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A Woman Travelling: Do it Solo!

The tragic news on young Grace Millane’s alleged murder while solo travelling in New Zealand shook the world. The fact that she was killed in a first-world, developed nation and not in your typical “avoid-at-all-costs” third-world country made the tragedy even more unthinkable. And an unfortunate side-effect of her death was that it gave people even more ammunition to dissuade females from going overseas alone.

I have done my fair share of solo trips. It started in 2013 by accident when a friend was at the last minute unable to join me in Lisbon, Portugal for the entire trip, and I was made to spend my first two days in a foreign country on my own. It turned out to be the most memorable and wonderful two days, with Lisbon thereafter becoming my all-time favourite European city. From then on, I was hooked on exploring the world on my own.

Unfortunately, being female, it is no secret that travelling on your own is not encouraged, oftentimes due to the dangers and difficulties one might experience in a foreign place. Whilst I have seen my male friends’ intentions to solo travel met with a resounding “Oh wonderful! Have a great time!”, my own are often peppered with immediate concern and doubts.

“Remember not to go out at night.”

“Are you sure? You’re so brave!”

My favourite line is from my own mother: “Why don’t you have friends?”

Don’t get me wrong. I completely understand that my loved ones mean well. While I am always trembling with anticipation waiting for my upcoming solo trip, I am also generally nervous and jittery. I have, after all, experienced leering and propositions from strange foreign men and catch myself recalling the moves I learnt from that one Krav Maga class when I find myself alone in a deserted area of the city. There is truth to these concerns. Females are generally more vulnerable due to our biological inferiority in strength and size. This, coupled with having to sometimes cope with the unwanted attention from the opposite sex, often leads to a lot of women feeling unsafe in foreign places.

Notwithstanding, solo travelling is amazing for me because of the freedom it posits. You step back from reality for just that one moment, away from everyone you know, and you step into a world where it seems like there are endless possibilities. The best part is that for those few days, weeks, even months, you answer to absolutely no one. Do you want to spend three hours in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam? Do you want to eat fresh pineapples off a boat in the floating markets of South Vietnam? Do you want to stand atop the highest point of a cliff overlooking the cascading waterfalls in Cascais, Portugal for 20 minutes? Then, do it!

With that, I have tried to summarise my experience as a solo female traveller, hoping to inspire you to take that leap of faith anyway and book your next flight alone! (Note: some of these tips are not limited to the female experience and will apply regardless of your gender.)

Tip 1: Research is Your Best Friend

The first step in solo travel is obviously choosing where you want to go. There will be many articles online and comments on forums telling you which countries are great for solo-travelling and which are the places to avoid, especially if you are a woman. However, the truth is that there should be no country that is off limits if you have done your research well. I have had female friends who have toured Southern Africa on their own through the help of adventure tour companies. Please do not think that travelling with an adventure tour (such as a backpacking group tour) is “cheating” or not “real solo travelling”. The fact is that these tours still often give you a lot of freedom to wander off (within reason) on your own. Once again, research is key!

I usually start with reading my favourite forums on solo travelling. There are often hidden gems in lesser-known parts of the world to be discovered! If you are completely new to the experience, you might wish to start with a familiar country or continent just to get a taste of travelling on your own.

You may also wish to get a sense of your budget for the trip, the sort of accommodation you would prefer and its availability during that period, and what others have said about the country/city/town. (For example, whether some females have been wary walking alone in broad daylight.)

My biggest surprise while travelling is often finding out how safe some places turn out to be, despite my limited research. For example, Zagreb in Croatia was actually a very safe city and I felt no danger walking down the main square well into the night. This, even though the Balkans were until recently very much known for being the “third-world” of Europe.

Tip 2: Go at Your Own Pace

This is my favourite part about going solo. There are days when I meet a fellow traveller from Australia, or France, or Bulgaria, and we end up touring the city together or getting a drink at the local pub. There are also days when I decide that I would rather be alone to enjoy the luscious greenery at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney. You do what you like, and it is all up to you.

It is indeed a cliché for me to say that solo travelling allows one to “find themselves”. And perhaps, the essence of that statement is far too pretentious and bourgeois that people instantly laugh it off. But there is truly something you will learn about yourself when you have nothing and no one to account to. You learn whether you tend to do things because others have told you to do it. You learn whether you are truly comfortable enough to be alone without someone to share certain memories with. You find out if big cities are too daunting for you, or if you would probably not survive being in the countryside for extended periods of time. (Spoiler alert: I have established that I probably could not survive without big-city comforts for more than a week, which was both a humbling experience as well as a lesson on not taking Singapore’s efficient systems for granted.)

