Why This Gay Man Prefers to Travel Solo

Plus, a few places he won't travel to

Rear View Of Man In City
Panuwat Dangsungnoen / EyeEm / Getty Images

We’re celebrating the joy of solo travel. Let us inspire your next adventure with features about why 2021 is the ultimate year for a solo trip and how traveling alone can actually come with amazing perks. Then, read personal features from writers who have traversed the globe alone, from hiking the Appalachian Trail, to riding rollercoasters, and finding themselves while discovering new places. Whether you’ve ever taken a solo trip or you’re considering it, learn why a trip for one should be on your bucket list.

As a travel journalist, rare is the opportunity to bring along my husband or friend—a “plus one” trip as we say in the biz—on a work assignment due to logistics, finances (especially finances!), or other reasons. That means I'm usually flying solo. To some, who have “awww”ed when I share this caveat in conversation about my work, this sounds like a bummer. But honestly, I’m a solo traveler at heart. 

Sure, I love taking vacations and sharing incredible (and sometimes compensated experiences) with my husband at least once a year. Still, I learned early on that I simply prefer traveling this way. (Plus, he actually loathes airports and air travel minutiae to the point that merely going through TSA screenings earns me an angsty, unhappy “I don’t want to do THAT again for a while," and he’s a Guy Fieri to my Andrew Zimmern when it comes to adventurous eating.)

The epiphany occurred during my early 20s when I took a trip to Europe with a gay best friend. Upon arrival at London Heathrow, I was excited to delve into U.K. culture and, since we were famished, lunch. My friend pointed to a McDonald’s and insisted, “let’s go there.” 

“WHAT?!” I thought and blanched aloud. “We’re in London! Let’s eat something London-y. We flew all this way. How about we get lunch at a pub or something? There’s a fish and chips shop right there!” 

“No,” he insisted sternly. “I want McDonald’s. McDonald’s will make me happy.” 

And he stormed into the McDonald’s and ate the same (insert expletive) meal he could’ve back home. Things only got worse in Paris. And then by the time we arrived in Amsterdam, we basically split up during the days, and once home, our friendship dissolved (and he could eat all the friggin’ McD’s he wanted). 

My next trip to Europe was solo, and my experiences backpacking there for three weeks without being tethered to someone with an American fast food fixation proved intoxicating and invaluable. I had freedom of choice for activities and meals; the chance for spontaneous adventures or encounters; the perk of booking a single seat (there’s almost always a single seat available for everything, from theater to restaurants with bar seating or chefs tables, to transportation); I could stop to take photos without someone nagging or feeling I was holding them up, and vice versa; and the ability to forge new friendships and adventures without a potential third wheel. In Antwerp, Belgium, a local noticed me eating alone, poring through a guidebook, and sparked up a conversation, and half an hour later I was taking my first ever motorcycle ride, clung tightly to his waist, en route to try my first unfiltered white beer (still my favorite). Plus, it helped me develop independent skills, like reading maps and navigating schedules that would prove useful when bringing someone along.

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I should clarify that my “solo” travels are actually not completely solo, given how much time I’ve spent with locals or fellow tourists. Sometimes I’ll force myself to clear a day for playing things completely by ear, especially when it comes to a major city, and there are alleys and streets filled with hidden gems to explore at my own pace. (Conversely, one of my Taipei friends always takes me to hidden places like queer-owned art bookstores tucked down laneways I’d never find otherwise.) 

Smartphones (and local SIM chips) represented a utilitarian game-changer, especially for gay men, thanks to gay social apps like Grindr. Truth be told, I’d used gay websites to make connections worldwide for years and learned that there are country and region-specific ones to check out in some cases.

Israel’s Atraf, for example, on which some young gay men—including aspiring drag queens—use a photo bearing arms in military gear in their profiles. Japan’s 9Monsters conveniently provides real-time Japanese-English translation in its chat feature and adds a "kawaii" (read: cute) quirk by assigning a creature type (e.g., Muscle Wolf, Athlete Kong, and Chubby Piggy) to you and those you connect with. In Mainland China, where the internet firewall blocks certain apps and websites from functioning entirely, Blued rules and boasts in-app Chinese-English translation.

There are dangers to these apps, however, including people who might do you harm. Being assaulted is especially a danger in virulently homophobic countries and regions such as Russia’s Chechen Republic. David France’s gripping Oscar-nominated 2020 documentary, "Welcome to Chechnya," chronicles its repugnant anti-gay purge and torture of LGBTQ people who often are baited, ambushed, and tortured via these apps. 

