The beauty of solo travel, a look back

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.

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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.

Me, myself and China

I was in China last year on assignment, and if I’m being brutally honest about it: my real mission was to see the pandas up-close, less than one metre away from me! I travelled solo, and for a non-Chinese speaker, it was one hell of an experience. As a member of the media, I was subjected to an unusual scrutiny by the embassy – I had to visit their office three times just to ensure that I brought the correct and complete documents before they issued my visa. They only allowed me to be in the country for nine days, so I sadly scrapped my grand plans of strolling in Jiuzhaigou National Park and wandering around Sichuan’s countryside.

Regardless, it still served as a travel bragging right: I survived China. Alone. On assignment.

And by China, I don’t mean Beijing, Shanghai or Guangzhou or some bustling touristy metropolis. I meant the never-heard off-the-beaten-track China: Chongqing and Chengdu.

As a solo female traveller, I always get random questions after my trips, mostly about safety and survival.

Here are the FAQs I dealt with after that trip to the Middle Kingdom:

How did you survive alone, you can’t speak Chinese?

I have to admit, those few Mandarin lessons I’d taken in Singapore suddenly materialised in my brain when I was in China. You know how they say your body tends to adapt some inexplicable biological forces when it’s under extreme conditions (such as free diving)? My mind was like that, too. It magically switched on to survival mode, and I found myself asking basic questions and haggling with vendors in Kuanzhai Lane in Mandarin. Seriously, I didn’t know how it happened!

Tell us about the toilets?

Listen, this is not Mao’s era anymore. Stop thinking that China is all grass fields with potholes full of shit. Still, it was something I didn’t want to discover. My bladder might have had a really bad time during that week. I’ve heard of infamous dirty squat toilet stories even before I went on this trip, so I consciously drank less water when I was there, except during those hours I was in the hotel. But I heard McDonald’s loos are well-kept. When in doubt and far from the comfort of your hotel, pick the fanciest shopping mall around and do your business there.

Is it true that people still spit in the streets?

Yes, but to be fair, I only encountered it once. I was sitting in a bench in the parking lot of a huge shopping mall in Chongqing so it’s still a bit shocking. And he’s less than a metre away from me. The best thing and most polite way to do is to slowly walk away; don’t stare, don’t give a grossed-out look; don’t let your OCD override your manners – walk away.

Tell us about the food. Are there a lot of fake stuff?

I’d be lying if I say I don’t like the food. The dumplings are divine, except the ones sold at Chongqing airport that caused my stomachache on my 5-hour flight back. The hotpot is phenomenally tongue-numbing; have some lemon water ready. They say the best drink while having hotpot, aside from Tsingtao beer, is peanut milk. It doesn’t taste like peanut or milk, it tastes like something very artificial. I took a sip from the bottle so as not to offend my photographer, and came out with an excuse that I’m lactose intolerant. He can’t understand complicated English words but I’m sure lactose intolerant sounded very convincing.

In case you are wondering about other things:

The immigration officers in China exude fierce, don’t-mess-with-me vibe, and they speak very good English. Maybe it’s the effect of me being from the media. They kept on asking me if I’m travelling alone or if a friend is waiting for me or what am I going to do in their country. Strange.

There’s a canine unit at the luggage conveyor belt at Chongqing airport. One of them kept barking after every three bags! Made me wonder what those travellers had packed? I’d say some vacuum-sealed durian.

In China, they scan your bag (via a scanning machine like those found in airports) at all MRT stations. Talk about security.

As for the pandas, they are adorable and super cute. Go when the weather is cooler. They are not really sun lovers so make sure you visit during the fall or winter. Definitely worth the trip!

The best travel quote of all time…

Your English very very good. But your eyes, not blue? And your hair, very black. Why?

– a vendor asked me this in Fort Rotterdam, Makassar, South Sulawesi, Indonesia

How do you come up with an answer to that? How do you explain to someone that English is a common language, spoken by almost 1.2 billion people in the world. How do you break the stereotype that not only blonde, blue-eyed Caucasians had English to fluent perfection? I told her:

Oh, I’m not Indonesian. I came from Singapore.

To which she replied:

But your eyes! They’re not Chinese?

That’s the good thing about travelling. It exposes you to the world’s sweeping generalisations. And if you’re lucky, you’re capable of breaking them.

 

Confessions of a noob travel writer

“Is there something wrong?” asked the chef. He must have noticed the beads of sweat slipping down my temples.

