The ups and downs of solo travelling

By Hoe I Yune, Mar 29, 2019

This story is a continuation of Melissa Kweh’s solo travel trip to Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and the Phillipines.

Part one can be read here.

* * * *

People often talk about the fun parts of travelling solo, but the loneliness is something that’s rarely spoken about. You could enjoy your trip but also feel very alone. It’s a very complex feeling.

The truth is that I felt lonely a lot of the time. When you’re doing activities with other travellers, yeah, you’re spending time together but every time you move, you go on your separate ways. It’s unlikely that someone else is going in your direct at the exact same time. 

It becomes a cycle of sorts - you wake up in a foreign place and find yourself alone again, then you meet new people, you have some fun together, then everyone says goodbye. At a point, it got quite difficult for me. Maybe because I have mild separation issues, but I just missed waking up and seeing a familiar face nearby. The absence of familiarity wasn’t the nicest feeling.

On my trip, I kept a diary and my initial plan was to pen down some highlights of the day and keep track of how much I was spending, but the content came to be filled with thoughts like, “Oh, I’m so lonely. This place is so foreign”. That kind of stuff. Even though I know I get to see new sights that I normally wouldn’t, or live through experiences that I wouldn’t have if someone I knew was present, it’s just a different feeling.

I felt very strongly about this during another solo trip to Nepal. I was really messed up in my head so I spontaneously booked a flight to Nepal. I wanted to go up a random hill, stare out at the open and cry. But when I was sitting on a rooftop, on the same level as the water tank, I found myself staring at the peaks of the Himalayas in awe.

A snapshot of Kathmandu, Nepal.

A snapshot of Kathmandu, Nepal.

I just sat there. I wanted to turn to someone and ask if they were seeing what I was seeing, but there was no one there with me.

Learning to relax and also to fend for myself

Travelling on my own, there was so much to take in. I was walking alone in Phnom Penh and kids would just come up to me and hug me. I was walking down the street at one point with four kids, hand in hand. I felt like I was in The Sound of Music. 

The sad part is how after moving further along, they instinctively knew to let go of your hand and turn away. It’s like they’re used to fleeting hellos and goodbyes.

At the start of my trip, I was super cautious. I’d wonder about things like “Why is the bus taking longer than it should”, or “Why is it going down this particular route”? Every little thing that happened made me very edgy until I met this woman on a bus. She was 30 and a seasoned solo traveller. She told me, “Some stuff you can’t force. Sometimes you need to pull back and let go”. Her words stuck with me and helped me loosen up a little bit.

When travelling solo, you throw yourself into unfamiliar places. And you learn to operate more on instinct and live in the moment. When you overthink, things usually don’t turn out your way and you feel the opposite of what you’re trying to achieve. You want to feel liberated yet you wind up feeling tied down by anxiety. 

Focusing on the present helped me regulate my thinking and I learned to be more level-headed in situations.

Backpacking alone, I can’t deny that I was a little frightened for my safety even though it wasn’t always on top of my mind. 

My friends shared tips such as not looking anyone in the eye when in crowded places, and to turn around and ask for a lighter if you suspect that someone is following you. 

People can warn you but honestly, you can never know for sure when an incident might happen, or be entirely prepared for it.

When I was on one of the overnight buses in Vietnam, one of the bus assistants gestured that he wanted to squeeze into the same recliner seat as me. I turned him away but for the rest of the journey, I couldn’t sleep at all.

Sometimes you also get people touching your waist but what they’re really doing is trying to reach into your pockets. In Laos and Cambodia, taxi drivers or drivers of those eight-seat tuk-tuks would try to con you.

I learned that you have to be very firm. You cannot show that you’re afraid.

Some people might say to get out of these uncomfortable situation ASAP but sometimes, the more that you show that you’re afraid in the situation, the more you’ll get provoked. What I learned to do is grab them by the shoulder (thankfully men in these places aren’t very tall) and go like, “Oh really? You want to do this? You’ll bring me down this route?” They get taken back by that. I guess the men in these countries aren’t used to women being assertive, especially when you’re an Asian woman.

Tip: never behave like a tourist. Behave as if you’re very familiar with the place.

Dealing with no electricity, losing my wallet and phone, and an eye infection

Phnom Penh was really dodgy. At least the area I was staying in was.

It was all chill inside the hostel but step outside and there would be skinny, tanned, and half-naked men squatting and staring at you.

I was staying at a hostel in Phnom Penh when the electricity was down. Not down once - it’s down every day from 12pm to 5pm. Everybody would come out from their rooms because it’s so hot. I learnt that this happens when you’re not paying the government enough so they’ll occasionally cut your electricity and water.

On one of the afternoons, I wandered outside to escape the heat. Let’s just say that in Cambodia, stuff like weed is everywhere. There would be people asking if you want cigarettes before revealing that they also have weed and marijuana. I had some, which was the beginning of a snowball of events.

Combine the weed, the heat, and the fact that I hadn’t eaten for more than 24 hours - I was a bit… gone. So I went back into my room and took a nap. My roommate came in and asked if I wanted to head out and grab a bite, so I went with him and a few others.

