Here’s the back story behind the story.
I loved traveling on the super-cheap in my 20s. Back then, I would stuff my meager belongings into a single backpack, move around Southeast Asia for weeks, and stay in budget hostels and dormitories. But I never had the chance to write about my solo travels. I was covering technology and business then, and opportunities to get into a new beat don’t come up often.
A former colleague gave me one such opportunity back in 2012 or 2013. He commissioned a piece on backpacking and budget travel; I can’t remember now if it was for a brand publication or travel magazine. We didn’t have any strict guidelines, so I ended up sending copy that ran too long and images begging to be Photoshopped.
Then it went to the writing industry’s equivalent of film’s “development hell.” Honestly, I never thought it would see print or get page views ever again.
In April 2014, my colleague asked if he can run my copy on UNO‘s travel issue. Of course, I said yes. This time around, the article length was just right. And after one minor edit, it was ready for print.
I took all those dark photos, except for that one of me taken at Taipei 101. And all travel tips can be applied to non-Asia trips as well.
Backpacking Around Asia: The Dos and Don’ts
The wanderlust’s guide to traveling smart and safe and making the most of every adventure
Words and photos by KC Calpo
As cliché as it sounds, travel really tests your limits and makes you grow in ways that normal life can’t provide. And while it’s more fun in the Philippines, low-budget visits to our Asian neighbors can be just as awesome.
But backpacking isn’t as simple as stuffing the bare essentials into a bag and heading out the door. Some things have to be done before you leave and while you’re en route. This checklist (which is also applicable for destinations beyond Asia) will make sure you come home alive, without a busted budget, with countless stories to tell, and have extra motivation for your next trip.
Hanging out at the 89th floor of one of the tallest buildings in the world.
Plan and book ahead
Setting your departure date a few months ahead allows you to do several things. The most obvious one is that you can snag low rates and kick-ass airfare promos through local budget carriers like Cebu Pacific and Air Asia Philippines, as well as foreign carriers like Tiger Airways and Jetstar.
The next benefit of getting it all done in advance is that you’ll have enough time to save up, file your vacation leave, prepare the necessary travel documents, get travel insurance, and get vaccines (if you’re heading to high-risk areas).
Booking ahead (and reconfirming your booking) is essential in some Asian countries, like Myanmar. Arrival numbers in Myanmar are going up. However, the number of establishments catering to tourists (particularly for accommodations, leisure and transport) are still limited. Book well in advance for tourist hotspots like Yangon, Bagan and Mandalay; and know that e-mailing the Reservations Desk isn’t enough. Call the listed numbers ahead of your arrival date or once you get there, as hostels and hotels can get filled up quickly, especially in high season. I also suggest making copies of all your e-mail correspondences, and having a back-up hostel in mind.
Do extensive research… and ask a lot of questions
Get as much information as you can on the places you’re going to! It will help you make a better itinerary, scout for good city/provincial tours, finalize your budget, get good deals, and determine the best transport routes, among other things. Being well-informed would also help you avoid getting scammed, paying too much for things, or just being utterly clueless in a foreign city.
Read guidebooks from reliable sources like Lonely Planet and Frommer’s, and check out their user forums. National Geographic also produces handy online city guides — its Vietnam guidebook served me well during my stay in Saigon. I also refer to the travel blogs run by Ivan Henares, Nina Fuentes and Oggie Ramos; in fact, it was Oggie’s series of blog entries on Myanmar in 2009 that made me want to go there, too! (I eventually made it there two years later.) Other great online resources are SEA Backpacker Magazine, Travelfish, and Travellerspoint.
For accommodations, Hostelworld and Hostels.com have long lists of worthwhile options. You can book your rooms through those sites to make things easier. You can also do your own search for good hostels, B&Bs and inns; and contact the administrators and managers directly for any questions you may have. Sometimes, talking to the hostel personnel directly would get you better rates.
