One evening, in early January of 2015, I sat alone in my room browsing the internet reading about other peoples’ travel adventures. I was newly in between jobs, bored, lost, and frankly not in great spirits. I had come across this web forum about “Solo Travel”, where people were discussing and sharing the secrets and stories of striking out on a journey all alone. They spoke of places all across the globe, from South America, to Europe, to Asia with the bravest and most exciting accounts of their travels. The thought of striking out alone, leaving behind all familiarity, was absolutely intoxicating to me, but simultaneously – terrifying. It was fantasy to me, escapism at best, to read through it. Something someone else could do, but not me, no. Certainly not me. Little did I know, less than 4 months later I would be boarding a plane and flying very far away from home.
I was tossing around the idea of visiting my friend in Vancouver but hadn’t really been set on anything. Nonetheless, I thought, what could it hurt to just take a look at prices for plane tickets? 30 minutes later I was planning a two month trip to Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia. I honestly don’t even know how it happened, I had read about South East Asia being a fantastic place to visit, and an especially great place to travel solo, but I had essentially no intention of going anytime soon. It was like a switch had just turned on in my mind, I wanted to start school in the near future, so if I actually wanted to go before starting a long education program, this was my chance. After mulling it over and researching for a few weeks, it quickly became all I could think about. But I only told a few people about it, because there was no way I was going to let anyone talk me out of it. On February 2nd I booked my flight, it was done. No backing out now. I was practically vibrating with excitement. The plan was set, I would fly to Vancouver, visit my friend for a week as a ‘warm up’, if you will, and then fly to Bangkok, Thailand.
After a week in Vancouver I bused to the airport and stepped on to a plane. I was so excited throughout the entire flight – up until about 10 minutes before landing. So many questions began to fire through my brain. Will my visa be approved? Will I be able to find my pack? Will I be able to find my hostel? Will I be able to get a taxi? Will I even be able to communicate with the driver?
It’s important that at this point you remind yourself that it is normal to feel this anxiety, and to just push through it. You will find your way, you will figure it out, and everything will work out.
Lesson 1: Go with the Flow
It sounds like a cliché, but it can be essential. You can plan every moment of every day, from the moment you step off the plane until the moment you get back on and head home; but try as you may, it’s never going to work out the way you have it in your head. You will get lost, not be able to find your hostel, or you’ll finally find it only to discover they’re full up. You’re going to get scammed, or you will discover 100 dollars missing from your pack (Yes. This did happen, unfortunately), or you will get dropped off somewhere you didn’t want to go. But the important thing to remember is that you’re going to be fine, and in some circumstances a wrong turn may even lead you somewhere wonderful that you would not have gone otherwise. One day in southern Thailand I ended up in a hostel where I was having a hard time making friends. I was going to leave but took a chance and got lunch with a couple American girls, who invited me to travel to a little beach village called Tonsai with them. When we got there they told me, “We’re going rock climbing, and then free water solo-climbing. Let’s go sign up.” This turned out to be rock climbing without a rope over water. I had issues with heights and zero climbing experience, so I was skeptical at first, but going with the flow allowed me to conquer a fear and try something new that was not even on my radar prior to that day.
Going back to the beginning of my trip – after wandering around for over a half hour I finally got the correct directions to my little hole in the wall hostel. It was the middle of the night, I was exhausted, and overdressed for the 30 degree temperatures. I took a shower quickly and crawled into one of the 20 beds in the room and passed out. When I awoke in the morning, it was go time. I was going to try and make some friends. I had prepared for this, the amount of stories I had heard about people starting their trip but being too afraid to leave their room resounded in my mind. But there was no way I was going to be one of those people. I would strike up conversations with anyone and everyone I came across.
Lesson 2: Talk to Everyone
I should stress one thing: as much as it is called ‘Solo’ Travel, it is often anything but a solitary experience on the whole. You are constantly surrounded by so many unique, vibrant and interesting people, so talk to them! They are the best resource for you to be able to find out more about the country you’re in: where to go, where to eat, what to see, and how to get the most out of your trip. Whether it’s the knowledge and insider suggestions of locals or the recommendations of fellow travelers, other people can be your greatest resource. Not only that, but any interaction is the perfect way to strike up a conversation and make a new friend and travel buddy. You never know what other people can open you up to. Every traveler you meet is on their own journey, but your paths are often parallel; you are in this together. On my first real day in Bangkok I sat down in my hostel common room next to the first person I could see who looked almost as lost as I was. That person turned out to be a Brazilian who had just begun his trip too, and we met up with a couple of Thai locals he knew and they took us to a massive outdoor market we might not have otherwise known about.
