I’d spent the last year recovering and starting the journey back to me after a tough few years leaving me feeling a little despondent, doubtful and generally confused about human nature. Aside from a few family members and close friends I really didn’t feel I was connecting with people and making the most of life. My previous relationship had left me broken and scared; I could not remember who I was anymore and who I ought to be. My confidence was on the floor.
Many of my peers had met their partners years ago and were progressing to sprog production and with the added pressures of being an Asian woman in her late 30s and the patronising head-tilts at social gatherings (think Bridget Jones at that awkward dinner with the smug-marrieds!) I was really starting to feel like the odd one out.
The worst thing about the situation last year was that I found myself settling for bad behaviour not only on the dating scene but also from friends; standard human decency was in short supply and I was at the end of my tether. Or perhaps this was just my own personal outlook on things and in reality I was really starting to believe that there was something wrong with me. Whenever I started to feel better, my cynicism returned like an infection which in spite of my best efforts just wouldn’t go away.
With dating feeling like Groundhog Day I made the conscious decision to have complete break, re-focusing on myself. Not wanting to conjure up some Julia Roberts-esque image of me cycling through the paddy fields of Indonesia, I threw myself into dating me- increasing the frequency of interests for interests sake I signed up for a few more running events, started spending quality time with friends and family who actually meant something to me, culling superficial friendships along the way, and educated myself on a few other hobbies I had only dabbled in before like meditation, cooking and travelling- the latter of which sparked the most attention after I came across the brilliant Flash Pack website.
Starting a journey to change
One of the things various friends had tried to convince me of over the years was to travel and see the world more. The quest to flourish professionally had prevented me from taking any real time off, but the advantage of having saved and not having to worry about the financial burdens some young families may have to face, meant that I could afford something a little bit special.
I wasn’t going travelling to find myself, I don’t believe in such clichés so late on in life and think that by the time you get to 30 acceptance of yourself is crucial- the chances of you ever changing really are quite negligible. I’m still going to be slightly forgetful and leave things behind in other people’s houses or lose things in hotels.
I’m still going to get louder after a few drinks and talk a million miles an hour, I’m still going to go off on millions of tangents in conversations with people I connect with because I want them to understand the core of my being and how and why I think and say the things that I do, I’m still going to cry myself to sleep when I see heart wrenching poverty surrounding me alongside the health and wealth of the everyday man and I’m still going to worry about why I can’t understand the concept of geographical contours (although thanks to Rob on the Flash Pack all is well on that front now!)
But I am human and people have accepted me for my shortcomings because there is some good stuff, too. I just needed to be reminded of it and my trip away helped to fuel that change.
The like-minded link
I was immediately drawn to the concept- a trip specifically for solo travellers aged 30-40 something wanting something more from their holiday experience- something more than a few negotiated low cost bookings at desirable hotels and basic tour information from local guides. Whilst the company’s audience is mainly aimed at solo travellers- although there’s no specific rule against couples signing up- it doesn’t purport to be aimed at pairing people up – something which other solo travel companies like 18-30s etc. aim to be. Instead it promotes a holiday experience which goes one step further in not only introducing you to the local culture but immersing you into it and bringing you together with like minded adventurous souls with a real, urgent thirst to experience a destination in a unique way to other tourists.
Having travelled and holidayed through my 20’s and 30’s either with family, friends or on occasion, alone, I had always seen trips away as escapism from the daily grind of a hectic work life in the city, or time away with friends to re-connect, relax and recharge my batteries. Yes a little bit of culture was thrown in, soaking up the local traditions and way of life helped to provide that much needed escapism as well as educating- albeit only to an extent.
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But reflecting back on the organisation of such trips, most if not all was arranged by myself or with friends going at it alone, feeling satisfaction when we had saved the odd euro or pound here or there, as opposed to reflecting on whether we had lived the experience of the place we were visiting in the way it should be experienced. Had we really gotten a sense of the history, mentality and nature of the people whose country we were temporarily visiting? Probably not.
Perhaps the concept of the holiday or travel excursion brings new meaning now that we were older and wiser and more inquisitive – age has a habit these days of reminding you how precious time is and hence why I found myself thrown together with 10 other 30 and 40 –something strangers, one very early dark, warm and muggy morning in the airport of the enchanting Vietnamese city of Hanoi. My adventure of solo travel in Vietnam & Cambodia had begun.
