Back from my first ‘official’ solo trip with lots of cool experiences to share from Thailand and what I’ve learned about being on the solo road! Everything from mastering squat toilets and cold showers while trekking in the mountains, eating bugs, drinking tiger penis soaked whiskey in Laos, smoking with Buddhist monks, practicing circle 8’s with a guesthouse owner’s motorbike so I could rent a scooter, getting lost virtually …everywhere and more.
Firstly, a shout out of warm thanks to friends following fun updates on Facebook . Special Mahalos to those who super-caring and supportive of my first solo-solo and who went of their way to makesure I was safe and well-armed with Thai advice. You all Rock! my heart.
Here’s a breakdown of what I learned as a beginning solo traveler-
Table of Contents: The Good, the Bad & the Inevitable of Solo Travel
The Good Things of Being a Solo Traveler
I survived my first beginner steps of becoming a female solo traveler (of developing countries) and guess what- I loved every moment of it! I am converted. I totally understand how people can be attracted to both, Thailand and solo travel!
Thailand feels one of the easiest and safest countries to travel for a first time soloist: it’s well-traveled, the Thai are beautiful people (super-friendly and full of helpful smiles) and the convenience of having multiple modes of transportation options (I’ve used almost all of them), ensured that I was never stranded or worried as to how I would get around. Where there’s a will, there’s a way and in Thailand, you are given many ways!
Most importantly, as a female traveling alone, I always felt safe– even walking or biking home late at night…..
When I first initiated my challenge to travel the developing world solo, I wasn’t sure what to expect or whether I would like it. All I knew is that expanding my notion of travel to countries, which persevere through developing hardship and have an enduring cultural pride towards their traditions is my new passion. While this type of travel can feel physically demanding and challenging, I’ve found ita rewarding experience. My first giant step however, was erasing the fear to find the confidence of traveling alone.
(* Dealing with fear and trip preparations for this challenge are in my last 3 blog posts).
Friends, family and the people I’ve met on my trip, all thought I was “brave” for doing this trip alone. No one would openly admit to me- that given the opportunity to travel solo they probably wouldn’t want to; and that being a female solo traveler in popular theory, probably ranks as high as the guy whose job is to clean up elephant poo! It hardly seems like a fun, hip and sexy way to travel.
After this trip, I’d have to disagree.
Discovering my Solo Travel Style
I used to have one when I traveled– style, that is. I was a cool artists, dressed in artsy trend… a serious artist which walked languidly and nonchalantly… or sometimes, very excitedly with a camera.
But now… Carrie Bradshaw is the least of my role models when I travel. Why?…
I’m strapped to a backpack, a wardrobe of 3’s (shirts, pants & underwear) and camera equipment, sweating through 90 degree weather in a country with conservative traditions; sexy is hardly the attention I want to draw to myself!
Unless your idea of traveling fun is bar-hopping with friends or a romantic getaway (you can still have these experiences as a soloist- it’s really dependent upon you!); then sometimes, being fixed to a partner or group can actually be more limiting to your experiencing the cultural interactions you’re there to explore!
The Good, the Bad & the Inevitable of a Beginner Solo Traveler
By drawing upon daily local encounters and being open to exchanges with a variety of people, I felt like I was sampling Thailand not only through the Thai, but through a mixed palette of cultural perspectives found in fellow travelers (photo below is of me and a mix of Indonesian and Malaysian travelers).
In fact, I seldom experienced moments of feeling a l o n e (and these very remediable exceptions I’ll explain in a later blog).
For my shy friends:
1. Solo travel forces you to make friends or interact
You must interact and initiate conversations with people in order to get around. I mean, if you’re painfully shy, you can try the approach of withholding your questions when lost or struggling. But I doubt you’ll be able to hold out, especially when you notice there are travelers who are in your shoes.. lost and looking for help. The good news is that upon interacting with others, you quickly find that you want to interact with people and that all people are interesting!
2. You are surrounded by “foreign” but you are the foreigner
Waiting for their bus, Thai sisters- Kew and Nu- watched, giggling at me as I took photos of a neighborhood altar. Nu followed me to a Kuan Yin statue around the corner, then reported me back to her sister. Their curiosity with me paved a perfect opportunity for me to approach them conversationally about Thai religion. In my travel incarnation, I was re-born as “exotic and interesting”, even if just a curious American.
