Do you think about traveling the world – and especially Asia – solo? As a female? Are you already doing it? Are you worried by all these questions that friends and family members ask about the dangers of the world might be true, and that it’s not safe to travel solo?
I’ve been there. I did that. And I really recommend it! Do it! It’s the most amazing thing you can do.
If you’re not convinced yet, I’ll come up with some details for you
Upsides on traveling alone (especially as a woman/girl)
Traveling alone has many upsides compared to traveling with a partner, friends or in a group.
No need to compromise
When traveling with someone you need to compromise. You need to figure out a way both of you enjoy the holiday. Even if you are very easy-going about it and totally fine with the fact that your travel-mate goes shopping, while you visit the museum and you meet up for lunch at the authentic noodle place around the corner of both the museum and the shopping-center.
So what’s the down-side of that?
It costs time! You have to spend time finding this arrangement and to make sure you’re travel-mate really is fine with that and not secretly pouting about it. And what if the museum-clerks recommends a dumpling-place further down the road? Again, time! You start looking on your phone while rearranging with your mate instead on the exhibits in this really cool, impressive museum with all it’s show-cases.
Even though it never happened to me, I saw groups of friends argue at hostels about which place to go next or for a special event like New Years. On your own? No arguing!
You are on your own? You want to change your plans or not have any at all? Perfect! Do what suits you. It’s your travel. It’s your time!
You stick out – and that’s helpful
At the bottom of the Buddhist mountain Emei Shan, I managed to order a meat-free meal using my phrase book and an app. It’s December so really low season for foreigners to come to China, so the blond-blue-eyed-me really stuck out. The waitress was really sweet and patient when I ordered. We had a small conversation where I used all of my mandarin-words; she wanted to know where I am from (Germany), who I was with (no-one) and how many times I’ve been to China before (it was my first time).
I couldn’t understand the next question – my language skills came to an end, the app didn’t help. She was eager enough to ask for my book – she really wanted to ask that question! So while I enjoyed a fabulous meal she and five of her co-workers sat around my book, searching something and eventually she came back to me – pointing to the very sentence “Can I help you?”.
How sweet is that? I felt so happy and welcome. Even though I didn’t need help. It was such a kind thing to do and with all the effort all of them put into it, much more than a simple gesture.
The experience of pure self-efficacy – The feeling of being invincible
What’s that? That’s the experience and expectation of being able to do a task, to be able to be independent and to alter a situation into the way you want it to be. You develop that very much in situations you first think are too much to handle but them you do.
You are on your own. There is no-one to help you. Sounds scary? It is at first. But then you’ll see. You manage. You find a solution. And there are so many people to help you – especially when you are a female traveling solo in China and South-East-Asia.
And you get a lot of that when traveling solo. You will come across situations that would have scared you before and you’ll deal with them, stuff you thought you could never do on your own. But you will. And each time you do it, you will feel better, stronger and more independent.
A lot of things that are holding us back – especially when we were raised as females – is the fear to make a fool of ourselves. You can shake this off when you are on your own. No-one ever has to know – unless you allow them to. No-one you know or that knows you sees your struggle. It’s up to you what and if you tell friends and family back home. You will come back with so many stories you can hardly tell them all anyway.
Everyone of us will overcome different situations, has a different nemesis. Rita Golden Gelman gives a very vivid narrative how badly she wanted to avoid dinner on her own. And how she got through that and had a wonderful time. And dinner. By now she is totally relaxed by this.
I hated getting lost. I felt frustrated, useless and what-not. (Please notice the past-tense!) I myself remember sitting in the hotel room after arriving for my very first time in China. I was getting hungry and I really didn’t mind going to a restaurant on my own. But I was so scared of getting lost – how would I ever find my way back to the hotel? I did. I just walked very slowly, very aware of my surroundings and didn’t go far.
By now I got lost so many times when traveling, it’s kind of a routine. I get lost. And then I will find my way again. I use google maps or a-maps, ask locals, just keep walking. This one time in Xiamen I got lost, my phone didn’t work properly (I chose not to pay for vpn at that point) and I couldn’t remember the name of the hotel I stayed at. Kinda the name of the park in front of it but I was too shy or stubborn to ask for help. Then I stumbled upon a bus that drove past my hotel. I just followed it walking since it was stuck in traffic until I knew where I was again.
By now – I don’t mind getting lost anymore. You get to see other places. And what’s the defintion of getting lost anyway? Does it matter especially when I travel? I travel to explore, to see new stuff. So essentially to GET LOST! I overcame my reluctance to go up to people and talk to them.
So, you get onto that plane and into that taxi at the airport. You check into that hotel all by yourself. If you do it the first time, you feel weary, uncomfortable. But it will get easier and eventually you will enjoy it. You will come across your personal, difficult situation and you will manage it. At first it will be hard and then, you will hardly remember that this used to be hard for you. You will grow, you will get stronger and more independent.
