It is only natural that before going on an almost four month journey with just a single back pack, something that we hadn’t done before, we had some concerns and worries regarding how things will turn out. In this post I will list the main concerns we had before leaving home and address them now that we have visited all the four countries, here in South East Asia, that we will be visiting on this trip. So below are our concerns.
Is backpacking something for us?
Will it be fun to travel for four months?
How will the accommodation be at our price point?
Will we like the food?
What about sanitation and what diseases could we catch?
What about visas?
What about bugs and other unknown creatures?
Will there be people everywhere trying to scam us?
Will we be in danger?
We have seen people from the age of seventeen up to almost seventy backpacking so it is fair to say that backpacking can be for anyone – at least age doesn’t seem to be a deciding factor.
Being on our own with nothing other than our backpack has given us great freedom to go wherever we have wanted to go, whenever we have wanted to go. We have had absolute freedom regarding how we spend our money and when. All that freedom has been just fantastic.
We have been on an organized trip before and I have to say that backpacking suites us much better than a package trip, especially here in South East Asia where there are so many people backpacking and the infrastructure for it is great. It is less of a hassle than one would think and it quickly becomes a routine to find a new hostel or organize activities or decide where to go next.
Before heading off this was a big question mark. Before this trip our longest trip had been three weeks or so and we have always been quite happy to return home.
Travelling for such a long time has definitely been different in many ways. We have not been in such a rush to see as much as we can before returning home and that has given the whole trip a different rhythm. It has also affected our buying habits in a nice way – often when abroad we’ve been thinking about what to buy and maybe focusing too much on that aspect but now we have just postponed all buying decisions and just been enjoying the places we have been visiting.
Of course there have been ups and downs in the almost three months that have already passed but for the most part the trip has been a fantastic adventure. I think that the downs are mostly connected with staying too long in a particular place and we have become bored of the place or maybe more the atmosphere at that place. A couple of times we have also experienced a kind of travel boredom where for instance we can go and see a world famous temple or something like that but because we have seen so many fantastic temples we aren’t really interested, which is kind of sad.
I’m not sure we’ll ever go on such a long trip again and this has surely been a once in a lifetime experience. I think that the optimal trip length for us might be somewhere around six to eight weeks and we would surely rather go twice for eight weeks than once for the four months :)
There are numerous stories of people that start backpacking and when the get back home the can’t wait to go on the road again …and again so only time can tell how thing will go in our case :)
We have been staying at budget hostels and guesthouses, typically priced between 8-20 dollars for two depending on the price level in that particular town. I would say that the accommodation in general has been better than we expected. Of course there have been a few instances where we should have looked further but decided to stay but for the most part we have been fairly lucky. The worst experiences have been when we have arrived after dark to a new place tired and annoyed and not bothered to look hard enough and settled for something less than satisfying – we’ve kind of always known but still didn’t look further.
The food around here has ranged from being absolutely fantastic to being nothing special. It has never been bad and that says something. We only had problems finding something we liked on two occasions, first in Bangkok after we arrived and that was just that we were afraid to try and too conscious about sanitation and cleanliness, which has never been an actual problem here. The other time was in Phenom Penh where it wasn’t easy to find nice places to eat at.
In general the Western food hasn’t been too good except that we’ve had a few good pizzas. The Western food is also a lot more expensive than the local food and definitely not worth the extra money. In quite many places we could find Indian food and that was always very good. A bit more pricy than the local food but great to mix things up.
The Thai food has been fantastic wherever we have been – at the guesthouses, with street vendors or at restaurants. The curries and the fried rice, soups and nonames, noodles and pancakes and the variety of fresh seafood is astonishing.
The food in Cambodia was a bit of a disappointment after the Thai food. It always felt like they put too little chilly in everything so it tasted a little bland. The exception was the Amok, which is a special kind of Cambodian curry. The food wasn’t bad but just needed more seasoning for our taste.
Vietnamese food received mixed reviews in the group. I loved the food but Elínborg was less impressed. They have a great variety so there is plenty to choose from and everyone should be able of find something they like. The street vendors offer really fresh and good baguettes that we ate a lot for breakfast and most places have wonderful Vietnamese coffee.
The food in Laos was always good – even the Western food. It had some French influence with great baguettes and fantastic Lao coffee and I only remember everything tasting good in Laos.
