All right, all right. Time to wrap it all up nicely and finally put in on the memory shelf.
My backpacking trip that started as a one-way ticket to Thailand with an indefinite end date turned into four months of exploring Southeast Asia in what became the smoothest and most epic travel adventure of my life. It was something that I always wanted to do – travel solo with a backpack and no deadline; I had a rough run in Central America a couple years back when I ran into a slew of problems and some sickness along the way that provided me with a great survival skill set so I wanted a chance for redemption of experience and I got just that and more.
Before I left for my trip, people reacted with various responses including, “You’re crazy and/or brave,” “I’m jealous – I wish I could take a trip like that,” and “Take lots of pictures so I can live vicariously through you!” Travel can often be a foreign experience or just a far-off dream for many people, and even as purchasing international plane tickets and packing up my backpack has become second-nature to me over the years, I still remember the initial fears, anxieties, and “reasons not to go” that crossed my mind as I prepared for adventures abroad–they are the same ones that cross most people’s minds, the reasons to say no.
But there are just as many reasons or more to say YES to travel! People are often unaware of all the reasons to say yes because they have not yet had the experiences to understand just how much there is to learn from traveling. In addition to creating a worldwide network of friends and gaining access to a level of cross-cultural understanding that is not possible from only staying within one’s native country, traveling affords a person an extensive skill set that can include accounting and budgeting, business negotiation, decision-making, risk management, time management, and a refined sense of instinct when it comes to people, places, and timing.
Traveling sharpens a person. When a traveler is on the move, there is a constant exposure to stimulation. It can be exhausting at times but rewarding in that one can learn so much and stretch himself or herself way beyond whatever he or she ever thought possible. In my opinion, travel provides a deeper and richer education than studying books. I never would have learned about Cambodia’s, the Philippines’, or Singapore’s histories had I not traveled to those countries. Immersion is the most effective method of absorption.
As I wrap up the Southeast Asia saga and reflect on the overall backpacking experience, there are a few more travel tidbits I’ll share that briefly cover planning, statistics and logistics, overall observations and lessons learned, and lastly, a summary of the highlights and general feel of the places I visited during this trip.
Planning, Statistics, & Logistics
While I wasn’t sure exactly when this trip would happen, I been preparing for it by building up my savings account while paying down credit debt which would give me a little wiggle room if I needed it. (I did a balance transfer with the last chunk of credit card debt to a card with 0% APR for 18 months so I was not paying interest while I was away.) When the opportunity came along, the timing and all the other factors were in place so I jumped on it.
120 days – This is how long I was traveling in Southeast Asia, so approximately 17 weeks or 4 months, during which I visited 8 different countries. The longest time I spent in a country was 35 nights [over three visits] in Thailand; the shortest time was 1 unplanned night in China.
$,6,355.29 – The total of my daily living expenses (not counting air transportation); it includes lodging, food and beverages (plus tips), ground and water transportation, all activities, souvenirs, postage for packages and post cards, travel insurance (through World Nomads), and the fees for border crossings and visas to enter certain countries. I was making money decisions every day that went something like this: “Hmm. I’m over here now and that’s really cool” versus, “I don’t want to dip too far into my savings…” While things are generally cheaper in Asia, the money can get away from you fast because you might have tendency to buy more to balance out the lower prices of things, but it all adds up if you’re not paying attention!
$38.71/day – The average amount I spent per day during the month of August, when my costs were the lowest.
$57.06/day – My daily average during the month of November when I was occasionally splurging on things like fancy resort hotels and expensive souvenirs.
15 flights – Including my one-way ticket to Thailand and my return ticket home (totaling $1,213.66 for both flights), plus the 13 flights I took to/from different countries or between major cities while I was in Asia (all 13 flights together rang in at a shockingly low$967.46), my overall cost for air transportation was $2,181.12. Most of this went on my credit card…
$8,536.41 – Adding my flight costs to everything else I spent, this is the GRAND TOTAL of what my 4-month backpacking trip cost. Could I have done it for less? Absolutely. But I traveled very comfortably and safely–even luxuriously on occasion! Because I had been growing my savings, I did not have financial pressure so I felt freedom to stay and eat in nicer places than I would have in my early 20s and participate in whichever activities appealed to me.
