Traveling solo. Sounds scary, right? It may for most people but here I am to tell you, that it is beneficial on so many levels. I am traveling solo from my very first trip, even though my first 30 years of my life I didn't travel at all. Born in Slovakia, which was a part of the Eastern block before 1989 there were almost no opportunities to travel for obvious political and ideological reasons. I was finishing the secondary school when the Velvet Revolution happened and borders suddenly opened. That time, I didn't really think I will ever travel, let alone as a solo traveler. It took another 10 years before I embarked on my first major overseas journey.
First time traveling solo
It was not a holiday. I have never flown by plane until that moment and from nothing, I traveled all the way to the other side of the globe. I flew Downunder to Sydney in July 2000. Scary thought, with no experience and limited English. What a way to welcome the new millennium. Long story short, after few trips back and forth I anchored in Sydney for few years and in 2008, I landed a job in Singapore. And that was where my obsession with traveling really started. Singapore has the perfect location to travel around South-East Asia. And since then I am taking every opportunity to travel somewhere whenever time and finances allow.
Apart from few occasions, traveling solo was, and still is my preferred way. Why? People I knew, my colleagues and friends didn't like active holidays like myself and they were not into photography either. And I am always ready to take on discomfort for the sake of experience. I wasn't excited by the idea of spending my precious vacation drinking in a bar, eating in fancy restaurants, going to crowded tourist beaches or shopping in malls. I went my own way and I have no regrets.
Traveling solo as photographer
I cannot stress enough the benefits of traveling solo when you intend to take photos, shoot films and document your travel adventures. Taking selfies is not what I mean. The Internet is full of tutorials on how to do that. Articles touching on the benefits of actually documenting your destination as a solo traveler with some examples are little harder to find.
How did traveling solo improve my photography and how it made my trips better? I almost always came back with better photographs and certainly with much richer experience when traveling solo. I understood the culture better, I met more people and made more friends. Why is it so much better to be a solo traveler you may ask? Here is what my experience is (also applicable to a general traveler). Even if I didn't take pictures, my overall experience would be dramatically different. Better. All these points are also somehow connected. I included few photographs with this article, that might not have existed if I traveled as a part of a group.
When I took the train from Da Nang to Hue in Vietnam, I sat with this lovely family of four with two young kids. With so much time to spare, I photographed them the whole time and they didn't even notice. I was the only foreigner in the carriage, so they felt comfortable, even in my presence. They were very natural. This is only one of the many shots I took that day.
Get better exposure to the local culture
If I am not a part of a group, I pay more attention to my surroundings. I can catch situations that I'd miss otherwise. I observe the local customs, I live and breathe the atmosphere, I am part of the set. One can learn a lot by observation. People are usually more reserved towards a bigger group. Especially those living in areas that are not commonly exposed to foreigners. From experience, I can tell, that it is much easier for me to approach people as a single person. Same goes for my subjects. A single foreigner is not as daunting as a bigger group. They are more likely to agree to be photographed or engage in conversation.
I spent some time with this H'mong family in Laos. It was an absolute privilege that the shared the roof, food and their culture with me. Because I have spent quite some time with them, they got relaxed and used to my presence. The camera was not a scary thing anymore. I photographed with respect and used common sense about when to press the shutter. As in every situation, there are moment when I turn the camera down
It is much easier to blend in
This sounds a bit strange from tall, blonde western guy that stick out everywhere, but regardless, this still works. And it ties in with the previous point as well. As long as I don't draw too much attention by too flashy clothing (or lack of), I talk mildly, I am polite and not trying to disturb the usual flow of things, I can become "invisible". Not literally of course, but in a sense that people stop paying attention to me after a while. When I find myself in that moment, it is the best time to get some great shots. Remember, keeping a low profile is a good thing.
Take a look at the photograph of this man sitting on his bike. I walked around few times and of course, he noticed me. After the third or fourth time, he stopped paying attention and I got this photograph of him very relaxed, and casually smoking the cigarette. Not many people would have been patient enough to walk around few times and wait for the right moment.
