It’s been nearly eight years since I first packed up my Jack Wolfskin and set off on my first round the world backpacking trip. Here are my top tips if you’re about to head off for the first time travelling. And tell me where you’re going, I want to hear all about it!
TAKE YOUR TIME
My biggest pet hate is when someone tells me they are going backpacking but are planning on spending about five days for each country. That’s not travelling. That’s barely scratching the surface. I get that for many time is limited, however my number one tip would be not to try to fit too much in and instead take your time. Six weeks may sound like enough time to tackle Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam but if you do, I can promise you that you will miss out on so much, spend half your time on buses (or half your budget on planes) and be utterly exhausted trying to fit everything in. These countries are huge. Be selective, choose a few places and do them properly – it’s so much more rewarding seeing fewer places properly than trying to fit in more than you realistically can and spending half your time actually journeying between destinations. It’s also pretty hard to make friends if you’re zooming around that quickly as people tend to take similar routes at roughly the same pace. It’s a comfort to bump into Dave and Sarah you shared beers with in Luang Prabang a week later in Cambodia, but that’s not gonna happen if you spend a week in each country. It’s hard to get your head around the distance between places sometimes, so do your research in advance and factor in enough time for these long journeys.
I like to have a rough plan of where I’m going and to know vaguely when I’ll be where – it’s in my nature to be organised. It’s also a good call to make sure you’re aware of when there are festivals and holidays on in the countries you’re visiting – lack of research meant we coincided with a small local music festival in Hoi An and couldn’t get a room for love nor money…although the latter did get us a few camp beds to sleep on in the reception of a guest house for the night. Similarly, it would be gutting to realise you’ve missed celebrating Songkran (Thai New Year) in Bangkok by a day or two, because that is FUN. That said, ensuring your plans have a level of flexibility is a great idea. You may find you particularly love somewhere and decide to stay parked up there for longer; you may fall in love with diving and want to commit a month or two to doing your dive master course. You may strike up great friendships and decide to head off in the same direction together, or a whirlwind romance will cause you to throw caution to the wind and change your plans. A little bit of room for spontaneity goes a long way.
TELL SOMEONE WHERE YOU’RE GOING
I used to have these fantasies about going off the grid and travelling how they used to when the only form of communication was by letter and postcards, arriving at home weeks after you’d left where you’d sent them from. I quickly learnt to tell somebody (my parents in most cases) when I was leaving somewhere and going elsewhere. Not long after I started backpacking a boat went down in Ha Long Bay, locals and backpackers both dying in the tragedy. My parents knowing I was in Laos and not in Vietnam reassured them I was not involved when they wouldn’t have been able to get hold of me quickly. With natural disasters a real possibility, do the decent thing and let someone know where you are. I promise you it takes nothing away from your independence or enjoyment of being away.
RESPECT THE CULTURE
There is nothing worse than being one of those backpackers who give zero fucks about where they are, solely focused on only getting hammered at beach parties with no regard for the locals and the culture of the country they are in. Chances are you will be travelling around countries with very different ways of life to yours back home, so please respect that. Think about what you wear and how you conduct yourself. If you’re in a Muslim country, cover up where appropriate. Guide books will be able to advise on the best way to travel in an individual country in terms of local customs and appropriate clothing, but the overarching theme is have manners and respect.
LEARN PLEASE AND THANK YOU IN THE LOCAL LANGUAGE
Look, I am no linguist, but it takes a very small amount of effort to ask someone what please and thank you are in the local language, then learn and use them whilst you are travelling around that country. No one expects you to be able to converse in Bahasa, but a few “Terima Kasih”‘s are basic manners and frankly takes no time at all.
BUY TRAVEL INSURANCE
It’s among the most basic of 101 travel tips but my God, don’t be one of those idiots who doesn’t take out travel insurance and then finds themselves stranded in a Thai hospital with a broken leg, dengue fever, or worse. I cannot stress enough how not worth it is it to not take out travel insurance. Just suck it up and get it done. And make sure it covers extreme sports if you’re going to get involved with things like bungee jumping or diving.
Vaccinations are one of those annoying things that you don’t really think to budget for and then creep up on you before you leave, ripping a hole in the bank account you thought was now solely dedicated to beers on the beach and sky dives over mountain vistas. It’s irritating but necessary to heed doctor’s travel advice and make sure you’re covered for the injections you need for the places you’re travelling to – especially if you’ll be visiting rural areas and getting off the beaten track. It’s just not worth coming down with Japanese encephalitis and cutting your trip (and you know, potentially your life) short to save a bit of money. Be organised and check out what you will require a few months in advance as some will need repeated courses with weeks in between (such as rabies).
