This is part three in a four part series, “What Solo Travel Looks Like.” After over a year away from my home country, I wanted to offer advice and a clear depiction of what solo travel was really like for me. Please read along with us and if you’d like to subscribe to my weekly newsletter, sign up at the bottom of this page. (You can read part one here and part two here.)
PART THREE: ISN'T IT DANGEROUS?
If I'm giving you the short answer, it would be no. It's not dangerous.
If I'm giving you the long answer, it would be kind of.
When I was first telling people that I was leaving back in early 2016, I sat down with my aunt and she said, Just make sure you don't go anywhere alone.
I understand what she meant, but I had to laugh to myself. Um, I'd be going to the other side of the world alone. I was going everywhere alone. This was like the ultimate going-somewhere-alone. Obviously, I'd just be smart.
And for the most part, I found that being smart was all I needed to do. I was careful about walking alone at night, I kept my things locked up in hostels, I always made sure I knew where my stuff was, I tried not to walk around with my phone or wallet out. I kept my wits about me.
I also just had a lot of trust in people. Maybe too much trust. Sure, I was scammed a couple of times and felt scared from time to time, but for the most part I felt really safe. I never feared for my bodily well-being.
Until one night two months into my travels.
This was the one instance that made me question my traveling alone as a woman. After that night, I wondered what the hell I'd been thinking, how I could have been so lax, how I'd ever continue on as a solo traveler. I thought about throwing in the towel.
I was on a tiny island in Thailand that's known for the many tourists who have mysteriously died there, where there's no police presence, where everything is ruled by corruption, where there's a generally spooky feel. (I know so many people who will attest to this feeling.) The two British friends I'd met and been traveling with didn't want to go, but, not knowing any better, I convinced them. We'd been experiencing torrential rain for the entirety of our time in southern Thailand, and I knew there was sun on the east side of the mainland. We took a tumultuous ferry ride to the island and I was beyond thrilled to see white sand and clear water for the first time.
Our time started off fine. After trying out a few different places to stay (that included a little shack on the beach that was filthy and included a hole in the wall the exact size of a person's head) we settled on a little hotel with a basic three-person room. It was low season, so there weren't many people staying there and it was pretty quiet. Our room was at the end of the open-air hallway.
We should have asked for three keys, but accepted the one they gave us. That night, we were down the road at one of the most crowded bars for an island pub crawl, which would end at the bar just near our hotel. I did the ubiquitous welcome shot of some neon-colored alcohol, changed into my pub crawl tank top, ordered a Chang beer.
A couple of hours in, I decided I really wasn't feeling it and wanted to go back to our hotel. My friends knew me for this, they even called it "pulling a Ruth" — I went home early. I left them at the pub, took our one room key, and told them I'd leave the door unlocked for them, thinking nothing of it.
As I started walking, I felt my first twinge of fear. I thought about going back, but couldn't stomach the hordes of drunk people dancing madly while I wanted nothing more than to be in a bed, sober. I kept going, and walked past the hotel where just a couple months earlier a tourist had been mysteriously found dead in the pool. I tried not to look at the glistening pool, and walked faster. As I walked down the unlit island paths, I distinctly remember thinking, This was probably not my safest decision.
But I made it back to my room just fine and fell asleep quickly, still in my pub crawl t-shirt. I figured my friends wouldn't be far behind me, and so when I heard the door open two hours later, I figured it was them.
Then I opened my eyes.
The light from the hallway came streaming in and silhouetted the shape of a man in the doorway. Completely confused and still half asleep, I sat up in bed.
There was a man in my room. The door was slowly closing behind him.
There was a man in my room.
When he saw me sit up in bed, he must have freaked out, because he turned around and ran. He must have assumed there was no one in the room, and realized he was wrong when he saw me.
Now, a normal reaction would have been to cry and shake and lock the door behind him and thank your lucky stars that you're okay.
Except, in some strange twist of fate, I chose the fight option in a flight-or-flight response for the first time in my entire life. Realistically, I know this was because it looked like he was wearing the same pub crawl shirt that I was, and somehow in my half-asleep state I had some vague knowing that he was just drunk and looking to steal something from a seemingly-empty, unlocked room.
And so, then, I shouted, WHAT THE FUCK! and jumped out of bed after him. I was angry.
He had run out the door and headed straight for a room two doors down, making a beeline and locking the door behind him. I know this because I continued to run after him. (Again, I cannot stress how out of character this was for me.) I got to room 15 just as he locked the door, and began banging on it.
