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.