37.6 pounds – The weight of my backpack and all the belongings with which I was traveling by the end of my trip (reduced from 39.9 lbs). By traveling lightly and with just one backpack, I learned to appreciate the simplicity by which we can exist. Both physically and metaphorically, lightening one’s load creates so much space to live presently. A lot of thought went into packing my backpack. I used everything I brought with me at least once; I felt that I had everything I needed and trusted that I would have access to anything additional that I would need along the way. Carrying fewer items = having to worry less about losing them.
3 items, 1 day – What I lost during a 4-month trip. The 3 items included my 2 flip-flops that I forgot on a boat in Thailand during the last ten days of my trip and my umbrella that the wind from Typhoon Lando had turned inside out and completely trashed while I was in the Philippines. The day I lost was due to food poisoning stomach sickness in Vietnam, but beyond that and a barely noticeable cold I had in the Philippines, I was blessed with perfect health along the way. No injuries, no incidents, just a smooth all-around trip.
3 phases of the trip – The route I traveled was strategically planned based on weather patterns in Asia. I wanted to avoid the rain as much as possible because there is a slew of extra issues that come along with having a wet backpack, clothes, shoes/sandals, or feet while traveling such as a lack of access to a washer/dryer and high humidity which means belongings could get very stinky. Also, there is a higher probability of contracting a foot fungus if your feet are exposed to dirty streets in the rain. Luckily, I didn’t have to deal with that set of problems; I caught a little bit of rain, but for the most part, I stayed where it was dry. I had great weather and timing for the majority of the trip. I made rough plans that I was constantly adjusting and was pleasantly surprised with all the cool people, growth, and things that happened that I never could have predicted. Here is the breakdown of the 3 phases:
Phase 1 – Starting in late July, I spent about 6 weeks on mainland Southeast Asia. I started in Thailand because it had the reputation for being the most tourist-friendly part of the region. I then moved from northern Thailand into Laos, where I picked up a couple travel buddies with whom I explored Laos and Cambodia, up until early September. Rainy season on the mainland is strongest in September/October so I wanted to get off the mainland before it really hit which meant I would have to come back later if I wanted to go to Vietnam. Phase 1 entailed adjusting to being in Asia, maintaining constant contact with home, finding new friends to compensate for the social void, and organizing my writing goals so I could find my rhythm.
Phase 2 – September is dry season in Bali so it was the perfect place to visit once the rain started on the mainland. Phase 2 was just under 7 weeks during which I committed to island-living, traveling solo, communicating less with home, and knocking out the bulk of my writing. I went from Bali to the Gili Islands (both in Indonesia), then hopped over to Singapore before finishing up this phase in the Philippines for a couple weeks, bringing me to late October. Singapore has very steady, hot weather with a rainy season in December/January so I was in the clear for that region. The weather in the Philippines, however, is much more unpredictable; while the rainy season was tapering off, the Philippines is expected to have at least five big typhoons per year with the strongest tropical storms cycling through anytime from May to October. While the typhoon inevitably produced disappointing weather that was inconvenient for lying around on a tropical beach all day, it was an exciting thing to experience.
Phase 3 – From late October to late November, this final phase of the trip lasted just over 4 weeks and was a time of wrapping up as much work as possible, fulfilling the remaining adventure urges, and reflecting on the journey as a whole. I flew into Vietnam, knowing I would meet a family friend there (and socialize with someone I know well again!). Rainy season was pretty much over in Vietnam, and I slipped in and out before the cold winter set in in the northern part of the country. For the remaining two weeks of my trip, I headed back to Thailand, but this time it was down to the islands in the south that were just coming off of their rainy season. I treated my final weeks in Thailand as a sort of reward and vacation from the work and writing I had been focused on for the past several months. It was a magical way to spend my final days in Asia.
Overall Observations, Lessons Learned, and Stereotypes Formed
Southeast Asia is a safe place to be because the people are open, friendly, and generally live by a peace-driven moral code. English is widely spoken which makes it very easy to travel around, and most Asians who live near tourist hot spots are accustomed to foreign visitors.
