Solo female travel in Southeast Asia need not be so different to travelling solo as a woman anywhere else in the world – in fact, travelling alone as a woman in Southeast Asia can be more rewarding and safer than in most Western countries. So why do solo Southeast Asian travels seem so daunting to so many women travellers?
I was sitting in the Foreign Correspondents Club bar at Siem Reap airport a couple of weeks ago, sipping a glass of wine as I booked my hotel in Bangkok for that night, when a young woman sat down at the next table and glanced my way.
Dressed in the conspicuous Southeast Asian female travel uniform of loose t-shirt revealing a bikini top and baggy elephant pants (people, do you realise they’re made in sweatshops?), the young traveller hadn’t even ordered a drink when she turned to me and asked eagerly, “Are you a solo woman traveller, too? How have you found travelling alone in Southeast Asia?”
For a minute, I had to stop and think and ask myself “Was I a solo female traveller?”
I was a woman travelling solo and I would be alone for five days and nights until Terence joined me in Bangkok. But it struck me that I didn’t identify as a solo female traveller. And I never have.
Solo Female Travel in Southeast Asia – Reflections on 30+ Years of Travel as a Woman
While I’ve spent most of my adult life living abroad and travelling the world with my photographer-husband Terence since we left Sydney in 1998, I’ve embarked on solo female travel countless times over the years – from trips on my own back to Australia to visit family and friends, to Europe for film festivals and conferences, to a year of research in South America for my Masters degree back in 1997.
On those trips to Australia I’m a daughter, sister and friend returning home to see loved ones, when I went to film festivals and conferences I was an academic teaching film, and on my epic South American adventure I was a film student, filmmaker and researcher. I’ve never thought of myself as a solo female traveller and perhaps it’s because I’ve always travelled with a purpose.
On this recent Bangkok trip, I had my travel/food writer hat on – the one I rarely take off – and I wasn’t travelling differently to how I travel with Terence. Or was I? That was the question I pondered on the fifty-minute flight to Bangkok and the following five days I was in the city. I’ll save those reflections for another post.
I told the young woman – who was a good 20 years younger than me – that I lived and travelled in Southeast Asia so her question didn’t really apply to me. Her eyes widened, her jaw dropped, and her brow furrowed. I asked how her solo female travel had gone so far and whether she’d enjoyed Cambodia.
She excitedly, and with the relief clearly visible on her face, revealed that her solo female travel adventure had been great so far. She’d loved Cambodia – “the people are soooooo friendly” – and that travelling solo in Cambodia and Southeast Asia (she’d been to Vietnam and Laos and was three months into a six month trip) had been far less “scary” than she’d been led to believe from what she read.
Although this young female traveller admitted to having spent far more time hanging out at hostels than she probably should have and spent most of her time in the company of other foreign travellers, a highlight had been a solo excursion to Angkor with a tuk tuk driver – because her new travel pal was too hung-over to go and she couldn’t find another companion at the last minute.
The woman said that her day with her Cambodian driver was the longest time she’d spent with a local on the trip. She’d also loved a Siem Reap cooking class and Phnom Penh architecture tour she did on her own – “things I never would have done by myself back home in the States” – and said those experiences gave her the confidence to do more things by herself in Thailand. She’d already booked tours online.
I was relieved to hear that. But I was disappointed to hear her say that from Facebook forums she interacted on she felt most young women were reluctant to “do the solo female travel thing”. Many simply didn’t want to be alone for fear of getting lonely. Others didn’t like the idea of feeling vulnerable and feeling unsafe.
Based on her experience, however, the young traveller had concluded that myths perpetuated by other would-be travellers and by the media and social media, particularly well-meaning articles offering solo female travel tips, instilled more fear than confidence in female travellers.
This wasn’t the first time I’d heard this, of course. Most of the participants who join our Cambodia Culinary Tours and Travel and Food Writing and Photography Retreats in Siem Reap are women – and in the first email enquiry they nearly always ask if it’s safe for women to travel to Cambodia.
