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Confessions of a First-Time Solo Traveler

Posted By in Thailand, Travel Musings, What I've Learned | 34 comments

I’m being swallowed up by a crowd of people who are sticky with sweat and excitement; the air carries the faint aroma of sewage and stale beer; vendors occasionally grasp my arm with needy fingers, imploring me to buy a suit or come with them to a ping-pong show. It’s my first time alone in Bangkok on Khao San Road, and I feel overwhelmed.

Alone on Khao San Road

Aside from a few summers spent working out in the west coast of Canada, I’ve never traveled alone. Whenever I had read stories and blogs by solo travelers, I complacently imagined that if I could travel well as part of a couple, I could easily hack it as a solo traveler too. Of course, I had never put this theory to the test until a few days ago.

After 15 months on the road and with many more laid out ahead of us, Brent and I decided to take 2 weeks to visit our friends and family in Canada for the holidays. Our work schedule created a situation in which Brent flew home 5 days before I was able to. When we planned our separate itineraries months ago, being alone in Thailand for a few days didn’t seem like a big deal. But then suddenly I actually was, and it felt very different than I had expected.

As soon as I parted with Brent at the airport, it felt like everything hit at once: The upheaval of being separated after over a year of constant togetherness; the knowledge of being so far from any kind of social support system; and the burden of handling all the travel arrangements completely alone. Instead of being excited by Bangkok’s electric vibes, I suddenly wanted to draw the curtains and curl up in the fetal position inside my hostel room.

I’m proud of how I’ve grown as a traveler over the past year and a half on the road, but I began to realize that I evolved with Brent always by my side. We travel well together  because we have complimentary strengths. Unspokenly,  there are aspects of travel that Brent usually manages, and others that are my forte.

couples travel

One aspect that normally falls in the Brent domain is shopping. Haggling is common practice in Thailand, but I still loathe it. I’m not very good at playing indifferent towards something that I know I want to purchase. It feels so pushy to make a counter-offer to the initial price; then this is usually followed by further uncomfortableness when the vendor shakes his head at me and presents a second price. I feel like I don’t know the steps to a very elaborate dance. This is why I usually let Brent take the lead in purchasing. Plus, he speaks better Thai than me, which is also an advantage in negotiating.

But here I was alone in Bangkok and I needed to go shopping. I had to pick up a few more Christmas gifts before heading back to Canada myself, so I had no choice but to put on a brave face, venture out and haggle by myself.

solo shopping

So I did. At first, I quickly accepted the first offer, and then slunk away, knowing that I had overpaid. Then, I made meek counter-offers that were quickly shut down. Then, slowly, I grew bolder,  the Thai phrases I needed came more easily to mind, and the discounts grew bigger. It was empowering and exciting. By the end of the day, I was standing my ground with a taxi driver as we negotiated over the price of a ride to the bus station.

Soon I was back in the relative comfort of our temporary home in Ban Pong. My experience was barely an adventure, but I still feel a little stronger for having successfully made it through 24 hrs. on my own in Bangkok.

Although it was a brief experience, it still managed to shake things up and shine a spotlight on my current weaknesses as a traveler.  I’m a pro when it comes to planning, organizing, researching, as well as generating the raw passion that keeps us seeking out new adventures.  Yet, among other things, I rely on Brent to never be intimidated by unfamiliar situations, to attempt conversations in foreign languages, as well as to keep us level-headed when we encounter a problem.

Traveling as a pair had lulled me into forgetting to challenge myself. It’s strange how even when you’re 1000s of miles away from home, you can still find yourself sinking into comfort zones and clinging to routines. I had come to depend on co-decision-making and the safety of knowing that I wasn’t alone if something went wrong.

In many ways, I pushed myself more during that day in Bangkok than I have in months. I rediscovered some of the joys of having some time to myself. I certainly have a newly enhanced respect for the guts it takes to be a solo traveler. I also have a fresh desire to take more solo excursions in order to continue to grow as a traveler, and, as a person.

 

Have you traveled both alone and in groups? Which do you prefer?

34 Comments

  1. Vanessa December 18, 2012

    I agree that traveling alone feels a whole lot different than traveling with a friend! I lived in Paris for a year by myself (friends, family, and fiance were all back in the US), and my life was totally different than here in Korea with my husband. In Paris, every moment that I wasn't working, I was out somewhere doing something (who wants to sit at home alone?!). But here in Korea, I don't mind staying in the house part of the day because I'm not just sitting there alone… I've always got company and conversation.

    I feel like if you're a "go-get'em" kind of person, solo travel won't be a problem because you'll always find friends/sites to see. But if you're not like that, you have to either push yourself to join events/pursue hobbies or else you'll end up feeling quite lonely and homesick. Those are definitely important things to think about before traveling solo. 🙂
    My recent post We're on Korean TV!

