Great tips from a first-time traveller to Southeast Asia — so you can do it, too!
Story and Photos by Rebecca Bowslaugh
When I first decided to backpack around Southeast Asia I was halfway through my first contract as an English teacher in South Korea. All my friends were travellers. Backpacking at the end of a contract was the norm. It was the reason why we were so far from home.
Stretching a dollar was the main reason why I chose backpacking; I was looking to visit as many countries as possible on a small budget. Teaching in Korea means that the nearest shoestring travel option is Southeast Asia. I was also told that it’s not very difficult to navigate most countries in the area.
Like so many millennials, I will do almost anything if somebody tells me it’s easy. So I bought a plane ticket from Seoul to Bangkok. I had only ever travelled in Europe, and only to the most obvious locations: France, Italy, Spain and England. Southeast Asia was something completely new, and I wasn’t sure how to plan for it.
For many backpackers, planning is the hardest part of the whole trip.
Where to go? Where to stay? What to do?
I went and got my vaccinations and bought a guidebook. Good start. Then I spoke with some friends who were more seasoned travellers. Big mistake. They had endless suggestions for places I had to visit. I started writing it all down and in the end had several pages of if-you-do-only-one-thing-do-this locations and adventures. By the time I got to Thailand I was feeling so overwhelmed by options that I decided to throw them all away and do whatever I wanted. It was the easiest decision I’ve ever made.
I meant to travel around to other countries, but as soon as I left Bangkok and had my feet up in a hammock with an ocean view and a lime cocktail in my hand, somehow I couldn’t bring myself to leave. Every new island and beach that I visited was as welcoming and beautiful as the last. Thailand is an easygoing country for spontaneous backpackers and lone travellers.
But how did I expect to get my country count up if I kept spending 45 days in one place?
By the end of my second teaching contract in Seoul, I was far more prepared. I had three travel companions (Meaghan, Shannon and Stephanie) locked down and they had left it up to me to plan out the three-month excursion. I knew I actually had to plan this time because one of my fellow backpackers was my best friend from home, and unlike the rest of us she rarely had time to travel. This trip had to be amazing. The pressure was on.
Having been to Thailand already, I knew that everything would be easier this time around. And as I mentioned earlier, I love easy. I was assuming (hoping) that the other countries we were going to visit would be just as easy. Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and Malaysia were all neighbouring countries with amazing reviews from every backpacker I spoke with. And if I was worried, I just thought about how much I had learned the first time around.
I knew that getting around inside Thailand had been as easy as finding the bus station or waving down a tuk-tuk driver. I knew meeting new friends was as easy as sharing a hookah on the beach or even smiling in the general direction of a fellow backpacker on a long train ride. I knew that each and every piece of food I put in my mouth had been the best thing I’d ever eaten (okay, so my stomach didn’t always agree).
I knew that finding a new adventure was easy because I was in an unfamiliar place and even buying a sarong feels like an adventure. There are guesthouses, hostels and budget hotels everywhere when you stay near a beach and with the exception of Bangkok I was never more than a short walk from the sand. And my very favourite thing about Thailand was how easy it was to find a hammock to relax in.
Find out if the rest of my Southeast Asia trip was as easy as I hoped next week in Part Two: Fun First, Safety Second.
Part Two: How To Travel Safe Without Regrets
Fun first, safety second! This is exactly the kind of advice I don’t like to give— however, it is the way I like to travel.
Prioritizing fun over safety is bound to create problems if you do it all the time (i.e. an untimely death), but throwing caution to the wind when the mood strikes is definitely a good way to travel (i.e. the best time ever).
As a woman, I am constantly being told not to do things.
Don’t walk alone at night, don’t hitchhike, don’t talk to strangers, don’t travel alone. I have to admit that sometimes fear gets the better of me, but I am always fighting it. When I did my first solo travel in Thailand, I was 26 and old enough to know that danger is not lurking around every single corner.
One year earlier I had moved to South Korea all by myself and lived alone in a country across the world from home, and it was the most fun I’d ever had. It was important for me to know that I was brave enough and strong enough to travel alone and actually enjoy myself. I am from a big family, so independence is something I’ve worked hard on since childhood.
After doing a little research, I learned three important things about backpacking in Southeast Asia: First, it’s relatively safe for female travellers, whether in groups or flying solo; second, the rules and laws aren’t the same as at home, which creates something of a “Wild West” vibe for Westerners; and three, it’s easy! (As I mentioned in part one of my series.)
The most difficult aspect of travel safety is knowing when to listen to the warnings. In my experience, when a guidebook says to watch out for pickpockets, that just means you should be alert when you’re in high traffic areas. You don’t always need to wear your backpack on the front, or tape your passport to the inside of your underwear. Just be aware of your belongings and surroundings and you should be fine.