Firstly, I assure them: they’re going to be with me the whole trip, so they have nothing to worry about. Secondly, I tell them that despite what they’ve heard Cambodia is one of the safer countries in the world, not just in Southeast Asia. According to a range of respected stats, crime levels in the capital Phnom Penh, for instance, are on par with the USA’s safest city, Austin, Texas.
Sure, we hear about the occasional bag snatching in the capital, but petty crime is at a far lower level here and elsewhere in Southeast Asia compared to tourist destinations in Western countries. You have a far greater chance of getting your bag pinched on your European summer holiday at a railway station in Milan or a market in Madrid.
Sexual assaults against women, which are the solo female travellers’ biggest concern, do occur, but, again, according to the stats, the rates of assaults in Southeast Asian countries are lower than in Western countries. They are higher in other Asian countries, such as India, where there’s good reason to be concerned.
Most sexual assaults in Southeast Asian countries happen to women leaving a bar or nightclub by themselves, often drunk, and typically late at night, or getting a ride home in a taxi or tuk tuk by themselves late at night. Many sexual assaults reported by female travellers have been committed by male travellers whom the victims had come to trust.
The statistics don’t show that solo female travellers in Southeast Asia are in any more danger in the region than they would be if doing the same thing in their home country – so take the same kind of precautions that you would at home.
And don’t fear the idea of being alone and being lonely. Relish the opportunity that travelling solo gives you to not only get to know yourself better but also to engage more fully with the people and culture of the places you’re travelling to than you would if you were travelling with a partner, friends or family.
Solo Female Travel in Southeast Asia – My Tips Based on 30+ Years of Travel
Get fit and take self defence classes
Women wary of embarking on a solo female travel adventure often cite one of the main reasons for being reluctant to travel alone is because they feel physically vulnerable. Get fit and develop your strength before you travel and do a self defence course so you feel more confident. Even better, sign up for some martial arts lessons in Southeast Asia, such as Muay Thai in Bangkok.
Pack travel gear and gadgets that make you feel safer
You probably won’t have to use these on your Southeast Asian sole female travel adventure but a few gadgets might make you feel safer and that’s what’s important. Consider taking a Pacsafe anti-theft daypack and packing a travel hotel door handle alarm, a personal emergency alarm, a travel bra with hidden pockets, bra stash pouches or a secret travel money belt, and perhaps even a fake gold wedding band.
Book flights that arrive during daylight
If you’re concerned about your safety, note that most crimes against women occur after dark, especially late at night. Avoid lingering at a small empty airport or trying to get a cab late at night, especially if it’s quite a journey from the airport to your destination.
Choose your hotel carefully
Make sure your hotel is in a good, safe area and avoid red light districts. They can be fascinating if you’re with your husband or partner but not advisable if you’re doing the solo female travel thing. Misunderstandings can easily occur, especially in a conservative culture with customs relating to women’s conduct with which you might not be familiar.
Big hotel or small hotel?
Many women feel more comfortable in a small boutique hotel, family-owned bed and breakfast or backpacker hostel, where the owners, managers and staff become like friends or even family and will notice if you haven’t returned when you said you would. Then again, big hotels are busier and more secure. As a precaution, always let hotel staff know where you’re going and when you’ll be back.
Book an airport transfer with your hotel
Small hotels often use drivers they have a relationship with while big hotels will generally have their own vehicles and document the driver and registration number of the vehicle booked to collect you. They’ll be on their best behaviour for fear of losing their work and if they’re not, you can report them. If a transfer isn’t on offer, get an airport limousine and give the Uber a miss.
Book a walking tour for the first day
A walking tour with a local guide is a great way to hit the ground running and introduce you to the destination, safe areas to explore, and neighbourhoods you probably shouldn’t venture into. Pick your guide’s brains about what to do and where to go and where not to go and mark areas out on a paper map.
