Before I quit my job to travel for a year and a half around the world, I did my first ever solo backpacking trip for a short 3 weeks to test the waters and give myself a taste of this dream that I’ve had since I was a kid.
Those 3 weeks were so essential and life-changing for me that I wanted to share this complete guide with others so you can do what I did and experience the same, WITHOUT having to quit your job or make any long-term commitments that are usually the initial barriers for most people.
As a typically shy introvert who has suffered from varying degrees of anxiety all his life, my goal with this post is to remove any initial tensions or worries you may have that were also running through my head before I left, and make it as easy as possible for you to plan this trip and enjoy it to the fullest. I’ll be going through:
- where to go and how to plan your trip
- where to stay and how to meet people
- how to budget
- how and what to pack
- other little bits you need to remember
- what to do when you first arrive to get started
- why it’s important to go out there alone and what you’ll gain by doing so
All you’ll need to do this is a 2 or 3 week holiday break, a modest budget of around £30/$40 a day plus your flight costs, and a desire to fulfill any remote feeling you have of experiencing travel and meeting people in a way like never before.
Here is some of what you’ll be experiencing on this trip:
Stunning islands and beaches
Snorkling with tropical fish and reefs
Elephants and other wildlife
Jungle trekking and other adventure activities
Canyons and mountains
The joy of meeting people from all over the world
Where to go
I’m going to make this easy for you: Thailand.
Why Thailand? The main reason is because it is almost tailor-made for backpackers – Thailand is the easiest and one of the most cheapest and safest places to visit as a first-time solo backpacker, and it’s important to feel at ease when you first head out there. I’ve been to places all over South East Asia, as well as Central and South America and no other place has been as easy and enjoyable to travel around as Thailand. Also, almost everyone you’ll meet, locals or otherwise, will have at least a basic grasp of English making things even easier for you.
Luckily, it also happens to have some of the most stunning sights you could want to see from a single backpacking trip: islands, mountains, rainforests, canyons, wildlife… you name it.
It also has a great variety of vibes that you’ll be able to find – whether you’re a partier, an adventurer or like to chill, Thailand has options for all and you’ll be able to pick the experience you want (or have all 3!). There are many that will say that Thailand has become too ‘touristy’, and while that may be true for some locations, there are always opportunities to get off the beaten track should you choose to. And anyway, I wouldn’t let this concern you – I wouldn’t recommend going out and venturing into the unknown for your very first solo backpacking trip!
When to go
Thailand’s high season is typically between November to February where you’ll find the best weather but also the largest crowds and higher prices in some places. That said, I did my 3 week trip in January and had a blast so this would still be a great time to go.
Otherwise you can pick the shoulder seasons (September to October and March to May) and try to avoid the low season (June to August) when you’ll see the highest rainfall of the year (but it’s never bad enough to ruin your trip so don’t get too caught up and cancel your plans if you can only make it during these months… you’ll also enjoy cheaper prices!).
Use a flight comparison website such as Skyscanner or Momondo to find your cheapest ticket – these sites compare a bunch of different airlines in one search and give you the cheapest airline to fly with. A quick and easy travel hack on Skyscanner if you’re flexible on which dates to fly is to select the option to search for the whole month instead of a specific date. You can then select the option to view a chart showing you the cheapest option of when to fly:
Where to stay and how to meet people
A big barrier of mine as an anxious introvert was the fear of going out there alone and worrying about how the hell I would meet people (yes, even introverts need to connect with others). Hostels make this task ridiculously easy, even for someone like me.
Hostels are accommodation options that offer cheap beds in dormitory-style rooms, averaging from $5-$12 a night which is why they attract the long term traveller on a budget. You NEED hostels to meet people if you’re travelling alone – I would have not made it myself if it weren’t for the people I was able to meet there, at least for my first backpacking trip.
The good news is, backpacker culture is not like anything that I have experienced in any other setting: you’re going to meet the most hospitable, helpful, and friendly people from all around the world.
Chatting to people in a hostel environment is infinitely easier and more comfortable/natural than any other place I’ve been to (more on this later), which is a godsend for people like me who are typically shy in social situations. Virtually every hostel has a social area and some even put on daily evening activities such as family-style dinners/bbqs, beer pong tournaments, open mic nights etc. to get people involved. They’ll also give you invaluable information about the area, provide you with free wifi, water and often breakfast, as well as get you to your next destination with ease.