    • waysofwanderers December 21, 2012

      It's true, Vanessa. Whether you're traveling or not, I think it's easier to fall into the habit of lounging around and doing nothing when you're in a couple because you can always entertain each other.

      Interestingly, I found that more people struck up conversations with me when I was alone compared to when I travel with Brent, so I ended up not being as lonely as I though I would be. Not surprisingly, it seems like solo travelers tend to seek each other out and bond together pretty quickly since they're all in the same boat.

  2. Julika December 19, 2012

    A great post, Jessica! I can totally relate to this emotional roller coaster 🙂 I must admit, I love the thrill and the challenge of being on my own in a country where I rarely know the language, but in the end I prefer to not travel solo – simply because I want to talk about what I see, and love to share impressions of everything I experience right away 🙂

    • waysofwanderers December 21, 2012

      Thanks, Julika. I feel the same way! I love being able to share the excitement with someone.

  3. emilyemcgee December 19, 2012

    Congrats on your successful bargaining! I always travel with my hubby, and I agree that when you travel as a couple you complement each other and don't realize how "easy" things are with someone by your side. I guess it's time for me to challenge myself soon and try a weekend alone– it's just hard to do that when I'd always rather be with him. 🙂
    My recent post Gridiron Glory: Football Fun at the Heinz History Center

    • waysofwanderers December 21, 2012

      Thanks, Emily! I think that's the same reason why I haven't pushed myself to travel solo until now, even though I've thought a lot of about trying it. We have fun together and we generally want to check out the same places, so there's rarely a reason for me to go off on my own.

  4. Daniel McBane December 23, 2012

    I generally travel alone, but occasionally team up with other travelers for shorter periods. When I do, I've noticed I tend to get really lazy and just let them handle everything that doesn't require my doing anything. Not sure if that's good or bad…
    My recent post How to Waste a Good Typhoon

    • waysofwanderers December 24, 2012

      I find that a little too, Daniel. If I travel with someone who really dominates when it comes to planning, I tend to take a back seat and let that person take care of everything. In some ways I like when this happens because I usually end up relaxing a lot more; but that said, I find that I get more out of the experience when I've done the research and organization personally.
      My recent post Confessions of a First-Time Solo Traveler

  5. Steph (@20YH) December 23, 2012

    I think it really takes extraordinary courage to travel solo! The last time I took a trip where I was forced to do stuff on my own was when Tony was going to NYC for a conference and I tagged along. While he was at work, I had these huge stretches of time to fill on my own, and I hardly knew what to do with them! I definitely felt lost for a bit as I wasn't used to just following my own whims without convening with him first so we could find a mutually enjoyable plan, and it was awkward going to a restaurant by myself, but I realized that no one was paying attention to me and I would be fine.

    On this big trip, I am grateful every day I get to do it with my best friend at my side as I am sure I am having more fun than if I had gone by myself. We are constantly pushing each other to do things that we might chicken out of on our own! And it's nice to have a support system so that you have someone to turn to in uncomfortable or potentially scary moments… Neither Tony nor I particularly like approaching strangers or haggling, so we take turns, and that seems to work out well! 😉
    My recent post Everything You Ever Wanted to Know (& More!) About: HONG KONG

    • waysofwanderers December 24, 2012

      I totally agree, Steph. The experience of traveling solo reminded me how lucky I am to have a partner who loves traveling as much as I do. I'm definitely grateful to have someone to share both the highs and the lows with.

      It's funny, I never had a problem eating alone, or doing anything alone at home, yet I felt self-conscious about it in Thailand. It's partially the unfamiliar environment, but also because family plays such an important role in day-to-day life in Asia. I feel like a female eating alone is a little more taboo than it is back in Canada because you don't really ever see the locals eating alone. At the same time, I'm pretty sure I do all kinds of things that Thai people find strange, so eating alone isn't really all that different. I think it's best to just embrace it.
      My recent post Confessions of a First-Time Solo Traveler

  6. Elizabeth December 24, 2012

    I also have a hard time on my own sometimes, I get overwhelmed quickly when things go wrong and if m husband isn't there to be a buffer, I usually end up in a really bad mood. I have recently tried doing more traveling in Thailand on my own so I don't end up being totally helpless! It is amazing how easy it can be to rely on someone else but it is a growing experience to be able to do it by yourself!

    Kudo's to you for doing some haggling on your own, it can be tough for me too, I always feel so bad! Have a wonderful Christmas 🙂
    My recent post looking back, moving forward

    • waysofwanderers December 25, 2012

      I was totally caught off guard by how helpless I felt – it was eye-opening. I like the idea of trying to do more traveling on my own like you are – I feel like I could get a lot of benefit out of creating more balance between solo traveling and couple traveling.

      Happy Holidays to you too!

