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Top Tips on Backpacking in Southeast Asia

Longtail boats in Thailand

“We don’t go anywhere. Going somewhere is for squares. We just go!” – Marlon Brando (in The Wild One)

Whether you’ve recently emerged into adulthood after the long years of education and are contemplating a ‘gap year’, or you’re simply at a crossroads further down the road in life and needing something of a sabbatical, the idea of backpacking may start to appeal. Throw ‘Southeast Asia’ into the equation and you’re probably already dreaming of lush, green forests, idyllic powdery sand beaches, chaotic, odorous cities and smiling, laid-back locals. Oh, and just a smidgen of partying along the way, perhaps?

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Backpacking: it’s pretty much as close as you can get, in modern times, to ‘throwing off the shackles’ of a regular existence, and going forth into unknown territory to seek adventure and, hopefully, to enrich your life and mind beyond the daily grind, and an annual condo vacation in Florida. For some of you, this might be a concept a little too far out of your comfort zone, but if you have even the mildest thirst for adventure, and enjoy the frisson of excitement which comes with being a stranger in a strange land, then perhaps it’s time to get saving, and start planning, because there’s a big world out there and it’s changing fast. You can go to college to learn from tutors, and spend a lifetime working your way up through the ranks under the tutelage of great leaders, but travelling (as opposed to vacationing) will germinate a sense of wonder and broader outlook on the world, which simply can’t be taught.

It’s important to know, right off the bat, that Southeast Asia is a vast and staggeringly diverse region covering numerous countries. It would take a lifetime to really ‘see’ everything it has to offer. There are folks out there who’ve been travelling for years and years and still marvel that they are able to find pockets which are not only new to them, but seemingly untouched by the masses. Alas, this is becoming increasingly rare, but with new regions such as Burma (Myanmar) and East Timor opening up there are still those ‘discovery moments’ to be had in the same vein as Lonely Planet founders, and originators of the modern backpacker; Tony and Maureen Wheeler, who first wrote ‘Southeast Asia on a Shoestring’ (or ‘The Bible’ as it became affectionately known).

“All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware”  – Martin Buber

Working out where you will go is potentially the hardest pre-trip decision you will make. If you’re travelling with friends or a companion, you’re probably going to have to compromise. If it’s just you, there’s no reason not to take a detour to check out the world’s smelliest plant, or the best surf, but don’t be too bogged down by any one ‘plan’ as it’s highly likely you will change your agenda somewhere down the line anyway. It’s fun to have a ‘theme’ to your trip, based around your passions, such as cycling, or following a great dive route, but do try to factor in experiences which you may not have previously considered (and no, we don’t just mean whisky-fueled Tubing in Laos, which gained infamy last year with a string of deaths and resulted in the closure and demolition of many riverside bars by authorities in Vang Vieng).

It’s common to want to notch up a string of countries on your first trip, but experienced travelers know this is short-sighted, and missing the point. Don’t try to ‘do’ too much on one trip, you’ll get far more out of the experience if you have a loose framework of destinations and can then be flexible about your internal routes and stop-offs along the way. Be prepared for an element of surprise. It’s also highly likely you will buddy up with people and decide to go along with them. It’s all part of the fun and experience. Journey planning en route can also make for a good way to while away tediously long bus and train journeys.

So what should you be including in your itinerary? Will you focus on one country or will you take in multiple countries? The length of your trip and budget will naturally dictate much of your decision, but there may be other factors such as if you are travelling alone, for the first time, and how far off the beaten path you wish to go.

A great starting point for many is Thailand, with Bangkok’s legendary melee a fascinating place in which to immerse yourself in the sights, sounds and smells of Asia. Whilst no longer the untouched paradise that first greeted travelers in the 1960’s and 70’s, nonetheless Thailand’s coasts and islands are still home to thousands of pristine beaches with dense, lush interiors, whilst the north still offers opportunities to get a glimpse of the ‘real Thailand’. Whilst tourism has affected the ecosystem in many places, there are still great diving opportunities and breathtaking natural parks in which to explore. If partying is your thing, you’ll not be disappointed, and Full Moon Parties on Koh Pha Ngang still rate as being fairly legendary, albeit heavily commercial in nature these days. (Those looking for a more underground party vibe should head to Gili Trawangan in Indonesia, or the jungles of Laos).

From Thailand, many opt to head for one of the other neighboring countries that make up this part of Indochina, such as Vietnam, Cambodia or Laos. All three have seen much turmoil, but are now firmly on the tourist radar, and, though not as developed as Thailand and parts of Indonesia, they hold some of the world’s most breathtaking ancient monuments and countryside, with spectacular Angkor Wat in Cambodia surely worthy of an inclusion on everyone’s list of ‘places to see before you die’. A truly sobering and profoundly moving counterpart to this being the ‘Killing Fields’ of Tuol Sleng.

Vietnam, meanwhile, is a dynamic country with a strong French colonial influence and hectic cities such as Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi, but perhaps the lure for most travellers is the gorgeous coastline boasting such iconic landmarks as the limestone islands around Hulong Bay or The Mekong Delta backwaters which provide a lush and equally evocative backdrop for a more rural experience.

Laos has remained a relatively ‘best kept secret’ amongst backpackers, but the word is getting out and is fast becoming the ‘holy grail’ for those wanting to see this unspoiled piece of paradise, with it’s beguiling, laid back cities where orange-robed monks mull around ancient temples and makes for a particularly atmospheric experience and seemingly a million miles from home. There’s a lot to do for adventure seekers too with trekking a particular high point amidst spectacular scenery.

