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Traveling Solo as a Woman in Asia

Local women in India
Women walking in group in Darjeeling region of India. Photo by Lies Ouwerkerk.

The people of India, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan were mystified by the ideal of a single woman traveling for pleasure. The women were especially dumbfounded. This is not surprising in view of the fact that they would not dream of traveling further than the local market without an escort. (In Pakistan women often don’t even get that far.)

What is surprising is how commonly this sense of horror and alarm is expressed by men and women in our own culture. And not by just one’s own mother. When I told friends I was planning an extended trip in Asia, they looked aghast rather than delighted, and immediately began lecturing me. To hear their gloom predictions you’d think that every Sri Lankan citizen was a Tamil terrorist and every Pakistani a Jack the Ripper.

My own view is that there is a pernicious mythology surrounding the lone female traveler, whether it be as a hitchhiker around Britain or a traveler in Southeast Asia. Many people instantly exaggerate the perils and dwell on a single woman’s vulnerability. Often this doom-ridden response is just an excuse for their own timidity of spirit. In fact, traveling around most of Asia is far safer, and more pleasant, than traveling on the Lexington Avenue line in New York City.

I argue from experience. In Sri Lanka, for example, the two main problems were not lecherous men and political upheavals, but heat and scorpions. The smiles of men were as innocent as those of the women. Their gazes were full of curiosity but never of aggression, for the gentleness and tolerance of Buddhism influence every aspect of life in Sri Lanka.

It is far more relaxing for women to travel in India than, say, in Italy, and far more trouble free in Sri Lanka than in Spain. Even the occasional invitation from a stranger is likely to be motivated only by an innocent desire to improve their English. Approaches of this kind must be dealt with individually. A group of young men urging you to visit their local tea estate almost certainly do not harbor evil designs, though if you feel at all anxious you are always at liberty to decline. Whereas striking up conversations with strangers is suspect (more so in Britain than in America), it is the most natural thing in the world in Asia, and portends nothing improper or threatening.

Of course, some exceptions are inevitable, but these will be no more difficult to cope with than anywhere in the world. In fact, they’ll probably be easier because they arise from a simple but profound misunderstanding of Western mores. A stern “NO” is universally understood. You are more likely to encounter problems in resorts that have been tainted by tourism. In European playgrounds such as Hikkaduwa in Sri Lanka or Kovalam in South India, there is inevitably a contingent of modern young men who try to integrate themselves with you. An extra measure of caution is called for on these occasions. (I visited both resorts mentioned without incident.)

One of the main differences between Pakistan and the southern sub-continent was not that the men were more forward, but that they were less so. A zealous young bank clerk, for instance, declined to shake my hand after having warmly shaken the hand of a male acquaintance. While traveling in the passenger seat of a jeep for part of the distance of Karakoram Highway, an official who was offered a lift squeezed in on the outside of the driver rather than share the seat with a female. Such puerile fastidiousness may make you feel like a leper, but at least lepers rarely get physically assaulted.

Of course not all Muslims are as puritanical as that. Unfortunately, you must be prepared for the occasional peeping Tom and street groper. Before accepting a hotel room, make sure that the door can be bolted, and all windows or other openings locked or blocked (this is the norm). If you receive a late night knock, just repeat “GO AWAY” in an uncompromising tone. Sure enough, this happened to me on the first night in Pakistan, at of all places the Karachi Boy Scouts hostel that doubles as a youth hostel. By the end of my trip around the country, the efficacy of stern reprimands had been well proven, and I found this sort of behavior less upsetting, though still very tiresome. But there is still no need to overreact to such unpleasantness, since it occupies such a small part of your travels.

When walking in public, dress as modestly as you can. This is even more important outside big cities where local sensibilities can be offended easily. Abandon any idea of getting a suntan in Pakistan. Many Western women purchase the local costume, called a shalwar kameez, consisting of trousers and a knee length tunic dress with long sleeves. This is comfortable as well as attractive and may perhaps deflect some of the unwelcome attention.

One of the reasons that the myth of the endangered female persists is that so many returning travelers have a tale to tell that substantiates it. There is no doubt that “How a Predatory Punjabi Policeman Tried to Seduce Me” or “How I was Followed to the Ends of the Earth by a Turbaned Terror” has more pub-appeal than “The Magnificent Temple Complex at Anuradhapura” of “the Awe-inspiring Mountains of the Lower Karakoram.” To correct the imbalance, I shall refrain from telling my own true story, “The Day I Tried to Raise the Moral Tone of the Pakistani Military Establishment in the Back of an Army Truck.” Annoying, as that episode was at the time, in retrospect it is mostly amusing (a pudgy Pathan wanting to “honor me with kisses” as he so memorably put it).

I returned triumphantly to my alarmist friends. I would not have exchanged the pleasures of my trip for any amount of their security. Besides, it seemed that they had had a far more anxious time than I had, by reading the papers and worrying about curfews and bombings of which I had been entirely unaware.

SUSAN GRIFFITH is co-editor of Work Abroad and contributing editor for Work Abroad for Transitions Abroad Magazine. See Susan's bio for more information about her extensive bibliography.

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Women Travel

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