I wrote this in 2011, after my first solo trip in Chiang Mai. I now smile at my young self worried about travelling alone. More than three years after and now with lots of solo writing assignments under my belt, I know that that first solo trip has helped me, in one way or another, to just go and explore the world.
“You’re someone who loves being with people, travelling with friends” was how one colleague describes me. And my latest trip – a three-day solo trip in Chiang Mai – defies this belief and pretty much every fear I have of travelling alone.
Writers and bloggers the world over have romanticised the idea of solo travelling since time immemorial. It connects you to your deep self, it’s a good check of your map-reading skills, they would say. You know the motherhood statements that those narratives give birth to. I used to read those testaments with complete detachment – loathing the overly dramatic tones even – until I found myself in the middle of Wualai Road in Chiang Mai, walking along a sea of people scouring the Saturday market for tribal goods and found myself all alone. Ah, the freedom is overwhelming.
I had not imagined myself writing this, really, waxing poetic about the joys of travelling alone, until I’m trapped in the middle of daily deadlines and found myself wishing that I were still relaxing and sipping hearty banana shakes in Thailand. For someone whose day job involves double-checking that all things are in place (grammatical and otherwise), it was a bit difficult for me to be as spontaneous as I hope I would be. Some of you out there may echo my sentiments: with only several days of granted leave a year, a depleting savings account and responsibilities that range from the emotional to the financial, we get tangled in our daily checklists. Every single day is a quagmire of must-dos and most likely, travel plans are the first to become collateral damage when ‘needs’ battle ‘wants’ (or as I used to say, when our wallet is at war with our wanderlust).
My weekend trip last month was my first attempt at going solo, and in a way, a small inch closer to spontaneity. I’ve stepped into the plane with only two things confirmed: I have booked a guest house (so my mom and dad would not worry where I would spend my nights) and I’m going white water rafting on my second day. Where would I eat, where would I go after dinner, who would I be with most importantly, deserve some big question marks in my head, which I had totally ignored.
Armed with semi-free tickets from a lucky draw (which got finalised less than 24 hours before my trip!), I told my parents and friends I’m going to Thailand alone. My parents and sisters are the most supportive surprisingly, with one of my sisters even telling me to also go to Koh Samui or Pattaya after Chiang Mai, and my mum is not as worried as I’d predicted. But my friends’ reactions range from surprised and worried (Why are you going alone? Is it safe?) to condescending (What is there to see in Chiang Mai?! Why there?) to that of awe (Can you do that? Are you gonna be okay alone?) At times, my petty concerns surfaced: What if something happens to me? What if I get sick during this brief period? What if I get lost? And the most superficial of worries: Who’s going to take my pictures?! (That’s why camera timers and tripods are invented, go use ‘em!) The trick is to get past the overthinking: pack your bags, hop on the plane and just wait for things to happen. Trust me, it’s all going to be okay.
So I went, I survived – albeit with a few bruises and whole body aching after falling from the raft – and I’m here to tell the tales. There’s only one harsh truth about going solo: the first day is the most difficult, it’s like the backpacking rite of passage. The transition from your socially fine life at home and the lone backpacker mode before you is always hard. The moment I landed, I realised I’m really alone. The first meal is the most lonesome, since I am not used to eating lunch all by myself. But being free from the familiar is one the best things that happened to me this year. There is always something liberating about standing in the middle of a crowded street, looking for your next meal while grappling for the right words to say, as the people around you are speaking something alien to your ears. There’s no hassle of eating quickly, since I had no travel mate to worry about. The absence of an itinerary is also overwhelming; I can scoop the glass noodles of my pad thai with no ticking clock and printed schedule to always look at.
Back in the guest house, Wi-Fi has been my salvation, and not in terms of connecting with friends and telling them I’m okay, but because I realised I had not packed any maps or guidebook with me. I found a note on my phone saying that I should go to places called Love at First Bite and Mike’s Burgers (I forgot to list down the addresses!), both of which I haven’t had the chance to visit because I ended up ordering roti egg outside the Saturday market (It is love at first bite, too!) and having beef noodles and banana shakes with a fellow backpacker (coincidentally named Mike) in a small corner of the walled city.
For some of you who have done an RTW backpacking trip alone for months or year, my concerns may sound petty, amateurish perhaps. But it’s a big step for someone like me who’s so used to being organised. And I loved every single minute of it. I was able to stop and stare at the nice views, and look at the souvenirs without someone nudging me to walk on. No one’s asking me to check my watch because we’ll be late for the next thing on our itinerary. I’m on my own time, reaching for my own targets (or lack thereof).
The truth is when you go out there, you are not alone, especially if you go anywhere near or along the Banana Pancake trail. Backpackers are everywhere and you just have to overcome the initial shyness and go talk to them! After all, the beauty of travelling is not on how we followed our itinerary by heart, but it’s the people we meet, the stories that get swapped, the tips we take from those brief encounters with backpackers, who, after long days on the road, are reluctantly heading home. It’s those surreal moments when we are not defined by our jobs, by the gadgets we flaunt, by the clothes we wear, by the way we carry ourselves. It’s just you and the world, and the backpackers doing the same as you: exploring, leaving the routine and the monotony of safe lives for a taste of the unknown across the border, or in my case, within a three-hour flight radius. Solo backpacking teaches you how to rely on yourself more, but more importantly, it connects you to strangers, to the places you only see in magazines and travel blogs, and you know, nothing can replace experience.
So before you roll your eyes (like I did, and I apologise) at those who continue to wax poetic about how they trudge along life’s offbeat paths alone, I suggest you go grab your backpack and step into the wide wide highways leading to your next great adventure. And if you can – actually you must, at least once – do it all alone.