Overcoming the Fear of Travelling Solo as a Senior

To escape the harsh Canadian winters of Nova Scotia, the place I call home, I do what more and more people are doing which is… to seek out some place that is warm. Florida is not the answer for me as has been the custom for many Nova Scotians in the past. For the last nine years, winters have taken me to the Far East, to such countries as Thailand, Viet Nam, Cambodia, Malaysia, Indonesia, Nepal, India, and, finally, last year to South America for the first time.

When I explain to friends, old and new, why I choose to travel to far off places by myself without my husband (Hubby), I get various reactions, such as: am I worried about getting sick, do I feel safe, how do I endure the long flights, or where do I get my energy? They might then end up by saying, “I could never do it.” Before addressing these concerns from the dubious, let me digress to the events leading up to my discovery of travelling solo as a senior female.

I never planned to do this kind of travel when Hubby and I moved to Nova Scotia from the big city of Toronto in 2006. It happened gradually. We kept meeting people in Annapolis Royal…the little town nearest to where we live in Victoria Beach… who had been to South East Asia. They helped perk my interest in the possibility of going there instead of to the south where we had gone previously. To my surprise I was able to talk Hubby into testing the Asian waters. We both realised it was so much cheaper to head east rather than south. For the same amount of money as we would spend to go to Cuba and stay at a resort for a week, we could stretch out our time away in Thailand, for example, to a month or more. Heck, after our second visit we realised we could stay for three or four months and live on a much smaller budget than we ever would if we stayed home. Home meant having to heat a century old house with oil and driving two cars.

Our home in Victoria Beach.

Annapolis Royal in December

After our fourth visit to SE Asia, Hubby announced that he was tiring of this part of the world and wanted to spend his next winter in Florence, Italy, where he had lived for a while as a young man. He also had friends in England he wanted to visit. The thought of spending my winter in either of these places left me cold (no pun intended). I was going back to Thailand again, not just for its warmth, but also because I wanted to shop. If you refer to one of my previous posts you will know why shopping in Thailand is my lure. Click on this link to read: Shopping the Markets in Chiang Mai.

Hill Tribe village in northern Thailand.

Night market in Chiang Mai

So now back to the concerns I have encountered from those who are interested in travelling solo as an older person. I say “interested” as I accept that not everyone wants to do this. We all have different ways of deriving satisfaction on our life’s journey. However, for those who would like to do it, but think it’s impossible to travel as a solo senior who is married, I want you to know it is… if you want it badly enough. You can convince your spouse or partner, if you have one, that it’s better for your relationship if you take time off from it and just trust. You can be safe if you use your common sense…this is where seniors have something that the younger set may not. You most likely won’t do anything crazy like walk around deserted streets late at night. You won’t get sick if you are careful of what and where you eat, and should you get sick there are tons of pharmacies with qualified staff and good hospitals in all the countries I have travelled to. Finally, you will survive the long trip overseas if you prepare yourself for the flight and take it easy for the first week by not eating too much spicy food and keeping a normal sleeping schedule. I have many tips for keeping in shape and staying healthy while travelling which I can address in a separate post if you want me to. For anyone who does decide to give solo travel a try, two things can happen:

  1. You will gain a thirst for more.
  2. Or if not, you will be glad you overcame any fear and just did it…once!

Either way you won’t regret it!

Fear of what disasters could happen are a huge concern for anyone starting off on a solo trip. When Hubby and I went on our separate trips in 2013, I was scared, but at the same time I was excited to be out there on my own. I could almost taste the freedom facing me. To deal with the fear factor, I started off with the familiar by travelling to Thailand first. I had friends there and was so familiar with this country that was becoming like a second home for me as Florence was for Hubby.

Viet Nam, however, was another story. My first night in Hanoi scared me to death when I was finally faced with the hoards of motorbikes and cars which seemed to be everywhere buzzing around like flies. With few traffic lights and police to direct the chaos, the Viet Namese drivers cope with a seemingly effortless charge ahead into the flow aiming for any spot that looks like a possibility. As a pedestrian, we must wait for a small gap or lull before heading out into the traffic. Then we pray the drivers see you and go around you rather than into you. I will be forever indebted to Mike and his wife, Diane, for helping me master the art of crossing the busy streets of Hanoi. Their presence was a gift because having been there many times, they were happy to not only be a guide for me, but to be my dinner companions. Aware that this was my first venture to a new place on my own, they kindly took me under their wing… or tried to. I can be awfully independent at times.