Book guided tours and classes
Make private or small-group guided tours, cooking classes, street food tours, jewellery making courses, yoga classes, and so on a part of your solo female travel adventure. They are a great way to get to know locals (your guides and instructors) and get beneath the skin of a place, which will increase your confidence. But they are also a great means to make friends with other travellers.
Hire a private guide or join a tour
If you still aren’t feeling confident and you are feeling vulnerable for whatever reason – perhaps you’re petite, an older traveller or you’ve been unwell, then consider hiring a private guide to accompany you for a while and create some bespoke tours that match your interests.
Take a printed map out with you
Take a good old-fashioned printed map out with you so you’re not always pulling your expensive iPhone out to check Google maps. Not all crimes again solo female travellers are sex crimes. Many petty crimes are crimes of opportunity so don’t flash around expensive jewellery or a purse full of cash.
Don’t take a cross-body bag
I’m increasingly seeing travellers using cross-body bags, as they seem to think they’re more secure. While I love the look of some of them and would use one in Australia, say, one of the biggest problems when it comes to petty crime in Southeast Asia, especially in the capital cities of Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia (particularly just before Khmer New Year in April) are motor-cycle thefts. Two guys on a motorbike drive close by you and the one on the back pinches your bag. We’ve heard stories of people with cross-body bags being dragged behind bikes in Saigon, Phnom Penh and Bangkok as they couldn’t get their bag off – or simply wouldn’t let it go. Give it up, but better yet, don’t walk on the outer side of the footpath.
Watch where you walk
If there are footpaths, and in many cities, towns and villages in Southeast Asian countries there aren’t, walk on the side of the footpath that is closest to the buildings. When there isn’t a footpath and you need to walk on the road, walk in the opposite direction to the flow of traffic so you can see what or who is coming your way.
Leave your valuables at the hotel
You’ll feel so much more confident if you’re not carrying valuables or large wads of cash. Leave your passport and valuables in your hotel room safe or lock them in your luggage and ensure it’s locked securely. Only take out what you need for that day. Many countries, such as Thailand, require that foreign travellers carry their passports – take photocopies with you instead unless you need to change money and then keep them on your body. Leave the expensive camera gear and iPhone at the hotel the first day.
If you get lost go into a business for directions
Southeast Asian countries don’t have India’s culture, which makes solo female travel in India inadvisable for the time being, but there are important lessons to be learnt from a horrific incident a few years ago where a 51 year-old solo female traveller was attacked and raped by a group of men in Delhi after getting lost, asking them for directions, and being lured into a dark alley where she was attacked. If you get lost, rather than ask a group of men on the street for directions, go to the nearest women or head into a hotel, café, shop, or local business and ask staff there. If you find yourself in an area you don’t want to be in, ask them to call you a taxi.
Learn about the local culture and customs
Do some research to familiarise with what’s appropriate behaviour for women in the country you’re travelling to and adopt those codes whether you agree or not. In some conservative countries, it’s not appropriate for a single woman to chat to a group of men. In the example above in India, it was reported that the woman’s approach to the men was misread. Then again in the more educated, tolerant Middle East countries, foreign women have long had freedoms local women don’t have. Guides are great sources of information on what’s acceptable and what isn’t in their country.
Dress as you would at home
Sure, women should be able to dress however they like – within reason. I personally believe demonstrating respect for the culture and traditions of a country that’s not my own is more important than my freedom of expression. Dressing modestly if that’s the custom is going to earn you greater respect and win you local friends. Ask yourself: would you wear short shorts and a bikini top in your hometown or city? If not, don’t. It’s not acceptable to wear bikinis or skimpy clothing in downtown Siem Reap or any other city centre – unless you’re at the hotel swimming pool.
