When People Ask: ‘Are You Traveling Alone?’

“Are you with a gap year program or something? Oh, you’re backpacking alone? Isn’t it hard traveling on your own like this?”

“I bet it can get really lonely at times.”

“Your parents let you travel alone? Wow. I would never let my daughter do what you’re doing.”

“You couldn’t find any of your friends to come with you? No boyfriend from back home to join you?”

“What happened back at home?”

“Don’t you ever wish you had someone to share this experience this with though? Aren’t there times when you’re watching the sunset and you wish you had someone next to you?”

“Oh, so you’re on some ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ journey?”

These quotes are from conversations I’ve had with people in airports, bus stations, train stations and cafes. They’re reactions from both men and women of all different ages and from various backgrounds. 

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The question, “Are you traveling with anyone?’ has become as irritating to me as, “Where are you from?” I dread the responses that follow, “No, I’m traveling alone,” just as much as when I tell someone I’m from America.

Many people are surprised when I tell them I’m traveling alone — with the exception of the travelers I meet in hostels. I can’t help but wonder if my male counterparts receive the same reactions. I’m pretty sure they don’t.

Prior to leaving, yes I was scared to travel alone — but it had nothing to do with being a woman. I was scared because I doubted myself. I wasn’t sure if I had the skills to get myself from point A to point B alone in a foreign city where I didn’t speak the language. I doubted if I had the openness to truly experience humility while living in communities I haven’t been exposed to before. I questioned if I relied too much on friends and family in the past, that I’d fail to be independent in situations where being independent would matter the most.

In retrospect, I wonder if all that self-doubt stemmed from the stigmas that are attached to being a woman who is traveling on her own. Were those doubts my own fears, or did I feel them because subconsciously I felt like I was supposed to? 

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be a solo female traveler since I’ve been reading Gloria Steinam’s memoir, On The Road. In her book, she discusses her experiences living a nomadic life and how that helped her become the activist she is today. She points out how men historically have always had the freedom to travel, while the same can’t be said for women. In the past, women left their homes because they didn’t have a choice — or if they did — they were leaving unhealthy situations and seeking a better life. Today, it continues to be a challenge for many women to travel due to work schedules and family responsibilities. This is precisely why Steinam says, “Perhaps, the most revolutionary act for a woman will be a self-willed journey — and to be welcomed when she comes home.”

Traveling is a huge privilege for both men and women. And I’m more aware now that not everyone has this opportunity — especially women. However, when I tell people I’m traveling alone their responses are typically far from flattering. Not once has someone said, “I hope my daughter, wife, girlfriend, or mom does that one day.” I’m not looking to be told I’m brave or courageous, but anything is better than someone assuming I’m really lonely wishing I had someone by my side all the time, because that’s not the case at all.

The Not-So-Glamorous Side of Traveling

I write this as I sit alone in a bungalow in Gili Air, Indonesia, trying to dodge a cockroach bigger than the size of a golf ball. I won’t kill it because a) I feel bad and because b) it’s so big. I’m scared that the second I get close it will jump up on my face. So the only option is to ignore it, hide in my mosquito net, and hope it will find its way out soon. After paying a visit to me in the shower, and then hanging around my backpack while I tried to get dressed, it eventually did.

Last night, I didn’t get much sleep. The hostel I was at had bed bugs, and one girl in my room was making so much noise — not sure why — so I slept outside under a cabana thing. My toenails are creepily long. I desperately need a haircut because my ends are so dry. And to top it all off, my nightly activity will be to clean out my toiletry bag because shaving cream — that I ironically haven’t used since traveling — exploded in it. Oh, and then there was that dead lizard I spotted being carried out of my room by an army of ants. That was a nice surprise (not really), but actually quite considerate of the ants.

These are some of the problems you have to deal with when you travel for an extended period of time in a developing country. Life isn’t all butterflies and rainbows on the road. Yes, the sunsets, people, freedom and flexibility are great, but that doesn’t mean they don’t come with their own downfalls. Traveling like this requires a much bigger tolerance than I exhibited back home.

I wanted to write this post because I’ve been having a lot of conversations with fellow travelers about the unfortunate situations they’ve encountered while traveling. I’ve heard stories of car accidents, dengue fever, terrible scams, bed bugs, terrifying ferry rides, and more. But they’re still here. They still keep going because they want to and because the good times outweigh the bad times. It’s these stories that often lead to another conversation — about the sacrifices that are made to travel. The ones that are made to maintain this lifestyle. And the biggest one is giving up a ‘normal life’ — or at least what’s considered ‘normal’ by modern-day standards: settling down in one city, having a 9-5 job, you know the rest.

Compared to the people I’ve met traveling, I’m just a little guppy fish. I’ve only been traveling for about two months. People I’ve met have been traveling for several months, or even years after returning home to save more money and get back on the road again. I’ve also met people who through traveling realized that stability and a ‘normal life’ are what they prefer. This reminded me of what the monk told me in Chiang Mai: “With happiness comes suffering, the two are always attached.” Neither one can be experienced without the other. When you do something that you think will make you happier, there are still going to be unhappy times that come with it.

