing it on a shoestring budget.
1. Connect with locals and other travelers.
The phrase ‘traveling alone’ is actually a misnomer. When traveling solo, you’re actually not traveling alone. You have the locals, other travelers, and more importantly, you have yourself. You are never alone.
Engage in conversations with the locals and other travelers. Listen to their stories and ask for useful tips and recommendations.
In Siem Reap, I was hosted by Olga Shuruht, a Russian travel guide and teacher based in the city. Olga’s passion for the Khmer culture and language is quite admirable. It’s not often you find someone who’s willing to embrace a lifestyle totally different from what they’re used to. It was charming to see her exchange banters with the locals and talk about her love for Cambodia for hours.
On my way to the Angkor Wat, I also met fellow solo travelers and Couchsurfers Sirkku Isokangas and Patryk Szambelan and we ended up sharing a tuktuk while going around the temples of Angkor. Patryk was in the middle of his solo Southeast Asian tour, while Sirkku was in Cambodia to celebrate her birthday.
2. Put down your camera.
I hate to break it to you, but no one wants to see 100+ sepia-toned photos of the sunset or of what you had for breakfast. Just put your cameras down and stop spending so much time choosing which Instagram filter you’re going to use on your next awkwardly-angled selfie.
I’m still a bit guilty with this one, so what I do is I intentionally leave my camera charger at home whenever I travel. That way I’ll be forced to take fewer photos. I instead take rapid mental notes and photos, somehow similar to how Benedict Cumberbatch does it in Sherlock.
Limit the photos you take and pay attention to what’s actually going on around you. Savor these moments.
The most likely the reason why millions visit Siem Reap is to see the majestic temples of Angkor with the fabled sunrise as a backdrop. Aside from our innate fear of the dark, the prime reason why we love watching the sun rise is because we all yearn for that familiar warmth — that reassuring embrace — reminding us that we’ve still got the time to make things right.
Finding that perfect spot in the temple area of Angkor to watch the sunrise or sunset alone is almost impossible. These thousand-year-old structures, which seamlessly blend with the surrounding forests, are popular for a reason.
Hundreds of visitors, with their necks craned and cameras in hand, will fight for the best spots. As charming as these temples may be, the scorching sun and the hordes of tourists — half of them awestruck and the rest just plain rowdy — may easily overwhelm even the most-experienced travelers.
Instead of visiting ALL the temples, spend more time in some (including Bayon, Ta Prohm, and Baphuon). Choose quality over quantity. Don’t mind the other tourists and, instead, bask in that communal sense of wonder and delight.
Once you’ve got your fill of the Angkorian temples, rent a bike, try the local Khmer delicacies in the Old Market, and visit the small yet equally appealing temples in downtown Siem Reap.
3. Channel that inner Anthony Bourdain in you.
Granted, we may not be as witty as Mr. Bourdain or be as adventurous as Andrew Zimmern, but channel the inner food/travel junkie in you and try out food items you’ve never had before — be it the stinking tofu in Taipei, sizzling crocodile sisig in Davao, or even the fried silkworms in Yangon.
My only rule whenever I try a new food item is that it has to be fresh out of the pan or it’s freshly picked, caught, or prepared.
Don’t miss the chance to taste the local cuisine. And please, don’t be afraid to take yourself out for dinner. You’ll be surprise how fun it is to have yourself as your own date.
4. Use all your five senses.
The best way to get to know a new city is to do it using all your five senses. Every sight, smell, sound, taste, and touch reveals the character of the city you’re in. Going to a new city should always be a feast for all your senses.
After spending a couple of days in Siem Reap, I hopped on a bus to the capital city of Phnom Penh and stayed there overnight. At first glance, Phnom Penh may seem to be your typical Asian metropolis — its skyline filled with towering buildings and gleaming temple rooftops, the usual cacophony of roaring motorbikes and chanting monks, and the savory smell of roadside noodles and an array of grilled animal parts. But Phnom Penh’s hustle and bustle is more subdued as compared to other Asian capitals, retaining much of the laid-back charm of its French colonial past.
Among the must-visit places in the city are the impressive Royal Palace, Silver Pagoda, and other smaller wats, all just a good walking distance from the banks of the mighty Mekong. A visit to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum also offers a glimpse in to the country’s dark past under the brutal Khmer Rouge regime. It’s easily one of the most depressing places I’ve been to.
5. Have fun.
One of the joys of traveling solo is that you can travel at your own pace. You can go wherever you want and do whatever you want to do. You wouldn’t feel guilty checking out the city’s red light district. No one will judge you trying out Siem Reap’s happy pizza. No one will know if you’ve been wearing the same pair of jeans for days. To some extent, you have an excuse to be stupid.
The most important thing to do whenever visiting a new city is to have fun. Live in the moment. Don’t be afraid to get lost; it lends perspective. Do things you haven’t done before but always be safe. Take calculated risks.
Set your travel non-negotiables. These are things that you do or items that you bring in order to make your trip as fun and comfortable as possible. Some travelers have their favorite travel blanket or pillow. Others are picky when it comes to choosing their beds or toilets. I know people who can’t start the day without sipping their favorite coffee or without taking 30-minute showers. Whatever floats your boat, it’s all good.
My personal travel non-negotiables include bringing a copy of the Lonely Planet guide and buying a SIM card for mobile Internet. I usually ‘invest’ in these items because it makes me feel at ease whenever I’m in a new country.
If you have time, you can also participate in voluntouring activities whenever you’re in a new city. It’s a fun way to give back to communities and at the same time get to know the locals.
These are just a few tried-and-tested tips on traveling solo. Don’t get me wrong, I also like traveling with family and friends. But sometimes, you just have to satisfy your body’s craving for the thrill of the unknown and the euphoric feeling of absolute freedom.
Now, do yourself a favor and start mapping out your own solo adventure. The world is waiting.