As a tourist, everything appears foreign to me. But likewise, I’m the actual foreigner and I’ll bet I’m equally as interesting to others.
3. Solo travelers get a lot of help from strangers
I call it the damsel in distress sympathy. People were more confident in approaching, helping and watching out for my safety, because I was alone. A single girl alone is not intimidating. Essentially, strangers looked out for me.
4. Language barriers with all travelers (You’re not alone!)
In Thailand, the native tongue is Thai and the secondary tongue is still Thai (not English). Not all Thai people speak English or even read it.
I don’t know Thai. My new Malaysian and Indonesian friends did not know Thai either when we were trying to negotiate a tuk tuk for the day in Ayutthaya. Luckily, the Indonesian had a picture plan of all the places he wanted to visit. We went off that.
You find a way to communicate.
How to deal with language barriers
My number 1 recommendation: Be resourceful and always carry a sense of humor about yourself !
Everyone finds their own way of communicating across the great divide- from pointing at pictures, attempting to speak while “butchering” the language or accidentally discovering, as my Malaysian friends did, that your taxi driver knows Chinese!
I came equipped with all of three Thai survival phrases: “Hello”, “Thank You” and “Where is…?” Whenever I hit a barrier I couldn’t “butcher” or “point” my way through, I surrendered to the game of comedy- I Charaded my communications! I find people usually warm to you when you debase yourself at their expense.
Being a foreigner amidst other foreigners is an opportunity to laugh at yourself as you experiment with fun and creative means of communication.
The Bad of Being a Female Solo Traveler
The most life threatening thing that happened to me in Thailand– my DSLR camera didn‘t survive and is off to repair as we speak. The irony: it started going wonky just as I was about to take my very first shot.
One purpose for my traveling is photography, so this was a major non-work-aroundable drag. And while I carry a backup consumer video camera to document my experiences– it’s really the last thing I care to use. Other things inevitably went wrong also – my backpack didn’t arrive with me in Bangkok, parts of my itinerary fell through, I accidentally peed on my shoe, and got lost and LOST…
But this all makes for interesting blogging.
Accept when things go wrong and go with the flow.
We always feel the need to control their experiences. When things go wrong, we try to force it into what we think it should be and sometimes, this limits our potential.
I’m a big believer in the universe and feel most things occur for a perfect reason; even if at first, it seems like crap luck. In fact, my most rewarding experiences have been a result of many moments of “uncontrollably crappy luck”.
Without my camera, I realized- it was actually my camera which burdened my enjoyment of this trip. With the obsessive need to document everything, I was growing resentful of it. While I was experiencing a lot of cool- embarassing- brave- horrific things for the first time, my camera was becoming a big ball and chain!
Instead, my first soloist journey wanted to be lived.
I spent half a day searching for a fun touristy point-and-shoot to at least salvage personal memories. What I discovered was a more perfect camera, the Samsung ST500 (aka Samsung Dual View LT220 ). I am absolutely crazy about this camera- I’d recommend it to every GRRRL soloist! The main feature are dual LCD screens, which allows self-shooting. What does this mean for a soloist? You know, those lonely moments when everyone is “click-happy” with friends and you’re trying not to look pathetically bummed you’ve got no one to take your picture?
The Inevitable of Being a Female Solo Traveler
Initially, I believed the myth- that “traveling alone” means you have to be 1o0% brave, in-control and self-reliant. But the big irony once you get there is you find you have very “little” control over things and this is perfect!
Every bad is inevitably a good. Always remain open and trust that the right experience will come if even if it’s not in the form you initially wanted!
My second day in Bangkok and my itinerary was already unraveling. A major meditation retreat I planned fell through. I had several days in Chiang Mai that I wasn’t sure how to fill as this retreat was the meat of it! Eventually, recommendations and advice from others activated creative improvising and a better plan. While I didn’t get my meditation retreat in Chiang Mai, I did get abducted by a monk in Sukhothai and got my chance to peek into the ordinary lives of monks…which actually was my real objective. Crazy universe!
Your trip can become 10x more amazing, when you surrender your need for control and just go with the flow!
Very surfer Zen, I know. Very scary. So I wouldn’t dump the idea of itinerary planning for my next trip, just yet… But developing this intrinsic trust of knowing things are going to play out perfectly- as long as you do your part of acting from wisdom or getting yourself to a certain place on time- is very liberating.