Staying Smart, Safe & Sane
By Allison Paisner
Flying down the open road along the coast of Vietnam at a comfortable 50 mph, even my helmet can’t buffer the freedom owing through my hair as I ride my motorbike through the legendary Hai Van Pass. Filled with adrenaline and feeling empowered, I can’t believe I made it this far.
At the ripe age of 25
I quit my cozy government job in Washington, DC, and flew one-way to Southeast Asia for what became a four month trip.
An inexperienced traveler plagued by daily anxieties, I didn’t know what I was getting myself into when I landed in Bangkok, Thailand. I chose to backpack; my alter ego as the Accountant’s Daughter kept costs as low as possible. My journey through Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam and Singapore took me mostly through on-land border crossings, nights in hostels with 15+ people in a room, and lots of nature treks to balance the buzz of developing cities and party beaches.
Call it thirst for adventure. Call it an escape. Call it therapy. It was so much more. And while my travel style might not suit your own, here are a few takeaways that I believe complete the recipe for a meaningful experience. Most I learned by mistake, from others, and sometimes, by sheer luck.
BEFORE YOUR TRIP
1) Budget Your Priorities (and Finances!)
Travel plans don’t have to be expensive: Set financial goals before a trip and use a program such as Microsoft’s Vacation Budget Planner to stay on track. Or try downloading a spending app such as BudgetBakers.com’s Wallet. You know yourself best: Are you a foodie? Do you prefer to spend on cultural experiences? Nicer accommodations?
Instead of regretting splurges, anticipate them. For me, traveling cheap was a high priority, so I created an Instagram account (@the_accountants_daughter). In each photo I included price information. Not only did my friends and social media followers find it helpful, but it helped me track my purchases.
2) Understand Your Motivation
Knowing what you seek will help you find the travelers you’ll mesh well with and places that align with your mindset. For me, this concept manifested in the worst way during a two-day boat trip down the Mekong River into Luang Prabang, Laos. Hoping to relax and enjoy the scenery, I unknowingly stepped onto a party boat. Passengers were rowdy and disrespectful, and I was miserable; one inebriated girl fell off the boat.
After that, I scoped out other excursion participants before committing. The same with destinations: Pai, Thailand, is infamous for hippies and mushroom shakes but also boasts beautiful sights. Knowing my preferences, I enjoyed the Pai Canyon, rich night market and unique cafes without the drugs and parties.
3) Connect Online
Joining a Facebook group of solo travelers can be your greatest resource. Internet sim cards in Southeast Asia cost on average about $10 for one month of unlimited data I wish I had used the internet more.
When I returned to Thailand after a month in Myanmar, I used the Thailand Backpacker Group and Girls Love Travel Facebook page for recommendations and meet-ups. It’s also the ultimate question bank and provides a virtual support community if you’re lonely, feeling unsafe, in a pickle or don’t know what to do when you get to your destination.
You might even be connected to someone else by surprise. While at Khao Sok National Park, Thailand, I got a Facebook message from a friend in DC who saw I was there and she set me up with friends of hers who were also in the park. I was at a hostel and they were at a resort, so I even got to lounge at their spa for a couple of days.
DURING YOUR TRIP
4) Try Something New Every Day
If you’re traveling to a new place to do the same things you did at home, there’s no point in getting off your couch. It’s easy to play it safe. But you’re stronger than you think, and taking one step further than you’re familiar with trying a new food or visiting a new area will pay off.
It will also help you adjust. Arriving at Bangkok I was an emotional mess, overwhelmed by the combination of new smells, foods and people. At my lowest moment, I found myself curled up and crying just three hours after landing. And yet, slowly integrating new experiences riding a tuk tuk (a kind of motorized rickshaw) to get around, adjusting to the smell off incense mixed with dried fish and durian (a fruit with an aroma akin to that of rotten feet) I acclimated and pushed myself into a zone I was comfortable with while still taking in the experience.
5) Don’t Be Afraid to Be Anti-Social
The beauty of traveling solo is that there will always be people to meet. So if you’re feeling reflective or exhausted, it’s okay to take some time to recharge. Maybe treat yourself to a private hotel room for one night or take yourself out to dinner. At the end of my trip, for example, I spent four days in Singapore almost completely alone.
