If you don’t know my story by now, let me bring you up to speed. My wife and I moved abroad in July 2015 when we decided that we rather see the world than work our current 9-5 jobs. After living in Chiang Mai, Thailand, for six months, we are now backpacking through the rest of Southeast Asia before a scheduled European stint for the summer. We’ve gone from having an apartment to come home to, to being completely on the road Africa, Australia, and South America are slated in our plans for later but we’re being flexible.
From the outside looking in, you would think that backpacking throughout Southeast Asia would be fun. Don’t get me wrong: it is and honestly, I wouldn’t trade this experience for the world. But there are a few things that I’ve learned along the way that I feel the need to share with those who are thinking about following the same path.
If your idea of being a backpacker is having a camera roll full of Instagrammable pictures, eating delicious foods, constantly stumbling across wonderful scenery and meeting interesting people from all over the world, you’re only halfway right. The other half is unpredictable. There are a lot of unexpected situations that come along with a transient lifestyle, and these are a few I was not prepared for. If you plan to have the life of a backpacker in your future, keep this list in the back of your mind because during your travels you’ll be sure to relate.
I change my plans more than my underwear
This is not a completely figurative statement, but I’ll get back to that in a minute. At the beginning of the year, one of my closest friends told me that she’d taken a few days off in the summer and wanted to come see me abroad. While I was over-the-moon ecstatic that she would come across the world to hang out with me, I also have no idea where in the world I’ll be during that time! Sure it’s easy to have a tentative traveling schedule but unforeseen circumstances have had us in certain locations for longer or shorter periods than expected. Like right now, I’m currently in Laos but I’m supposed to be in Vietnam. There is a holiday going on and unbeknownst to me they’re not giving out visas until the holiday is over. Like, the whole country is off work. Luckily I didn’t book my AirBnB until after I knew my definite plans so all is right with the world. The long and short of it is that when you’re traveling long-term, your “plans” are often just “suggestions”. You may stay longer in a location you fall in love with or make a hasty exit from a place that you don’t vibe with. You’ll learn to be flexible with your plans either by choice or circumstance.
I’ve been reduced to a five-outfit rotation
The first time I realized I didn’t need to have swag while I was abroad was when my bag was so heavy that the bag fee came up to almost the price of the airplane ticket. Right then I knew some of those clothes had to go. Ninety-five percent of the garments I initially brought from Atlanta are still somewhere in Thailand. Packing light is the name of the game, and in reality you don’t need more than five shirts and five pairs of pants, because anything else is excessive. I’m surviving out here with just the necessities. The backpacker community is devoid of super nice outfits for a reason: it doesn’t matter what you wear when you’re traveling. Nobody is judging you based on what you wear because mostly everyone dresses for comfort and not fashion. I wear the same shirt or pants for as many days as it passes the “smell test” (if it doesn’t smell dirty, then its clean). Judge me if you want but laundry costs money and that money is better spent on food.
Funny story: We are staying at a guesthouse in Luang Prabang and we gave them our accumulated laundry the first day of arrival for them to wash. After coming back from a day of exploring we saw our clothes (drawls and all) hang-drying out in front of the place, which happens to be one of the busiest intersections in this small town.
I never know how the food will…come out
Most of the food that we eat is prepared by someone else. With all of the variables that come along with eating foreign foods with foreign ingredients prepared by someone I don’t know with sometimes questionable cooking and handling techniques, my stomach doesn’t always win the fight. Behind every beautiful pic on Instagram of the food I eat around the world is the possibility that I may spend the next few hours on and off the porcelain throne. It’s a risk I’m willing to take. Something as simple as tap water ice cubes or slightly undercooked chicken from a street food vendor is enough to put the sanctity of anyone one’s bowels in peril.
I’ve (unfortunately) done my part to contribute to global warming
I haven’t had a sip of water that hasn’t come out of a bottle since last July. It’s not because I don’t care about the environment but the tap water here is simply undrinkable. This probably has a lot to do with why 60 percent of the plastic dumped in the world’s oceans every year come from 5 Asian countries (three of which I’ve been to, the others are on the way). I’ve tried to reduce my carbon footprint by refilling a metal bottle, but I refill it with bottled water so it sort of defeats the purpose. Really, there are few convenient ways of avoiding drinking from plastic bottles but we’re constantly looking. Besides I’m trading in my motorized scooter for a bicycle so I guess it evens out.
If you’re cool with not knowing what country you’ll be in next week, varying degrees of clothing cleanliness, long walks to the toilet, and a Shaq-sized carbon footprint then maybe backpacking is for you. Even with all these circumstances, I still love it. Are you currently backpacking? If so, let me know if any of this resonated with you. And for those who plan to travel long-term soon, are you surprised to hear about any of this?