According to my mum, I’ve been flying alone since 7 years old. Amazing hey? You need to know more about flying alone as a 7-year-old.
I was born in Miri, which is one of the smaller cities in Malaysia. My grandparents live in Kuching, another Malaysian city that’s slightly bigger than Miri. Thanks to the untarred roads back then, it was a hellish 12-hour drive between Miri and Kuching + 2 unavoidable ferry trips. Sitting at the back of the car, those bumpy rides could always cause us a punctured tyre (or two if we didn’t pray hard enough). Some roads were so rough that only cars will off-roads capabilities could lurch through them. I remember cramming the backseat with my sister and brother and we would always fight between each other for more space for ourselves. And I would always win without much fighting because I’m the youngest. Yes, I am feeling judged now. I was that pampered.
Moreover, Malaysia is freaking burning all the time. It’s so hot and for some reasons, the AC in our jeep was ALWAYS FAULTY. We had to swap our seats every hour because only the middle person at the backseat would get the most AC. My brother/sister thought it was unfair for me to sit in the middle for the whole time. Again, I still got to sit in the middle more, because I’m the youngest.
To make it worse, I had (and still have) the worst motion sickness that you can ever imagine in your life. Normally, when I have to reply a text, I will feel a little dizzy after having my head down for a while. Looking at the phone for five minutes in the car will have me feeling nauseated. Imagine how much worse it was when I was younger. That insane 12-hour drive can make me vomit all my intestines out. It was so bad that my mum had to prepare multiple plastic bags so that I could vomit in them. Not all of my vomit entered the plastic bag, though.
I just dreaded to go back and visit my grandparents by driving. And let’s not forget that it’s another 12 hours back home! Don’t get me wrong; I love my grandparents so much (one of the biggest reasons is because my grandma cooks amazing food) and I love spending time with them. I had a lot of fun times with my cousins and my uncles and aunts treat me really well. But I just don’t want to go visit by driving!
Then there’s this one time, my summer holiday had started and my parents couldn’t go back and visit for some reasons. They thought that it was a good idea to let a 7-year-old child fly back to Kuching, alone. They reassured me that my uncle will pick me up from the airport and it’d be fine.
It was not fine.
My mum said I cried so much to the extent that the whole airport thought that my mum was abusing me. Luckily, the air-stewardess who took care of me knew my weak spot and gave me some food to stop me from crying. Yes, I was already in love with food when I was 7 years old.
Malaysia Airlines has an awesome programme called young passenger care. If someone below 16 is flying alone, s/he will be held under care by an air-steward or air-stewardess. So, it wasn’t really flying alone. I remember there was another young Caucasian girl (around my age) who was also flying alone, and we were under the care of the same air-stewardess. I don’t know what magic did the little girl possess; she did not cry and slept throughout the flight as if she had flown alone for a thousand times.
The plane landed safely in Kuching, and that 1 hour was the harshest fate that I had ever endured in my life. My uncle took me from the airport and yes, that was my first time flying alone. I wouldn’t really call it travelling alone, but I had the same daunting experience of boarding a flight by myself, at the tender age of 7 years old.
Since then, I travel back to Kuching mainly by flight. Once in a while, my parents would still drive and the kvetches would commence like those good old times. I also had quite a few experiences flying alone to Kuala Lumpur, which is the capital of Malaysia to join the rehearsals of the national youth orchestra. Flying alone wasn’t a big deal to me apart from that eventful first experience. And I thought travelling alone wouldn’t be something that much of a difference.
But I realised that it was a big difference when I had to go to London for an important interview. By just looking at the number of hours to fly from Kuala Lumpur straight to London without a stop-over scares me. It was not like the usual 1-hour flight between Miri and Kuching. It was 14 hours. And that flight involved another foreign country in another foreign continent. Just the thought of it scared me.
I was 17 years old that year and I didn’t want to ask my parents to come with me. I only got informed that I was chosen to go for that interview 2 weeks before the date of the interview. Flight tickets weren’t cheap and I didn’t want to add too much burden on their shoulders.
So I had to go by myself.
I had 11 days in the UK and I thought that it was a good opportunity for me to travel for a bit by myself and to debunk the myth that everyone in England eats big breakfast and fish and chips only.
That 11 days, changed my life completely.
I loved every single bit travelling alone in the UK. I fell in love right away with London. It was the perfect place for me to “try” the idea of travelling alone, or I like to call it solo travelling.
First of all, I noticed many differences. Born and raised in a small town, everything was a mega culture shock to me. Neither have I seen architectures as grandiose as Parliament House and Tower Bridge, nor have I seen people actually running for their trains because in my hometown, there’s no train! It was also my first time experiencing winter because, like I said, Malaysia is burning all the time. Putting on a winter jacket for the first time in my life felt weird because it’s something that I have no chance to wear in my country (I am actually wearing it now writing this post because it’s freezing in Melbourne, Australia now). It was also the first time of me seeing so many people of Caucasian, South Asian, Middle Eastern and African heritage walking around me. I have never seen so many of them because they are so rare in my hometown (I reckon the orang utans in my hometown outnumber them easily)!
