Traveling is a subject near to my heart. Lately, one small joy has been to post a photo a day from my half-year trip to Southeast Asia on Instagram, which is great because I get to share select photos. It’s also just a skosh of writing, if only a couple sentences. And it lets me relive my own trip at a slow pace, which has been interesting in its own right. I have thousands of photos from the trip and going through them all at once would not only be daunting, but it would take away from it by just blowing through so many experiences so quickly.
Recently an acquaintance reached out. She asked me a number of questions about traveling, and rather than answer her privately I turned it into this post. If it helps one person buy the ticket, well, I'm all for that.
If you have a question I didn't cover, add a comment and I will most likely add it. Enjoy!
Did you go alone? What made you decide to go to SE Asia?
I went with Kiesha, who lived in the Linden house. We went separate ways about a month into the trip because we had different plans (she was out of money and went to New Zealand to live and work while I kept traveling). Southeast Asia was actually her idea, something she had been tossing around for a while. I really needed to change up my situation because I was really over my job and needed a drastic change. So I tossed out the idea of going with her and soon she found a one-way ticket to Bangkok for $570. That’s not an amazing deal but I think both of our minds were basically in a place of fuck it, going to Asia.
How much did you spend? Where did you sleep?
That's a good question. The difference in my bank account between the day I left and the day I paid my credit card after returning was $9,400, so about $1440 a month for a 6.5 month trip. But keep in mind I had a good amount of savings and flew a fair amount, went on adventure tours, etc. You can certainly pinch more than I did. I stayed mostly in hostels but would get a private room when that got to be too much (about four months in I started to dislike hostels just because I wanted my space and alone time).
So let's use Thailand as an example. You can get a good meal for $1-2, an hour massage for $7, a hostel for $5-10 and about $15 for a private room. These are guidelines, as you can of course always spend more or less, but that should help you plan.
Hit me up if you have more questions. You should definitely go, and alone. You'll be fine and you won’t regret it. Buy the ticket, take the ride.
Wow, thanks! I wasn't expecting such a lengthy response!
I don't think I met Kiesha. Are you back in Boulder now? Did you find a more tolerable job? Do you feel like a different person now?
I'm in a very ideal situation to do this because my job is basically 6 months on, 6 months off but I still get a biweekly paycheck during my off-season. Your monthly expenditure definitely seems possible for me.
I've thought about going to Thailand for a while too. Or South America. I'm not sure how worried about safety I should be in Thailand but I expect it's less than South America. I think I'd be going in August or September. Did you expect to stay for as long as you did or was that duration planned? Did you stay in Thailand mostly or travel to other countries nearby?
How about cultural and language barriers? Did you have a difficult time communicating with people or getting things you need, directions, etc? I think I'm more comfortable being alone than most people but did you ever get lonely by yourself? Should I bring my iPad or laptop? Aside from going on adventure tours, what is day to day life like living in hostels? Also, what is the best way to access your money?
Can you just write a book for me? haha I didn't think I'd have so many more questions for you.
Are you back in Boulder now?
I am not, and knew that I wouldn’t be returning to Boulder before I left. I lived there for four years and while I met some great people, it was never my place, never felt like home. I moved into a friend’s house in Asheville, North Carolina and I love it! It already feels more like home than Boulder ever did.
Do you feel like a different person now?
There’s been a few times in my life where I’ve come up with some grand plan and thought, Man, I’m going to be a totally different person after this. And then, when it concludes, I realize that irrevocably, indubitably, I’m still me. Wherever you go, there you are is one of those simple phrases that is packed with brilliance. So while I don’t feel like a different person, I do feel like a better version of myself. In fact I’d even go so far to say that right now I feel like the best version of me I’ve ever been: v34.9 (my birthday is in a week). And there’s a few reasons for that.
One, I left the job and town that was stifling me.
