William Oh has been solo backpacking for more than 30 years and has compiled his own ‘house rules’, which he follows diligently.
There are those who backpack and who enjoy being in the company of others. But, then there are those like William Oh who would prefer going it solo and has more than 20 ‘house rules’ that he follows diligently, including never go to pubs to drink. Explained the 71-year-old, “You then will get intoxicated and not be focused and someone may rob you. Also, you should never get entangled with any women in a pub.”
First long solo trip
Initially, he didn’t have these rules but over the 30 years of solo backpacking, he has learned some important lessons on what he should and should not do to keep himself safe and the trip as smooth as possible. He started solo backpacking on and off in Malaysia and Thailand but mostly short trips. It was only in Laos at the age of 42 that he took the next level and tried a longer trip of about 14 days. “Because I take street photography, I prefer not having someone with me as I can then explore and wander around by myself. My wife is confident in me and prefers that I go on my own,” said William, who was a former professional photographer in his heydays.
However, before he went on his first trip, he made it a point to get prepared – reading about the country and learning about its culture – as it was also a country he had never visited before. He recalled that he visited Luang Prabang, the UNESCO World Heritage site, and shared that people in the country are often soft-spoken. “If you speak loudly, they become afraid of you,” he said. During his trip, he did a homestay with a family for US$1 (around S$1.33) a night and also travelled by bus to the different parts of Laos including the capital, Vientiane and the tourist-oriented town, Vang Vieng. He even stayed a few nights at some of those locales. “It was a rough trip on the bus as it was quite bumpy. At that time, the country was undeveloped but I didn’t mind it,” said William.
During his first long solo trip, he accidentally left money in a family restaurant. But, when he returned, he found the money was still there! “I was amazed. I was very green then.” Besides all these experiences, he also managed to capture street scenes through his lens as he went along. “You capture people in the pictures and you get to see the rawness of the photography. What you see is what you get. Some places can be very made up. Also, when you are alone, people tend to approach you or you approach them.”
He added, “By going solo, you are entitled to make mistakes but you learn … but not serious mistakes and you develop yourself.” For instance, in December last year, before COVID hit in a big way, he was in Slovenia. He took a bus to a resort city called Piran on the country’s Adriatic coast, known for its long pier and Venetian architecture. He had not booked any accommodations in advance and could not find one at that late stage. “I took it for granted. As I was alone, it was ok for me but if I was with someone, I would be pai seh (a Hokkien phrase meaning feeling embarrassed). Being alone, I had other options such as staying in the airport which was fine with me.”
After Laos, he had tasted going solo and enjoyed the experience. He decided to take it to the next step – going across the borders to other countries. In 2008, he went to Vietnam and from there by train, travelled to China and booked six days on the Trans-Siberian Railway to Moscow. From there, he went on to Finland, Sweden, Copenhagen, Germany, Czech Republic and London also by train.
Longest solo trip
Besides crisscrossing the various countries, he has also conquered solo backpacking for more than 75 days, currently his longest solo backpacking trip. During that trip to Piran in Slovenia back in December last year, he visited all together 15 countries including Turkey, Spain, Portugal and Morocco by bus and train. He shared, “When taking pictures in Morocco, you need to be careful as people dislike photography and were cross with me. I also found Switzerland expensive.”
The father of two also shared that in that trip, he had to take a night bus to Zurich from Milan at 12am. When he reached the destination at 3am, he recalled it was very cold and windy, and there was no bus terminal. He was expecting being dropped off at a nice terminal building but it was just a shaded area with a makeshift toilet, which is where he hid until daylight to get away from the wind and figure out his accommodation which he had not booked in advance. He could have stayed in the bigger hotels, however, he said they were just “not in my budget”.
Asked about his other milestone solo trips, William shared that he enjoyed his trip to New Zealand in 2011 as he camped for the first time and did his first skydive at 12,000 ft at the age of 62. He also shared that he considers the train ride on the Trans-Siberian Railway back in 2008 as one of his other favourite moments.
And his most demanding trip ever? He shared it was back in 2000 when he travelled from Vietnam to Guangzhou, China and then over to Beijing. He went onward later to Hong Kong and Macau. “A lot happened during that trip,” recalled William. He encountered petty theft at a bus station in Kunming, China. “They did not get my wallet because it was attached to a chain that was clipped to my jeans. They tried to cut my jeans and even pulled my wallet, but they still couldn’t get it. I was happy they didn’t get what they wanted.”
He also shared that during that trip, there was a bus ride he took in China which had upwards of 40 to 50 people sitting together and smoking. They even took off their shoes and it smelled, he shared. “It looks like a double-decker bus but is custom-made to three levels with bunk beds.” He also felt a presence in the room of an old hostel in China that he stayed at and felt chills come over him even when there was no fan blowing in his direction. But despite that, he decided not to change his room.
During his solo trips, he mainly stays in hostels, dorms, camp sites, airports, etc and eats mostly street food, with the rare restaurant to “pamper myself”. In his backpack, he brings a maximum of four sets of quick-dry clothing to wash daily, including swimming trunks. He also carries eye drops and diarrhoea medicine.