Hanoi traffic

My next leg of this solo journey took me to India and Nepal. This was the most daunting part of my whole trip. Any traveller will tell you that India isn’t easy…Thailand is a breeze in comparison. I was definitely put to the test by having to endure scams, pushy males, and sickness. You will come away from India either loving or hating it. By the end, I was somewhere in between. Should the opportunity arise to return, I would. If you want to learn more about my adventures in India you can click on my post Incredible India. 

This is Kerela in South India

Nepal came much easier to me, but it still had its challenging moments, such as my encounter with a bull who didn’t like what I was wearing. You can find out more about this adventure by reading my post Adventures in Nepal.

The Annapurna Massif – part of the Himalaya range.

What I learned from this trip was that any fear you might have about travelling on your own can be overcome by simply doing it. If you don’t have friends you can meet up with, you can always find fellow travellers willing to help you out at the places you stay or eat. Moreover, don’t discount the incredible helpfulness of the locals who in almost all cases will bend over backwards to help. Not everyone is out to scam you. Even in India which probably has one of the worst reputations for devising outlandish schemes to get your money, you will find incredibly helpful people.

So what I have learned about overcoming the fear that comes with travelling on your own is to gain all the information you can about whatever it is you need to know. And, of course, what better way to gain this information than by actually doing it. You can read all the guidebooks and talk to others who have done it, but the best teacher is your own experience. You will make mistakes, things will go wrong, you will get scammed, you will get discouraged, and sometimes feel very alone. However, look at these as the ingredients that make up the experience. Keep at it and you will get better at it. Fear will be replaced with love. Through your own growing, you will learn to not only love yourself more because you have done something you wanted to do and be proud because of it, but you will also become more accepting of all those you meet up with on your travels. You will become that better person where you will have gained a more open mind and be more compassionate towards those who have less than you. You will cease taking our wonderful country we call Canada for granted. This is what travelling solo has done for me, and I am so grateful that in my senior years I can still do it.

For more thoughts on my solo travels, you can refer to Travelling Solo or Not?

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” – Mark Twain

 

 

 

 

Is Chiang Mai Losing It’s Allure?

Is Chiang Mai Losing It’s Allure?

Am I not bored with visiting Chiang Mai in Thailand, you might ask? After all, this is my ninth visit to this exotic and oftentimes chaotic country, but my answer is still a resounding “No”. For me it’s not about how much I can see or do here; it’s more about what I can absorb and learn from it. Admittedly coming to Thailand is a bit like coming home for me. It’s comfortable and nurturing. Sometimes I wonder if it’s not becoming too comfortable. Perhaps I should stretch myself and travel to new places before it becomes impossible to do that?

Chiang Mai's moat at night.

Chiang Mai’s moat at night.

However, for now it’s enough for me to just be in the warmth of its beautiful sunshine. But hang on …all is not perfect! Chiang Mai’s air quality has worsened over the years… more vehicles and no decent transportation system all while the population continues to grow with huge numbers of tourists and new people moving in making this city less desirable for many of us. Furthermore, the slash and burn carried out by the northern rice farmers adds more fuel to the fire. Even though the local governor has stated all those who break a 60 day moratorium, beginning in February, will be fined, it’s only caused more problems as it’s now rumoured that they are outwitting the ‘powers that be’ by burning before the moratorium goes into effect. I have been here two weeks and already my sinuses are taking a beating.

So you might ask why I keep coming back to Chiang Mai to put myself through this torture? Well, it’s mainly because of the fabulous markets which I need to shop for my importing business and to meet up with old friends. I manage to immerse myself quickly into the worsening traffic, the bad sidewalks, the dirt and the noise, and accept all that makes this city an exciting place to visit. It continues to draw people of all ages from all parts of the world. It boasts of having one of the largest ex-pat communities in the world. It offers something for everyone in the realm of culture, food, night entertainment, and adventurous activities. If you want to escape the noise of the city you can retreat to a wat for meditation, a nearby provincial park for some bird watching and a walk in the woods, or stay at an elephant farm to commune with these beautiful beasts in their natural habitat.

