For women who are afraid to travel, just go! My message to my fellow females on International Women’s Day is to make this the year you travel. Don’t be scared. Don’t doubt your strength and courage. Just do it: go travel!
One of the first questions I get asked by women who contact me about our Cambodia culinary tours and writing and photography retreats is whether it’s safe for women to travel to Cambodia alone. It is and I’ll explain why in another post. The point is that almost every woman who contacts me asks that question.
And I’m always gob-smacked when they ask. Cambodians are some of the friendliest people in the world and Cambodia is one of the most welcoming countries I’ve been to and – while I stopped counting countries long ago – I think I’ve been to around 80 countries or so by now.
Having travelled widely across the Middle East and South America, I’ve probably been to a lot of countries that many people would have considered dangerous at some point in time – from Syria to Lebanon, South Africa to Kenya. Mexico and Cuba were considered dangerous the first time we went.
So what’s changed? Why do women seem more fearful to travel on their own now when there’s such an abundance of information out there that should make them feel safer, no?
For Women Who are Afraid to Travel, Just Go!
When I set off to South America in 1997 for a year of in-country study for my Masters degree, it wasn’t a destination that women travelled to on their own. In fact, many parts of the continent were still considered unsafe places to travel – from Sao Paolo to La Paz.
Yet I wasn’t scared. In fact, my husband Terence, who was working in publishing at the time, had brought home a copy of Robert Pelton Young’s World’s Most Dangerous Places after meeting the author at work, and I used to read about the countries I was planning to visit in his book and would get excited.
It was thrilling to think I’d be taking a bus along Death Road in Bolivia (what the hell was I thinking?!) and I relished the idea of visiting Rio de Janeiro’s favelas, having fallen in love with Black Orpheus years earlier as a film student. And in those days the shanty towns were still a centre for organised crime and shoot-outs between gangs and police were still fairly regular events.
Little did I know at the time but during my first month in South America I’d end up working on a participatory video-making project with a bunch of other young filmmakers with a community of women in a Rio favela where I’d see drug traffickers with guns openly roaming the streets.
I also couldn’t have known that on my first night in Sao Paolo I would see a man get shot in the downtown shopping area and I’d see another shot in the streets after the bull-fights a few months later in Lima.
Before all that, I went to visit my parents to say goodbye a couple of weeks before I flew out to Sao Paolo via London and Madrid. I took a copy of the guidebook I was taking, Footprints South American Handbook – the bible to the continent back then – and I have no idea why I did this, but I read out the scariest bits as we sipped wine in the living room, the contents of my backpack strewn out on the living room floor so I could get their feedback on what I should take and what I should leave at home.
What was I thinking?! My poor mum and dad, who have always been big worriers, were even more concerned about my impending trip. I had only wanted to involve my parents in my journey, but in hindsight reading out warnings to avoid certain places, not take overnight buses or walk the streets alone at night, probably wasn’t a good idea.
Aside from the two murders I witnessed – the only murders I’ve ever witnessed in my life, thankfully – the only other incident that occurred was a petty theft when a woman in Cuba stole a top I’d washed and left out to dry on the balcony overnight. Strangely enough, the same thing would happen in Marrakech a couple of years later.
I travelled alone for the most part – aside from a handful of adventures when I travelled for short periods in between my research with other young backpackers – female, male, and groups. When I travelled alone, I did everything from hanging out in bars late at night alone writing postcards home to my husband to overnight bus trips through the jungles of Paraguay and Bolivia.
Nothing terrible happened to me – aside from contracting malaria – and I can count the occasions I felt uncomfortable in situations on one hand. (I’ll tell you about those another time.) I survived. I returned in one piece. I was poorer, but I was far richer for all the extraordinary experiences I had.
And I wasn’t the only solo woman traveller in South America. I befriended other women, most younger than I was, who I travelled with or hung out with for short times, including a friend I made in Buenos Aires who I’m still close to, even though we only meet up every few years.
In those days, ‘solo women travelling’ wasn’t a thing – it wasn’t something that women got anxious about. We just did it. During the whole period I as away I never had a conversation with another woman about being afraid to travel. What we were doing was exciting, it wasn’t frightening.
So why are women more fearful about travelling alone now in places that were decidedly more dangerous back then? Why are they afraid to travel and especially scared to travel solo?
Why are the women who are considering trips to Cambodia fearful of coming here? What’s happened since the internet-free 1990s when we only relied on guidebooks and still sent postcards, to make women more scared than they’ve ever been?