Indonesia is an incredibly diverse country, with around 17,000 islands, and hundreds of languages. It’s huge, and your choices limited only by the breath in your body. Bali is a favorite with everyone from package tourists to die-hard surfers looking for the perfect wave, and makes for a good starting point in Indonesia. Yes, there are issues with garbage and development, but there is still something magical about this island that continues to beguile tourists with its picturesque paddy fields and spiritual vibe. Neighboring Lombok and the Gili islands are less commercial and offer a more traditional backpacker vibe, though development has picked up in recent years. At the other end of the spectrum are regions such as Papua and Sumatra; a huge volcanic island with a pristine, lush interior chock full of fascinating flora and fauna, stunning lakes and a truly off the beaten path feel. Many backpackers head for the dramatic Flores islands to see Komodo dragons and to take in the crater lakes and gorgeous beaches.

Malaysia is less on the intrepid backpacker’s radar these days, with more sophisticated resort style development luring those with bigger budgets. However, peninsula Malaysia’s ‘Cameron Highlands’, set deep in the interior, are full of picturesque tea plantations and largely visited only by locals and certainly worth a visit. Malaysian Borneo, however, is still very much on the circuit and Sarawak, in particular, draws those in search of an ever-diminishing but still incredibly lush rainforest; home of ‘headhunter’ tribes and Orangutans, with Mount Kinabalu in the northern Sabah region providing spectacular trekking potential. Some of the world’s best diving can be found off the coasts too. For a more pristine rainforest experience, the really intrepid, however, head across to Kalimantan in Indonesian Borneo where the infrastructure is much more rough and ready and English is rarely spoken. Possibly one for those with a few backpacking trips under their belt.

Lastly, outside of mainstream tourist meccas such as the very lovely Boracay, the Philippines offers some of the world’s most spectacular diving in turquoise waters, and the Palawan region in particular is now firmly on the radar with those backpackers looking to enjoy the hospitality of friendly locals, whilst diving to wrecks or snorkeling and kicking back in rustic surroundings.

“When preparing to travel, lay out all your clothes and all your money. Then take half the clothes and twice the money.” Susan Heller

Ah, the budget. How long is a piece of string? A good plan is to work out your overall budget and what you will apportion to flights and getting to your main hubs. Researching flight options at this point is crucial, and it pays to really do your groundwork and to be aware of what deals are available. If your budget is just not stretching far enough, consider cutting back on a destination or two. You’ll need to think about a realistic budget per day to cover accommodation, tours, food and leisure activities (and yes that includes being realistic about partying and how much you plan to go out). Some countries in Southeast Asia are more developed and thus, more expensive, for example, Thailand will be more expensive than Cambodia. A good rule-of-thumb is to budget around $30-$50 per day all in. There are many who live for less, and those who blow the budget and need to stump up more cash, but for newbies, that’s a good ball-park upon which to start doing the math. It’s wise to ensure you have a contingency fund, which can be wired or accessed in the event of an emergency.

It’s also essential to get the right travel insurance organized before you go. This is one area where it really pays to be diligent and ensure you have ‘all the bases covered’ for your own peace of mind, and that of your loved ones, while you are away. Here is a list of the types of coverage you will likely need in your travel insurance plan:

Medical expenses – you should be looking for plans that provide 24-hour coverage to pay for all medical treatments/bills and evacuation/repatriation if you become ill or suffer an accident.

Lost or stolen baggage and contents – you’ll want to ensure you are adequately covered for theft of the bag and the individual items contained inside (up to a specified maximum limit per item). You may also want to look at buying supplemental insurance to cover individual, more expensive electrical items for damage or loss, such as cameras and laptops.

Lost or stolen credit cards and passport – it’s essential that you are covered for theft and unauthorized use, plus any costs associated with replacements, and possibly for emergency cash advances, or to cover transfers if you are stranded.

Delays and cancellations – it’s wise to ensure you’re covered for basic expenses incurred (such as transfers, meals and hotel) due to delays. It’s also a good idea to get ‘trip interruption’ coverage for unforeseen reasons (such as death in family or unexpected strife within the country itself), which will cause you to abandon your trip and return home.

Considering what to take in your backpack is the eternal travelers question, and there are myriad websites dedicated to helping you decide what to take, and, more importantly, what to leave behind. Bostonite Matt left the USA in 2005 to go travelling in Thailand. It was a trip that changed his life, and he’s not looked back since. His website: nomadicmatt.com is packed with great travel tips and advice, including a carefully honed list of what to pack. (Another great website packed with tips for the backpacker is tripologist.com). Traveling light may sound like a cliché, but after three weeks on the road, it will become your future mantra.

Wherever you choose to visit, have fun, let your hair down, but try to adhere to responsible tourism practices while you do. This means putting your money into operations and business that benefit the local population directly whilst avoiding practices that clearly denigrate cultural traditions and local sensibilities (visiting a temple? Please just cover up a little). Consider the attractions you visit, are they really ethical?

It doesn’t hurt to try to put something back directly in terms of your time and energies either, and including a volunteering stint is a great way to leave a lasting legacy, and far preferable to handing out plastic pens and candies to impoverished children. Accommodation and meals will often be included too so it’s a great way to get involved in a local community project without impacting your own budget. Think carefully about the type of project you would like to work with, however, research the organization well before you leave, and go with a committed attitude. Volunteering looks great on the resume, but, ultimately, you should be doing it for altruistic reasons. Check out ecoteer.com for responsible volunteering opportunities.

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