I did my solo backpacking trip abroad for the first time June of last year. And just like all first timers, I had too many questions regarding the preparations and all. Well, basically I did my research first and from there, things started rolling for me. Now, after many trips after that, I’m now getting the same question – how did I prepare for it?
So rather than spend my remaining credits on my phone trying to explain things to you and get that extra callus for trying to answer your questions one by one via chat or email, here’s an article for you, my curious friends.
1. DO YOUR RESEARCH
image source: umich.edu
Like I’ve mentioned earlier, make sure you do your own research. Google is our friend, my friend. I suggest, do not just listen to 1 person. Get ideas from different people, compare and then decide. Since it is your first time to embark in a solo trip, it is advisable to make plans. Leave the “no plan game” to seasoned solo backpackers for the meantime. You don’t want to end up in some ass place, with no place to stay and no idea where the next bus is coming while mosquitoes eat you for dinner right? So yes, that “no plan game” can wait later unless you want ruin your first trip. So what are the things to research for, you ask?
I did my first solo backpacking in 4 cities in 3 countries for 2 weeks. It’s not enough time to fully enjoy the countries but that’s why I planned carefully for it. So below are the things I researched for.
Budget – Yes honey, it’s still all about the moneeeeeey! No matter how we avoid the money talks, it’s important to know how much are you willing to spend on your trip and how much is the possible cost of your trip. My original plan is to go somewhere “safe” for a first time backpacker. And my idea was limited to Hong Kong. Come on! For sure Disneyland is safe right? But after doing my research for accommodation and my friends recommending $300-700 hotels, I realised my dream of meeting Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse in person has to wait. So I looked for alternative countries. Upon asking my best friend google, I saw a beautiful picture of Angkor Wat during sunrise. I just fell in love with it that I started searching for accommodations right away. And bingo! I found a good suite for $40! Do you hear that Hong Kong?! A year later, I realised how funny I was bragging to people I got a $40 hotel room when backpackers in Cambodia are staying in $1 dorms. Okay, first time backpacker remember? Besides, you can’t find any good suite in my own country for $40 so it’s still a steal. Aside from budget for accommodations, make sure to research for the average budget for food, transportation, tours and what-nots to give you an idea how much money you need to spend. At the same time, it helps you avoid possible scams that might rip you off so badly that you might go back to your momma earlier than planned.
Accommodations – Finding accommodation is so easy these days with the power of internet so if you can book in advance, do it. There are hotels that don’t need reservation fee anyway. I know people who don’t even book in advance for their accommodation. That’s fine if you don’t have too much baggage to lug around all day while you’re searching for accommodations or if you’re not arriving in wee hours and you have internet everywhere you go. In my case, I arrived midnight in Siem Reap from Manila so I had my reservation booked in advance before that. I mean way way before that. Like 7 months in advance. Okay, that’s funny but I got so excited obviously. Few days before your trip is good but if you’re planning to arrive during peak season in that particular place, you might need to book ahead to avoid sleeping on the street. Trust me, it almost happened to me thrice (and I still never learned my lesson LOL). First time was when I went to Cebu for Sinulog Festival and ended up finding accommodation in Bohol which is 2 hours away by fast ferry. The last 2 events (CNY in Yogyakarta and Yi Peng in Chiang Mai) were both extended stay but the hotels I was staying could not accommodate me anymore so I had to move like every-freaking-day for 3-4 days because no one could accommodate me for longer than one day. Trust me, being an advance planner is more fashionable than sleeping on the side walk.
Itineraries/ Routes – Make sure your itinerary is doable. Study the transportation system of getting from point A to point B and make sure you have a back up plan as well just in case you’re a jinx like me. Heh. When I was plotting my itinerary, I was cursing one particular country because it doesn’t have a direct flight to one of the cities I was planning to visit and travelling by land is a big hassle given that I only had 2 weeks. So I had to revise it because I remembered I don’t have a private jet. And revised it for like 10 times I did. For local sites, make sure to find out if the places you want to visit is accessible through public transport, if not you might need to consider renting your own vehicle for practicality and safety. Find out the operating hours of the museums you want to check out, the temples, the adventure park etc etc. Remember, being well informed is always better than realizing everyone already went home and you’re all alone.
Local Customs – Do not disregard this. It is important that you research first what are the basic local customs to avoid misunderstanding with the locals. There are pretty simple things that we thought are harmless but it’s not the case for the locals and you might end up in jail if you do it. For example, in Thailand, they have high reverence to the King so any sign of disrespect is prohibited and local authorities are very strict with this. This involves any derogatory remarks towards the Royal family or damaging or vandalizing the King’s images. I heard of stories where in a foreigner dropped his coins in a train station and tried to stop it from rolling further with his foot and locals who saw it got angry with him. Pointing with your feet is already considered unethical, and local custom considered it as the dirtiest part of the body and to touch the King’s image in the coin with your feet is considered blasphemy. So learn the do’s and don’t’s. Not just to avoid getting locked up but also as a sign of respect to local custom.
