(Sunset on Kao Bai Beach, Koh Chang Island, Thailand)
I will never cease to be amazed by travel – the miraculous mechanics of it – that allow me to wake up beachside one morning in Thailand, and by the next afternoon deposit me on the streets of Warsaw, Poland.
(Warsaw’s Stare Miasto (Old Town) complete with singing organ grinder)
Of course, there can be glitches. After a seamless trip including an 8:00 a.m. ferry from Koh Chang Island, a 5 hr bus ride to Bangkok (where I got on the subway headed the wrong direction), and an 11 hr flight to Vienna, my final flight to Warsaw had to turn back due to “technical difficulties.” Fifteen heart-pounding minutes later, we re-landed in Vienna. Fast forward an hour and we were again airborne (on the same plane), this time without incident. Nothing like airplane troubles to remind you of your mortality.
My nine weeks in Asia flew by and having both survived (hurray!) and thoroughly enjoyed them, I feel qualified to offer advice.
First – ladies – you can do this. I mean that. There are so many women, of all ages, out here travelling solo. Not once did I feel threatened or afraid (I did, on occasion, feel like an idiot – like the time in Bangkok when the bus driver and his assistant smacked their foreheads in unison and told me I should have got off two stops ago). Japan, Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand are living, breathing travel networks and you can traverse them safely, by every means imaginable. Here are some general tips on: A – Modes of Travel; B – Money Matters; C – Travel as a Vegetarian; and D -Solo Female Travel in General
A – Modes of Travel
Trains: The train system here is legendary and for good reason – it is fast, punctual and all encompassing. Japan Rail Passes are available for 7, 14, or 21 days that allow you to just hop on and off the trains (peak travel dates you may also have to reserve a seat). If you are travelling any distance around the country these are a really good deal. You must order on-line before you go and receive a certificate which you then take to a railway office in Japan where they issue the pass. Within cities, buses and /or subways take you everywhere. Taxis are plentiful but more expensive.
(Top: View from train between Kyoto and Tokyo, Japan; Bottom: Wall of humanity at world’s busiest pedestrian crossing, Tokyo, Japan)
Cambodia: Travel in Cambodia is really cheap. Inter-city travel is done mostly by bus or van and can be arranged right from your hostel/hotel. Tourist Buses are air-conditioned. Travel within cities is by tuk-tuk or motorbike taxi (if you are brave or foolish – depending on how you look at it – you can also rent a motorbike and drive yourself around). Cambodia does not have passenger trains.
(Top: Tuk Tuk taxi in Cambodia; Bottom: My guide (and Tuk Tuk driver) prepares to play a trick on me by adding water to seeds that will pop like firecrackers in my hand – that pond is, incidentally, the bathing water source for monks at the monastery)
Vietnam: Motorbikes rule in this country – so much so that Hanoi has 7 million inhabitants, 5 million motorbikes and only 500,000 private cars. Crossing the street in Hanoi feels almost suicidal – you slowly move through the sea of traffic while muttering silent prayers. Many tourists rent motorbikes, especially out in the smaller cities and countryside. (You can also hire the motorbike with the driver like I did – believing his driving skills to exceed my own). There is also a vast system of buses that will take you anywhere – including sleeper buses with seats that fully recline and a bunk-like system (quite comfortable). Vietnam has a passenger train system that will take you from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi and many points in-between. This is a great option as the train is clean and punctual. Despite a soft-sleeper bunk with a mattress like concrete (seriously firm) I spent a good night on my 14 hr trip (despite the horrified looks from the elderly Vietnamese woman who shared my compartment when I walked on the floor in my socks – it’s the same look I give parents who let their children crawl on hospital floors). Cheap flights are also available within country.
(Top: Contemplating crossing the street in Hue, Vietnam – traffic lights are rare and not strictly adhered to by all; Middle: Sleeper bus bunk system in Vietnam; Bottom: Traditional round fishing boats, Hoi An, Vietnam – yes they can be a bit tippy)
Thailand: Again, this is a country that has many good travel options. Within cities, buses, taxis and tuk-tuks abound. Flights within the country are inexpensive by North American standards and can save you a lot of time. Passenger trains run between Bangkok and Chiang Mai (in the North) and many points in-between. I slept like a baby on my night train to Chiang Mai (and had no need to set an alarm as I was roused loudly by the attendants when they began their cleaning rounds).
(Top: View from Chao Phraya River ferry, Bangkok; Bottom: Children spraying pedestrians and motorists during Songkran, the Thai water festival)
Day Tours/Excursions: (I never did any day-tours in Japan therefore this advice applies to Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand). Unless you are travelling during a really peak time there is no need to book tours ahead. You can just arrive, peruse the tours available through your hotel/hostel front desk, and book. Generally you get better prices this way and you have the the opportunity to glean advice from fellow travellers on the best tours. Most tours include lunch, drinking water and pickup/drop-off right at your hotel.
