7 Months as a Southeast Asia Backpacker
In August of 2018 while hiking the Salkantay mountain in Peru, my girlfriend shared a dream of hers; to backpack across Southeast Asia for an extended period of time. We went back and forth of reasons to do it or not, ultimately realizing that there will ALWAYS be reasons not to. We had an opportunity to live out one of our dreams, and there were no real reasons to put it off. Within a few weeks we had committed to January 2019 being our start date - only 4 months away. So we developed a target budget and started saving.
There were a few reasons why we chose Southeast Asia: 1) It's THE backpacker destination in the world. 2) It's very budget friendly so we knew we could go for a long time. 3) We had never been to Asia and wanted to see that part of the world 4) It's really far away, and takes a long time to get there. Once there, it makes sense to spend a long time to see and experience as many places as possible.
We both finished working December 31st 2018, then spent January with friends and family before setting off for our 7 months as Southeast Asia backpackers on the first of February.
Our 16 hour direct flight from Atlanta to Seoul in Delta’s newly designed international first class cabin was paid for entirely by credit card reward points. It was still winter in Seoul, and because we planned on traveling light in Southeast Asia, we didn’t pack much cold weather clothing - so we kept our visit to just 5 days with plans to return.
We landed in Bangkok for our first of what would become many stops in this massive, bustling, and overwhelming city. We arrived during peak air pollution and humidity, so our first impressions were, ‘let's get out of Bangkok’. We had to spend two weeks here to get our remaining vaccines, but we broke up the time with 1 week in Hua Hin, a popular beach town 6 hours south of Bangkok.
A few weeks later with our vaccines in order, we went north, taking the train to Chiang Mai with a 2 day stopover in the small town of Phitsanulok. We spent 10 days between Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, both beautiful and popular destinations in the north of Thailand. They were quiet cities, and great places to meet other travelers. Learning to make Pad Thai at a cooking class and spending the night at an elephant rescue were highlights in the area.
We also did our research to find an elephant sanctuary that was known for treating the animals well. That meant we couldn't touch or bathe them and certainly couldn't ride them. Elephant Valley Thailand rescues elephants from circuses and other “sanctuaries” where they are mistreated and gives them a massive area to live in. We loved watching them from a distance, knowing they were being well treated.
From here we set off on a two day slow boat trip along the Mekong River into Luang Prabang, in Laos. 6 days in Luang Prabang ended up being too short, as we loved the city and spent multiple days at waterfalls, kayaking, hiking, and biking. It felt amazing getting to a new country that we knew very little about. Laos has been a staple on the backpacker’s banana pancake trail for years, but we can only see its popularity rising in the future.
We spent the first 10 days of March continuing south through Laos. A few days in Vang Vieng, an outdoor lover's dream destination, followed by 5 days in Vientiane, the capital city. We loved the small, outdoorsy feel of Vang Vieng. Vientiane however left us wanting more; the city is still finding its identity and will surely grow in popularity, but doesn’t offer much right now.
We flew back to Bangkok for a night then took off for Singapore for 3 days. An unbelievable contrast to the life in Northern Thailand and Laos that we had been experiencing, it was fun having a taste of life back home like brushing our teeth with tap water.
We left Singapore for 30 days in Bali. We were pumped to get some beach time earlier than expected, but ended up disappointed for the first couple weeks. Of all the places we traveled this year (and maybe ever), Bali was by far the biggest disappointment relative to expectations. You’re greeted by chaos at the Denpasar airport with 100s of taxi drivers aggressively pursuing you for a ride (this becomes a theme across Bali). We were extremely surprised to find the beaches on Bali are entirely disappointing. Murky water, sand fleas, rough sand, none of what we imagined Bali to have was available. We visited a few cities over 2 weeks in the south, central, north, and east part of the island and a portion of this time was with some family members who also happened to be there.
Eager for some (quality) beach time, we went to the Gili Islands for two weeks and finally found what we were looking for. Three small (as in you can walk around their perimeter in an hour or two) islands off the coast of Lombok, we loved our time on the Gili’s; beautiful beaches, peaceful island life, and the best fried rice we’ve ever had.
We returned to Bangkok for the 4th time 10 days into April to decide where to go next. By this visit we started to love the massive city, which was feeling like our home away from home. We loved participating in the Songkran water festival; their largest and most recognized holiday.