Around the campfire at a hostel in Chiang Mai
If all this sounds great but dormitory-style living is not to your taste, a lot of hostels also offer private rooms giving you the best of both worlds – you’ll be able to meet a bunch of people if you choose to but also have your own private space should you need it.
How to plan your trip
Before I left I fell into the trap of trying to plan each day and pack in as many locations and activities as I could so I could see it all. I learnt very quickly that you should do your best NOT to get caught up in this – one of the things about travel that I soon discovered is to learn to go with the flow more as plans will change ALL THE TIME. Maybe you’ll end up meeting a group of people that you want to spend more time with, or someone will suggest a location that you wouldn’t have even considered that’ll end up being the best place you visit of all (as is what happened with me).
That said, it’s a good idea to have a general outline of where to visit for a short trip such as this, and the itinerary I suggest should be used as just that – a general outline. Below I will mention for each destination what you can expect to see or do there, and you can chop-and-choose which places you prefer.
Suggested 3 week itinerary (21 days)
Bangkok – 2 nights
Why?: Crazy fun Asian city. Why start here? Because virtually all the cheapest international flights into Thailand are almost guaranteed to fly into this city.
Hostel recommendation: NapPark. This was the first hostel I ever stayed at and it was a great place to get a feel for how things work. It’s a couple of streets from the craziness of Khao San Road but far enough away to have a refuge to relax. Great social area at the front, large lockers and clean. Once you’ve booked your flight, book this up sharpish as it’s very popular!
Tips: Visit one of the many rooftop bars in the city centre to catch the sunset, check out the temples, head to Khao San Road for partying and check out the surrounding area for fantastic street food.
Sunset at rooftop bar in the city centre of Bangkok
(Catch a night train to save on time and a nights accommodation to…)
Chiang Mai – 3 nights
Why?: A modern but authentic feeling city, Chiang Mai is the jumping-off point to visit Elephant sanctuaries, go on treks through the jungle, do some whitewater rafting, see waterfalls, attend a cooking class and more.
Tips: Do one of the many adventure treks offered at every hostel. Explore the local park in the early evening to see the locals play sport and do their exercise routines. Do “The Best Thai Cooking School” course (it’s actual name but is very good!). Check out the buzzing nightlife for live music. Visit the Elephant Sanctuary.
Waterfall reward at end of a trek through the jungle in Chiang Mai
(Catch a shuttle bus to…)
Pai – 2 nights
Why?: A first-time backpackers favourite: a chilled place with something of a hippy vibe, beautiful mountains, rice fields and canyons in the surrounding areas.
Tips: Grab a scooter and explore the areas around Pai (I got lost and ended up at a wedding when I visited!). Check out the Pai canyon, Pam Bok waterfall and stop by the Land Split for some hibiscus juice and some lovely hospitality!
Grab a scooter and go explore Pai!
(shuttle bus back to Chiang Mai to take a short internal flight, or a long journey to the south, to visit…)
Krabi, Ao Nang – 1/2 nights
Why?: Get your first taste of the truly stunning beaches of Thailand, and also have a good jumping off point to visit your first Thai islands.
Tips: Do one of the boat tours offered at the hostels, there are some stunning places to visit here! If you’re an adventurer, there’s some good rock climbing to be had at Railay Beach. If you’re a partier, stay at the infamous Slumber Party Hostel, it’s pretty insane!
One of the beaches you’ll find in Ao Nang
(catch a boat to…)
Koh Phi Phi – 1/2 nights
Why?: If you want a taste of what to expect at the Full Moon Party, Phi Phi is it. A crazy party island that also happens to have some of the most incredible views I’ve ever seen of limestone mountains rising out of the sea.
Tips: You’ll have to go visit Maya Bay I guess (where the now famous location from the movie “The Beach” was shot). It is packed with tourists now, but even the boat ride there past the limestone karsts rising out the sea are truly stunning. Also check out Monkey Beach. For drinking/partying, follow the music but Banana Bar is a place I’d recommend.