Night Walking Market

The night walking market.

The market in Baan Tawae outside Chiang Mai.

The market in Baan Tawae outside Chiang Mai.

This year I chose to rent an apartment outside the centre or inner city away from the ‘madding crowds’. My new location near the airport is near enough to the action that I can grab a songthaw and be there in twenty minutes or less depending upon the traffic. Last week the temperatures were brought down with some much-needed rain, so I found myself walking to the Chiang Mai Gate, one of five gates leading to the centre of the inner city, since songthaws aren’t always readily available. Another reasonable alternative cropped up when I discovered a free shuttle service for tourists at the nearby Central Airport Plaza which will take me to the centre and back out if I can fit my schedule into theirs and not count on the last trip back at 7:15 pm which may or may not show up. Oh well,  available songthaws and reliable free shuttles aside, this is Thailand so I’m not complaining. One has to accept that things here happen on Thai time not our western time.

My apartment is in this condo-the Sereno Airport.

My apartment is in this condo-the Sereno Airport.

A nearby side street.

A nearby side street.

So far I’ve not only been meeting up with some old friends but also meeting some new ones….mainly Thai who speak good English. This is definitely a bonus as I can get a better idea of what is presently going on in their country and how they feel about it. The Thai have always had to be extremely careful of what they say about their Royal family…especially the King… but now it seems they have to be careful of what they say about their present Prime Minister who is the leader of the military backed government.

Thailand's beloved King as a young man.

Thailand’s beloved King as a young man.

Yes, I can read the Bangkok Post which gives its readers the impression that Thailand has settled down and getting back to business as usual following the military coup two years ago and the loss of their beloved King last year. Now the only son who carries a storied and eccentric past that many Thai question is going to take his place, and they wonder if he’s capable of filling the big shoes left behind by his father. I can also listen to the present Prime Minister’s Friday night speeches where the “lovely, smiling” Thai people are told they need to pitch in to help him bring the country together. In other words, they need to obey the laws of his government and work together if they are to better their quality of living, overcome corruption, and continue to be the leader of the pack in the Southeast Asian countries. All well and good. However, the quality of life doesn’t appear to be improving and economically the country is reported to be losing ground to the huge economic growth taking place in Viet Nam. Furthermore, the whole country is beginning to feel the effects of climate change. At present, the south is being hit hard with massive flooding while in the north the farmer’s are begging for rain as they see their rice crops drying up. The question is…can a military dictator who is reported to be paranoid about what the press will say about him and his government, and an eccentric prince with such a questionable past be able to steer Thailand in the direction it needs to go?

Thailand has had too many coups and Prime Ministers to count over the years since the Royal dynasty granted the country a constitution which brought into existence the role of the Prime Minister, a House of Representatives, and a parliament. Since then they have struggled to achieve a democratic form of government, but all efforts have been short-lived only to be replaced with military dictatorships. Fortunately, these numerous coups have all been carried out peacefully which says much about the Thai character. Most will tell you that it was the former King who was instrumental in pulling that off. Now that he is gone, what will happen next? So far so good. Many Thai are in mourning and will be until a year from his death which will be some time in October of this year. The present government has successfully orchestrated a peaceful transition and is promising to have a democratic election in 2018, but the people are wary and don’t seem to be too hopeful…at least those I have spoken to.

A massive display depicting the King's life and death.

A massive display depicting the King’s life and death.

Thai grief after his death.

Thai grief after his death.

The government claims that tourism is up over last year, but the vendors I deal with report their sales are down. They are worried about their decreasing sales and increasing rents which are putting some of them out of business. Small coffee shops and restaurants are either closing or relocating to the outer regions because of the rising rents. Large, more modern buildings and more cranes are evident in the inner city giving it a distinct cosmopolitan flare. With all of this happening, it’s definitely time the city got its long proposed transit system in place. The money is there or so says the government, but the council still has to get the songthaw operators on board. Who knew they held such power, but they do. In the meantime, they don’t seem to care about the fumes they are spilling into the already dirty air.

A songthaw

A songthaw

Ray and Koong owners of the small cafe One Peaberry.

Ray and Koong owners of the small cafe One Peaberry.

