Interview with Award-Winning Solo Travel Blogger Mei Mei Chu
We’re extending the purpose of the blog beyond our own personal journeys to talk to people who have made travel a big part of their lives. Sharing insights and stories is a great way of learning, empowerment and going beyond our own perspective and experiences.
I found Mei’s blog while planning a trip and was instantly hooked on her writing, the sincerity she emits and very helpful advice. I was also consequently in Malaysia, her home country, so I took that as a sign to reach out with questions that she was very kind to answer.
You say on your blog that it’s not easy to travel solo, especially if you are female and Asian. What are the biggest challenges you have to overcome?
Once, on an almost empty public bus in Jordan, a man chose to sit next to me despite the 28 other empty seats around us. Even something as seemingly harmless as that made me feel uncomfortable and unsafe.
So as a solo woman traveller, the biggest and constant challenge I’ve had to overcome is protecting my personal safety. The reality of travelling female is that we are primary targets of harassment, theft, and sexual assault. This is a danger that we’ve learnt to navigate at home, but when we travel solo, we expose ourselves to a greater risk and vulnerability. When I travelled solo to some conservative countries, many local men assumed that I was“free” and “easy” for sex because 1) I’m foreign, and 2) in their culture, it’s not normal for a women to move so freely. I’ve been harassed, followed, groped, robbed, and received many inappropriate invites.
This vulnerability is scary, feeling unsafe is terrifying, but it is also empowering when I learned how to protect myself. So there was a learning curve to travelling solo. I had to develop a sensitivity of how my gender affects the way the locals perceive me and how I should behave in turn; how my personal safety dictates my every decision from which hotel to book to where to sit on a public bus; and how to defend myself when I feel unsafe.
Why do you prefer solo travelling over travelling with friends of family?
So many reasons! Firstly, I get to embrace my free-spiritedness in following my heart and instincts without potentially ruining someone else’s holiday. Secondly, solo travelling puts me in a position that pushes my boundaries and allows me to discover what I am capable of. Without anyone to rely on, I am forced to blow the dust off my unused smarts and skills and put them to use. It’s a very empowering experience and I take the empowerment and strength home with me, and use it to take care of myself at home and at work.
Is it true that you are never really alone on the road? How important is it for you to connect with locals and other travellers you meet?
It’s true, you are never really alone on the road if you make the small effort to meet people. It is so easy to make connections - whether it’s in a hostel or through platforms like Couchsurfing. But the great thing about solo travelling is you can also choose to be a hermit and be truly alone if you feel anti-social. I’ve had travels where I made zero friends and travels where I made lifelong friends. I’m very introverted so these connections are not something I actively look out for, it happens naturally and I embrace the magic when it comes.
Does travelling affect your work and your social relationships?
Yes, very much so. Travelling is an exercise of collecting knowledge and experiences, and these cumulative travel experiences changed me in terms of my worldview, knowledge, interests and by extension, my personality. It made me more matured, independent, confident and restless. These not only affect how I work and the relationships I keep, but also my ambitions and aspirations.
Are you budget minded or you don’t mind spending more when you travel? If you are, in what sort of things are you happy to go over budget? Also, any budgeting tips?
I think the fact that I don’t make a lot of money is why I was attracted to backpacking in the first place. The idea of doing more with less money was too good to ignore! I’m admittedly very frugal and I do rough it out in cheap dorms and public transportation. But, I don’t mind splurging on flight tickets, unique experiences, entry fees to museums or historical sights, and food!
My budget tip is to literally have a travel piggy bank. Set up a dedicated bank account for travels only and every month deposit a small percentage from your salary. It’s really satisfying to watch the travel bank account grow and feel no guilt spending from it come adventure time.
Tell me about your most memorable travel experience. What made it unique and why?
Nostalgia can be a difficult thing, I painfully miss my two-week unplanned trip to Tonga and the family I made there. Tonga was unforgettable. On my first day, I drank Kava with a group of friendly, smiling, and probably buzzed locals who were playing music under a tree. I lived my childhood National Geographic dream of swimming with humpback whales in Tonga. I travelled on a 24-hour ferry to the next island Vavau’ and met a couple who invited me to stay at their home because they were worried about my safety as a single woman. They took me in as family and became my parents for a week as I followed them to church, to work, around the island, and even to the beach. As a parting present, my Tongan mother taught me how to make baskets out of coconut leaves! Even though I did end up getting robbed in Tonga, it did not take away the pure joy and friendship I felt there. I appreciate my time there so much I got it tattooed on my arm as a reminder that happiness is always around the corner.
Do you have a least favourite one or something you would change if you could go back and revisit the place?
I had a Couchsurfing experience in Europe that went wrong as my host became over-friendly. If I could go back, I would’ve been less frightened and more assertive when I said no means no.
Tell me about a place you want to visit but you know will be extra difficult to get to and why?
My Malaysian passport does not allow me to enter Israel. As a Muslim country, Malaysia does not officially recognise Israel as nation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The government only allows Christians and Muslims to visit Israel for religious purposes with a special permission.
Your blog provides an honest perspective which becomes crucial especially nowadays when people seem to steer towards ‘Instagrammable’ and idealistic content. I feel that a lot of uncomfortable or less exciting truths are being glossed over. Is there an intention to the way you write? What do you hope people take away from visiting your blog?
When I started my travel blog - meimeichu.com - circa 2013, the Insta travel trend had yet to turn into this living creature it is today. I started with just one intention - to help women travel better, safer and more meaningfully. There was a lack of Asian female voices and not enough information for women in the solo travel sphere, and I wanted to fill that gap. I wanted my stories to honestly highlight the best and worst of solo travel so other women can learn from my mistakes. I wanted them to know that their gender is not a limitation in travel. It is a strength, one that can become more powerful if they learn how to embrace their vulnerabilities and overcome the challenges they will face on the road.
It wasn’t until the recent few years that I noticed how Instagram has changed how we travel and how tour operators market their destinations. As travel transformed from a journey of learning to a journey of bragging, these honest stories have become even more important to shed a different dimension on this overly-romanticised narrative of travel that has taken over.
Travel is fun, it’s life-changing, it helps you find epiphanies about yourself, but you starve yourself of that life-changing, epiphany-finding, eat pray love experience if all you do is do fashion shoots at every photogenic location. Travel is beautiful, but it also has a dark side - you can get robbed, hurt, assaulted, cheated, lost. And there are consequences to your travels too - you could hurt local people and local cultures by participating in overtourism, by disrespecting their culture, by destroying the environment. For young, aspiring travellers, I want them to realise that travel is multi-dimensional. Travel is most fulfilling when it is to learn, not when it’s just for the ‘gram.