Warmly Welcomed in Bangkok

Like most major cities I’ve been to around the world, Bangkok is a little overwhelming. The strong sun mixed with the heat and humidity make it difficult to spend the entire day outside. The spectacular temples are filled with tourists speaking every language you could imagine. And in the background of it all, you can hear the constant rumble of motorcycles and tuk tuks in the endless traffic of the city.

But despite the mayhem, it is possible to find moments of reprieve from the chaos. I’d like to share the stories of a few sweet human beings that have crossed my path this week amongst the clamor and chaos of Bangkok.

Friday was my first full day in the city and I wasn’t quite over the jet lag of my journey. I wearily ventured out into the heat and headed to Wat Pho, Temple of the Reclining Buddha. This place is truly impressive. At 150 feet in length, the image of Buddha is one of the largest in the world. While waiting in line to take my picture next to this beauty, I overheard a conversation in Spanish being had by the guy in front of me in line with the guy in back of me. Realizing that they were together, I offered (in Spanish) for the guy behind me to cut in front, and they were both immediately impressed and confused as to why I spoke Spanish so well. Their other 2 friends quickly joined the conversation and suddenly I had 4 friends from Spain to spend the afternoon with. We left the temple and went to find some street food at a market for lunch before wandering around the neighborhood together. These guys are documenting their trip on YouTube, and you can see Bangkok for yourself (and hear me speak a little Spanish) in this cool video they made. I was able to meet up with them again in Chiang Mai a few days later for lots more laughs before they moved on to the South of Thailand.

On Saturday I met 3 girls from China at my hostel. We went to dinner together and had a great time talking about cultural differences between China and the US. They were impressed with my ability to use chopsticks, and I was impressed that babies in China know how to use them. They were adorable and I really enjoyed our cute photo shoot together before I headed out to a different hostel the next morning.

Monday was by far the most special day I had in this city. After a hectic morning spent in taxis between the train station and the bus station trying to organize how I would get to Chiang Mai on Wednesday, I was excited to spend some time with my friend Larry (who I haven’t seen since college) and his girlfriend Alix who were in Bangkok for a short layover before heading to Myanmar. Our plan was to visit “The Green Lung” of Bangkok which required a 1 hour water taxi down the Chao Phraya River, however, none of the piers seemed to have any available options. Since the ticket saleswomen we asked spoke limited English, and our Thai vocabulary consists of hello, thank you and no thank you, we decided to scratch that plan and get Thai massages instead. These are famous for being a little intense, but I had no idea it involved a small Thai woman digging her elbows into my back, standing on my legs while pulling my arms, and twisting me all around until my entire back cracked. It sounds painful but it was actually quite nice. We ate some delicious dinner at a street food stall and drank some refreshing Thai tea before meandering back towards my hostel.

On our way we passed a brand new hostel with a free art gallery in the entry way. We wandered in and ended up touring the place and hanging out in the lobby with the guy working there. A short time later, the hostel’s only 4 guests visiting from Pakistan came downstairs to join our conversation, and we spent the next 5 hours learning about each other’s cultures, and exchanging ideas of how much traveling truly expands your horizons about the world. I’m not sure how many Americans they had met before, but they kept saying how impressed they were with how kind and friendly we were. It’s safe to say that the US gets as unrealistic of a reputation in Pakistan as Pakistan gets in the US. These guys made me so excited to visit Pakistan someday, and we ended the night by learning some traditional Pakistani and Thai dances. This kind of evening is my absolute favorite way to pass time while traveling and is the #1 reason why I continue exploring new places.

Just before leaving Bangkok on Wednesday, I was able to meet up with Melissa (my brother’s girlfriend’s twin sister) and her husband Phil who were visiting Thailand for their honeymoon. At this point I was very tired of the madness and smog of Bangkok so we went to the Jim Thompson house, a nice break from the chaos in a garden oasis in the middle of the city. Jim was an American expat that became known for his involvement in the silk trade in Thailand. His beautiful house is now a museum and an awesome way to spend an afternoon. And I got to crash a honeymoon, which feels like something I should cross off my bucket list 🙂

Once again, traveling has proved to me that the best gifts that come from a trip like this cannot be purchased. They are those sweet moments shared with strangers who become friends. These experiences overcome all the barriers that language, culture, and distance attempt to use to divide us, and they always leave me hungry for more.

So What’s in my Backpack?

