Tips for Planning and Backpacking South East Asia
Welcome back to the blog my friends! I was looking back at one of my first posts today, and I was reminded of one of the main reasons why I wanted to write a blog, which was to inspire other people to travel and follow their passion. Inspiration is the first step, but actually setting up a formative plan, taking the giant step of buying a plane ticket, then backpacking through a foreign country is a different beast altogether, and it can be a seriously intimidating undertaking. But don’t fear, friends, I am here to put your mind at ease.
Although the way AJ, Alex, and I did things was far from perfect, all of us have learned a great deal since we began our trip, and we have all made mistakes and realized ways we could have done things better. But hey, that’s life isn’t it? We make mistakes, but we learn from them, and we grow as people because of that. Also, making mistakes is what makes a trip unique, it would be boring if everything all went according to plan wouldn’t it? But what I wanted to say is that we have definitely made mistakes and errors in judgement when planning our trip and traveling, and I hope that with this post I can help you avoid making certain mistakes and believing some of the misconceptions that we did. I also hope that by running you through the process of planning a trip like ours, I can prove to you that it isn’t as intimidating as it seems, it is actually awesome, and anyone can do it. So, you want to travel, that is the first step! Now you need to create a plan…
Do you want to take an open ended trip or do you have a set time you would like to travel? If you are planning to take an open ended trip, keep in mind that the word “plan” should be taken very lightly, since your plan will almost always change. I remember Alex telling this to AJ and I a lot while we tried to chart out our route through Asia beforehand and I didn’t realize how right he was until we actually got here. We arrived in Bali with no other plane tickets booked to give us freedom to accommodate any change in our loose plan, and I think this is a great way to do things if you can since your desires will change based on your experiences and conversations with other travelers when you get here. Of course, you also don’t want to wait too long to book or else you will likely over pay for airfare. Booking anywhere from 3 weeks to a month ahead of time worked well for us, but you can always book farther out if you want to. On the other hand, if you only have a set amount of time to travel you will probably need to plan a few steps ahead, although depending on the time available to you could choose to leave the latter stages of your trip open.
Once you have a scope for your trip, you need to ask yourself the important question: where? One note: think big! Don’t set any constraints on yourself. One thing I have learned is that if you really want to you can go anywhere in the world, and I mean anywhere. Tibet, Everest, Jordan, Madagascar, Colombia. I have been lucky enough to meet people who have been to all these places, nothing is impossible! Forgive me for the awful cliche… Maybe I am getting too far ahead of myself, lets get back to the basics. First we need a place and a time to start.
For AJ, Alex, and myself, choosing a place came down simply to price. We knew we wanted to start in South East Asia, so we went on skyscanner, Expedia, etc. and found that Bali was the cheapest place to fly into (it cost us $450 U.S.). If you are planning to hit south east Asia as well, Bali, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, and Ho Chi Minh City are all good bets. In Europe I’ve heard that Amsterdam, Frankfurt, and really any big city is a safe bet to fly to, although you never know about London these days #Brexit. So you have looked on skyscanner and found the cheapest or most convenient place to fly to, perfect. Now you need to find a time, though this can be slightly more complicated.
When To Go:
Here, you might want to take a few considerations into account. Do you want to travel in the high or low season? Are you willing to travel in the rainy season? Are there any festivals or big events at a certain time and place you could see? These are all things that you may want to plan your travel around, and that you can easily find out with a quick Google search. You may have other considerations at home too, such as a lease, school, or a job. If you are renting a place, plan your travel right as your lease ends to avoid paying while abroad. The job aspect might be a little more complicated, and is more than likely the main reason why most people hesitate to travel. I want to say a few words about that.
Quitting your Job:
I was definitely not working my dream job before I left to travel, yet even then I worried about quitting. It was a respectable job, paid me decently, gave me the ability to live comfortably, was it really worth it to toss all that aside and risk my future career? After 5 months, I can hardly find the words to adequately describe how worth it this has been, but the truth is that you won’t know until you try it yourself. That being said, I haven’t gone back to look for a job yet, so I can’t be sure how it has impacted my career as of now, but if there is anything I have learned over here it is that there are literally an infinite number of ways to be successful in this world and to do what you love as long as you are creative and find a way to channel your passion into your work. When travelling you will meet people from all walks of life who have come up with some of the most novel, insane ideas, and what is more, they are doing them and succeeding. Hearing some of these stories has blown my mind, and has forced me to completely reconsider much of what I believed relative to success, failure, and work. I know AJ and Alex have been going through this too, and I have heard some great ideas from both of them in the past months, so for all you potential angel investors out there prepare to get some calls for the first round of start up funding soon if you are reading this. In conclusion, if you have the means and the desire to travel and your job is holding you back, don’t think that it will be the end of the world if you quit. There will always be another opportunity, there will always be millions of opportunities, and if you were like i was before travelling, you might not even be aware of this, and may not realize the infinite possibilities the future holds not just for you, but for your career too.