Few words in the local language can go a long way
...after I greet her and asked her name in the Khmer language, she gave me this beautiful smile...
I made it a habit to learn basic phrases in the local language when I travel. If alone, I am sort of forced to do it anyway in order to get around. There are times I don't have a translator available and I meet people who don't speak English. It is not necessary to learn a whole lot. Few basic words such as greetings, polite conversation starters, ways to thank etc. is a good start. It can go a long way. Furthermore, from experience, my efforts speaking a local language always acted as the ice breaker. I clearly remember the smiles on people faces trying to pronounce some tongue breaking words. And I remember the photographic opportunities that I was presented with after such a conversation attempts.
Take this photograph of this beautiful Cambodian girl for example. I took it near Siem Reap when I met her in a small village way off the usual tourist destinations. Granted, she was curious, but after I greet her and asked her name in the Khmer language, she gave me this beautiful smile. These basic words are very simple. Everybody can pick them up.
More chances to mingle with locals
It is obvious, that when traveling solo, I am naturally inclined to be around local people more. The more time I spend with locals the more opportunities I have to photograph them. I think that's pretty obvious These excellent opportunities to learn more about their culture, pick up some of their languages or befriend them. They might take me to places I would otherwise have no access to or be not aware of their existence. Clearly, both sides can benefit from such encounters. For example, quite a number of these people are eager to learn or practice English. You see where I am going with this?
In 2010 I was in the Himalayas, trekking to Everest base camp. I had my guide Agasta with me and young Sherpa porter. I met many tourists along the way but somehow I spent most of the time with Agasta and with other Sherpa people we met along the way. They took me to their "quarters", a little hut where all guides and porters slept. Normally this is off limit for tourist. If I was a part of a bigger group it is not likely this would happen. I had a great time with Sherpa porters, playing pool at 4800m in Lobuche. I still cannot believe somebody carried a pool table to that altitude.
Unexpected may happen
When I am traveling solo, there is always a high chance that unplanned things will happen. And I speak about things that send your travel experience level through the roof. For example, unexpected invitations are such a thing. I was trekking in Bhutan in Samtegang area. I stopped with my guide in two villages along the way. In the first one, I joined the local crowd in efforts of building a new monastery. In the second village, I got invited inside traditional Bhutanese house. Lady of the house cooked traditional butter tea. We sat and talked and I enjoyed this unexpected foray into Bhutanese culture.
These two women invited me into their home. We drank traditional butter tea and discussed matters between western vs Bhutanese culture. Great moment to snap a photograph. The subsequent marriage arrangements (or was it a joke?) with their 15-year-old daughter was icing on the cake. Thankfully, I managed talk myself out of this one.
Flexibility, flexibility and did I mention flexibility?
For a photographer, flexibility is invaluable. Freedom to go anywhere and any time helps and greatly increases the chances of getting good photographs I am able to explore new locations and opportunities at my will. Or if necessary, I can stay put and wait for the perfect light or a moment. There is nobody to tell me what to do, where or when to go or leave. It is liberating. I don't need to explain people why am I doing it, why I need to stay longer or why I wait for that shaft of light to hit mu subject. Nobody is getting mad at me that I woke them up too early in the morning when trying to catch that beautiful morning light. I usually take better photographs without this kind of stress. I don't think much else is needed to say here.
A few years back I was in Thailand during demonstrations. I spent almost 8 hours in the crowd. I learned about important was about to make an appearance in the rally. That day I found my inner photojournalist. I quickly moved to different part of the city to witness that moment. The former Thai prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva gave a speech to the crowd and my patience was rewarded with this shot.
It is easier to meet people
I live in Sydney at the moment. But I have more friends in Cambodia than here. Traveling solo allows me to meet more people. I am not every day with the same group. I go out alone and meet different people every day. And they are amazing and some of the most inspiring people I ever met. Many of them are my friends now for what I am very thankful. Furthermore, whenever I visit the same country again, there is somebody I already know. That also brings a certain degree of safety into the subsequent trips to the same country.