Everything changed once I bought that one-way ticket. It meant I was finally quitting the job that had been a non-stop source of stress that sometimes resulted in the worst version of me. Clicking that button and buying that ticket was profoundly symbolic. Once I had it, I had to tell my boss that I was quitting. Soon after that we found out our house was being sold and suddenly we had 30 days to vacate. This was in early May and the flight out of Denver wasn’t until September 10! So that was a crazy month of documenting as much of my job as I could and going through and selling 90% of what I owned. I tell you I was the fucking master of Craigslist in Boulder that month, cleaning out a house of six people* and preparing to hit the road for two months. That led to visiting my friend Brandon and working at the Omega Institute in upstate New York for a month, which was an absolutely incredible experience. Then I returned to Boulder for a month, sold more of my things and prepared for an international trip of indefinite length. With that to look forward to, my state of mind greatly improved.
* Which turned out to be pointless because our neighbor bought the house and tore it down! Credit goes to Russell Hess for that video.
Two, I got to have the adventure I’d always wanted.
This was the trip I had been waiting my whole life for, just as others before it had been. And like those other trips, it was exactly what I needed when I needed it. I also held no illusions - I was 34 and knew I was a bit on the older side for traveling like that. 80% of the people you meet in hostels are 22 I’m pretty sure. I say that in jest but it absolutely feels that way sometimes. While I could do it again tomorrow, the number of those trips I have in me is finite. And I did it. Fulfilling a life goal like that fills you with an incredible sense of accomplishment.
Three, I came to terms with what felt like my biggest flaw.
Which is that I have lots of ideas but often lack the follow-through to see them through to completion. Like anything, awareness is the first step but after that I realized that I have the ability to change that - I can do anything I want! When I returned to the States, Keisha and I started emailing and I had this to say on the matter:
I find it easier when I first move somewhere to get shit done - I have been incredibly motivated since arriving and have already accomplished a lot. So I'm going to try and keep that momentum going ... um, forever? I think having the awareness that I tend to be a dreamer is a big part of the solution. I have so many ideas on a daily basis. Singing in a band, playing softball/volleyball, learning piano, acting, shooting and editing video, martial arts, writing, the list goes on and on and on. One of my biggest problems, historically, is that I just fucking forget about an idea because I have so many of them. I write them down but lose the paper, or put it on a digital todo list that I rarely look at, etc. Using an 8.5x11 piece of paper and a Sharpie for things I want to accomplish in the short term has been working well so far. The sharpie serves the purpose of being bold, reminding me that these are important and worthy of your time. It's purely psychological but it seems to work for me. I've been doing a lot since I arrived and man does it feel good! The more you accomplish the better you feel and the better you feel the more you accomplish, etc. etc., so eat beans in every meal! It's a feeling I'm paying close attention to and one I'm hoping to never lose.
I've thought about going to Thailand for a while too. Or South America. I'm not sure how worried about safety I should be in Thailand but I expect it's less than South America.
Safety. Of course I can’t speak to the experience of traveling as a female, but the most unsafe I ever felt was in ... America. I know scary things happen all around the world. Do your research to see if things are really bad in the countries you want to go. As of this writing, Syria, Turkey, places like that. But chances are that’s not where you’re going and you’ll be totally fine. You’ll be amazed when you arrive how much all cultures have in common. Here’s my own personal philosophy on it: Fear is a powerful feeling that drives a lot of what people do, myself included. In fact I believe everything humans do is ultimately motivated by fear or love. If we can subdue that fear and go after more of the things we want that make us feel alive, we’ll ultimately be happier people. This quote has a long shelf life for a reason:
“Be bold and courageous. When you look back on your life, you'll regret the things you didn't do more than the ones you did.”
- H. Jackson Brown, Jr.
Did you expect to stay for as long as you did or was that duration planned?
There was no set plan, but I chose to close out a chapter of my life so that I could go for as long as I wanted. I quit my job, I got my name off the lease for the house I was renting (the owners sold the house so that just happened to work out), sold most of everything I owned and in general tied up any loose ends I had to allow me to travel unfettered. I forget what all that entailed, but it was a surprising amount of work.