Before going to the UK, I could never understand why do Europeans consume so much bread. I mean, rice is so much better! Why isn’t it the staple food in this part of the world? After walking past those huge boulangeries and bakeries, I had to rethink that why isn’t bread the staple food in where I’m from. I have never seen so many breads and buns in a store. Every single piece of them looked amazing, and I just wanted to try them all. Only after this trip, I realised that baguettes are actually supposed to be soft. It was a life-changing epiphany because I was very used to those hard, pathetic baguettes in Malaysia that might probably fracture someone’s bone if you whack them using the baguette.
Another thing that I have to say is, English accent is amazing. Like if someone with a British accent talked to me all day (or an hour) I might fall in love. I enjoyed listening so many languages flying in the air. I was shocked when I heard someone speaking in Teochew in the metro and they thought that no one there knew what they were talking about. To be fair, it is a pretty rare dialect. Little did they know that Teochew is my mothertongue. I tried my best not to eavesdrop, though.
London is a huge melting pot of cultures and I love it. That means my day in London can start with an English breakfast, wander around Chinatown in the morning, go to Camden for some authentic Argentinian lunch, sip a cup of coffee in an Ethiopian café, wander around the Jewish quarter, dine in a Polish restaurant for dinner and end the day by having a fun night out sipping Brazilian cocktails. I just love the pulsating vibe of a multicultural city and London nailed it.
Apart from the super strong currency (compared to Malaysian Ringgit) and the crappy weather that the UK is famous for, I loved every part of that journey and I was glad that I went solo.
I enjoyed my own solitude, exploring this massive city at my own pace. I started to realise that only after this trip that I appreciate spending the zen moment with myself and having no-one to talk to me (which is really weird because I’m a super talkative person), though it took me awhile to not hate spending time with myself.
About my pace, it could be too fast or too slow for different people; I do not like people waiting for me to capture that perfect moment. I have my own say on where I want to go and I can decide my own itinerary. If I like the place I’ll stay longer. And if I don’t, I hop on a bus or a train and leave. I love all the spontaneity that can happen anytime when I am travelling which most people might not be able to cope with. For example, I thought one day was enough for Cardiff because it was so boring. I immediately bought a bus ticket and left for Bath afterwards, which I was glad I did because Bath is so much prettier than Cardiff.
I love the fact that I can just wake up and go. I don’t have to wait for anyone to shower / make-up / laze around / do their hair / check their emails / wear a tux or anything that might wear my patience thin. Being a person who can just wake up, put on some clothes and go find out what the city has to offer, I find it hard to wait patiently for my travel buddy when all I want to do is to get out from that damn door and explore.
Logistics become so easy when you travel by yourself. It can be hard to come to a consensus with your travel buddy about where to go, what to do, where to sleep and other nitty-gritty details. It can be even harder when you guys have a different budget. Travelling solo has opened up many opportunities for me. If I feel like it, I can couchsurf and get connected with the locals. If not, I can just crash in a hostel and connect with other travellers from all over the world. Travelling alone makes you more approachable as you are not sticking with your pack. It’s easier for you to start a conversation with people, or for other travellers to ask you if you wanna explore the city with them or join that food tour together. Through this, I have befriended people from different countries, which about 80% of them I still keep contact with.
Yes, I find it frustrating sometimes when I am travelling alone. If I need to go to pee, I need to carry my whole backpack with me. It is hard to get a nice photo of yourself when you are asking someone else on the street to snap a pic for you. You can’t order too much because you have no one to share your meal with. Renting a car is out of the question. The list goes on and on, but let me tell you what. You will find new friends along the way, and you will experience everything together just like how you and your travel buddy will. Now you have someone to look after your stuff, to share a meal with, to take that insta-perfect photo, to go clubbing together and etc. Another bonus is, if you don’t like this new friend, just say bye and leave! If you are travelling with your travel buddy, even if you are on the edge of pulling his/her hair out you still have to stick together because you’ve probably booked all your accommodations in advanced.
I love travelling solo and I will continue to love it. It’s not because my life is very sad (or maybe it is) and I have no friends to go with me. You know what, I actually hated travelling alone as soon as I boarded my flight to London. I wanted to have friends around me. I am designed extroverted and it got so lonely while I was in London. But, travelling alone in the UK forced me to spend more time with myself and I am glad till today that I had that downtime to realise what I really want.
I entertain only myself and answer to my own dreams. I do everything I want and nothing I don’t want. I hate to produce a reason for what I want to do and I hate to compromise. This can sound really selfish, but how often do you stop and listen to only your thoughts and do what you want? How often?
And for sure, travelling solo isn’t always glamourous. I had troubles and I had to deal with it myself, be it a missed flight or a stolen passport or a train breakdown, everything can happen. Like it or not, I can only deal with it by myself. And believe me, after dealing with each and every incident, I grew so much. I felt like those problems which seemed humongous at first shrank as soon as I walked up to it and dealt with it. The feeling of empowerment is amazing. And when another problem comes in my way, I realise that I can trust myself a little more since I have already dealt with so much shit alone, I can deal with the next one.
Travelling solo is for me, and I am glad to know that when I was only 17.
But I didn’t know that I enjoy travelling alone so much when I boarded that damn flight to London, did I?
I know travelling solo might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but try it at least once. Take a weekend trip or a month-long trip to Latin America. Maybe you will love it, maybe you will not. But how do you truly know if you haven’t tried travelling solo yourself?
It might just be the next best thing you have done in your life.