DON’T OVER PACK
Within five days of arriving in Bangkok all those years ago I’d chucked out a bunch of clothes. You’re carrying your life on your back – you will quickly decide that eight t-shirts is too many. You’ll also want to buy pretty dresses and patterned travelling pants because it’s practically a rite of passage when travelling, so you’ll need room for them too. Don’t forget you can buy toiletries on your way; by all means bring some bits to start with, but it’s not like the UK is the only place with shampoo, you know? Working out what you’re willing to cart around from place to place is one of those things you figure out pretty quickly, but my advice is start off with less than you think you’ll need. Oh, and leave the straighteners at home.
PROTECT YOUR SKIN
Suncream. Suncream always. Sounds obvious but when you think you’ll be fine for a couple of hours after leaving your suncream in your backpack that is tied up under dozens of others on a boat and your nose ends up blistering by 9am, you learn. Suncream.
PUT DOWN YOUR PHONE
Travelling in 2011 and then later in 2014 were very different experiences when it came to the internet. Back in Asia in 2011 the wifi was minimal, travelling with an iPhone was a rarity and internet cafes were your main way to connect with the world back home. Jump three years ahead and I was amazed how pretty much every cafe and restaurant going had wifi for you to use. Great in many ways but there were definitely more people on their phones all the time. And I get it, I’m addicted to my phone (I’m not proud of it). You do have to remind yourself to cut back at times and enjoy where you are – especially if you’re travelling solo, as it’s harder to strike up conversation if you look like you don’t want to be bothered with your face stuck in front of your phone constantly. Balance is good.
…BUT EQUALLY, DON’T BE AFRAID TO USE YOUR PHONE / UTILISE WIFI
I am not one of these people who thinks if you go backpacking you have to switch yourself off from the world. If you fancy that, that’s fine! You do you. I personally hate not keeping up with what’s going on in the world, and I like keeping in touch with my friends and social media. Learning to put a limit on it is valuable – although I find if you’re having enough fun you don’t think about always being on your phone anyway. That said, having a way to easily contact your family and friends back home can be really helpful though, especially if you’re travelling by yourself. Being able to chat to my mates on what’s app or Facetime home has massively helped in brief times of loneliness or through a bout of homesickness. So don’t feel like you’re cheating if you want to use your phone; just don’t forget to take in everything around you and appreciate where you are too.
BOOK ACCOMODATION FOR THE FIRST NIGHT YOU ARRIVE IN A NEW COUNTRY
Part of the nature of over-roading around South East Asia, is getting kicked off a bus somewhere new and traipsing around from guest house to guest house trying to find a good deal for accommodation with the new friends you’ve made on the ten hour journey there. This is more appealing at 22 years old than 26, absolutely, though if that’s your thing even well into your thirties by all means go for it. However, if I’m flying into a new place, I like to have somewhere booked, especially if it’s been a long flight. Nothing worse than getting off a twelve hour flight in Bangkok, finally making it into the city to find the hostel you’d planned to stay is full and so are the ones either side. It’s just nice to know where you’ll be based to get your bearings, and hostel booking websites often have cheaper online rates if you book in advance, too.
KNOW HOW YOU’RE GETTING FROM AIRPORT TO ACCOMMODATION
Similarly, know the best way to get from the airport to your hostel or hotel on arrival. It may be that cab is the safest and most reliable option – or you may just want the most direct route after a long haul flight and opt to spend some extra money on a taxi as a treat. That said, there may be a super easy and cheap route via a tourist bus or the Metro that is actually less agg than a cab, so I find it’s good to know roughly how you’re getting to your final destination and minimises stress after little sleep, crossing time zones and adjusting to the culture shock of a new place. Always write down the address of where you’re going to, too – don’t rely on having it on your phone in case you run out of battery or cannot access the email with it on.
NEVER FURTHER THAN 24 HOURS FROM HOME
One of the things people tell me they are most worried about when they go backpacking for the first time is “what if I hate it and I’m really unhappy?” Well for starters you could say that about anything – starting a new job, moving in with new flat mates, hell, you could even hate the movie you’ve decided to go see on a Tuesday night in Bromley. So to that I say you can always leave. You can always come home. And at least you tried! I have genuinely never met anyone who hated travelling and regretted going, but if you realise it’s not for you after a few weeks of giving it a chance, please remember you are never further than 24 hours from home (or there abouts). And it is not a failure if you decide to come home, or move onto another country because you’re not getting on with the one you’re in, or even if you decide to come home earlier because it’s not fun anymore. A wise man once told me “fly free and have a glorious time, and come back just before you get bored of being away”. John Underwood was right.