The agony and the ecstasy of travelling alone
There’s something in that whole ‘finding yourself’ shtick (even if you don’t like what you find)
An audio version of this article (narrated by yours truly), can be found below:
Travelling alone is one of the great joys of life. You can do exactly what you want, whenever you want, with whomever you want. You can be spontaneous or lazy, slutty or saintly, funny or furious. You don’t have to be polite – you can give zero fucks because you will never have to see those people ever again. You can, in short, be exactly who you want to be.
Travelling alone is also one of the most confronting things in life. You are entirely with yourself. There is no escaping you. But by God, don’t we all need a bit of that now and again?
I didn’t care if it all went wrong
In late 2018, I went travelling around SE Asia for four months by myself. (If you listen hard, you’ll be able to hear my friends mutter: ‘Oh did you? We had no idea! Do tell us about it’.) I was in my early thirties, had set fire to everything I’d ever known, and was ready to lose myself in the madness of the ‘gap year’ I’d never had in my teens or early twenties.
I’d previously always found reasons not to go. You can always find a reason not to do something – and I’d found plenty. But my excuses had become weaker. And I wanted to go. My life philosophy of ‘Sure, why not?’ – cultivated through various experiences which, to me, proved that life is short and future plans are fragile – pushed me forward. I wanted to challenge myself, see what I could achieve on my own, and if it all went tits up, it couldn’t be worse than anything I’d already been through. At that point in my life, I felt like I had nothing to lose. And that realisation by itself was something I had to confront.
Sod it, I thought, let’s see what happens.
So, what happened?
It was liberating, exhilarating, and terrifying.
I fell in love – with cities, villages, countries and people. I discovered I could sign-language/mime my way in and out of any situation. I was reassured to learn that most people are kind. I realised that the hard times are as important and memorable as the good times – and that certain moments will stay with you forever, no matter how inconsequential to other people.
I relished the freedom of not having to worry about what anyone else thinks, while also finding the immediate intimacy between travellers intoxicating. Solo travellers immediately have something in common: you’ve made a courageous life decision and seen it through. That forms an immediate respect (like the nod joggers give each other when passing on wet and windy days). It’s remarkable how quickly you fall into daily routines with strangers and tell each other your deepest, darkest secrets, because why waste time on small talk when strapped into a questionable safety-harness halfway down a cave in Laos?
And when those intimacies turn into trysts in hostel shower-blocks or shared dorms (sorry to everyone at Stamps in Chiang Mai) or, even better, proper love affairs, it’s electric because everyone knows it’s temporary. That, come tomorrow or next week, you’ll probably never see each other again. You’re all on the same page. You all know the score. How refreshing. How rare.
It’s intoxicating, raw and vital. And sad, scary and exhausting. It’s all of the feelings, all at once.
Near-death experiences and pet chickens on strings
I wanted to feel. I wanted to stop numbing myself. I wanted to stop beating myself up with all the fucking GUILT. I wanted space to think and breathe.
I scootered around North Thailand. I hiked, swam and caved. I went tubing. I got blood poisoning and was administered medication by a Vietnamese fisherman-come-medicine man with a pet chicken on a string. I went cliff-diving. I got lost on the way to Angkor Wat (one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world) and was rescued from a bull field by laughing locals. I was flashed and wanked at twice in Sri Lanka. I went raving. I spent days alone in characterless hotel rooms wondering what the hell I was doing. I spent days travelling up and down the Sri Lankan rail network, legs hanging out of the doors, finding a peace I’ve struggled to replicate since.
I had amazing days, awful days and nearly died several times. I took stupid risks that worked out OK. I took stupid risks that didn’t work out OK.
I saw patterns in my previous behaviour that I wanted to stop, and found power in my convictions and strengths. I discovered what I was drawn to in people, and what I wasn’t.
I felt sad – but that was OK. I felt good – and that was OK too.
When adventure wins out over stability
Travelling alone answers that age-old conflict of adventure vs stability. You choose adventure when you go away solo. I think one of the biggest adventures anyone can take on right now is being alone with ourselves. We live in a world of perpetual noise, anaesthetising ourselves with podcasts, TV, work, drink, drugs, sex, etc.
Travelling alone smashes up your routine, making you feel more integral to your environment, more like you have choices. And if it goes tits up, at least you tried. At least you know. That is a lesson in itself.
Those four months changed the course of my entire life. I live in Amsterdam now because of that trip (meeting my now-boyfriend in Sri Lanka, where I wasn’t even meant to be). And I have made friends out there who have gone onto shape who I am now (Yve, Matt and Alex – you rock my world). In fact, when this goes live, I will be flying over the North Atlantic from Tokyo to Auckland, on my way to Matt’s wedding. (Get that ‘buy-one-get-one’ spesh ready, pal!)
So, if you’re on the fence about booking a solo trip – be it a week in an all-inclusive or months on the road – I honestly can’t recommend it highly enough.
Just one more thing…
I posted an epic rundown of my trip when I returned home on Instagram that you might enjoy. There’s a link here and also a screenshot below. It should give you a good idea of what I’ve been talking about. I have also written about it for numerous publications, including Stylist and Red magazine. You can find those articles here.
I am aware that all of the pics in this article are of me alone, by the way. I do have snaps of me with other people, I promise, but I can’t be arsed to get their permission to post them and besides, this article is all about me being alone. So there.
Please do share and subscribe if you enjoyed this piece! It really helps. And let me know about your thoughts on travelling alone in the comments below: do you already love it, are you curious, or is it absolutely no thanks?
Love it! I felt everything in this one 🙌 memories to last a lifetime.
Also very happy to be reminded of your quote, “How can he have been travelling for 7 months & still be that boring?” 😂
I started travelling on my own in 2018 when I went to Thailand and hated it, but then I challenged myself in 2019 to go somewhere I have always wanted to, Vietnam and it was the best decision I have ever made, gave me the confidence I needed not only to go travelling but also to try new things at home!!