Six months of backpacking Southeast Asia: what we have learned

Backpacking SE Asia for six months went by in a flash compared to the nine months of preparation.

Here are some musings and truths we have discovered along the way.  It has been quite the learning experience.

LESS IS MORE: Pick less countries or destinations to explore than you originally think.  This goes for a short or long trip.

We naively put together a list of 20 countries to visit in 12-15 months.  It didn’t seem like we were overextending ourselves.  How many have we seen in 6 months?  FIVE.  Would I change that?  Not for a second.  In fact, I could have easily spent more time in each country we have been to.  We still only touch the tip of the iceberg, so I can’t imagine going much faster.  Plus, it takes a lot more energy and money to travel faster.

So you end up with more travel days, less time to see sights, no time to immerse yourself in the culture and you are most likely exhausted.  We have found a bit of a balance and prefer to stay in each location at least 4 days.  But for every 2-3 moves, we commit to at least a week in one area now.  It’s so much nicer.  And sometimes on a long journey such as this one, staying put for two weeks or a month somewhere will drastically cut down on travel burnout.  Our rejuvenation time in Bangkok was wonderful.

EASE OF TRAVEL: It’s not as hard to get around as you think it will be.

Is it easy all the time?  No.  Have we been dropped off on the middle of a highway miles outside of the city we were aiming for?  Yes.  (Ayutthaya, I’m looking at you.)  Have we been ripped off by a few cab drivers?  Also yes.  (always make sure they use the meter!)  It just takes some pre-planning and commonsense.  We always have reservations for a hotel or guesthouse in advance because we don’t want to show up to an area and wander around with our packs and ever increasing collection of smaller bags. Agoda has been a lifesaver in Asia for booking at reputable places.

Besides flights, we book most other transportation through our accommodation.  They know how to navigate the local transport way better than you.  We have never had a glitch, and most often they will even arrange a ride to the station if you need it.  Pack stuff in the same spot every time and it will save you the worry of losing things.  Especially on travel days, it pays to know exactly where the passports, earbuds, the kindle and snacks are.

PATIENCE is a virtue.  This is always true, but even more so when dealing with transportation in foreign countries.

Although easy to get your transportation booked, sometimes the communication when you arrive at said bus or ferry station is not the best.  Pay attention to boarding calls and move fast or risk the wrath of the porter.  Buses will be late, ferries will be overbooked, they will cram twenty people into a minivan.

We once hailed a bus on the side of the road in the Philippines.  The first one passed us because it was too full.  The second one stopped and asked if we would stand.  We happily obliged while they strapped our luggage somewhere out of sight.  We stood body to body for 45 minutes.  They actually picked up more people after us.  Babies were just handed down the line to an open elder’s lap.  No one seemed phased so we just took some deep breaths and went along with it.

If you plan for a four hour travel day, it will most likely be eight.

Hence having less travel days overall to maximize experience.  Night buses, while cheap and convenient, can be scary and often you don’t get the rest you think you will anyway.


I especially do when waiting in line for the ladies room, boarding a sleeper bus and sitting on the ubiquitous stools while eating street food.  Or when shopping.  The first time a woman pulled out a XXXL for me I wanted to die.  But hey, that’s the size I wear here.  It’s a land for smaller people.  Everything is tinier.

OUTDOOR CLEANUP: People are obsessed with sweeping….

but will ignore a huge pile of garbage a foot away.  I don’t get it.  All that effort to sweep up leaves and flower blossoms, but by all means, leave the plastic bags, styrofoam containers and other various trash lying on the ground.  This is worse in some countries than others and it is always hard to see.  After months we aren’t as phased by it as when we first arrived, but it is still heartbreaking.

We ran out of gas a few weeks ago and someone brought us a plastic liter bottle to fill us up.  After emptying it he just threw it over the side of the highway (we were on a gorgeous mountain pass).  I couldn’t believe it.  Unfortunately, education in this respect has a long way to go.

MENUS have the best typos!

If I had a nickel for every misspelled English word on a menu I have seen in the last six months I would be able to travel for quite some time.  It is endearing and funny.  Oftentimes we will see something spelled two or three different ways on one menu.  I truly appreciate how complex English is seeing various grammar mistakes every day.  It’s a screwy language.