When I was in Colombia a very sweet woman leading a hike in Monguí asked me: “what’s the one thing that all backpackers have in common – something that I can see just by looking at them?” I immediately had the image in my mind. Someone who’s wearing two backpacks – one on their back about the size of their torso and a smaller one in front. And in these two small receptacles is everything they find valuable and necessary for the duration of their wandering.

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January 7, 2018 – Ready to go! (Not pictured: 20 liter Osprey daypack)

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March 25, 2017 – very nervous, unsure of what the heck I was doing, but at least I was packed!

I’ll be the first to say that packing for 3 months in two small bags can be very daunting at first. Everything you need? In a backpack?!? But once you accept the fact that humans do not need as many things as we are lead to believe, and that it is okay to wear the same clothes multiple days in a row (come on, everybody’s doing it!), you come to realize that you really don’t need that much stuff to survive.

So what’s in my little green backpack anyway? The contents varied slightly between my two trips, based a little bit on culture but mostly on climate. In South America I started on the hot and humid Caribbean coast of Colombia where I basically spent two weeks in a bathing suit and a pair of shorts. By the end of the trip I was south of the equator, in the high altitude dessert and mountains, during the winter. Which means I was wearing multiple layers and still had to buy Alpaca wool gloves, hats, and scarves. Packing for Southeast Asia proved a bit easier because I’m only going to be experiencing one climate – hot and humid, although there will be cooler nights in the more mountainous regions in northern Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam. As I write this, however, it’s currently 93 degrees with 68% humidity in Bangkok.

So here is a list of everything that I currently have in my favorite green backpack for 3 months in Southeast Asia. May it inspire you to downsize your wardrobe and pack your own backpack for an unforgettable adventure!

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Packing for Southeast Asia, January-April 2018

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Packing for South America, March-June 2017

Backpacks, etc.

Bottom right: 48 liter Osprey Kestrel backpack – my main squeeze

Top right: 20 liter Osprey Tempest daypack – perfect for short overnight trips

Bottom middle: 8 liter Patagonia Atom Slim Bag – I affectionately refer to this bag as the magic backpack because everytime I think it’s full I somehow manage to squeeze something else in there. It’s perfect for city life and can easily fit anything I need for an afternoon out (including a 1 liter Nalgene water bottle)

Bottom left: “Pack-It Compression Bag” by Eagle Creek – this is a vacuum sealed bag that helps store heavier clothes and takes up less space (fits the two small piles shown in the top left corner)

REI Expandable Packing Cubes: these are absolutely essential for backpack organization. I also recommend small pouches to keep your electronics (chargers, headphones) and extras organized.

Clothes:*

  • 1 maxi skirt
  • 1 maxi dress
  • 1 pair of leggings (for chilly overnight bus rides and the crisp mountain air)
  • 1 pair of yoga capris
  • 2 pairs of athletic shorts
  • 1 lightweight long sleeve
  • 1 SmartWool long sleeve pullover
  • 1 Patagonia sweatshirt
  • 2 short sleeve shirts
  • 4 tank tops
  • 1 Buff (www.buffwear.com)
  • 1 Bathing suit
  • 1 Rain coat
  • 4 pairs of socks (2 hiking socks and 2 regular)
  • Underwear/bras: quantity depends on personal preference and how often you want to pay for laundry

*It’s important to consider cultural factors for the regions of the world you’ll be visiting. Many Asian countries tend to require more modest dress, especially when entering temples and sacred sites. For females this means covering your knees, ankles, and shoulders out of respect for the culture. This definitely influenced what made the cut for my wardrobe on this trip (hence the maxi skirt and dress). In South America, I substituted these items for a pair of jeans and a pair of jean shorts, which occupied the same amount of space in my bag.

Footwear

  • Hiking sneakers: I highly recommend trail runners. They’re lightweight and very durable, and also don’t look super hiker-y when walking through a city. The one downside to my Saucony Trail Runners is that they’re not waterproof (though they do dry unexpectedly quickly).
  • Chacos: although not the most attractive shoe, they’re very practical for cities, mountains, and beaches as they dry quickly and offer lots of support for long days of walking.
  • Flip flops: for showering and beachwear
  • Sanuk flip flops (not pictured): a last minute purchase before leaving the US, and a very comfortable/cute option for nighttime and city life

Toiletries: Keep in mind that you can purchase whatever you need in the places you visit. From clothing to shampoo, soap, and toothpaste, anything and everything you can imagine is also available wherever you may find yourself, so bring just enough to get you through the first few days. In Asia, for example, you can find a 7-Eleven on just about every street corner. With that being said, if you absolutely, without question, must havea particular brand of something, you may want to bring a sufficient amount (for me, my one necessity is my face wash and moisturizer).

