After traveling for more than 24 hours straight, I’m kneeling inside a Buddhist temple in northern Thailand being blessed by a monk.
Donning a traditional bright orange robe, he chants softly while flicking holy water over my bowed head. I can’t understand what he’s saying, but according to my guidebook, it should be something along the lines of wishing me peace, prosperity, love, and compassion.
Just as I’m getting my Zen on, a cell phone rings. Horrified, I instinctively reach for my purse before realizing it can’t be mine—I don’t have cell service in Thailand. I look up and see the monk flip open a Motorola cell phone from at least 10 years ago. He takes the call, and then as if nothing happened, continues chanting and flicking me with water.
I didn’t expect to be blessed by a cell phone-talking Buddhist monk while traveling for two weeks in Southeast Asia—and there’s a whole host of other things that happened that I never could’ve imagined. Here’s what I learned on my trip—and what you can do to prepare for your next solo adventure.
Channel Al Roker
Whether you’re traveling to San Francisco or Southeast Asia, it’s crucial to research the weather in the locale you’ll be visiting in advance. Sounds obvious, but forgetting to do so can seriously mess with your plans. If you’re traveling south of the equator, bear in mind that those countries have opposite seasons to ours (i.e., summer in Argentina takes place during our winter). And for some countries—like India and Thailand—you’ll want to steer clear of monsoon season, which generally happens between June and October.
Dress the Part
Do some research to find out what’s acceptable attire in the region you’ll be visiting. In Southeast Asia, for example, skimpy clothing is a no-no. Elbows and knees must be covered when visiting temples, and in general, locals tend to dress more modestly, covering their chests, arms, and legs—even in the blistering heat. Be respectful of the local culture, and people will be more likely to respect you.
Learn a Few Words
It's frustrating if you can't speak a lick of French and you're in France for a week. The fix? Memorize a few simple words like “hello,” “please,” and “thank you” in advance. In addition to just being a polite, knowing how to speak the local language will make you seem like a savvier traveler, putting you at a lesser risk for thefts and scams. (Learning some directional words—to get you from place to place—will also help.)
Tell a White Lie
When someone (like a cab driver or a shop owner) asks how long you’ve been in the country, always say at least one week. Folks are less likely to take advantage of you if they think you know the lay of the land.
Arrive During Daylight
Traveling solo is a great adventure—but being on your own can also make you more vulnerable. Plan ahead so that you arrive at your destination during daylight hours when it’s safer and easier to roam the streets.
Befriend the Concierge
In addition to booking day trips and offering restaurant recommendations, the hotel staff can be a great resource if you get lost or feel unsafe.
Join a Group
If you’re planning your first foray alone, consider linking up with a tour group at some point. I joined a Contiki tour group, and together we visited hill tribes in northern Thailand, sailed the mighty Mekong River in Laos, and watched the sun rise over Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Sure, I could’ve gone on these adventures alone, but awe-inspiring experiences like these are best shared with a group. I made great friends and covered more ground than I would have alone. Wondering how to pick a group? Read reviews on travel message boards. You’ll find out if a trip is really worth the money, and what the tour’s target market is. Are they geared toward older people? Families? Adventurous types? You don’t want to end up on a tour with old folks if you were hoping for death-defying adventure.
Take Out Crisp Cash and Small Bills
Skip the ATM and visit a bank teller for crisp bills: Many foreign countries will not accepted wilted or torn money. And make sure you get small change too since some underdeveloped countries don’t accept big bills. In Cambodia, it was a challenge to get change for even a $20 bill. The other boon to carrying cash: You’ll avoid hefty banks fees. Most banks charge at least five dollars to make a withdrawal in a foreign country. At restaurants and shops, you’ll usually face a fee of between three and seven percent of the sale to use your credit card. And never carry all of your cash at once. Take what you need and hide the rest in your locked suitcase or in the security box in your room. (When it comes to luggage, consider pieces with a hard shell, which are harder to break into like this one that also locks!)
Be Your Own Pharmacist
Pack cold meds, anti-nausea pills (for long bus rides), upset stomach relief, cough drops, allergy relief, and headache medication. This is especially key when traveling to a foreign country where you may not have access to a doctor or pharmacist. And remember to drink lots of water, especially if you’re traveling to a tropical locale. Bringing your own water bottle is a good idea since many hotels offer filtered H2O in the lobby. Above all, be sure to get enough sleep. Watching the sunrise over Angkor Wat isn’t nearly as enjoyable when you’re sleep-deprived!
Traveling solo is one of the only times you have the freedom to do what you want, when you want, without having to worry about another person’s agenda. So relish it! It can be surprisingly enjoyable to be by yourself, listening to only your thoughts. What do you really want in life? What are your dreams? A solo trip is the perfect opportunity to be introspective. If you’re worried about feeling lonely, remember that while you might be traveling by yourself, you’re not alone. Don’t be afraid to chat up fellow diners at a sidewalk café or engage with the locals at a market. You’ll likely make new friends and have great stories to tell when you get back home.