It had been a long afternoon of walking around in Chiang Mai, exploring the many ornate temples on its streets. The intricate painted details on the doors and windows of one of the Buddhist temples had held my fascination long enough for me to lose track of time. Stepping out of the last one, I realized that I was extremely thirsty. Across the road was a café with a little garden out in the front. As I walked in, the brunette behind the counter waved. Walking over to me with a warm smile, she handed me the menu and said, “It’s still early for us, you’re our first customer today.”
Just as I had begun to scribble notes about the temples in my tiny journal, she appeared with my peach iced tea and asked if I had recently arrived in Chiang Mai. She introduced herself, sat down at the table and as is often the case, before we knew it we had exchanged life stories. Sophie was from London and had initially come to Thailand on holiday. But she decided she liked the country too much to leave in a few weeks and soon found employment as a waitress at the café.
We’d started to talk about what had brought us to the lovely city, then, a woman, probably in her mid-sixties walked in. Realizing she had work that needed to be done, Sophie stood up and smiled welcomingly at the woman. “I’ll be back”, she said after the woman had ordered and disappeared into the kitchen. The woman sat down at the table next to me and smiled at me nervously.
“It’s a rather sunny afternoon”, she said to me as she fanned herself with her folded newspaper, followed by, “Are you by yourself in Chiang Mai?”
“Yes, I am. What about you?” I asked.
“I am on my own too. For the first time in my life”, she said smiling, running her fingers through her grey hair. “I’ve never travelled anywhere without my husband, I didn’t know I could do it or even how to do it. Never did it even when I was younger. Now I’m here, walking around in Chiang Mai on my own”, she said with childlike enthusiasm, her eyes lighting up.
“And how do you like it?”
She paused briefly.
“It’s empowering. I’ve never felt so….. strong, you know?” she said, adding, “I wish I’d done it when I was younger. I wish I’d believed it could be done.” Her voice filled with emotion, “This year, my children pushed me. They’re all away now and my daughter told me I’m never going to understand what this feels like unless I go on my own. So I chose Thailand because everyone speaks good English here and it’s safe. I’m so glad I came here but sometimes, I have to pinch myself to believe it.”
I smiled at her encouragingly as she sipped her iced coffee and said, “Better late than never, right?”
It got me thinking; what is it exactly about solo travel that’s so empowering? Why does being on our own in a new place sometimes make us feel stronger than being with the people we love? Perhaps it’s the ability to make our own choices with complete freedom and not be influenced by what someone else wants or thinks of us, even when we don’t know how right or wrong our choices are. In my opinion, selfishness is a quality that’s often misunderstood and underrated.
The freedom to explore the world, its myriad cultures and landscapes is an invaluable gift. Being able to do this solo allows greater possibility to really absorb everything the world has to offer. Solo travel is a great way to get out of our comfort zones and surprise ourselves by adapting to and learning from challenging situations such as being in a place where we don’t speak the language or know the customs.
It’s also a good time to pause, reflect and assess the course our lives are taking. Ideally, we should be able to do this in our daily lives, but this is easier said than done, with hectic routines and running between a job, family and responsibilities.
It’s often easier to truly be ourselves when we’re travelling solo and present this person to the people we meet on the road. People who’ve known us all our lives don’t expect us to change too much. If we do, they wonder if we’re going through a phase and when we’re going to be ourselves again. That’s why we’re often afraid to be ourselves. As unsettling as it is, change is inevitable and a healthy sign of personal development, yet it’s undeniable that it’s hard to accept. On the other hand, fellow travelers can seem accommodating because they only know and accept us as who we are when we meet them, with no reference to our past.
Solo travel is liberating on many levels. This isn’t a piece about how it’s better than other kinds of travel, because it’s not. When we’ve travelled far enough, we realize that there is no better or worse, because it’s all subjective. But the value that the solo travel experience brings to a person is unquestionable. Spending time in our own company teaches us new things about ourselves.
If you’re waiting for the right time, then this is it. If you’re wondering whether you can do it, then it’s time to find out. It doesn’t matter what age you are and what you’ve believed all your life. Solo travel will surprise you, and it will be more than you ever imagined.
Have you travelled or do you travel solo, or have you thought about it? Do you think it’s empowering? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.