I covered an article the last time on how travelling liberates you and gives you a different perspective towards life each time you visit a new destination. I was under a false assumption that the core experiences of travelling in a group and flying solo are the same. I couldn’t be more wrong. I happened to take the first solo trip of my life (Yes! knowing myself, I never imagined I could do it without absolute chaos) but let’s call this one an audacious risk that you take when you hit your quarter life (crisis if you may). Cambodia it was! A ten day bag packing trip exploring the marvelous temples and the pristine islands and gorging on the local food the country had to offer. Was everything as good as it sounds? Let’s find out! And so here goes another piece on traveling; covering the good, bad and ugly of flying solo. Don’t worry! This is not a blog that would help you sail through as you make your itinerary for Cambodia. But it will definitely give you some insights on what to expect and how to go about finding your way (not in the literal sense) on your first and all the other solo trips thereafter!
I am a hard-core planner. The reasons could be anything from my upbringing or the experiences that I have had to my profession of project management. I practically make an excel sheet on things to do, places to go to and to eat at when it boils down to planning a vacation. I have been told to be spontaneous which I am occasionally. I realized its impact during this trip though. So I started off as usual by organizing everything. The planning took twice the time of my actual trip duration. I chalked out every detail and was hoping to stick to my so called plan. But as cliched as it might sound it’s true that most of life’s amazing surprises manifest themselves in the areas of spontaneity. Yes, I did plan my accommodation on Koh Rong Samloem but I never imagined I would grab my smaller bag pack, trek across the island one morning, through the forest to the beautiful sunset beach and spend a night there. What did it lead to? I met some very interesting people (who are now my friends) and had a great time with them, kayaked in the middle of the sea during sunset, spotted an octopus during snorkeling and cherished some amazingly cooked local dishes. The palm trees holding the comfortable hammocks along the white sand beach and the protruding, flat rocks by the beach were two of my favorite spots to lie down with my novel or think about my next big goal, the direction my life was headed in and the usual philosophical stuff that inspires people during times of introspection when on vacation. Plan enough to help you get around smoothly during your journey but keep some room for the randomness that accompanies the essence of uncertainty. Beware that these bouts of spontaneity may not go well as you would hope for and dream of all the time but that’s the beauty of the unknown and you need to shake hands with it.
Trip adviser reviews/blogs will give you an overview on the famous touristy things to get done during your holiday but nothing can beat the recommendations from the locals. Cambodians are genuine, willing to selflessly help the tourists with the information they need and ensuring they have a memorable stay in the country. As you spend time with them, there is a mixed feeling that engulfs you considering what the country and its people have been through during its recent, dark past. My home-stay with a Cambodian family was a highlight of the holiday. They told me things I couldn’t have possibly found online – the best time slot and seats to choose for the Cambodian circus, a good spot to watch the sunrise at Angkor, how to go about haggling with the local tuk-tuk drivers, the lesser known shops to order the famous Amok curry and other specialty dishes. So take out some time and get to actually know the locals. Befriend them. Be it the guard at your resort or the shopkeeper next door you got your sim-card from when you arrived. Pick your local and find a common connect for they vastly contribute to your holiday experience. If that seems scary, choose a home-stay.
I feel home-stays take you as close to the local culture of a country as you can possibly get. The flux between having to and wanting to live with a group of local strangers puts you on the receiving end of their story while making you equally vulnerable to share yours. I felt comfortable for they welcomed me with open arms and at times I felt out of place and hoped for my folks to be around for me to share my Cambodian experiences. There were moments I could not keep track of time as I played with the kids in the countryside and moments of jealousy when I saw how happy they all were despite living in poverty. My complaints back in Singapore seemed superficial. I noticed how they focused on things that mattered be it the family dinners where there was laughter around the table or the post dinner chats/ card games. They ate fresh food and hit their sacks early. The kids had dreams which they were striving to fulfill. Parents were working hard to make sure the kids got an education for they knew of the limitless possibilities a solid foundation in academia could offer. I was racked with guilt when I compared their lifestyle to my Tapao dinners on weekdays, occasional after-work mid-week drinking sessions and Netflix dominated binge eating routines on weekends. It may sound like a so called awakening (as showcased in books and movies) which a first world traveler in a third world country experiences. For me it wasn’t and this is subjective. The equation is simple. To value the good you should have experienced the bad. You know the worth only when it’s missing and moreover when you need to strive to get it. These kids have no gadgets to play with. Their growth years are heavily influenced by things that are important – getting updates on each other’s lives, caring and loving each other selflessly and being there, rock solid for each other in times of tribulations. They had no choice but to develop these feelings and values for survival. So even if they do happen to have all the resources that make life easy on the outside, most of them would still value the things that nurture their insides for it is their core that was created and honed while they were growing up. And I personally resonate with it, having walked along a similar path myself. This experience would’ve been a rarity had I traveled in a group because why would you choose a home-stay over a funky bag packer’s hostel when with friends?
When you travel solo, you realize that you have no obligations whatsoever when it comes to your actions/ behaviors with other people (unless you are a lunatic). Most of us fear of breaking the mold and getting out of our comfort shells out of the fear of judgement or mockery from the people we know. In this case, you don’t the person across the table and you have no choice but to say hello (unless you wish to drive yourself bonkers without any hellos for 10 long days). It’s a new person in a new place and voila! No judgments! It’s exciting to meet people along the way especially after the initial small talk wears off. That’s when you get to know their story and realize that each traveler or a local that you converse with has something unique to bring to the table. Yet everyone is beautifully connected in this intricate fabric of humanity. The struggles feel real, the joy shared is organic, the dreams overlap and views sync together. There is an ugly side to this and it could range anywhere from safety, racism to being robbed or even physically hurt. It’s up to you how far a risk you wish to take and how well you tackle and blend in as the situation demands. With the people you connect with, you exchange numbers, emails and add each other on Facebook hoping to keep in touch or see each other when you visit their home country but the very first meet undoubtedly is the one that will be ingrained in your mind for life. And most importantly, you learn to let go, without any regrets or expectations. Isn’t that something most of us yearn to master? What an experience it is to leave the souls you momentarily interact with behind, pick up your bag pack (of fantastic memories) and move on to the next cafe around the corner (of life)
It has an adrenaline rush latched to it, it is an addiction – this whole travelling solo thing. The sheer anticipation of what is going to happen or who will you meet next is something that is going to drive me to my next holiday destination – ALONE!