A Woman's Guide to Traveling Solo around Asia
Traveling alone can be daunting. More so when you're a pint-sized lady backpacking around on a shoestring budget. But once you overcome the numerous reasons why you shouldn't travel alone and just go, you'll never regret it. Hippies became the symbol of the early budget travel generation - long hair, guitars and the goal of "where to next" was the image of the first backpackers. Today's backpackers are those who want to travel independently, get closer to the local culture and have access to sights and places not usually traveled.
Recently, I went on a month-long solo trip around Malaysia and Thailand. Despite initial fears of language barriers, the lack of signboards and cautions of animosities against independent woman travelers in Asia, my trip turned out to be a truly memorable one.
Besides meeting other travelers from Europe, Australia and Japan along the way, I also made friends with many locals - from the laundry lady at a hostel to several students whose father owned a convenience store I frequented.
Many people would like to travel alone, but a niggling doubt that always holds them back. A very prudent one that every woman contemplating independent travel should consider: Is it safe? It is important not to deny one's fears (the intuitive alarm system). Best to respect them - but also to work around them. With careful planning, following some simple rules and respecting the local culture, your trip will be a safe and truly memorable one.
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Discovering the World
Do some research about the country and province you intend to visit before planning anything else. For example, it might be more sensible to travel around Bangkok during the monsoon season (October to January every year) instead of planning a trip to Koh Samui. Also, check for safety alerts (released the US government and available online at http://www.state.travel.gov) - moving around certain areas in Indonesia, for instance, is probably not a good idea if you're a Caucasian lady traveling alone.
Many woman travelers do not recommend traveling alone (or even in pairs!) in India, Pakistan and in some parts of Indonesia (it's generally safer on the island of Bali). Independent woman travelers give thumbs-up to Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Laos, China and Japan.
While you're at it, write down the contact numbers for the local police, tourist police and your embassy of the country you plan to visit and keep it in a safe place. Get a photocopy of your passport and visas, and keep it in a separate place from your actual passport.
It would make things much easier if you actually know some locals before arriving in a foreign country. A good place to start is your local church: many churches have missionaries around Asia and they'll be happy to meet up with you during your travels. Otherwise, try checking out reputable voluntary organizations, religious groups, community organizations or organizations promoting tourism in the area you are visiting on the Internet and gather some contacts. The locals can usually recommend a good place to stay, or interesting places to visit. Also, if you're traveling to a remote area, having a local base will make it easier for your family to contact you.
Try carrying a moderate amount of money with some small change in local currency in a wallet. Place some spare money - US dollars is a good bet because it is accepted in most countries - and keep this securely together with your passport in a waist or body pouch. Getting a small lock for your hand luggage will deter potential thieves. My Australian friend, Claire, once had her bag rummaged by a guy sitting next to her on a bus when she was traveling alone around Indonesia.
Do not carry too much clothes - laundry rates are very affordable in most Asian countries.
Pack about five t-shirts (with sleeves!), a few pair of long cotton pants, some underwear, a wrinkle-free cotton dress and a pair of shorts if you're planning to go to the beach. Remember to carry a jumper, for overnight travel in air-conditioned trains and buses. A sarong (piece of long material, readily available in most Asian countries) will prove to be a pretty useful thing - you can use it as a makeshift bag, a skirt, a towel, a cover-up when walking to the beach in your bathers or even as a rug on the beach.
No matter how tempting it is in the tropical heat, avoid wandering around in a sleeveless t-shirt and shorts. Doing so will only attract unwanted attention to yourself. Remember to bring some toilet paper, which might not be available in the Muslim countries and some tampons (not commonly available in Indonesia and the Indo-China countries).
Get a basic medical kit, containing some aspirin, flu medication, lozenges, diarrhea medication, water purification tables, suntan lotion, bandage, antiseptic cream and malaria prophylaxis (if you're traveling to a malaria zone). It is not easy to get access to medication you're familiar with in certain areas.
Try to arrange accommodation in a reputable youth hostel or hostels run by Christian organizations (YMCA, YWCA, the Catholic church) before leaving home. Around South East Asia, there are far fewer youth hostels catering to a backpacking clientele, so some "hostels" can be a front for illicit activities. After a long flight, moving from one hostel to another with luggage is no fun at all. You can always stay a night in these hostels before arranging alternative accommodation after a good night's sleep.
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Most countries in Asia have fixed rates for bus or cab charges from the airport to the city. Try enquiring the official rate at the information counter in the airport to avoid getting ripped off by unscrupulous drivers. Avoid getting into any vehicle offering to take you to the city at a rate far below the official price - there have been cases of women getting robbed and raped in cabs around Asia!
A safer alternative would be to take the airport bus to the city, and then find alternative transport from there.
Finding Alternative Accommodations
Meeting new people along the way has got to be one of the ultimate joys of the journey. Avoid large, impersonal hostels, and opt for a more friendly bed and breakfast that is frequented by female travelers. Staying at hostels with single sex dormitories is much safer for a single woman traveler.
Check the local newspapers for events happening around town. If there's a university nearby, enquire about cultural activities. Students and lecturers are usually pretty enthusiastic about having a 'foreigner' in their midst and would love to befriend you in return for some English language lessons.
The healthy traveler
Staying healthy on your journey should be a number one priority. Getting sick in a foreign place is no fun at all. Practicing good hygiene while abroad will drastically cut your chances for contracting infections and sickness.
Avoiding cold drinks and uncooked food will probably minimize your chance of getting diarrhea around Asia. Buy bottled water with safety seal intact in countries where the water have not been treated for drinking. Around Asia, countries with treated water include Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan and Japan. Also, when taking a shower don't swallow any water that gets into your mouth. Use bottled or purified water to brush your teeth. Backpackers around Asia have contracted tropical diseases from brushing teeth with unclean water.
If the diarrhea persists in any country, you should seek out medical advise. Locate an international clinic, with English speaking doctors, which will administer a stool test. After the sample is examined the clinician will be better able to help you figure out what you have and prescribe medication that will alleviate your symptoms.
Be cautious, be alert and be confident. Do not walk by yourself late at night. Stay away from the deserted or "trouble" areas of cities (day or night). Choose your travel companion(s) for the day wisely (most of the people you meet at hostels are great, but keep in mind that these people are virtual strangers).
A safer (but not entirely fool-proof method) is to travel for day-trips with several backpackers before going on overnight trip with them. Also, ensure that your family back home and the people from your "local base of contact" know where you're going, with whom and when you'll be contacting them again.
If you're moving around on your own, pay attention to your surroundings and the people in them. Do not become distracted by anyone or anything. Act like you know where you are and where you are going even if you don't. Standing on a street corner with your tourist map flapping in the breeze is not advised! If you're lost try to ask for directions from a shopkeeper instead of standing around looking lost.
Traveling solo around Asia promises to be a very fulfilling experience. Try it!
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Budget Guide for the Solo Traveler
Note: excludes Japan, Singapore and Hong Kong, where prices are substantially higher)
Duration of stay: One month
Accommodation: US 160
Food: US 120 (for hawker stalls and food court meals)
Getting around: US 200 (includes day trips and travel to surrounding towns on buses and trains)
Miscellaneous: US 100
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Lonely Planet (http://www.lonelyplanet.com)
Maiden Voyages (http://www.maiden-voyages.com)
Journey Woman (http://www.journeywoman.com))
Woman Traveler (http://www.womantraveler.com)
Passion Fruit (http://www.passionfruit.com)
2021 Update: Solo female travel: How to keep you and your finances safe (Bankrate.com)
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