Going solo for so many years, he has found that things are different from the time he travelled to Laos. “During that time when I started solo backpacking, there was no digital devices but now there is. You get very dependent on them and if you don’t, you will get cut off. During the earlier days, I relied on Lonely Planet books and sent snail mail back to my family to reassure them I was ok. Today, there are instant updates through the Internet so you can hear from your family quickly and any latest news on the country you are visiting,” said William. However, even having GPS, he still falls back on the tradition of studying the countries’ maps as he said they exercise one’s mental acuities. He added, “Even when I got a car once, I never used GPS as my sense of direction is good. However, you need to use GPS if you go to more secluded hostel locations.”
He also added that the tragic 911 incident has affected travel, but in a positive way. “Airports are very safe in the world, and police and security are patrolling. It has changed for the better I feel as it is more secure. The borders are safer than before. Some airports when you go out, you get the taxi people canvassing to bring you to the hotels; now you see less of this because of the security. I used to carry a small penknife in my carry-on for safety but now I can’t with the carry-on regulations.” He added that in his years of going solo, he has not had any bad incidents and his trips have otherwise been memorable. The photos of his trips are mostly on his Facebook and Instagram pages, and he likes to share them with family and friends, and looks back on them from time to time.
Unlike his wife and children who are supportive of him going solo, William however has others in his social circles who are not as supportive. “My senior friends say at my age why do you want to do this, you should go relax on a cruise. I don’t want to argue with them. I enjoy doing this and I learn more and remember more. My peers tell me I am crazy. I am sad that they feel that way. Most seniors feel I should be carrying a luggage bag rather than a backpack at my age, and stay at hotels. I am more comfortable with a backpack as it is easier and faster to move around and frankly, I prefer dorms and hostels rather than hotels.”
Nonetheless, all this is not stopping him for continuing going solo. For now, COVID has halted his wanderlust. When things reopen though, he has big plans. “I want to skydive 15,000 ft in New Zealand. I told myself every 10 years, I will do a skydive. I also want to get on the Trans-Siberian Railway again, maybe from Singapore by train to connect to the Trans-Siberian Railway.”
He is also aware of his possible limitations and is realistic. “I want to continue doing this into my 80s but maybe to less demanding countries and maybe switch from backpacking to something else. I exercise daily so I am able to assess my endurance. So, I will assess when I reach 75. Maybe I carry one SLR camera with a zoom lens so I don’t have to have so many lenses and use the smartphone as a backup then the load becomes lighter. Also, be mindful that the phone is prone to theft.” He jogs regularly and goes to the gym. He also does back walking without shoes, balancing exercises, squatting, yoga and pull-up exercises.
He encourages seniors to give solo backpack a chance. “Some seniors may not be able to take the roughness so I would suggest to go to places like New Zealand, Iceland and Australia, which are good starting points. If they want something more adventurous, go to Cambodia, India, Sri Lanka and Vietnam. I would advise seniors to go across the Causeway and get a feel of the experience, and then decide.”
William touts the benefits of solo backpacking – “You can be more independent. You can think out of the box as you are alone. With someone, you tend to rely on that person. You also get a sense of achievement when you come home as you did the trip by yourself. You get to learn new things and meet people of all ages. You can learn how to cook and learn a new language. You also learn how to pack your bag. I usually roll all my clothing. When you do this, you compress it and you have more space to put more things. A messy bag is hard to move. This is all part and parcel of learning from your mistakes.”
He added, “As you travel solo, you become totally responsible for yourself and it is inevitable that you will then discover just how capable you are.”
** Curious about William’s ‘house rules”? Here they are:
a. Get travel insurance in case of emergencies.
b. Inform the Ministry of Foreign Affairs what country you are visiting before you leave for your destination.
c. Know your embassy location and phone number wherever you are visiting.
d. Never put your valuables in one place in case someone steals them, he or she won’t get everything.
e. Take a photocopy of your passport and credit card with your digital camera and detach the SD card. Put the card in a separate location for safe-keeping. Also, don’t just save it on your phone in case you lose your phone.
f. Never display your credit card. I store my credit card in an RFID-blocking metal casing so it cannot be scanned. Also, when getting money from an ATM, never go to an isolated place but go to ones connected to a bank.
g. Never accept free things from other people and don’t get free WIFI because it is not safe. Best to bring your own router.
h. Never help people carry something through customs especially in the airport and/or border crossing.
i. Always look presentable; not shabby. If you look good, you look more confident and people will respect you.
j. Know the visiting country’s customs.
k. When changing money, don’t go to a street vendor but a more reliable source as there are lots of counterfeit.
l. Don’t give money to street beggars. If you give one, all of them will come to you and ask for money.
m. Eat hot cooked food to avoid getting food poisoning.
n. When booking a hotel, ask to look at the room first and look at the mattress for bed bugs and under the bed if there are any hidden things such as drugs or other surprises.
o. Bring a small door stopper to jam the door from inside while you sleep and do check that all the windows in the room are properly secure.
p. Know where your exit points are in your hotel, in case of an emergency.
q. Be aware of your surroundings in crowded places such as bus and train stations.
r. Some countries have two airports – domestic and international – so make sure you know which airport you are flying off from.
s. Find out how far your hotel and airport is so you can estimate your time.
t. Never share personal details including your flight ticket onto your Facebook.
u. Secure your backpack; I normally have it attached to a string to my body and the backpack is always in front of me.
v. Never wear any expensive jewellery as you are asking people to rob you.
x. Never go to the pubs to drink. You will get intoxicated and not be focused and someone may rob you. Never get entangled with any women in a pub.