Boat Tour to Maya Bay, Phi Phi Islands
Koh Lanta – 2/3 nights
Why?: One of my favourite places on earth. A chilled island with beautiful sunsets on the beach, a lovely old town to see a more authentic Thailand, and beach parties should you get restless.
Tips: Go on the 4 Island boat tour where you’ll visit Emerald Cave and Koh Ngai (truly one of the best beaches I’ve ever been on). Koh Lanta is also another great place to grab a scooter and go exploring. Check out the Old Town for some traditional old houses on stilts in the ocean.
Hostel recommendations: Non La Mer and Hey Beach are both fantastic. If you’ve had enough of the beach and want to stay in the more traditional Old Town on the other side of the island, Sweet Life Community Guesthouse is great (say hello to Millie from me!).
Scootering around Old Town in Koh Lanta
(boat, shuttle, boat to…)
Koh Phangan – 2 nights
Why?: This is the island where the infamous Full Moon Party takes place, on the bucket list of many (myself included, even if it didn’t quite live up to the hype).
Tips: This is one of the places you WILL want to book a hostel in advance if you’re visiting for the Full Moon Party. If your plans don’t fall on the date it takes place, the Half Moon Jungle Party is supposed to be a better experience for a lot that I’ve spoken to. Or if you want to skip the parties altogether, there are some beautiful and remote locations away from the crowds to visit all over the island.
Koh Tao – 2 nights
Why?: This is another first-time backpackers favourite. Mainly a place people come to dive but it has a host of other things to do including great snorkling, trekking, and lots of parties.
Tips: Grab a short boat ride to Koh Nang Yuan for some fantastic snorkeling.
View of Koh Nang Yuan, a short boat ride from Koh Tao
(boat and bus/shuttle back to Bangkok)
If you don’t plan on hitting the Full Moon Party or if it falls on a date outside of when you are planning to travel, you can instead head to the stunning Khao Sok National Park on your way back from Koh Lanta to Bangkok to do some great trekking and caving.
Khao Sok National Park
If you only have 2 weeks, I’d recommend focusing on the south or skipping the final two suggestions above.
How to get to each destination
“Hold up, hold up… but how do I get from A-to-B and book a ticket for a bus, boat or train in a foreign country?”. This was something I worried about also before I left and it turns out it’s RIDICULOUSLY EASY. Every hostel you visit will sell tickets to get you to your next destination (or tell you exactly where to buy them). Not only that, but they’ll pick you up from your hostel and in many cases drop you off to your next one when you arrive. You basically need to do zero work! You may be paying slightly more for the convenience but if you want to keep things as simple as possible on your first trip (like I did), this is what I’d recommend.
When it comes to booking accommodation, you 100% DO NOT need to pre-book ALL your accommodation before you leave. The only thing I’d advise you to do is to pre book your first two nights in Bangkok using a site such as Hostelworld or Agoda so you at least have an address of where to go when your land – any further bookings however are not necessary for many reasons.
While you’ll have an idea of where you want to be and on what date, trust me when I tell you that your plans will change all the time and you won’t want to be tied down to a booking that you may not make. Maybe you’ll find a place you love and will want to stay a day or two longer, or you’ll meet people that you get on with and want to travel to your next destination together and stay in the same place… there’s a million other different scenarios.
I know that the thought of being stranded somewhere with no booking and nowhere to stay is a scary one but trust me when I say that it will NEVER happen – you will ALWAYS find accommodation no matter where you are, especially in a place like Thailand (again, a country seemingly made for backpackers).
Packing your bag
The original and best way to manage all your stuff when travelling is to use a backpack to store all your clothes and low-value items and a second smaller “day bag” where you’ll be keeping all your valuables such as your passport, any electronic valuables, money etc.
Your backpack will be the bag that you’ll put in the storage spots on any buses or leave out by your dorm bed when in your hostel.
Your day bag is the one you’ll be keeping with you at all times when travelling from A-to-B, and what you’ll be putting away in a locker when staying in a hostel (which virtually all hostels will have).
Which backpack to pick
With a 2 or 3 week trip, it’s not necessary to spend hundreds of pounds on a high end backpack unless you actually plan on using it in the future (and something tells me you will after this trip :P).