I’m a huge sustainability buff and was excited to see the green infrastructure of Singapore, so two full days passed before I realized I hadn’t tried talking to a single traveler. I visited Sentosa beaches, strolled through Gardens by the Bay and ate my way through Chinatown all alone. I stayed in a hostel with four others in my room but kept to myself and it wasn’t until my last night, while treating myself to Wolfgang Puck’s restaurant Spago at the top of the Marina Bay Sands, that I met a cool Chilean couple sitting at the bar. At that point I was more than ready to socialize.
6) But Be Open…
Traveling alone means that you might find yourself struggling to make friends in a new place. As simple as it sounds, a smile goes a long way if you look approachable, you will be approached. I even coined a line for striking up a conversation: I approach a small group of people and ask, “Do you guys want a photo together?” More often than not, conversation flows seamlessly and sometimes leads to lunch together.
7) And Open-Minded!
Traveling solo teaches you to be understanding of others. I felt like I was on another planet as I first walked the streets of Yangon, Myanmar, where faces are covered in a pale yellow paste called thanaka and teeth are stained blood-red from chewing kun-ya (betel nut and tobacco wrapped in a lime-coated leaf placed inside the cheek).
Though at first it felt off -putting to be surrounded by such a foreign look, I grew to appreciate the culture. It turns out that thanaka is used for sun and heat protection; the paste comes from the stem of a tree and sucks excess oil from the skin. Most children I saw had it all over their faces, while some adults artistically had neat squares or circles of varying shapes and sizes. And while chewing kun-ya is addictive and sidewalks are stained with what look like blood spots, the betel nut is integral to Burmese culture and chewing betel nut is a tradition dating back hundreds of years. Who knew?!
8) Trust Your Gut When You’re Feeling Unsure
Traveling alone as a young woman, safety was always a concern. Who could I trust? How could I know for sure? There is no guaranteed answer; all I can say is do your research on accommodations and activities when possible (hostel reviews, online travel blogs, Facebook groups), and ask the people around you. Word of mouth goes a long way in the traveler community, and there’s bound to be someone who’s already been where you’re thinking of going.
Exercising good judgment is also key. For example, I was on a minibus in Laos headed to a small village. A British girl about my age was sitting next to me and we decided to split a two person room at a guest house instead of going to a hostel. I trusted intuition and felt confident enough by the end of the ride to share housing with her. (If anything, I trusted the locals less than fellow travelers. I never had anything stolen by other backpackers.)
9) Don’t be Afraid to Engage with Locals
And ask questions! Whether you’re in a major city and there are many local young people to meet (such as Hanoi) or you’re spending the day on a rice farm (such as Hoi An, Vietnam), everyone has a story to tell. There are plenty of ways for nonverbal communication, and these can lead to surprisingly meaningful encounters.
In Dala, Myanmar, I got invited to a three-year-old’s birthday party! I found a small bicycle tour that visits Dala, a “rural city” of 500,000 outside of Yangon. Four other travelers and I hopped on bicycles with our guide, a Burmese University student, and rode a quick commuter ferry, took a rowboat (yes, with our bikes), and spent five hours biking 20 miles through Dala.
Weaving through goats, cows, dogs, potholes, speed bumps, motorbikes, hoses and hordes of children running up to us with their hands out for high-fives, I wasn’t shocked when a mom came running out of her house to wave us down. Especially since seeing Westerners is unusual for the locals. Without a lick of English, she held up her daughter Lion King style, and bowed quickly before ushering us into her house to celebrate, which we gladly did.
10) Accept the Fact That You Will Fall for Tourist Traps
When I arrived in Tam Coc, Vietnam, a boat ride through the famous rice paddies was at the top of my list. In feminist fashion, women are paddling the boats with their feet and I happily paid for the $8.50 boat cruise ticket.
But there was a sketchy catch: Some women were paddling boats filled with concessions and followed us down the river and our paddler Ming asked for a drink and snack. Having paid for the tour, it was unsettling and awkward to be approached with goods for sale. Rather than let the sales pitch ruin our day, my friend and I reluctantly obliged. I noticed that Ming simply took the food, put it in a bin and didn’t touch it. Only later did I see Ming give it back to her friend to resell the following day. The nickel-and-diming continued when, halfway through the tour, Ming asked us to pay an additional fee to continue on. While the value in USD doesn’t amount to much, it’s the principle of being scammed that tainted my experience. And yet I would do it all over again in a heartbeat. In some cases, these attractions are still worth it even if they’re not the most authentic. Your attitude is the biggest influence on your travels. Maintain a positive mindset during the highs and the lows, and you are sure to have a fun, meaningful experience.