Having a plan (or Plans B, C, or even D if you’re that paranoid) is good, but remember that you should also be flexible at times. Stray from the itinerary once in a while, and go with the flow. Sometimes that’s more rewarding than simply checking items off your travel to-do list.
Pay for good gear and check-in luggage
Everything may fit into one bag at first, but all tourists (even those who pack real light) will pick up different items as they go along, and “a few” can quickly become a whole damn lot. Carrying that expanding backpack through airports and long commutes would be hell on your back. Shell out for gear specifically made for backpacking and outdoor activities, and include check-in luggage during flight bookings, especially for the last couple of trips.
Case in point: I left Manila back in early October with a single shoulder bag and a small Jansport backpack containing a week’s worth of supplies weighing 5kg, but came home in early November with that same backpack weighing around 15kg; I really thought the seams were going to give at any moment. Add to those two an extra large eco bag filled with items that can’t fit in the backpack anymore — like 2kg of Vietnamese coffee. Yeah, things got real heavy real fast, and it was difficult to move around while carrying all of them and moving through airports.
The more than 1,000 monks living and studying at Maha Ganayon Kyaung (Maha Ganayon Monastery) line up for breakfast at 10:30AM. This would be their last meal of the day.
Get the all-clear
I’m not just talking about having your vacation leave approved or acquiring that all-important visa/transit visa. Backpackers with problems like hypertension need to get a thorough checkup before leaving; getting treated abroad for even mild medical cases can be a hassle, and even pricey at times. I also suggest getting a medical certificate if you’re bringing pills that go beyond the quota stated on your prescription. This would save you from possible trouble at the Immigration and Customs counters.
Stop by the bank
Make sure your ATM and credit cards can be used overseas! Many travelers forget to check their ATM card’s access limits (local only or local/international) and daily withdrawal limit and foreign currency equivalent, or fail to keep track of the transactions they do with their plastic. Ask your bank to raise your withdrawal and credit card limits so you don’t get hassled while traveling. Some banks require customers to get approval from their home branch and wait several weeks, so remember to do this in advance!
Spread your wealth
Having a huge wad of cash (and putting that big boy in your wallet) is a very bad idea! Distribute that paper and plastic among several wallets, pouches and pockets. I even know someone who puts a few bills in his shoes. (Duuuude.)
Better yet, withdraw a reasonable amount of cash pre-departure, then look for the best exchange rates at different forex booths abroad. Withdraw cash from foreign banks only when needed, and use credit/debit cards sparingly. The logic here is that if ever something bad happens — for example, you get scammed or robbed, which I hope would never happen to you — you still have money for the rest of your trip, or have the means to acquire emergency funds.
The only country I’ve been to (so far) that’s an exception to this rule is Myanmar. There are no international ATMs there; and your dollars have to be new and crisp so that establishments will accept them or change them to kyats. Basically, if you run out of money in Myanmar, you’ll have to look for the few Western establishments that accept credit cards (but with a huge markup), or go all the way back to Bangkok or other entry points for extra funds. This will change in time, but for now, it’s cold, hard cash in Myanmar.
Speaking of scams and robberies… Never ever let your guard down!
Beware of thieves, pickpockets and scammers — especially at airports and taxi lines, in popular tourist sites, and within famed (or infamous?) backpacker ghettos like Bangkok’s Khao San Road or Saigon’s Pham Ngu Lao. Tourist police are stationed in those areas, but you should never be complacent. Do your research, ask a lot of questions, always watch the people around you, and keep your belongings on your person at all times. Don’t go off with someone who offers you a tour or an alternative destination for an unbelievably low price. Remember: if it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is!
Also, never ever go for the first available option. I completely forgot about my host’s advice to take only Vinasun or Mai Linh taxis in Saigon, and was charged VND600,000 (₱1,000+) for a taxi ride from Tan Son Nhat airport to my destination. The driver came up to me just outside the departure area, and I was too tired and dazed to remember what I was previously told. That was downright stupid. Then again, it could’ve been much worse.