If only I could go back in time and tell the teacher who was leading our tour during a high school trip to Paris that there is absolutely no reason to yell “EVERYBODY OFF THE TRAIN!” when you see suspicious characters near you on the subway.
However, I would also like to go back in time to tell Past-Rebecca that she should have listened to the guidebook’s warnings about In the Tubing in Vang Vieng, Laos. Back in 2011, there were many words to describe In the Tubing, including fun, wild, chaotic and party. But at the other end of the spectrum were words such as blackout, booze, drugs and dangerous. Luckily, I only lost a day instead of my whole life. I don’t necessarily regret the experience I had—more so the choices that I made.
Luckily, staying safe in Southeast Asia was pretty easy. At times there is conflict, such as recent events in Bangkok (and less recent events when I was first there), but a quick online search will give you enough details to make an informed choice about whether or not you should put off going there, or leave early, or avoid that country altogether.
Ask yourself the following questions: 1. Am I willing to put myself in danger? 2. Is this my only chance to see this country? 3. Are other travellers still heading in that direction? 4. Is it absolutely vital that I go right this minute? 5. Do I have life (never mind travel) insurance? If the answer to any of the above is “No” then you should probably stick to the well-lit areas and calm tourist hotspots.
In case you’re still feeling worried, here is a helpful list of safety tips I learned from mistakes I made during my backpacking days. And lucky for you, I am more than willing to share my embarrassing moments.
– Keep track of all your belongings (making a list helps). There is nothing worse than getting to the airport and realizing your passport is still in your beachside bungalow.
– Don’t get off the train, even for a second, when your belongings are still on it. The train WILL leave. This happened to some friends of mine (you know who you are).
– Spread your money out, don’t keep it all in one side pocket. Put a little in the bottom of your backpack. Put some in the toe of your hiking boot. Tuck a few inside the clothes you’re wearing. Just in case you become separated from your bag.
– Always notify your bank when you’re travelling outside your home country. Also, if you change your banking passwords before you leave, don’t forget your new pin. Otherwise, you’ll spend your first few days in Bangkok trying to get the bank (and your mom) to send you a new pin because you are locked out of your account and starting to feel really hungry.
– Make sure somebody always knows where you are. Whether they are your travel mates or your family at home. Loved ones panic way too easily.
– Don’t play with stray animals. They might be adorable little kitties and puppies, but the rash you get won’t be so cute. We joke about #deathbycuteness, but rabies will actually kill you.
– If you’re not sure, don’t eat it. Otherwise, you’ll spend your entire time in Kuala Lumpur on your friend’s couch after vacating your entire insides into their toilet.
– Make sure you understand the road (and bike lane) rules. Especially if it’s late at night and you’re making a right-hand turn and a motorbike decides to crash into you. If you know the rules, you can win the screaming fight that will ensue.
– Do your research! If you are going on any tours, make sure the guide company is certified or at least well-regarded for whatever it is that they do. I don’t have any “or else” for this because I do my research. *Pats self on back*
– Get travel insurance. In life, things always go wrong, so you just have to plan for it. And you never know when the fire limbo stick is going to fall on your neck.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t step outside your comfort zone—you absolutely should. Right now in fact! Travel is about having experiences outside your daily life back home. Use backpacking as a chance to push your limits, face your fears, make mistakes (and learn from them), have no regrets and really find out what kind of person you are (or become the person you want to be).
When I moved across the world, I wanted to do all those things. I wanted to try everything once, and I did my very best to get the most from my adventures.
Find out how I was able to backpack Southeast Asia with no regrets next week in Part Three: My First Time Trying Everything Once
Part Three: My First Time Trying Everything Once
It doesn’t matter who you are, everyone should share this one travel motto: Try Everything Once. Go ahead and say that once out loud. Write it down on a piece of paper and mail it to your mother. Have it cross-stitched inside your underwear. And finally, repeat it over and over inside your head until it becomes the background music to your days on the road.
As I mentioned in the first part of my series, my second backpacking trip to Southeast Asia wasn’t a lone mission. I was dragging along three good friends, and I wanted to make sure we all had a great time. Stephanie was already a world traveller (her country count is higher than mine), Shannon had gastronomically survived India (albeit several pounds lighter), and in high school Meaghan used to let me drive her around in my beat up, two-toned, ear-splitting, ’87 Chevy Cavalier (which we affectionately nicknamed “death mobile” and “amazing discombobulator”); I knew they were ready for anything.
Having such a strong team of intrepid travellers along made me excited to try as many new activities as possible. It also made me realize that I wouldn’t be able to chicken out of anything. What are friends for, if not to peer pressure you into terrifying new experiences that will later be your fondest memories?