A week later we arrived in Hanoi to start a gradual trip from north to south across Vietnam. We were immediately blown away by the food in Vietnam. That, combined with the extremely low cost of living, made our expectations very high for the country. We loved motorbiking The Loop in the north along China’s border, visiting all the Anthony Bourdain hotspots across the country, and rolling across the red sand dunes in Mui Ne. It was eye opening to learn about the war from the Vietnamese point of view. Museums and sites like the claustrophobic Cu Chi Tunnels gave us a first hand understanding, but a few walking tours by local students were even more informative.
We gradually made our way south through the country with stops in multiple cities that included Nihn Bihn, Hue, Danang, Hoi An, and Mui Ne before arriving in Ho Chi Minh City. We ended up spending 6 weeks in Vietnam, about half the time originally planned. Despite the beauty of the country and our continual love for the food, we found the way we were treated to be very tiresome. We were very much seen as nothing more than dollar signs and rarely felt welcome. It was a stark contrast to Thailand and the equally warm Laos. The directness and constant feeling of being taken advantage of grew old so we sped up our pace, cut out a few cities, and planned our visit to Cambodia. We were also exhausted from the 6-8 hour bus or train rides every 4-5 days when we went to a new city. There were certainly many Vietnamese we met who we loved, but after a month we realized we just didn’t fit in as well with this culture as others.
We arrived in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh for the last week of May after a long, cross border bus ride. We learned about the devastating genocide that ravaged Cambodia only 30 years ago, but were impressed to see a young and resilient culture on the rise. It was fun using US dollars for everything (The ATMs almost exclusively spit out USD) and after a few days we were experts at paying for things in a combination of USD and riels, where the riels were used in place of cents.
Needing a break from the rapid pace over the previous month, we decided to spend 8 days in Siem Riep, a small town that thrives on the short term tourism for those visiting Angkor Wat. As expected, Angkor Wat was amazing. It was surreal visiting one of the most famous and historic sites in the world. It’s well worth getting a guide to see it at sunrise, and for the additional perks of having a driver between the sites in an air conditioned car. The entire area is so much larger than we ever imagined.
We spent the week between our guest house pool, a local gym, and 3 favorite restaurants, enjoying the slow pace and relaxation that only long term travel can offer.
Then a bus to Bangkok for two nights before jumping on a flight to the most unique country in our trip.
We knew little about Myanmar before arriving in Yangon, but immediately felt like we were somewhere unlike anywhere else we’d been. The city felt like it ground to a halt in the 40s, which is basically what happened when they gained independence from the British. In an entire day we would see maybe 2-3 other tourists and it took a while to get used to locals staring at us.
We were pleasantly surprised by the warm welcoming from the locals we did interact with. In addition, the food was unique but delicious - in many cases dishes we had never heard of before. To top it off, we had a fascinating walking tour to learn about this country that, until very recently, was closed off to the outside world.
Our reason for visiting Myanmar was to take part in a 10 day silent meditation retreat. Recommended by a fellow flashpacker, we thought it would be worth trying. We had very little meditation experience but figured we were on such a long trip, we could spare 10 days. This ended up being the most difficult thing I’ve ever done in my life. It is 10 FULL days, and the preceding night and following morning. From 4:30AM to 9:30PM you have 10 hours of seated meditation, men and women are separated, and you can't exercise - so if not meditating, your alternative is sitting or lying down. It's a silent retreat so no talking, gestures, or eye contact with other people. No internet, books, or stimulus of any kind. We were given two vegetarian meals a day, the last one at 11:30 AM. Although there were some moments of clarity and calm, it ended up being incredibly difficult to focus and I really did feel trapped in my own mind. It was too much for a first time meditation experience, and looking back, a shorter and less strict one would have been a better option. Our visit to Myanmar was certainly memorable, and although we didn’t love the grueling meditation, we came out of it with a new appreciation for what we were doing and a renewed eagerness to continue our adventure.
We popped over to Singapore on the way to southern Thailand for some much needed familiarity and stimulus back in our lives.
It was the rainy season on the west coast along the Andaman Sea, so we limited our time in Phuket to head east. Our first stop was 11 days on the island of Koh Samui. We stayed in Lamai, much quieter and laid back compared to the party hard, main city of Chaweng. We joined a muay thai camp for what ended up being our favorite week all year. We had a comfortable guest house, trained every morning from 7:30-9:30, had breakfast then went to the beach, had a huge lunch (normally pad thai), then spent the afternoon at the pool before going back to the gym to train from 5:30-8:00, followed by dinner at a restaurant or night market. This was the ultimate long term traveler situation and realistically we could have spent a month doing exactly this, but our time in Southeast Asia was running low and we still had some must see places.
