One week into my Southeast Asia trip, I wrote this post about what I’ve learned about solo travel. It received a comment which went a little like this:
I relished these words, because the reference to times when I would find myself alone, frustrated and homesick kind of excited me. I travel alone because I know the inherent risks; with nobody to watch my back the whole time, something bad could happen to me. The way Laura talks about these moments helping you to ‘grow as a person’ is undeniably positive. I find this really significant because finding positive things in negative situations is a great way to live your life in general, and even more so when you’re on the opposite side of the world, thrown in at the deep end.
So, although it’s been two months and not three months, I feel like enough time has passed for me to add to the “things I’ve learned about solo travel” list. I’ve added some lows because it’s natural, over time, for bad experiences too. (It just so happens that bad = good in the end, so you can’t really lose.)
1. You have to keep your wits about you at all times.
Fellow travellers, I’ve found, tend to be nice, generous, thoughtful and wonderful. They most likely won’t steal your things if you leave them lying around in a hostel (but they might), and they will probably chime in with an opinion if they hear you talking cluelessly about where to go next, or what to do in a particular place (or they might sit there sniggering to themselves about your lack of backpacking knowhow). Being alert, then, looking after myself and my valuables and getting savvy with the ways of my surroundings is crucial to my safety and survival, even in a well-trodden backpacker’s paradise like Southeast Asia. Simultaneously, it also allows me greater independence and forces me into self-sufficiency. And this can only be a good thing.
2. You will learn to love your own company.
Being alone, around a quarter of the time I spend here, has taught me to get used to my own company, and even love it. As Audrey Hepburn said, “I have to be alone very often. I’d be quite happy if I spent from Saturday night until Monday morning alone in my apartment. That’s how I refuel.” I took a quiet, relaxing boat ride through Tam Coc near Ninh Binh in Vietnam, with just my non-English speaking guide who was mostly silent apart from some whistling and the odd cry of “Madam — look, goats!”. Meandering down the river, between steep cliff-like hills and rice paddies, and through shallow caves, was a rare time to think and enjoy the calmness of the nature around me. Well, that was until the ladies selling fruit from their boats at the end of the trip called out ‘Lady! Husband for you, very handsome”, referring to my 60-year-old chauffeur, anyway.
3. The good outweighs the bad.
In life, and on the road especially, the bad aspects about travelling are constantly outweighed by happy times. I’ve felt lonely and I’ve cried; but probably for all of 20 minutes in the two months I’ve been here. Contrary to what I thought before this trip, I don’t necessarily need home comforts. I enjoy hot showers here when I can get them; it’s become a luxury. I love a nice, warm bed; but a hard wooden floor suffices as well. I like staying in regular contact with my family and friends; but, and this will sound bad, I don’t need to be around them to feel happy. Knowing I can spend time with them when I’m back is enough. Being in new and different surroundings is a great educator. Not fully understanding what’s going on around you is strangely liberating. The language barrier is often very amusing, and interactions with locals who don’t speak English can be hard work, but also incredibly and innocently charming. Simply put, there are so many small positives that any negative thought, feeling or experience is very quickly dispelled. This counteracts any homesickness for me.
4. You’ll be tested beyond your wildest expectations.
It’s not easy arriving in a new city, at midnight, when it’s cold and you have no place to stay and you’re all alone. Nor is it when, on your first time driving a scooter, you fall off and scrape your already mosquito-bite infested legs. (Seriously, I wish I’d kept a log of the state of my shins and ankles — they look semi-healthy again now but for a while I was constantly met with gasps of “WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED?!”). Then there were the girls who, the morning after St. Patrick’s Day, decided to wake up at 7AM in a room full of hangovers-from-hell embodied. I wanted to scream at them; I ended up rolling over and cursing them to myself, within the confines of my own tight and pounding head. There was the Estonian guy in Bangkok who swore Putin’s not a bad person and Russia is not suffering the effects of a homophobic governmental regime. You meet all kinds. This can happen whether you’re travelling solo or with others; but I feel like things are magnified when I have no one who’s close to me to turn to. But being confronted with people who are different to yourself, dealing with unfortunate situations; isn’t that what life is about anyway?
5. There is nothing more carefree than solo travel.
As well as being hard work at times, overall travelling solo is one of the easiest things I’ve done. Blissfully moving around at my own pace, doing my thing, making all my own decisions. It’s a lot of responsibility in a way, but it’s also so effortless to do everything the way you want. And the pay off when everything goes well and you’re having the time of your life, all based on whatever it is YOU chose for yourself? AMAZING. I’ve chosen to stay in dorm rooms for the majority of my nights away from home, I’ve opted for the party hostels over the peaceful ones when I needed a drunken blowout. I’ve stayed at the beautiful nirvanas Hacienda in Otres Village and Bodhi Villa in Kampot when I wanted a bit of rest, relaxation and the simple pleasures in life. You can design your own life when you’re travelling, and it’s reminded me how important it is to fully own your life choices, and not worry about those things you can’t control.