For example, one thing was my car. It was paid off so the biggest questions were insurance and storage. My parents were gracious enough to fly out to Colorado one-way and drive my car back to Florida where they lived. Not only that, but we devised a system to transport my large Neil Degrasse Tyson painting on the roof. All other shipping options were way too expensive so with plywood, bubble-wrap, a tarp and bungies they drove the 1,800 miles with this guy on the roof, figuratively staring up at the stars:
I did some research and found really cheap car insurance with basically no coverage. I forget exactly how much it was, but I think it was around $130 for six months. If anyone is curious about those details, contact me and I’ll dig it up.
The other consideration was to not let the car just sit, as that’s bad for many reasons. I did research into this and determined that a solid maintenance plan was:
- Starting a car every two or three weeks and driving 15 to 30 minutes in order for the engine to reach a working temperature.
- When driving, let it idle for 10 minutes first and drive easy.
- "You want your temperature gauge to come up to normal, and you want it to be there 10 or 15 minutes. Then you've arguably done some good. You have everything covered in oil again."
- Making sure the tires aren't always sitting in the same position. "Look at one tire," he said. "Note the air valve position, like on a clock. Is it at 9 o'clock? If so, when you back the car up, make sure it's at 3 o'clock or 12 o'clock. As long as it's a quarter-turn, you're fine."
- Occasionally check tire pressure (Discount Tire does this for free)
- Oil change every year (though you may want to just sell it if you are going this long)
- A friend added: I would definitely get the oil changed before you leave it. I would also get a full tank of gas and add fuel stabilizer to it. I don’t think your parents will drive it that much in order to empty the tank. The tire thing is no joke, if they get flat spots on them from sitting too long they will need to be replaced. So check the pressure and make sure to move it, even it is just a quarter turn. The rest is a good idea especially since your parents will be around to move it occasionally. I don’t know what kind of critter type animals they will have where they are at, but checking in on it to make sure there is nothing living in it would not hurt either. They can chew through wires and hoses and do a bunch of annoying damage. Letting it idle helps the fluids from settling and ruining the seals they are associated with (gaskets, O-rings, etc). So I would do that at a minimum of once a month. Driving it will help a lot of things, especially the brake pads and rotors. There is a lot of humidity in FL and that can cause the rotors to rust, which then cause the pads to fuse to the rotors. This would mean replacing as well.
So yeah, that was just one category of prep work.
Did you stay in Thailand mostly or travel to other countries nearby?
I ended up going to seven countries for varying lengths of time:
- Thailand: 2 months
- Cambodia: 3 weeks?
- Malaysia: 2 weeks?
- Vietnam: 2 months
- New Zealand
- Fiji: 3 weeks?
- Australia: 1 week
How about cultural and language barriers? Did you have a difficult time communicating with people or getting things you need, directions, etc?
That is part of the fun! When I came back, it took me about a month to readjust to being back in the States. Foreign had become less foreign; it was the norm. I remember when I first arrived in Thailand I was nervous that I might accidentally offend someone by not knowing the local customs and a guy I met told me, Because you’re asking that, you won’t. And while there were definitely times where I made a faux paus - for example I forgot to take my shoes off before going inside once - people are very polite about it and quite understanding that things are different where you come from.
I look at a language barrier as a challenge. Many people speak a little English and understanding them really depends on how well you can parse accents and broken English. As far as communicating yourself, that is also an interesting game of being as brief and simple as possible; speaking with an eloquent tongue won’t get you very far. Your internal thesaurus is also challenged because when they don’t know a word, you must simply come up with another. Gesticulating was also incredibly helpful. It doesn’t work for actual conversation, but it’s usually enough to get your question answered. Acting out bathroom is always good for a laugh.
And of course, you can’t beat actually learning the language if you plan to be somewhere for a while. I ended up only learning the absolute basics: hello, goodbye and thank you. I could have done better.
Speaking of directions, I should mention essential travel apps.
I started writing this and realized it deserved it’s own article which I wrote first, so check that out.
Should I get a SIM card?
Initially I got one in Thailand but quickly decided that I didn’t want data for a few reasons:
- It’s nice to just BE. You’re traveling to have new and different experiences, so maybe try disconnecting? It forces you to talk to people and you gain perspective on just how amazingly distractive phones are. It affected me so much that I didn’t get a data plan for my phone for a couple months after returning.