There’s no exception to being unemployed and traveling. I may not be feeling the stress of a job, but you can bet I’m stressed about money. I meet amazing people all the time, but I miss everyone from back home. I get to taste amazing food, but I’m always at risk for food poisoning or some weird bacterial infection. I see amazing stars at night, but I’m also getting eaten by mosquitoes and other weird bugs.

This doesn’t only apply to traveling though, it applies to everything in life. Nobody is perfect, and not one situation is perfect. I think it’s important to find happiness in the stresses you have no control over, and to remind yourself that with good times come bad times. The two are a package deal. It’s actually pretty simple.

Bidding Farewell to Thailand

After six weeks of traveling around the Land of Smiles, the time has come to part ways. Since I last wrote, I concluded my two weeks of volunteering at Asalanta in Koh Lanta where I was building the mud houses. It definitely taught me a lot about sustainability and community living. I also got inspired to start so many art projects using reusable materials. After Koh Lanta, I ended up in Koh Tao for a week. But that’s a different story for another time.

I thought as an appropriate way to say goodbye to this country, I could share with you what I think is worth visiting, what isn’t, and my overall thoughts on traveling in Thailand.

First, let’s start with a recap of my time in Thailand — by the numbers.

Days in Thailand: 47

Cities visited: 7 (Bangkok, Phichit, Chiang Mai, Pai, Koh Lanta, Koh Tao, Krabi)

Money spent: An estimated $1,200 (Roughly around $200 a week – this includes hostels AND buses, trains and ferries to get around. Oh, and my habit of getting weekly Thai massages. And a couple scams that happened along the way. This doesn’t include my flight there.)

Hostels stayed in: 5

Private bungalows: 4

Indulgent nights of luxury in a hotel: 1 (Hey, sometimes you just want air conditioning and a good shower — this doesn’t include my first two nights in Bangkok.)

Volunteer gigs: 2

Times I got sick: 0 (Everyone said I was going to get sick — hasn’t happened yet!)

Motorbike accidents: 2 (Fortunately, I walked away with just a few cuts and scratches.)

Times I felt unsafe: 0 (Everyone is so nice and helpful. Definitely one of the safer countries in Southeast Asia. I never heard about other travelers getting robbed or their things stolen here.)

Memories & friends I’ve made that will last a lifetime: Too many too count…

Laughs: Too many to count …

Tears: Maybe 2 or 3 good cries — usually when I had to say goodbye to a city or friend.

OK, I’ll stop with the cheesiness right there.

Where I wish I had more time: Northern Thailand

First off, I absolutely loved Chiang Mai and I would go back there in a heartbeat. It’s the cheapest ‘big city’ in Thailand. It also has a great mix of history and modern-day luxuries. You can walk the cobblestone streets and temple hop in the Old City, or get delicious food and hit up a wine bar in the New City. You can also easily get out of the city and explore the waterfalls and mountains. It has everything you could want. That’s the only city in Thailand I could realistically see myself living in. The Sunday night street market is also the best one I’ve visited. And monk chats — you could do one every week!

From Chiang Mai I went to Pai, but that was as far north as I got. From Pai you can do the Mae Hong Son loop which takes you to three cities in Northern Thailand. It’s a very popular route by motorbike. I really wish I would have done this, or at the very least seen one of the cities, but I didn’t have the time. I’ve only heard really great things about Northern Thailand. Those cities are the ones that still remain untouched by tourists. And now that the Myanmar (Burma) border is open, a lot of people are going over there, too. 

Where I wouldn’t spend more time: The touristy Thai islands

This doesn’t mean all of the islands though. There are probably around 100 islands total off the coast of Thailand, but for travelers and tourists you hear the same ones being talked about: Koh Phi Phi, Koh Samui, Koh Pah Ngan and Koh Tao. While those beaches are as beautiful as you’d imagine, they lack in authenticity. I went to Koh Tao which is supposed to be the least touristy tourist island, but all of it was still geared towards tourists. It was also expensive, and the locals weren’t as nice as other places in Thailand. But it was incredibly gorgeous and I did spend a week there. Would I go back? With the right people, yes.

I feel very lucky that I found Asalanta and got to live on Koh Lanta for two weeks. From what I’ve seen and heard, it really is one of the more authentic islands that isn’t full of tourist traps. The locals are very friendly, and its beaches aren’t lined with fancy resorts. Yes, they exist, but they’re not always in your face.

If you want to island hop in Thailand, I would suggest taking the time to research and explore the more remote ones that aren’t filled with tourists. The ones that still have some soul to them. It really depends on what you’re looking for though.

And this brings me to my next point. Every traveler I meet is looking for something cultural, they’re looking for an authentic experience. Despite Thailand’s recent boom in tourism, that experience still exists, but you’re not going to find it through a Google search. I honestly would recommend doing a HelpX experience and living with locals for a couple weeks. When I was at the school, that was the only time I felt like I was experiencing the real Thailand. I got to know local Thai people, and experience the culture. It also helps pay for food and accommodations, so it’s great for travelers on a budget.

My time in Thailand has been pretty incredible, and I can’t believe it’s over. But I still have about two more months of traveling (or maybe more if I get my tax return?!), so the adventure continues. 

Next stop: Bali.

Also, if you have any questions about traveling in Thailand ask me in the comments, and I can add answers in this post. <3