I made a very conscious decision years ago to avoid destinations where my life and safety would be at high risk: I partly owe this decision to my father, who hammered into me over the years, “you have too much to live for to lose it all by going into a war zone!” Consequently, I won’t go to Iran or Yemen, where they still may execute you for being gay. Further, I have little interest in many places where anti-LGBTQ violence or legislation is an issue. Jamaica can wait, thank you.

Yet, I have visited a few countries, such as Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia, where homosexuality is illegal. Why? In Singapore’s case, it’s a frustrating, dusty legislative fossil, Section 377A, that the old political guard keeps on the books to appease the aging conservative base. (They stopped actively enforcing the code after a series of entrapment operations and much public outcry.) As a result, Singapore's tourism office doesn't officially promote anything LGBTQ, which sucks for me, and no doubt, some staffers. Despite this, Singapore is a clean, safe and diverse destination where gays can have a, well, gay ol' time. There's a highly visible Pride-style event, Pink Dot, dedicated to changing hearts and minds, while a lively LGBTQ nightlife scene exists. But there’s no imminent threat of violence or prison thanks to one’s sexuality.

Malaysia’s situation is much stickier. There, laws are colored by Islam, and politicians routinely vilify LGBTQ people. During a preposterous 2012 episode, the government issued guidance on how to spot homosexuals, V-neck shirts being a telltale sign. The following year saw a government-funded, anti-gay musical titled “Abnormal Desire” in which lightning strikes and kills you for succumbing to queer impulses—this production went on to tour schools. Over a seafood-heavy dinner that year in Kuala Lumpur, a handful of my Malaysian friends who work in the arts rolled their eyes over LGBTQ acquaintances who actively participated in the production. Funny, yet not so funny when you consider the self-loathing, familial rejection, and suicides these kinds of things can ultimately cause among Malaysian youth.

I do keep returning to Kuala Lumpur and Kuching—the latter is located on Malaysian Borneo, and its creamy, non-fishy iteration of laksa (a soup) is my addiction—thanks to my "foreigner privilege." A Kuching friend once told me that as a non-Muslim visitor from the West, I could basically skirt the rules, at least when it pertains to being gay. I couldn't confirm that advice (nor recommend testing it), seeing as I still wouldn't dare kiss anyone publicly in a place where same-sex PDAs are considered taboo or might invite public displays of hatin' (I'm looking at you, Poland). One irony that's always puzzling: Some countries are vehemently legally anti-gay, but men holding hands is okey-dokey. Go figure.

As for Indonesia, certain regions are downright dangerous due to their enforcement of Shariah law, and others completely safe. To wit, early 2021 saw an Aceh province gay couple receive 77 lashes in public, while the island of Bali is a chilled-out LGBTQ haven with gay-owned guesthouses and villas, and far removed in every way.

I’ll admit to feeling on edge while visiting the capital city of Jakarta in 2010, which I have mixed feelings about (the traffic ranks among the top three worst I’ve experienced, joining Manila and New Delhi). My travel writing aside, I was there as a guest of Q Fest, an LGBTQ film festival organized by the bravest and most beautiful Indonesians, as co-writer of a gay rom-com titled BearCity. That year, fundamentalists threatened to bomb screening venues, including ones affiliated with international consulates, which resulted in hasty last-minute cancellations and changes. Also, my hotels’ checks for bombs when a vehicle entered the properties proved moreso unnerving.

Despite that, I savored incredible cuisine, discovered a vibrant arts and social scene, and forged lasting friendships (nothing like being the targets of crazed fundamentalists to bond over!). Would I go back? Actually, no, but that's down to the godforsaken traffic; ask anyone who spent six hours in a taxi merely transferring from the airport to their hotel, especially if it was raining and flooding at the time, which happens, and there are few structurally sound sidewalks to speak of.

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Taking inventory, some of my most vivid, special travel memories are, in fact, when I was completely alone—especially meals. As much fun as sharing a meal can be, I love to work while I eat. It fuels my output, my brain is optimized, my senses are sharp, and my laptop has joined me for innovative, mind-blowing food worldwide. (One exception: While at Amsterdam’s two Michelin star &samhoud places in 2015, I was told to put it away, as laptop use was considered distracting to other diners. The restaurant closed in 2020, and I blame hyper-sensitive diners who can't mind their own business—it's not like I want them to shut up because their conversation is ruining my meal.)

It's also an opportunity to plot my course. At Tokyo’s Florilege, I was able to research galleries and map my itinerary via iPhone between stunning courses and a juice pairing (there may or may not have been some 9Monsters chats going on too)—one of the best meals and experiences of my life. Ditto for Merida, Mexico's K'u'uk, where Yucatecan cuisine and flavors receive a futuristic, theatrical treatment.

If you see me dining solo there again or anywhere else, don’t even consider thinking I’m missing out. I'm not. But do drop me a hello on Grindr!