Hoi An

Lonely in Pai (part one) or "How to make friends for travelling introverts"

Pai, Thailand

Just ask any traveller you bump into what the best thing about solo travel is and you can bet your bottom baht that at least one bright - eyed buddy will pipe up:

"Ooooohh you’ll never have a moment alone if you travel by yourself - You’ll meet more people than you ever would with friends!"

So it was I came to be sipping a fresh brew of crystallized ginger tea in a bookshop cum cafe aptly named - Lonely in Pai - pondering this most common of travel platitudes in hippy hang out Pai - Northern Thailand and coming to the conclusion that…well for me at any rate… it ain’t necessarily so.

Now before you throw your hands up in despair and say you thought this site would encourage and inspire solo female travel let me just say this - OF COURSE its easier to meet people on the road. Whereas smiling, making eye contact and inviting someone out for dinner may have had me pegged as a nutter in London - its practically de rigeur once on the road. If you are a natural extrovert: gregarious, charming and full of the joys of spring and being around people is what charges your batteries - then you can easily manage your travels to make sure you are never alone.

But I’m an introvert. I prefer to build a few, deep friendships rather than hit the 1000 friend mark on facebook and I need plenty of time and space alone to recharge. This has had some distinct advantages for solo travel. I like to think its my independent, pioneering spirit that has had me confidently tackle 15 strange new countries in 19 months, got me through 3 days of mountain trekking in Southern China and survived 7 days of silent meditation in Thailand.

But I’ve also realised that its my need to "vant to be alone" that can become my own worst enemy when constantly travelling to and settling in new places. I’ve found it all too easy to use the comfort of being in my own company as "my go to" default setting. How much easier it is to sit and read a book than strike up a conversation with someone new, so much more hassle free to organise the days activities by myself than compromise with a group, so much less work than having to answer "and where have you travelled to so far" for the umpteenth time that day. And because its so damn easy to have dinner by myself that is what I will then do for 5 days on the trot with nothing but a voice in my head for company until suddenly I realise I’m feeling not just alone but…lonely.

And the realisation strikes that what is most easy for us isn’t always what’s best for us. I find when I’m by myself for long periods of time that it gives that voice in the head free reign to rear its ugly head. That’s the problem with us innies (introverts) we have a tendency to ruminate - and before you know it my harmless analysis has turned to anxiety and wondering to worrying.

If, like me, you don’t always find it the most natural thing in the world to make five new best friends an hour ;) then here are 7 ways I’ve found useful in getting myself out of the loneliness trap and out there connecting with people on the road.

1) Just Say YES 

It was Guatemala - Antigua, he was a tall, gorgeous, twenty something German with a goatee. I was wearing a strangely ok looking long black vest dress. They were all going off road quad biking and they’d invited me to join them… "I can’t ride a bike" I stammer… eyes locked onto his chocolate browns. "It’s ok, you can ride on the back of mine" he answers. So of course I said…………. "Er no thanks," Whhhhhyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy? Perhaps it was not being able to think that quickly off the top of my head or because I was still mooning after my last romance . More likely than not it’s because I was afraid. Afraid of saying yes to the unknown connection. So make a decision to just SAY YES and be spontaneous to whatever offer comes along and not just if the asker is a tall, gorgeous German dude with a goatee. 

2) Get Out there and Do Something less Boring Instead!

Even if no one else has made you an offer - make a decision to get out there and do an activity anyway. One of the best ways of taking my mind of …well my mind… and meeting new people is to do a day excursion or an activity. If you’ve been travelling or living somewhere a while on the road you may have decided that your adventure is oh so much more authentic than the hordes of other tourists and holiday makers passing through and heaving themselves up to the temple on the hill or the cooking class - BUT it’s still a great way to meet a bunch of new people and just get yourself out in the (hopefully) fresh air…

3) Have an Impromptu Art Lesson in Hoi An.

hoi an, Vietnam

Or rather say Hello to someone you’d never normally meet. I ended up having an impromptu art lesson in Central Vietnam when I wandered into an artist’s back room by mistake and asked him where I could buy some drawing paper. He cleared out his own beautiful ink drawings, got out some scraps of rice paper and handed over the brushes to me patiently watching my own half assed attempts at minimalist art with the instructions "no wrong only right." :) Try to cast judgements aside on the road, you may not be sure the strangely bearded man in the bob marley tee and the luminous board shorts is going to be your next best friend, but you never know. Part of the fun of travelling is meeting people you wouldn’t normally ever meet and they could at least end up making a very interesting dinner companion.

