Setting out solo can be daunting, particularly traveling as a girl. My first five months backpacking I spent with my sister, my back up; if one of us forgot something, the other probably had it, we could split the price of cabs or even splash out on a double room and, no matter what situation we got ourselves into, we were in it together. With this in mind, I packed with apprehension, despite heading to well-traveled Malaysia with pockets full of advice from my sister, who had been there 5 months earlier. I still ended up forgetting adapters, moisturiser and a hairbrush (essential with my frizzy locks)!
But solo backpackers don’t stay solo for long in my experience, unless they’re seeking a more solitary experience. Within three hours of unpacking in my KL hostel, I already had an invite to explore the street food market with a Danish girl from my room. Two other solo travelers joined our group and we headed for a food court in China Town. I was jetlagged and queasy at the thought of eating, but I never turn an offer down, and these girls turned out to be the best thing about KL; we spent three days stuffing our faces with (mostly) Indian food and seeing sights I would never have thought to visit off my own back. Our group expanded after an evening chatting on our roof terrace in the glow of the city skyline and increased again after a free city walking tour. My previous experience of traveling in a group of 7 lead me to believe making friends was hard out East, but a group is intimidating to approach, a single traveler isn’t; we seem to seek each other out.
After three days our group disbanded and goodbyes were said as if we were old friends, but KL had been pillaged and it was time to move on. Without much of a plan, myself and another girl, Charlotte, decided to head off together to the Cameron Highlands and then Penang. To my mind, the actual traveling between destinations can be the worst part of solo travel. I had had some unnerving experiences on my own in Myanmar, but having a companion banished any nervousness.
I can hardly call myself a solo traveler at this point, however if you don’t find someone heading your way, I would always recommend planning to arrive at your stop in daylight. No one spoke English on the bus I took for the land crossing from Thailand to Myanmar and with several pitch black stops before the boarder, I became increasingly worried that I had missed mine, not being able to see any sign posts in the dark. My lack of planning also meant that I had no idea what to do once through the boarder. Luckily, I found a man who spoke English to give me a lift to the next town Hpa-An, but if you’re nervous then don’t wing it. Some countries like Myanmar aren’t so easy to navigate and Wi-Fi can be non-existent once you’re there! I always like to have the first night in a new place booked too, especially if I’m arriving late at night. It saves you wandering dark streets in an unknown city and you can always change once daylight hits if you find somewhere better.
If you’re out for an extended period it might not be possible to visit everywhere in its prime season, which might mean hitting some
countries in low season. The south East Asian backpacker route will be seething with travelers no matter when you go, but I arrived in Myanmar during low season, which not surprisingly for a country only recently joining the backpacker map, is a lonely low season. My hostel was void of life in Nyaung Schwe and there were very few people in my Hpa-An hotel. It got pretty lonely and I’ll admit to a tearful phone call home at one point, but I may never return to Myanmar, so I couldn’t let it stop me doing what I’d gone there for. In Hpa-An I hiked up a mountain to sleep in a Buddhist monestary at its peak. Curbing my fear on the solitary, spooky climb, shrouded in mist is one of my proudest moments as a backpacker. I’d messaged home with my plan so if I hadn’t got back in touch by lunch the next day they knew to worry and had also arranged for a motorbike taxi to pick me up the next morning, so if I got stuck someone would know! As luck would have it I was rewarded with the company of three European guys who had made the hike an hour behind me so I didn’t have to sleep alone in the ghostly monastery.
Not everyone is lucky enough to have friends with compatible aspirations to travel; other things in life have to go on hold to make the time and gather the money needed. My advice is to never let this prevent you going, although it’s daunting at first, you won’t be alone for long periods, unless you want to be, and the obvious bonus is you can do exactly what you want, where you want, when you want, never having to compromise for a companion.