Before I embarked on my latest set of wanderings around the world a few weeks ago, one of the things that was playing on continuous loop through my head was a nagging question. Can I do it? Not the act of travelling per se – I think I’ve done that enough times for it not to hold too many fears in and of itself. No, what my over-active brain was questioning was whether I was cut out for an extended period of solo travel, particularly through developing countries.
With a couple of exceptions, trips of any length in the past have been with either a mate or girlfriend, or to meet up with existing friends around the world. It was only the week or two that I spent by myself in the US a couple of years ago that opened my eyes to the potential benefits of flying solo. Still, a fortnight in large American cities is a far cry from close to three months around South East Asia, and no amount of positive thinking seemed to completely dispel that hint of self doubt.
In the end, as always, the only way to know what I was capable of was to give it a go – to get on a plane and find out. Departure day finally rolled around in a blur of wrapping up of loose ends and after one last drunken farewell I found myself in the check-in line at the airport, somewhat intoxicated and entirely alone. Guess what, Dave? Ready or not, you’re doing it.
I’m now pretty much halfway through the ‘solo’ part of this trip and as I sit here in a riverside cafe in Vientiane sipping Beerlao and cheerfully ignoring the tuk-tuk drivers wanting to sell me weed, I think I’ve answered my own question. Can I do it? Yes. I absolutely can. Travelling solo for the last six weeks has been many things. Challenging, entertaining, eye-opening and mind expanding. Hilarious, drunken and incredible. It has certainly never been boring, and I wouldn’t change it for the world.
One of the great things about travelling alone on this trip is that in reality, I haven’t spent much time actually doing that. Instead, I’ve spent hours talking to strangers on buses, in restaurants and while drinking in bars. When you are dining by yourself and your choice of conversation partners are either a potted plant or the people at the table beside you, it’s not a difficult decision to make.
Without the safety net of a travel companion, I’ve put myself out there a lot more than on previous trips – and gained so much more in return. In our so-called normal lives, we all carry round hang-ups and distractions that create barriers to meeting and creating friendships with strangers. While travelling those barriers disappear, especially when you are by yourself, and forming strong bonds with people takes days rather than months.
Twice already on this trip, a chance encounter has ended up with altered plans, immense fun and new found friends. Looking up from my book, starting a conversation, buying someone a beer, saying yes rather than no has led to some wonderful experiences.
Hiring scooters and riding the crazy roads of Vietnam, for instance. Holding down conversations over a few days that were switching between Spanish, Italian and English mid sentence – despite only speaking one of those languages. Dancing till the small hours, football in the streets, introducing the brilliance of Eddie Vedder to my Lao guesthouse owner on Don Det. Whatever it may have been, it all started with a smile and a willingness to get involved rather than sitting on the sidelines. Probably a good life lesson at any time, but especially while on the road.
I’ve been asked by a lot of people if I am travelling by myself. When I answer in the affirmative, the response varies from a look of incredulous disbelief that I would want to do anything so ridiculous, to a nod of respect or a smile of agreement. In many cases the follow-up question is ‘why?’. My usual response is ‘why not?’.
There was nobody else that I knew who was interested in doing what I’m doing at the moment – backpacking for months around South East Asia, staying in cheap accommodation, eating street food and taking overnight buses from place to place. Most of my circle of friends are busy living somewhat different lives – careers, mortgages, children, whatever it may be – and their priorities are quite different to mine. On that basis I had two choices – don’t go, or travel by myself. I chose the latter, both because I’m not willing to give up my dreams just because other people don’t share them, but also because it scared me a little. I think that’s a good thing.
The other question that sometimes comes up is ‘would you rather be travelling with somebody else?’. That’s a harder one. Now and again when I see happy couples being all happy and couple-like as they wander down the street with matching backpacks or a group of mates laughing loudly as they drink another bar dry, I do feel a little sad that I’m not sharing all of these amazing experiences with somebody else.
I think it’s human nature to want the people close to you to be a part of the great times in your life, and this trip has undoubtedly been one of those times. I guess, though, that it’s a moot point. I’m single, and putting off more travel until the right girl comes along to do it with seems a little silly. Travelling in large groups isn’t very appealing either – I love the freedom and flexibility of making my own decisions. When travelling solo I only have myself to argue with about what to do next – and it’s an argument I tend to win.
Ultimately I think there are many benefits to travelling with other people, and equally large benefits to doing it alone. There’s no right or wrong way – giving both options a go is the only way to find out what works best for you personally. For me, I’ll happily travel either way – or better still, both ways – if it means I get to keep seeing amazing places and meeting incredible people.
I’ll certainly be taking the lessons that I’ve learned from travelling by myself to heart for the rest of this trip and every subsequent one, regardless of how many other people are coming with me. Staying flexible, putting myself out there, getting out of my comfort zone and being a travel participant rather than merely a spectator. That’s what flying solo means to me.
[Photo courtesy of Arkadiusz Szymczak]
Have you travelled by yourself? What were the best – and worst – aspects of solo travel for you?