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A solo traveller's guide to Southeast Asia

A solo traveller's guide to Southeast Asia

Travelling with friends can be great fun, but nothing really beats the freedom and excitement of going it alone. Hitting the open road solo forces you to be independent, resourceful and self-reliant, and you'll also be open to meeting a lot more people and experiencing totally different things that you would if you'd travelled with friends. A popular destination for single travellers is Southeast Asia: an exciting region of the world, where there are plenty of adventures to be had, and myriads of other travellers going it alone, just like you.

A solo traveller's guide to Southeast Asia

As tourist-friendly as the most of Southeast Asia is, travelling alone there does mean you need to be extra safety conscious, a little more sensible in your decisions, and very streetwise. If something goes wrong, there's no backup plan, and it's down to you to get yourself out.

After spending almost four months backpacking my way through Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Indonesia by myself, I would encourage anyone to do it. However, there are plenty of tips and tricks that I learned along the way that would have been helpful to know before jetting off!

Don't get offended, just let it go

Don't get offended, just let it go

If I could turn the clock back, the first thing I'd tell myself is not to get offended on the day-to-day frustrating exchanges with locals, but instead just to let them go. As a traveller - particularly when you're by yourself - you will experience numerous situations in which you're taken advantage of. Don't let them get to you! Whether it's tuk-tuk drivers ripping you off, salespeople following you all day or people trying to scam you, just relax, smile, be firm and remember that you're on your once-in-a-lifetime trip.

Whether it was the time I got scammed out of going to a temple, the time a tuk-tuk driver took me to his friend's shop instead of my destination, the time a taxi driver just dropped me on the side of a motorway in the middle of the night, when a bus trip that was meant to take 20 hours took 36, the time two women selling bracelets followed me back to my hotel and when I'd finally bought one, laughed about how much they'd managed to rip me off by, there was a LOT that could have upset me.

You must never lose face when caught up in such situations

However, etiquette dictates that you must never lose face when caught up in such situations. If you become frustrated, get angry or shout, the person you're talking to will become extremely embarrassed, take offence, and likely be very rude to you. Even if you've just been scammed out of a significant amount of money, the best thing to do is just to smile and extract yourself from the situation. Becoming aggressive will actively work against you.

Schedule…but don't be afraid to change your plans

Schedule…but don't be afraid to change your plans

Buying a solid guide book for each country is a must. Without my trusty travel bible, I would have missed out on seeing a lot of places I came to love: from Thailand's northern hippie-haven Pai, to the quiet fishing village near Qui Nhon in Vietnam, or Indonesia's paradisical Gili Air.

Indonesia's paradisical Gili Air

Sitting down with a map, a guidebook and TripAdvisor, and planning out a rough route for your trip, and highlighting things you want to see along the way, can really be a lot of fun. It will give your journey purpose and (quite literally) direction, and ensure you're not going to end up wasting time when you're trying to decide what to do next. For example, if I'd have done a bit more research around Vientiane, Lao's lacklustre capital, I probably would have skipped it.

I'd have done a bit more research around Vientiane, Lao's lacklustre capital

While a loose schedule can be helpful, a rigid one will only hold you back. During my time travelling, I booked transport and accommodation usually one day in advance. This meant that should I suddenly want to do change my future plans or stay somewhere for a few extra days, it was very easy to do. And this happened a lot! My two days in Vietnam's Hoi An turned into seven, once I saw how pretty and idyllic the town was, while arriving in Laos' capital saw me quickly make arrangements to zoom my way up to Vang Vieng sharpish. Unable to part with the tranquility of Gili Air, I postponed my boat back to Bali's mainland for an extra 24 hours, and at one point decided to just go to Hong Kong because I could, despite this not even remotely being a part of my plans until a couple of days before.

Mekong Delta

Word of mouth is one of the most valuable travelling traditions, and those people you sit down with for a meal or a drink can be an extremely useful source of information, as often they're coming from where you're going, and vice versa. After seven weeks in Vietnam, I whiled my last night there sat outside a little cafe near the Mekong Delta, nibbling on tofu and drinking Tiger beer and I got talking to an English guy who had just arrived in the country and was to spend a month heading north. We sat there for hours, as he asked me for advice and I told him about what I'd seen and done in the country, and which bits he absolutely couldn't miss. It was an amazing way to end my time in the country: reminiscing about the highlights, and the tough bits that had become humorous with hindsight, and passing on this knowledge to someone about to discover this incredible nation for themselves.

Visas: What to do and what not to do

Visas: What to do and what not to do

This is a simple one. Ensure you know about visas ahead of time, including which countries you'll require one for, how to get one, how much time the process will take, and how much it will cost you. Do not trust visa runs in which someone offers to hook you up with a visa for an elevated price - you will end up paying more, the visa might not be legitimate, and handing your passport over to a stranger is never a good idea!

Safety: Have fun, but don't relax too much

When you're travelling alone, staying safe can sometimes feel like a full time job. When wanderlust grips you, you can sometimes feel immortal - like you could do anything and be fine. However, it definitely pays to be cautious: stay in public spaces, surround yourself with people, don't trust too easily, keep your belongings close, bring a first aid kit, and check out reviews of anything you're planning to do beforehand. Oh, and don't get so drunk you can't manage any of the above.

Bangkok's infamous Khao San Road

Talking to other travellers and to locals is a huge part of the adventure and must be embraced - but always keep a slight wariness about you. I met a man in a shop on Bangkok's infamous Khao San Road who explained he had taken his money-belt off when he was sat outside a cafe and put it on his table, and someone who had clearly been watching him grabbed it and promptly disappeared among the crowds. A girl I met in Pai told me she had spent six weeks travelling with another girl she'd met along the way, who one morning took off with all of her cash and never came back!