2. BRING THE ESSENTIALS
image source: inhabitat.com
I’m not going to give you a tip on how to pack light because that’s not something I’m good at as well. Trust me, even if I pack light, I still end up shopping some of the stuff I don’t need and end up with a backache afterwards. When I say essentials, I’m referring to the stuff below.
Hard copies/ photocopies of your flight itineraries, hotel bookings and passport – These are pretty basic but people always tend to overlook this. There are airlines that still prefer to see a hard copy than an email on your phone. So backwards I know! I almost missed my flight one time when the ground personnel didn’t want to accept my soft copy in NAIA 3 and their office (whom she said could help me print my return itinerary ticket from another airline) rejected my request for my flight IT to be printed out. There was not enough time for me to go out of the airport and look for a printing station so after giving her a murderous look and insisting to talk to her manager with the tone I use in the office when I’m mad, she finally conceded. The passport copy, on the other hand, can save you the hassle of bringing your passport everywhere. This doesn’t happen often but from time to time, authorities request passport from tourists on checkpoints, etc. And it’s always better to hand out a photocopy than original for safety. Also, this gives you a security that when you lost your passport, you have a copy of your passport details. I also suggest to keep a scanned copy of your passport on your email for emergency purposes. Hotel booking hard copy can save you the hassle of going over your phone emails when you need to take a cab going to your hotel and need the address to show. Most of hotel confirmation emails have address on them, along with map and contact numbers just in case the driver is not familiar with the place. Needless to say it is safer to hand out a paper to the driver than flash your phone on the street every time. And if you forgot to bring these stuff, make sure to charge your phone at least! My phone was at 3% in Hong Kong one time after travelling all day and I didn’t have any copy of my flight IT with only 2 hours left to travel from Hong Kong island to the airport and check in for an international flight. So I did my best to take a clear picture of my flight IT from my smart phone using my DLSR. Ha!
ATM cards, credit cards, back up cards and enough cash if possible – They say cash is king and I have to strongly agree with this. I’m not really comfortable bringing lots of money and my entire budget for the whole trip so I used to just bring $400-$500 every time I leave and just withdraw money as I go along. But these days, I know better. My cards on my first ever backpacking trip didn’t work in Thailand despite informing my banks I was going out of the country. So from Chiang Mai, I flew in to Malaysia with just around $20 in my wallet. I couldn’t contact anyone from home and I was panicking (while murdering the bank staff on my mind) because I didn’t even have enough for even 1-day stay in Kuala Lumpur. Fortunately, my former boss upon learning my situation sent me money to cover the last 3 days of my trip. A similar thing happened to me when I was in Hanoi when my ATM card got compromised. Good thing, I had 1 more ATM card to use and 2 credit cards. But when I was in Thailand, my last 3 cards were physically damaged when I went hiking (confirmed, I’m a jinx!). And I was lucky enough I have a backup card from home and asked my mom to send me money and someone lent me money as well so I was able to finished my last backpacking trip.
Medicines/ First Aid Kit – I have always been adamant with this. Make sure to bring some medicine of the brand you trust during your trip. You might not need it but if you do, it might save your life. Yes, it falls under the category of an easy buy anywhere but there are countries, especially here in Asia that has serious problems with counterfeit drugs. Surely you don’t want to be in the headline that says, “TOURIST HOSPITALIZED BY TAKING GOAT POOF. SHE THOUGHT IT WAS FERROUS SULFATE.” And in my case, there are only certain brands that work for me. So if you can bring a pack of condoms, for sure you can bring a small box of medicines. During my trips, I make sure I always have these 3 medicines with me: paracetamol, imodium and antibiotics and one muscle pain ointment (Oops Asian baby!). Paracetamol for fever and it works as painkiller for me too. I have a terrible case of dysmenorrhea and no painkillers can lessen the pain for me except Biogesic. I know it’s weird given that paracetamol only treats mild pains. I also consider paracetamol safer to take if you get sudden fever without clear cause yet (example in dengue cases where aspirin and ibuprofen are highly prohibited). Imodium – well, for your gastro adventure. Growing up in the Philippines, I thought I have tough stomach but there are times, that even the toughest version of me still surrenders to sudden fall of my equilibrium. And if you’re travelling in a bus in a middle of nowhere, with no toilet in sight, it’s pure hell on earth. And unless you want to treat the nature with your special treasure, I recommend bringing one everywhere you go. And lastly, antibiotics for infection (warning: make sure you ask a doctor before taking anything!). I remember watching The Day After Tomorrow and then Jake Gyllenhaal had to face a super storm (yeah indulge me) just to get penicillin for his girlfriend. Imagine if you have to go through the same just to get an antibiotic because you forgot to bring one? Okay, enough. I bet you guys get the gist already. But seriously, that movie made me so paranoid about infection.