Cloudy morning at the most visited place in Cambodia.
Be like the locals. (Or live amongst them!)
Guidebooks and tips from travel blogs are valuable, but nothing compares to locals’ insight and experience. They know the shortest routes, which places aren’t overrun by noisy and camera-wielding tourists, what activities provide unique experiences, where to get cheap and delicious food and booze, and where to buy fairly priced souvenirs.
If you’re the outgoing and adventurous type, ditch your hostel(s) and go for homestays or rentals! Check out Airbnb and Roomorama for the available (and affordable) rooms and apartments in your destination. Renters often spend time with their guests, take them around, and give them inside info on their city and the neighboring areas. My host family in Saigon truly treated me like I was part of the family, and gave me a perspective that most tourists will never have. Couchsurfing is also a good option for short-term stays, and people to hang out with while you’re in town.
Aside from the locals, you should always get to know your fellow travelers. It doesn’t just help you survive the entire journey (especially if you’re a solo backpacker) by having someone to relate to; it can also lead you to new directions and make lasting connections. It’s certainly more fun going places with people in the same boat as you!
Be mindful of traditions, norms and laws
Awareness of each country’s culture, religious norms, traditions and laws will go a long way. It shows your host(s) and the locals you meet that you took the time to know more about the place they call home, and that you didn’t just go there to take photos, foodtrip and get wasted.
Expect to go barefoot in many places around Asia, bow to people as a sign of greeting or gratitude, and see a strong emphasis on families and clans, among other cultural traits. Wear decent clothing when visiting religious sites; I’ve seen people being asked to wear sarongs, longyi and scarves to cover up. Alms are also given to monks and bhikkhuni. In some areas (e.g., Myanmar), women are not commonly seen at “beer stations,” and homestays are actually prohibited by law.
Also, “losing face” is a very serious thing; never humiliate, disrespect or fight with the locals. Simply put, you have to respect your destination and the people in it.
Know where to go in case of emergencies
Your map and itinerary should be marked with the location of the nearest banks, money changers, medical facilities (hospitals and small neighborhood clinics), police stations, and the Philippine Embassy, in case shit really hits the fan.
The famous Reclining Buddha, found inside the largest and oldest wat in the city of Bangkok.
Use public transport routes to map out your itinerary
This tip’s particularly useful in places with fully developed transport systems such as Hong Kong, Japan, Taipei, Singapore, and Bangkok. Train-hopping will cost much less than taking taxis, and is (relatively) less stressful than riding on buses. And obviously, getting on a train would take you from Point A to Point B much faster. Use the metro system to explore your city’s different areas. For example, in Taipei, we used one day to visit popular venues along the Red Line, then another day for the places along the Blue Line.
Some Asian cities also make trains a more viable option for tourists. Taipei has Taipei Pass, which comes with a small city guidebook and is sold in all of its train stations (we got a three-day Taipei Pass from the Ximen Station), and you can get a one-day pass at any Bangkok MTS station. Hong Kong’s MTR system has a tourist products line, with four cards to choose from. There’s also the Singapore Tourist Pass, which is valid for all citywide transport systems.
(Note: If your destination doesn’t have a lot of public transport modes available, I suggest hiring a driver for the duration of your stay. It’ll still cost you much less than a straight-up guided tour from tour companies. Your hired driver can help you fix your itinerary and make suggestions for leisure activities and food/drinks. Get a tuk-tuk or moto driver in Siem Reap, a taxi/truck/trishaw driver in Mandalay, and a tour guide with his own moto in Ngapali Beach.)
Be a Boy or Girl Scout
Asia can be a very hot and humid place, and not just in the summer months. Even if you choose to visit during the so-called “colder” months, it can still be tough for those who aren’t in good shape. Always have a bottle (or two) of water on hand, as well as an extra shirt, sunblock and face towel. Those with prescribed medication should also have a day’s worth of stock with them. ⦾