That said, the backpack I took travelling with me for almost a year and a half that served me incredibly well was the Osprey Farpoint 55 (or the Fairview for women). You can get this backpack for just over £100 in the UK and it has the added bonus of coming together WITH a day bag. Also, it opens all the way up like a suitcase so you’ll never have a problem having to rummage through your bag to get to that thing you need at the very bottom.
How to pack
Below is a picture of how my backpack is packed. As you can see, everything seems surprisingly organised. This is because I use these things called “packing cubes” – basically small material bags that you can separate your underwear/socks, t-shirts and other clothes you’ll be taking. This helps you not having to dig through your entire bag trying to find something specific. Also, if you’re worrying about cleaning your clothes, most hostels have a laundry service or can definitely recommend a local one that you can use (prices are usually around £1/$1.50 per kg).
How to organise your backpack
What to pack
Everyone’s needs are obviously different however here is a list that I’d consider essentials for you to work with (please note some of the items below are affiliate links that earn me a small commission if you choose to buy from them which allows me to keep this site advert/banner-free, however they are the actual products I took with me on my trip!):
- 7 tops/t-shirts
- 2 pairs of shorts (jeans/chinos for everyday use with good pocket space)
- 1-2 pairs of swimming trunks (with zipper pockets for the guys if you can find them – trust me, you’ll be glad they’re there!)
- 7 pairs of underwear
- 3 pairs of trainer-socks (you’ll be wearing your flip flops almost always!)
- 1 pair of flip flops
- 1 pair of trainers that are comfortable to trek in
- 1 light rain jacket (if travelling in rainy season)
- 1 hoodie (you’ll need for any air-conditioned buses and airplanes)
- 1 small medical pack (aspirin, plasters, Imodium will suffice and any personal medication)
- 1 combination padlock (for use with lockers in hostels)
- 1 Microfibre towel (quick drying and light!)
- Dry bag/Waterproof bag
- Laundry bag (a large plastic bag will suffice for a short trip like this)
- Toiletries bag
- Toothbrush + Toothpaste
- Shower Gel
- Loofah (it saves so much soap!)
- Mosquito repellant
- Mobile phone (to also use as your camera)
- USB battery pack
Other non-essential items:
- Laptop/tablet (a smart phone is more than adequate these days)
- GoPro camera
- Portable speaker (a definite nice-to-have to listen to music on the beach or while sitting in a hammock)
How to budget
I’ve suggested a budget of £30/$40 a day (or £420/$550 for 2 weeks / £630/$830 for 3 weeks) excluding your return flight from Bangkok. The south (beaches) of Thailand will be more expensive than the north, but this is a very comfortable amount to aim for if you plan to stick to dorm rooms or cheap private accommodation found in hostels, use standard transportation (shuttle buses and sleeper trains) and eat the delicious local food (with the odd splashing out for a fancy dinner). This budget will also cover any activity that you plan to do such as tours, treks, nights out, the odd massage by the beach etc.
Managing your money when you’re out there
It’s a good idea to always have some cash on you but you’ll want to keep the majority of money on your bank card. And it’s best to take two bank cards with you in case one doesn’t work for whatever reason (this will typically be your debit card and a specialist travel credit card). These specialist travel cards always provide you with the best exchange rate when withdrawing money as long as you pay off your balance in full in each month. If you’re in the UK, this is the best guide to use to pick a travel card: http://www.moneysavingexpert.
I’d recommend to never withdraw more than £150 / $200 at any one time (around 5000 bhat, the thai currency is a good amount) when you’re out there and only carry as much money as you’ll need when you’re out and about during the day. You’ll keep your excess money/passport/valuables in your daybag safely locked away in your locker at the hostel (I never had any issues leaving items or money here in the entire time I travelled).
What to do when you arrive
When I first arrived into Bangkok (my first time travelling solo) I felt a little lost. Like, ok I’m here, I’m alone… what now?
The first thing I’d suggest just for some peace of mind is to get yourself a sim card when you arrive at the airport. A 30-day sim with 1-2GB of data will set you back no more then £8/$10 and you’ll be able to get one at the airport itself (there will be many stands offering deals).