Each Asian culture is unique, however, similar chords run throughout the region having to do with a shared background in religious beliefs, agricultural practices, and lifestyle habits. “Same same, but different.” That is the coined phrase of Southeast Asia. They say it everywhere. It becomes a joke most of the time, but it is a good way to describe how things work over there: same same, but different.
Non-verbal communication is prevalent in Asia, but mostly on the mainland as life on the islands is free and relaxed so people are generally more direct in places such as the Philippines, Bali, and the Gili Islands. Asian women on the mainland comes across as submissive, obedient, quiet, and polite, but fair warning – never underestimate the power of a quiet woman! They can cause the most damage when it is least expected.
Especially common in the cities and other crowded areas, people in Asia tend to be physically assertive with little regard for queues or personal space. People can be quite pushy while refusing to make eye contact so there is little chance to express disapproval or surprise at someone’s rude behavior. In order to survive this cultural ambush (well, that is what it feels like, at least), visitors to the region have to adapt quickly and push right on back. This really teaches you to take ownership of your space and speak up for yourself, even if that means using only body language, because if you don’t, you will be pushed right on over and no one will really care.
A sometimes frustrating aspect of the Asian culture is the “box thinking.” Asians are really great at learning and implementing systems with a methodical approach, but when something happens that falls outside the boundaries of what their particular system can handle, the reaction is to freeze. There is a general lack of critical thinking and adaptability. It is more likely to find a rule-follower than a rule-bender in Asia. A proposal with an “outside the box” solution will likely be met with confusion.
As far as solo travel goes, I would say that the best backpacking trips are the ones without a deadline. I realize that this is unrealistic for most people and I acknowledge that travel always provides clarity and perspective no matter how long or short the trip simply for the fact that it gets a person out of his routine and comfort zone, however, the best way to go with the flow and have an organic experience is when time pressure is absent.
The magic number to stay in a place I liked was 5 nights. That way I didn’t feel like I was rushing, and I had enough time to have activity days interspersed among down days for writing or resting. I could get to know a place and pick some favorite spots, but I wouldn’t stay long enough that people could get to know my habits too well. (This is partially a defense tactic I often use as a solo female traveler in order to avoid becoming an easy target.) Of course, sometimes I stayed only one night in a place, then bounced, and a few other times, I stayed longer than five nights, but in general, five days seemed to be the right amount of time.
I’ve decided that I would never want to play “Chicken” with a Chinese person or a Filipino (this is a stereotype I formed while traveling); I think the Chinese wouldn’t even notice I was there and the Filipino just wouldn’t stop so I’d surely be toast either way.
Other common stereotypes in the region [and around the world] include the following: 1) Americans are rich, lazy, and ignorant; 2) Chinese are terrible swimmers and they notorious for frantically flipping their fins underwater while SCUBA diving which can destroy marine life on the reefs; 3) Australians are really cool and well-liked, except for the young party-goers to the beaches of Kuta in Bali — those Australians are loud, obnoxious drunkards. 4) Russian, Chinese, and French people speak the least amount of English and the locals are often bothered that they don’t even attempt to learn English, although the French people are better-liked because of their intelligence and social savvy in comparison to the cold, entitled vibe of the Russians and the complete lack of regard for others that the pushy Chinese people display. *(Please keep in mind that these are generalizations and stereotypes, not accurate representations of all the citizens in any of these countries.)
One of my favorite lessons learned from traveling is that money doesn’t talk. Locals don’t respect people who come in and throw a bunch of money around; they respect people’s ability to think, their wit, their intelligence. Money doesn’t connect people – it isolates them.
Lastly, I’ve come to the realization that the presence of geckos and white sand crabs are comforting to me everywhere I go now; they feel like home.
Summary and Impressions of Countries Visited
Thailand – I love Thailand. The culture is rich and the people are friendly, peaceful, kind, and proud of their country. Thai cuisine is top-notch, Thai massage is world-famous, and Thai dancing and arts are elegant. There is everything from big city to hill-tribe village, mountains, jungles, river towns, islands, and beaches, each offering opportunities for interactive experiences and interesting activities. There is so much going on in Thailand that one could never get bored. Some of the highlights of my time there include my initial introduction to Thailand and its people in and around Bangkok Tree House, learning foot massage and reflexology and taking a Thai cooking class in Chiang Mai, and the day I spent with the elephants at Elephant Haven in Sai Yok.