Right Clothes – Don’t be stupid and over confident like me. When I went to Cameron Highlands in Malaysia last year, I was thinking the weather couldn’t be any worse than our Tagaytay Highlands here (Tropics duh!) so I had just blazer with me that more of a protection from sun than cold because of the see-through design. And it was October – rainy season but not as cold as January. So I thought….well, I ended up having video conferences at work with my former boss covered with comforter from head to toe except my face and making trips to the shower room to soak my hands in a hot water because I couldn’t move them anymore. Yep, don’t be stupid. Period.
Camera, Smart Phone and Memory Cards – For obvious reasons: Facebook profile pictures, Instagram, Twitter, Google + and all the social media where you need to show off your top 5 Asian poses according to my Indian friend.
3. PACK A LOT OF COMMON SENSE
image source: deviantart.com
As a golden rule, always make sure you bring your common sense with you and don’t locked it up on your closet back home. Especially for girls. Below are some of the safety tips I follow on the road.
When drinking – which you can’t avoided no matter how hard you try sometimes – go for bottled drinks and leave your cocktails back home. I don’t normally drink beers and more of a cocktail person but I always go for bottled drinks when going out abroad and make sure people open it in front of me. And don’t drink stuff you haven’t heard of. There are few people lately in the news reportedly waking up (some them naked in foreign neighborhood) without any idea what happened the night before. Some reported their stuff are missing and worse, some were sexually harassed or ended up in the hospital. If you can, don’t drink alone or at least go with friends you trust. A fun night out is fun until one of these happened to you.
When you’re walking in the street and you have to stop, maybe to check your phone or map because you’re lost or something – always make sure to stop either in closed area like cafe or restaurants or open area where you can see everyone approaching you. Your back in a wall, eyes alert on both sides, and legs ready for that fatal kick! Just kidding! LOL. Seriously people, don’t stop in the middle of the sidewalk unaware of your surroundings and showing off your phones and camera! I witnessed a snatching case in Kuala Lumpur with people on motorbike. And my college friend’s sister stayed in hospital for months and couldn’t walk for half year when 2 guys snatched her bag and dragged her for 20 meters from motorbike in KL as well. On my travels, I realized how insanely beautiful the world is and I’ve met really incredible people. But let’s be honest. Danger is real and it doesn’t hurt to be extra careful.
When taking taxi, or any transportation where you’re alone normally except the driver, set your GPS on your phone beforehand, leave it inside your bag and check it from time to time. To make sure the driver will bring you to the right direction. Another way to comfort myself is to befriend the driver and let him talk even if we don’t speak the same language. It makes them comfortable and so do I. I have this belief that kindness begets kindness. I’m not saying to be kind to the person while he’s sexually harassing you. What I’m trying to say is unless your instinct tells you to run, instead of worrying, try to smile and see how it goes. In my case, it always works.
And take advantage of Facebook check-in to let know your loved ones where exactly you are and not to show off ;). Unless you’re Paris Hilton with stalkers and got million dollars on her knickers, then don’t use it. It’s for extra precaution if something unexpected happens. I usually leave a copy of my itinerary to my parents as well. That includes hotels where I stay and their phone numbers, names of friends at the places I’m visiting or whom I’m travelling with (if there’s any) and just give them updates for my ‘spur of the moments decisions’. My parents always worry whenever I travel – which is normal. A simple note or short calls 2-3 a week usually pacify them. Which is small thing compare to the stress I give them when I travel alone so be a good daughter or son and give them a piece of mind by letting them know you’re okay once a while. Always remember, you owe your parents your safety. Go home safe, not for yourself but for your loved ones.
4. BE OPEN AND PREPARE TO ENJOY THE MOMENT
image source: keepcalm-o-matic.co.uk
And lastly be open to new experiences, new places and new people. Don’t be afraid to try new things (except crazy drinks you don’t know the origin of), don’t fear new environments as long as you’re using your instinct you’ll be fine and don’t be shy to smile at people. Even if you have plans already laid out for your entire trip, be open for spontaneous adventures. Sometimes, the best experiences come from unexpected packages.
There are things that might surprise you, might scare you or might fascinate you and people that will teach you a thing or two – open not just your mind but also your heart with them. There will be ideals that will not align with yours and that’s okay. You don’t have to accept them, but at least try to respect them. After all that’s the beauty of the world we live in.
Your Backpacking Executive