Life on the road in Asia

I settled into a travel groove over 5.5 months in Asia. Each day was different, but I still managed to develop a quasi-routine. Below are some of my observations from life on the road in Asia.


Joining the backpacker cult

Before I quit my job, I thought it was cool to hear about travelers extending their stays at locations they liked. I was so used to making the most out of my vacations with a structured day-to-day itinerary that I couldn’t imagine having the flexibility to stay somewhere longer.

I was excited when I extended a stay for the first time in Hoi An, Vietnam. I felt like I had officially joined the backpacker crowd. Toward the end of my time in Asia, extending stays was routine. I usually booked one or two nights at a hostel and then extended my stay if I liked the hostel/town/city.

Since I didn’t have a set schedule or job, weekdays and weekends were virtually the same. I always lost track of what day of the week it was, which was both disorienting and liberating.


Going solo

Some backpackers are really good at finding others to travel with. No matter where they go, they can find a group that they’ll travel with for days, weeks, or even months. I’m not one of these naturally gifted travelers. Outside of multi-day tours or treks, I never had a travel partner for more than a couple of nights.

Selfishness was the main reason why I didn’t have a regular travel buddy. I wanted to do what I wanted when I wanted. If I wanted ice cream for dinner, I could go and get one without consulting anyone else. I liked meeting people, and I enjoyed going out with other travelers at night, but I prioritized “me” time.

I also liked doing my own thing because I didn’t have to deal with other travelers’ flakiness. Finding a decisive backpacker is like spotting the Loch Ness Monster; it can be impossible to get backpackers to commit to something/anything. Getting a consensus on an activity, hostel, or even a restaurant for dinner is often a prolonged, fruitless process.

  • Hungry Backpacker (HB): Does anyone want to get dinner?
  • Sweaty Backpacker (SB), Decisive Backpacker (DB), Indecisive Backpacker (IB), and “Open-Minded” Backpacker (OB): Yes!
  • SB: Wait, I need to take a shower. Do you mind waiting?
  • HB: No, go ahead. [SB leaves to take an hour-long shower.]
  • DB: Well, I’m starving, so I’ll go now. See you later. [DB leaves to enjoy a cheap, delicious meal.]
  • HB: So, where do you want to go?
  • IB: Uh…
  • OB: I don’t care. I’m up for anything.
  • HB: I don’t care either. Someone just decide.
  • OB: Uh…
  • IB: Pizza?
  • OB: Meh, I had pizza last night. Can we get something else?
  • HB: Thai food?
  • IB: I’m not a huge fan of Thai food.
  • HB: I really don’t care where we go. Someone just pick.
  • [Silence]

[NB: I have played each backpacker role at least once during my time in Asia.]

I got especially annoyed when other travelers backed out of commitments. Look, I understand you might need time to think about an activity and formulate a plan, but honor your commitments once you make them.


Hostels: home, sweet home

Four- and six-bed dorms were the sweet spot for me since they were small enough that I got to know each of my roommates. If I was in the mood to go out, I could usually find at least one buddy in my dorm. Eight- and ten-bed dorms could be fun, but I usually didn’t get to talk to each roommate.

A higher number of roommates also increased the chance that I’d be bunking with a snorer – big no. I sometimes stayed in private rooms so that I would be guaranteed a snore-less night of sleep.

Hostels played such a huge role in shaping my impressions of a particular location. Great hostels made me feel at home. Fantastic hostels often had the following features:

  • Hangers or hooks for clothing, both in dorms and showers
    • Surprisingly scarce at hostels. Japanese hostels were excellent at providing space to hang clothing, so they deserve an A+.
  • Personal power outlets at each bunk
    • Hostels in Asia are very good at providing outlets. Hostels in South America (where I am now), not so much.
  • Lockers
    • Lockers that could hold my backpack were amazing. Unfortunately, they were also rare. It was a luxury to throw my bags and packing cubes into a locker and not feel guilty about taking up floor space. At the very least, lockers should be large enough to hold a laptop, camera, and wallet.
  • A common area
    • Ideally, a common area would have comfortable seating, a TV (Netflix is a plus), and games. I loved it when common areas contained books of recommendations from previous guests, which were entertaining and useful to read.
  • A bar
    • The bar doesn’t have to be large; a shelf is perfectly fine. As long as drinks are present, backpackers will flock there. The bar just needs to be a space that will encourage travelers to put their phones down and mingle. Bonus if there are happy hour specials or even free drinks.
  • A map
    • I know everyone has GPS on their phones now, but it’s incredible when staff members whip out a map and review places of interest and restaurants. It’s one of the best welcomes you can get at a hostel.
  • Washing machines
    • The ultimate wish list item. It was rare to find in-house washing machines, but I was overjoyed whenever they were available.

Social media

I wasn’t hooked on social media when I was working in New York. I’d scroll through my Facebook news feed for a few minutes each day, but I otherwise kept a pretty low profile. I never joined Snapchat (or whatever newfangled contraption kids are using these days) and didn’t have an Instagram account until a few months before I started traveling. When I went on vacation, I took full advantage of being off the grid and didn’t care about checking social media.

Now that I’m traveling, I check social media apps a few times a day. I have more downtime, so it’s easier for me to catch up on what people are doing. It also helps me feel more connected to my friends, even if I don’t message them often. I used to be awful at replying to texts and Facebook messages, but I’m getting (a little) better. I don’t love relying more on social media, but it has its perks while traveling.

On another note, you know how some people detest the word “moist”? “Wanderlust” is my “moist.” It’s such a cringeworthy word, and I recoil every time I see the hashtag on Instagram. (No offense to anyone who uses this hashtag – you do what works for you, and I’ll continue to retch privately.)


Photos and a motion to ban selfie sticks

One of the small annoyances about solo travel is trying to take photos of myself. I’m incapable of taking selfies: the photo ends up blurry and/or I look creepy. Since I’m not photogenic and have no idea how to pose for photos, I usually skip taking photos of myself.

As much as I like to make fun of #boyfriendsofinstagram, they certainly serve a purpose. Asking other people to take photos of me was a gamble. Even if I tried to explain my vision, the photographer might frame the photo differently from how I’d prefer. Sometimes though, I got lucky and found excellent photographers, or even people who snapped cool candids of me.

While we’re talking about photos, I’d like to take a moment to publicize my dislike of selfie sticks. I know it’s snobby, but I roll my eyes whenever I see one. If you’re at a temple, nothing kills the meditative mood more than a tourist wielding a selfie stick. Let’s think here: is a temple really an appropriate place to take a pouty selfie? I admit that I’ve gotten carried away in trying to take good photos, but I try to remember to keep my narcissism in check.

[I have to be honest here: my mom gave me a selfie stick for Christmas a few years ago. I used it once in New York. Shame!]


Food and fitness

After about a month on the road, I started to crave food from the US. I rarely ate peanut butter at home, but it became a source of delight whenever I had it in Asia. Cheese and wheat bread were other hard-to-find treats. I also became a regular at cafes and graduated from one coffee a day to two.

I didn’t keep a wholesome diet – a day without at least one dessert is a day wasted – but I still felt healthier while traveling than I did in New York. I didn’t do “real” exercise while traveling, but I walked whenever possible. Walking might not elevate my heart rate much, but it allowed me to feel like I was staying active, and it was a dramatic change from sitting at a computer all day.


Friendships

About two weeks into my trip, I met a British guy in Vietnam who had been traveling for a couple of months. He noted that he was getting more selective in socializing with other travelers since he was tired of answering the same questions:

  • “Where are you from?”
  • “What do you do at home?”
  • “How long are you traveling?”
  • “Where have you traveled?”

He was looking for deeper conversations. “Well, that’s kind of mean,” I thought. “He should appreciate the chance to meet new people.”

After almost six months in Asia, I understood the British traveler’s POV. I still enjoyed meeting new people, even if we only discussed superficial topics. However, it was especially wonderful to find people I really connected with.