You get lost in this street in the middle of the night – and you find your way back. You will go out and have dinner on your own. You will bargain on your own. Check into the hotel and explore the place you went to on your own. You walk your speed. You stop where you want to stop and eat where you want to eat. It’s worth it.
You get rewarded by so many experiences on your trip and with a feeling of being super-woman that will hold once you are back home in your every day life. For me, I decided to build a bed when I came home out of this feeling. I had never done carpentry before.
You are NOT alone: on making friends and meeting other travelers
After all this going on about traveling solo – it’s not the same as traveling alone. On a three-week-trip traveling off-season in China I met more new people than I did on a six-week-trip in Eastern Europe with my best friend.
You are more open-minded. Put that smartphone aside and smile at the people around you. I’d recommend staying at a hostel as they have more international guests and staff speaks English. In Xi’an I met a solo male and a solo female traveler. We exchanged amazing stories of past travels and our lives, went to see the Terracotta Army together and were all a bit sad when we had to part again.
…and meeting locals!
Always dreamed of meeting locals, getting invited to someones home or just getting first-hand information on every-day life at your destinations? I paid a lot of money for a “home-stay-trip” that was offered by some travel-agency in Saigon. It was so NOT worth it. We were a group of 12 tourists, all loaded up at the same family, staying in adjunct rooms that where build for this purpose and the family was serving us dinner – it was more of staying in a small, low-standard, high-priced hotel than “getting in touch with Vietnamese people”. I just wish for them to get a fair share of the costs.
Get away from the tourist hubs or go there off-season. Sit on a bench, relax, let your mind wander and be open to what happens next. Especially in Asia, after a while, someone would walk up to me and strike up a conversation. For free. Authentic. (Just be aware of the tea-scammers in China but not to paranoid).
Special perks of traveling alone as a female in China
There are some special perks on traveling solo as a female in China. In Chinese culture women weren’t very independent. So people were usually impressed by me traveling in China – and even more by the fact that I was traveling on my own. They were impressed and supportive, invited me to dinner, offered advice, teaching me a word here and there in Chinese and helping me find my way.
I was always treated with respect – no weirdness from guys that would make me feel uncomfortable. I actually managed to shake of this constant feeling of “having to make sure I am safe because I am a women” in China. Many of my female co-workers in Shanghai told me the same and how much they enjoyed that.
Everyone told me I was so brave for what I did. “You like hero” is the expression I heard so many times.
How to prepare for your trip as a solo female traveler in Asia?
There is actually not that magic behind it as you might think. Especially if you go to China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos or Thailand you don’t need to worry about much just because you are female in my experience.
You just prepare in the same way as a male traveler would. Get your visa, vaccines, medications and flight tickets, pack your stuff, plan out an itinenary or don’t – just how you feel like. But make sure to pack a phrase-book!
How to deal with loneliness?
I touched on that topic before when I mentioned meeting other travelers and locals. That’s a great way to not feel lonely.
Get out your phrase-book to communicate. Using your phone might feel easier – but using the phrase-book gives you more of a chance to catch up a bit of that language, show your new peng-you you try to learn a bit of the language and next time you meet someone, you might be able to use some of the phrases.
Or embrace the loneliness.
That’s a different approach and it’s awesome. I’ve been there. I felt scared and lonely as all I wanted was to be with a person I know. A person I care about. Someone that would give me a feeling of comfort, of familiarity. Someone that would pronounce the name of my home-town in the local dialect. Someone… well, I think you get the point, right?
But then – in my every day life, be-it school, university or work, I would sometimes long for time for myself. Where I can do whatever I please. Where no-one and nothing is nagging me, where there’s no paper due or no presentation to give.
So I remembered that feeling. And learned to cherish the temporary, self-chosen loneliness. It will end eventually. I will not travel forever nor not meet people along the road.
What can help you embracing the loneliness?
Try to accept it as part of traveling. Every solo traveler feels it from time to time. You are not alone in your feeling of loneliness. It’s okay to feel lonely! It would just be a bummer, if you get totally stuck in this feeling and then they won’t let you enjoy the perks of traveling on your own.
Try to find out why you feel lonely.
Do you want to share your experiences? You could blog about it. Start writing a travel diary offline. Or send postcards. My very first-solo-trip was one week in Greece, long before we had smartphones and international roaming rates for texting were shocking, blogging not yet established. So I wrote postcards, a lot of them. I felt like I had to get in touch with people, share my experiences. On later solo-trips I started blogging.
Or are you just worrying about what other people might think? Then see: The experience of pure self-efficacy, the feeling of being invincible.
Are you scared of too much empty time? Then have an itinerary. This will show you that the time actually is short and will end. You’ll go home eventually. My longest solo-trip was just before I was starting a very long and intense training. I reminded myself on that and for the last three weeks I was so grateful NOT to meet anyone. I actually managed to enjoy the fact that I was without my smartphone as it got stolen. I embraced the time as time for ME only.
Do something you enjoy. My best friend takes pencil equipment with her as she enjoys drawing places. She’s also a photographer and plans the photos she would like to take.