  7. kaleenaskaleidoscope December 26, 2012

    I can absolutely relate to your experience! I went on my first backpacking trip and really developed as a traveler with my ex-boyfriend, and now that he's not around I find that I really did rely on him for a lot of things that intimidate me, such as asking for directions and making purchases. But I recently had to spend a day traveling alone from one country to another in South America and it involved buses, planes, taxis, a dangerous bridge border crossing, and it was all so overwhelming that at times I just wanted to curl up in a ball and cry. But after it was all over with, it was so empowering to know that I could handle it all myself! It's great to be able to travel with someone and share the duties, but it's also nice to know that you're still capable of doing it on your own. So cheers to us independent ladies! 😉
    My recent post Sandboarding and Surviving My Own Near Apocalypse

    • waysofwanderers December 26, 2012

      That's a really inspiring story – it's fantastic that you were able to face your fears and travel on your own. I think you summed it up perfectly too: " It's great to be able to travel with someone and share the duties, but it's also nice to know that you're still capable of doing it on your own" – Well said!

  8. Neil Skywalker December 27, 2012

    Discovered your site through Twitter (thanks for following btw). I like to think of myself as an highly experienced solo traveler. I have traveled with others for a few days to a week and once even 6 weeks in Indonesia with English guy but nothing beats making your own decisions and being free as a bird.

    Have fun in Thailand!

    Neil
    My recent post Christmas promotion!! Major discount on my book

    • waysofwanderers December 27, 2012

      Thanks for reading, Neil! Nervousness aside, I agree that I definitely love the freedom of the solo traveling – it's pretty liberating not to have to answer to anyone, and to do what you want at any moment.

  9. 2 Digital Nomads December 27, 2012

    Nice post, i still remember when we were in Thailand how bargaining was a sweet challenge but is a must. Good to know how yoou felt about your experience as solo.

    Cheers and safe travel
    My recent post What to Drink in Egypt?

    • waysofwanderers December 27, 2012

      Thanks! Bargaining is still a little tough for me, but my experience gave me a taste of how fun it could potentially be once I got the hang of it.

  10. agnesstramp January 9, 2013

    What a coincidence. I was strolling down the Khao San Road this morning and I felt the same way. So happy you are proud of yourself being a mature traveller. Keep being awesome girl!
    My recent post Postcards from Brussels, Belgium

    • waysofwanderers January 10, 2013

      Thanks, Agness! Khao San can be a little overwhelming, can't it? Always interesting, but intimidating at the same time. It feels easy to get lost in the craziness and the crowd.

  11. Ally January 12, 2013

    I found I was quite good at haggling while my partner was there, but as soon as he dissapears I lose all my confidence for some reason :s. I haven't traveled solo yet, but I will be in about 6 months and I'm a tiny bit terrified! Its good to know that it gets easier, and you gain more confidence as you go
    My recent post Why I want to do my semester abroad in Mexico

    • waysofwanderers January 13, 2013

      That's really exciting, Ally! It will be a whole new kind of adventure to travel solo. I think sometimes you can't really gain the confidence until you actually get out there on your own, and then you begin to realize how much you're actually capable of.

  12. @Xplorato February 10, 2013

    Travelling solo is a challenge by itself, more so if you do not have a local guide. i am totally impressed at how you were able to master couurage and improve your negotiating skills. Thanks for the inspiration

    • waysofwanderers February 11, 2013

      Thanks! Although, I feel like my experience is nothing compared to people who travel alone to new countries all the time – but still, it was a same personal victory, for sure. I'm glad the story inspired you!

  13. cham@volunteertravel February 12, 2013

    It definitely gives a huge sense of accomplishment when traveling alone for the first time. You really get to know your strengths and weaknesses and I totally relate to the emotional roller coaster. Traveling alone is not my favorite kind of travel although I do think it teaches you a lot about yourself.
    My recent post Park City Sundance and Humanitarian Documentaries

    • waysofwanderers February 12, 2013

      I think there are pros and cons to be solo and group travel. It's definitely nice to have someone to share the experience with, but it's also fun to be able to go where you want and do what you want without having to compromise with someone else.

  14. Mariella February 21, 2013

    Oh, I love this – I come from the exact other side, usually being alone and then having to get used to someone being around, but I can still relate. I love the challenge of solo travel – and I also love the beauty of discovering how great travel can be when you share it. Great post!
    My recent post If Only…? On Regrets and Making Peace

    • waysofwanderers February 21, 2013

      That's really interesting! It must have been strange making space for someone else when you're used to acting on your own travel whims. I'm sure going from solo to group definitely comes with a different set of challenges then going from group to solo.

  15. www.ecosafari.com/ March 18, 2013

    As a regular travel maker I really like this Solo Traveler discussion and pretty hopefully their everything seems to me really super to visit and enjoying. Okay dude.

  16. OCDemon April 21, 2013

    This is why everybody needs to go backpacking straight into a ridiculous disaster at least once. I can't even comprehend when people describe themselves a dual unit that operates like a two-person ant hill hive mind.
    My recent post Should you travel with jeans?

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  20. mari carel July 24, 2016

    thanks to this im inspired to travel alone

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