Brave, bold, insane … such words are often used to describe female solo travellers. But in today’s increasingly open and connected travel scene, is it really that big a deal for women to go it alone?
Not so, according to Lonely Planet that has reported that solo travel is a trend that will grow in the years to come.
Star2 talks to three female solo travellers to uncover their experiences as well as their responses to the age-old question about staying safe when travelling alone.
Eat, pray, volunteer
“They said, ‘Are you crazy?’ ” Gayathiri Kanniapen reveals with an infectious laugh, as she recalls her relatives’ reaction when they learned of her intention to travel alone for the first time to do volunteer work.
“My mum was very supportive. She was worried, too, of course – a girl travelling on her own, and there were stories about women getting robbed or raped when they travel alone,” says the 26-year-old, her voice trailing off.
Gayathiri was planning to travel to Sri Lanka, a country where Tamils allegedly face racial discrimination. (Tamils make up the majority of the Indian population in Malaysia.)
Why Sri Lanka, then?
“It was the cheapest place to volunteer in,” she says, detailing the arrangements offered by an international volunteer travel company. She had wanted to go to New Zealand but changed her mind due to the currency exchange rate.
The decision to do volunteer work last year wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment thing for this co-founder of an enrichment learning centre, though.
“I had always wanted to travel on my own. And why not do something good while I did that?”
Gayathiri – the sole Malaysian volunteer in the group – taught English and Mathematics to children from rural villages and cared for elderly women at a home in Kandy, over the course of five weeks. After that, she spent three weeks for personal (solo) travel in the Central Province and Colombo.
She says the ample research she did prior to the trip helped her stay independent.
“I Googled up other solo female travel bloggers who have been to Sri Lanka. I read up on how they dressed and the places they went to. I also picked up some basic Sinhalese to hold simple conversations with the locals and in case of emergencies,” she offers.
This bubbly city girl brushes off the bad press surrounding the country she travelled to, saying she had the most pleasant encounters with the locals.
“If you go there with a negative mentality, it will reflect on your face and the way you carry yourself. You have to break stereotypes, somehow, and travelling is a great way to do that,” she says. Solo travel is also a great way to meet new people, she reckons.
“There’s this tuk tuk (a kind of auto rickshaw) driver with the most beautiful hazel eyes who took me around the countryside and showed me how the villagers live,” she says, adding that she felt so relieved to find a driver who could speak English upon arrival at Ella after a seven-hour train trip from Kandy.
“The only time I felt lonely was when I was in restaurants,” she remarks, elaborating how she was re-assigned another table at a seaside restaurant as the ones closer to the beach were reserved for couples and larger parties.
Of course, there’s always the matter of staying safe while on the road. Gayathiri says she caught men staring at her on several occasions. Although she ignored them in the beginning, she learned to just smile at them.
“Often times, I find that the men who stared at me were probably just curious. By smiling at them and seeing them smile back warmly kept me from being paranoid,” she says.
“Initially, I thought of buying pepper spray at a convenience store when I arrived in Sri Lanka. But the only thing I ended buying there was a mosquito repellent,” she adds, with a laugh.
On a more serious note, Gayathiri thinks solo women travellers should try to dress conservatively.
“I might get into trouble with feminists for saying this – but if you dress too sexy, it’s only going to attract unwanted attention,” she cautiously offers, “and when you are a woman who’s travelling alone, attention is the last thing you need.”
For Gayathiri, her first solo trip has renewed her self-confidence.
“I find that when you travel, you will still come home to the same problems. But it helps you discover yourself. I was in a country where the locals don’t speak my language. If I could do that, I think I can do anything in the future,” she reveals.
“I told my mum I want to go to Pakistan for my next solo trip. She was like, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ ” she concludes with a laugh.
Pursuit of independence
The last straw for Nadiah Wafa was when a friend she was travelling to Tokyo with fussed about some of the travel arrangements. To complicate matters, both women are polar opposites when it comes to travel preferences.
“I’m the kind of person who travels to see, not to eat. And I don’t like to follow a set itinerary,” the 28-year-old reveals during our interview in Mutiara Damansara, Selangor.
After that episode, the freelance graphic designer decided that her next trip abroad would be on her own. And so it was, for her trip to Osaka three years ago, although it happened in a rather hasty manner.
Her then-boss reminded her of her leave application which she had submitted a year prior, and then forgotten about.