4) Slum It in Shared 

can be tempting as an older traveller - to go for a private room but staying in a dorm for at least the first night of your arrival somewhere new makes it so much easier to meet people. If the thought of "getting down with the kids" makes you come out in a cold sweat then take heart that not all dormitories are created equal. Some - notably the IHA branches - seem to deliberately cater to teens on their first trip abroad but many are suitable for older travellers as well as being cheaper than a guesthouse. They’ll often have communal hang out areas as well as organising group activities and entertainment.

5) Put down the shield and smile

Portland, Oregon

I read once that if you are attending a networking function you should never eat the canapes because in group situations we retreat back to our primate days and animal behaviour dictates that we leave each other alone when we nosh.(Just think how growly and riled dogs get when you try and get near their dinner bowl while they are eating!)So if you are dining alone be sensitive to that and strike up a conversation before the food arrives. Likewise if people see you glued to a computer screen or engrossed in a book then they are unlikely to start chatting. It can be tempting to take some reading material along for company but its easier to make new friends without the shield of glowing screen or spine of book to hide behind.

6) Surf Couches, Meet UP

Couchsurfing was a godsend when a 3 week trip around Colombia was canceled at short notice and I found myself with an unexpected month to hang out in Buenos Aires. I joined and posted a notice saying I was soon to be arriving in Argentina and got a flood of 30 or so invites out. Yes - if you are a solo female traveller - you may need to pick through the dodgy romantic offers but it’s worth it and when I decided to settle in Chiang Mai for a little while I made a couple of close female friends through the site who helped me discover the eclectic and jazzy nightlife of the little city.

Pai, Thailand

7) Find the Communal in your Community.

There are some places both on and off the backpacker trail that become legendary in traveler circles as natural hang outs where communities form. Pai in Northern Thailand is one such place. Here - as Otto (a long haired, beared Thai hippy and owner of Art in Chai)explains: "It doesn’t matter who you are…what you look like, where you from. In Pai no one judge you. If you love Pai…Pai love you." Perhaps that’s why travellers who visit this village nestling in a valley of Northern Thailand intend to stay for a few days and find themselves here days, weeks and even months later.

It isn’t just the attitude of the cheery Thai Hippies with their skinny tie dye clad frames and long hair that makes this place so relaxed and welcoming, there are some great communal hang outs where you can meet other travellers too. "Art in Chai" that Otto owns is a great place for coming and chilling for an hour or three. They make fresh chai latte with delicious soy, vanilla or coconut milk and grind up the spices in front of you. There are bookshelves for reading material, art (designed by Otto) to browse and its also a place where local and travelling musicians are welcome to turn up and jam. As one long term expat Mike said:

"This is the kind of place where its easy to make new friends."

It stays open late though most regulars move on to the live acoustic music sessions at Edible Jazz off the main walking street once the sun goes down. Another great communal hang out. So there you have it - that’s 7 ways to deal with loneliness on the hoof but the truth is however many friends you make there are inevitably going to be parts of your trip where you find yourself alone.

In Part 2  I'll be looking at how to embrace and accept those moments of down time on the road. 




Travelling by Buddha Bike A Vietnam Vet and Thieves in the Temple tonight

Mr Hue picks me up at a sprightly 8am for my motorbike trip from Hue to Hoian. I 've been deliberating whether or not to do it – it costs $63 which is well out of my budget and the local bus only costs $5 to get there in half an hour. Having said that this may be the last part of proper travel I do in Vietnam and as motorbikes seem like they outnumber people 2:1 in this country – what better way to see the country??? The scenic route will stop at blue lagoons, waterfalls, wind up a mountain path, beaches and tomorrow take in the Cham ruins at My Son. 