In terms of diseases we took some precautions before heading off. We went to a vaccination clinic in Switzerland and got all the vaccinations they recommended. Of course one can not be vaccinated against all diseases so we took some medicine with us. What we took is listed here.
We have actually been surprised about the sanitation level of food and food products. We just expected that we would have a mild food poisoning once in a while or stomach aches after eating something bad but that hasn’t occurred at all. We have had some aches after eating something too spicy for our stomachs but that is easy to avoid. We have eaten at Western restaurants, local restaurants, local homes, street vendors and food markets and at no point have we eaten anything that has given us problems.
When you fly into Thailand you get a 30 day visa exemption for free (at least most European citizens) and if you enter on land borders you get a 15 day exemption so there is no hassle to enter Thailand, just make sure that you don’t overstay the exemption or you’ll get a 500 baht per day fine.
Visa into Cambodia is available at most borders for $20. We had heard of Cambodian border controllers asking for more money and to avoid all hassle we bought an e-Visa off the internet for $25, a very easy two day process and in the end you have a print-out that you show at the border.
We got the Vietnamese visa in the Vietnamese embassy in Bangkok. I think that it cost 1,900 baht if you wait for two days but 2,200 baht, just over $60, if you want to pick it up the next day. However it was much cheaper to get the visa at the Vietnamese embassy in Phenom Penh, Cambodia. I think that it costs 30-35 dollars over there.
The Visa into Laos was available at the airport in Luang Prabang and cost about $30. We were out of dollars but they were happy to take baht instead – at a reasonable exchange rate.
When we entered Burma we got a day permit (apparently good for two nights) at the border for $10 or 500 baht so bring dollars if you have them.
The visa for China we got at the Chinese embassy in Reykjavík. We got a six month visa with two entries just to make sure and that was around $100 if I .remember correctly. Maybe a three month, one entry visa would have been sufficient but we didn’t really know at the time.
So if you stay slightly informed the visas shouldn’t pose any problems. Just check before the trip if all the countries that you want to go to offer visas to citizens of your country.
The only creature that has really been bothering us are the mosquitoes. They seem to love fresh Nordic blood. There are over 3,000 different types of mosquitoes, each slightly different from the others. We have usually been most bitten when we are at a new place. Then we learn how, where and when the mosquitoes bite and can better avoid them. Some bite in the morning, others at dusk and yet others during the night. Some bite mostly by the joints, others on the feet and some in the limbs so the are a bit difficult to figure out. The best way to avoid them is to be properly clothed in the early morning and at dusk and apply some mosquitoes repellant – we have used 50% deet.
We have once meet bed bugs. We didn’t see them at first, actually we weren’t really looking but as soon as we laid on the bed the came forwards. Bed bugs are nasty looking creatures looking a bit like lice and they bite you if they can. The bite is not dangerous but itches a lot. We had been warned that we could encounter them and that we should always check the beds before deciding on a room but we hadn’t seen any after ten weeks so we weren’t really checking any more.
We have seen some rats but only in the street so they have not been bothering us at all. We have seen some cockroaches as well and had a few of them visiting our rooms but I wouldn’t say that has been common – maybe in every tenth guesthouse or even more seldom. There are ants everywhere here so if you leave something they like they are pretty quick to find it and carry it away so don’t forget those chips on the table :)
We have encountered a few scams along the way as can be seen here. I think that all of them can be easily avoided by using common sense and be a little prepared. The Lonely planet books list a few of the scams so that is a good start. Just remember that there is no free lunch and always double check all prices and you’ll be good
It is understandable that people with little money try get as much for products and services as they possibly can – it’s the same as we do in the West – so that can’t really be categorized as a scam. We have however seen that it pays to shop around and check for the prices at other vendors. Often people add a tourist premium or just think that you have just arrived and try to charge too much.
I don’t think that we have been in any danger at any point in our trip, at least not more danger than if we would have stayed at home ;) Everyone connected with tourism has seemed to us as very responsible and safety minded. Even the bus drivers, that seem to have a bad reputation on the internet, were quite good and drove responsibly.
Just one warning, always keep all valuables with you and not in your big back pack, especially while on the busses. At one point someone went through our bags during a bus ride and we have heard of other instances on boats and in storage rooms at guesthouses so it is better to be safe than sorry and keep everything valuable with you!