Where does all this leave me, I wonder? If I come back again I will seriously have to re-think where and how I will do my buying. Perhaps I need to come earlier… in December… get my shopping done quickly, and make a quick exit to the northern city of Chiang Rai where the air is definitely cleaner. I wrote a post on this northern city in the mountains after my visit there two years ago. Check it out at What About Chiang Rai?. Back then I wasn’t too impressed with the markets, but I’ve heard they are improving. Northern Thailand is dotted with colourful Hilltribe villages and tea/coffee plantations…. and it’s cooler! It may not have the allure of Chiang Mai but my health is more important. I will consider taking the tranquillity of Chiang Rai and leave the excitement of Chiang Mai to the young backpackers. For now, I’ll just have to deal with the present day problems in Chiang Mai, enjoy finding new treasures in the abundance of its markets, and revel in soaking up all the best of what it has to offer.

For more information on the markets in Chiang Mai you can check out my post on Shopping the Markets in Chiang Mai.

For more information on coffee growing in the north you can go to the website of the One Peaberry Cafe at www.onepeaberry.com.

Thailand Again?

“Are you going back to Thailand again? When are you leaving? What is it that draws you there?”

These are the three questions I can expect to be asked this time every year as I ready for my big trip over to Thailand. As most of you probably know my answer to the first one is an unequivocal “Yes, I am going back again.” In reply to the second question, I am leaving on December 9th from the Robert L. Stanfield Airport just outside Halifax arriving in Bangkok on the 11th causing me to lose a day. This will be my eighth visit. When I mention this, many then throw out the third question of WHY I would choose to go to the same country for eight years in a row?

The first time I was asked why I keep going back (my first trip was in 2008), I really had to give some serious thought to my answer, coming up with a few obvious reasons such as the warm climate, the Eastern culture, and the friendly people. Over the years my reasons have multiplied so the aim of this post is to help you understand what calls me back each year to this still beautiful and exotic country.

TO ESCAPE WINTER

This is undoubtedly a top priority for me and Thailand offers this in spades. Our winter months coincide with their dry season which is invariably sunny and hot. December and January are the most comfortable months.  After that it starts to heat up and can be quite humid as its near the equator. However, I will take this any day over howling winds, sleet and snow  which have become a steady diet in Victoria Beach in Nova Scotia. To give you an idea of just how important this is to me, this trip will be the second time I am going solo leaving “hubby” in Florence to shiver in the raw cold that it offers in winter. No thanks! I have been there twice and loved the city but could never imagine spending a winter there.

FRIENDLY PEOPLE

It was probably after our first whirlwind trip in 2008 when we were on our way home that I knew without a doubt that I would return again and the next time would be longer. The gentle smiles of the Thai people with their genuine greeting of ‘Sa wa dee ka’ accompanied with a wei ( a forward bow of the head with hands together) did it for me. I sometimes wonder where they get all their patience especially with us tourists who are coming in droves often failing to leave a positive impression. We live by the clock over here in our Western world and the Thai don’t. They also don’t understand why we let little things like being overcharged for a tuk -tuk ride get us so angry.  The Thai are usually more than happy to help us out if we run into any difficulty, and the ones we have met are honest to the nth degree. Hubby has left his wallet, camera, and glasses at various places over the years and never once did he not get them back.

THE THAI CULTURE

About 95% of the Thai population practices the Theravada form of Buddhism. Unlike all other religions, it does not emphasize how or what we must believe but more on how we can better ourselves in this life by carrying out positive actions in the way of the Buddha. The wats or temples are open all the time and everyone is welcome so unlike our churches which are for the most part only open on Sundays. Buddhism is a way of life practiced every day not just on Sunday. Since time is not the high priority it is in our society, to visitors it appears the country is in a perpetual state of organized chaos which somehow to our utter surprise seems to work. The Thai take things in their stride and simply laugh at those visitors who get upset over things that don’t work out according to their agendas or code of perfection. Needless to say this laid back attitude does wonders for my stress level. This along with the sun improves my well-being considerably.

EASE OF LIVING

Thailand is now considered by the modern-day standards of our world as a developed country making it a relatively peaceful and welcoming country to outsiders. It’s probably the only country in the world that can claim a succession of military coups over the past 20 years which have been mostly peaceful. The two largest cities, Bangkok and Chiang Mai, are now world-class and have all the amenities of the Western world. There is poverty and there is great wealth, but there is also a growing middle class. All of this along with the multitude of gorgeous beaches make this an easy place for ex-pats to live there and for visitors to hang out. People always ask me if I feel safe there. My reply is that I feel safer there than I do at home.

