Going Solo in Southeast Asia
Expat Naomi Lindt shares tips and lessons learned on her 21-day solo trip among the islands of Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia.
• Choose your hotel wisely. E-mail prospective hotels directly with any questions or concerns. As a solo traveler, I didn't want to stay anywhere remote. One hotel owner who managed two properties talked me into the cheaper, less comfortable bungalow because it was on a busy road and she thought I'd be happier there. This was the right advice. Coincidentally, I also found that the simpler the accommodations, the more invitations I received to have drinks or dinner with fellow guests.
• Team up. It's cheaper and more fun to charter a boat as a group or to go on a guided group tour—lounging and spending the day swimming and snorkeling breeds camaraderie. A local guide on Ko Yao Noi, Thailand, connected me with three other people who wanted to take a long-tail boat out for the day, and we ended up having dinner and drinks toghether afterwards.
• Know your tour guide. Private tours on land, which average about $25 per day, have their own appeal: You plan your itinerary, stop when you want to, and ask your questions. But don't hop on the back of a scooter with just anyone—check your guidebook, ask at your hotel, or do some pre-trip research to ensure you travel with someone you can trust. On a colleague's recommendation, I hooked up with a guide named Dani (011-66/87-292-1102) on Ko Yao Noi, and Lonely Planet recommended Tony (011-84/913-197-334) on Phu Quoc, Vietnam—both resulted in great experiences.
• Create a meal plan. Meals can be challenging when you're traveling alone, so bring along a book or magazine to entertain yourself, or find a busy place that's great for people-watching or has a nice view. If there's a bar in the restaurant, try sitting there—it's a good spot to meet people. And sometimes, even if it's not the greatest or the cheapest, the comfort of staying in and eating at your hotel can be priceless.
• Talk to everyone! Most travelers are dying to share their experiences, exchange tips, and hear each other's stories, so it's easy to strike up a conversation. Internet cafés and transport areas—airports, ferry docks, bus stations—which tend to be very small on the islands, are good places to chat with fellow travelers. One of the best things about traveling alone is that you can choose to spend time with whomever you want. Use the opportunity to seek out people from different generations or cultures.
• Keep an open mind. Southeast Asians are group-oriented, and it's very unusual for people, especially women, to travel alone. Locals will ask if you're sad or lonely. Indulge these questions as they provide great segues into longer discussions in which you can inquire about a person's life and family, his or her age, and marital status—questions that are all totally appropriate. It's acceptable to be curious, and you'll get to learn about the local way of life.
• Make your presence known. Be friendly with the hotel staff and ask questions so that they get to know you. If you're headed out for the day, tell them where you're going and what company/tour guide you're going with, as a safety precaution. They'll be curious to hear about what you're up to anyway!
• Stay connected. Bring along or purchase a cell phone that uses a SIM card. I have a cheap $25 Nokia that I picked up in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and I take it on every trip, whether to Asia or Europe. Certain SIM cards that operate on a pay-as-you-go basis can be purchased for as little as $10. Program your hotel's number into your phone and make sure they have your digits, too. Having a working phone in your pocket really goes a long way to helping you feel safe and secure. My phone also has a small flashlight in it, which I've used countless times when walking home on my own. If your cell doesn't have one, bring along a small flashlight.