  • Soap
  • Shampoo and conditioner
  • Face wash and moisturizer
  • Contact solution (and 3 months of contacts)
  • Deodorant
  • Sunscreen
  • Toothbrush, toothpaste, floss
  • Chapstick (with SPF!)
  • Glasses
  • Hairbrush

Med Kit: It’s definitely important to have some essentials with you just in case, but as similarly stated above, everything you could imagine ever needing is available to you during your travels.

  • Vaccination list: if you ever need to visit a doctor abroad, they’ll probably ask you for this in order to illuminate certain causes for potential illness
  • Ibuprofen
  • Bandaids
  • Hydrocortisone (for mosquito bites) and mosquito repellant
  • Anti-histamine: if you’re like me, you never know when allergies may strike
  • Traveler’s diarrhea meds: it’s a real and common thing, be prepared!
  • Antibacterial gel
  • Tissues/ toilet paper: you won’t find it everywhere

Technology

  • iPhone
  • iPad
  • Portable charger
  • Chargers (and adapters depending on where you’re going)
  • Headphones and headphone splitters (great for making friends on long bus rides)

Important Documents

  • Passport and photocopies
  • Extra passport photos (sometimes needed for visas issued on arrival to certain countries)
  • Printed address of your first accommodation (to show immigration and to easily ask for help finding it)
  • Proof of Traveler’s Health Insurance: I prefer to use the GeoBlue Voyager Essential plan whenever I travel – it’s comprehensive and affordable
  • Local currency for your first destination (equivalent to approximately $100USD). I highly recommend trying to purchase some from your bank before you leave home as exchange rates at the airport and other currency exchange points can be very high. Keep in mind it sometimes takes a week or so for your bank to order foreign currency.

Extras

  • Yoga mat: mine is the Manduka Eko Superlite – very lightweight and travel friendly
  • Towel: I love my Turkish towel, it drys very fast and is quite compact
  • 1 liter Nalgene
  • TSA Approved locks (for hostel lockers, and they’re also very useful for your small bag on overnight buses)
  • Sunglasses
  • Hat
  • Sea to Summit Waterproof Bag for electronics
  • Headlamp
  • Spork (I’ve rarely used it but when camping or on an overnight bus it comes in handy)
  • RFID Wallet: prevents your cards and identification form being scanned
  • Neck pillow: an absolute must for overnight buses and long plane rides
  • Ear plugs: a backpacker’s best friend in a 10 person hostel dorm
  • Ziplock bags (large and small): their uses are numerous and their value is priceless
  • Playing cards: it’s amazing how much fun international card games over beers can be!
  • Notebook and pens: call me old fashioned, but sometimes you just need to write things down

Keeping things organized in your backpack is my #1 piece of advice. Believe me – if it’s the middle of the night or early in the morning and you need something from your bag, the last thing you want to do is be moving all your crap around trying to find your toothbrush while your dorm mates are sleeping. I’ve been the person looking and the person awoken by someone else and trust me, neither is fun. This is why I love packing cubes and smaller compartments so much.

It’s also important not to pack your bag to the brim. Keep in mind you have to carry this everywhere, so extra ounces add up quick. It’s also nice to have a little space for things you pick up along the way, and to be able to bring home some souvenirs.

Back to Backpacking: How to Plan for a Long-Term Adventure Abroad

I arrived in Bangkok last week for another 3 months of backpacking – this time around Southeast Asia. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I’m out to complete my goal of visiting 30 countries before I’m 30. Thailand is number 26 and my hope is to visit Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Malaysia before heading home to celebrate my 30th at home this spring.

Many friends and family have asked me what goes into planning something like this, so I thought I’d share some of the top things to consider before hitting the road.

To put it simply, there’s A LOT to think about. It is not a 3 month vacation at an all-inclusive resort where your every concern is considered and taken care of. This is you and your backpack full of everything you’ll need (stay tuned for another post about what’s in my backpack). For starters, you obviously need a passport, and you need to make sure it’s valid for at least 6 months after your return date to your home country with enough blank pages for required visas and entry/exit stamps. Then there are said visas to plan for which can be very stressful. Each country has their own specific requirements which often differ depending on your nationality. There’s a lot of conflicting information on the internet about visa requirements and it can be tricky to navigate. Luckily for this trip, the visas I need to apply for can be done at the airport on arrival (with a few minor exceptions).

