Backpacking in Asia? 15 things everyone should know

There isn’t anyone, anywhere, who doesn’t want to travel. To explore. To meet new people and walk alien landscapes nothing like back home. To watch the sun rise and set from another corner of the planet. And as with everything good in life, it’s an imperfectly perfect experience. On reflection, even the most challenging bits seem amazing. A damp, cold, room with a squat toilet in the middle of nowhere, or another dreary day of British summer? I know what I’d rather have. Anyway, here are some tips for anyone considering travelling.

Travelling will make you realise how lucky you really are

Travelling will make you realise how lucky you really are

1) Lonely Planet doesn’t always know best

I probably wouldn’t like to go away without it, but people call it the travel ‘Bible’, and I never liked that word. We didn’t take everything word-for-word. In fact, it sometimes felt like the researchers would fall into the first guesthouse out of the dock or nearest the bus terminal. We didn’t feel the need to use it once for accommodation. And it’s inconsistent. Sometimes it’ll mention key scams in pivotal places, but not mention others. This is probably because it’s written by a team of writers and different opinions, though. My guide, Southeast Asia on a shoestring 2014 would list a top 20 of things to see in Asia, but then the itineraries for individual countries wouldn’t match up. It’s also woefully outdated. Expect all prices to be more expensive than quoted in the book, even if you’re travelling in low season.

2) When you arrive at a new destination, walk

Hounded by tuk-tuks, taxis, and beggars? Ignore them, they’ll rip you off. Walk away from the depot/station/pier/airport and you’ll find cheaper transportation around the corner.

3) TripAdvisor is your friend

Really, though. If you’re looking for accommodation, you’ll find up-to-date and trustworthy reviews written by others lucky (or unlucky) enough to have stayed there before you. Leave reviews yourself, to help others after.

4) You can get everything you need out there

Everything, including over the counter prescriptions, sun-cream without whitener in it (though in Vietnam it was surprisingly expensive), malaria tablets, blankets, everything.

5) Skype credits

Get them. For about £10 you can make a seemingly limitless number of phone calls back home, you can even ring landlines using Skype. So, when something inevitably happens that requires you to call your car insurance, or your bank, Skype will spare you the enormous costs of international calls.

6) Currency converting apps

‘It’s how much for an ice cream? 10, 000? Let’s see, that’s about… erm… 35p, I think?’ With a currency converting app, you’ll never have to scratch your head over fluctuating prices as you jump across the border (and just when you started to figure out Laotian kip, too!)

7) Transport is, well, travelling

Travelling isn’t all beaches and sunsets. Well, yes, a lot of it is, and that’s brilliant, but there are bus journeys as well. Buses, trains, planes, sleeper trains, sleeper buses, boats, and motorbikes (if you’re feeling confident). Eventually you’ll feel spoiled when you find a journey that’s under 6 hours. A lot of scams are unavoidable. Your VIP bus will be replaced with a minivan shack with no air conditioning, driven by a lunatic – and you can grumble all you want, but everyone will suddenly lose the ability to speak English. Travel agents will just smile and nod and tell you what you want to hear until you hand over your money. Crazy bus drivers may shout at you and refuse you the toilet (maybe). Don’t get me wrong, you’ll get where you are going; it may just take an extra 5 hours. But only because some of these countries don’t even have proper roads. Then there is the infamous ‘bus from hell’ spanning Vientiane, Laos to Hanoi, Vietnam. Which can take anywhere between 16 – 36 hours and can involve everything from racial apartheid to the smuggling of drugs.

blog travel

It’s all smiles here, but this was the sleeper bus that didn’t have a toilet (we were told it did) and the driver got aggressive when we asked for one!

8) It’s not a holiday

It definitely isn’t. It’s much better. But sometimes you will have moments of madness when you see someone in Spain, seemingly rich in comparison, dipping toes in the pool of a five star hotel, and wish you were there. But then you’ll shake your head, and tell yourself that even though it’s another 3 hours on this bus – with dangerous roads and with no seat belts – you’re incredibly lucky to be in a position to travel the world.

9) Hand sanitizer 

All those roadside toilets? There’s no soap. And the soap in most restaurants is incredibly watered down. So make sure you have one because you’ll be eating roadside food, too.

10) Know when the bank holidays, and the national holidays are

That sleeper train you wanted from Bangkok to Chiang Mai? Yep, it’s fully booked because of Songkran (national water gun fight). Or you’ll be paying double the price for a seat. Prices jump and availability gets limited during holidays, so keep an eye out and book in advance.

11) The weekends come around too fast

‘Only two Saturdays left and we fly home’, she said with a flat smile. No really, aside from watching the weeks disappear, Fridays/Saturdays and Sundays always seem to be on that day you decide to fly over the South China sea, into Malaysian Borneo. Or over the Cambodian border to avoid waiting in line under the hot sun at Thai immigration. Or to jump on a boat, or go on a trip (expect local tourists and extra crowds). And the prices are always more expensive.

12) Hostels and other travelers know best

Not sure what to do next? Should you climb this mountain? Or go on this hill trek? What about this country? Hostels are great places for people to mix and swap stories and experiences, and they are fresh experiences too, so their words are invaluable. We even changed our flight from Jakarta, to Bali, because so many people told us to avoid Jakarta.

13) Most people will help you out

It doesn’t matter if they barely speak a word of English, live in extreme poverty, or if they look at you like they’ve just seen an alien (your skin is white!). Most people will be friendly, and help you out if you are lost, or stuck.

14) Asia is safer than you think

Endless warnings from people who knew we were leaving: Remember the Brits who were murdered on Ko Tao? Keep the same level of vigilance as you would have in Britain, obviously. Don’t walk down dark alleyways in dodgy areas, keep an eye on your possessions, and try not to openly and purposely disrespect local culture. Drugs are touted in Vang Vieng, the Gili islands, and Bali – but even minor offences can be punished with the death penalty (so don’t do it). But almost all of the time, we felt perfectly safe and relaxed.

True paradise exists, and it's called South Thailand

True paradise exists, and it’s called South Thailand

15) You can’t see everything

Yes, there’s a volcano over there that literally glows with blue fire at night, but you don’t have the time. Yes, komodo dragons are found nowhere else on the planet, but it’s just too far. Yes, Myanmar and the Philippines look stunning and people can’t praise them enough, but they aren’t even on your itinerary. There will always be something more to do, but you’ve got to go there to come back.

Sunset at Kuta beach, Bali

Sunset at Kuta beach, Bali

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4 responses to “Backpacking in Asia? 15 things everyone should know

  1. Neil, as a past teacher of yours I could always see your potential, and this work shows that your putting that potential into use. Good job, Mr Edward.

  2. Pingback: Backpacking in Asia? 15 things everyone should know | neilwrightwrites·

  3. Having been on the SEA trail too & experienced it first hand this is absolutely right on the money, great advice & best of all, accurate. Great job!

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