Wednesday Dec 13, 2017
These days, solo female travel is all the rage. Traveling alone, regardless of gender, can be empowering and rewarding. Few places now are out of bounds for adventure seekers. One of those exceptions is Pakistan, my home, which is generally not considered a travel-haven for women vacationing without male guardians.
It is often said that travelling is the same in any part of the world. All one needs is the right amount of diligence, and necessary precautions. That is a rule of thumb for those who proactively seek to satisfy their wanderlust. But then there are times when things can take their own course.
This year, my colleague and I — two young, single girls (not broke!) — decided to take a trip outside Pakistan. First, we zeroed in on the historical and magnificent European continent but then changed our minds. Securing visas could be a long and nerve-wracking process and since this was my first trip abroad, I might not be too lucky. So we decided on the South-eastern countries — Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia.
First up was choosing the right travel agent, before we set off to a foreign land and became immersed in the razzle-dazzle of finding hotels and guided tours.
We then gathered the required documents, got our passport-sized pictures taken and then patiently waited for the visa approvals. It was a stressful process. Three different countries with three distinct visa requirements. For Thailand, one needs to take the documents personally to the embassy. Whereas for Malaysia, one must also send a document signed by a male guardian, in case women want to travel on their own. Singapore asks for the least amount of documents, they just need the passport, CNICs and pictures. But they can take up to 15 days to process the application.
All in all, it took us a month to get our approvals.
Next was the itinerary. For an unconventional trip, we needed an unconventional itinerary, with places that are not frequented by couples. This consumed a lot of time as our budget was only Rs200,000 each for 15 days.
Singapore: Three nights
Thailand: Six nights stay. Places to visit: Phuket, Ao Nang Beach, Krabi and Bangkok.
Malaysia: Five nights stay. Places to visit: Kuala Lumpur, Cameron Highlands and Langkawi.
That adds to a total of four flights, one bus travel from Singapore to Malaysia and a ferry transfer from Phuket to Krabi.
On the day of our travel. I was excited and nervous. We reached the Karachi airport three hours before departure to catch a Sri Lankan airlines flight.
At the immigration counter, the officer behind the desk peered at us curiously. Looking down at our documents he asked, “Why are you two going to these places?”
“As tourists, for travelling,” we replied in harmony.
“They chose dangerous countries,” he mumbled to the officer next to him, who chuckled in response."Malaysia is also there, don't worry," assured the other officer to his slightly perturbed colleague.
It took him a long time to sift through our paperwork, after which he finally let us go. Phew!
The travel time was three hours to Colombo, Sri Lanka, where we had a short layover. I had finally landed in my first country outside of Pakistan. The Bandaranaike International Airport did not disappoint. It was colourful and vibrant, reminding me of the movie Frida, a huge contrast to any Pakistani airport. But there was no Halal food at any of the food stalls. Finally, we settled on a ridiculously expensive cheese and tomato sandwich. At the gate, we met a number of foreigners, particularly Indians, who we made small talk with before boarding again.
When we finally settled down in the aircraft, the pilot said something that left me uneasy. The weather conditions were uncertain and there was a good chance of turbulence along the way. Now, turbulence on local flights usually doesn’t concern me, as I always end up blaming the aircraft of the national carrier or the pilots. After the plane took off, I tried to sleep and it was precisely then that I discovered my newly-acquired fear of turbulence.
As we were flying over the Indian Ocean, the plane did its fair share of jolting. I was too scared to utter a word, let alone go to sleep. But the other passengers seemed unperturbed.
After a while, which seemed like an eternity, the journey stabilised and the seatbelt sign was turned off. As the first rays of sunlight streamed into the aircraft, I could see the destination below me. Welcome to Singapore, I whispered to myself.
To be continued…