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6 realizations after a month of solo backpacking

1. This is my trip — I decide where I’m going.

I know most people include Laos in their Southeast Asia trip. I’m not. I don’t have enough time to do it properly. And I’m totally comfortable with that decision. I also decided to cut out Vietnam. No time for that either. Fine by me, perhaps I’ll come back some time and visit it then. I did spend two weeks in Chiang Mai though, doing basically nothing, and loved it. Does this make me a terrible traveler? It seems like it, because a proper Southeast Asia backpacker ‘does’ Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, right?

The majority of people I tell my itinerary to, respond in disbelief, “WHAT?! You’re not doing Laos/Vietnam?! You should change your plans, Laos/Vietnam is beautiful!” In the beginning it made me insecure and doubt my trip and my decisions, but then I realized…screw that. This is my trip. I decide. This is my once-in-a-lifetime trip. Be open to good advice, but in the end, do whatever you like.

2. Don’t treat travel like a checklist competition.

Every destination has things you ought to do. New York: Thou shall visit the Statue of Liberty! Paris: Thou shall visit the Eiffel Tower! Sydney: Thou shall visit the Opera House!

Well, what if I don’t feel like doing that? I’m in Phnom Penh at the moment. Everyone says I should visit the killing fields and the Tuol Sleng Museum, a school that was used as a prison where thousands were tortured. Both are on every Phnom Penh travelers must-do list. I visited the killing fields. It was horrific, and definitely made me aware of what happened here. It was good to know and be aware, but did it make me feel happy? No, of course not. So I decided to be a total badass and skip my visit to the Tuol Sleng museum the next day. A huge Phnom Penh traveler’s sin, I know, but I didn’t feel like it. And this is my trip, so I decide.

3. It’s okay to do nothing for a day. Or 2. Or 3. Or 4.

Step three of this ongoing realization: This is a vacation. A really long one. But it is a vacation. Its okay to relax. During the first week I wanted to run around Bangkok, not waste a single minute, do everything there was to do, experience it all. But by the end of the week I was exhausted. How was I going to keep this up for another eight months? Traveling is awesome, but also tiring. You’ll experience an overall lack of sleep due to parties/overnight travel/jetlag, different cultures, languages, new people, etc, over and over again. Adapting to new environments saps energy. So give yourself a break, stay in bed or hang out in the coffee place around the corner, or at the pool all day. It’s not a waste of time. It’s vacation.

I love exploring all these places, but you know what else I really like? Staying in bed, all day, watching tv series, eating chocolate and cookies, sipping coke from the bottle, and having pizza delivered so I really don’t have to get out. Being a complete lazy-ass. A day like that every now and then makes me genuinely happy. So, here I am, in my hostel bunkbed, with empty oreo wrappers around me, an empty bottle, and an empty frappuccino. I just finished watching a few episodes of my favorite show and I’m about to head down to the hostel cafeteria for a pizza. Does this make me a terrible traveler? Perhaps. But it makes me happy.

4. Looking after myself 24/7 is tough.

Something that forces me to take a break is the fact that as a solo traveler I need to look after myself 24/7. It’s not like at home, where your boss will start calling you when you don’t show up, or your friends ask you what you’re up to. If I get hit by a car, there’s no one here who really knows who I am. If I lose my passport, there’s no one here who really cares and who I can rely on for help to get me to the embassy in Bangkok. If I’m not feeling well, there’s no one to talk to. I now realize that back home, there’s an unofficial shared responsibility for each other’s well being. Friends, families, and colleagues are there to help you. When traveling solo, however, you really have to take care of your own shit, and that’s a big responsibility.

5. It’s not all going to be perfect.

I post lots of happy, beautiful, smiling pictures on Facebook and Twitter. But it’s not like I’m wandering around in Disneyland here. Bad things happen too. Although I’ve only been traveling for a little over a month, I’ve already had my fair share. You gotta face it, suck it up, deal with it.

My guts refused all the water/food I took in the first three weeks, requiring me to stay within a rive-minute radius of a toilet at all times. It makes you feel terrible, it limits you in where you can go, and makes your body pretty weak. Then when I was in Chiang Mai, I saw a bedbug crawling out of my pajama pants. I left the hostel in the middle of the night, wandering through the dark streets by myself, looking for a new place to sleep. I spent the entire next day doing laundry, feeling totally disgusting and worried that they found their way into my backpack (which doesn’t seem to be the case — hurray!). I fell off my motorbike. Nothing too bad, just badly bruised from head to toe, but it hurt. And then there’s the language and cultural barrier. Me: “I want to go to the train station. Train…station…you know?” Taxi driver: “Yes, yes, okay, okay.” Cut to 35 minutes later when we pull up to the bus station. Sigh. Facepalm.

6. Sometimes I need comfort/luxury, and that’s okay.

So because traveling (by yourself) is challenging at times, I can really appreciate some comfort and luxury every now and then. First, I thought this was stupid, non-backpackerish, and that I was a spoiled Western brat. But sometimes it’s okay to treat yourself and book a private room instead of that 24-person dorm, or book a hotel room instead of a hostel. Sometimes that $15 meal is just sooo good after eating $1 pad thai for a week. Sometimes that one-hour flight is worth double the price of a 16-hour overland bus journey. If a little splurge makes you happy, then I say go for it.

Photo: Jack Hynes 

This article originally appeared on Flying Dutchgirl and is republished here with permission.

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