Solo Adventures in Asia
Originally published on June 21, 2013.
Last year I dove head-first into my most adventurous trip yet (yes, more adventurous than great white shark diving). For 16 days I backpacked solo through Southeast Asia, hitting up Singapore, Phuket, Chiang Mai, Bangkok, Hanoi, and Halong Bay.
Before you give me too much credit, you should probably ask — why solo and why SE Asia? Well I’m a pretty spontaneous person, often to a fault, so when a dear friend of mine moved back to Singapore I booked the first flight I found for <$1100. Of course I did so without actually figuring out who would be joining me, so partially out of laziness and partially out of a natural inclination for recklessness, I decided to go solo. Thankfully this turned out to be one of my better decisions, despite receiving multiple YouTube links to the “Hostel” trailer (thanks guys!). Here’s a list of the things I learned on my trip!
1) Everybody loves football
One item in and I’m already talking sports. Shocking right? Anyway, I obviously mean football as in futbol, since the NFL Europe’s utter failure is a clear indicator of its potential success even further across the world. I guess at this point the global reach of European football shouldn’t surprise me, but I watched more EPL than I ever have in my life thanks to a plethora of early morning flights and aimless wandering. The flat screens covering the empty Shanghai airport at 5am, our taxi driver in Bangkok watching the Man City-Man U match on a suspended mini TV, the group of kids playing in the Hanoi park wearing Barcelona jerseys, or the Red Lion pub in Chiang Mai crowded with Chiang Mai FC supporters — football was everywhere. As cliche as it sounds, sports truly is a unifying force for different languages, cultures, and histories, and some of my best conversations with locals started with a simple “who’s your team?”. Of course the highlight was my tuk tuk driver in Chiang Mai, who professed his love for the one and only New York Jets when I told him I’m from New York. Global misery people, global misery.
2) Packing light is definitely worth your probable stench
Sorry for the no-brainer here, but you’d be surprised how many people I saw trying to cram rolling suitcases into hostel lockers or struggle to drag them to a longboat through the sand. One of my greatest accomplishments to date is my packing skills for this trip, and the resulting mobility came in handy while I was hostel-hopping every night. Plus when you’re flying China Eastern Air, not having to check a bag seriously reduces your anxiety level. As for your general cleanliness, Febreze does wonders, but to the guy stuck next to me on the 16 hour flight back to NY — sorry.
3) Thailand is as touristy as it gets, but there’s so much to see beneath the surface
You can travel around Thailand for weeks and not hear a single conversation in Thai. It’s Cancun for Aussies and Europeans, with a huge backpacker scene full of people interested in nothing but reenacting The Hangover II. Even the food is Westernized in the touristy areas — you’ll find great spaghetti and meatballs in Phuket! Don’t get me wrong, I had a blast on Khao San Road in Bangkok and Koh Phi Phi in Phuket. But there were so many smaller moments and mini-adventures that unearthed a beautiful culture. Sometimes I stumbled upon them, like when I took a shortcut through an alley in Bangkok and joined a group of locals huddled around a TV watching the Pacquiao fight. Sometimes I sought them out, like when I made friends with a tuk tuk driver in Chiang Mai and had him drop me off at his favorite khao soi stand in the outskirts of the city. All it takes is genuine curiosity and a little sense of adventure!
4) Singapore is foodie heaven
Anyone living in NYC is inherently a food snob. Literally every cuisine in the world has a home in the city, and I truly believed New Yorkers had it best…until this trip. Thank you Singapore for shattering my foodie world! Laksa, chili crab, prawn noodles, stingray, chicken rice, nasi goreng, I could go on forever. Whether you’re on the street, in a mall food court, or at a five star restaurant, Singapore offers the best flavors of the best cuisines.
5) Baby elephants turn me into Agnes from Despicable Me
“IT’S SO FLUFFY!!!!!!!!!!!” My favorite adventure on the trip was (no shocker here) my day at the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai. Elephants are just the best, and I was in total bliss walking through the gorgeous sanctuary in the middle of the mountains surrounded by elephants. If you really want to learn about elephants in their natural habitat, I can’t recommend the Elephant Nature Park enough. Most people end up on tours that put them on elephant rides or show elephants performing tricks, and I quickly learned how harmful that industry is for the animals. The elephants are often tortured and worked to death, and this sanctuary provides a safe haven for injured and orphaned elephants. We fed, bathed, and maniacally hugged the elephants as they roamed the valley, and it was a beautiful experience. Also the two month old baby basically stole my heart.
6) Every American should visit Vietnam
Americans are used to hearing about the evil colonizers of Europe. We see the destruction they left behind when we visit countries like South Africa, India, Mexico, and a good amount of the world. But it’s not often that we see the devastation our own country delivered. Decades have passed since the end of the Vietnam War, or the “American War” as it’s called in Vietnam. But the lingering effects are jarring to see, whether it’s the schools of children still being born with birth defects via Agent Orange, or the glaringly low population of people from our parents’ generation. As an American it’s eye-opening to see part of your country’s history from the other side. The locals chatted freely with me about the war and the progress Vietnam has made since. Comparing my conversations with young working professionals, who were excited to talk to Americans about the future of the country, to those with older villagers, who were still experiencing damage from the war, exposed a wide spectrum of perspectives. The experience felt personal, yet enlightening, and I only wish I was able to see more of Vietnam.
