‘Why do you have to go so far? How are you going to stay safe on your own? Are you 100% sure about this?’ The worried words of my mum were ringing in my ears as I stepped off a long flight to Bangkok crumpled from broken sleep, bloated from in-flight meals and the bubbles of nervous excitement over what lay ahead during my first solo female travel trip.
I forced her anxious tones out of my mind and enjoyed the satisfaction of making it here safely, miles from home, on my own. I was determined to enjoy every single minute of this trip. I felt invincible knowing it was me, myself and I, so what if I had the challenge of getting across this chaotic city to find my hostel. I can do anything!
However, this fierce can-do attitude puddled out of me twenty minutes later thanks to a brusque tuk tuk driver. I couldn’t work out whether my hurriedly scrawled hostel directions were illegible, if I’d already committed some cultural no-no or he was just in a grump, either way he wasn’t taking me where I wanted to go. Oh. Now what?
As I wilted in the scorching Thai sun, my heavy bulky backpack at my feet and regular wafts of my less than fragrant body odour, I wished I’d taken the advice of others and booked on a tour. I enviously gazed at the busy arrivals hall spotting the relaxed faces of those being picked up for their group travel. Watching the seamless transfer put on by their hosts made my wavering confidence weaken even more.
The first day is always the hardest, I remembered reading this somewhere. I told myself that it’s like when you go for a run, the first ten minutes you wonder why you volunteered to torture yourself but then follows this incredible high, the buzz of endorphins that rush around your body. I was clinging on to the same hope here.
Nodding a polite thanks to the driver I heaved on my bag and wandered to the next shabby vehicle. This one was more than happy to take me to my hostel, albeit with a quoted price that I guessed was a complete rip off. I was soon to learn that a woman travelling on her own, and in my case fresh off the boat, is like a walking pound sign. Don’t be too disheartened as you quickly develop a backbone and put your foot down, surprising yourself and the eager trader in front of you with your bartering skills.
Travelling solo, especially as a woman and especially on your first time, is a sensory minefield. Not just the intoxicating new culture that you’ve found yourself in with foreign tongues rolling around your ears, competing with the roar of traffic, shouts of sellers and dubious music, but the fact you need to be on. Switched on.
With no-one to rely on but yourself you turn on what I call your spidey sense. Am I in a safe area, why is that man staring at me, do I have enough money on me, do I have too much money on me, where am I going, can I trust this guy offering to give me a good price, good price etc. It is overwhelming but the good kind, the kind when you don’t realise how you’ll cope until you look back and realised that you totally nailed it. Your personal safety is the number one priority when you’re on your own so always trust that gut instinct.
Yes, you are more vulnerable when you travel on your own as a woman but this also comes with its benefits. You are more likely to be adopted into a fun pack of like-minded backpackers, you are more likely to feel this intoxicating sense of pride that you are here, out of your comfort zone and away from anyone you know, doing it all. You are getting to be you, the real you, the person you want to be, without others holding you back.
You can eat what you want, when you want and where you want. You can change your itinerary because you feel like it (just let people you trust know where you are). You make the rules.
I’ve since travelled solo to Nepal, Dubai, India and Australia, all these countries had their own particular quirks, especially around women backpacking solo. Read up on a place before you head there (The Foreign Office website is full of up-to-date travel advice concerning solo female travellers), and dress appropriately at religious sites. If you’re looking for company then join a tour for a while, hangout at backpacker haunts or just take time to realise that being alone doesn’t mean you’re lonely. For some, traveling solo takes a little getting used to but trust me, this freedom may be tough to get used to then, ironically, tough to give up.
So, my dear mother, I did survive that first, and subsequent, solo travel trips. I learnt more than I ever expected about my own resilience and how I was braver and stronger than I ever imagined. Now that is what makes a great solo female traveller.
If you’re worried about being the 3rd wheel in the small group tour, don’t be. Most Intrepid travellers roll solo.