Sober in Southeast Asia

By February 4, 2020Asia

A solo traveler attempts to navigate Southeast Asia’s hedonistic backpacking scene without the crutch of alcohol.

I stumbled out of my Grab car with my trusty black backpack into the soft Bangkok evening. Through the fog of my jet lag, I peered at the cheerful, light-strung bar in my new hostel as I walked past, instinctively peeking at the drink specials. But no, I remembered. Not here. Not for at least three months.

Sobriety while backpacking Southeast Asia, a journey famed for its wild nightlife, might seem like a recipe for FOMO and boredom. I had spent the last four months backpacking Europe, full of rich Burgundy wines and Greek raki and tankards of Austrian beer. Why go teetotaler here, of all places? Travel and drinking can seem like inseparable pals. A turquoise beach isn’t complete without a Corona nestled in the soft white sand. And as a solo traveler, bars are a nearly effortless way to feel a quick and heady intimacy with a new friend.

When I’m drinking, I’m often calculating how much I’ve had, how much I want, how much I can have tonight or tomorrow. And the morning after, I spend time tending to my aching body, my increasing anxiety, and my vague sense of shame, even if all I did was have two glasses of cool white wine at dinner and go to sleep at 9 pm. All this thinking and counting and cosseting of my poor, hungover body leaves less room for thought. That is, after all, the point. Or it’s the point of my drinking. It lulls my ceaselessly spinning brain into a soft and drifting state.

At its best, it’s like using that Instagram filter that makes you look just marginally better, eyes wide, face relaxed, self-criticism off. Blame my Irish heritage or my anxiety disorder or a culture telling us drinking is a relaxing reward for my uncritical love of the fuzziness a drink or three brings. In the constant social whirl of backpacker life in hostels and guesthouses and cooking classes, a swig of wine helps my shy self relax into the rush of new names and faces and stories.

But I wanted something more out of this trip.

I wanted to know I’d be safe — that I could navigate the scooter-choked streets of Bali, face the death-defying tuktuks of Siem Reap, and cross the street in Bangkok’s famous traffic. I wanted to enjoy the beauty here with a mind clear of the fog a few drinks brings (and weed and Xanax). And I didn’t want to spend my first time in a new part of the world drinking dubiously named shots at a series of hostel bars with people in neon tank tops who look just like me.

So I committed to this back in chilly, snow-streaked Boston, an easy idea in the flush of New Year’s resolutions. But I feared it would be more difficult in practice.

Backpacking in Southeast Asia is an extrovert’s paradise, but I’m shy, and at 33 I’m elderly in backpacker years. Add in sobriety, my non-hippie aesthetic, and my refusal to be caught dead in elephant pants or mandala beads, and I feared standing out like a sore and lonely thumb. But my experience was much more interesting than just loneliness.

As Sarah Hepola notes in her wonderful book Blackout (I spent a lot of time reading drinking memoirs instead of going to bars), alcohol is a great salesman. It promises us easy connections with other people, a boost of confidence, a release from anxiety. And it does make those things easier for a moment or two. But booze is a temporary veil over those very human concerns.

Traveling alone for months on end has actually given me those enticing things alcohol promises us. By necessity, I’ve had to get genuinely better at talking to people I don’t know and even asking them for help. If I wanted to get a coffee or a chimney cake or a ride in a tuktuk, I had to talk to a stranger, and all that practice has helped melt away the surface of my natural shyness. The quiet clarity of my mind helped me sort through my often confusing travel feels — do I feel alone right now because I’m a lonely one (in painter Edward Hopper’s words) or because I feel pressured to fit in with vegan sound healers or binge-drinking Brits? It’s helped me gain real confidence, the kind that comes not from a Tiger tallboy but from navigating three continents and 24 countries (and counting) alone. I can stroll up to that hot Aussie bartender and ask him how much an iced tea costs without a single blush. And my flight anxiety has gotten leaps and bounds better with a little in-flight meditation instead of a $7 plastic cup of shitty wine.

It wasn’t always easy. Sometimes that FOMO hit me like a wave crashing over a basic bitch trying to get a sexy beach pic for the ‘gram. Sitting on the riverside deck of my Luang Prabang hostel, listening to the group around me discuss last night’s escapades and tonight’s planned debauches, I felt old. I felt lame. I felt irritated in advance at the thought of all these 19 year olds stumbling noisily back into our room in the wee hours. (In an ironic twist, I was the one throwing up in our bathroom at 2 a.m. thanks to some vicious food poisoning, and my younger roommates were lovely and helpful and sympathetic.)

Luang Prabang, Laos

But then I’d wake up for the sunrise and sip an iced coffee thick with sugar and swirls of condensed milk and marvel at how clear and beautiful the world and my head were. My gratitude for those moments outweighed the occasional longings for a cool, tall gin & tonic.

This commitment to sobriety involved a bit of creativity. I combed HostelWorld reviews to gauge hostel atmosphere — daily drinking games in the yard? Hell no. A free movie night? I’m in. I also replaced many drinking hours (or hangover recovery mornings) with yoga. I skipped the infamous Full Moon Party in Koh Phangan for slow flow vinyasa on the beach at Orion Healing Center. I talked about life and death and our deepest fears over butterfly pea tea with new friends at a yoga retreat in Chiang Mai instead of over buckets of Changs.

My year of travel is about opening myself to the full experience of life and the world and all the interesting people in it. A drink or three can become a way of keeping me in my dreamily intoxicated comfort zone. And I’m not out here wrangling backpacks and shooing away palm-sized spiders and riding buses full of chickens to stay comfortable. I’m here for new adventures with my eyes wide open.

I discovered so much through my traveling sobriety — deep friendships, the creativity that comes from occasional boredom, the glory of hangover-free bus rides, the still quiet of the sunrise. And though I told myself I could have a drink if I wanted once I arrived in Australia, my next stop, I had one gin & tonic and felt that now-unfamiliar subtle disconnection from myself the next day. So I’m back to sipping kombucha on the hostel deck at night, enjoying my clear head and quiet mornings.

Will it last the final three months of my trip, back in Europe with all that great wine? I’m not making any big pronouncements. My life right now is full of little and delicious moments — a stray cat climbing into my lap at a Laos temple, the thrill of a near-handstand in a yoga class, pizza and a chat about meditation with a brand-new friend. I’m staying in those lovely little moments, and drinking might not be a part of any of them.

Kathleen O'Donnell

Author Kathleen O'Donnell

Kathleen is a solo traveler, digital nomad, and writer who’s been on the road since 2018. She’s always looking for the next empty and sunny beach, a stray cat to pet, and ancient history everywhere she goes (you can follow along at her website, mylonesomeroads.com).

More posts by Kathleen O'Donnell

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