7) The best way to see a city is to walk it
Thanks to a pretty insane itinerary, I had exactly 24 hours to explore Hanoi. Instead of hopping on a tour or cramming my day full of museums, I made an executive decision to spend twelve hours walking and eating my way through the city. One of the best reasons to travel alone is the freedom to do whatever the hell you want, and I took full advantage. Hanoi is such a quirky city, and the people-watching alone made it one of my favorite days of the trip. There’s something about dodging scooters through an intersection, stopping to chat with the woman selling chestnuts on the street, or watching old people do tai chi by the lake that gives you a real view into the everyday life of a city. As tourists we’re often obsessed with visiting attractions and museums, and in doing so we miss out on truly experiencing a culture. I also ended up eating no less than five meals thanks to the sumptuous smells emanating from every corner, so really it was one of the best days of my life. Shout out to the pho stand that set my mouth on fire with its ladles of hot sauce, inspiring pity from all the locals. I’ve met my spice match, well played.
8) Thailand’s sex tourism is jarring yet important to understand
As a female traveling alone, I was pretty apprehensive of my inevitable encounter with Thailand’s sex industry. Safety concerns aside, I wasn’t sure how it would factor into my day-to-day experiences and, frankly, if I’d be able to avoid it. But by the time I reached Bangkok, after Phuket and Chiang Mai, I had already accumulated a pretty wide range of experiences that only began to scratch the surface of a complex sub-culture.
Everything you hear about the craziness of Bangkok — Patpong (red light district), ping pong shows, and offers for more being pushed at you in every direction — is true. It’s jarring not only being constantly surrounded by it, but also realizing how ingrained it is in tourist culture. You see the stereotypical couple of older Western man and young Thai girl everywhere, and the shows, massage parlors, and bars range from tourist attractions for the curious to destinations for travelers with a singular purpose. Bangkok has it all and pushes it in your face at every turn.
I fell in love with Chiang Mai the second I stepped off the plane. It’s a beautiful city with, for lack of a better word, more of a “rural” feel in comparison to cosmopolitan Bangkok. I spent a day walking around the local markets and hopping in and out of tuk-tuks, and while there’s a strong ex-pat and backpacker scene, I didn’t find an area that felt as touristy or contrived as Khao San Road. So when I ventured out in the evening in search of a beer and a Muay Thai match, I was surprised to find myself at the Loi Kroh Boxing Stadium surrounded by “girlie bars”. I quickly realized that while Bangkok has a thriving New York-style scene outside of the tourist areas for locals and young professionals, the heart of Chiang Mai nightlife is its red light district. I stayed for a beer to watch boxing and talk to some of the hostesses who were intrigued by my presence, but I was clearly out of place and left after the match.
As an Indian woman with light brown skin, there was an additional level of complexity to my experience, especially in Phuket. I was mistaken as Thai multiple times, and as a woman on my own, I had to assert myself to avoid any seedy intentions. The few uncomfortable moments I had on my entire trip came from this mistaken identity.
In some ways Chiang Mai’s more integrated girlie bars, or Phuket’s backpacker bars with more behind closed doors, felt more shocking than Bangkok’s overt sex tourism. It seemed less of a gimmick and more a part of daily life. But of course Bangkok’s blatant pandering to tourist curiosity is striking when you stop to consider the implications of sex as a tourist attraction. It’s something I can’t even begin to understand completely, especially considering the short amount of time I spent there, but it’s important to think about when you’re giggling at the ping pong show flyer shoved in your face.
9) You make friends from around the world when you travel solo
Contrary to popular belief, traveling solo can really enhance your social life, especially when you’re willing to put up with questionable hostel conditions! Instead of sticking with your group of friends, you end up meeting fellow travelers from around the world. I hung out with a new set of people every day of my trip and it was an absolute blast. Backpacking brings out a friendly and adventurous side in everyone, and I immediately overcame any shyness on my first day, when another girl traveling solo spotted me on the beach and invited me to grab some beers (thanks Janelle!).
10) Street food is the best food
Important caveat for this one — I have an awesomely high tolerance for food that probably shouldn’t be eaten, and managed to come home with a perfectly healthy stomach. I take no responsibility for any parasites you accumulate from following my advice. Anyway! Pad thai on the streets of Bangkok at 3am beats a five star restaurant any day. I never paid more than $5 for any meal, and really the best ones cost me about 5 cents. I managed to consume the most delicious three-course meal of khao soi, unidentifiable meat skewers, and mango sticky rice in Chiang Mai for $1. Street food is a staple of Southeast Asia, so close your eyes, pray to the food poisoning gods, and eat that fried cockroach!
11) Southeast Asia is breathtaking
I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.
Traveling alone through beautiful Southeast Asia was an experience I’ll cherish for the rest of my life. Everyone should travel solo at least once in their lifetime — you learn so much about yourself and in many ways you’re forced to break out of the usual routine and hesitations that prevent you from having a truly new experience. As a woman, it gave me a new sense of confidence and awareness, and I’m already prepping for my next trip.
My advice? Book a flight, pack a backpack, and prepare for some seriously killer food. The rest will figure itself out!