Once you’ve done that, you need to get yourself a taxi to your hostel. Luckily, Uber is available in Bangkok and will be the cheapest and most convenient way for you to get into the city. If this is not an option for you, ensure you use the official taxis which the airport staff will point out for you and insist on them using the meter (really important!).
Once you arrive at your hostel, head to reception, check-in and get your backpack into your dorm. Put your valuables away in the locker with the combination lock you’ve brought with you and head down to the social area…
The social area of the first hostel I ever stayed at, NapPark in Bangkok
It sounds silly now, but the first time I did this was the most nerve-racking moment of my trip – there were a bunch of people sitting around and looked as though they had already made their circle of friends and as I was alone, it felt as though I was intruding by being around them… I ended up heading out for dinner, sat in a bar alone while I had a couple of beers (my anti-anxiety juice) and headed back to the social area by which point everyone had headed out! Luckily there was someone in the smoking area that sparked a conversation with me asking where I was from… and that was it. Through this person I ended up meeting a bunch of others and had the same conversation with everyone to break the ice, which will always include the questions:
- Where are you from?
- How long have you been travelling?
- How much longer have you got left?
- Where have you been?
- Where are you going from here?
This is the conversation you’ll be hearing in every corner of the hostel and while it can get tiresome to some to always be asked the same questions (I was asked on a daily basis for my 15 months of travel), it’s the best way to get to know the stories behind people quickly, and will often lead to more interesting questions and stories after.
This is what I learnt very quickly when I started travelling: it is so much easier and more natural to start conversations with people when you’re in this kind of environment. There’s no way I could go up to random people at a pub/bar in England and do this without feeling like a weirdo and intruding in on their lives. And for me it became almost addicting to find out everyone’s stories and why they were travelling. Most people were travelling solo, some had been travelling for a month, some for over a year, and they were people from all corners of the world, countries that I had never met people from before. Just through these conversations in my short 3 week trip, a shortlist of the people I met included:
- A professional German golfer who jumped the fire rope in Koh Tao (he told me not to tell his manager)
- A Canadian astrophysicist who painted the Andromeda Galaxy on my arm for the Full Moon Party
- A semi-professional Finnish female footballer on my 3 island boat tour off Koh Lanta
- An American humanitarian deminer (she voluntarily cleared land mines in areas around SE Asia – I immediately told her she was the coolest person I’d met)
- An Australian guy that trained Michelle Rodriguez on using one of those water jetpack things
Other things to remember
At least a couple of months before you fly out, book an appointment with your surgery and see your travel nurse to find out if you need any vaccinations (chances are you will need a couple). You won’t need to worry about malaria tablets.
Make sure you call your bank before you go and tell them your plans of visiting Thailand so they don’t block use your card(s) while you’re out there.
Using an international sim card
I’ve suggested getting a sim card when you arrive in Bangkok, and while this isn’t essential (more for peace of mind and convenience), if you do decide to get one, ensure you take a phone with you that is unlocked or it may not work with the sim card you get (they’ll test it out for you while you’re there).
These are some apps to download before you leave that I found essential for my time while travelling:
- Google Photos (free) / iCloud – for the love of all that is holy, ensure that you have a service which automatically backs up your photos and videos should you end up losing your phone. There is little else that feels as bad as when you’ve realised you’ve lost not only your mobile, but all the memories stored in it. Google Photos automagically backs up all your photos and videos whenever it detects a wifi connection and does so all in the background so you can at least be comfortable in the knowledge that your memories are safe.
- Maps.me – Download this app and before you arrive, download the maps of Thailand also. (Offline maps are not available for Thailand on Google Maps).
Seems obvious I know but make sure you have a valid passport that hasn’t expired before you book your flight. Tourist visas for the majority of countries in the world entering Thailand (including the UK and USA) are available on arrival so you won’t have to worry about that.
A quick word about safety when backpacking
A giant barrier for all first time solo travellers to overcome is the fear of being safe while out there alone. There were a number of thoughts that kept me anxious before I left for my trip including the fear of being mugged, attacked, drugged or worse. Looking back on it now, it’s easy to understand why these thoughts were running through my head – we grow up in a culture of fear here in the west, constantly being drip-fed information from TV, radio and the internet about attacks, murders or natural disasters happening all over the world.