Plus - I'm happy to pay a little more for a driver I trust with a good bike as I have an exceptionally bony bottom! 

 

Mr Hue has a bright red Honda with a lady buddha sticker on the front of it – its the Buddha bike! I watch with trepidation as he manages to strap The Bastard (my backpack) to the back of it and then we get going. Our first stop is the Blue Lagoon where villagers live on boats. They rise at 1am in the morning to go out and cast their nets and they are just returning as we arrive around 10. 



Although people keep telling me its rainy season in Central Vietnam the clouds have parted and both the sky and the lagoons are a deep navy blue. The water is split into a little patchwork divided by grass paths as far as the eye can see. I ask a couple if i can take their photo and they precariously balance themselves in the boat and beam at me with great toothless grins. In the background paddy fields filled with water glimmer under the sun, strewn with lilly pads and the brown fingers of rice at the end of its season. The great grey shimmering flanks of buffalo slowly wade through them. 

We take off again and wind up a hill stopping for a view over the motorway that curls down the hill in a grey ribbon to the beach. Its a much needed break for my bottom. Mr Hue tells me about how much they hate the Chinese. I ask him if its the people or the history and he says “both!” 

Vietnamese find the Chinese rude and arrogant. But also China recently invaded after the war with America when Vietnam was its weakest. 

He talks again with gentle sadness about the war – how Vietnamese were killing each other (North and South) and how he doesn't receive any money from the government for his losses its only the people in the North that compensation. 



Our next stop are the Elephant Waterfalls. In the pictures he's shown me , taken in peak season, they look packed with locals and tourists alike but blissfully – I get the place to myself. They are set high up in the mountains amongst shady pines. A rock shaped like a large elephant sits at the water's mouth and more great smooth stones collect into a series of pools of crystal clear emerald water. I strip off surreptitously... and go for a swim. The water is cool and fresh and the current strong. A gorgeous and tranquil way to relax and refresh. 

When we get to the highest point of the mountain we stop to take in views over Langao Beach – a golden crescent moon of sand far below, and admire the deep blue of the south China sea. 

 

At the highest point are bunkers that were used in the civil and American war. The strange slitted towers are pocked with bullet holes. From one side we can lok down to Hue and the other side the town of Danang. 

We start to make our descent down the spriralling road until we get to South China Beach at Danang. 

"Wheeeeeeee!" i scream and then "um can i hold onto you?" 

"Why not?" he says affably. Far out to see is a white Buddha on a hill. I go for a dip. There are a group of teenage boys doing backflips – showing off for my benefit. I wade out into the surf which is warm and frothy then make my way back. 

Mr Hue is talking to an older man who has pulled up along side on his motorbike and stares out to sea with solemn eyes. He looks younger than his sixty something years - on the white streaking through a wiry goatee gives away his age. He tells me that he lives in Ho Chi Minh and that he fought in the American (what the Vietnamese refer to as the Vietnam war) as a 19 year old Marine. This is the first time he has been back since the war. He has come to remember his friends and family that he lost in the war. His eyes fill with tears as he tells me about the friends he lost in combat - some who took their own lives. 

“We were without food or drink, without ammunition. Some of my friends killed themselves with grenades, because they were without hope.” 

He apologies for getting upset. I thank him for sharing his story. Again - with such a bloody and savage recent history I shouldn't be suprised that I have met people still nursing the wounds. It is a sombre end to the afternoon. 

We finish the day visiting the Marble mountain. As the sun is setting I head up the hill past a windy village filled with marble statues. There are a tour group from Mauritious with me in sensible travel sandals and pleated shorts. I tag along with them to go in the various caves as the damp, the dripping and the darkening light is beginning to un -nerve me. The buddha cave is eery -the walls and ceiling drip with globules of unseen condensatin, its filled with bats and the smell of incense. Someone I think is a guide shows me where to go, helping me up a stone. I don't feel comfortable as the stones are wet and slippery and i'm in flip flops – he has also brushed his hand against my arse one too many times for it to be an accident. I back off and bark at him. He asks for a tip. Not likely mate. 



