Interview with Anna Zalazar about solo backpacking in Southeast Asia

by Amanda - editor of Backpacking Tips Asia
(Oslo, Norway)

Anna Zalazar

Anna Zalazar

Anna Zalazar Mount Bromo, Indonesia - ©

1) What is your best preparation tip for solo female travelers?

For solo female travelers: Have at least a good research of the places you intend to visit so you'll know if the clothes you're bringing is appropriate for the trip. If in doubt, dress conservatively.

In general these are my top three tips:

1. Organize your files i.e. travel insurance, vaccines, bank accounts- debit and credit cards plus phone numbers in case of loss/ theft, frequent flier miles (if applicable), visas and important travel documents
2. Have a back up of all your documents
3. Have an emergency fund separate from your travel fund

2) Which destination do you recommend where you can kick back and just relax, and why this particular place?

Without a doubt, Ko Lipe. I went to this tiny island in Southern Thailand without knowing anything about it and I was stunned. It's the closest thing to paradise. You just have to see how clear and beautiful this island is. I also love how natural this island is. There's also no cars, motorbikes and such. It's tiny and everything is within walking distance.

This island is a bit far from all the islands in the Andaman coast and would normally take a whole day travel from Ko Lanta but it's so worth it. Absolutely the best place to just kick back and relax.

3) Have you been in a situation where you feared for your safety/life? If yes, what happened?

I did fear for my safety once in my travels while I was on an overnight journey to see Mount Bromo in Indonesia.

I was told by the travel agent that I am arriving at the mountain at 5 am but he didn't tell me that I had to stop over at a small unknown town in Java at 1:30 am. The bus driver dropped me off at a travel agency where there were no other travelers and some creepy Indonesian men. They told me that there will be another driver who will pick up the travelers at 3am to get to Mount Bromo in time for the sunrise.

It turns out that I was the only traveler going to the mountain and the way to the mountain is pitch black and I had no idea where I was. Luckily I was with a safe driver. When I got to the mountain, I was surrounded by three Indonesian men trying to sell me something for the trek to the volcano. I was scared because I was the only woman present there at 4 am. I pulled my 'back-off' look and I wasn't harmed. I grew up in the Philippines and I have had martial arts training so I know that this simple trick works.

Men know when a woman is an easy prey. I did fear for my safety but if someone harasses me, I can defend myself.

4) I see that you traveled in Vietnam. What is your best and worst memory from Vietnam?

I think that the best and the worst memories in my travels in Vietnam would be my bus-from-hell moments.

Worst because the buses of Vietnam are the worse buses I've ridden. The sleeping beds are as hard as rocks and the air-conditioning either gets super cold or doesn't work at all. But what it lacks in comfort make up for its fun times. I've met wonderful people on these buses whom I traveled with all around Vietnam. The best memory I had was traveling with these people I met and our time spent eating amazing Vietnamese food in the colorful town of Hoi An.

5) What are your tips regarding staying healthy while backpacking?

Even if you're traveling, try to eat as healthy as you can.

I'm a vegetarian so I'm quite limited with my eating choices.

The usual illness that people get from traveling is from eating unclean food specifically meat. Another is to walk a lot or rent a bike. I would walk at least 2 miles a day while exploring an area or sometimes I rent a bike. Also since it's so hot in Southeast Asia, to try drink juices or shakes and very minimal soda.

In SEA, I drink more water than I normally do. To sum it up it's really that simple, eat your veggies, walk a lot and drink a lot of water.

6) If I wanted to soak the local culture in SE Asia, what Top 3 activities/attractions would you recommend me to do/visit? And why?

1. Bohol, Philippines - you'll not only find idyllic white sand beaches and the infamous chocolate hills but it's only here that you can find the smallest primates in the world, the tarsier.

2. Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand is a home of a lot of wonderful temples, meditation centers, lively night markets, delicious and cheap street foods and amazing spas that offer the most authentic Thai massages. Though it's getting touristy now with a lot of expats in the area, it's still the best place to go if you want to really learn more about the Thai culture.

3. Northern Bali, Indonesia - I think a lot of people miss this wonderful gem since most tourists stay in the South or in Ubud. In the northeastern side of Bali, there's a protected island called Menjangan Island and it has the most beautiful and colorful underwater I've ever seen. The island is also is also very scenic with Java's volcanoes on the background.

7) Did you try volunteering, yoga class or treks while in SE Asia?
If yes, could you please tell a little about it? Any special class or "company" you would recommend?

I did a Sapa Trekking tour in Vietnam and it was one of my absolute favorite experiences in Vietnam. The timing could not have been more perfect as we had clear blue skies and sunny weather that gave us the most magnificent views of the terraces.

It can be a bit tricky with regards to timing a trek here as the weather changes and sometimes it can get misty leaving a traveler with a very foggy view. There's a lot of agencies that do the trekking trips in Hanoi, but I did mine with Hanoi's Backpackers Hostel just because it was the most convenient schedule for me at that time. I highly recommend them and their trip.

8) I read your posts on cooking class in Chiang Mai and Vietnam. If you could do it again and had to choose between these two, which one would it be? And why?

The cooking classes in Chiang Mai and Hoi An are different in their own ways. I love both of them but if I have to do it again, I would do the one in Chiang Mai in a heartbeat. It's more special because it was at an organic farm and the setting is nicer, bigger and more interactive compared to the one in Hoi An where it's just a regular cooking classroom.

9) What items did you bring and couldn't live without while you were traveling?

Aside from usual stuff i.e. clothes and passports, I also brought my netbook, iPhone and Kindle. I actually managed not to have a phone connection in my travels in South East Asia and used my iPhone just for online checking but if there are two things I can't live without in my travels, it's my kindle and my sunglasses. First my kindle because I'm an avid reader and it's my constant best friend in my travels.

And second my sunglasses to protect my eyes from the sun or hide my face from attracting unwanted attention. These two items have saved my life so many times.

10) While you were traveling, how did you handle:

a) Taking the local bus/train for the first time

The first local bus I took was the bus from Bangkok to Aranyaprathet to the border of Cambodia. I was so out of my comfort zone because I was the only backpacker on the bus. After a couple of hours, I realize that it wasn't so bad because people rarely think I'm a traveler since I'm also Asian and I blend in with them.

b) Homesickness

I really try hard to be present in my travels but I do feel this from time to time. I think the only time I was homesick was when I got sick while I was traveling due to exhaustion and when I sprained my ankle while in Ko Phi Phi.

Whenever I feel homesick, I would simply go on Skype and talk to my parents or chat with my friends.

c) Border crossing for the first time

I had no idea what I was doing when I crossed the border for the first time, so what I did was I waited until I saw other backpackers and asked them where to go and what to do. Luckily I didn't have to wait too long and I had instant friends on the ride to Siem Reap.

You can read more about Anna and her travels at annzventures.

Posted: March 2, 2014

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