An insider experience
My experience of Solo travel in Vietnam & Cambodia therefore meant I was with fellow solo travellers. These travelling companions were, like me, looking forward to discovering the culinary delights of the city they’d heard so much about, but the enthusiasm was infectious from day one. Questions and dialogue followed between us all so naturally and we were held together by a wonderful local tour guide whose pride and patriotism for his country seeped through every word and facial expression he imparted to us throughout what subsequently turned out to be the trip of a lifetime for me. He talked not only of wanting to share his knowledge to us but about wanting to get to know us as individuals so that we could become, ‘life long friends…’
I wondered about this at the time he said it but having completed the trip now I understand more fully now what was meant; our guide Hoang Le was just as interested in connecting with us as people from a different world and background as we were in finding out all there was to know about his country. My solo travel in Vietnam & Cambodia was therefore so much more than just meeting my own needs. The inquisitive nature of his personality and desire to ensure we were all comfortable and taken care of throughout almost became his personal quest; here was a man who took his vocation so seriously that he welcomed constructive feedback along the way and openly discussed the dynamics of the trip and what we may/may not like to ensure our contentment at every turn.
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Because Hoang Le was so well connected and respected amongst his family and the locals, our holiday experience took us to places and experiences not many others would really get to taste.
Hoang Le’s cousin Paul took us on a bicycle tour of Hanoi and showed us pagodas, bonsai gardens and slums along the Mekong river with heartfelt commentary along the way; Emma a student from Huong’s university who listened to him talk about his career as a tour guide, joined us on the tour to practise her English and took personal responsibility for our safety along the chaotic routes of the city’s highways. It was a good feeling knowing that we were helping to shape her career. We even visited his house and met his family for a short break en route back to our hotel!
Throughout the Vietnamese leg of our trip we were able to get a true sense of Hoang’s personal story and how he endured the struggles of the Vietnamese conflict; and his disposition was always a cheery one.
Off the beaten track
The paddy fields of Sapa brought us to Mai, a young woman who had picked up English for herself as a result of attaching herself to small tour groups being shown around by older guides when she was just a kid. Mai had no formal education but through pure determination and a bright, engaging smile she now successfully balances a traditional family life in the hills of Sapa with a great career as a guide. The tranquil waters and gaping rock formations of the thousands of unique islands of our Halong Bay expedition introduced us to Tuong- a multi-talented spring-roll chef and tai-chi practitioner, whose quiet but charismatic disposition and strong features captured more than a few hearts on our tour group!
Following our sad farewells to Huong we started the Cambodian expedition of our South-Asian adventure with intrigue and anticipation. Vantha, our new tour guide imparted his knowledge of the history of this war-ravaged jewel of a country where the humble innocence of the people effected our every interaction and experience, bringing new meaning to the phrase.., ‘lucky to be alive..’
Without wanting to give too much away, Cambodia is a country like no other I have ever encountered. A country where 54% of the population is under 18 and whose liberation from the evil of Pol Pot’s regime ended only 40 years ago. A country whose people maintain a certain simplicity and calmness in spite of the terrors and wickedness inflicted upon them in prior decades, unbeknown to many of its youthful population. Vantha’s knowledge was second to none; we were an inquisitive lot, probing question after question and perspective after perspective, pondering explanations and stories told to us on every walking tour, bus ride and meal. His patience was remarkable!
All about the people
The one thing I was nervous about from the outset was connecting with others in the group especially given the journey I was on in self-healing and gaining more confidence in my own personal life. And interestingly I did not sign up for this holiday experience to work on those areas of my personal self-development. Other activities were already helping me to do that. What surprised me however was just how much the interaction and presence of my companions helped shape the overall experience and more importantly has helped to return me to me and give me the confidence to face my fears. Solo travel in Vietnam & Cambodia did not involve always being alone!
We were a mixed lot, some more inquisitive than others, some wanting to take time out for reflection, others to live it up and relax. But we all respected one another’s perspectives and were bonded by emotion, laughter and an overall sense of calm. For those whom I connected with the most, I learnt that being myself and speaking out loud about my feelings and perspectives on life were actually okay; I could be myself, without judgement, without fear, without apprehension. The depths of my feelings and thoughts on certain topics were shared with some of the biggest hearts I have encountered in a very long time. We took care of one another and in spite of the distance between us (Japan, Seattle and Syndey) I know I have found some friendly souls for life with whom I can just pick up where we left off, at any time in the future.
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The mentalities I encountered within my tour group as well as along the way were of the same ilk- meaning that the overall excursion was more personally impactful.
Falling in love with humanity has thus taken on new meaning, and whilst little has changed in my personal life I honestly feel that the return to the authentic me has led me to a fresh path with revitalised and inspired direction. Solo travel in Vietnam & Cambodia became more about the people I met that ‘finding myself’.
The head tilts at parties don’t hurt as much now because I just transport myself back to the magic of Angkor Wat, or laughing hysterically about something unique to the group on the lovely air-conditioned bus we were lucky enough to be transported in- and I only have my experience with The Flash Pack to thank for that. Anyone wondering about solo travel in Vietnam & Cambodia, I thoroughly recommend it!
Fancy jumping on-board for our Vietnam & Cambodia adventure? Take a closer look right here
Photos: Flash Pack, Mona Rangar