I’ve always been a rather “impulsive” person, so I couldn’t understand why people were surprised that I’d quit my tedious finance-related job and booked a jaunt to Asia, leaving two weeks later.
|Koh Phi Phi (Where the beach is filmed)|
The general reaction when I shared my exciting news was either an alarmed shriek, or alternatively a somewhat TOO enthusiastic description of the variety of ways in which I would suffer. Bites, stings, tropical diseases, muggings… the list goes on. It would all plague me before I would inevitably jump aboard the first flight back to Blighty after one week.
People just couldn’t understand what compels a single twenty-something female to travel four thousand miles east, towards a lifestyle which is seemingly composed of sunbathing, a bit of swimming if you’re feeling energetic, and drinking obscene amounts of rum.
I think I’ve answered the question there already, but having said that I must admit I was a little nervous in the days preceding my trip, if only because I couldn’t fit my entire collection of CD’s and all my shoes into my seemingly tiny rucksack.
I contented myself with a small selection of 50 albums and 2 pair of shoes, but by the time I was packed and ready to go my rucksack was stuffed to the brim and back-breakingly heavy. I decided to take out a couple of nail varnishes.
|Colourful traditional lanterns|
From a western perspective, there still seems to be some degree of stigma attached to women travelling alone, despite worldwide advances in communication such as email and mobile phones. Once my family found out that they had email in Asia it eased some of their fears, until I broke it to my mum that I wouldn’t be mailing her every day.
An inherent stubbornness made me determined to prove to everyone at home, and in fact myself, that I could go it alone and have an utterly fabulous time. I must admit, however, that I took the easier option and flew straight to the idyllic Koh Samui in Thailand, instead of flying to Bangkok and making the 8 hour journey by overnight train.
|Koh Chang at Sunset|
When I arrived on the Island I got a local taxi (like an open topped minibus) to a bungalow complex I had pre-booked for a week. What can I say, it does pay to be organised occasionally and when you’ve been travelling for over 24 hours by plane it really is heaven to be whisked off to a comfortable bed and your own shower (albeit a cold one).
It took me at least a week to get used to the extreme heat, and I spent the first few days either soaking in the sea or under the cold shower, which by now was my best friend.
My other friends, I had discovered, were the small green lizards which ran in and out of the bungalows and ate most of the biting, scuttling, flying critters which generally plagued the existence of all sweet-blooded westerners like myself.
At one point I was sad enough to count the mosquito bites on my legs – with no exaggeration there were over 200, despite the skin scalding 50% DEET that I was practically bathing in every night. Attractive.
I didn’t feel self conscious about travelling alone as there were always people around to chat to.
|The Grand Palace in Bangkok|
I met three Irish lads from Dublin in my first week and a fellow Brit called Gareth, and we spent the next three weeks exploring the Island by scooter, obtaining several excellent examples of the famed ‘Koh Samui kiss’ which is effectively a nasty burn on the inside of your right calve caused by accidentally leaning against the exhaust.
When I first got to the Island I thought it was some kind of bizarre travellers fashion to have a large bandage wrapped around your leg, only discovering when it was too late that it was a trend I didn’t want to follow.
All the Thai people that I’d met so far were extremely friendly and accommodating, and immediately made me feel at ease, despite making fun of my horrendous sunburn and mosquito bites (yes I did wear sunblock, but the sun just didn’t care).
Locally, tourists are known as ‘farang,’ which is affectionately derogatory, and from chatting to a young waitress at a nearby restaurant I learnt a couple of other words of Thai.
These proved to be useful whilst undertaking the daunting task of bartering with stallholders for the obligatory Thai fishermen pants. These are effectively enormous cotton trousers that you wrap around yourself and fold over – it’s like pant origami! The good news is that one size fits all, they’re comfortable and cool, and look equally awful on everyone!
The bartering itself if quite simple as long as you have a bit of nerve. In come guidebooks they suggest that you offer half of the initial price, but you can often get it down to a third or even a quarter if you are in commercial areas such as Bangkok, or Koh Samui’s Chaweng beach where they hike the prices up to obscene levels.
|Sairee Beach, Koh Tao|
The locals I met tended to be impressed if ‘farang’ could speak a little Thai, as most Westerners expect to speak English all the time.
There’s a large ex-pat community in Samui, and this tends to be refected in the type of entertainment and services available, for example there is an enormous Tesco, and hundreds of tacky karaoke bars.
My first three weeks in Thailand were unforgettable, but by that point I’d become fed up with the slightly seedy nature of much of Koh Samui, and it was then that myself and my fellow travellers decided to move on together.
It really is testament to how easy it is to travel alone in Asia, and how quickly you become accustomed to living in a more basic way.
It was perfectly normal, for example, that during my last couple of months (I was in Thailand and Malaysia for 9 months) I stayed in a wonderful 100 Baht a night bungalow (about £1.30 at the time).
|Thai fishing boats at sunset.|
It had no fan, certainly no aircon, shared squat toilets, one cold outside shower and typically ‘relaxed’ staff who would or wouldn’t make you breakfast, depending on whether they felt like it or not. It might sound like hell to you, but to me it was perfect – they restaurant and surrounding bungalows were set on the top of an enormous cliff, right on the edge which probably wasn’t very safe, but gave the most amazing views at sunrise.
There, I met four fantastic girls and a guy who were all travelling alone, from Japan, Australia and America. Mellissa the Aussie, who was fiercely independent, had been travelling for nine months in to Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, and Hazuki from Chicago had been teaching English in Korea for a year.
Will, from somewhere in deepest darkest Wales, had been in Thailand for a couple of months. Now, one year later he's trotting around Indonesia, according to his regular but uninformative emails.
Talking to all the group and sharing experiences, we all felt really positive about travelling alone. It gives you more freedom to do what you want to do when you want to do it, plus you meet people in a similar situation wherever you go, and often end up travelling on with them if you’re going in the same direction.
|Doi Suthep Temple|
Mellissa and I ended up travelling to the other side of the country together and doing a live-aboard SCUBA diving trip around the gorgeous Similian Islands where we saw Whale Sharks, Manta Rays and Tiger Sharks amongst other colourful equatic life.
Anyone who is considering travelling but is nervous about going alone, should bear in mind that there are thousands of people in a similar situation, plus everyone tends to be more relaxed and accommodating.
In my experience, a bit of common sense and general awareness is all you will need to ensure your safety in Asia.
From a strictly female perspective, I can also assure you that CHIVALRY IS NOT DEAD and I found there were always friendly, trustworthy lads to help you with your rucksack if you’re struggling!
Oh, and I didn’t miss the nail varnish.