B – Money Matters
It is good policy to arrive in each country with at least some local currency in your pocket. I also travel with a wad of Canadian cash, some U.S. dollars and some Euros. Each of these counties has plentiful currency exchange outlets and ATMs for removing cash. In Vietnam I was advised that the banks had the best exchange rates. One surprise for me was that Cambodia operates with two official currencies – U.S. dollars and Cambodian Riel. Everyone there will quote prices in dollars first, riel second. Credit cards are widely accepted in Japan (I travel with a Visa card) and at many places in Vietnam and Thailand (except smaller businesses) but most places in Cambodia are cash only. Always have cash with you in each of these counties as any public transport, admission to attractions, or street food/souvenir purchases will require it.
Japan and Thailand were the more expensive countries to travel in (that said, Thailand was still quite inexpensive). In Cambodia and Vietnam everything from day tours to food to entrance prices is vey reasonable – especially if you go outside major tourist areas. Street food is plentiful and cheap everywhere and the variety is mind-blowing.
C – Travel as a Vegetarian
Asia is a meat and fish loving continent so it can be tricky to find food that doesn’t have an animal listed among its ingredients. Surprisingly, I found Cambodia the easiest for Vegetarian eating. I say this because it is the least touristy of the four countries, yet even in the smaller centres menus included many meatless options and the fresh fruit smoothies could fuel me all day (let me recommend the fresh jack fruit smoothie – amazing!). Japan was wonderful for grocery stores where you can satisfy any food cravings and buy ingredients to make your own meals. Asia is also peppered (make that deluged) with 7 Eleven outlets where you can buy cheap meal options, including vegetarian. Thailand and Vietnam also boast quite plentiful Vegan-Vegetarian Restaurants, in major centres, that cater to tourist demands (many of the travellers I met were vegetarian). Most accommodations include free breakfast (full breakfasts – everything from omelettes and pancakes to fried rice and noodle soup) and there are always vegan/vegetarian options.
(Top: 7 Eleven on Koh Chang Island, Thailand; Mid: The feisty Ni (pronounced “knee”) showing us how to make soy milk; Mid: Traditional Vietnamese rice pancake made with my own two age-spotted hands; Bottom: Cornucopia in the market – shopping for fresh ingredients before our cooking class)
Another recommendation concerning food – while in Asia, take a cooking class. It is both fun and satisfying as you eat everything you cook (in fact we were so stuffed by the end that the final course was quite neglected). There were three of us vegetarian-type-people in my class in Hoi An, Vietnam, and we were well accommodated. Our instructor, the tiny but feisty, Ni (pronounced “Knee”), complete with chef hat, did a fabulous job of keeping us entertained and on track to becoming better cooks. To her I am ever indebted.
D – Solo Travel
This is my longest solo excursion and I observe that the solo traveller crowd (and there are many, many of us) are an independent lot. We tend to enjoy each other’s company in the hostel during breakfast or over a drink in the evening, but during the day we fan out and do our own thing. Solo travellers must enjoy their own company. That said, friendliness toward all and anon is a definite asset. I have met innumerable wonderful people – from the drunk young man on the train who was travelling to Kyoto to “find his soul,” to the kind Canadian who heard about a blood shortage in Cambodia and tried to donate, to the young female desk clerk in Phong Nha, Vietnam who also wants to travel solo someday, to the German tourist with whom I shared a drink in Hanoi – and have found that a smile and a friendly hello, in any language, will open many doors. Group day-tours are a wonderful way to meet other travellers. Often these morph into going out for a meal or hanging out by the pool together. Some hostels schedule shared meals that bring travellers together to swap stories over local food.
(Top: Leaping from the boat into Lan Ha Bay during a day tour in Vietnam; Bottom: Group photo on day tour to temples of Siem Reap, Cambodia. There are four nationalities represented. All but two were travelling solo)
I never felt unsafe in Asia and, in most places, could walk around freely, even at night (though sometimes wearing a reflector would also have been a good idea). That said, I was usually tucked up safely in my hostel bed well before midnight. But night markets abound and are colourful and packed with shoppers and vendors alike and you won’t want to miss them. Your biggest worry there are pick-pockets so loop your purse over your neck, hide some money in your bra and go.
Not only am I a solo female traveller. I am also Canadian, and have to add that this means something. People look in my passport and say “Ah! Canada!” What we have in Canada is perceived as almost mythic in some other countries.
One young Lithuanian man summed it up when he told me this story – “A group of us travellers from many different countries took a vote the other night on what is the best country in the world. Do you know who won? Canada.” He looked at me. “Do you know why?” I shook my head. “Because you are free, you can earn a good living, the world trusts you, and you are kind.”
Thus, as a solo female Canadian, I am both grateful for and challenged to uphold, this reputation. And to all of the travellers, tour guides, hostel employees and citizens who have spent the day or shared a meal with me, have laughed with me, booked my tours, helped me find my way, brought me soup when I was unwell, shared their stories, taught me to cook, transported me safely, and opened my eyes to new parts of our beautiful planet, I proclaim a big thank you. To all of you I am deeply indebted. I only hope that one day, you also will come to my country and find us the gracious hosts of your imagination.
(Top: Beach on snorkelling day trip, Koh Chang, Thailand; Middle: passenger train cuts right through a Hanoi neighbourhood. You literally move your stool indoors when the train passes; Bottom: Motor bike parked next to typical electrical wire tangle in Hoi An, Vietnam)