Thursday, 11 September 2014

Tips I wished I knew before backpacking Southeast Asia

Backpacking trip in Southeast Asia

No matter how often I travel, it's always difficult to accurately gauge what I will need on the trip or expect, to plan ahead. I believe there's nothing such as a bad adventure; it all depends on your level of preparedness and open-mindedness.

Many travellers flock to Southeast Asia each year and it is well-worn backpackers' circuit - a finite place with infinite surprises everywhere, like a treasure hunt. This means ignoring the lofty abstracts of reality back home and dealing with only tangible problems. How much should I spend on lunch? When will I leave this city? What is this person trying to sell to me? Though i got the ropes of travelling around this region after a while, it can still be stressful sometimes. Nonetheless, there is no pressure that I should be heading somewhere newer, pronto. Navigating similar hectic-ruleless roads everyday, I felt at peace.

Last winter, I bought a one way ticket and spent 6 weeks travelling overland through Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and Cambodia. Though I didn't have any elaborated plans, these are a few things I discovered and wish I knew before I embarked on my backpacking trip. 

Take overnight buses or trains whenever possible

First overnight train ride from Bangkok to Vientiane 

Southeast Asia is a region well-known for its cheap overland travels via trains and buses. Taking buses and trains throughout Southeast Asia is generally safe and also, one of the cheaper alternatives. You can drop at any station that interests you.

However, try to take the overnight transports as it saves more time; and money in the long run. You will not waste your supposed day-travelling time stuck on the train with a sore bottom and your accommodation for the night is sorted.

Overland travels take longer than expected

Though I can half-guarantee the safety of the overland travels in Southeast Asia, I can’t say the same for the time ticking away on your watch.

Personal experience: My supposedly 20 hours bus ride from Luang Prabang to Hanoi turned into a 28 hours ride; and 28 hours land travel from Siem Reap to Vientiane turned into a 40 hours journey.

Bring along sleeping bags

Napping on Hualampong Train Station in our sleeping bags
You would be thankful for this odd shaped object you hate at the start of the trip. Sometimes, you just want to nap on the floor of train stations or the hostel bedding pales in comparison to your hygiene standards, the sleeping bag is your safest bet. Or just keeping you warm on long bus rides.

Pack dry food

They are going to be your best friend. You can pack and reseal if you can’t finish them and it’s always handy for long overland travels with no stalls on the train or buses. Worse, if you have no local currencies.

I actually celebrated my 20th birthday with my last Milo Bar on an overnight train in Vietnam.

Lessen fibrous food intake

Forget all nutritionists’ advices on 2 servings of fruits and 2 servings of vegetables when you are spending much time on land. You would want to be embracing the beautiful sunsets and iconic attractions than beating Usain Bolt’s sprint timing to the toilet.

Classic medication

Being sick is the last thing you want to happen on the trip, but it’s not something that can be avoided sometimes. Sanitation and physical fatigue is not within our control. Be prepared for the unexpected. Pack insect repellent, paracetamol, charcoal pills. You will need the last one a lot.

I fell sick on the second day of my trip and I was thankful for the stash of Paracetamol brought along.

Habitual necessities

Pack tampons. Pack condoms. Habits and sizes don’t change immediately when you’re away from home.

Eat whatever you want

Bahn Mi for less than 1USD

Street side stall in Phnom Pehn

Best fried noodles at Siem Reap Central Market

The best food is those by the road side. Eat from a restaurant or road side. If you’re not well or used to the level of sanitation, either way, you’re going to be diarrheaing your way throughout.

Know how to use the squat toilets

All of us who are used to seated toilet bowls, start training your quads in the gym. Most toilets in Southeast Asia are still the traditional squat toilet; a hole in the floor. Hope this is not much a culture shock for many of you.

Be careful with hand gestures, not everything is universal

If you think that hand gestures will save from language-barrier embarrassments, don't. There’s a reason why different cultures exist. Your hand gestures may actually be something crude in someone else’s culture.

Personal experience: I learnt it the hard way. I was calling for bill the Singaporean way but left the eatery with “foreign intruders” sign labelled on me instead.

Use the local language

You will get more patience and endearment from the locals if you use their language; even if it’s just telling them you want rice.

Respect their cultures and people

Not knowing someone else’s culture is not an excuse to not be subscribing to their norms. Do your own research or ask about the cultural norms of the place.

Respect is a two way traffic. Although the Tuk Tuk touts can dampen your mood sometimes, remember, they are just trying to earn a living. A “no” with a smile is sufficient; you don’t have to be grumpily rude to them. 

Never be too one sided with politics or share too much about your history lessons

As a historian, I know how school textbooks always subscribe to the general schools of thought and always get excited when I visit places I study about. However, NEVER ever raise controversial political questions for the locals to answer. Also, never place your pre-conceptual ideas about their culture and practises. Be open to what they share with you even if it’s the best anti-thesis to your stand.

Have local currencies and spare US dollars

Vietnam Dong's landform against the real Halong Bay's landform
As much as guidebooks would tell you that all Southeast Asian countries accept American Dollars, it is only in Cambodia where there's an official monetary system. I had problems in Laos and Vietnam, so local currencies will be the most ideal.
However, change all your home currencies to American dollars as spare cash.

Call your bank before you fly

If you’re skeptical carrying too much cash on your backpack or hand carry, remember to call all the banks to activate your cards before you take off.

Learn how to use offline Google Maps and literal hard copy maps

Here’s one good hack for the road. I don’t usually buy local SIM cards when I travel so getting to places can be a challenge when they are not iconic sites.

