"It's really dangerous over there "and "you can't trust anyone!" rang in my ears as I crammed a spare power bank into an overflowing suitcase. Adding to my mother's worries were stories about a missing backpacker in our city - a woman travelling alone. Just as I was about to do.
This was my situation on the first day of 2019 as I prepared for three weeks exploring Asia on my own.
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I explained to my family that there was nothing to worry about and that my adventure was going to be great, and in doing so planted a seed of curiosity in my own mind. Do women travelling alone have a harder time of it?
Are solo expeditions any more or less valuable than those spent in company? What tricks could make this particular flavour of travel more enjoyable?
Six flights and numerous views, statues, train rides, meals and hotel rooms later, I have insights to share.
The benefits of travelling solo
Firstly, and I think most importantly, is it worth it? And in case the answer isn't blindingly obvious - hell yeah! Of course it's nice to share experiences with other people, but you can't sit at home waiting for someone to travel with, and this, coupled with the value of being able to do whatever you like and see what you want to see, means solo travel is great.
Next there's the safety issue - definitely not to be ignored, but also so much less of a problem than the horror stories can make it seem. Fact: People are mostly nice. It's in our nature. Although cultures differ, it seems fairly universal that we don't go out of our way to hurt other people. Keeping this in mind gives a solitary traveller the confidence to explore, ask for directions, talk to people, take measured risks.
Having said that, we need to be aware that every culture (including our own) has its problems. The key to staying safe is to be prepared - know a tiny bit of the language, have cellphone data or download offline maps, research common scams and warnings, know where you are and where you need to get to. Use common sense - watch your bags, keep your passport and money safe.
One of my personal rules when travelling alone is to always know at least two ways to get back to the hotel if I need to. Another is to go easy on the alcohol. But don't let fear of the worst-case scenarios stop you from experiencing the best-case scenario. Leaping in the deep end and trusting in humanity led me to discover a beautiful isolated shrine alongside a canal, watch a huge monitor lizard climb a tree and eat the best papaya salad I've ever tried, even though the wait staff didn't really understand my sign language for 'I'd like something like this photo but without chilli please'.
How to keep yourself safe
Scams are something to watch out for. In areas with a heavy tourist load, there will be people seeking to make a profit from you. A lone person may be more approachable and find it harder to say no. An internet search will tell you about the most common scams in the area you are visiting, allowing you to discern the difference between genuine friendliness and a sales pitch. Knowing approximately what things are worth in local currency helps. A purposeful gait and polite "no thank you" (even better in the local language - mai chai ka/krup in Thai) will dissuade persistent tuktuk drivers or roadside stallholders.
The practicalities of going it alone
Practicalities you may not have thought of include using the bathroom at the airport before you collect your suitcase from the carousel. There's no-one else to mind your luggage while you use the loo!
If caught short, I'd use the power of humanity's good nature to mind my luggage - ask a shopkeeper if you can leave it for a few minutes in the corner of their shop, or even leave it in the bathroom where there is a queue of people waiting - no-one will take (or hide drugs in!) your suitcase with a group of people watching. Looking back, I realise other travellers probably don't want my clothes and toiletries, and that it's all replaceable - too much worry can really ruin a good adventure.
How to afford a solo trip
Solo travel does cost more, unfortunately. Hotel rooms aren't split between two people, nor are taxi fares. It's unavoidable - I have no alternatives to suggest except backpacker hostels, and these take a certain level of energy that some of us no longer have.
Save harder so you can enjoy your journey, and when paying the bills remind yourself about the freedom and independence you're buying. I did save a few hundred baht on a taxi fare by striking up a conversation with a couple waiting for a taxi to the airport outside the hotel - we shared a cab and as well as the cheaper fare I gained insights into the next city on my itinerary - win.
Meeting new friends on the road
A further observation about striking up conversations with strangers - I didn't force it, but it turns out that it's really easy to smile and say hi. As well as filling that awkward silent moment in the hotel lift, random chats provide some of the best travel tips, and many of these conversations only happened because I was alone. A woman at the adjacent breakfast table tipped me off to the very best street food vendor near the hotel selling fried egg/banana roti for only $1NZ - a treat I would have been too nervous to try without knowing that she already had.
Another conversation I'm glad I had was outside an art gallery in Singapore - despite never being sure whether people understand English, a simple "Hello (smiling), isn't it beautiful (pointing)?" led to the discovery of a free Singapore Art Week high-tech 'Young Talents' artwork showcase, where I had fun playing with interactive augmented reality exhibits and gained some great ideas to bring home.
Quiet times for thought and reflection come more easily when alone. Unfortunately, keeping our thoughts to ourselves means many of them will be forgotten shortly thereafter. Whereas in previous travel experiences I've been able to share my thoughts with another person and revisit memories of the trip in conversation, this time it was only me who cared what I discovered.
Savour every minute
Wanting to suck every drop of experience out of my adventure, determined to remember it, I took plenty of photos, supplemented by the occasional journal entry. I think there's a danger in doing this - it's too easy to be documenting the trip rather than living it. Seeing the sights unfiltered through the lens of a cellphone is the next step in our digital evolution but for now I'm happy snapping photos and videoing the wild tuktuk ride I found myself on when caught out after dark during rush hour in Bangkok's hectic traffic, warm wind rushing, holding on to my hat, loud music blaring, families of five passing us on a single motorbike, flowers, smells, smiles ... life.