Some of my favorite memories were silly “slumber party” conversations with other travelers. One discussion was in the middle of the night in Ho Chi Minh City, when my roommates and I couldn’t fall asleep. We ended up talking about dishes from our home countries that we could be proud of. According to a British roommate, I couldn’t claim New York pizza as a quintessential American dish since pizza originated in Italy (believe me, I went into excruciating detail about what made New York pizza unique). However, the same roommate heavily vouched for chicken tikka masala as a representative dish for the UK. I had to object to this since New York pizza was discounted. This debate had no real point, but I still remember how much we (I) laughed through the night.

One of the worst parts of backpacking is the constant goodbyes. I think other travelers made more of an impact on me than I made on them; even travelers I’ve only known for a few hours have made lasting impressions. The harsh reality is that I won’t see most of my travel friends again, but I’m sincere when I tell them they’re welcome to visit me in the US. I hope that at least a couple of friends will take me up on my offer.


Romance?

I usually don’t share intimate details about my romantic life (or lack thereof), and I’m definitely not going to start doing that on this blog. However, it’s often a topic of interest when I talk to friends and other travelers, so I’ll share some general observations.

I’m not looking for a serious relationship, so travel hasn’t interfered with my dating life. If you’re anything like me, you’re constantly going to develop mini-crushes on a long-term trip. There’s no shortage of good-looking travelers, particularly in Southeast Asia (hallelujah!). However, attractive guys intimidate me, and my MO is to ignore them unless they speak to me first. As you can imagine, this works out reallyyy well [/sarcasm].

I do have one piece of advice for straight female travelers searching for romance: go to the Philippines. I met a number of single women who ended up finding romantic travel partners – both local and foreign – there. A couple of these flings blossomed into serious relationships. For some reason, I saw this happen only in the Philippines. Blame the gorgeous beaches and friendly people.


Loneliness: the short and long answers

“Do you ever get lonely?” is a common question from people who wonder what it’s like to travel solo for a few months. I used to say “no” as an easy and quick answer, and it was often appropriate. I met a wide variety of people by staying in hostels and going on tours. The vast majority of travelers I’ve met have been kind and polite, so it’s easy to at least make small talk. I also don’t mind having time to myself. On more than a few occasions, I’ve been “that girl” sitting with my laptop in the corner of a hostel common room all day.

That said, of course I got lonely. In each country I visited, I experienced a few days where I didn’t really click with other travelers. At times, I was stuck in a quiet hostel or town when I was in the mood to socialize. Loneliness also struck when I was by myself in a romantic location (e.g., sunset on a beach). PDA is my kryptonite, but even I sometimes wished I could have shared an experience with someone I was close to.

Still, I wouldn’t trade my solo travel experiences for anything. The freedom to do what I want is worth the occasional lonely spells.


“Bravery” and privilege

Quite a few female travelers called me “brave” when they learned I was traveling solo. I had to tell them that “brave” was the wrong description. I’m extremely lucky and privileged but not brave. Bravery should be reserved for people who overcome real adversity or face life-or-death situations. I’m just prancing through a few countries; this is purely selfish and shouldn’t be seen as brave.

I’m lucky my parents worked so hard for me to have an excellent education. I’m lucky I had a job that taught me a lot and paid a generous salary. I’m privileged to have had the ability to leave my job to travel. I’m privileged to have an American passport, which allows me to go almost anywhere. I’m lucky to be a native English speaker, as English is the default language for tourism and backpackers.

I don’t mean to be flippant. All travelers should use common sense and be aware of different cultural norms. And the reality is that female travelers may need to exercise more caution in certain areas or countries. But, I never strayed too far from the touristy path, so safety wasn’t a major concern in most of the places I visited. That’s part of the reason why I thought it was strange to hear people call me brave.

I hope my gratitude is evident in my blog posts, but in case it isn’t, I want to make it clear here. I might complain about a transport snafu or an unclean hostel, but I know these are the ultimate first-world problems. When you’re surrounded by backpackers who are all traveling for a few weeks or months, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking this is just normal life. I’m so fortunate to be able to travel, and I’m very thankful for the memories and friends I’ve made.

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