After divorce, bereavement and cancer, my solo adventure was everything I needed – inews

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The last time I was in Asia, it was the era of painfully slow, dial-up internet cafés. On earlier visits in the 90s, I’d listened to mixtapes on my Sony Walkman, written letters to friends and visited poste restantes to collect mail from home.

I’d imagined I’d carry on travelling with my children in tow, but life took some unexpected turns: a painful divorce, sick parents and a breast cancer diagnosis that required the full assortment of treatments and seven operations.

One ragged sarong survived the 24 intervening years, until my kids left for university, and I found myself free to travel again. I decided on a return trip to Thailand. I’d loved it on earlier visits and hoped its familiarity would make it an easier first destination for travel in my fifties.

Julie on an earlier trip to Asia

None of my friends had the time for a month away in Asia, so that was that – I would be travelling solo. I’d done it in my twenties, but more than 30 years later, would I still have what it took for a backpacking-style adventure? Maybe I was now too used to home comforts. Maybe I would just be sad and lonely.

I was buoyed by the knowledge that travelling alone is increasingly popular. Recent research from Abta – the travel association, revealed a year-on-year rise in solo travellers. Of those surveyed, 16 per cent of people said they went on holiday by themselves in the 12 months to August 2023, compared to 11 per cent during the previous 12-month period.

Travelling alone appears to be on trend among younger generations, with almost one in five 25–34-year-olds saying they had taken trips by themselves. But there’s also a strong contingent of solo holidaymakers in other age groups and, after all, I’d first travelled on my own before smartphones made it much easier to organise logistics en route and to stay in touch with people back home.

Scuba divers with reef coral in the similan, Thailand
The Similan Islands are prime diving territory (Photo: MAYIMAGE2012/Getty)

I planned out my first couple of weeks, but left the second half open to allow some flexibility.

I’d become a dive instructor in the Bahamas when I was 30, and dived around the world, in Australia (the Great Barrier Reef, the Coral Sea and Ningaloo Reef), the Galapagos, Borneo and Honduras. Getting back in the water felt crucial, so I booked a liveaboard dive trip for soon after my arrival, with five days of diving at the Similan Islands, in the Andaman sea.

I also booked my first few nights in one of the smartest bungalows at the Baan Krating Phuket Resort to ease myself into the adventure ahead.

At 6am on a January morning, I waited, shivering, at Brighton bus station for my coach to Heathrow. Twenty-eight hours later, with zero sleep, I arrived on Ao Sane beach in south Phuket, grabbed my snorkel and spent a glorious hour swimming in turquoise waters before noodles and bed. I slept for 13 hours and had no jet lag when I woke.

Tropical bay at Naiharn and Ao Sane beach with boats at windmill viewpoint, Paradise destination Phuket, Thailand
Julie’s first stop was Ao Sane beach (Photo: Simon Dannhauer/Getty)

What I did have though, after a couple of days of talking to no one, was an anxious fear that I’d made a mistake. What’s the point of doing anything if there’s no one to share it with, I thought? Mealtimes seemed strange. The guests were mainly couples and I felt awkward eating alone.

A motorbike enthusiast from Arizona broke my conversation drought by talking at me for an hour about his love of Harley Davidsons and Donald Trump. I spent the rest of my time staying out of his way.

I was presented with another solo-travelling conundrum: how do you meet the people you want to – and avoid the ones you don’t?

I considered why I was travelling. Had I come for time to myself, or to socialise? The truth was, I wasn’t sure. Four days of isolated living allowed me space to meditate, swim and read. It was all very lovely, but I did feel slightly lost.

The sense of isolation didn’t last long. I knew the best way to meet new people was to sign up for an activity – and mine will always be scuba diving. On board a dive boat for five days, I loved getting to know my fellow divers from around the world, and the conversation never ran dry because of our shared passion for the sea. My next stop was the Thai House Beach Resort on the low-key island of Koh Lanta.

The guests at this cheaper resort were a mixture of ages with more solo guests. Everyone seemed much friendlier there, or perhaps I was just getting better at the casual conversation starters that felt awkward at the start. Here I met Anna, 46, a first-time solo traveller from Chichester.

Julie enjoyed time to herself, but also made connections with other travellers (Photo: Julie Heathcote)

She was more proactive than me, using local Facebook pages to research activities and meet other solo female travellers. She signed up for canoe trips, tours of the island and cooking classes, meeting people along the way, while I used my dwindling funds to keep diving.

There was a downside to my sea addiction. Because of an unusual jellyfish bloom, I was constantly stung by jellyfish larvae – often known as sea lice – and badly stung by bigger jellyfish when I went diving.

One day, I was stung so many times, I retreated to my room for 24 hours. I sent videos of the angry red track marks to my friends, for shock value and for sympathy – of which I got plenty.

I had a dilemma as to how much to stay in touch with life back home. Before my mum died, she returned the scores of letters I’d sent in my nomadic years, which were full of stomach upsets, filthy toilets and daily humiliations. They would each have taken months to be written, mailed and received.

On this trip, I found a huge spider in my jungle toilet in Khao Sok National Park and I shared the video with a dozen people who all responded instantly. It was lovely to have an immediate audience, but it meant I was still very much connected to the UK.

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This was probably sensible for a woman with children and a business, but it was very different from my previous travels. Decades ago, if things went wrong when you were alone overseas, you were on your own. But on these travels I knew I was only a text or quick call away from advice, help and support at home. It did feel reassuring, but perhaps was a bit less daring (and dangerous) than my previous adventures.

Throughout my trip, I met people of many ages and found the common desire to travel meant there was always something to connect over. On my final evening in Bangkok, I wondered whether a big city was the best place for an older female traveller, but then a young Australian couple started chatting to me. We had a few, animated hours discussing their hopes for the future. It seems cities can be friendly too – if you’re open to meeting people.

And this is what I love about travel, the unexpected connections you make, the stories you hear and the preconceptions that are proved wrong. It turns out that, for me, travelling alone was not lonely. I’d even say I’m better suited to it now than I was a few decades ago, I’m more resilient, more confident, and feel comfortable talking to all types of people.

I can still handle the rough and tumble of life on the road, albeit with a tad more luxury than in previous years. And, somehow, my 25-year-old sarong has survived another trip.

Julie Heathcote used Trailfinders to book her flights, for her hotels and for dive trips.

My tips for solo travel

  • At a minimum, book your first night’s accommodation and try to arrive in daylight 
  • Ensure there’s someone at home with your itinerary 
  • Phone e-SIMS are easy to use and mean you’re in touch with home, hotels and have access to Google maps to navigate 
  • There are lots of resources online and Facebook groups for solo travellers filled with useful advice
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