Aug 19, 2006

Going it alone - Travel Tales

Going it alone

Alexandra Wong tells us why she would never take a tour again, after surviving a self-planned trip to Australia and backpacking solo in Kuching.

Mark warned me not to expect your typical tour itinerary in Melbourne. I suspected as much that we weren’t going to do the usual koala and wombat routine.

”I’m showing you the real Australian lifestyle!” he said.

But, the Royal Botanical Gardens? He brushed off my misgivings airily.

“Trust me! I’ll guarantee you two hours isn’t even enough.”

Duly warned, I traipsed into the Royal Botanical Gardens, clutching parasol and a hatful of reservations. That day, I learnt something new about temperate countries and their inhabitants’ obsession with flora and fauna.

Over there, parks are mostly luxuriant, lovingly maintained expanses of verdant foliage and luscious blooms, worlds apart from their ill-tended counterparts in Malaysia. Not two, but four hours later, I had to be dragged out kicking and screaming. My flower caper made me a lifelong believer in Mark’s travelling mantra: throw out the guidebook with the bathwater.

By the time I graduated to my own solo backpacking trip to Kuching, I was determined to take the path less beaten. I skipped the tourist cliches and asked the locals about their personal favourites.

I took the town bus instead of the cab if the route was accessible. I forced myself to go up to strangers and ask for assistance.

Of course, old habits and misconceptions die hard. During my early days, I clung to my pepper spray like a chastity belt, and wore my unwieldy moneypouch to the toilet. Never mind the encumbrance, I’d been spooked by too many stories of single women falling prey to sexual predators in strange, foreign lands.

It took a while before I relaxed enough to realise that it was completely unnecessary to eyeball every stranger like they were a potential rapist/mugger/pickpocket.

“When you’re travelling alone, you have to risk talking to people,” said Bario, a Bavarian sound engineer who stayed at the same hostel as I did. “More often than not, most travellers are decent people like you and me.”

Armed with hobbling Malay but aided by plenty of local insight, not only did he discover the best place for lobak, lemon-style fried pork, Sabah greens and kung-po chicken feet (a few streets away from the Borneo Bed & Breakfast guesthouse), he also found the trail to Bario. (You take an 18-hour bus ride and then hop onto an 18-seater Otter plane.)


Yes sirree, do things the local way, but I’ll improvise a little: see it with a stranger’s eyes. When you’re new to an experience or place, you’re unburdened by the preconceived assumptions of a local who may be oblivious to elements that an outsider might find novel, and that is a vantage point that can work beautifully in your favour.

While I was at the New South Wales Art Gallery, I was blown away by the profusion of award-winning artwork, but silently cursed the house rules of not allowing photography. After I’d had my eyefill, I wandered into the café which was teeming with art aficionados discussing art (what else) over steaming cups of flat white and café latte.

Ostensibly, it was also the only place where you could take photographs. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a Japanese lady hamming it up at the glass window for her pre-pubescent son’s camera.

I walked over to check out the source of her bemusement. Lo and behold, right smack in the middle of all that genius was the piece de resistance: the window afforded a stunning vertiginous view of the entire city.

One of many quotations inscribed all over the walls summed it up best: Art is not what you see, but what you make others see – Edgar Degas.

The thriving art scene in Melbourne reaches far beyond the venerable walls of its many museums. On his off days, Mark gleefully steered me to the labyrinthine laneways that divide the Melbourne Commercial Business District into neat, easy-to-navigate squares – and also a haven for Australia’s graffiti artists. We spent hours ogling at wall after wall of brilliant murals that would rival any street in the Bronx.

I was very lucky to have Mark (my childhood friend who now resides in Melbourne) squiring me around town. On the days I was left to my own devices, there was still eye candy aplenty to keep me agog. Every morning, I would park myself at one of Temple Street’s ubiquitous sidewalk cafés, and feast my eyes on the denizens that lent the busy thoroughfare its inimitable character.

There was one lady in her 60s sporting dreadlocks and countless neo-punks strutting down in their studded and rainbow-haired glory. Most were unfazed by my bug-eyed stares, while one or two would wave back and holler: “Hey love, how are ya doing?”

While my experiences have taught me to fall back on town-proud locals for recommendations to the sweetest spots, a female friend, a veteran solo traveller, puts her own spin to this thumb rule: “When you’re in a foreign place, better to listen like a dumb a$$ than talk like an expert. People will be more willing to show you the ropes.”

In Kuching, I ended up in the cab of a garrulous taxi-driver who subjected me to a running commentary on Kuching politics.

Although exhausted from the day’s pottering, I still forced myself to pay attention and show interest. At the end of the exercise, he rewarded my patience with a free personal tour of the local bus routes and a discounted ride to the best ice-kacang stall in Kuching.

I’m not asking you to be a phony, just advocating plain old courtesy. Everyone likes to be an expert, but there’s a time and place for everything. Remember, you are supposed to be on vacation.

Now I’m sure this list of to-dos is hardly comprehensive. If some altruistic soul would sponsor me a ticket to go uncover the other 273 travel tips that’s not found here, I’d be more than willing to volunteer my efforts. Any takers? W - Star.