Before our trip last summer, the furthest I had ever travelled from home had been to New York City. Even then, it was booked on a whim and with not a whole lot of planning went into things such as itinerary, budget and accommodation. After spending a week there and not seeing half of the things I wish I had in hindsight, I felt pretty frustrated with myself and learned my lesson on the importance of thinking a trip through before taking it. This was my main motivation behind planning our first bout of travelling so meticulously, and it paid off tenfold.
I would just like to say that the two months I spent travelling through Asia last year really changed my entire outlook on life. For the first time in a long time I felt I had no responsibility, which was so liberating in itself, but also taught me that when it came time to go home not to take everything so seriously. I feel like the time away from reality really mellowed me out, gave me time to find out what kind of person I was at the time and, most importantly for me, what type of person I wanted to be in the future. I witnessed extreme poverty firsthand which in turn made me want to give something back to these places that I had made such incredible memories in; not for a Facebook or Instagram post but genuinely try to help and make a difference in people’s lives. It also made me feel so incredibly grateful to have had the opportunity to be on such a trip, and in turn really quite proud of myself for saving on my own to put myself on it. I loved travelling through Europe, but there’s something about the enormity of so many of the Asian countries I visited that is both eye opening and overwhelming. I’m actually really glad it was the first place I chose to visit, and the place that taught me how truly gigantic the world really is.
Before deciding on where to travel, I first had to try and convince Paul that he liked me enough to go travelling with me for a few weeks (those few weeks latterly escalated into nine), then to decide where we would go. I had seen and heard loads of stories of people I knew travelling to South East Asia, seeing places like Thailand, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, but our main motivation for travelling East was to see China, and so with China the planning began.
- Share the burden with whoever you’re travelling alongside: I love Paul dearly, but being a hyper control freak meant I took a lot of the planning on by myself. Had we worked at it as a team, as we have done on subsequent trips, it would have halved the time spent planning routes, checking train and air fares and applying for visas. Because of the complete unfamiliarity with the countries we were visiting, there was so much reading and attempt at geographical understanding involved that I actually ended up spending more time on planning our trip than I did on my university work.
- Plan far in advance: I literally cannot stress enough the importance of forward planning for a trip of any extensive length. My feeling, and yours may differ, is that if you cover all bases at home then there’s nothing to worry about when you’re away. We wrote down train timetables, bus numbers, hotel directions before even leaving Scotland so that when we landed in Beijing we knew how to get from X to Y at all times, and weren’t left with no internet, no information and helpless. It’s also really important for budgeting, because the longer you give yourself either the more you can save or the less you need to save every month to reach your end goal.
- Pick a realistic time frame: I know that when we started planning, our original time frame was three weeks. Then we discovered what there was to do in Laos, in Bali and in Myanmar and the trip sort of grew arms and legs. I still feel like we rushed out trip a little – we hit 21 locations in 9 weeks – and in hindsight I wish we stuck to either North or South East Asia for that same length of time.
- Research and purchase visas carefully: Visas are really expensive in some parts of the world, and where we visited was no exception. Between China, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar we were almost £200 each in visas. Vietnam suspended visas for British citizens were shortly before we visited as did Indonesia, but had we not looked it up in detail we would have ended up unnecessarily buying those, too. For more details on buying visas, read this more in depth post I wrote.
- Research local customs: When you’re visiting a place so different to where you’re from, culture change is among one of the biggest shocks to the system. I can’t really recommend researching proper etiquette when visiting new places mainly out of respect for the local people you’ll encounter but also as a means preparing yourself to not seem ignorant.