Normally I’d carry my sling bag then wear my parka over it, but I was a bit careless that day and carried my bag over my parka as you normally would. 

We were walking down this long alley when a bike came up close. Before I knew it, I felt a tug and realised that my bag was gone. They took my bag!

Thankfully, I wasn’t carrying my passport on me. I lost my phone, credit card, USD70 and the hostel locker key inside the bag.

There was a Singapore embassy and I could’ve lodged a police report but I figured that there’d be no point. The hostel keeper had no spare key so he opened my locker with a hand drill the next day. He suggested that I go to the evening market in case my phone turns up. I didn’t bother. It is what it is.

I left Phnom Penh for Siem Reap, relying on my tablet and cash since the snatch theft incident left me without my phone and credit card. 

Luckily, all I really needed was Google Maps, which I could still access offline on my tablet. So continuing to travel around wasn’t too difficult.

I didn’t have local SIM cards or data roaming to begin with. The first one I got in Vietnam didn’t work then I figured I wanted to dive straight in and get the “real traveller’s experience” sans Internet. 

I paid for the rest of my accommodation in cash. The snatch theft incident made me even more spontaneous since I could no longer make room reservations online. I’d just walk into hostels and ask if I could get a room.

Still, without my phone, I felt a huge loss. All my pictures were stored inside. It took a few days before I made peace with it. When I started out on my trip, I was obsessed with taking pictures of everything. Often we think that’s what we need to do to remember something.

But just before losing my phone in Cambodia, I began making a conscious effort to stop taking pictures and quit writing everything down. Because I wanted to live in the experience and I know I would never be able to capture everything in its entirety.

But I can see why some people love taking photos when they’re travelling. I met and spoke to this Swedish professional photographer. She was taking pictures of a waterfall in Laos. It’s called Kuang Si Falls and the water was turquoise blue because of the minerals.

She explained that when she takes pictures, she tries to capture a certain moment. She recognised that the moment doesn’t always come when you wait for it, but she also said that even though these pictures won’t mean a lot to her when she returns home, she’ll be able to show them to friends and family. That way she can share that the waterfall’s real and that she witnessed it. It’s like magic to them.

I was on the last leg of my trip in the Philippines when I developed a corneal ulcer. At 6am, it was already bright outside, but I couldn’t open my left eye. I took a look in the mirror and realised that the white part of my eye was cherry red and bulging. It was really frightening.

I approached the hostel staff, asked for the nearest hospital, and was directed to one five minutes away. I felt that I was secretly blessed because as with every calamity, somehow there were solutions around the corner or people helping me out.

At the hospital, when the doctor saw me, his first words were - I kid you not - “oh no”. Not exactly the first thing that you want to hear from a doctor.

He said he’d get the eye surgeon once she was out of surgery. When the eye surgeon saw me, she said, “yea it’s quite bad.” Again, not what you want to hear.

She said I had two options - either a swab and I stay in the Philippines for two weeks, or antibiotics, painkillers, and some eye solution immediately, and fly back to Singapore right away. I wasn’t about to be hospitalised away from home so I cut my trip short, asking my dad over Facebook Messenger to book me a plane ticket.

Time for home

Throughout the trip, I contacted my mum every now and then to let her know that I was alright. Only at the very end, when I needed to get my plane ticket home did I contact my dad because I had lost my credit card. Okay, it sounds terrible - as if I’m using my dad. I know that he was really worried about me but I think the time apart was good for us.

When I got back, things with my family got better. I think - like any normal human being, you tend to take the people around you for granted. It’s only when I spent time away from my parents did I become less impatient and more accommodating. In a way, my parents too became more empathetic, even though they might not have understood what I was going through.

At the end of the day, travelling alone is never what you expect it to be. You would think - from the stuff you read, that it’s going to play out a certain way and you’ll have certain expectations. But no two experiences will ever be the same.

There’s the good and the bad. You can get addicted to it and want to do it again and again. You could feel progressively lonelier instead (this was what happened in my case). Since then, I’ve also solo travelled to Nepal and Ko Chang, an island in Thailand. The first time had a sense of novelty to it. Subsequently, you don’t quite get the same level of excitement anymore.

But travelling alone is always fun because you get to do things at your own pace. You get your own headspace because you can choose not to talk to anyone. There were days when all I would do is sleep under the sun and chill by the pool. It helped me realign my thoughts and really focus on the present.

It sounds cliché but it’s true - when I came back to Singapore, I saw things in a new light. Things that I had taken for granted – the safety, where everywhere is clean and didn’t smell like piss, and waiters and waitresses spoke English.

Travelling solo also made me more calm and patient in a way. I’m not sure how to put it into words exactly but it’s like once you’ve roughed out weird or uncomfortable situations, you learn not to react in haste or panic over the smallest things. I can think more clearly and rationally because what’s the worst that could happen? It’s not like a minor problem at work can compare to losing your passport and being stranded overseas! I guess at the end of the day, it’s all about perspective.

Photos provided by Melissa Kweh.

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