Well, that escalated quickly… This went from a fun carefree blog post to a monologue on career goals, I’ll bet you didn’t see that one coming!
Alright, after that tangent I feel like I may be making this appear more serious and complicated than it really is, so i am going to be straight up with you guys here — on the planning end, we did almost none beforehand. But, that isn’t to say we didn’t try! After we purchased our plane tickets, AJ, Alex, and I started going over to each others houses after work to research where we wanted to go, visa information, etc. It was a good idea in principle… But after a long day at the office, we were usually exhausted, having expended all of our creative energy at work. So for extra inspiration, whoever was hosting the meet up would take the liberty of providing “liquid creativity” (and im not talking about coffee, guys) for us, also a good idea (maybe?) in principle. With our mental faculties reinvigorated, we would then sit down with our computers, telling each other adamantly: “tonight we have to figure out what to do after Bali”, or “tonight we have to figure out if we need to say we’re Canadian in Vietnam”. Although we did learn a great deal about various countries and how to travel through certain regions at these meetings, we also ended up watching videos of leopards on Alex’s computer for 2 hours one time. So if you are planning an open ended trip and haven’t spent too much time on concrete planning don’t sweat it, much of your trip will fall into place once you are here. That being said, you will want to be well informed on the safety and visa application process for anywhere you might want to go well ahead of time. On this note, I also want to suggest that if you are travelling with friends get together a few times a week to toss around some ideas and research where you want to go beforehand. I always looked forward to these nights after a long day of work, and they also ensured that Alex, AJ and I were all on the same page.
Who To Travel With and Solo Travel:
Ok, back to business. So you have now decided the scope of your trip, where you want to go, and when you are going. There is now another important question to address, perhaps one that has crossed your mind already — “who do I go with?”, and at the thought of this another more suppressed idea may enter your mind — “what if I have to travel alone?”. This can be a tormenting question. To be honest, looking back at myself 5 months ago I don’t know if I would have taken this trip if it was just me. But after a decent amount of time traveling alone I want to reassure anyone that you can take this trip alone. Don’t let what you here back home dissuade you from traveling, for it is often wildly distorted and even untrue at times. The hardest part about traveling alone isn’t that it is more unsafe, or that you might get taken advantage of, as I thought beforehand, instead it is that you are alone in a place where everything and everyone is completely foreign to you. You are utterly out of your element. It is easy to feel lonely in this situation, and I had some trouble with this at first, and still do sometimes to be honest. When you travel with friends from home they provide you with familiarity and with a sense of comfort, but you don’t have that to rely on when you’re alone. That being said, you are really never alone over here. There is always a good friend waiting to be made at your hostel, maybe another person who is traveling alone. In fact, after arriving at a hostel, you can easily meet 3 or 4 people who in minutes have already become like best friends, it is a wonderful thing. Then there are always locals who would love nothing more than to talk to you or even take you out to dinner. No matter where you are, if you are open hearted and open minded there is always an opportunity for a connection. Most of the time all it takes is a smile. And if all else fails, you always have your friends and family back home a swipe away on Facebook or Whatsapp. So don’t be afraid of traveling alone guys, it will be a great opportunity for you to learn about yourself, and you will meet more good people than you could ever imagine.
All of that being said, it is tough to beat traveling with a few of your best friends, so if you are thinking about taking a trip bring it up with your friends and see how they feel. Let them know that you’re serious about it, be the Leonardo DiCaprio of their Inception, and then before you know it you will have a few mates coming along with you on the ride of a lifetime.
I’ve been putting this one off for as long as I could, but in the end, what the trip comes down to for most of us is money. The beautiful thing about South East Asia is that it is so affordable for traveling that even if you don’t have very much money, there are plenty of ways to get around that no matter where you go. If you volunteer for example, you can stay in almost any country with free accommodation, and daily meals (although many times you may be paying a small fee). Also, in nearly any country you can teach English and at the least receive free room and board. In Hanoi an English teacher typically gets paid around $25 an hour from what I heard from multiple sources (I never reveal the names of my sources). If you want to you can even stay at a Buddhist meditation center for free in many South East Asian countries, and I definitely recommend giving this a try for at least a few days, although the meditation is no joke!