From Koh Samui we went to Koh Tao island for our second favorite week; getting scuba certified. Koh Tao is one of the most popular places in the world to get certified and we absolutely understand why. Prices are standardized across the island so you can take your time finding a great instructor, and there are endless dive sites to choose from.
Afterwards, we took a long train south to Penang in Malaysia. Six days here was a great introduction to Malaysia, we wandered, ate, and explored our way through the city before continuing south to Kuala Lumpur. This was our first of two, two night visits in Kuala Lumpur - which wasn't nearly enough time. We loved the big city, which was drastically different from where we’d been the last few months. We were also staying in a beautiful Hilton, paid for with points, which helped.
5 and a half months into our trip and we felt ready for a vacation, and fortunately Kuala Lumpur has regular direct flights to the Maldives.
We planned out a visit to two small islands for the next 10 days. We stayed on Thoddoo and Ukulhas in local guesthouses. The water was the most crystal clear we’ve ever seen and the beaches never got old. The food was amazing and we had unreal fresh fish most nights. The people were all very welcoming, but it was difficult to get used to some of the restrictions being in an Islamic country. This meant no alcohol at all and no swimwear unless you're on the secluded tourist beach, which was an uncomfortable contrast to any other beach destination we’ve been to in the world. Getting in a couple dives after our recent certification was also great.
It was a more expensive 10 days than we were used to, but absolutely worth it and the perfect way to cap off our second to last month.
We were quickly running out of time in Southeast Asia as we had a commitment late in August to get to the Netherlands!
One of our final, must do activities in Southeast Asia (although there were plenty we didn't get to) was seeing Orangutans in Borneo, one of only two places they remain in the wild. We flew from Kuala Lumpur to Kota Kinabalu on the island of Borneo; the third largest island in the world shared between Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei. We booked a 3 night jungle visit, staying in a compound and going out for daily river boat rides and jungle walks to see and learn about the wildlife. We saw hundreds of monkeys, massive crocodiles, and a wild elephant. Unfortunately, we never saw a wild orangutan, so we spent the last afternoon at the local sanctuary where orphaned orangutans are rehabilitated. The sanctuary was huge and they had plenty of freedom to live in the jungle, so we felt comfortable that they were well taken care of and weren't contained to a zoo-like enclosure.
Our last few days in Borneo were spent in the tiny country of Brunei, where we explored the largest floating village (more like a city) in the world. We then flew back to Bangkok.
Leaving Southeast Asia
The final few days in Bangkok were bittersweet, we felt like we were leaving our second home (Bangkok) and although we were ready for a break from Asia, it was hard to leave. We still had so much to see and experience, but knew we would be back again. We fell in love with countries like Thailand and Laos, and learned so much about unique places in this part of the world. It was an incredible trip, the perfect introduction to long term travel, and one of the catalysts for launching Flashpacker Co.
Our Travel Style
We learned a lot about how we like to travel; when we started the trip we certainly felt more like budget backpackers. We stayed in hostels and were hyper conscious of our spending, always aware that if we went over budget it would shorten our trip. Within a couple months the budget lifestyle was growing old. We also found that we didn't get the same excitement from free activities like just wandering around a new city. After 3 months, most Southeast Asian cities begin to look the same. The latter half of the trip, we were certified flashpackers. We generally always stayed in guesthouses or hotels, prioritized comfort over cost with transportation, and we were never afraid to spend money on activities. We ended up shortening our trip by many months with the focus on getting the most out of it. We credit this trip with shaping our travel style; always prioritizing comfort, excitement, and fun over low cost, even when that means a shorter trip because we spent more. The mental shift to prioritizing enjoyment over duration embodies the flashpacker style that we now live on every trip.
Number of flights taken: 16
Number of flights missed: 3
Average monthly expenses for 2 people: $3000 USD
Total weight of backpacks per person: 15 lbs
Number of days in Thailand without eating pad thai at least once: 0
Favorite country: Thailand
Number of times we got food poisoning: 4
Favorite beverage: Pineapple, banana, mango smoothie
Number of times we slept in an airport: 1
Number of countries visited: 11
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