Load offline Google Maps of the places you want to go when you have wifi and know the routes there. Google Maps loads the details of the city when you’re online and you can save up to 6 offline maps.
But if all online and offline maps fail, it is always good to know how to read hardcopy maps. Don’t have to be a geographer, but know how to navigate the different smaller lanes from big main roads.

Flexible to changes in your plans

Due to the delays or unexpected problems, we were constantly re-routing. While it is advisable to plan ahead, be flexible and do not be panicky when you have to change your plans. Be prepared to be constantly work around the amount of time and money you have.

Know your geography and travel routes well

That being said, know your geography and possible overland routes well. It will help you so much in planning your route. Although on the world map Laos shares a 2130 kilometers border with Vietnam on the east, Phonsavan is the only city that you can get to Vietnam from Laos, and vice versa.

Feel free to skip “mandatory” tourist attractions

Hmong New Year Celebrations in Laos
Lopburi Sunflower Fields
Lopburi Sunflower Fields
Cheap clubs and Elephant camps in Thailand, Vang Vieng’s Tubing in Laos, Pub Crawling in Cambodia. If such do not interest you, skip them. Just because they are all over in guidebooks or are considered the ‘must do’, do not compromise on your interests.

Personal experience: I skipped all these because travelling is more than just snapping photos of iconic structures and getting drunk. I headed to the off beaten tracks and joining locals for their events.

DO NOT bring all your almost-spoiling stuff

The pair of shoes on the left did not survive
I did not want to use all my fancier things for backpacking, and brought all the almost-spoiling things along so I could throw them away when I am done with the trip. This idea gave me more problems. Things starting falling apart and I had to spend more, getting ripped off in the cities.

Personal experience: My hand carry did not last more than 1 week.

Set a budget everyday

The cost of living is one of the main reasons Southeast Asia is a popular destination for backpacking. Most things are so affordable and yet exquisite you would want to pack everything into your backpack. But do remember, every cent count.
Set your budget low every morning, because you will exceed.

Almost everything is negotiable

As aforementioned, the costs of most things in Southeast Asia are cheap, but they can be cheaper. Thicken your skin and slash them prices. Every cent counts. A dollar off is a dollar saved for the next item.

Electronic copies of important documents

For your convenience and accessibility.

One set of fancy clothes and covered shoes

Dinner date up to mountains

No, backpacking is not all about looking bad and being dirty. There are instances you are in need of fancy clothes and covered shoes. Don’t have to pack your prom dress along, a sun dress would do the job.

Settle your first night accommodation in the new city

Guest house at Phonsavan Bus Terminal
I learnt this the hard way. Imagine the predicament I was in when my Couchsurfing host ditched my friend and I. It was midnight and we had nowhere to go.

Settle your first night of accommodation when going to a new city. On top of that, have their contact number and address ready at your disposal.

Staying cool when things go wrong

These are desperate times when you’ve to flip through all the “keep calm and xxx” quotes.

Personal story: I nearly got raped when I was at the toilet but keep your cool; THINK of solutions.

Take sufficient photos

Wat PaHa Temple of Chiangmai
SaigonNotre Dame Basilica
Flipping through your travel photos is the best way to relive the experience. Yes, you do not want to be the annoying travellers snapping at everything. But you would not want to beat yourself when you’re home without enough pictures.
Despite the lacking memory space in my phone and already backed-up photos in my laptop, I could never bring myself to delete these photos from my phone. Long bus rides, sleepless nights, my best source of entertainment.

Back up your photos

Bayon Temple
Taking photos is one thing. Having them saved is another. 

Follow your heart; take a break when you need to

Coffee Break at Ham Tu Quan, Hanoi, Vietnam

Trust your instincts; trust your heart. When you’re tired and just want to stay in, do it. If you have that inner urge to buy something, buy it. Travelling is not a competition on the number of attractions you check off, but a better understanding of yourself. Take a break whenever you need to. Cup of coffee to gather your thoughts, sounds good?

Severe withdrawal symptoms strikes!!!

Home to Changi Airport with my best friend, my mother
Nothing beats comfort and familiarity of home.

But let me warn you, withdrawal symptoms will be severe after a long time on the road. Because ultimately, home is where the heart is.


Whether you get your tips and knowledge from guidebooks, websites or first-hand experiences, these are the life lessons that will stay with you. After this 6 weeks-long backpacking trip around Southeast Asia, I felt myself growing into a better individual I am more in love with. Okay, I have to admit that I spent heaps of time trying to gain back my lost-ass and my cracked skin, but it was such adrenaline that fed my soul.

It's a big playground out there - picturesque places, lovable people, food you'll drool uncontrollably over, and beauty of other cultures. Start playing!

1 comment:

  1. Hi, I'm a backpacker from Singapore as well, 19 currently and a student. I began self backpacking last year to several South East Asia country and since then have loved every second of it and hope to finish backpacking South East Asia by next year before moving to other regions. I saw your article on the Straits Times and found it to be really cool and very very relatable (Having experience all of it with the exception of the experience being different) which resulted in my googling the article online to find it's real source which lead me here to know who is the person that wrote it. It's really hard to come by backpacker's in Singapore hahaha so yeah cool! So I'm writing to say, keep writing these cool stories to share, they are amazing! I am too inspired to start a travel vlog channel and blog, so this post inspired me as well!

    In the event that you might be interested in making a new backpacking friend, here's my Facebook: or Instagram: Wilfreed5
    Never a harm to know a new friend with a similar interest haha!