Laos – Laos is a quiet land and the hidden treasure of Southeast Asia, although travelers are discovering it rapidly, requiring that Laotians adapt to the international presence in their country just as quickly as the visitors are pouring in. The landscape of Laos is a myriad of jungles, rivers, and karst cliffs, lush and vibrant. My top experiences in Laos include hiking to the Kuang Si Waterfalls (with Allan and friends), soaking up the vibe of the charming town of Luang Prabang, and interacting with locals in the Khong Lo Village.
Cambodia – Cambodia is a mixture of old and new. The scar from its bloody history of the Khmer Rouge still runs deep with sorrow in the older generation, but it is balanced with a curious and progressive energy in the younger generation. While home to Angkor Wat, the remnant crowned jewel of one of the greatest ancient civilizations of the region, which is lauded as a celebration of the past, Cambodia’s future is stamped with a big question mark in regard to whether it will flourish with strong ideas combined with increasing access to technology or head toward economic chaos. The land is rugged, the people are one-of-a-kind, and the city life is based on community, outdoor markets, and activity. The things that made a lasting impression on me were the 3-day exploration of Angkor Wat (with Allan), the performance given by the young people of Phare, the Cambodian Circus, and the general playfulness and enormous smiles of the locals.
Bali (Indonesia) – Bali is a special gem of an island and boasts a society that is considered advanced compared to the rest of the world. With strong roots in Hinduism that are still in practice by the majority of the population, peacefulness and spirituality permeate the land. As a busy tourist destination, the Balinese people strive to maintain a friendly and welcoming atmosphere despite the high traffic and inevitable pollution issues on the island. Bali was my favorite place overall not only because everything was so colorful but also because my time there was marked with healing, inner peace, presence, and friendship. My most memorable experiences there include the two profound meditation sessions I attended, a sunrise hike up Mt. Batur, a trip to the Sacred Monkey Forest in Ubud, and the relationships I formed with three amazing Balinese women, Arini, Wayan, and Tia.
Gili Islands (Indonesia) – The Gili Islands are the epitome of simple island life. While each of the three Gilis has its own vibe, the overall atmosphere on each island revolves around relaxation. Each island’s perimeter can be trekked in anywhere from 45 minutes to two and a half hours, and the sub-culture options visitors have are the party place on Gili T, the rustic honeymoon haven on Gili Meno, and the coffee shop/dive shop blend on Gili Air. All my favorite memories on the Gilis happened on Gili Air where I observed the underwater flower beds of corals while diving, bonded with unforgettable Frenchies from the dive shop, and witnessed some of the most spectacular sunsets of my trip.
Singapore – Singapore is sophisticated, clean, safe, and balanced. From the outside, it appears as a sort of Utopia and provides access to an easy life for most of its citizens and a relatively open environment for separate cultures to coexist in close quarters. While I just barely scratched the surface here, I caught a glimpse of some of the underlying issues that make the society a little disjointed. On one hand, the government of this city-state-island nation seems to have thought through every possible issue and created effective systems to keep things under control, however, there seems to be a lack of depth that abounds throughout the society and a yearning among its people for something more meaningful than they can get without having to struggle. I am utterly fascinated by this place and curious to experience more of it. The highlights of Singapore include the innovative nighttime light show among the super trees at Gardens by the Bay, the impressive fully decked-out hostel I stayed in for most of my nights there, and the stimulating conversations I had with a handful of the locals.
The Philippines – The Philippines is the country that consists of islands upon islands, proving difficult to get around at times and often requiring that plane or boat be the primary method of transportation. Filipino people are extremely friendly, family-oriented, and direct – so blunt at times that their questions and comments may come off as rude when confronting more subdued cultures. Filipinos are devout Catholics and also love to have fun. From rice terraces to paradisiacal beaches, the Philippines can provide access to the ultimate adventures. Highlights include floating in the crystal-blue waters off the white sand beach in Boracay, wreck-diving in Coron in good company (Graeme!), and scaling limestone cliffs in the early morning darkness to catch the breathtaking sunrise across El Nido Bay.
