Five months, five countries. Interview with Clara, an adventurous solo traveller in Southeast Asia.
Aggiornato il: gen 12
Type of traveller: Adventurer
Where: Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar
Five countries in five months. Let’s meet Clara, who at 21 years old left her beloved France and decided to wander around Southeast Asia on her own.
Before starting with the interview, tell us something about yourself!
My name is Clara, I’m French, I’m 24 and I studied Foreign Languages at university. After my bachelor’s degree, I realised I didn’t know what to do with my life, so I decided to go on an adventure and explore Asia with a friend of mine. We talked about it in February, bought the flight tickets in August and left on 3rd January 2017. After a month, my friend wanted to return to France, so I decided to continue the journey by myself. I’ve travelled for five months in Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.
Why did you choose Asia compared to other destinations?
At the beginning, we wanted to travel around the world, but we soon realised it was a bit too ambitious as a first project. We both love Japan, but it was too expensive. Southeast Asia was a good compromise. We chose Thailand to begin with, knowing it’s a popular tourist destination and we knew it would be easy to find accommodation, meet people and visit beautiful places. Personally, I absolutely wanted to go to Myanmar because it has started accepting tourists only recently, so it is still “untouched”. Thailand, on the other hand, is the most popular destination for those who visit Asia for the first time.
So, you arrived in Bangkok and your adventure began. Did you have a plan or you just run off adventuring?
Completely adventuring. To phrase it better, we knew we wanted to visit these five countries and that we had five months, so the goal was to see a country a month. When we arrived in Bangkok, I roughly knew the places to visit near the capital, but everything was decided on the spot. For example, I knew I wanted to go to one of the islands in Southern Thailand, but I didn’t know which one because there are lots of them. I went to the train station, I looked at the billboard and said: “I like this name, I’ll go there!”. I arrived on that island without knowing anything about it, I just liked its name. It is difficult to plan a trip, because it depends on the people you meet. For example, if you plan to go west, but then you meet someone with whom you get on well and who wants to go north, why don’t you go north? Or, if someone says, “Oh, there’s a wonderful place over there!” it’s a bit sad to refuse just because you planned to go the other direction. Travelling without a plan gives you the freedom to follow only your spirit.
Out of curiosity: did you have a return ticket before leaving France?
No, I took it in Cambodia. I knew that two months later I would have to be in Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam to fly back home.
Have you been on an adventure like this before?
Kind of. When I was 18, I went to Senegal with a friend of mine to volunteer in a school for children between 2 and 4 years old. However, if my friend hadn’t come to Asia with me, I don’t know if I would have gone. I am grateful because, although once I was there it was not difficult to travel on my own, the moment you are about to get on the plane it’s hard if you are alone. It’s the idea of solo travelling that scares the most.
Did your family support your decision? Were they worried that you were so far away from home?
My mum was terrified. When she heard that my friend had come back home, she got very worried. In Senegal it was different because I was volunteering with an association, so she knew where I was sleeping, what I was eating, etc. In other words, I had a level of security. My mother believed that I should travel with a man in Asia, but I managed better by myself. At the beginning it was hard because, although we tried to chat on Skype at least once a week, I couldn’t always text her and let her know where I was. After a while, she realised that when you are travelling, especially if you are a woman, it’s very easy to meet other travellers and you are never alone.
Could you briefly describe each country? Maybe you could tell us an anecdote or an aspect that impressed you.
Well, in my opinion there are two “Thailands”: the North is more cultural, while the South is perfect for relaxing and partying. For the former I’d say that Chiang Mai is my favourite city. I did my first trek there, and I helped bathe elephants, it was a great experience. For the latter I will always remember a cave with a beach inside, which can only be reached from the sea. For the first 100 meters you have to swim in the dark and you can’t see anything. Then you arrive, and you see this amazing place.
Likewise, I’d say the best experience in Myanmar was a trek, although it was too difficult, I often thought I was going to die! I was the only girl in a group of men, and I was always in the back. But everyone was cheering for me and shouting, “Go, Clara! You can do it! We can do it all together!”. It was great. Another thing I liked about Myanmar is the people’s smile, they were so nice.
In Cambodia I went on a spiritual retreat of meditation in an all-female monastery. It was very difficult, but interesting. I truly enjoyed living with these women for five days and meditating six hours a day. However, I must admit that in the end I just had cravings for peanut butter. The food was horrible there.
Regarding Laos, I can assure you that Vang Vieng is the right place to party. I had a unique pub crawl there: since pubs were along the riverside, me and other partygoers would swim from pub to pub on inflatables; when we passed by a pub, the waiters threw a rope to drag us to shore. After a while, we would return to the river on our inflatables and we would be pulled into another pub.
In Vietnam, I went on a four-day trail by motorbike. I was in the North of Vietnam, near the border with China, and it isn’t a touristic area: locals had never seen Westerners. I spent four days surrounded by rice plantations. I think it was the best experience of all my trip to Asia.
