Traveling alone in Southeast Asia for female travelers: Interview with Shannon O'Donnell

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

Picking coffee in Northern Thailand

Picking coffee in Northern Thailand

Picking coffee in Northern Thailand Shannon O'Donnell

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

Bring a menstrual cup to handle your period on the road. You'll want to prep this before your trip, but it can be incredibly convenient.

2) How did you break the news to your parents/friends/collegaues/loved ones? What thoughts did they have on YOU traveling alone in Asia?

My family and friends were very supportive of my desire to travel, though I did ease them into it a bit. I eased myself into my round the world trip in fact.

I started our thinking that maybe I would move somewhere like Greece for a few months. So I prepped everyone with that idea, and then I changed my mind, told them the new plans, and by the time I announced that I had purchased a one-way ticket to Australia with the intention to travel for a year, they were relieved I had a plan, and also cautiously supportive because they were worried about my safety. Heck, I was worried about my safety, but I knew it was something I needed to do for myself and my personal journey.
3) Which countries in Southeast Asia do you consider as the ideal destination for females who are traveling alone? And why?

Thailand is the perfect country to start in because there is a strong tourism infrastructure, and that allows you to ease into solo travel. And there are many other travelers and backpackers, so you can easily meet up with people and really not be traveling alone, though you are technically solo. 
4) Which border crossing in Asia was the best and worst? And why?

Crossing from Thailand into Cambodia through Poipet is really terrible. It was not a positive experience because there are a lot of people attempting to scam you on both sides of the border. They have scams in place to force you to overpay for your Cambodian visa, and one you are inside Cambodia, some of the information about bus prices and routes is incorrect.
5) How was your first meeting with the culture in SE Asia? Any good memories/stories?

As soon as I arrived in Southeast Asia, I headed straight to Laos, and I instantly fell in love with the warmth of the people and culture. I was very unsure of myself when I landed solo in Asia, but within a week I had settled into the experience because of the number of people who went out of their way to help me find experiences that allowed me to safely and thoroughly enjoy the country.
6) What do you think are the must-do's in SE Asia? (things you can't miss at all)

That is too hard to answer on a general basis, because we all have so many different interests.

Angkor Wat is up there as a don't-miss because of cultural benefit having that set of ruins today. It is fascinating to see something built that has last--but there are still unknowns about aspects of the temples, and it's intriguing to see and dream about what it might have been like during the heyday of the Angkor Kingdom.

Besides that UNESCO World Heritage site though, I suggest people find bloggers who share their interests and scour their sites for the experiences that closely resonated for them.

For me, this is often volunteering experiences, or small social enterprises just as much as major tourist sites. 
7) Did you wear make-up while you were traveling?
I carried some very basic makeup with me so that I could feel good, and dressy if I needed to, but it was not something I used everyday. In fact, likely once a week at most.

I carried small sizes of all the basics: foundation, mascara, eyeshadow, blush. One of the things I love about Southeast Asia is that there is cheap makeup in all of the beauty shops and it was a very simple thing to pick up a 25 cent eyeliner for a special night out on the town - you don't have to carry everything over there with you, they sell plenty of makeup in Southeast Asia too!
8) What items did you bring to Asia and couldn't live without while you were there?

Each time I travel to Southeast Asia I bring with me my own deodorant. That sounds silly, but it is hard to find stick deodorant since they mostly sell roll on liquids - I hate that stuff personally, so I bring enough of my own to get me through. Along the same lines, it can be hard to find beauty products that do not contain whitening ingredients (think face cream, sunscreen, etc), so I carry my own of those products too!
9) While you were traveling, how did you cope with:
  a) Taking the local bus/train for the first time

An ipod is my friend on long bus and train rides. I love talking to locals when that is an option, but on the long-haul buses I prefer to put in my headphones and zone out/sleep.

   b) Eating alone

Eating alone does not bother me, particularly becuase there are plenty of other backpackers and travelers I could easily find and eat with if I was feeling lonely.

Mostly though, I perfer to sit, eat, and watch what is happening around me. I like to eat street food, and I find it fascinating to sit alone and watch the pace of life as everyone prepares for their evening meal - everyone eats, so this is the perfect way to observe and learn little nuances of culture.

c) Sightseeing alone

Sightseeing solo is a choice, if you are staying at a guesthouse with other travelers the chances are that you could join any group of people if you wanted. There is a bit of a myth that you are alone all the time when you travel solo. Really you simply have the choice to do some activities solo, or you can easily join up with other welcoming groups of travelers.

Or, go sightseeing and then find the local sitting on a curb and go talk to him! The point is, you are surrounded by people when you travel, and being alone is a choice.

You can read more about Shannon and her travels at A Little Adrift

Posted: March 02, 2014

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