Reflecting on my gap year: solo traveling in South & Southeast Asia

Hello! I’m writing to you all from Dallas, Texas, where Joe and I are settling into our brand-new trailer. Now that I’m back, I wanted to take some time to reflect on my gap year travels…

This year, I quit my job and backpacked solo in 7 countries for a total of 6 months (Singapore, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam). Simply put, it was the best thing I’ve ever done.

Ever since my first international solo trip to Thailand in 2018, I dreamed of taking a sabbatical and doing an extended solo trip, and it only took me 4 years to finally execute. 😉 I guess you could say this year was literally my dream come true.

I have about a million thoughts to share, and instead of a long word dump, I thought I would do this Q&A style. Feel free to leave me a comment if I missed any questions. I love hearing from you!!

What was my favorite country?

India!! I originally went to India to attend a friend’s wedding, not feeling super excited about the country, and I unexpectedly ended up spending the most time here and falling in love with the country.

There were hardly any western travelers, so I loved that the friends I made were other Indians, and I got to know the culture in a deeper way than other countries. India is so colorful, expressive, and beautiful. And the scenery – oh my god…I spent a month in Himachal Pradesh (the Himalayas) and it’s now my favorite place ever.

Also, I felt totally safe here as a solo female! I know people question India’s safety because of its reputation, but I felt it was one of the safest countries this year. Of course, I had to keep my wits, and I certainly think it helps to have some solo travel experience before coming here, but I just want to dispel any rumors and encourage everyone to GO TO INDIA!!!

What was my least favorite country?

While I loved every place in its own way, I have to say lower on the list was Indonesia. I spent 3 weeks in Sumatra, Indonesia, and there were hardly any tourists and I ended up spending a lot of time alone. I felt so isolated that I ended up leaving Indonesia sooner than I planned. However, one good thing to come out of it was that it inspired me to pivot my plans to more social countries, which turned my whole trip around.

How much did my trip cost?

My total cost came out to $45/day in Asia. I budgeted for $60/day, so I’m very happy about this.

  • This includes:
    • Hostels – I often got private rooms with A/C ($12-15 per night), which was my biggest line item. I slept in dorm rooms 25% of the time to save money here and there ($4-5 per night).
    • Food$10-12 per day. I tried to save money by eating local whenever I could. I also didn’t drink alcohol or smoke which helped save money, as this can add up for a lot of travelers.
    • Activities/tours – $10 per day. I tried to save money here by doing things on my own as much as I could, as tours can add up.
    • Transportation within a country – buses, trains, flights, scooter rentals (~$6 per day spread over my stay). This was an area I spent more than I needed as I prioritized comfort/efficiency over cost. I often splurged on domestic flights and even private cars.
    • Personal purchases – clothing, toiletries, gifts ($2 per day spread over my stay)
    • Travel paperwork – visas/health insurance/ COVID tests ($1 per day spread over my stay)
  • This does not include: Roundtrip flights from the U.S. as well as flights between countries in Asia

What were my biggest challenges while traveling?

I’ve been pretty open about my struggles with harassment this year. If you missed my post, you can find it here.

Did I feel unsafe?

Short answer, no. Generally, I felt safe throughout my travels and I certainly think it’s safe to travel alone in all the countries I visited this year.

But I don’t want to say that solo traveling was all glamorous as there were many moments where I felt uncomfortable and even 3 instances of physical harassment this year. I haven’t shared details on this blog and I probably won’t, but if we happen to cross paths in person, I’m happy to talk about it then.

The unique thing about these incidents was the moments leading up to the incident – I didn’t feel scared and felt like everything was normal. It all happened so fast, that by the time I was even able to process what was happening, it was over. I often found myself not speaking up quickly enough, which I regretted. As my travels went on, I learned to speak up right away the moment I felt uncomfortable physically. I think in life, we regret the times we don’t speak up versus the times we do.

What were my favorite experiences?

Hands down spending a month working at a hostel in Manali, Himachal Pradesh, India. I found this gig somewhat casually and unexpectedly, and it ended up being the best experience of my gap year. I have a faraway dream of opening my own hostel one day, and it was so valuable to learn all about what it takes to run one. Also, it was the only time this year I felt like I was living somewhere. I loved getting to know the community and living village life in the Himalayas. I will never forget this.

A close second was accomplishing the Ha Giang motorcycle road trip in northern Vietnam completely solo. There was something empowering about having everything I needed strapped to the bike as I enjoyed the most beautiful mountain scenery in the entire world. The trip had many bumps, but tackling all the problems on my own gave me a major confidence boost. I never felt more alive in my entire life.

Lastly, a favorite memory this year was spending 9 days in Kampot, Cambodia – a sleepy riverside town with a bumping backpacker/expat scene. It was the beginning of my trip when I had all the time in the world, and I remember feeling so happy and carefree taking my scooter around every day and watching sunsets by the river.

Any regrets?

Looking back, I kind of wish I was less reserved at the beginning of my trip, both socially and with taking risks. At the time, I was adjusting to traveling and was more careful about everything, and I was also happier doing things alone. Nevertheless, I certainly made wonderful memories in my beginning countries like Singapore and Cambodia despite being more independent.

What did I learn?

The personal growth I gained this year is something I wouldn’t trade for the world. I learned to rely on myself, face my fears, live with my choices, put my prejudices aside, stand up for myself, go with the flow (still working on this one), and appreciate everything for what it is.

I went on this trip to grow in other areas in life other than climbing the corporate ladder. Living in NYC and SF my whole adult life, it was easy to get competitive with my peers, and deep down I always felt like there was more to life than the path I was on. The time off has been so incredibly valuable – meeting people around the world and learning different perspectives on life – something I would never have gained if I stayed in SF doing the same thing every day.

Moreover, I’m really glad I did this trip in my late-20s versus my early-20s when the idea was first incepted. I felt a lot more secure with myself and equipped to handle tough situations. I also did this trip at a point in my life when I really needed the break (especially after the pandemic), which made me appreciate every moment more. Also, it didn’t hurt to have more in my savings account. 🙂

How do I feel about returning to normal life?

I’m doing much better than I thought I would at this stage. There is the inevitable sadness that this trip is over, and my biggest anxiety right now is about finding a job at some point. But at the same time, the adventure is not over yet as Joe and I have big plans for our new trailer. So far, the excitement for our travel trailer has trumped any negative emotion.

I feel so blessed that I get to come home to more adventure, and most importantly, the best partner in the world. Without Joe, I would feel much more lost right now; he has grounded me this year and given me purpose beyond my solo travels. ❤

As for what’s ahead, Texas is our home base for the time being as we spend time with Joe’s family and continue to make improvements to our trailer. And soon, we’ll be off for our first road trip!! So many bright things ahead.

One thought on “Reflecting on my gap year: solo traveling in South & Southeast Asia

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s