Travelling alone on a round-the-world trip when I'd just turned 22 was definitely not my original intention. Yet after years of rising up the education system, I found myself seduced by glossy images of secluded palm-fringed beaches and exotic temples in STA brochures, so I decided to make my dreams of flinging everything in a backpack and seeing the world into a reality. Friends quickly jumped on the idea, but when it came to booking the trip, their eagerness retreated, citing money and timing constraints.
Then another thought occurred to me. Could I do it alone? I'd never travelled further than around 100 miles on my own, and that was just hopping on a train to see friends in Manchester or Leeds. How could I cope with navigating my way through faraway lands like Laos, Australia and Fiji when I still somehow managed to get lost in my home town of Middlesbrough? Still, instinct screamed that I had to go and so, armed with my Karrimor backpack filled with items that have since disappeared from the backpacker scene (think paper plane tickets, Nokia phone, CD walkman and travellers cheques), I waved off my anxious parents at Teesside Airport, feeling both nervous and exhilarated, unsure where this newfound sense of adventure and courage had come from.
Ever since my 15-month (my poor mum) RTW trip when I was a fresh-faced 22-year-old, I thought I’d be boomeranging straight back to Asia. Maybe teaching in China. Or just island hopping in the Phillippines. Life unfolded in a different way, but I’ve been itching to return for a LONG time, including two years ago when I had my jabs, bought my guidebooks, and was on the verge of booking my flight and then suddenly out of nowhere my gut screamed that I had to ditch my tropical plans and buy in Margate. Now’s finally the time. Hello 👋 long overdue SE Asia adventure. #badhairdaysstartnow #beastonmyback #followhereforhownottotravellightly #adventure #backpacking #seasia #travel #uk #
But as soon as I landed in Bangkok, although jetlagged and totally disorientated, I felt completely alive as I unfolded a map the size of my upper body and explored the chaotic yet mesmerising city. I took the overnight train to Chiang Mai, where I trekked in the mountains and tried a Thai cookery course, and island-hopped across Koh Tao, Koh Pha Ngan and Koh Lanta, picking up friends on buses and boats, at beach bungalows and bars. I travelled overland to Malaysia and Singapore, before living and working in Sydney – first in a houseshare in Bondi with a smart and beautiful blonde German woman I ached to be like, and then in an apartment block with Harbour Bridge views (if you craned your neck out of the window, that is) with five other travellers. Christmas was spent wearing silly Santa hats with my new pals on Bondi Beach while on New Year's Eve we crammed together on a patch of grass to watch the spectacular fireworks over the bridge with thousands of others.
Although I worked to fund my travels, the freedom I felt was incredible. When I caught a note on a pinboard in my hostel in Perth asking if anyone fancied a road trip around southwest Australia, I didn't need to check in with anyone – I jumped at the chance, and spent 10 glorious days camping with four other solo travellers. I took a last-minute flight to Melbourne to hang out with an Irish girl I'd met in New Zealand; then we thought, 'F**k it, shall we hire a car and venture up to Adelaide for a few days?' When I was having the best time of my life in Australia, and certainly wasn't ready to move on, I ripped up the US leg of my ticket, instead deciding to extend my trip by another three months and return via Asia, visiting Laos and Cambodia. My plans, often last-minute, could – and would – change in a heartbeat.
Far from being a once-in-a-lifetime trip, that 15-month adventure cemented a lasting love affair with solo travel: three weeks travelling around eastern Europe, a four-month spell in South America, stints in New York, Berlin and Lisbon, and earlier this year, three months in Asia, travelling and working in Vietnam, Myanmar and Bali. Whether a day trip to Durham or taking an overnight train to Krakow, travelling on my own is a completely different experience from when I'm with others. I feel more immersed in my experiences, and it's led to soul-stirring moments like long conversations with strangers on buses, and locals inviting me to their home for dinner.
If I crave company, most of the time it's there – a snorkelling trip in the Gili Islands with a couple of hippy Americans turned into dinner and sunset cocktails; in a café in Yangon, I offered a piece of cake to the woman sat beside me – a traveller from Kyrgyzstan – which led to us spending the next two hours discussing our travel plans (we're still in touch, months later). Many of my good friends are people I met when sharing a dorm on the east coast of Australia or at a bar on a Thai island.
Before my first adventure, when I told people I was about to go travelling on my own, I'd often hear words such as 'you're so brave' and 'oh, I could never do that', but today more of us are choosing to travel alone. According to new research from TravelZoo, more than three-quarters of Brits have travelled solo or plan to in the future.
Banging on about how utterly brilliant it is on my own isn't to say I don't jump at the chance to holiday with boyfriends or friends – whether it's a week in Ibiza, festivals, or roadtripping around Sicily, I absolutely adore exploring with others (plus there's the build-up of anticipation before a trip that perhaps doesn't happen as much on my own). But for me, there is no happiness like swinging that backpack over my shoulder and heading off into the unknown, feeling utterly free and with no one to please but myself.