The rest of the mountain is also set with caves of differing sizes – some filled with Budhha statues. I go into another cavernous one and another “guide” also chats me up whilst handing me incense sticks to light and offer to the statues. I do but i'm feeling uncomfortable. The sun has almost set. Its dark and cold and i'm in a strange shadowy place with men that don't know how to keep their hands to themselves. 

I make my way back down the mountain and find Mr Hue and we head into Hoi -an. 

He takes me to the hotel where he stays and the staff greet me with a complimentary cup of green tea, macaroons and face wipes. It's needed to get the grime and dirt off the day. I'm given a room next to reception which they assure me will be quiet. 

The next day I go upstairs to the roof terrace and take my obligatory banana and chocolate pancake and coffee. When I come down 20 minutes later the cleaners are doing my room which I find suspicous but I pick up my purse and Mr Hue and I get going. 

We arrive about an hour later into My son. These ancient ruins are from the Cham civilisation that ruled Vietnam from 200 ad, its a World Unesco Heritage site and its been compared to Angkor Wat – but as i'm heading to the latter in Cambodia I kind of wish i'd saved my time. Entry fee is 60,000 (about 2 quid) and just as I arrive there is a show put on in the cultural centre. A mix of women in exotic sequiny straps make langorous dance moves slowly and listlessly lifting their legs and curling their arms to forms their many handed goddess shapes. Another man comes on – he is a big hit in the local village apparently and plays traditional Cham music on a kind of kazoo through which he manages circular breathing – enabling him to hold a particularly loud raspberryish note for an excruciatingly long time. I can feel the women in front of me clench their cheeks as they smile through gritted teeth. Sitll its only half and hour – which always makes a good show in my book. The rest of My Son is a series of temples that are categorised under letter headings. Some are undergoing restoration. Its a scorching day and the ruins are packed with tourists in their groups with tour guides explaining the history......i go into a cube shaped temple which was used as a tomb. Its pitch black inside and cool. Suddenly a guide outside starts screaming: 



“Get out of the temple, everyone out of the temple NOW!!!!” 

“Snaaakkkkkeeeees!!! there are snakes in the temple – everyone get out.” 

There is a mildly concerned push for the exit until we are outside and can see small green and black stripey snakes winding their way through the brickwork. 

Is it worrying that my very first thought is: This would be such a cool way to go... 

“Ooh its like Indiana Jones!” I say to the French middle aged women next to me as they elbow past 

At the end of the day I get back and go to pay Mr Hue. I realise that 2 million dong (about 60 quid) has been taken from my wallet. I immediately think back to the cleaners who were doing my room whilst I was at breakfast and wished i'd checked it then. I start to doubt myself – the hotel seems very good and the staff are all really nice. Maybe it wasn't 2 million dong maybe i'd spent some of it. Maybe I got short changed along the way . I go back to the hotel and confront them. I've thought to myself that morning “i shouldn't travel carrying all of this money” I just wish I'd checked my purse to see how much exactly I had. Then I could have had it out there and then. I speak to them and the cleaner when I get back and she denies it. There was another middleaged women with her that thinking about it was maybe only pretending to be with the hotel. I'm angry at myself for leaving my wallet out. But i'm still now doubting how much was taken and when. I'm pretty sure when I got my wallet out at My Son I could see the blue notes of the 500 bill in my purse. And i'm pretty sure nothing dropped out and was taken then. Ah well. Its gone. I can't do anything about it now – I just need to learn the lesson. I've become complacent in Asia because its so much safer than everywhere else i've been but the moment your guard goes down this is what happens. And it leaves a nasty taste in the mouth.