COST OF LIVING

Most people are really surprised when I tell them that I can live cheaper there than I ever could in Nova Scotia. This is especially true in the winter time. I don’t have to heat my home or feed fuel to my car. In addition, my food, accommodation, and transportation are all cheaper than here. I usually rent a fair-sized room with a fridge, TV, and air-conditioner for about $275 a month. It’s much cheaper to eat out than in so I have no cooking to worry about. I get my room cleaned and sheets changed once a week. What more could I ask for? It’s really an extended holiday since I can do all those things such as reading and writing that I never can find enough time for when I am at home.

DENTAL/MEDICAL SERVICES

Thailand is quickly becoming a mecca for those people who seek expert and inexpensive dental and medical services. I have been taking advantage of their dental services every year having had crowns, gum surgery and expert cleaning done to keep my teeth healthy. This time round I am scheduled to have two crowns put in probably to the tune of $500 at most. The last crown I had done several years ago cost me about $200. Here in Annapolis Royal I would have to pay about $1200 per crown. I have never had any medical work done but for my friends who have, they all report having a very positive experience and are highly impressed with the quality of service. It’s not surprising that Thailand is being noted as a good country to go to for a medical holiday.

MARKETS AND SHOPPING

Over the years I have noticed a marked increase in the number of markets available now in practically every town of fair size. Chiang Mai where I hang out for most of my time is a shoppers haven for not just craft markets but for those who have money to spend and are looking for world-class shopping. In the past two years, three new classy malls have opened up, and it’s not just tourists who frequent these malls with their upscale shops and cafes but more and more Thai, especially the youth. The Thai people love to shop as hubby and I witnessed last Christmas while in Bangkok.

ACCESS TO OTHER SE ASIAN COUNTRIES

The Suvarnabhumi International Airport in Bangkok is now rated one of the busiest in Asia and the 16th busiest in the world. It is the main link to all other Southeast Asian cities. Because Bangkok is a large cosmopolitan city rivalling all other SE Asian cities, it has become the favoured jumping off point for tourists to other parts of Asia. I think many tourists would agree with me that returning to Thailand after a jaunt to any of the other Asian countries is somewhat akin to returning home. Is it the people who inhabit this country today or the long history of a strong and independent race who have never been under the rule of some foreign power that makes this place a safe haven for all the adventurous souls who roam the world? Who really knows but I’m game to bet that most travellers feel the same way as I do.

RE-UNITING WITH OLD FRIENDS

Over the years I have made friends with other travellers who go to Thailand again and again for many of the same reasons as I do. We may skip a year or two but we all manage to somehow meet up again and share past travel experiences and discuss all the advantages of the kind of lifestyle we have adopted over the years. We aren’t exactly ex-pats because we don’t live there year round but we are becoming close to it. Chiang Mai has probably one of the largest and most active expat societies in the world composed of many people from the US, Britain, Canada, and other European countries. It started off with mostly older retired couples and singles looking for a warm country which isn’t too expensive to live in, but more and more I am discovering many young people who have decided they don’t want to be a part of the ‘rat race’ or simply haven’t been able to find appropriate work in their own country so have chosen to become what is commonly known now a ‘digital nomads’. They are working their way around the world and like the older folk are discovering that Chiang Mai is a nice place to settle for a while.

In just twelve hours I will be heading out for my long journey over to Thailand for my eighth time. I will arrive in the early morning of the 11th after approximately 30 hours of flying time with breaks in Toronto and Amsterdam. It’s too much time in the air, but I always try to make the best of it with the latest movies, reading, and some sleep if I’m lucky. I usually manage to beat any serious jet lag by taking a homeopathic remedy called “No More Jet Lag” which doesn’t help me sleep while on the plane but does eliminate all the side effects of flying long distances, such as fatigue, sleep disorders, and general discomfort. I am usually back to normal after a day or two and ready to enjoy what is becoming a second home for me. I no longer can imagine spending a winter here in Nova Scotia so long as I have the choice to go to some place like Thailand.