This isn’t the first time I’ve traveled alone. But this is the longest journey I’ve had on my own. I’ve sort of been in Asia on my own before, but at that time I was housed at a school apartment with about 20 other foreigners who willingly wandered the city with me. And staying in one city for almost four years ensured that I made friends that I could see frequently.
Now, I’m hopping from country to country with a job for which I can telecommute, thus leaving me with fewer opportunities for human interaction. I’ll admit that this lifestyle can get quite lonely and exhausting at times, but it doesn’t hinder my productivity or desire to see and do as much as possible on weekends. Although, I have found that I’ve suffered a bit of travel fatigue the last few months, and I’m doing a little less on weekends.
Working online means that I don’t actually talk to people while working–sure, I send messages on Skype, but I don’t actually talk with my coworkers. The other day I counted the number of words I used in a day: 10 words, all in Chinese and having to do with ordering food and paying. At that point I decided that I needed more actual human interaction, even if it means making Skype calls more often. It’s not just the job that makes traveling solo difficult in Asia.
On my first stop in Japan, I lived in an area without many establishments that encouraged making friends. I finally found a few places and began meeting some people, but it was difficult to make friends when they spoke very little English and I spoke even less Japanese. I was fortunate enough to make friends with some Chinese expats while hiking one day–unfortunately, it was difficult to meet again as they lived outside the city. I also met a nice group on a night out in Machida, but we were never able to meet up again. I even made a friend in Tokyo that I met online. We got together a few times despite living on opposite ends of the city (literally an hour and a half on the train). Tokyo certainly felt less lonely when my friend came to my neighborhood and took me out for coffee and cake the weekend after my birthday.
Living and working alone in another country means that most meals are eaten alone. Most of my meals in Japan were cooked at home to save money, but I ate out a few times a week to try the local restaurants. Unfortunately, I usually didn’t know what I was ordering and couldn’t order too much as I had no one to share with most of the time. I met a few people in Vietnam to share meals with, which meant I could try some of the restaurants that required at least two people to eat the meals. In Saigon, I met two Vietnamese college students who had been studying in US for a few years–one stayed in Saigon as the other departed, but she introduced me to more people and food in the city. If not for her and her friend, I probably wouldn’t have tried some dishes or restaurants.
Travel companions are there for more than just eating–it would be less expensive and more fun to see the sights with another person or two. Rather than spending money for a tour that follows the typical crowded tourist trail, I’d prefer to rent a car/tuk-tuk/motorbike and head out on my own. Touring Angkor Wat in private car is great for avoiding some crowds, but isn’t so much fun to see alone. Fortunately, on some tours I have met people who have agreed to meet up later–like the Dutchman who led me on a 40-mile bike ride down Cambodia’s dirt roads.
Aside from eating and touring alone, there are other trials when traveling alone. When I got to Vietnam and Cambodia, the solo travel situation became a little awkward. Staying at the hotel in Hanoi was a great decision as I got to talk to the staff–the daytime concierge was particularly friendly, and we even went out for beer when I returned from Cambodia. Unfortunately, there was also one doorman at the hotel who creepily asked me about Vietnamese women and hinted at inviting some to the hotel for me. I don’t judge prostitutes or those who frequent their business, but I’m not interested in partaking.
That wasn’t the first or last time I was asked about prostitution. I had a few tuk-tuk and taxi drivers in Cambodia who made the offer. There were plenty more in Vietnam–more when I ventured into the backpacker neighborhood in Saigon. Of course, if I just walked instead of taking a taxi or motorbike, I avoided such propositions.
I spoke to a few local friends and fellow travelers about the constant prostitution propositions in Southeast Asia. Their response was that these people just expect foreign men traveling alone want such services. In some cases, people have been surprised that I would turn down such services. Of course, in Taipei, I’m surrounded by prostitution bars, which has turned into a running joke with some friends here.
Despite the difficulties of traveling on my own, I’ve certainly learned about myself and other people. There are still great benefits to being on your own–sometimes you just need the solitude (I especially enjoy it while hiking). But I do miss having bullshit sessions with friends over beer.
What are some solo travel challenges you’ve encountered around the world?