Trip Ideas

Bali For One

Mume Yoshiwara discovers the myriad pleasures of traveling solo on Southeast Asia’s most romantic island

Some of my happiest memories of Hong Kong are of sitting at a restaurant, alone and unmolested, dressed up for no one but myself

"You are alone, ibu?" asked the guide. It was my first morning in Bali, and I had joined the hotel’s walking tour through Ubud’s rice paddies. The other guests were a strangely combative German father-and-son couple, and a fleshy French couple with a two-year-old who was, arguably, not meant for treks through the ravine. Mosquitoes buzzed around her head. She cried. Her parents fretted.

"Yes," I said, knowing what was coming.

"Ah," said the guide. There was a short silence, freighted with pity. "Perhaps you would like to take a cooking class?"

"No, thank you," I said. I’m a terrible cook.

"No?!" There was disbelief in his voice.

"No," I said, firmly. "But thank you."

There was another silence, this time perplexed. "Ibu, see the volcano?" asked the guide, flinging his arm into the sky. "I can take you to the volcano," he said, furtively.

"No, thank you," I said, again.

"But why?" he wailed.

Before I could explain, however, the German father interrupted. "Vy are ze rice fields LESS vatery as ze rice gets older and not MORE vatery?" he demanded, as if the rice’s apparently illogical behavior were a personal affront to him. But at least he deflected the guide’s attention, and I was left to drift off into my own daydream, of a world in which I was never offered cooking classes, much less a hotel staff’s unsolicited sympathy.

Because I write for a travel magazine, and because my trips tend to be brutish and short (a hotel a night, or three countries in five days), I often find myself traveling alone. In cities, this is never a problem: some of my happiest memories of Hong Kong, or Tokyo, or even Rio are of sitting at a restaurant or a bar, alone and unmolested, reading and eating, dressed up for no one but myself. Surrounding you are other solo travelers, each of us self-contained units of various neuroses and pleasures known only to ourselves.

But traveling in places most frequented by honeymooners—generally, resort and beach destinations—is something different. There, being a single woman elicits one of two reactions: pity, or bewilderment (actually, I lied: there is in fact a third reaction, which is pity mingled with bewilderment). From the moment the front desk clerk asks, "Only one?" you can almost hear the staff’s collective mental gears whirring, and as each day brings a new solicitousness, can almost taste the no-doubt bitter past that has been conjured for you: perhaps you have been concluded to have been jilted, or perhaps you have been diagnosed with a terminal disease, this trip your last, brilliant goodbye to life, or perhaps you are, simply, friendless. Whatever your status, however, it is deserving of sympathy. Sometimes, happily, that sympathy manifests itself in something tangible, like extra turndown treats. More often, though, it does so in the form of endless offers of cooking classes or, in this case, a trip to the volcano, where one would no doubt be sacrificed as a particularly juicy spinster offering.

A scant 50 years ago, I would not have had the freedom—of space, of time, of money, of propriety—to undertake such a journey.

A scant 50 years ago, I would not have had the freedom—of space, of time, of money, of propriety—to undertake such a journey.

As I’ve gotten older, however, I’ve come to realize that there are advantages to be wrung from this reflexive pity. For one, being considered damaged goods gives one carte blanche to behave—if not badly, then at least eccentrically. Any bizarre manners you display are simply attributed to your emotionally fragile state, any inappropriate outfits you wear an external manifestation of your addled heart and mind. For another, expectations of you are very low: if you do, in fact, behave normally, even charmingly, you are greeted with great sighs and smiles of relief, silent congratulations on your bravery. And then, too, one is grateful simply to have the option to travel alone. A scant 50 years ago, I would not have had the sort of freedom—of space, of time, of money, of propriety—even to undertake such a journey. Now, however, it’s a single man traveling through Southeast Asia who raises the most suspicion. My friend once went to Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam by himself, and swears everyone in the hotel assumed he was on a sex tour. (I’m pretty sure he wasn’t, but this has never been definitively answered.)

And then, last but most significantly, there is the pleasure of simply being alone, the delight that comes from being in a place where no one knows your past or present, where you can, for a day or a week, invent yourself a new life, a new identity, if you so choose: the freedom of travel at its most liberating and intoxicating. I was in Bali in that brief period one has between quitting one job and starting another. For the first time in perhaps a decade, I had no work emails to answer, no deadlines to meet. There was only me, and the days that stretched before me to be filled however I wished. In the mornings, I would sit in the open-air restaurant and watch couples, grim-faced, slump into their seats. You could almost feel the pressure they were under, and in their expressions, you could read who had fulfilled that promise, and who was struggling to meet its expectations.

"What are you doing later? Something romantic?" the waiter asked one couple who, one could wager, had had a night filled with something less than fireworks. "I guess," the husband mumbled. The wife bit her lip and looked past him, at the torch ginger. "How niiiiice!" the waiter trilled. The wife sighed. She knew what awaited her back in the bungalow that night: more groping, more lovesongs, more half-hearted, sweaty tussles.

But not me. I had eaten my breakfast. There were no phone calls to answer. There was no boyfriend or husband to placate. The day was mine. I plucked some bananas from the fruit arrangement. No one stopped me. I was a single woman, after all, and must be forgiven my indiscretions. I was off to spend the day with my book and bananas, walking from place to place, doing whatever I wished. Behind me, the volcano belched, but I didn’t turn around once.

1

Paris

The Louvre, the Musée d’Orsay, the Pompidou… You could spend a week in Paris’ museums and barely scratch the surface. Then there are the shops — Colette, Le Bon Marché et al are best experienced toute seule, in our opinion. And the city might smack of tradition, but people won’t think you’re a weirdo if you grab a restaurant table outside or a seat at the bar and have those dozen oysters or seared foie gras all to yourself. See Paris Hotels.

2

Costa Rica

Lie on your lounger all week? Not when zip line-slashed rainforest, burbling volcanoes and some of the best surfing in the world await. Base yourself in Nosara, where Harmony Hotel gets our vote, and don’t miss Manuel Antonio Park for all the sloths, monkeys and birds you can shake a DSLR at. See Costa Rica Hotels.

3

Berlin

Easy to navigate, with a predominantly English-speaking local population and brimming with expats, Berlin is made for the solo traveler. It’s also Europe’s artiest city, as the streets swathed in street art attest, with affordable accommodation, food and drink, and the best clubbing on the continent. See Berlin Hotels.

4

Turks & Caicos

Sure, these islands score high on World’s Most Romantic Destinations lists, but the Turks & Caicos are just as renowned for water sports, particularly scuba diving (it’s actually listed as a “purpose for visit” on the immigration form) as they are for honeymooning. Sign up with Dive Provo to combine beach time with fish- and coral-spotting time — and make some human friends in the process if you so choose. See Turks & Caicos Hotels.

5

Thailand

Combine the buzz, culture and gourmet grub of Bangkok (the city has arguably the best street food in southeast Asia) with a few days kicking back on the beach. Read your book in peace if you chose; if you’re socially inclined you’re also in luck: whether you chose Koh Samui or Koh Phangan, Krabi or Phuket you’ll find it hard not to make friends. See Thailand Hotels.