Vietnam – Vietnam is a long, diverse, highly populated country that shares borders with China in the north, Laos to the west, and Cambodia to the south. Society moves at a fast pace in the cities, yet the locals are both gracious and playful. The Vietnamese are sure of themselves and happily set in their systematic ways, yet there are subtle undertones of unique artistic patterns and delicate flavors that indicate that the culture is more complex than what meets the eye. At the first thought of Vietnam, two contradicting lifestyle images come to mind: the first is of city streets and sidewalks that are overcrowded with motorbikes and riders wearing face masks to prevent pollution inhalation, and the other is of the outdoor social scene at night when people sit around chatting or playing games at plastic tables and chairs they set up right outside their homes, businesses, apartment buildings, etc. My favorite place in Vietnam, hands-down, was Hoi An both for its locals who openly interacted with visitors and for the magical charm of the river town at night, especially when the silk lanterns came on.
Thailand – Again. I spent the last two weeks of my trip on the islands and beaches of southern Thailand on the Andaman Sea side. This was a sort of “vacation” for me and I decided well ahead of time that I wouldn’t write about it so I could focus on wrapping up everything for my trip. I did a “deep water soloing” rock climbing trip from Railay beach, I watched beautiful sunsets, strolled long beaches, and rented a motorbike for a day while I was on Koh Lanta, then I spent a handful of days in peace and quiet by myself on a tiny isolated island in the same area. While I’ll leave the details of this portion of my trip out (you can get them in person!), here is a photo collage of the highlights of my last two weeks in Thailand.
China – I spent one unexpected day in Wuhan, China during a layover on my way back to the USA because I was not permitted to stay in the airport overnight. It was 34 degrees outside and I was not prepared at all for that! China was difficult to navigate because English is not common In Wuhan and the ATMs were not processing the debit cards so the money situation was also a challenge. Luckily I found some other travelers who contributed to my survival! But China is definitely a place I would like to visit again someday because I do not understand its culture and the behavior of many of its people and I want to know where it all stems from. I need to be immersed in it in order to gain that insight.
Traveling will always be a part of my life, and now I have the confidence to travel any time. The more a person travels, the easier it becomes to just pick up and go. Then settling down and creating a home becomes a choice, not something to do simply because that is all one knows.
The purpose of this trip revolved around making progress on my writing project (little did I know, I would add 15 unplanned Backpacking Bonus chapters to the overall project, plus a deep dive into post-travel readjustment!), but there were many more unspoken reasons for embarking on this journey. I value travel for the space it allows for people to process, perhaps heal from a personal loss, and gain perspective on their lives and relationships with others, themselves, and God. It requires that a person surrenders control and trusts that change and distance are necessary for healing and redesign.
If I could identify the underlying motivation I have for writing about my travels, it would be because I want to share it with others and inspire people to travel if they can. I have learned so much and I want people I care about to have access to the same kind of beauty I have witnessed and love I have experienced all around the world. Starting with a strong base of faith, family, and friends and enhancing that foundation through travel, my life has become enriched beyond measure and I feel so blessed because of it.
People have missed opportunities in their lives all the time and most of the time they just sit and watch an opportunity pass them by, even if it has their name all over it! I would encourage anyone to spend a little more time listening and then to jump on the next idea that feels right, even if it seems uncomfortable at first. What have you got to lose? Toss your “reasons” to the side and just go for it. Make it a conscious choice. Live your life while you can.
TRAVEL TIP: The only regret that I had during this entire trip was that I chose not to carry a hard copy of a book with me (because I didn’t want to carry the extra weight – haha!). Audiobooks are great because they do not take up physical space, and I finished five of them along the way, however, I don’t enjoy listening as much as I do reading. It would’ve been great to have a real book in my hands while I was lounging on the beaches, during all of my flights, and at night before going to bed. Lesson learned. So if you are a reader, don’t forget to pack a real book on your next trip!
All my love and enthusiasm,