15 April, 2019

The first time you travel alone can be an emotional roller-coaster – but every pitch and turn propels you forward, as one writer recalls

The first time I travelled solo was aged 19, and it was hardly a ground-breaking adventure.

I was on the Khao San Road – aka backpacker haven of South-East Asia – for six days while I waited for a connecting flight.

You may never have been to this bustling corner of Bangkok, but Bear Grylls territory it ain’t.

Travellers from all over the world crowd into a long street lined by food stalls, pop-up bars and more harem pants than you can shake a battered Lonely Planet at.

It’s the very opposite of intrepid. And yet, my first taste of freedom here provoked a riot of emotion that shifted my world view. Here’s how it went down:

“What do I actually do with myself?”

When my travelling partner to that point (above) waltzed off into the sunset, I had expected to be lonely. But what I actually felt more was… exposed.

Without the defining presence of another person whom I had globe-trotted for months with, it took me time to get my head around the lexicon of being alone.

Read more: Why Japan is a dream destination for solo travellers

Waffling down a banana pancake in a roadside café, I became glaringly aware of my own body language.

Every gesture or turn of the head was laced with a layer of self-consciousness. It was like I was trying to play the part of a composed solo traveller – but naturally, I was fooling no-one.

“Phew, no-one’s watching me”

A food kiosk in Bangkok, Thailand

… Or maybe I was? The great thing about being alone in a place like Bangkok is that everyone is busy doing their thing.

No-one has time to worry about one random 5ft traveller with a cumbrous Millets backpack. No-one was grilling me, “you, woman… why are you alone?!”

I could soak seamlessly into the cityscape: a realisation that brought huge relief, and soon saw off any remnants of awkwardness.

“Do I need my guard up?”

This was a weird one, because my default setting when travelling is friendly – I wouldn’t think twice about it.

But being on my own, my first impulse was to revert to grumpy Londoner on the tube. Cue: avoid all eye contact, and NEVER ask for help.

Naturally, this approach made me look like a tool; and it was self-defeating, too.

Sure, it helps to appear as if you know what you’re doing in certain travel situations (when avoiding taxi hagglers, for example).

But just because you’re alone, you don’t need to batten down the hatches like you’re some one-woman emotional vacuum.

“How will I sleep at night?”

A street scene in Bangkok, Thailand

Yup, this was an actual worry for me as I settled into my $10-a-night guesthouse.

I’d splashed out to feel more secure, but my room still came with the kind of peeling wallpaper, rickety-door vibe that is typical for the area and budget.

Read more: The reality of going on a group trip with strangers

And the first night I slept alone, that childhood fear of bogeymen come rattling to the surface.

Of course, I was no more vulnerable there than I would be anywhere in the world. Yet, in situations such as these, sometimes your mind needs a pacifier.

For me, it was a padlock and a chair in front of the door – and I slept soundly from then on it. It may be irrational; but do what you need to do.

“Am I OK to drink?”

A woman at a cafe in Bangkok

This was a ridiculous one, really, but somehow I’d internalised a dialogue that says women travelling alone abroad should beware. And drinking makes you vulnerable.

Naturally, if you get off your trolley somewhere new and unknown, things are more likely to get messy; whether you’re a woman, a man or Alaska’s notorious drunken moose.

But a few Tiger beers at sunset is practically a rite of passage in Bangkok, and all the more sweet for the novelty of being alone.

“Wow, people are kind”

Anna with Mae in Vietnam

We have this idea that the world at large is dangerous, and travelling alone propels you into the path of that danger.

But as a teenage girl travelling alone, people were incredibly kind to me. I found this first in Vietnam (above) and the trend continued when I was alone in Thailand.

Read more: Simple ways to be more  confident

The middle-aged patron who ran my guesthouse had a strong no-bull radars**t that she used liberally with unruly travellers. Yet somehow, I brought out her maternal streak, and she kept an eye out for me – while sneaking me extra mango smoothies at breakfast.

Then there was the young Dutch couple who painstakingly routed through their maps (this in a pre-iPhone age) and lent me 50 baht when I got lost outside a train station. And not forgetting the Bangkok uni students, who gave me a free, totally impromptu history tour of a local temple.

I never actively asked for this kindness, but somehow it found me and rooted me out, just when I needed it most.

“Can I really do this?”

Truthfully, I probably would not have even tried travelling alone at this point in my life unless circumstance had forced the issue.

In my head, I had an image of a solo traveller – and I was about as far from it as Donald Trump is from being woke.

This imaginary figure I conjured up was bold, savvy and confident. She sauntered out into the world, 100% secure of herself and her place within in.

I, on the other hand, was riddled with self-doubt. I could barely hail down a Tuk Tuk without a flood of internal dialogue questioning what I was doing.

The first few days, I spent at sea like this – poleaxed by my own thoughts, and bobbing about wherever the current took me.

“Woooo, I can do this!”

What I didn’t realise at the time is that there is no magical shortcut to becoming the confident woman. I just had to throw myself into the maelstrom. Of course, this is Bangkok in the early noughties we’re talking about; not at all stormy. But it still felt that way to me.

Yet simply by deciding to be there – wandering through bustling markets, eating my body weight in takeaway Pad Thai, getting a facial done at a petrol station (yup, that was a thing) – I leapt, one small step at a time, to the traveller I wanted to be.

Read more: Why kids can wait and travelling is my priority

Over the course of that six days, I developed a little grit. I learnt how to say “yes” and “no” with assurance. I worked out what to do, when and where: because I was the only one who could.

That teeny window of time changed everything, leading to a lifelong love of travel that has taken me from Jordan to Brazil and beyond.

I wasn’t doing anything crazy or heroic. I wasn’t wading through deserts, or spearing fish with my bare hands. But I turned up, I survived and I enjoyed it. And that was enough for me.


Three incredible South-East Asia escapes

Bust your comfort zone in the company of like-minded solo travellers

Get off-grid in Laos and Thailand

Unwind to a slower pace of life with a leisurely two-day sail down the Mekong River – the lifeblood of Laos. Soak in the scenery in the Land of a Million Elephants before arriving in the gilded town of Luang Prabang, for riverside barbecues and wild swimming in the nearby Kuang Si waterfalls. Plus, hiking and white-water rafting in the jungle hills of Northern Thailand, and a lip-smacking food safari around the streets of Bangkok.

Hurrah for Laos and Thailand

Discover the secrets of Vietnam and Cambodia

Get set for a whirlwind trip as we dive right into the street food and beer stalls of Hanoi, before hopping on a sleeper train to the hillside town of Sapa. After hiking in sensational scenery, we’ll jump aboard an overnight boat trip around the ancient limestone karsts of Halong Bay – complete with dawn yoga and kayaking. From a five-course cooking class in Hoi An, we’ll then take in a history lesson around Ho Chi Minh. Finally, we’ll zip over the border to Cambodia, and dawn and dusk visits to the ancient temple kingdom of Angkor Wat.

Vietnam and Cambodia, here we come

Savour the sweet life in the Philippines

A dreamy two-week adventure awaits in this palm-fringed tropical paradise. Kick back for a private boat trip around the caves and coves of the beautiful Bacuit Archipelago, complete with two nights’ glamping on a secret beach (with a private chef, naturally). Take advantage of some of the world’s most stunning islands and boutique hotels, as we hop our way from one idyllic patch of sand to the next. Don’t forget to make room for a thrill or two, as we quad-bike the Chocolate Hills and paddle-board down Loboc River.

Three cheers for the Philippines

Images: Shutterstock, Flash Pack, author’s own, Evan Krause, Dynamic Wang and Jakob Owens on Unsplash

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