I love books, either reading or listening to audio books; look up books that are set in the region you go to. Most libraries allow you to borrow digital media by now and most of us have a smart phone anyway. So at no cost in money and weight there’s a lot to take with you.
If you enjoy playing a music instrument think about taking it with you – as long it’s not a full-sized piano.
Is there some skill you would like to learn? Take with you what you need to practice.
What makes you happy? If it’s mountains, then go to a mountain-area. If it’s being in a big city, aim for that. For me it’s the sea. Nothing makes me feel more at peace then looking at the ocean or a huge lake. A very good friend of mine just went on her first solo trip. She was very worried about it, so she booked an all-inclusive place that offered the food she likes and a lot of sports which she loves also. She had an awesome time and looks forward to her next solo trip.
How to stay safe in South-East-Asia and China as a female solo traveler?
That’s always a big concern but it’s very easy and safe to be true.
Just one anecdote on how safe I felt in China: Imagine this, it’s Christmas Eve, 11 p.m., -7°C, I am alone in Beijing where I just arrived for my very first time, carrying a big back-pack and I am lost. Totally. I took a bus from the airport as directed by the hostel but the connecting bus didn’t go at this time of the night. It’s dark and cold.
I try to get a taxi but none of the drivers care about driving me to the part of town where my hostel is. I am getting desperate, calling the hostel doesn’t help as the English-speaking staff isn’t there any more. I am lost. And I loose it.
Enter what-ever bad language comes to your mind. I start swearing. Then a middle-aged-men approaches me in English, asking whether I might need help. I just replied: “Yes, please. I am alone and totally lost. I don’t know where I am or where my hostel is and can’t get a taxi-driver to get me there.”
He’s having the same issues about getting a taxi. He offers me to share a black taxi. Grateful that I won’t have to spend the night at this crossing.
I did what my mum always told me not to do. I went with a stranger into a car. By that point I had been in China for four months and none of that part felt dangerous. I’m not sure if I had done that, like this, in any other part of the world.
So how did this end? He paid my ride as a Christmas present, gave me his card in case I needed anything at all as long as I am in Beijing and I arrived at my hostel safe and sound soon after.
I experienced most countries in Southeast-Asia I’ve been to as safe for female travelers – apart from pick-pocketing and scammers. But that’s nothing “female-safety-special”. I wouldn’t hesitate to take any back-alley in Shanghai at 2 a.m.
Similar degree of safety goes for other places as well. Took a motor-bike as a taxi when lost in a rain-storm in Saigon, and was fine. I stayed with people I met on the road in Vietnam and Laos. Cambodia is great – you didn’t need to worry about your stuff as there is a broad agreement of the importance of tourism for the economy and that they stop coming or come less if they don’t feel safe.
Malaysia – I am really sad to say that – seems to be different. The only bad experiences I had happened there. I got chased and groped by a motorcyclist. Luckily he left after I yelled at him but afterwards I stood at the side of the road, shaking, bewildered. Two women stopped. They asked if I was okay and as I said no, they asked me if I had been groped. They gave me the best hug, I ever had in my life.
But what shocked me about it, was the fact, that they just assumed it. They were too far off to have seen it. So it must be rather common for these things to happen. Another time I got harassed by a pedestrian and saved by a hotel owner as I was walking at night time in Malakka. I’d been told before that Malaysia isn’t as safe as other places in China and South-East-Asia but I didn’t want to believe it.
That leads me to the next point.
Trust your guts!
When traveling I met many people along the road. Most times I just trusted my guts. Once, the girl next to me in an inland-flight, invited me to stay at her hotel, close to the airport (we arrived very late) but on meeting her boyfriend I felt uncomfortable and I declined the offer I accepted before. I rather bewilder a stranger then get myself into trouble.
One time, I overruled my bad feelings. A friend of someone I met along the road invited me to stay at his place via Facebook. I had a wary feeling but then he mentioned his wife and kid and so I decided not to listen to my guts. I was going to stay about a week at their place because of visa-issues. He showed me around the city, introduced me to local food but then he started to compliment my eyes, and finding a lot of photo-opportunities.
And at everyone of them, he’d asked someone to take our picture and hug me tighter for a longer time… The very next day, I packed all my stuff once the family left for work and kindergarten and fled the place. Nothing had happened so far but after he started to send really creepy messages.
However, the majority of times when I met people, I had a good feeling, I trusted it and I was right. I spent time with them, traveled together, shared meals and slept at their place. It made so many special experiences possible that I was just open-minded and curious.
Being a female solo traveler in Asia is great – for all the reasons I mentioned above and more. You get in touch with people and culture and will be treated with kindness and respect if you show the same, you overcome obstacles and leave stronger than you started.
Let me know what you think, girls! What are your plans on traveling solo? Where have you been on your own before? Are your experiences similar to mine or very different?
[Photo Credits (Creative Commons License): www.flickr.com/photos/25228175@N08/]