Alone in a crowd
There’s a beautiful randomness to being thrown together with complete strangers, writes
The first stage of being a solo traveller is fear
I flew into Bangkok in the middle of a thunderstorm. Sheet lightning and flickering neon signs threw the grimy streets into sharp relief as I took a cab through the pounding rain. The driver dropped me in the vicinity of my hostel, overcharged me for the fare, then pretended he didn’t have change for my fresh banknote. When I finally found my accommodation, soaked to the skin, I realised I was the only one staying there. There I was in a megacity of eight million people, and I’d never felt more alone.
I was so paranoid about being mugged that I walked the streets with a 1000 baht note tucked into my sock. That is, when I bothered to leave my room. Everything felt hostile and alien. I’d been looking forward to setting off on my solo travel odyssey for years, saving all my pennies, fantasising over having the freedom to be captain of my own destiny. I’d quit my job, broken up with my girlfriend, said goodbyes to my loved ones. Now I was 10,000 kilometres away from home, and suddenly it hit me that I might have made an enormous mistake.
The second stage of being a solo traveller is elation
After five days of existential dread, I decided it was time to get the hell out of Dodge. I took an overnight train up to the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai, which would eventually become my home-away-from-home. As concrete and corrugated iron gave way to jungle and rice paddies, the rocking carriage lulled me into the soundest sleep I’d had since leaving Auckland.
I’d caught the eye of a fellow loner a few rows behind me on the train. As we disembarked into the morning sunshine, he asked if I knew a good place to stay. His name was Alex from Colorado, he’d been travelling for 18 months, and he was so laidback that he was practically horizontal. I was amazed by his boldness in turning up in a city without planning ahead as we shared a ride to the hostel – which I’d meticulously researched and booked ahead of time.
Immediately we fell in with a crowd of travellers, and my fears evaporated on the spot. We packed out a truck that took us so high into the mountains that the engine started smoking. We drank tall bottles of beer under the awnings during the tropical downpours. We clambered up waterfalls and picked off leeches and jumped off cliffs. Even as each member of the group went their separate ways, there was always an ever-present stream of companions. I ran into an old friend in a hippie town up in the mountains, and we made a spur-of-the-moment decision to fly to Myanmar.
More adventures awaited, more fascinating people, outlandish accents, tall tales. Onwards, to a month in Cambodia, with its seedy hostels and remote islands and red wine and bushweed. I fell into the rhythm of making new friends in an instant, swapping books with strangers on buses, speaking halting sentences to locals, finding common ground in the smallest of things.
In the lull before the tourist season, accommodation is ridiculously cheap, but it’s often deserted. I learned not to make bookings based on price, but to look out for a common area, a social vibe, places in hot demand. Word-ofmouth was always more reliable than outdated reviews, and I discovered that winging it at the last moment almost always worked out just fine.
My favourite strategy was to stay in places with a free breakfast. As everyone congregated around the toast and bananas and awful instant coffee, new friendships were born, and plots and schemes for the day were hatched.
I also learned to let my guard down. A smile and a friendly introduction transcends every cultural barrier. It’s not like high school. There are no cliques, no cool kids, no jocks. Solo travel selects for people who are open to new experiences, who are a bit adventurous, who are looking for company. Previous identities and tribal memberships are left at home and forgotten, like a snake’s sloughed-off skin. Underneath, everyone is new and raw, gleaming with excitement. Young and old, lawyers and drifters, the lost and the found – all bound together with the same common thread.
The third stage of being a solo traveller is yearning
‘‘Where are you from? Where have you been? Where are you going?’’
This ritual mating dance has been performed between backpackers since time immemorial. Each hops around in circles, squawking excitedly about shared places and experiences. After having the exact same conversation 1000 times, it starts to wear thin.
There’s only so long you can ride the wave of excitement, a rolling swell of
Camping in the foothills of the Himalayas in Uttarakhand, India.
Watching the waves roll in at Koh Rong Samloem, an island off the coast of Cambodia.
En route to the peak of Doi Inthanon, the tallest mountain in Thailand.