Southeast Asia is a great place for newbie backpackers to break in their travel shoes. There are adventure options for all types of traveller, no matter what floats your boat. If you want to spend your entire trip in or around the water there are endless snorkel and diving options, whitewater rafting and kayaking tours, and you can even hire a boat and driver to explore surrounding islands.
If you prefer dry land, you can find all kinds of trekking possibilities, including rainforests and village stays. You can base your trip around nature reserves and wildlife sanctuaries. There is also a strain of backpacker who jumps from party to party, but you miss out on almost all the local culture, so I don’t recommend it.
I used my trip as a chance to put my motto to use.
Overcoming fears is a major step towards absolute travel enjoyment.
Despite my fear of heights (or more accurately to spite it) we went zip lining and slept in a treehouse high in the canopy of the Bokeo Nature Reserve in Laos (which also turned out to be a good place to overcome a fear of giant spiders). We took a really long ride in a glass-bottom cable car and I didn’t projectile vomit all over Meaghan. We jumped off the top of our junk boat in Halong Bay—no wait, I didn’t do that but everyone else did. The water was cold (I am a terrible Canadian—I turn blue swimming in cold water in about three minutes) and let’s face it, Rome wasn’t built in a day.
Travelling is a great way to push your boundaries and see what you’re capable of. That’s where “Try Everything Once” comes in handy. I got my first tattoo in a beachside shop in Koh Chang, Thailand. I went whitewater kayaking in the Mekong, fell into the rapids twice, and didn’t even—despite my inherent beliefs—drown. I met my lifelong love—the ATV—in the Cambodian countryside.
I ate a wide variety of strange (to me) cuisine, including water buffalo, silkworm larvae, sheep penis, fetal duck egg, river algae, and a frozen dessert that tasted and looked exactly like a cob of corn.
As a backpacker, you don’t always have to be on a crazy adventure. You can also go slow and try new things that don’t even scare you a little. On our trip, we tried to have a little of both. We trekked through the Laotian countryside with local guides and participated in a village stay. We visited a wildlife sanctuary and hung out with an elephant in Cambodia.
We went to several cooking classes so that we could recreate all the amazing food we were eating when we got back home again. We visited a floating village and canoed through the treetops.
There is a downside to wanting to try everything once. Due to the fact that you are a visitor in a foreign country, you will probably end up participating in activities that seem like a great idea at the time, but you will later realize were not exactly (or nowhere near) ethical. We rode elephants at Angkor Wat, had clothing tailor-made in Hoi An, and petted playful tiger cubs and their docile full-grown parents (we later found out they were probably drugged to make them drowsy for tourists).
I’m sure there were other blunders we made and unfortunately, the only things we can do are learn from them and share our experiences to help fellow travellers avoid the same mistakes.
If you’re worried about ethical travelling, try to do as much research as possible before you start backpacking. Or at least ask other travellers about their experiences to find out if a “sanctuary” is actually a few sad elephants in a dusty parking lot. “Try Everything Once” shouldn’t be applied if it’s to the disadvantage of anyone else.
Backpacking is about exploration and experience. Keep your eyes open all the time.
If you are scared to jump, travel with a friend who will push you over the edge.
Try as many new things as you can and don’t be afraid to step (or live) outside your comfort zone. Plan a trip that will, if possible, change your life and start a lifelong passion for travel.
How To Plan A Group Backpacking Trip
First you need to actually plan your trip! This is where I defenestrate my aforementioned love for all things easy-peasy and dust off my obsession for all things neat and orderly. Oh, did I not mention that?
I love making to-do lists and checking things off. I enjoy writing events, meetings and appointments in my calendar. I am positively gleeful when friends and family ask me to help them organize their closets. Coming up with a two-month-long itinerary was pure bliss.
I started by purchasing a few guidebooks. I scoured them for details and then went online and further researched every activity and location they suggested and then researched every activity and location near anything they suggested.
Then I straight up Googled everything that came to mind: top 10 lists, best reasons to visit Southeast Asia, why you should do this and that, what to do when you travel, how to get from A to B, most popular destinations, most popular activities and adventures, the most delicious food and finally the dangers and cautionary tales of backpacking all the regions we intended to travel through.
I continued with my research almost every day for about a month.
Then I Skyped with Meaghan to get her ideas and added them to our ever-growing list of destinations (I had an entire notebook filled with somewhat decipherable travel scribbles). When the general plan was starting to formulate, I sat down in my living room in Haebungchon, Seoul with my then-roommate Stephanie and neighbour/friend Shannon. We spread everything out on the floor and then they proceeded to help me sort through it. I am terrible at making big decisions. I can make the small ones without batting an eye and have no problem helping you make all of your minor decisions as well.
Trying to whittle down our massive to-do list was beyond my capabilities. I needed help.
