When my ex-boyfriend bought me a 65L backpack for my birthday three years ago, I was dumbfounded. I remember thinking, “how do I even use this complicated bag with endless straps and hidden pockets?” Never once did I even consider that I would one day be backpacking alone through the colourful streets of Thailand.
Today, as I Iug that very same backpack around on my travels, I am amazed at how far I’ve come. The very thought that I would one day share stories of life as a solo backpacker is quite invigorating.
Because of my being a woman, my parents were dead set against the idea of me travelling alone. Coming from a traditional, conservative Malay Muslim family probably played a major part in that too.
Being the stubborn person that I am, I decided to prove them wrong. Here’s a not-so helpful helpful tip: try booking a ticket somewhere and then tell your parents afterwards. Et voilà!
But seriously, for me, the first time I went backpacking alone was also the time I showed my parents that I was independent, that I was capable as a woman to take care of myself, and that for as long as I am able to, I will not give up my life on the road.
Being Malaysian abroad
One thing about travelling alone is that people always think that it’s expensive. Well, you’re damn right it’s expensive…but only if you’re trying to get to Rome from Kuala Lumpur!
If you’re starting out as a backpacker on a tight budget, look no further than to your own country or neighbouring destinations like Thailand. Not only are these places more affordable, it also allows you the freedom and flexibility to quickly return home should the need arise.
Case in point: I was backpacking in Thailand in April this year and while I was there, it was announced that the 14th General Election would be held on May 9th. To say that I was irked would be an understatement. Well, that ruined my travel plans!
I knew that I couldn’t miss the election for the world (which, by the way, did shake the world, whaddup Malaysian millennials!). So, I carried this news wherever I went in Thailand and told anyone who would listen that I would be heading home soon to vote for the first time.
Some expats from the UK laughed at my enthusiasm and said “We stopped voting a long time ago”. On the other hand, some were equally excited for me and wished me good luck. With this sudden news on the Malaysian front, backpacking taught me to know when to go home. On a journey of pursuing my passion, I left Malaysia only to return again because I wanted to.
If I get a Ringgit every time I’m harassed, I’d be rich
But life on the road for me was not all rainbows and unicorns. My first night in Thailand was unexpectedly disheartening: my couchsurfing host tried to touch me. I should have run away but I didn’t. It was probably because at that point, I didn’t feel threatened by his advances. What’s more, having to look for another place to stay was a logistics nightmare. (Mum, dad, if you’re reading this, don’t freak out, I’m fine.)
On the third night, however, he bitterly asked why I had been avoiding spending time alone with him. Now, raising my voice at a 63-year-old expat wasn’t exactly part of my travel plans but I told him, quite strongly, that what he did was wrong and that not everyone who used the Couchsurfing app was looking for a hookup. I thanked him for his hospitality and left the very next morning.
My host actually had over 40 recommendations on the app. I guess it just goes to show that you can’t always trust online reviews. Here’s my advice: if you’re a woman travelling alone, try looking for a female host if you want to be on the safe side.
Another unpleasant experience of travelling solo was having to deal with random catcalls at every corner. Some stopped their bikes to “send me home” while others asked me about my ethnicity. Some of them even straight up asked if I was offering sex. How ‘bout no?
Even now, I’m trying to cope with the prevalent harassment I get as a solo traveller. Fortunately, I also met kind people like Rose. Rose is a Thai woman from Phuket who was travelling in Bangkok with her husband and daughter (cute little Talita!). We met in this massive, beautiful King Rama IX Park when I desperately asked her for her help.
At the park, a stranger followed me and kept catcalling at me, asking me to be his friend. This went on for about half an hour even though I had said no. I didn’t feel safe, so I decided to ask Rose if I could join her on her walk instead.
Rose kindly took my hand and asked me to stay close to her and her family. We spent almost five hours there and when we left the park, the man who had followed me was still discreetly lurking around. Thankfully, because of my new-found company, he didn’t try anything.
Tip: As a female backpacker, I recommend making friends with other backpackers so you can move around more safely as a group. As unfair as it sounds, walking alone as a woman in some parts of the world will sometimes result in unwanted circumstances.
Surviving abroad (Bonus: I got into an accident!)
One week into my Thailand trip, I fell sick amidst enjoying the Songkran festival. It got so bad that I could barely walk. In the end, I went to a little town called Wongwian Yai and headed to the general hospital there. I had nothing but Google Translate to help me communicate (most Thais in smaller towns do not speak English).
At Taksin Hospital, I stuck out like a sore thumb because I was the only foreigner there, queuing with a Malaysian passport in hand. The nurse in charge taught me how to say number 19 in Thai so I could know when my number was being called.
I was there for two hours or so but I was thankful to everyone in Taksin Hospital for being so helpful. Plus, I got my medicine for only 165 THB/ RM20!
Tip: Although medical insurance helps might cover international hospitals abroad, head to general hospitals in an emergency if you want to skip the expensive fees.
Here’s another fun story: I also got into a minor bus accident in Salaya. I’ll save you the details but it was not a fun experience, I’ll tell you that. Maybe it’s just me but getting into accidents on your first backpacking trip is a tad too excessive.
No, thank you world
In Salaya, it was an alienating experience as I was the only foreigner (again) on the bus. We had to get off the bus halfway to our destination. Thankfully, that aside, I managed to come away unharmed.
Moral of the story: You can take all the necessary precautions but things happen, so don’t let this kind of story deter you from travelling!
Pushing boundaries as an introverted backpacker
Solo backpacking isn’t just about enjoying the sights or eating good food on the road, it’s also about making friends. I can’t remember the name of every single person that I’ve spent time with during my journey but that’s because there were so many of them.
I couldn’t begin to count how many hours I have spent chatting, eating and playing games with other backpackers I’ve met on my travels. To be honest, it’s quite a lovely experience learning about different cultures and sharing ideas with like-minded travellers. It’s helped me to grow so much and in more ways than one.
When I look back at the connections I’ve made during my travels, it’s personally a big achievement for me. This is because for most of my life, I was an introvert. People nowadays wouldn’t believe me if I told them that I couldn’t even blow out the candles during my 6th birthday party because I felt so anxious and self-conscious.
In fact, ask any of my childhood friends and they’d tell you that I was the quietest (and possibly the most shy) student in class. Now, I am a more confident person and I can strike up a conversation without the need to overthink.
From me to you
Before I embarked on this journey, I knew that I had to push myself out of my comfort zone. Since then, I’ve realised how it has been a worthwhile decision. I don’t know how long I will get to keep doing this, but to quote Young Donna from Mamma Mia 2, “Life is short, the world is wide. I want to make some memories.”
From standing up to my parents, meeting wonderful people, creating meaningful exchanges to getting constantly harassed (and trying not to have an emotional meltdown about it), solo backpacking has taught me that the world out there will always remain scary if I don’t take the leap and dive right into it.
So, if you’re searching for a rewarding adventure like me, believe in yourself that you can do it and the stars will align for you. The world can be a mean and nasty place, but I choose to believe that goodness and kindness will always win the day. That’s why despite all the hardships, I will continue to do what I do.
My final piece of advice is this: Don’t let the horror stories scare you into giving up your dream to travel. Instead, turn your heart towards the horizon and bravely take that first step out of your comfort zone. And then, you will travel far, and you will travel wide.