“At the time, I hadn’t even bought plane tickets or booked a place to stay yet.
“But I decided to carry on with the plan. So I went online and booked something cheap,” she reveals.
That nonchalance might have something to do with the fact that Nadiah has always been comfortable standing on her own two feet. And travelling solo is an extension of her independence.
In fact, prior to the Osaka holiday, the extreme sports enthusiast had been travelling on her own to places within Malaysia as part of her paragliding adventures.
To date, she has travelled to Dubai, Indonesia and the Philippines, with plans for more solo trips in the future.
“Well, technically, I went to the Philippines with another person. But it was so random because I met her online,” she reveals. Nadiah had answered a post on social media by a fellow female traveller who was looking for a travel companion.
Nadiah says her family and friends have come to terms with her travel habits, however erratic or eyebrow-raising they may be.
“They are shocked, of course,” she says, recalling how she only informed her parents that she was going to Dubai alone on the day she was scheduled to fly, “but I have earned my badge to travel solo.
“They were not happy, initially, but both my mum and dad are always very supportive of what I do,” she says.
Nadiah thinks family support and a constructive social setting are important in encouraging women to break out of their shell.
“It’s more about upbringing. Some girls grow up with people around them telling them they should be a specific (type of) person. And then, there are some men who say things like, ‘You need a man to keep you safe’,” she laments.
With her striking pink hair, Nadiah is a picture of confidence. It’s an image that she says is useful for women who are travelling alone.
“As a female traveller, you have to be firm. Even if you are not, you have to pretend to be strong. You cannot be like ‘Haiiiiihhh…’,” she sighs, trying to emulate overly girlish behaviour.
“To all girls who are thinking about travelling on their own, just do it. Don’t say something is impossible until you have actually tried it.”
Through the years
Loke Poh Lin was struggling with her heavy luggage and trying to get off the train when the doors closed. So she missed her exit at the train station in Nagoya, Japan. And she was alone, in a foreign land, for the first time.
There was no way to contact her chauffeur. This was back in 1983 – before mobile phones and the Internet were a norm.
“I didn’t panic because I knew I could get off at the next station and go back to Nagoya. Meanwhile, my friend (the chauffeur) was frantic,” she recounts during our interview in Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur.
“Never use a suitcase you cannot carry off the conveyor belt on arrival – ever! I travel light nowadays,” the 58-year-old adds.
The freelance writer reckons technology has made things easier for travellers.
“Nowadays, with all the apps on your smartphone, everything can be at your fingertips,” the mother-of-two offers.
Technology aside, Loke says, it’s important for women who are travelling alone to keep a rational mind.
“It’s more about the smarts, being alert and observant, and being sensitive to the customs and practices of the country you are visiting. Do your homework before you go. Don’t carry too much cash. In the old days, it was credit cards and travellers’ cheques. Now it’s credit cards, mostly.
“Of course, if at any time you feel unsafe, trust your instincts and head for places which are well-lit and where there are people. No flashy jewellery and handbag screaming that you’re female,” she advises.
Loke has never cancelled a trip just because a place was deemed “too dangerous”. “But, of course, you want to avoid going to war zones,” she quips.
During her years of solo travel, Loke travelled to Canada (“From New Brunswick on the east coast to British Columbia on the west”), the United Kingdom (“London, mostly”) and Ireland (“All over, from County Dublin to County Galway and beyond”), just to name a few.
But for women who are mulling about travelling solo, the proud grandmother says they should “take baby steps” and travel to places that are generally safer for women, such as Singapore and Hong Kong.
While Loke has gone on trips with her daughters in recent times, solo travel will always have a special place in her heart.
“Once you start, it takes some effort to go back to travelling with companions or in a group. Travelling alone is wonderful. You set your own pace and itinerary,” she shares.
“It gives you infinite flexibility, from meeting new people to accepting all manner of invitations – to stay with someone, enjoy a meal, visit a museum or see a sight.”
Over three decades have passed since she went on her inaugural solo trip. It’s one of the most empowering things in life, she says.
“People do feel that you (solo female travellers) are ‘brave’. I mean … why? You wouldn’t say that if I were a man, right? Anyway, people can keep their worries to themselves. We mustn’t let negativity hinder our travels,” she muses.
“I intend to travel solo until my arms can’t haul my luggage around anymore.”