An Art Lesson in Hoi An Vietnam and the essence of Creative failure

Hoi An, Vietnam

When I was last on the road I had the bright idea of documenting my long term travels in a slightly more interesting medium than the upload of a gazillion facebook photos.

I'm tempted to buy an old note pad and some paints and have a very amateurish go and sketching my locations as an alternative. However coming upon artist materials travelling through south east asia is easier said than done, until that is i had an impromptu art lesson courtesy of Mr Wan...

There is nothing like being somewhere heart breakingly romantic to remind you how unutterably alone you are.

On one such evening in Central Vietnam I took a stroll into Hoi-Ann. A picture postcard of how I like to think Vietnam looked in the 18th century.

A little golden bridge arcs a milky green river strung with different coloured lanterns. In the water villagers offer rides from old wooden rowing boats, and crouching on the banks they sell paper lanterns with lit candles inside for people to float down the water for luck.

I sigh audibly. I can't remember when i've ever been somewhere so pretty, I can't remember the last time I missed being in a relationship so much and wished I had someone along side me holding my hand. The water is awash with the gentle amber glow of the floating paper lanterns. I go for a meal on the water's edge and have another speciality to Central Vietnam. Succulent (for a change) grilled pork with rice paper rolls and a sweet broth with peanut sauce, washed down with some beer

The old town is filled with tourist shops hawking Vietnamese cloth, little figurines and ink paintings on rice paper. I stop in one little shop that sells the latter and ask the man inside if he knows where I can buy any paint and paper. Instead he shepherds me inside. 

“I don't want to buy a painting just paints” I explain. 

"I understand" he says " Sit down." 

I sit down at his work table in a dimly lit backroom - the outline of his mother (?) is just visible lying horizontal on a mattress further in. He gets some scraps of rice paper out of his newspaper. I start to look around the shop – outside he has brightly coloured acrylic and oil canvases in sunsetty colours of traditional Vietnamese scenes - women in their elegant long flowing shifts and trousers, and conical hats wading through paddy fields. 



He dips his paint brush in the black ink and starts to paint on the scrap of paper. A sea, some bamboo in the foreground, a little rowing boat with the pointy hats of the men just discernible and a fishing line.

“Now you!” He says handing me the brush. 

“Oh no!” I protest. But as i've asked for artist materials and he seems to think i'm a painter – I can't really refuse. I take the brush and diligently start trying to paint a similar scene: sea, bamboo, boat, people. 

“Quicker!” he says. 

“No wrong...” he says taking a brush again and deftly pushing the fat body of the bristles down to make a bamboo stem in record time. 

Then he does a lady – with three or four simple quick strokes. 

“Easy. Do quicker. No wrong." 

He means there is no such thing as wrong. I try again, making just a few confident bold strokes and get a little better. Then he takes some more paper and shows me the symbol for LOVE in Chinese and Vietnamese – and then how to paint the characters – the numbers. 

At first i'm still holding the brush like a pencil but he encourages me to push it down flat and make big fat strokes. After a happy half an hour painting with him he gives me one of his sketches as a keepsake and I leave for some food. 

I used to love art – it was always one of my best subjects at school until the glacial Miss Sage put me off it for the next two decades. 

“Is this o.k?” 

I'd ask her – not sure if i'd got whatever technique we were learning, down correctly... 

“ well that's about all it is, isn't it” she'd say with about as much warmth and humanity as an arctic wolf. 

She had a penchant for stripey parisian style cardigans and culottes, one hazel eye and one blue (both able to pierce you to the spot along with the froideur of her ice cold sarcasm) along with a nasty case of short (wo)man syndrome. 

Don't choose your subjects because of your teachers -they tell you. Well I did – and subsequently left my art career behind at 15. 

If there is one thing i've learnt since about creativity and how to nurture it back to life – its this. Failure is essential. We don't get anything right first time and we don't learn anything by trying to be perfect. Contrary to everything Miss Sage might have thought – Wan my Vietnamese artist friend has it right – there is No WRONG. 

Now where did I put those brushes…