Which one of these countries did you like the most?
Vietnam, for sure. I enjoyed both excursions in nature and city tours. The people were extremely kind, and the food was amazing. In the other countries the choice was limited to noodles or rice every day, and after three months I got sick of it. Instead, in Vietnam every city has at least five dishes, plus the national ones.
Talking about food, what was the most unusual dish you have eaten?
A scorpion. I think it’s the strangest thing I have ever eaten. I tasted it in Thailand, in a touristy street. It was disgusting, very salty, but I’m glad I tried it.
From a practical point of view, how did you budget your money?
I had estimated to spend around €1000 a month. The hostel prices vary from country to country, but I had researched the average price of accommodation before my departure. I used an app, Agoda, to compare prices and features. It depends on what you want. I had a bit of savings because, after finishing my studies in June, I worked from August to December. I didn’t calculate everything, but I think €1000 a month is a good budget because you can join activities, afford rooms that are not too crowded, etc.
What were the difficulties and challenges you faced during your trip?
I encountered some difficulties, but nothing insurmountable. You need to watch out for frauds, that’s for sure. Generally, if you are in trouble, it is easy to find someone willing to help.
As a female solo traveller, have you ever felt in danger?
Only once, on Ko Lanta island, in Southern Thailand. It’s a big island, I went there because other travellers had recommended it to me. At the maritime station I took a taxi to get to the hostel. The taxi driver started to flirt saying that he wanted to marry me and started to touch me. I told him to stop, I took my backpack and got out of the car. I had no clue on what to do because I didn’t know the place nor how to reach the hostel. When I finally arrived in my room, I thought I wanted to leave the island. In that moment a girl entered the room and said, “Hi”. I recognised the French accent and I told her what happened. She tried to calm me down and hugged me. We spent two days together, I think meeting her saved my life.
Having said that, I want to clarify that these countries are safe. In general, I felt safer there than in France, even at night.
What was the biggest cultural shock? Positive or negative.
People always wanted to help. It’s incredible. At the beginning, my friend and I oriented ourselves with the map because we didn’t have GPS. When we got lost, there was always someone ready to help, even though they didn’t speak English and we didn’t speak the local language. For example, in Myanmar at the train station I had a ticket, but I didn’t know where to go. A man waved at me to come closer, but my ticket was in English and he couldn’t understand a word. He called some of his friends and other people came as well, just because they were curious to know what was going on. In no time there were 10-15 people trying to decipher my ticket. In the end, one of them took my hand and led me to the right place. It was great.
Another cultural shock, not necessarily negative, but different to what I am used to, was seeing the importance of religion in these countries. People give lots of money to the temples: the cities may be poor, but the temples are always rich and beautiful. Maybe something similar exists in France, but I don’t know since I don’t go to church.
During your trip you met lots of people, locals as well as travellers like you. Is there an encounter that struck you?
Generally, I spent most of my time with other tourists, but I had beautiful encounters with locals too. There was one encounter with a local which I remember fondly: when I arrived in Myanmar, I took the train. Trains in Myanmar are terrible. There was a guy who worked for the railways and we tried to communicate, but he couldn’t speak English. We tried to use Google Translate, but we still couldn’t understand anything. It was great anyway because he helped me in everything. For example, he asked all passengers if they wanted to eat, but I refused because I didn’t see any food on the train. The train came close to a train station and slowed down, but it didn’t stop. The guy opened the door, leaned out of the train, which was still going slowly, he grabbed some bags full of food and the train kept moving.
After living such an exciting experience, how was it coming home?
I had the worst idea of my life. I told my parents I would have returned on 10th, but I returned one week earlier to surprise them. I missed my family, and I only wanted love, kisses and hugs. My mum wanted my return to be perfect, so I don’t think she was psychologically prepared when she saw me entering the house. “Hi mum, I missed you”, and she replied incredulously, “What are you doing here?”. My sister started crying. My mum was nervous because she hadn’t prepared anything special for my return yet, but I calmed her down, reassuring her that there was nothing to worry about.
I was happy to be home. Solo travelling was the best for me because I was free to do whatever I wanted, and it was easy to meet people along my journey. But it is difficult to be alone from start to end, not having anyone to share the experience with. I think next time I’d like to leave with someone, travel together for a while, then take different ways, then meet again, and so on. When you return home, everyone wants to listen to your adventures, but nobody can fully understand your experience.
What piece of advice would you give to someone who would like to do a similar experience?
Go. Don’t be afraid, just go because it will be amazing. And even if after a month you don’t enjoy it anymore, you can always come back home.
Are there any upcoming journeys?
I’d love to. I’d like to go to South America, but I’d prefer going with someone who speaks Spanish. I am full of ideas and projects: next year I’d like to participate in the European Voluntary Service, maybe I’ll end up in Slovenia or in Hungary, who knows.
Clara, thank you very much for the time you have dedicated to this interview and thanks for taking us to Asia with you!