There are plenty of scams that locals will try. Among the most common are the men who will tell you temples are shut (they're not) in order to get you in their tuk-tuk and take you to shops that will pay them commission for taking you there. Just remember - if something sounds too easy, or too good to be true, it usually is.

If something sounds too easy, or too good to be true, it usually is

I was incredibly lucky in that I didn't lose anything (other than my camera charger) the whole time I was away. However, I was incredibly vigilant in ensuring I had my belongings, just because I don't know what I'd have done if my passport or bank card were stolen, for example. It did prove impossible, however, not to fall into the trap of a few scams on my way.

Don't feel guilty for taking "an easy road" sometimes

When you're travelling you notice people will try to impress each other by swapping stories or showing off scars they likely got by falling off a motorbike. Earning your travelling stripes is one thing, but sometimes it's worth paying that extra bit of money to fly rather than deal with a thankless two-day coach trip. This was very much the case when I travelled from Luang Prabang in Lao to Hanoi in the north of Vietnam. I took a very long coach journey, which turned out to be the most painful day and a half of my life. If I could go back and pay the £20 extra to fly, I definitely, definitely would.

But don't be afraid to give yourself a break

The same applies to food and drink. Everyone wants to try local cuisine when travelling, but don't be afraid to give yourself a break. Especially when you're travelling for long periods of time, you're going to have the odd night where you're craving pizza and Pinot rather than noodles and chang. Don't be afraid to treat yourself - some of my favourite and most memorable nights were the ones where we went for Italian food and treated ourselves to some hallowed imported white wine.

Expect a culture shock, and be respectful

For those of us who enjoy novel experiences, immersing ourselves in a different culture is part of the attraction to world-travel. However, not all culture shocks will feel like good ones. Regardless of this, it is important to defer to your host country when it comes to appropriate behaviour.

Asia is, at heart, a conservative continent

Despite being a road well travelled by people from all over the world, Asia is, at heart, a conservative continent. This might be hard to believe considering some of Bangkok's seedier clubs, or the infamous full moon parties of Ko Phangnan, but don't be lured into a false sense of security.

Locals in Vietnam repeatedly told me that tourists dressed in an "impolite" manner. Although it is usually very warm, it's best to err on the conservative side when dressing. There are plenty of loose, cool clothes sold at market stalls, from temple pants to sarongs, in case you find yourself short. Despite the abundance of Buddha-themed jewellery and ornamentation on sale, it is also a good idea to steer clear of this, as it will be offensive to any Buddhist.

It will be offensive to any Buddhist

As a solo female traveller, I was constantly reminded that gender roles are considered very differently in southeast Asia to how they are back home - although this does differ slightly between the generations, with younger people often much more liberal in both culture and creed. I was constantly asked questions, usually by older men, as to why I wasn't at home caring for my family, or why my husband wasn't with me.

This question would often be followed by them asking why - at the age of 27 - I was yet to wed. While I couldn't help but be irked by this line of questioning, again the best thing to do is nod and smile, and keep the conversation light. It might not feel particularly good, and you might not feel very respected, but it is vital to keep in mind that this is embedded into the culture in certain countries and you're there to observe and learn, not to change anything.

Surround yourself with people, where possible

Surround yourself with people, where possible

This isn't always going to be possible, but where you can, ensure you're in public, well-lit spaces at night, or in busy hostels or hotels. If you have to decide between an extremely quiet route home and a busy one, always choose the second. Remember, you're always safest where people can see you. The only time I felt threatened or unsafe by anything during my entire trip was when I was wandering in the gardens of a Buddhist temple, alone.

Take organised trips, with legitimate guides

Take organised trips, with legitimate guides

Heading out on organised trips is a great way to see plenty in a safe way, with less of the hassle - and you meet a lot of people too! I took numerous trips during my time in southeast Asia, and was rarely disappointed. What's more, there's no way I'd have been able to experience half the things I did on my own. Finding the right trip is a balance between shopping around for a good price, and remembering that sometimes you get what you pay for.

These are particularly effective when there's lots to see in one place as they're cheap and will pack lots in. Trekking tours were always a highlight, as you get to immerse yourself in the scenery around your destination. The best tours in Asia for me, however, were always the motorbike ones.

The best tours in Asia for me, however, were always the motorbike ones

As part of my efforts to stay safe, I vowed not to ride a motorbike by myself - especially after a near miss in Ko Tao, and so although I biked down most of the coast of Vietnam - I always rode pillion with an experienced guide. These tours were a true highlight of my adventure: not only is riding a motorbike a lot of fun, but the guides would take you to off-the-beaten track places that only locals know about.

Before deciding on a particular tour company or guide, ensure you give their TripAdvisor page a good read. When it comes to extreme sports such as canyoning, making sure the organisation you use has all the required permits and safety checks in place could be a matter of life or death.

There will be highs and lows: Just don't panic!

It's easy to think of travelling as one long holiday during which you'll be on a sustained high. If you're planning to spend more than a couple of weeks on your adventure, just remember that there are going to be difficult times too. The important thing is to not panic, to go with the flow, and remember that the more challenging aspects of travelling are the ones that make you stronger, and will be so worth it when you get to watch that next beautiful sunset!

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Caroline Howley

Caroline Howley

Travel Enthusiast and Writer

Follow the adventures of a writer who decided to one day leave everything behind and go in a...

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