Behind the Photos: What Solo Travel is Really Like

What's the first thought that pops into your mind when you see a great travel photo on Instagram? To be specific, I'm talking about those posts from Instagrammers who seem to be living a nomadic lifestyle. They're in non-stop travel mode and possibly have the "I can work from anywhere" setup. Here's my guesses:

  • "Wow, that looks beautiful. I wish I was there right now."
  • "When do I get holidays again?"
  • "I need to add that place to my travel to-do list" (my usual response)
  • "Don't be jealous, don't be jealous, don't be...ahh frig, I'm SOOO jealous"
 Just taking in the view of Koh Samui from Lamai Viewpoint. This was my last day on Koh Samui. #MixedFeelings 

Just taking in the view of Koh Samui from Lamai Viewpoint. This was my last day on Koh Samui. #MixedFeelings 

In my brief 36 years on this planet, I think I've bounced around enough to offer my two cents on the topic of travelling solo. In case you want to decide for yourself, here's my 'travel solo resume':

  • Driven across Canada twice (once from Alberta to Newfoundland, and then from British Columbia to Newfoundland)
  • Lived alone in British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario, and Newfoundland
  • 3 week road trip through the U.S, with stops in Tennessee (Nashville and Memphis), Louisiana (New Orleans), Arizona (Grand Canyon), Nevada (Las Vegas), and California (Palo Alto)
  • And most recently, I lived on Koh Samui (Thailand) and now I'm in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Throw in a few solo overnight backwoods camping trips, a lot of solo hiking, and a fair number of shorter road trips, and there you have it - my solo travel experiences in a nut shell.

Solo Travel: What It Looks Like on the Outside

Exciting. Am I right?

Whether you've travelled solo or not, the amount of epic posts on Instagram links the solo travel lifestyle to feelings of excitement, freedom, and almost seemingly opportunity. It all looks very enticing and almost easy. One minute they're outside the Taj Mahal, then they're riding camels in the Gobi desert. You see posts from secluded beaches and posh resorts, all the way to mountain tops and underground caves. Oh, and we can't forget about those inspirational captions (who comes up with that shit? Seriously). 

 👆🏻 A couple of recent posts from my Instagram profile @NewfoundNomad 

From my experience, solo travel can be exciting, and there's definitely a lot of freedom and opportunity. For example, when I visited New Orleans, I enjoyed it so much that I decided to add on 2 extra days so that I could do a swamp tour with some Australian friends I had just met. Now that I'm here in Ho Chi Minh, I have no structured plans at all. I explore the city as the weather permits, hit up coffee shops or restaurants that I see when it pours (it's rainy season now), or hang out with the one friend that I do have here (lol...I'm slowly meeting more people here). I do have work to do, and I will have a set schedule once I start to teach, but it's a pretty flexible lifestyle for the most part.

The Challenges of Travelling Solo

Flying solo can be difficult. What I've found especially challenging is going into a place where I'll be starting from scratch - not a whole new life, but at least a brief chapter of life with new people, places, routines, and food (someone better be praying for this traveller's stomach).

 Laundry hangs to dry in the windows of a red apartment building in Ho Chi Minh city.

Laundry hangs to dry in the windows of a red apartment building in Ho Chi Minh city.

My first week here in Ho Chi Minh has been like that. I left some great people behind in Thailand, not to mention back home in Canada, and here in Vietnam pretty much everything is foreign to me: the traffic (very busy and everyone kinda ignores the rules of the road), the gyms (closest gym is over $100 CAD a month), the people (the locals are friendly enough but very few can communicate in English), and Google Maps...oh don't get me started on that one (you can't really trust Google Maps here in Vietnam).

 One portion of Ben Thanh market. A wonderful-crazy place where you should never make your intention of purchasing obvious 

One portion of Ben Thanh market. A wonderful-crazy place where you should never make your intention of purchasing obvious 

None of this is world-ending stuff, but it can definitely make for a few difficult days where you're missing the people, the routines...the things that you're used to that bring some comfort or consistency to your life.

To basically quote an excerpt from my journal, here are some of the challenges I've faced and how I've felt so far:

  • Lonely. When few people speak your language and the people who really know you are only available through a digital screen, you can feel pretty alone sometimes.
  • Sick. If you travel for an extended period of time overseas, you're going to get sick at some point. It's near impossible to avoid, and it isn't fun dealing with it by yourself. Luckily, I haven't had food poisoning or anything overly serious, but the total number of days where I'm 'very aware of the distance to the nearest bathroom' is definitely in double-digits 💩
  • Alive. Solo-travel can definitely make you feel very alive. You're surrounded with so many new things. For me, there have been so many experiences that are simply very different than what I'm used to, so the feelings (i.e. happy/sad/angry/peaceful/etc.) can be a little overwhelming at times. Solo-travel kinda magnifies the feels a little...at least for me.
  • Frustration. The non-stop sweating isn't fun. Neither is the fact that the hygiene supplies I prefer aren't carried here (any of them) and men's clothing sizes in Asia would be comparable to boys sizes back home. You should have seen me trying on shirts from a store that was supposed to carry 'bigger' sizes. This isn't really a result of travelling solo, but it's been a challenge nonetheless.

Again, none of what I've mentioned above makes me want to curl up in the fetal position on the floor. They are simply challenges. Each one takes a little something extra to face and, in the end, you can find yourself a little worn out and you may not even realize why.

 A Vietnamese lady takes an afternoon nap on a park bench in Ho Chi Minh city.

A Vietnamese lady takes an afternoon nap on a park bench in Ho Chi Minh city.

Bottom Line: solo travel will change you

About a week into my travels, a friend from Canada commented on one of my posts, saying 'You'll never be the same". As I knew that she has considerable experience with living overseas, I knew that I should expect her words to ring true.

Solo travel does change a person. I think it's important for everyone to do some kind of extended solo-travel trip at some point in life. For many, it seems like the right time is just before or after the post-secondary studies, but it doesn't have to be. My current trip will be the first extended solo travel experience of my life that's lasted more than a month, and I'm 36. Don't allow the idea of 'what's normal' to hinder you from travelling at any point in your life.

Personally, I'm thankful for the new people I've met, the cultures I've experienced, the places I've seen, and that I get to photograph and write about it all. It has changed me already and I look forward to comparing notes with myself 6 months down the road.

Where did you travel solo and how did it change you? Maybe you have a trip in the works for this summer? I'd honestly love to hear about where you plan to go and what you hope to experience. Leave some feedback on what I've written or drop a few notes on your upcoming plans below.

As always, thanks for experiencing this with me. Stay tuned for some thoughts on Ho Chi Minh and then Northern Vietnam!