As a travel writer, I probably could and should be giving examples of the great women travellers who inspired me to travel, such as the very brave and intrepid explorers, Gertrude Bell and Freya Stark, if I want to inspire other women to travel.
But travelling way back in the mid 1800s and early 1900s was very different to travelling now (they had even less information than we do today) and while I could relate to their adventures, I’m not so sure young women could now.
So let me present a fearless young Cambodian woman to you who I’d like to serve as your inspiration – Kek Soon, pictured above, hails from Kampot on Cambodia’s south coast. If you’re a regular reader you’d know that she was the first young Cambodian who was sponsored by a generous donor to participate in one of our travel and food writing and photography retreats last year.
That’s Soon, snapped by Terence, as she was taking some time out at Bayon temple to sit and reflect. What was she thinking? I haven’t asked her, but I will. But I recall taking those moments during my many journeys over the years to take in the beauty of the place surrounding me and to think how lucky I was to be experiencing such special places. At no time during those moments did I fear afraid.
Soon travelled at the age of 14 with her mother to Malaysia, where they both worked as maids and nannies to wealthy families. They weren’t easy years and that’s a gross understatement. Her mother left four years later, but Soon stayed on, remaining eight years in a foreign country, alone, working hard to save money to support her family back home in Cambodia.
I was 29 when I first travelled and I was 30, going on 31, when Terence and I moved overseas to the United Arab Emirates to work. I can’t imagine what it would have been like working in foreign country on my own at the age of 18. Soon is one of the most independent, confident, caring, and empathetic young women I know. That’s what travel does to you. It doesn’t matter where you come from, how old you are, or when you go.
So, on International Women’s Day, my message to all my fellow women out there, no matter what your age, or where you’re from, what your circumstances are, or how much information you have access to about how friendly or frightening the world is, is to stop being afraid.
Take some inspiration from all those great women travellers, but also think about young women like Kek Soon, and all those young women around the world who travel, whether of their own free will or whether they are forced to travel from a young age, for pleasure, or to work. If they can do it, you can do it too.
Don’t read about dangerous places, stop reading the guidebooks and the blogs and especially the news. Stop worrying about whatever it is that’s preventing you from taking that leap, and instead look to women like Soon. Come to Cambodia, go to Cuba, head to Columbia or wherever it is that interests and excites you. Go with a friend, go with a group, or go alone, but just go!
You will be a stronger, richer and more courageous woman for the experience.
Happy International Women’s Day!
Such a terrific and inspiring read!
Cathie Carpio says
Glad I read this as I’ve been eyeeing Sri Lanka as a travel destination for the longest time. Work has been forcing me to travel for the last four years and it’s been interesting proving my pressumptions wrong.
I did have a scary incident in Turkey (and I wasn’t travelling alone), but other than that, travelling oversees has been fulfilling. I have hosted people from all over the world and most of them had visited more Philippine beaches (they have gone beyond Palawan and Boracay). What a shame I don’t get to see less popular Philippine beaches because I tend to imagine things prior to trips, which I should stop doing.
Lara Dunston says
Get to Sri Lanka then! Scary things can happen, but they can happen anywhere and not only to women, so I don’t think there’s anything to fear about foreign places or travelling itself. But so many women are afraid to travel. And I think they’re more scared now in this age when they have access to a vast amount of up-to-the-minute information than women were when I first started travelling, so it’s not a fear of the unknown or of dangerous places. I think it’s more about fear of getting outside one’s comfort zone. I’m eager to get to Sri Lanka too! Thanks for commenting!
Lara Dunston says
Thank you! And I know it’s not fear that’s stopping you from travelling. One day you’ll be able to just go – and we’ll go together :)
Kate - Travel for Difference says
Loooooove this post. I published one of a similar nature today also. It’s so important to empower women to do the things they love without the common fear. Travel is the most rewarding experience there is, and its devastating to see so many women afraid to do so due to a few negative experiences that get plastered across the media. It’s such a tough thing to grasp X
Lara Dunston says
Thanks, Kate! I’ll go and check your post out. I’m pleased to see so many of us encouraging other women to travel. Like you, I hate to see so many women postpone something they feel they want to do due to fear. As I also run a small side travel business, I see it – read it – every day. I’m going to make it my goal to better understand why it’s so tough to take the leap so I can encourage more women to travel. Agree with you – there are few things as rewarding and I’m of the view that if everyone travelled more the world really would be a better place. Thanks for dropping by!