- Safety: One of the things I was most concerned about before venturing off was safety. My number one thing would be to keep your money where nobody else could get to it – tie a lanyard round your waist and tuck it into your shorts. My other suggestion would be to bring a portable phone charger with you, so that in case of an emergency you can always get in contact with something if something bad were to happen. If you’re on an overnight bus or train don’t leave money, passports or valuables in your bag, always tuck them under your clothes and lie I top of them so that no matter how hard someone could look for them they wouldn’t have access to them – I genuinely cannot imagine a worse feeling than waking up to all of your belongings gone. I personally never felt scared at all the entire time we were away but I’m not sure I could have said the same had I not been away with Paul, but I found everyone I met over there so friendly, warm and helpful.
- Getting there: Return flights are always cheaper than booking two separate ones, so if, for example you can use Bangkok or Singapore as a base to fly to and from home, then do so. Otherwise, use two large cities as your start and end points – they have the largest airports, with the most air traffic, and so most airlines will usually fly directly to them and it will be cheaper than flying to anywhere more remote. We flew to Beijing and home from Kuala Lumpur, choosing to start North and work our way South. Use websites such as Sky Scanner to compare flight prices, stop overs and lengths to decide on the best option.
- Packing: I really made a mistake last year when I bought an 80 litre backpack. I really did. At 5’3″ and weighing 9 stone at the time we went away, packing it to the brim full of clothes I would never wear was not my brightest idea. I learned so you don’t have to. Trust me, you’re not going to need every piece of clothing you own. This year we both took a carry on and packed the essentials and nothing more. Not taking a huge bag also has the benefit of less time on either end at the airport as well as saving on baggage costs, so really it’s an all round win. We had to pack for both wet and dry climates, so a lightweight pac a Mac was essential and a waterproof cover for whichever bag you choose is advisable. Shorts, skirts and tshirts and maybe a dress or two if you’re anything like me is all you’re going to need. Laundry is absurdly cheap often at less then £1 per kilo, a decent pair of shoes to walk around all day in and a nicer pair to wear out in the evening. The weather is always warm, even when it’s cool, but pack a hoodie or blanket for travelling around in as planes get really cold.
- Travel on arrival: We used a combination of air, rail and bus transportation to get from points A to B once we had arrived. Within China, purely because of the sheer size of it, we travelled by plane, but every other country we used buses to travel within the country. We used Twice we used buses to travel across borders (Vietnam to Laos and Thailand to Cambodia), and both times the journey was unnecessarily lengthy. I write about border crossing in much greater detail in the links above, but if I was ever to turn to this region I would absolutely travel by air when doing so. In the largest cities we used the metro stations to get around and in more remote areas places like Bagan we hired bikes. Tuk tuks are cheaper than taxis and can be haggled for easily. But, if you’re able to, I would just walk around as much as possible. We found so many things we never would have seen had we been underground or cycling past in a hurry.
- Currency: We brought a worldwide travel card with us and uploaded cash to it according to when we needed it, but when we arrived we soon realised that every country we visited accepted United States Dollars as a payment option. If you’re not keen on carrying cash, then I would recommend taking a USD travel card and then paying in dollars or withdrawing in them. It also means that if you have any left over, you’re able to take them to the next location with you and don’t lose cash in the form of leftover change here, there and everywhere. In Cambodia, for example, everything from petrol and even tuk tuk drivers were charged in USD. Foreign exchanges are rife in tourist hot spots, but each different country has their own way of identifying the legitimate traders from the non.
- Budgeting: Last, but certainly not least, comes budget. Your money goes way further in East Asia than it does in Europe – but that’s only if you want it to. There are five star hotels and hostels almost everywhere yu could want to visit, and both can be booked in advance on websites like Booking or last minute on arrival (I personally like to spend my day knowing where I’m sleeping that night, but I know loads of people are happy to book last minute). Street food is incredibly cheap and there are a plethora of websites and blogs who have already broken down eating and accommodation costs for loads of different budget so if you don’t have the patience to figure it out on your own someone else has already done it for you. The only other thing with regard to budget is save a little extra for emergencies. If you need to come home unexpectedly, miss a train and need a hotel overnight or lose your backpack you’re going to need extra cash!