Travel Tips: Going it alone in South East Asia

Travelling alone can seem like a daunting idea. As soon as you hit accept on that plane ticket purchase you find yourself immediately overcome by worries: What if I get lost by myself? Who will I eat dinner with so that I don’t look like a total loner? Will I have to ask strangers to take pictures of me in front of Angkor Watt, or just bite the bullet and buy a selfie stick? (Oh dear God, no). All are perfectly valid concerns. However, if you have a curiosity for the world, and the faintest modicum of self-confidence solo travel can be a completely life changing experience.

The main perk is that it affords you the ability to set your own schedule and route. Sure, it’s great to travel with mates, but naturally that can mean finding compromises between Jim’s life-long dream of meeting Mickey Mouse at Disneyland and John’s love of 11th century Buddhist architecture. Something’s gotta give. Alone, you decide the schedule and the itinerary, and often the people you meet along the way will lead you on unexpected and brilliant detours. In Malaysia, I met a South African girl in the hostel, and a Belgian guy on the bus which led to an unplanned trip to the glistening green tea plantations of the Cameron Highlands. This became one of the highlights of my entire backpacking journey.

Now, obviously you can’t spend all of your time alone (And no, unfortunately, Jane Austen or John Grisham don’t really count as company). Travelling by yourself necessitates that you to go out and meet people. You get chatting to your bunkmates in the hostel, or bond with a fellow tourist over your mutual boredom on the train from Malaysia to Singapore (It’s a perfectly pleasant view, but when you suffer lengthy delays and run out of Pringles…) Interactions that would seem awkward or forced back home suddenly become second nature. You’ll be pleasantly surprised how many other solo travelers are keen to meet new people.

Lastly, and perhaps most dauntingly, going it alone teaches you to get to know yourself. They say that traveling together can really make or break a relationship, so what about when you’re by yourself? Before I spent time backpacking in SE Asia, the thought of being alone with just my thoughts for company (and the plethora of long-forgotten 90s television theme songs that seem to constantly soundtrack my mind) seemed like a tortuous task. But, after a few days with only my podcast library for company, visiting local Taiwanese night markets, temples and far too many bubble tea vendors I found myself unexpectedly having the time of my life.

Of course, as with any other time you travel anywhere, it is important to be safe and exercise reasonable caution. For tips and safety advice, check out the Australian government Smart Traveller website, which offers great advice specifically tailored towards female travelers, backpackers, LGBTI and senior tourists.

As with most travel, preparation is key, so load up your smartphone with a few of the wealth of travel apps available from App store. Since many South East Asian cities have sprawling subway and above-ground train systems, I highly recommend downloading train maps and journey planning apps to help you get around. Most can be used offline, and can be found by simply searching the city name followed by metro (e.g Seoul metro). The Trip Advisor app also has the option to download content for offline use. I personally found it comforting to know that I was never more than a couple of kilometres away from a delicious bowl of pad thai after a day exploring temples in Bangkok.

So, embrace your inner Jack Kerouac, download the Spice Girls back catalogue and go out and greet the world. I’m sure you will find it a most liberating experience.

Photos by the author.