4 Things You Can Learn From Solo Travel

After spending nearly a month and a half in Southeast Asia, being bombarded by Tuk-Tuk drivers has become a normal part of my day. They line the roads, and if you’re on foot, you can expect to be offered a ride by at least four or five drivers on every block.

tuktuks(Tuk-Tuks in Nong Khai, Thailand)

At first, I would take time to stop and speak with each of them, but since then I’ve learned the basic repetition and give the appropriate answers without thought:

Question: “You need Tuk-Tuk lady?”

Answer: “No, thank you.” or “Ah-kun!” (“thank you” in Khmer language)

Question: “Tomorrow? Temples?” (The Angkor Wat temples are the #1 tourist attraction in Siem Reap and largest religious monument in the world. Tuk-Tuk drivers give ‘tours’ for about $10-15 USD. From what I’ve heard, this means they drive you around from temple to temple, but don’t offer much guidance when it comes to historical information.)

Answer: “No, thank you.” or “Ah-kun!”

Occasionally I’ll tell persistent drivers, “I like to walk” — an explanation usually met with confused stares. It’s very hot and humid in Southeast Asia, and walking isn’t exactly an enjoyable experience. A leisurely stroll ends up being a sticky bath of sweat. Most people take Tuk-Tuks, but I like seeing things slowly. You miss a lot when you’re being shuttled from location to location.

Cambodian Alley

(Alleys like this are packed with shops and only able to be seen on foot.)

But today, a Tuk-Tuk driver surprised me.

“What are you looking for?” he asked.

I answered automatically, “I’m not looking for anything.”

Pause. I continued walking, but the words resonated. I’m not looking for anything. Not just at that moment, but every moment. I’m not looking to find myself, or find happiness, or find love, or anything else. I’m living. I’m content. Things aren’t perfect, but I don’t feel misplaced.

When I decided to embark on this trip, I’m not sure what I was looking for. I wanted more from life than what I was finding back home, but my intentions were simple: I wanted change.

Fortunately, I’ve found so much more along the way.

4 Things You Can Learn From Solo Travel

bookshop

(“D’s Books” off the beaten path in Siem Reap is geared entirely towards backpackers and one of my favorite hidden gems.)

1. How to make yourself happy. 

When you’re alone, you don’t have anyone else competing to be a priority. Away from boyfriends, family, and friends, all you have is you. Your problems back home seem completely insignificant when viewed globally. Watching socioeconomic battles in a micro environment changes you.

Growing up, we’re told about starving children around the world, but travelling in poor regions you see them every day. You meet children who are forced to beg for money, groomed from birth to approach strangers with heart-wrenching requests (“please give me money, I’m so hungry”), and women using their newborn babies as bait for sympathy.

There are real problems in the world. Things that you can’t just stick a band-aid on. Things that won’t go away overnight. I would love to give these kids money, but money won’t solve their problems. The problem lies much deeper.

The little things matter so much less when you’ve seen the big picture. You can learn to let go of the bad, and keep hold of the good. The most important tool you can cultivate to help anyone is to be a happy, healthy, and balanced person first.

The world has enough misery.

Siem Reap Hostel in Cambodia

(At $6 USD per night, this hostel in Siem Reap is one of a few cheaper-than-cheap options for travelers on a budget.)

2. How to sacrifice and live minimally.

The minimum wage in Thailand is $265 per month, with a 7 day work schedule. In Cambodia, it’s only $80 — which is a recent improvement up from $60. The average family lives in a tiny apartment and barely makes ends meet. Many women are forced into sex trade, an appealing alternative to seeing their families go hungry.

The difference between a $6 hostel and $20 hotel now feels insignificant and wasteful. Spending $6 to eat at tourist-geared restaurant owned by foreigners feels silly when I can support a simple Khmer family owned eatery for $3.

I came to Thailand with a small suitcase and a backpack, but as I’ve travelled, they’ve felt like a weight more than security. Before I leave Siem Reap, I’m donating 3/4 of my belongings to a Cambodian NGO (non-government organization).

This doesn’t make me a good person, it makes me reasonableWestern culture perpetuates the idea that more is better, but the truth is that more is often completely unnecessary. Through travel, you can learn to be happy with next to nothing.

all my clothes

(After separating things for donation, all of my clothes now fit in one small bag.)

3. How to be compassionate and non-judgmental.

It’s easy to judge shoes you haven’t walked in. I mean, who wears Crocs? but plenty of people do.

Travelling, you encounter every religion and cultural tradition under the sun, and intolerance is unacceptable. I wrote before about experiencing culture shock in Thailand when faced with monuments dedicated to their King, who is beloved by nearly all Thais and in some cases essentially worshipped.

I may not understand their ways, but it’s not my place to speak negatively or say anything at all about them. It’s their culture, and just like mine or yours, as long as humanitarian rights are not being violated, it deserves to be approached with respect and an open mind.

In Southeast Asia, marriage is often treated as a business arrangement. From birth, many children are taught it is their duty to take care of their families, and to find a way to improve their lives if at all possible. All other needs or desires fade in comparison with that love and devotion.

Foreigners are usually seen as richeven if they aren’t, and if a woman comes from a poor family, finding a white man who wants to marry her is a dream. Even if she doesn’t love him. Even if she doesn’t like him.

Coming from a culture where love is idolized and sought after, this view of marriage is strange for me. But I understand and sympathize with their plight. I respect the rampant deep devotion to family preservation.

New Friends in Cambodia

(With a friend from home, Marion, and our new friends from Canada and Israel.) 

4. How to make friends with everyone. 

I’ve said before that one of the best things about traveling is the instant kinship you find with people you meet.

Solo travel forces you to step outside of your comfort zone. It forces you to be in downright uncomfortable situations and learn to make them feel like home anyway, unless you want to be miserable. Which you don’t, of course, because you’ve learned how to make yourself happy. (See #1)

Fortunately, a lot of people on the road are in the same situation: away from home, on their own (or travelling with a small group), and interested in meeting people from foreign cultures.

Everyone you meet can be your friend, but not everyone (in fact hardly anyone) should be trusted. Make connections. Share travel tales. Connect on Facebook. Don’t leave them with your wallet. Don’t let them make a drink for you unless you can watch them doing it. Don’t accept a ride from a stranger or walk down an alley at night.  Common sense.

Learning the balance of being open, approachable, and friendly while remaining cautious and aware is soul-enriching. At home in the USA, generally it was one or the other. I was with friends and felt comfortable and open, or I was in an unknown setting, on guard and less approachable. Travelling, I’ve learned that there isn’t a fine line between these two — there’s a huge bridge and it’s filled with really rad people.

Simple Khmer Meal in Cambodia

(Simple Khmer meal: Ginger chicken and rice, $3 USD)

Solo travel is an experience I recommend to all. Overcoming fear and stepping outside of your comfort zone is hard. But let me tell you: most of the things holding you back are in your head.  Jumping over them is definitely worth it.

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2 responses to “4 Things You Can Learn From Solo Travel

  1. The part about the hungry children was gut wrenching to read. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking we have it bad when a begger asks us for change once a week.

  2. gut wrenching! try entire “orphanages” full of children that have been purchased so as to beg for funds from NGO’s and Voluntourist companies!

    or try this for a travel experience:
    I saw a 5 year old street kid with a 3 year old begging in the grounds of a mosque in India. 2 little girls. The thing that I will never forget is not that the 3 year old was half-naked, as they often are in tropical countries. It was that her vagina was distended from obvious repeated sexual intercourse.

    Wake up stupids. The horror is all about you.

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