One of the most stressful topics of research and preparation in my opinion are vaccines. First of all, I have a pretty bare bones health insurance at home in the US, so preventative vaccines for diseases that aren’t a concern in the US are definitely not covered – and they can be VERY expensive. This also means that it is unlikely your PCP carries them, making it necessary to visit a travel clinic. There are vaccines that are absolutely necessary in some parts of the world (Yellow Fever, Typhoid, and Hepatitis A&B for example) and others that are strongly suggested (such as Rabies, anti-Malaria pills, and Japanese Encephalitis) by the Center for Disease Control and the World Health Organization. Information on vaccines varies widely when reading blogs and forums among the backpacker community. Some people are quite relaxed when it comes to the suggested ones and others like to have all their bases covered just in case. I tend to err on the side of “better safe than sorry” but that means that I was looking at paying $1,000 – that’s right…one THOUSAND! – for a Japanese Encephalitis vaccine in the US. This is a mosquito-borne disease with side effects that include permanent neurological damage or death, but the likelihood of contracting it is very low. So understandably I went back and forth about this in my head for weeks…until I found out that the same vaccine costs $15 in Thailand. Granted it does take a few weeks for the incubation period to pass, but with such a low risk of contracting the disease anyway, I was absolutely sold on the idea of getting the vaccine abroad. In fact, I highly recommend this option. I had a very pleasant experience at a wonderful travel clinic in Bangkok that looked exactly like the one I visited at home. Now I don’t need to panic about possible paralysis every time I get a mosquito bite, and that $985 can be spent on fully financing an entire month of my travels. I also picked up some malaria medication at the clinic for a fraction of the cost that I would’ve paid in the US.

Speaking of finances, it is important to set a realistic budget for a trip of this nature, and to be quite strict to sticking with it. Backpackers choose to travel in the developing world because you can comfortably survive on $25-35 USD per day. I always recommend finding a credit card that does not charge fees for foreign transactions, and that incorporates a great points structure that can be redeemed for travel purchases. My personal preference is the Capital One Venture card and Capital One 360 debit card. It’s important to notify your bank that you’ll be traveling internationally so they don’t block your card from seemingly fraudulent charges.

Despite the aforementioned planning, as well as 10 years of travel experience under my belt, I was quite surprised to observe how nervous I was before leaving for Thailand. I’ve been preparing for this trip for months, and since I’ve done something very similar in South America, I would have thought that jumping back in would be a breeze. I was genuinely surprised to find myself on the verge of tears as I sat with my dear friend Karen at a cafe a few hours before my flight, very nervous about what I was about to do. I suppose it’s because aside from a general idea of my route, I don’t have anything close to a day-to-day itinerary. And I’ve never been to Asia before so it’s hard to know what to expect. I honestly think it would have been much less daunting to fly from Peru to Thailand last June than it was to come here after 7 months of being home. At the time I was used to the constant moving, the limited clothes from my backpack, and the sharing of a room with strangers that this lifestyle requires. It’s easy to get used to the creature comforts of home like showering without flip flops or not paying for laundry and drinking water. Despite my jitters, I never doubted that this trip is something I was meant to do, and I was meant to do it on my own.

I had two options for getting from the airport in Bangkok to my hostel – a $20(ish) taxi ride or a $1.60 bus. The taxi option is obviously more convenient and drops you right at the door, however, I do not speak a word of Thai and I knew I was risking being charged way more than normal for the ride – something to be expected when you’re in a new culture and at a linguistic disadvantage. Despite serious jet lag and the humid, sticky air in Bangkok, I bravely opted for the bus that spit me out a 15 walk from my hostel, which I successfully navigated without internet access. (Pro tip: download the map of where you’re going beforehand and have the address printed in English and the local language to easily ask for help.) As I sat on the sweaty bus and watched the city roll by, I was so proud of myself for opting for the less convenient option. After all I think that’s the true definition of backpacking. In that moment, all the overwhelm of the last few weeks melted away when it hit me that I’m traveling again. And it’s the best kind of traveling – the kind that makes me feel free. For the next 3 months I have the ability to change my plans whenever I want and to take things day by day. It’s the practice of staying in the moment and absorbing every second of it, because “normal life” just doesn’t allow for this kind of presence. I’m excited to see what this adventure brings my way.