I could hear him on the other side of the door, mere inches away. I actually tried the doorknob. Locked. And so I began kicking.
Alone, in the middle of the empty hallway.
It was right then that the adrenaline wore off.
In an instant, all that fight was out of me. Suddenly, the reality of my situation came crashing down around me.
What the fuck was I doing?
No one else was around. No one came out of their rooms to see what all the noise was. What did I think would have happened if he'd turned around and came after me? What did I think I would have done if I'd actually opened his door? What did I think would have happened if he'd opened his own door and faced me? What did I think I would actually do then? It could have ended so much differently. I got so lucky.
In that moment when the adrenaline wore off, I ran back to my room in a blur. I locked the door behind me and only then did I start shaking with fear. I ran to the balcony door and double checked the locks, pulling the curtains closed. I turned on every light in the room. I tried calling both my friends, neither of whom answered. I sat on my bed trying to talk my body down from a panic attack while I figured out what I should do.
I finally decided that I couldn't go back to sleep with the door unlocked, and couldn't sit there waiting to let them in whenever they came back either. I had to go find them.
At this point it was 2AM, and I knew the pub crawl group would be at the bar across from our hotel. I gathered all my courage and, key in hand, entered the hallway again. I ran past the door to room 15 and hoped beyond hope that there would be someone at the reception desk.
I ran into the bar across the street and waded through the drunken crowd in my pajama shorts, bleary eyed and shaking. My friends were nowhere to be found. I tried calling again. Nothing.
I started getting scared again, and decided I'd just go back to my room and wait for them. On my way back, I couldn't help but recall the argument my friends had put up about coming to this island. They were right, I thought. Why did I come here??
I ran back down our hallway and triple-checked all the locks after I shut myself in the room. By some miracle, one of my friends returned just a few minutes later. When she knocked, I nearly vomited out of fear. I answered the door only after checking the peephole, and when I saw her, I just started sobbing.
I told her everything that happened, and it turned out that she'd had a creepy night too. A bit later our third friend returned as well, passing out drunk in her bed quickly.
I slowly convinced myself to lie down and close my eyes, and eventually we all managed to get some sleep that night.
But I was shaken for days after this. I was looking over my shoulder everywhere we went, constantly on edge, wondering if any of the people I was passing were the man I saw in my room. The next day while waiting for my friend outside a beachfront bar, some drunk guy started a random conversation with me about rape, which would have been unnerving enough without having just had a close-call experience. I could feel myself going into a panic attack at this exchange, and I started shaking and getting confused. When my friend, who happened to be a 6' 5" man, came out of the bathroom, the guy ran off fast. I went home immediately and tried to calm myself down.
This was hands down the scariest moment of my travels. And truly, I recognize how lucky I was to simply be the victim of an attempted drunken robbery, and not harmed. Others have had much less desirable situations.
So that's the long answer. I continued on with my solo travels after this, and despite a few other fearful moments, I was generally safe.
I kept in mind a few top things I wanted to remember about safe solo travel though. I hope these help!
- Travel with a padlock. Solo travel often means staying in hostels or at the very least staying in places alone, and it's always smart to carry a padlock with you to use on a locker or safe.
- Keep your phone tucked away as much as you can while you're out walking. Be as aware as possible of where you're going, who's around you, etc. Not only do phones distract us from our surroundings, but they're also easily stolen — I've known friends who've had their smart phones swiped off of the end of a selfie stick in Vietnam by a passing motorbike driver. It can happen quickly.
- Always get receipts. This one is less about safety and more about protecting yourself financially. Especially in Southeast Asia, I found that scammers were rampant. Always get proof that you've spent money on things like bus tickets and excursions.
- Be confident. This goes for approaching strangers, crossing streets, speaking the language, etc. Show up and be all in, and people will
- Find a balance between trusting that there are good people in the world, and listening to your intuition. Trust your gut, but trust people too. Listen to your instincts if they're telling you something sketchy is going on, but also don't always assume the worst in people. There's a balance, and you can find it.
A note to end with: Generally speaking, I was surprised by how many good people I came across. I absolutely spent more time being pleasantly surprised by the intrinsic goodness of human beings rather than being fearful or apprehensive of them. This is one of the biggest things I learned while I was away — at their cores, despite mountains of differences, people are kind. I'm so glad I experienced this.