But if you want to do your own thing, I respect that, I dig it, and there are ways to do things on the cheap for you too. It mostly comes down to two things: booking the necessary flights far in advance (or even substituting buses instead of airfare), and seeking out cheap but comfortable accommodations (which are everywhere in SE Asia).
Buses are definitely the cheapest way to cover long distances through South East Asia. Although buses have earned themselves a dubious reputation, and are certainly driven by madmen who fancy themselves as Paul Walker or Vin Diesel, none of us have had a problem with the buses here besides a sore neck the next day. Actually I take that back. In Indonesia, we were once made to switch buses in the middle of the night, but the bus they switched us too had less seats than the bus we had been on previously. Naturally the result was that there were people who didn’t have a seat after we changed buses. To fix this, the driver brought on 3 hard narrow wooden benches and placed them in the aisle of the bus, where the paying customers were forced to straddle them for the remaining 4 hours of the ride. Ouch. Another interesting fact about buses: Before I left, I heard stories of people packing midgets into their luggage, who would climb out during the drive and crawl through the luggage compartments and go through people’s bags. I just wanted to mention that hasn’t happened to any of us… Yet. Do be sure to carry all your valuables on your person when on buses and trains though. Trains are always a nice way to travel too, and you usually get to hang out with the locals which is a really cool experience.
Transportation aside, your next largest expenditure will be accommodations. Hostels are always a cheap route to take, and are a great way to meet people, though if you are in a group you can sometimes get a private room and split the cost for cheaper. There were times the three of us even squeezed into a queen size bed just to get the cheapest rate, shocking the owner of the hotel in the process.
But I am afraid I am going too far into specifics, I think I have talked about this before, so instead I will give you the cold hard numbers. So far I have spent about $4,000 in SE Asia, which comes down to about $888 per month (4 1/2 months). You can easily spend more or less than this depending on how you do things, it’s up to you! Hopefully this gives you a ball park estimate for budgeting out your travels.
One last note about money: Don’t worry about it too much. If you try and budget everything out precisely, or try to spend as little as possible everywhere, you are going to find yourself worrying too much about money and not focusing on the more important things. I found myself doing this many times earlier in the trip, and I still catch myself doing it sometimes; worrying about spending an extra 30 cents on a taxi, bargaining for an extra 25 cents at a market, indignant at paying an extra dollar for a room… You dont want to be taken advantage of, but when it comes down to these little things, just try to keep things in perspective, and you will be much happier. I would also say to not be afraid of spending money. There are certain things which might seem expensive, but are completely worth it, and you don’t want to miss out on them because of money. Also, If money starts getting low you can try volunteering or even finding a short term job, which can be very easy to find in tourist areas down here. Money comes and goes, and you can always get more, dont let it dictate your happiness!
Saving For your Trip:
Ironically, I am now going to tell you how to hoard all your money and spend as little as possible before your trip… This might seem very difficult at first, but it’s really not that bad! If you do nothing else but limit how much you spend eating out and going out on the weekends you are already saving a significant amount. You may have other expenses such as your rent, car payments, and things like this which are unavoidable, so it’s best if we focus on the things that are avoidable and try to cut these out. Another thing to remember is that even though you are trying to save up money you should still live your life and do the things you want to do. Go out on the weekends, live life up to the fullest, just dont get in that Uber that is on 3x surge pricing. Packing lunches for work is another way to easily cut out $5-$7 from your daily budget, and even if you aren’t doing it everyday, doing it most days during the week will be a huge boost, and just refraining from adding guac on your Chipotle burritto is enough sometimes. Also, if you have an expensive gym membership try working out at home, and if you have some other subscriptions or memberships you don’t really use then be honest and ask yourself if you really need it. Finally, if all else fails, you have the king of all saving strategies passed down to me by the one and only Alex Mckelvey. Next time you are in line at Chipotle, or thinking about buying that extra beer at Von Trapps, remember that instead of that beer, or that guacamole which will give you such brief pleasure, you could have one more night on the beach in Thailand. Or 6 or 7 beers in Vietnam… Boom.
Well that is just about it for this post guys, if you are still reading I want to say thank you for sticking with me, and I hope this was helpful or at the least entertaining for you. It means a lot that people are still giving these posts a read, and it makes me feel extremely grateful, even if it is only a few people are reading them. Take it easy everybody, I hope you’re all doing well out there in the world and are happy with life. Wishing you all the best from Sri Lanka.