Here’s my best tips for making friends on the go:
- Don’t stress about small talk, you will find you have so many questions you can ask a person you just met when you’re backpacking. “Where are you going, where have you been, and where are you from,” provides 30 minutes of conversation, minimum, just by itself. And by that point the ice is long broken.
- It helps to look for other Solo Travelers, because often they are in the exact same position as you. And in my opinion they tend to be the people most likely to open up to you.
- Easiest way to solidify someone as a new friend? Ask them if they want to go and get food with you. You’ll find 9 times out of 10 this does the trick.
- Don’t concern yourself with being embarrassed or self-conscious when you’re meeting new people. The truth is, you may never see these people again, so what does it matter? You can even use it as an opportunity to embrace certain parts of your personality that you don’t normally. You can be whoever you feel like that day.
But in fact, one of the strangest and most freeing parts about Solo Travel, is actually that you’re not obligated to be anyone, or really, do anything that you don’t want to do. This goes for your whole life really when you get to the bottom of it all, but it is especially evident in travel. Everyone has their own path, so if you want to go somewhere else there is nothing keeping you from doing that, compromise is optional.
At one point, I had planned to reconnect with my friend Alix one day whom I had met earlier in my trip in Thailand. I happened to meet two people earlier in the day who wanted to come check out a night market with me and then go get food, so the three of us went out. After an hour or so Alix and I were starving and tried to steer the group towards finding a Street Vendor to buy some cheap Thai food from, with little success. The other 2 were arguing with a shop owner and we were continuing on to search for food. Almost without noticing we turned around 5 minutes later and realized they were no longer following us. But we just shrugged and continued on our way, just like that. No strings attached. And that is the beauty of it, you are totally free from being tied down in any way. You’ll find that this freedom will change you. You will realize that you have way more control over the direction of your life than you ever thought possible.
You’ll find that Solo Travel is an epiphany of epic independence
But I have to address the other side of this coin. There will come a time when you start to feel alone, and for me that moment came as I had just arrived on an island in Southern Thailand. I had followed a couple people to their hostel but quickly felt them break off to do their own thing. It was an extremely hot day, and I had not fully adjusted to the climate yet. Also, I was battling a head cold and mild fever. I attempted to go to the beach to cool down but discovered the water was too shallow this time of year to even swim. I sat in my hostel bunk and felt a crushing weight of doubt and fear begin to bear down on me. Part of me started to wonder why I had left the comfort of home to be alone and so far away. Was I really cut out for this?
Lesson 3: If you feel alone, don’t panic
This is something every Solo Traveler encounters at one point or another on the road. An overlapping of unfortunate circumstances may put you in a bubble and start to make you feel a little homesick, and a little scared. At this point it is important to remind yourself why you’re here. You left home for a reason, whether that reason was to see the world, meet new people, or even to straight up “find yourself”. As corny as that may sound, it’s probably pretty accurate. Maybe it was just to escape the mundanities of a 9-5 job. Regardless, you made a choice for you, to take back your life.
Here are my tips for keeping your cool when the going gets tough:
- Write out your thoughts in a journal; get to the root of what’s causing you to feel like this.
- Spend less time hiding in your room. As a general rule of thumb; anything you don’t need to do alone can be done in a hostel common room. Isolating yourself will only make things worse after a while.
- Go for a walk, do some people watching, visit a museum, take the time to appreciate your surroundings in a way you couldn’t if you were surrounded by other people.
- Speak to a friend from back home that you can count on to support you. Chances are they will be able to encourage you and help you get back on track
- Above all else, remind yourself this feeling is temporary and that it will
And it did. The next day I was off on a snorkeling trip; a new adventure, with new people. Solo Travel is full of these kinds of ups and downs. It’s part of what makes it so cathartic and meaningful. I have said it before, and I’ll say it again: Solo Travel is not a vacation, it’s a journey. You need the valley and the mountain. Solo Travel cracked me open, reached inside and pulled out the human being I was always supposed to be. My inhibitions and protective shells were all torn away, leaving me exposed and vulnerable to the world and the journey. But in taking you apart it builds you back up again, stronger than before. You will prove to yourself how much more capable you are than you ever thought. And on the last day of your trip you’ll step back onto the plane more outgoing, more resourceful, and more wise than you ever were before.