I met a young Buddhist novice in Luang Prabang, Laos. The spent their free time working in his grandmother's garden on the banks of Mekong river. I went there regularly, every day. They were curious themselves and we started to talk and then I was invited to take look at the garden. I snapped this photograph that day.
I can take my time
"Speed" travelers are people I never really understood. The main goal for me is not to visit as many countries and places withing given time as possible. Our lives are already fast enough. I like to slow down when on road. Traveling solo allows me to go at my own pace, stop, enjoy, observe and learn. And when I feel so, keep going. If I want to photograph a certain landscape, scene or person, I wait until the time or moment is right. It is already hard to really experience the place or culture within limited time we get on holidays but it is impossible to do so from a "speed train". You know what I mean, right?
I took this photo in Cambodia. It took more than an hour of waiting for right subject and them little more to catch the right moment. Just for one photo. Is it worth it? It is for me.
I learn more about myself
If you asked me about nomadic homestay 10 years ago, I'd probably look at you with wide open mouth. Seeing Nat Geo documentaries and experiencing this on my own skin are two entirely different things. I never thought I could, or even want to do it. Until I tried. In my opinion, this is one of the best experiences one can have when traveling. I started slow, initially with short one day one night trips. And soon I realized how much I enjoyed this and how much better it could be if no other tourists were around. I got completely immersed in the culture. This is the best way to do it. I understand that for most people, it is definitely something out of comfort zone but absolutely worthwhile trying. As a result, I got some of the best and most intimate photographs while I was on a nomadic homestay.
This is a very intimate photograph from nomadic Mongol ger. It depicts the relationship between mother and sons and tells a story about their daily life. I spent a whole week with them. Middle of nowhere without any Mongolian language skills (it is a tough one to master, even the simple words), yet it was an experience of a lifetime.
I can make a difference
Even a little smile I give back can make a difference. It doesn't take any effort. And it is good for my soul. By doing so, I feel better. There are many ways how to go about it and many ways the local people or environment can benefit from my presence. Often just being polite and respectful is good enough. By talking to them I help them to practice English. I learn about them in the process and they appreciate that somebody is actually genuinely interested in them and their way of life. Easy. Any helping hand is always and everywhere welcome.
During my stay with an H'mong family in remote Laotian hills, I helped the kids to do their homework. Then we drew pictures of things and I taught them how to say them in English. I am not sure how much they remember from that day, but what I know they enjoyed it so much. And so did I.
This is not photography related, but traveling solo helps saving money. That's always a good thing. For example, I avoid fancy restaurants or luxury accommodation. I cannot count how many times I slept at the airport. If I can, I eat street food which is cheaper and better that it's "restaurant" version. I do not go to pubs, bars or parties. Since I travel alone, I have o obligation to socialize this way and there is nobody looking at me as a strange individual. I can invest the saved money towards future adventures, or travel gear.
Traveling solo makes me a better traveler. I leave a smaller footprint and I am able to help the real people. For example buying a food from a street vendor rather than supermarket helps to keep his business alive. I'll chat to him as he is preparing my meal and learn something more about him. Just a small thing but it means a world to me and it makes difference to him.
I made tons of friends when traveling solo. It is easier. Some of them became my friends for life. Whenever I visit their country again I pay them a visit.
Here is my friend Agasta. He is a trekking guide in Nepal. I trekked with him in 2010, and then again in 2012. We became good friends and. we still keep in touch. Every time I visit Nepal I pay a visit to him and his family.
On the closing note, I don't say traveling solo is be all and end all. What I say is to give it a try if you find yourself in a situation you don't have a travel buddy. I don't deny that traveling with a friend or partner has also its advantages. If I found a person who has same goals and same interests I would be up to it. It is like in a relationship, it is sometimes hard to find a match.