A Perfect Place For Solitude – Lankayan Island, Borneo, Malaysia
I left the UK in December 2002 and spent 18 months travelling solo in Australia and South East Asia, and eventually wound up settling down with my American girlfriend who I’d met on the road in Thailand, where we still live today.
When I left the UK I was pretty much petrified at the idea of travelling alone, so this is what I wish someone had told me:
1) You won’t be alone for long
Don’t think by leaving home on your own you are somehow going to condemn yourself to a six month trip of solitude and loneliness. If you go backpacking anywhere in the world, you are going to meet likeminded people who are interested in travelling as much as you and who have gone travelling on their own too. You get to meet people who actively want to do the things you do rather than having to cajole friends at home into an experience they might not enjoy or be ready for. You need to be with people who are into it, not who need to be coerced into it.
The easiest way to meet people when travelling is to get involved in activities – go on an organised week long roadtrip in the Australian outback, for example, or go and do some scuba diving somewhere for a few days, or do a cooking course – whatever interests you. In this way you will meet new people and be in a shared situation where conversation comes easily.
Similarly, in backpacker hostels and the like, simply strike up conversation with someone with a smile. The old “Hey guys, I’m on my own, mind if I join you?” line rarely fails, although you need a bit of courage to say it first. Not looking like an axe murderer is also useful.
Seek out hostels and hotels that have independent travellers in mind as their primary customers – these places are mindful that they have many solo travellers and so try to have communal areas and many organised activities – whether it’s an evening barbeque or a daytrip – for you to join and so easily make connections. A great example of this is Bangkok’s Lub’d hostel (pronounced Lub Dee – it’s Thai for “good sleep”) which you can see from the numerous guest reviews is considered one of the most friendly places to stay in Thailand.
I’ve written a short article about how to find other travel companions online through websites likeCouchSurfing.com before you even leave your house. You might as well increase your chances of meeting likeminded people before you go travelling, and it can be a good psychological boost to have a plan to meet other people abroad.
Female travellers might feel an understandable extra sense of trepidation about travelling solo, but millions of other women have travelled alone already, and there is plenty of great advice about solo travel for women to help you.
You might also want to consider travelling in a small group with a reputable adventure specialist like G Adventures, Stray Travel, Exotissimo or Intrepid Travel if going solo is too much to begin with. These companies specialise in bringing together solo travellers to enjoy travelling with a small group, so making new friends and sharing the journey. Many people use these trips to bolster their self-confidence and then strike out on their own. When I was in Australia I did several week-long trips like this and made some great friends as a result.
2) Cut loose from your life
Going travelling on your own lets you literally leave everything behind – work, family and friends. This is what makes it scary and also what makes it so intensely liberating. If you travel with a friend from home, you both travel in a bubble of familiarity with each other. On your own, you have absolute freedom to do what you want and you don’t have to conform to the expectations that work, friends and family inevitably put upon you. Of course, you have email and cell phones that will let you stay in touch pretty much anywhere in the world, but you can still pick and choose when you have contact with home.
Unless you’re massively serious about your boy/girlfriend, you should probably take a time out with them before you leave, otherwise it will only cause heartache when the inevitable travel romance occurs. If you *are* massively serious about your boy/girlfriend, you need to come up with some ground rules about what’s acceptable while you are apart from each other if you want things to pick up where they left off when you come home. Trying to conduct a long distance relationship while travelling can be gruelling for both parties.
3) Know your own mind
Making the decision to travel solo is a great step, but it’s important to know what it is you actually want to do while travelling. Avoid falling into the trap of just doing what other backpackers do – there’s a definite travel circuit in most countries for backpackers to follow, which is incredibly useful, but only if you are interested in the things included in that circuit. There could be lots of other stuff in the country you are visiting that is a bit off the beaten track that is of much more personal interest to you. Therefore it pays off massively to do some research and reading *before* you go. [I’ve written How To Budget For A Backpacking Trip if you want some pointers on managing your money while planning your trip].
For example, I knew I wanted to do more scuba diving when I went to Australia. After a couple of false starts, I really got into it. Subsequently my travelling in Oz was driven largely by visiting good places to dive and when I was in Thailand I eventually became a scuba diving instructor. (Yes, I liked it that much!). Many of these diving locations weren’t really on the backpacker circuit so I had to make my own plans to get there. In doing so, I met loads of great people who were into diving as well plus, of course, I got to dive some of Australia’s most awesome sites. If I’d just stuck to the traditional backpacker route, I wouldn’t have gone to these places.
Of course, you can just go with the flow and see what happens – there’s a definite danger of overplanning which you should avoid. You don’t need to stake out and book an entire day by day itinerary for your trip or anything so rigid. My point is simply to think about the overall goals of where YOU’D like to go and what YOU’D like to do, irrespective of what other people say.
4) Become comfortable dealing with the unfamiliar
When I first left the UK, I stopped off in Bangkok, Thailand for 3 days en route to Sydney (I couldn’t face the 24 hour direct flight). It’s fair to say my first encounter with Bangkok scared the crap out of me. (I recounted my first days in Bangkok if you want to know more). Ironically, I now live in Bangkok these days. (See my Thailand Backpacking: A Quick Guide for more info).
