How to Travel Alone, pt. 1

The following is part one of a three-part post about the joys of solo travel.

“It seemed an advantage to be traveling alone. Our responses to the world are crucially moulded by the company we keep, for we temper our curiosity to fit in with the expectations of others…Being closely observed by a companion can also inhibit our observation of others; then, too, we may become caught up in adjusting ourselves to the companion’s questions and remarks, or feel the need to make ourselves seem more normal than is good for our curiosity.”

– Alain de Botton, The Art of Travel

Two years ago this month, I left my home in Boston and moved to the Philippines.  During that time, I traveled solo through Asia and parts of Africa.  Traveling with companions is easier.  Being alone on the road can be a bit more daunting, but it is worth it.

In Kep, Cambodia - first time on a motorbike.

I’ve explored sunken Japanese shipwrecks in the Philippines, biked through Angkor Wat in Cambodia, and celebrated the Buddhist New Year festival, Thingyan, in Burma.  After crashing a motorbike in Koh Phanang off the coast of Thailand, I spent five days in Bangkok, nursing my wounds in an Israeli guesthouse.  I spent a month backpacking through Ghana, planning my next move a day in advance.  I went on a safari in Kenya with a family of nine Koreans, none of whom spoke any English.

A lot of people don’t like to travel alone.  Some people feel that companionship makes the experience easier and more navigable.  Having someone to commiserate with when your bus breaks down in the middle of nowhere, or to pay the bill at the hostel when you are bedridden with food poisoning.  Others believe experiences are amplified when shared with others.   And some people just don’t like being alone.

I happen to agree with all of these things.  But sometimes, no one is around and you have to go it alone.  The best thing to do is embrace the sense of adventure, uncertainty, and relish in the joys of self-reliance.

So here is some advice to the lone traveler, with only a backpack, a Lonely Planet guidebook, and the inside of their head to keep them company.

Counting kyats in Burma

1.  Be prepared

Before you leave, it helps to have an idea in your head of what to expect when you arrive.  For example, Burma has no ATM machines and they only accept brand-new, mint condition bills.  Two British kids I met outside the IMAX theater in Bangkok (I went to see Avatar) told me to go the main headquarters of the largest bank in Thailand and exchange Thai baht for mint condition US currency.  In the airport in Vietnam I had to lend an Austrian girl $50 to pay for her visa because she thought she could use Euros.

In the old days before the information age, it was more difficult to know what to expect, which added to the adventure.  Today, you can find out anything on the Internet.  Knowing what you need before you need it is important, since you are unlikely to get a whole lot of sympathy from some stir-crazy customs officials.

2.   Be proactive

Guidebooks like the Lonely Planet are useful to get your bearings in a country and survey the landscape.  They have sample itineraries that can be more useful than others.  In Burma, a photocopied version of the guidebook that my friend bought in Cambodia proved useful in planning an 8-day jaunt around the country.   In places like Thailand, however, relying on the guidebook for advice can lead you to the most heavily-trafficked locations, which detracts from the authenticity of the experience.

The best sources of information are who have lived in the country, since they typically know the best places.  If you can, try to link up with friends and friends of friends living there.  Being a Kiva Fellow is nice, since there is a vast network for alumni and people on the ground in developing countries around the world.  In Cambodia, knowing the right exchange rate helps not to get ripped off.  In Burma especially, the ex-pats living in the country have been there for years.  A friend of a friend took around Thingyan, which turned out to be the best party I’ve been to in my life.

Consulting the Lonely Planet at a roadside teahouse in Rangoon

In my next post, I will talk about the importance of being adaptable.


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