I needed Shannon and Stephanie to hold my hand through every “No” as we cut out places they weren’t interested in, or activities that we just didn’t have time for. When you’re planning your own trip, you will need this kind of support. You will also need to compromise, at least a little. For anyone thinking about taking the lead role in a group travel scenario, here are a few words of advice that I could have used before planning my own trip:
You can’t do everything
I know you’ll want to. We all want to. But you just can’t. If you try, you’ll inevitably miss out on something or not allow yourself to fully enjoy a single location. Give yourself plenty of time to fall in love with every destination.
During my first trip to Thailand, I met a Canadian girl in Krabi when I was staying on Tonsai beach. She was working at a local bar and because I was alone, we started chatting about travel. When I asked her how long she’d been in Ton Sai she replied, “I came for a three-day climbing adventure, but that was seven months ago.” She fell in love with Ton Sai, and instead of leaving (unhappily) when she planned to, she decided to stay (happily) for as long as she wanted.
Ask as many questions as you can. Another important lesson I learned when planning a trip involving other people is you need to ask specific questions. That way, when one of your friends starts complaining about your rainy day snorkel tour as if it’s your fault, you can say, “You’re the one that wanted to swim with the bioluminescent plankton, so suck it up and flutter kick somewhere else!” Ask your friends where they want to go. Then find out why they want to go there.
At the start of our trip, Meaghan suggested we spend more time in China (pre Southeast Asia), not just Beijing and Xian. Instead of asking her why, I brushed off her suggestion, claiming we needed more time for Laos and Cambodia. After our trip was finished and we were back in Canada, we started the inevitable “I wish” conversation about all the places we didn’t get to visit. Meaghan brought up China again, this time mentioning the Yunnan Stone Forest. I took a look at some photos online and was overwhelmed by regret. If only I had known.
Be open to suggestion
Your friends are going to make suggestions that don’t suit your personal travel needs and wants. Trust me when I tell you that everyone will be happier if you occasionally let somebody else take charge of the travel reigns.
Shannon suggest we go to Halong Bay in Vietnam. It seemed like an obvious choice, but being the all-encompassing trip planner that I was, I agreed to schedule some time on a junk boat. It turned out to be one of my favourite parts of our trip. We kayaked between the islands, ate fresh seafood, climbed Cat Ba island and were rewarded with an amazing view, slept “at sea” and jumped off the top of our boat. Being open to suggestion just increases your chances of having a good time.
Don’t be afraid to split up
This is another big one. Sometimes travelling as a group can be frustrating, especially when personalities clash or opinions differ. When your group isn’t agreeing on what to do next, split up. Even if you only go your separate ways for a few short days, when you meet up again everyone will be happy again, have stories to tell and be ready to get along peacefully once again. Spending every minute together won’t make your trip better. Also, taking some time apart will ensure that you remain friends after your trip is over.
One of the best ways to get some alone time is to wake up before everyone else and go for a morning exploration of whatever location you’re in. I know it can be hard to get up after spending the previous day lugging your backpack around, but in most places the dawn is the best time of day to avoid crowds, see the locals in action and get some fresh air without the overwhelming noises of everyday life. If you think that mornings are best used for sleeping, then try taking making your escape while your travel-mates are napping, resting, eating or showering.
Over-planning versus under-planning
There is a fine line between spontaneity and chaos, being prepared and being overwrought. Try to plan your major stops and any activities that require booking ahead of time (that’s where your research comes in handy). When the guidebooks, online articles and your fellow backpackers assure you that you can just show up somewhere, then trust them and go with the flow.
If you’re going to a tourist-saturated hot-spot, then think about booking a hostel or guesthouse before you arrive, especially if you’re worried about sleeping on a bench or wandering the streets forever with your backpack strapped on. Have a few specific dates on your timeline that help you shape the route you’re going to take. If there is an attraction that you are most excited about, make sure you’re not in town for the days when it’s closed. And just keep in mind that allowing some flexibility in your schedule is going to leave room for adventure.
We had a short stopover in Ho Chi Minh and decided to take a look at their city zoo. It was an extremely depressing experience, especially because we had just visited a wonderful wildlife sanctuary in Cambodia the week before. The otters had no water, the deer had only a muddy pen next to some very loud construction and the lone giraffe looked like he cried himself to sleep every night. If I had only planned our stopover, then we wouldn’t have those terrible memories.
Travelling as a group will never be without problems, but in the end you’ll have other people’s memories and points of view to remind you about the amazing experiences you had. To keep things running as smoothly as possible, be respectful of one another and be nice whenever possible. And just remember: laughing it off is always better than duking it out.
- Rebecca Bowslaugh is a global traveller and self-described “Book Reader, Mistake Finder, Cardboard Saver, Art Creator, Photo Editor, Plant Killer, Kitchen Master.” Find her @BeckBeforeDawn