TRAVEL IS TIRING, but we still love it.

Besides the endless planning, booking and moving from place to place, you will have something to do almost every day and you feel a bit guilty at first when you miss stuff.  It’s hard to go from that mentality of a two week trip where you cram everything in, to a more relaxed pace where you realize you won’t see everything everywhere.  When you are OCD like me, it’s something that is hard to let go.

Earlier this week for example, I wanted to sleep in, which we did.  But then it rained cats and dogs all afternoon and I kept cursing myself for not getting up early to tour another cave.  Because I felt like the day was a waste.  You have to give yourself some slack, because it’s real life and you are bound to get tired.  I never thought badly about having a lazy weekend at home watching movies and slothing around yet it seems almost inappropriate here because it’s the chance of a lifetime to even be able to take this trip.

Unfortunately, you can’t just go, go, go.

Also, there are things you don’t think about at first that take up precious time – like charging all the devices, or downloading and organizing the thousands of photos you took and then saving them to three different places so you don’t lose them.  It may take a week to upload stuff to Dropbox given the wifi connection you have.  Handwashing laundry and finding a spot for stuff to dry is another mundane weekly task (you get really creative).

CLOSENESS is extreme with your travel companion.

Todd and I have been together for almost 14 years.  But we have never lived in such a small area and been together nonstop for such a long period of time.  We now have our own language for things, probably much like twin speak.  Bowel movements become a running joke.  You can’t take it all too seriously or you may kill one another.

You will get in ridiculous arguments about stupid stuff: just last week we heard a couple in the room next to us freak out over a pillow.  And we looked at each other and laughed because we haven’t gotten in a fight about something that dumb (yet…).  We laugh a lot more overall I think.  Thank god we both have a sense of humor.

THE MORE YOU SEE, the more you want to see.  A few last thoughts.

It is awesome to be exposed to other cultures.  The more I see of the world the less afraid I am because for the most part people are friendly and open and want to teach you about them and learn about you.  I am more in awe of mother nature now, can decipher between different types of temples by the architecture and have almost mastered chopsticks.

I REALLY love the beach life and have seen more tropical fish than I ever thought I would.  My craving for pizza has not gone away even though the food here is on another level.  I am not afraid of caves anymore.  No matter what country, everyone answers their cellphones by saying hello in English.  Mountain passes will continue to be one of my favorite things in the world, now followed by the greenest of green rice paddies.

The bugs aren’t as bad as you think (except fire ants!!) and you won’t die from eating cut fruit or fresh vegetables.

Sunsets, no matter where in the world, are going to be stunning.  I have sweated out of areas I didn’t know produced sweat.  Local guides are funny and a wealth of information and I don’t enjoy large tours, not that I thought I would.  Hot dogs are everywhere here and I now think of them as an Asian rather than an American food: we have seen them wrapped in sweet pastries, as a pizza topping, grilled on skewers and carved into the shape of a turtle (I still despise them).

Riding on the back of a motorbike is no longer terrifying although I really should learn how to drive one on my own.

I understand a bit more about different religions and regional politics where we have visited which has opened my eyes to beautiful things but also atrocities that have occurred.

Change and the unknown can be wonderful if you let them be. Remember to stay in the present and enjoy all the little things!

What are some tips you have learned from backpacking in SE Asia? Leave a comment below!


What we learned from backpacking SE Asia for six months. Quirks, tips and travel reflections.

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  • Reply Joan Anraku Harmony May 14, 2017 at 2:52 am

    We appreciate your thoughtful and creative way of sharing your experiences–thank you for your generosity!

  • Reply Marisa Beauchemin May 14, 2017 at 8:18 am

    Beautiful! Such an amazing journey! It’s cool to hear the tips, because some of them I would never dream about. Enjoy!

  • Reply Elizabeth Minger May 19, 2017 at 8:22 am

    Glad you are doing this traveling for me. I’m seeing lots of sights, tasting lots of food through you, and learning lots of interesting things. Thanks Mairin & Todd 🙂

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