Travel Alone

“Go placidly amid the noise and haste and remember what peace there may be in silence.” — from Desiderata

I think about this quote — not all the time or anything, but occasionally, when I’m not looking for food — when I travel alone.

Though traveling alone leads to loneliness at times, it’s also incredibly rewarding. And for me — a freelancer, who often spends a lot of time alone anyway, writing and working — there actually is a beautiful peace that comes with removing myself from the activity and tumult (read: drunken tourists) that the travel life often intersects.

Looking out over a drowned lake in southern Laos, thinking about travel and such. (Photo credit: Eric Goldschein)

How I deal with isolation when I travel is the question I get asked the most. It’s asked in different ways: “How do you make friends while traveling?” “Is it hard to go somewhere where you don’t know people?” “Do you get lonely?”

I don’t have a quick, clean answer for people. My response morphs over time: I have different views when people ask me at certain times of day, or at certain levels of sobriety.

When I’m drunk, I’ll get effusive about it.

“Dude, it’s awesome. It’s the only way to live,” I say as the neon lights outside the bar swim and a cigarette begins to look appetizing.

When I’m sober and the light of day is young, I’m more contemplative.

“It’s challenging. It’s probably the hardest part of taking these trips,” I say, staring into middle distance.

Both of these things are true, to some extent. It may not be “the only way to live,” and it may not be “the hardest part,” but it can feel like either at times. (Note: The actual hardest part of travel is taking night buses.)

I don’t blame anyone for not wanting to strike out for a new place by themselves. There are a lot of reasons why you wouldn’t want to. I am especially aware of how easy it is for me, a white guy, to travel solo. I have the utmost respect for solo female travelers— I’ve met a lot of them, and they’re awesome. They are the ones you should be reading, frankly.

But a few things come to mind about solo traveling that I want to write down and share with people who might be on the fence about it.

Trust me: Nothing you do will ever be worse than taking a night bus. (Photo credit: Eric Goldschein)

First of all, you’re rarely actually “alone.” Regardless of “how” you travel — backpacker, flashpacker, conventional traveler; one week, four months, the rest of your life — you’re almost always going to be around people.

Caveat: Sometimes you will be around people, but not with them. I had a lot of meals, drinks, and sits on benches by myself while groups of other travelers — who perhaps came there together, or met at the same hostel, or were just better at approaching strangers and asking to sit down — did the same thing as me, but without me, nearby. It’s okay. These situations are cyclical, and you are just at a certain point in the cycle at the moment. Those people over there will be like you in the next city, and you will be like them later that week.

But to that point, most places that people go are popular because other people go there. (If you’re going to Antarctica or the Darien Gap, okay, yeah, this doesn’t apply to you. What are you doing there, anyway? Can I come?) If you stay at a hostel, or go on a tour, or visit a well-known bar or street food spot, you will inevitably strike up a conversation with people and befriend them.

Or, better yet, they will strike up conversations with you. I think of myself as an outgoing person, but I really need someone else to “make the first move.” And almost every friend I made in Asia was someone who spoke to me first. Oftentimes, it happened when I didn’t even want to talk to people. But soon I warmed up to them, and plans were discussed, numbers exchanged, and suddenly we were on a boat to an island off the coast of Cambodia together.

People — fellow travelers, locals — are everywhere when you travel. And the trick isn’t so much to go up and talk to every single one of them (though I bet that helps). It’s more about putting yourself in a position to talk to them. It’s like how people say you make your own luck. You also make your own social interactions. The first step is showing up. It’s also, often, the last step. Normal human interaction takes over from there.

Secondly, I guarantee that you will be more adventurous when you’re by yourself. You have to be.

When you are with friends, you look at things differently. You don’t see the need to strike up conversations with people as urgent, which it should be. You don’t agree to join people you just met to go eat at a restaurant you’ve never heard of, because your friend has already looked up “10 best cheap dinner Bangkok” and decided that this place somebody blogged about looks pretty good and is only four minutes from the hostel.

And so on. Bottom line: You don’t do things you’d never do otherwise if you have people to fall back on. Like going home to let your mom do your laundry in college, you don’t learn valuable skills (how to do your own laundry) and you miss out on potential opportunities for friendship, romance, adventure. (Don’t lots of movies show people meeting at laundromats? It’s a thing.)