- I made the subtle change from always connected to occasionally connected. I would get wifi and use it for what I needed - research, communication, work - and then I would disconnect again. I think it’s a more peaceful way to be if your situation allows it.
- It’s more challenging and forces you to pay more attention to your surroundings. There is often a lot of problem-solving each day and I enjoy that process (well, most of the time).
I think I'm more comfortable being alone than most people but did you ever get lonely by yourself?
The worst of it was right in the beginning, about 2.5 weeks into the trip. Kiesha had flown from Krabi to Chiang Mai and I followed a few days later as I was still enjoying myself and new friends on Koh Lanta. When I got there we met up for lunch and she told me a guy was surprise flying out there to see her for eight days so suddenly I was alone for the first time on the trip. It’s hard for me to be ‘on’ all the time, meeting new people every day so I got a hotel room for a week at a discounted price. Turns out, that was WAY too much time and I had a bit of a meltdown in that week. Alone with my thoughts for the first extended time I wondered what the hell I was doing out there. I was cooped up in my room far too much. Eventually I wrote a journal entry about how angry I was with myself. The gist of it was, You flew to the other side of the world to have an indefinite trip in new countries so you could watch Breaking Bad in a hotel room? What the fuck, man? I felt very lost. When that week was up - during which I had a scooter and went and did things, but I was undoubtedly squandering my time - I was starved to meet people, found a hostel and immediately started having fun. And for the most part that didn’t let up for the rest of the trip.
So yes, that week was by far the most I was alone, but it was also self-chosen and something that I needed to go through and work through. Others may not, but I think the feeling of “What am I doing out here?” is a common one. Anyway, I was alone when I felt like being alone and I met people when I wanted to. It’s really no different than being home.
Should I bring my iPad or laptop?
I decided to not bring my Macbook Pro for three reasons:
- It’s expensive and thus a travesty if stolen or destroyed
- It’s heavy: 5.6 pounds
- It’s big: 14.35” x 9.82”
So I looked around at Chromebooks because it solved all of those: They are cheap, lightweight and small. I decided on the Asus C201 for $160 (at the time) which was 11.3” x 7.6” and 2 pounds. However, I can’t say I recommend that specific product. I had to return the first one to Amazon because the camera didn’t work, then the second one froze up often, which doesn’t seem to be uncommon from the number of views and comments my video got. That said, it could have been particular to that model and I’m generally for Chromebooks. An iPad would be great, I just couldn’t justify the price tag.
Aside from going on adventure tours, what is day to day life like living in hostels?
They’re all different, depending on where you are and what draws people to that area. There is no real answer to this, you have to see for yourself!
Also, what is the best way to access your money?
This is a great question. ATM fees suck and certain countries like Vietnam have a per-day limit at most ATMs of 2,000,000 Dong which is about $89 as of May 2016. Of course, $89 goes much further in Vietnam than in the States but it’s still annoying, especially if you are doing a fair amount of tourist things like getting custom clothes made in Hoi Ann (highly recommended) or going on day trips.
The best way I found around this was to sign up for a Schwab Bank High Yield Investor Checking Account. That sounds all fancy and tied to the stock market but no, you just need to sign up and deposit money. It’s a fair amount of red tape but it’s worth it for this phrase alone: Unlimited fee rebates from any ATM worldwide. Since I withdrew so many times my two months in Vietnam I didn’t go in to verify every transaction but I did see an amount refunded at the end of each month.
The only caveat here is that you must sign up for an account before leaving the US. I tried to apply while overseas and got really far along in the process - until my account was flagged for a foreign IP address. Thanks PATRIOT ACT. Seriously. Certain financial affairs are restricted because of the PATRIOT ACT, such as opening a US-based financial account from overseas. So I had my parents open an account and they mailed me their card. There’s always a workaround!
Anyway, that wraps up the questions. I hope this helps someone over the line when it comes to the idea of traveling internationally. I will end by repeating my earlier advice to Evelyn:
You should definitely go, and alone. You'll be fine and you won’t regret it. Buy the ticket, take the ride.