Tip 3: Don’t be Afraid to be Spontaneous

As an add-on to my previous tip, going at your own pace sometimes also allows for spontaneity!

This was something I struggled with at first when I first started travelling on my own. It seemed too scary to leave anything to chance so I made sure that everything I wanted to see and do was booked in advance. While helpful, I also realised that I was unable to then change my plans at the last minute since I had already paid for things.

Certain things such as your accommodation ought to be pre-booked, especially since you do not want to find yourself in a situation where you are without a place to stay at the very last minute. However, day tours in the cities or towns usually do not have to be booked in advance and may even be booked on that day itself. Most hotels, hostels, and tourist accommodations will also have information on various activities and sightseeing suggestions if you ask them.

Being alone also allows you to partake in a usually-unnerving challenge: to make new friends! While it is of course possible to make friends even if you have your own, more often than not, you will likely end up not mingling with other people because it is always easiest to stick with the people you already know. However, when you are alone and you crave the company of other human beings (like I do) at some point, it builds people skills and courage to approach other people and attempt to strike up conversations.

I found myself alone in a youth hostel in Lisbon on that very first solo trip I did. After an hour of sitting on my own at the dinner table, I managed to muster all the courage that I had in every essence of my being and blurted a “hi” to the American girl sitting near me. We became fast friends and still keep in touch with each other to this day.

Tip 4: Trust Your Instincts

This is a tip that, although applicable regardless of gender, will apply to women more. Your gut is your most powerful weapon in situations that are completely foreign (whether in country or in circumstance).

No matter how experienced you are at travelling on your own, it will always cause a certain level of anxiety, especially if you have never been to that country before and you are unsure of its expectations and culture. That anxiety is good because it causes you to be wary of strangers and possible dangers. A random conversation with a non-threatening looking girl on the streets of Europe could lead to her suddenly demanding that you “sign a petition” and give her your money. You might be too afraid to reject her lest she suddenly reveal her partner-in-crime who is a 1.90-metre tall, 100-kg man arising from the shadows.

Make beautiful memories and do not be afraid to pick the road less-travelled, but if you notice that that particular road is a bit more dimly-lit and does not seem to have a discernible pathway, maybe just stick with the bright and crowded path for now.

In the same way, not all fellow travellers have the same intentions. It is unfortunate that we have to treat each other with a small amount of distrust in the beginning, but it is the smart way to make sure that you do not end up being the subject of local news before your departure home.

At the end of the day, I recommend trying solo travelling, especially if you are looking for a new adventure. You might end up completely hating it, but you would never know if you do not try. Conversely, it could be the very thing that changes your perspectives on how you view the world.

It might seem like something that people would readily discourage, particularly if you are a woman, but the truth is that solo travelling could also build your character and force you into situations that are outside of your comfort zone, a skill that is absolutely necessary for legal practice as well. (See how I managed to link this with a legal career?)

So, I personally challenge you to make the next trip a solo trip. After all, who knows? Perhaps it is during that trip that you realise you have found yourself.

Disclaimer: The author is writing from the perspective of an extrovert who typically enjoys meeting new people on her solo trips. Your mileage may vary.

The view of Hvar, Croatia from the top of the Španjola Fortress

A monument of the Communist Hero, Mr Ho Chi Minh situated in Can Tho, Vietnam

Overlooking the edge of the cliffs at Uluwatu Temple in Bali

Boca do Inferno (Hell’s Mouth), a series of highly weathered cliffs at the north of Cascais, Portugal

Swimming in the Dalmatian Sea along the coast of Brač, Croatia

Samples of the different delicacies inspired from all corners of Croatia

The landscape of Utrecht, the Netherlands from the top of the Dom Tower

Freshly cut pineapples sold on a boat in the floating markets of Can Tho, Vietnam

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Eu solet iudico suavitate sit. Eam eu dicant epicuri volutpat. Illud decore eam ea, ad vim solum urbanitas. Eos feugait intellegat interesset ut, mediocrem voluptatum eum ad, at graecis copiosae patrioque visore eam ea, ad vim solum urbanita.

Lee Chai & Boon LLP
Member, Young Lawyers Committee
E-mail: stephanie@leechaiboon.com