Okay, well, if you’re going to travel alone, you’re going to have to get better at taking selfies than I ever did. It’ll just bum you out otherwise. (Photo credit: Eric Goldschein)

Three, your sense of accomplishment when you successfully do even minor things will go through the roof.

The act of moving yourself from Point A to Point B isn’t, in a vacuum, an accomplishment. We do this every day, no matter where we are, and rarely do I feel “good” about successfully taking the train from Brooklyn to Manhattan (even though of late trying to do just that is akin to running a timed obstacle course where the rules change nonsensically).

But man, when you need to get from one hostel, city, or country to another, after every successful transfer from bed to bed, from border town to border town, from must-eat street food spot to must-drink coffee shop, you feel like a god damn hero in a story only you can write.

Figuring things out on your own when you travel — even if you use your phone — is exhilarating. There’s a certain kind of comfortable you settle into when you and a friend are figuring out bus routes together, or when you embark upon one of those fucking night buses with a partner. You can always fall back on their ideas, their plans, their shoulders. One of the vastly underrated and under-discussed aspects of travel are the hours you spend alone navigating an unfamiliar land, when you set wheels into motion and use local systems to transport yourself from where you are to where you want to be. Even something as simple using the subway is its own fun challenge (when, again, doing so at home is simply a given and not worth commenting on unless you are a child).

Don’t take this one from me — the great Anthony Bourdain once described something much like this to Marc Maron:

“When you go someplace and you go, Holy shit, I will never know anything about this country… So even just when you teach yourself to order breakfast alone in a new country is deeply satisfying.”

Preach: There is nothing quite like the rush of having found a decent breakfast spot, consumed something delicious by way of pointing, gesturing, sounding out, and smiling, and getting to sit for a few minutes, letting coffee or tea work its way into your bloodstream and begin to lift the fog of sleep from your mind — with a whole new day ahead of you. The day trip from then on is a success; everything after is just a bonus.

Finally, you begin to appreciate a new kind of place.

Solo travelling means sometimes striking out for Big, Important Places on your itinerary alone. On my most recent trip I flew into Hanoi alone, I rode a bicycle around Angkor Wat alone, I rode a bicycle around Inle Lake alone (I like riding bikes), I visited untold sprawling pagoda complexes across five countries alone, and so on.

We visit these places because we “have to,” because they’re on “must-see” lists and they’re recommended to us by “friends” (or, daughters of friends of cousins) who have gone before. Like, how can you go to Thailand and not take a cooking class in Chiang Mai?

But while traveling alone, you develop an eye for places that give you space to be yourself, to feel like you are having your own experience that could never be replicated, even if that experience is sitting on a certain bench at a certain time.

It’s tricky to explain. I think it’s best summed up by the solo female (!) traveler who is running down the New York Times’ 52 Places To Go list in a recent piece on visiting Chilean Patagonia. Jada Yuan nailed this idea while talking about dealing with solitude in a place that begs for company:

Some find the city bougie, and it is. It’s also pleasant and cosmopolitan and easy in a way that made me feel like I could relax. And I’m not alone. I met a woman from San Francisco who’d gone there for a year and stayed for several more…
…“It’s just so nice here,” he said, echoing what all of us seemed to feel. Long-term travel is an amazing privilege with exhilarating returns, and exhausting side effects. Hold onto the places and people that let you breathe.

Solo travel can be a whirlwind — hurrying up in order to take your time, days with nothing to do that are suddenly punctuated by moments of panic. You fill up your days with activities, and yet find yourself frozen in place by forces outside your control for hours at a time. It is an exhilarating, but tiring, way to travel, to live.

It’s that breathlessness that begs for places that grant reprieve. I found it in unlikely places, like Battambang, Cambodia, or Koh Lanta, Thailand, or Pyin Oo Lwin, Myanmar. And it was usually the people, locals and fellow travelers alike, that kept me there.

Just like that, we return to #1: You’re never really alone. Which is maybe what draws me to solo travel in the first place. When your life feels lonesome, embracing solo experiences can, paradoxically, bring you into the fold of something bigger than yourself.

Someone actually took this for me. But you get the point. (Photo credit: Eric Goldschein)