When you’re travelling in South East Asia, the majority of backpackers you meet are fairly young. But the majority of those travelling alone are in their mid-twenties. It’s reasonably rare to see gap-year students alone, especially once you step off the main tourist circuit. This is particularly true of young women travelling alone. And that’s just what I saw on my travels in Thailand and Cambodia. In India, to see a teenage girl travelling alone is almost unheard of. To be honest, travelling solo in India really deserves a post of its own. Another time. But here are a few things you’re likely to experience, both good and bad, as a young solo female traveler.
I wouldn’t have taken back a second of my travels last summer. Although I definitely had some lows to match the highs, travelling solo did amazing things for my confidence and sense of direction after leaving my first university course. Although I only I turned 19 towards the end of my stay in India, I wouldn’t say that being so young had any detrimental effect on my travels as a whole.
I’d put a disclaimer here that I’m by no means an authority. My travel experience is still relatively narrow and I don’t think that a few months around Asia makes me any kind of expert. But I do think that a lot of young people, young women particularly, are put off travelling solo as a result of not only the possible risks, but discouragement from others.
When I was in India, people could hardly believe that I was intending to travel around the Delhi area alone. And indeed, there were moments when I questioned myself, felt uncomfortable, or wished for the security of a familiar face. But I got through it, and in the end I did so without needing anyone but myself. So without further ado – here are some of the realities of being a very young, female, solo traveler. I experienced all these and more in India, Thailand and Cambodia last year…
We’ll start with the disadvantages…
- Other people’s pessimism can really dampen your enthusiasm!
I have lost count of the amount of times when I was in India, when people questioned or even admonished me when I said I was travelling alone. This was far less the case in South-East Asia, but as I was in northern India out of the peak tourist season, I didn’t see that many other Western travellers, and especially not young women alone. The phrase, “it’s too dangerous!” is one which I’ve learnt to greet only with a roll of my eyes. I heard that mainly from friends and relatives before I even left England – being told you’re too young to make your own decisions gets old pretty quickly.
- You can feel daunted around older travelers as a result of being young and less experienced
There were definitely a few times when I felt that my age set me a little bit apart from other travellers I met. This feeling most stuck out to me in parts of South East Asia like Bangkok and Pai in Thailand, and Koh Rong in Cambodia. Most of the solo travellers in these areas are in their early to late twenties, and I often felt like a bit of a kid tagging along with them. Thankfully, this feeling didn’t usually last – in Pai, I had no difficulty integrating myself with a group I met there.
It’s just easy to feel a little set apart from people who have a few more years of life experience and at are different stages of life to you. I’m often mistaken for being a bit older than I am anyway, so I didn’t ever get any stick!
- People make assumptions…
I got this a lot in India, where a lot of people, especially in larger cities, think badly of Western women anyway; I managed to somewhat avoid being labelled a “loose woman” (I think) by wearing local dress and trying not to stand out too much. But there are also assumptions from fellow travelers about the why and how of your travels if you’re young. Was I running away from something? Perhaps, and being asked slightly probing questions seems to be the way when you’re constantly bumping into similar people on the well-worn backpacker path around South-East Asia, but still. Telling the same story over and over to try and prove you’re not just a lost little kid gets exhausting.
- You’re vulnerable to the few people who would take advantage
Touts think you’re easy pickings. You’re leered at openly, men assuming you’re too young and scared to respond. Some guy in Delhi slapped my ass as I walked past and looked utterly horrified at the mouthful of abuse he got in response. Like I was going to take that lying down? Rickshaw drivers harass you more persistently, and you sometimes catch yourself wondering, can I PLEASE catch a break? I won’t lie and say that I never felt unsafe when I was travelling last year. There were times in India, and definitely Cambodia, and even Thailand, where I clutched my bag a little closer to my body. Where I tucked my head down, quickening my pace as I walked away from a situation which made my gut pang with doubt. These things are exacerbated by being a young woman, but you can’t let that stop you from living your life.
- Double standards?
I speak mainly about India here. As a matter of principle, I don’t wear a ring and pretend I’m married to put off overly forward men. And indeed, I never felt the need. What I did notice was a real inequality, which is unsurprising, in the things I could do and talk about. Women in India are, on some base level, second-class citizens, and for that reason, I don’t think I’d be able to comfortable spend any longer than a couple of months in the country.
And the differences in youth culture are astonishing. Spending time just with one male friend? Nope. A frank discussion about marriage and the differences between cultures regarding relationships in India versus the West? Good lord, no. Standing up for myself in a public place? Shocking. No matter how long you spend somewhere, if inequality is present, it continues to grate at you.
But in my opinion, the advantages of travelling as a young solo female outweigh the negatives!
- Get ahead with the life experience!
I am definitely grateful to have traveled alone before I started my new university course. Even if I found it hard to adjust to being back home. I’m always filled with all this excitement from my travels! It’s hard to come down from that. But I feel much more equipped to deal with challenges in my everyday life after looking after myself, and living on the road for a couple of months. And who doesn’t want to get a step ahead when it comes to life experiences? These can be really valuable in later life! Not that I have a clue what I want to do, but you know. Might be useful.
- Many people are kinder to young women travelling alone – and it can be easier!
I found that a lot of people, particularly in busy cities, were probably more willing to give me a hand with directions or help me out, because a woman alone in an unfamiliar place is naturally more vulnerable. Women, especially, look out for you. And in terms of practicality – it’s much easier to find a Couchsurfing host for a young solo female traveler than a group of two or more older guys, and female hosts especially, are more likely to host a woman alone, for safety reasons. Check out why I love Couchsurfing, and how to get started, in my article here!
- Become comfortable with yourself!
It’s such a confidence boost to know that you can be comfortable with your own company! Yeah, it’s nice to spend time with others when travelling, but you naturally end up spending a lot of time alone when you’re travelling solo. Waiting for flights, during long bus and train journeys, when you’re turning in at night. It’s a gift to be at peace with your own thoughts and not needing to be surrounded by others all the time. Although perhaps one which takes some getting used to. As a young solo female traveler, the sooner you become comfortable with yourself – the better!
- It’s easier to meet people.
You’re never alone if you don’t want to be if you’re travelling solo. If you do want some peace and quiet, you can easily blend into the background in a big dorm, or spend a little more on a private room. But every hostel has a common area and by travelling alone, you often end up introducing yourself to others anyway, rather than remaining quite insular like pairs or trios of friends. It’s pretty easy to merge into a group if you want company when travelling. And see the above points regarding couch surfing – you could meet some great new friends that way!
The final and most crucial point. Young woman or middle aged man, the one great benefit of travelling solo is the freedom. You’re not waiting for anyone else to catch up, or catering to anyone else’s schedule. Plus, you’ve got nobody to please but yourself. So you can take a couple of extra hours in that café, or visit that obscure museum. Why not?
So what are you waiting for?