So it’s been eleven days since my sister left Kuala Lumpur and I became a solo traveler – and even longer since my last post here. The “blogger’s block” is probably due to a combination of reasons, but for the most part I’ll admit that I’ve been in a bit of a travel slump. The transition to solo travel hasn’t been as easy as I might have expected. While I have plenty to write about Malaysia specifically, I’ll leave that for later (I still haven’t seen Penang! And I’m taking a break in Thailand…) and talk about a few things I’ve learned about solo travel over the past week and a half.
This isn’t my first time traveling alone, but in the past I’ve traveled to very solo-friendly settings – busy hostels in European cities, a 5-day dive course on a popular Thai island, a beach in Rio where I had ten days to kill without going anywhere. I’ve come to realize traveling alone is not the same everywhere, and as much as I’ve told people “when you travel solo you’re never really alone!” – sometimes, you have to be ready for alone to mean alone.
Your destination matters. In most big cities or “backpacker hubs” (like Pai, Thailand) you’d be hard pressed not to find at least a handful of solo travelers. Then there are places that are rarely visited by anyone or only used as transit points where you’ll mostly find locals, which can be an adventure. And finally, there are places teeming with foreigners, but they all seem to be couples or families (like most quiet/romantic islands and, apparently, much of Malaysia).
Your accommodation matters. I can’t stress this enough. Unfortunately, I’m not completely sure how to avoid making the mistakes I have in the past couple of weeks, since traveling spontaneously in high season makes it difficult to research and book the right places in advance. In the Cameron Highlands, I stayed at an inn that kind of depressed me due to the strange and somewhat hostile staff and the general vibe of the place. While I did meet some people in the end (who spent several hours discussing how strange the place was), I might have had a better impression of the destination if I’d stayed in a friendlier place. Here on Koh Lipe, I spent the first three nights in a perfectly fine but quiet and up-market resort (less popular due to ongoing construction), that while comfortable made me feel pretty isolated. This was mainly because I was trying to find a place while carrying my pack around and being tempted to stop at one of the first that didn’t have anything wrong with it. This is hard to avoid if you don’t have a place booked in advance (and that’s not always feasible or preferable either).
The activities available at your destination matter. In the Cameron Highlands, the most popular things to do include visiting tea plantations and strawberry farms (only accessible by taxi, day tour or ridiculously long walks) or taking jungle treks by following sometimes unmarked paths (not recommended without a buddy). Activities for solo travelers include sitting at Starbucks (because yes, they have one in Tanah Rata, Malaysia) and reading for three hours while it rains. No, really – someone else I met later had done the same exact thing.
Snorkeling trips to romantic beaches aren’t a great way to meet independent/single travelers. Believe me, I’ve done this alone twice. The first time was four years ago on Phi Phi and I don’t remember much, other than the good snorkeling and the crappy company. The second was yesterday, and my snorkel buddies were two couples, Malaysian and Finnish. The Finns were on their honeymoon. They were nice and talking to them was fun. Watching them take photos of each other on the beach for half an hour was less so.
Don’t be afraid to dump your buddy. Sometimes when it’s hard to meet people, I find myself latching on to the first solo traveler I meet and sticking with them for longer than necessary. But while the first few hours after meeting someone can be something of a “honeymoon phase,” at some point when you’ve spent 50+ hours with someone you’ve just met you start to realize that not everyone is destined to be your best friend.
For two ridiculously long periods of transit (Cameron Highlands > Pangkor and Pangkor > Koh Lipe), I paired up with different guys who happened to be going in the same direction. While it was nice to have company (though I’m not sure whether the trips would have been more or less stressful without them) and we did have some very interesting conversations, I left my first buddy in Pangkor without telling him I was leaving, and the second one I haven’t seen since a very stupid disagreement* ended our first evening here on Koh Lipe. In the couple of days that followed, when I failed to really meet anyone new, I sometimes felt bad about cutting ties without getting any contact info – but then I’d remember the feeling of being trapped in their company and realize that the whole point of traveling solo is that you get to choose who you spend your time with.
A good book can be your best friend. In the past eleven days, I’ve finished three books. I’m not sure when I could last say that! In particular, the past two days alone on Koh Lipe have been the perfect time to finally get caught up in The Hunger Games series (debating whether to buy the third book on Kindle… or wait two days to borrow it for free!)
You won’t be alone forever. Or even for two days. While the chill-out beach bars on Koh Lipe aren’t the most conducive to meeting people, all it took was a “Hey, are you on your own too?” last night to meet a cool German girl (who is island-hopping by herself for two weeks!) and later hang out with her and a Russian couple at a completely hidden away reggae bar in the jungle I probably wouldn’t have visited alone.
So, things are looking up! Also, I’m here:
*The disagreement was regarding the etiquette (specifically in Thailand) of putting one’s feet on the table. I told you, it was dumb. And after two Thai buckets, I’m surprised I even remember it.