However, one incredible thing that every traveller comes back with, even after a short trip such as this, is the knowledge and first-hand experience that it is a lot safer going out into the world then you could have possibly imagined. The whole world was locked away to me before this trip because of that initial fear of going out there alone. And after doing this ONE trip, I felt like I’d opened so many more doors and that the entire world was now a potential destination. It really was that profound to me.
As a backpacker/tourist in a place that relies heavily on tourism, one thing I learned is that, for better or worse, you are more protected than a local from serious crime due to the governments wanting to keep their reputation untarnished as a safe tourist destination. I found that it’s kind of an unwritten rule that any local caught committing a serious crime against a tourist faced tougher punishment than if it were to be against another local. While I don’t necessarily agree that this is how things should work, and while I know no-one is totally immune to any kind of danger, it did give me more confidence to feel safe when visiting other countries and will hopefully make you feel a bit more at ease when going out there.
Why it’s better to do this trip on your own
Before I left for my 3 week solo adventure in Thailand, I asked a bunch of other people to join me as it was only natural to feel fearful about going out there alone. I’m actually SO thankful that no-one I asked was able to join.
Once I arrived in Bangkok and got off the plane, that dreading feeling was dawning on me that I had no-one to rely on but myself. This was terrifying but also felt weirdly liberating at the same time. After that fear I had subsided (and it did quickly), I slowly started to gain a new independence and confidence in myself that I didn’t realise was there.
I found that I was able to do what I wanted to do, see what I wanted to see and meet who I wanted to meet (or choose to be alone whenever I felt burnt out), without having to worry about anyone else.
One of the things I’ve learnt about myself as an introverted individual is that I’m hypersensitive to the mood or feelings of others, for better or worse. As a basic example, whenever I was out with friends and I saw someone not having a good time, their mood would immediately affect mine. For whatever reason, I couldn’t be happy unless I knew (or thought) that everyone else was happy too. So my happiness always seemed to be dependent on external factors.
Travelling alone meant that I was able to be selfish but in a positive way, to focus solely on myself, and my happiness increased more and more as a result. And what I found was, the happier I was, the happier people around me seemed to be also.
The saying goes that in order to love others, you must first learn to love yourself (or rather, to be at peace with yourself), which I always thought was some hippy-dippy nonsense, but it really is true – the vibe you give off affects others, and you’ll attract more positivity in your life if you can learn to be happy with yourself first. Travelling solo allows you to focus on yourself to do just that.
I also found that I felt like a completely different person when travelling solo. My personality back home, surrounded by people that I knew or have always known my entire life, was something I was subconsciously tied to. When travelling and surrounded by completely new people however, it felt like I was working with a clean slate. I could choose to be whoever I wanted – if I wanted to be social and chat to a bunch of people, I could. Likewise, if I wanted to just sit with my laptop and be alone for a couple of days without people prejudging that something must be wrong with me, I could do that also. So I slowly began to find out who I really was, when put in a situation where there was no preconceptions or judgements from others that already knew me. Again, this was another liberation from something that I never realised was affecting me until I started travelling solo.
I won’t try to sugarcoat this in any way – deciding to go out there alone and overcome the fears you may have is not easy. I had the dream of doing this for so long and it wasn’t until I was 28 that I overcame that anxiety that was holding me back all my life to actually go out there and do it.
However, I made this post to try to show that you don’t have to do anything drastic like quit your job, sell your house or put everything in storage to get a taste of backpacking and see some of what there is out there to offer. All you need is that feeling, that underlying desire that you must have (how else would you have made it to the end of this post?) and a bit of inspiration.
For me, that inspiration came from the most unlikely of places, and I’m not sure how you found yourself here reading this post, but for whatever reason, I hope this guide will be that first step, a mini-manual to overcome all those niggling fears you may have running through your head. I could end this post by using the clichéd phase of “what do you have to lose?” but I think it’s better to think about what you can gain if you just make that initial leap of faith and see where it takes you.
If you have any further questions on helping you make your decision then please leave them in the comment section below and I’ll get back to you.