Dress as the locals do
Of course the exception to the rule above is if you’re in a Muslim town or conservative village where you’re better off taking dressing tips from the locals. If the local women are covering up, then you’d be best doing so, too. If they’re wearing a long black cloak and niqab (Muslim veil and face covering) you won’t be expected to, but you’ll be respected if you wear a long skirt and long sleeve shirt. If you’re visiting a mosque, you may be required to wrap a scarf or sarong around your head. Temples in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Myanmar are religious places of worship, so dress accordingly and cover your shoulders and legs.
Don’t look like a tourist
Women mulling a solo female travel adventure often cite feeling vulnerable and like a target as a reason for not travelling alone. You won’t be a target of criminals unless you act like one. So don’t look like a tourist by wearing the conspicuous Southeast Asian traveller costume of elephant pants, flip-flops and souvenir t-shirt. Also don’t wear your backpack back-to-front on your chest, which screams I’ve got valuable stuff in here I don’t want you to steal. You seriously think that’s going to stop a thief? You may as well tattoo ‘tourist’ on your forehead. As above, dress as you would at home. While you might not blend in enough to look like a local, you might look like an expat. And that’s a good thing.
Don’t be paranoid – you’re not always a target
I’ve read terrible solo female travel tips, including ridiculous advice from travel writers who should know better. The New York Times 52 Places Traveler wrote: “The worst trouble I’ve gotten into while traveling has been when I’ve tried to act like a local. Hang out with locals, but remember you’re always a potential target.” What absolute garbage. I find it incredibly offensive verging on racist. Is she suggesting all locals (foreigners in her eyes) are criminals? Talk about paranoid. Trust me as someone who has travelled far more widely and for longer than the NYT writer: you most certainly are not always a potential target of locals – unless like the writer you believe all locals to be criminals. See above re looking like a tourist.
Make friends with locals
Local travel, engaging with local people and living like locals to gain an insight into everyday life are for me the most rewarding things about travel and one of the reasons we developed Grantourismo and our year-long grand tour of the world back in 2009. During my solo travels in South America 12 years before that I mainly hung out with locals. If you want to hang out with other people from your country, then what’s the point of travelling? Not only did befriending locals, sharing meals with locals, and even staying in local homes make for far a more enriching experience, I felt safer in places and more confident travelling as I had new local friends I could reach out to if needed.
Join the locals at their leisure
If you’re feeling lonely or even a little vulnerable, join the locals where they spend their leisure time, whether it be a busy market, a street food area, a shopping mall, public park, sporting match, or festival. Places where locals are relaxed and enjoying the company of friends and family are great spots to engage and meet people, as much as to get an insight into everyday life. As a solo female traveller you can expect to receive invitations from local families and groups of friends to join them.
If going clubbing, go with friends
Avoid bar crawls as fun as they might sound and if you’re going to clubs go with a group of travellers and/or locals you trust. Watch your cocktails and mixed alcoholic drinks being made, as they can easily be spiked. You’re better off sticking to wine and beer. And don’t leave your glass unattended. If you suddenly feel dizzy or sleepy, alert your travel companions or people around you immediately. Don’t wander back to the hotel or hostel late at night, and don’t go alone. Catch a taxi directly from the venue with your new travel mates.
Enjoy being alone rather than being lonely
If you’re not a fan of being alone and feel lonely when you are, then use your solo female travel adventure to get to know yourself better and learn to enjoy your own company – read books, listen to music, document your experiences and reflections in a travel journal, or sit in a sublime place occasionally to not only gawk at its beauty but to reflect upon your journey and the impact your solo travels have had upon you. Because one of the best things about solo female travel is the time and space it gives us to get to know ourselves as much as to get to know the world and its people.
Travel and travel again and again
The more you travel alone, the more confident you will become, and the less vulnerable you’ll feel. I also have a theory that the more you travel the less you’ll identify as a solo female traveller, and will simply think of yourself a traveller.
What do you think? Are you a woman who is planning or has undertaken some solo female travel before? I’d love to hear your thoughts, reflections, tips, and suggestions for other solo female travellers.