Travelling is hard for the first few weeks because you are dealing with constantly unfamiliar situations and surroundings – it is unavoidably stressful. It’s also what causes homesickness, because there is a yearning for the familiar. Within the first week of travelling, though, you will simply start to relax into it as your mind grows accustomed to dealing with this constant input of new information. You’ll start to discern the patterns of travelling – find location, find transport, find hotel, repeat – and find the continual change of logistics as routine. The great thing about humans – and a skill that doesn’t seem to get much emphasis these days – is that we are incredibly adaptable. We naturally adjust quickly to new surroundings, for all that we think we might not. So if you’re at home reading a travel guidebook and thinking, “there is no way I figure out all of this on my own”, don’t worry. You will.
When I left the UK, I was really lacking in self-confidence about travelling in a country where I didn’t speak the language. Australia is the answer for US and UK travellers who feel the same – it’s incredibly exotic and there are hundreds of fascinating things to do and see there, but the language barrier is not a problem. Here you can get into the rhythm of meeting other people while you’re travelling and trying out new things like scuba diving, skydiving and surfing.
Within a few weeks your confidence will have grown and you’ll be ready to take on anywhere. I went travelling in Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia with some girls I’d met in Australia and had a spectacular time – my worries about language dissolved because everyone in Asia speaks enough English for you to get by and I’d developed the confidence to start a conversation, smile, and speak slowly and clearly. (But not patronisingly, like they’re stupid). Treat people like people. I have found this to be a winning formula everywhere I’ve been. It’s important to not feel embarrassed or self-conscious about stepping up and speaking to the locals wherever you go.
They will invariably be friendly in return. Have patience if they don’t understand your English at first – they’re the ones who speak a second language utterly alien to their own, unlike you. State what you want simply and clearly – don’t use slang. Most of all, smile and be friendly. Don’t act all suspicious like you expect them to rip you off at any moment. It really is true that 90 per cent of communication is body language.
5) Make new friends and be influenced by people
You will see and do some amazing things wherever you travel in the world – but what makes your trip truly spectacular is the people you meet along the way. Solo travelling exacerbates this because you are much more open to talking to other people because you have no one else around. Again, that can be a scary feeling sometimes, but the pleasure of meeting new people makes it worth it. Not only are friendships made much quicker and are more intense while travelling, but sometimes the bond formed is more than just circumstance and can transform into lifelong friendships.
I am still in regular contact with numerous people I met while travelling. Meeting other people exposes you to so many other points of view, ideas and opinions, which can set your mind off on paths you’d never previously considered. It’s also a great excuse to get drunk and talk rubbish to each other all night.
A worthwhile caveat here is that you shouldn’t feel that every day has to be a party – admittedly I did spend most of my first two months in Sydney and Melbourne somewhat inebriated, but by about the fourth month I’d calmed down a bit. A quiet night in with a good book can still be fun – again, it’s about doing what you want to do, not what you feel obliged to do, or what you think you *should* be doing.
People are terrified of being lonely, because it’s equated with being a loser. There are inevitably going to be evenings when you’re travelling solo where you will feel a bit lonely. It’s then that you realise there’s things that are a lot worse than being lonely and it also makes you appreciate your friends all the more. If you’ve got a good book, or a journal or a sense of purpose about your trip beyond just seeing the sights (see below), the times you’re alone don’t have to be lonely, and indeed, can be a welcome respite from the intensity of travelling.
6) Do whatever you want (as long as it’s legal)
While it’s true that you are on holiday when travelling, it’s worth avoiding your brain atrophying. Travel gives you the freedom to not only think about what you want to do with your life but also to go and do it right away.
Give yourself permission to investigate the stuff you’re interested in, however whacky it may be. Whether is clothes and fashion, archaeology, video games, conservation, elephants, sharks, religion, oranges, bugs, architecture – whatever it is, allow yourself to spend some time looking into it. If you see your surroundings as more than just the backdrop to your holiday, as the stuff of real life and how other people live, you’ll get a lot more out of them.
In a similar vein, give yourself permission to be creative too – many people like keeping a journal while they’re travelling, or sketching what they see. Reading a lot can be fun too, especially about the country around you. Most people go snaphappy and get really good taking pics with their camera. I wrote half a novel while I was travelling – I’ll never do anything with it, but it was fun all the same. By churning through ideas and trying out stuff – even if it doesn’t go anywhere – you give yourself new ways of thinking about stuff. This might come in useful for thinking about how things will be when you come home.
7) Bring a new perspective with you when you get home
The old cliché is that travel broadens the mind, but travel can also change your mind too, about your job, your circumstances and your general situation back home. That might sound scary, but it’s a good thing – you re-evaluate your life and feel ready to make some changes for the better. Similarly, things can change at home too. Usually they don’t – while you have been living in hyperspeed intense travel mode, life back home continues as normal, which is what makes it so comforting to return to. But be sensitive around your friends when you get back – don’t just endlessly brag about your travel stories. Pay attention to what’s been going on with them and your friendships will pick up where they left off.
How long you decide to stay at home is up to you. You may decide that your trip was great fun but you’re ready to take on new challenges at home. Or you may decide you want to save up some cash and get back on a plane as soon as possible. Either way, once you’ve gone travelling solo once, you’ll bring home a whole load more confidence and perspective on your life that will help you in the future wherever you are. The bottom line is, I have never, ever heard of anyone who went travelling solo and came back regretting that they’d done it.
There’s a lot more I could write, but I’ve gone on long enough. What do you think? For people who are thinking about solo travelling, are there issues I haven’t addressed here? For people who have been solo travelling, do you agree or disagree with any of the above? Please leave comments below. Thanks!
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