“Oh no, I just can’t find the right angle!” I smiled to mask my worry.

There I was in a hotel in Bandung, on the first day of my first ever overseas writing assignment in 2012, shooting at the best setting possible (al fresco, on a crisp sunny day, how perfect!) and my camera was showing signs of low battery.

That blinking empty battery icon was the stuff of nightmares.

I told the chef I just needed to move the plates a bit, and asked his assistant to bring out all the dishes so I could capture a group photo of them in a fancy spread in their outdoor restaurant. He obliged, and an array of dishes appeared before me, so delicious and pretty as if mocking my unpreparedness for them.

Click, click, click! The karedok, an appetizer similar to gado-gado (Indonesian vegetable salad) that was a neat stack five minutes earlier became a Leaning Tower of Pisa in front of me: layers of cubed cucumber, long beans, and green baby eggplant were ready to crumble at any minute. Click click click! The oxtail soup was a steaming mixture of heavenly meat, bones, and vegetables but all I could think of was how the steam was clouding my lens, dammit. Click click click! The tomato slices and celery garnish were slowly being submerged into the broth. Click click click! I quickly moved over to the nasi bakar, a Bandung speciality of rice cooked inside a bamboo stem. I’m sure it tastes great, but my photos appear so dull and unappetising. Click click click!

A few minutes later came the black screen. My battery died.

It was like a speed-date of camera and food; the most fast and furious capture I’ve ever done in my history with a camera.

I heaved a deep sigh and confessed to the chef that I had brought a low-batt camera without knowing it. “I’m sure you brought an extra battery?” I didn’t. “Don’t worry I got the shots that I need!” I said confidently, but my brain was throwing rapid curses at my stupid self.

***

Truth is, I almost cried at that moment. How could I possibly not bring a fully charged camera for a shoot? And I was taking food photos, without a food stylist, and without any prior experience. Just perfect.

In hindsight it was the test shots the night before that did it. I only had less than a week to prepare for the assignment. J, my senior editor back then, wasn’t particularly happy with the previous writer we’d worked with who lives in Bandung, so he did ask me to go. Naive, excited and eager to prove I’m ready for the road, I summoned my inner Dora The Explorer, got my tickets and hotels sorted, and before I knew it, I found myself hunched over that crumbling karedok with a nearly useless DSLR.

A few days before the trip I had told D, my art director, to “lower” his expectations on my shots. I’m not a professional photographer, I reasoned. “That’s why Photoshop is invented!” he joked. Well, the joke’s on me.

Bandung, test shots

Test shots with my nasi goreng the day before the shoot!

*** The result:

As if adding insult to injury, I got stuck in traffic (could easily happen in West Java’s one-way streets) after the shoot. Thirty more agonising minutes of telling myself off for my stupidity.

But, as I would later realise, Anthony Bourdain was right: God protects the fools and the drunk. My shots turned out all right, I submitted my food story and a city piece and they both got published on time. With my photos!

Goodbye, noob self. You taught me well.

 

Asia unpublished

It’s not easy to talk about our travels without siding the pretty, the positive, the postcard-worthy images shot during golden hours. And as a professional travel writer beholden to the branding policies (and let’s face it, business-oriented goals) of my clients, I have to admit that the demands of my job, including writing about a destination in the most appealing way possible, tend to give the readers a myopic, if not incomplete, sense of what a place is all about. Sure, I can recommend this activity, that hotel, this spa, but the real travel stories go deeper than what TripAdvisor or the latest listicle could ever give justice to.

Travel stories are all about people and their daily lives; the cultures they try to save and cultivate; and of course, the insights we can get from those who lead a life totally different from our own.

I’ve been meaning to do a blog since I started travel journalism three years ago. But as any travel journalist would know, assignments always come first before our indulgent self’s desire to talk to no one on cyberspace. I’ve been through amazing, crazy adventures in the past three years and it would be a shame not to share it. I am thankful for my job for the opportunity to go to places I never knew existed; falling off Google Maps, butt-numbing long drives along dirt roads, and having no internet access for days did me good. It allowed me to meet people and opened me up to different ways of life in the remote corners of the globe. And this blog will be about it. It will be for the stories I should’ve written…without the limits of the printed glossies, and without the restrictions of branding, word count and page borders. I don’t aim to be a travel guide, but I’ll throw in tips once in a while. I want to give this space to the people who had inspired me to focus on writing about the exotic, faraway places and vanishing traditions.

Hope to hear from you in the comments section soon!