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Thinking about a solo backpacking mission?

Whenever I tell people that I’ve backpacked alone, the normal reaction is either “Good for you!” or “Are you crazy?!”. Travelling alone is not for everyone and it doesn’t mean that you’re more or less adventurous or selfish. It’s a matter of preference – similar to whether you like boxers or briefs, salad or fries as a side, or rom coms or blowup action movies (all the latter for me!). My first backpacking trip was with a travel buddy to Europe but after I felt comfortable with being new environments and gained some travel savvy-ness, I decided that my next trip would be a solo mission to South East Asia and this continued on my trip to Africa.

So here are some pros and cons with travelling alone. Some of my pros may be your cons so I suggest you make your own list and regardless or which way you go, you’ll end up having a great time as long as you open yourself up to experiencing new cultures and commit to having a memorable trip!

Pros

  1. You can be selfish. Feel like sleeping in all day? Go ahead! Rather go hiking instead of checking out a museum? Who’s stopping you? Travelling alone lets you decide what you want to do, when you want to do it. You don’t have to compromise and whatever you want to accomplish on your trip is up to you. You don’t have to play with your friend the awkward mind game of “I don’t know, what do you want to do?” and ultimately, you are responsible for your decisions, whether good or bad.
  2. You’ll be more open to meeting new people. You don’t have a social crutch anymore. If you don’t want to eat alone, you’ll have to chat up that nice-looking Brit staying in your hostel. This is one of the main reasons why I travel alone. I get to meet other people like me and discover those instant best friends forever connections. Sure, there are times where you may just want to be alone, but you’ll find while travelling alone that if you make the first move and chat up your bunk mate or bus seat partner, almost everyone will be more than open to tell you all about their trip experience so far and where they’re headed next. After you get through the small talk chit chat, you may find that these people will become your trusted travel buddy or maybe just an interesting story to tell your friends back home. 
  3. Curious locals will want to talk to you. Once you pick pass the touts who are trying to sell you things or for the ladies, creepy guys that are picking you up, talking to locals is a great way to gain insights into the places you are visiting outside of the “tourist bubble”. This is especially true for solo female travellers. Locals will see you taking selfies and ask questions, maybe even have no shame asking very personal questions (“Are you married? Why aren’t you married?”). Just be nice, smile, answer whatever you feel comfortable with and ask them questions in return. This is the way I found out that certain Thai islands have a strong Rastafarian culture or that there’s a witch doctor in Tanzania who’s a pastor and can apparently cure heart diseases and diabetes.
  4. You will get preferential treatment. It may be a demoralizing situation but when you’re travelling alone, you will get special treatment from people who feel sorry for you. Hey, they can feel sorry for me all they want, I don’t mind as long as I get something out of it! In South Africa, it was the spacious front seat of a smelly, packed minibus, beside a friendly local driver, Rob, who told me all about his 7 kids and taught me phrases in Xhosa.

Cons

  1. Everything is divided by…1. The costs of your trip will be higher if you’re travelling alone simply because you can’t share the costs of  accommodation or taxi trips with anyone else. However, if you are good at #2 above (making friends), this will help bring down your costs. If you’re in an anti-social mood, look for shared accommodation in hostels or just take local transportation like everyone else to lower the drain on your wallet. 
  2. You’ll have to keep funny things to yourself until you can tell someone. Every time I meet someone new after being alone for awhile, I get a major case of verbal diarrhea. It’s just that I literally haven’t talked to anyone for awhile (talking to yourself doesn’t count, although you’ll start doing that after about 3 weeks of travelling alone. Don’t worry, it’s completely normal. Right?) and have seen/experienced so much that I just need to tell someone. Travelling alone means you won’t have someone to confirm with that yes, those are blatant abortion ads plastered on lamp posts in Durban or laugh with you over the random child that was tossed in your lap for an 11 hour minibus ride to Tofo. Keeping a journal helps remember and get some of those funny moments out on paper. I still laugh reading through my journals because it brings me back to those exact moments.
  3. You have to be more aware. Travelling solo means that you don’t have someone else looking out for you, this doesn’t mean that you should be yelling “back off!” to anyone who comes within 2 feet of you but you will need to be more cautious (especially women). I’ve experienced some shady situations (getting dropped off the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night or sleeping with my tiny Swiss Army knife under my pillow) but in the end, I’ve never been robbed or harmed while backpacking. This is because of a simple rule I made: I vowed never to put myself in any dangerous situation. This meant not going out by myself at night in a shady neighbourhood or getting so drunk at the bar that I couldn’t put myself to bed. Use your common sense, street smarts, buddy system, peripheral vision, instincts, whatever it takes to keep yourself safe.
  4. It gets lonely. Even after all my trips, I still get home sick around the 4 week mark. It’s just human nature to miss creature comforts – your family, friends, your bed, etc. This coupled with being alone will give even the most optimistic people the case of the Mondays. How to prepare for this is to tell yourself that it’s totally fine to feel lonely, and instead of having a pity party for one where you’re the guest of honour, it’s your trip and you can do whatever you want. So eat your feelings with that tub of ice cream on the beach but remember to look around and take in your beautiful surroundings because when you’re back home in your tiny cubicle at work, the place where you rather be is on that beach eating a tub of salty tear-infused ice cream.

Obviously, there are many other reasons that I haven’t included so feel free to post them below. For those who rather travel with a buddy, you can check out TravBuddy, FindMeetGo or search the Thorn Tree travel forums for travel companions. Whether you decide to take the “table for one” route or make it an extended group hang with your closest friends, your trip is what you make out of it so go out there, chat up your neighbour and try to learn as many swear words in different languages as possible (we all know those are the first words we learn so don’t even try to deny it)!

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Guide to island hopping in the Gulf of Thailand

Haad Khuad/Bottle Beach, Thailand

Islands hopped: Koh Samui, Koh Phangan, Koh Tao

Duration: 2 weeks (May 2008)

Sawadee! (that means Hello! in Thai by the way)

Here is a guide to the islands in the Gulf of Thailand.  So why did I pick the islands in the Gulf of Thailand instead of  the more glamourous Koh Phi Phi or Phuket on the Andaman Islands side? Simply said, mother nature.  Depending on what time of the year you go, either the east or west side of southern Thailand will experience their monsoon season.  On the west coast (or the Andaman Islands), it often rains from April through to October.  On the east side where I visited, it rains mostly between September and December.

I didn’t have enough time to stay at different beaches on each island so I picked one beach on each island after doing some research in advance.  Do research which beaches to stay at depending on what type of experience you want.  Check out this site on a guide to Thailand’s beaches.  With the shear number of beaches and what each have to offer, you can spend weeks on the islands and have plenty of stories to tell your jealous friends back home!

Koh Samui – Chaweng Beach

  • Beach: I picked Chaweng Beach because it is the most developed beach on the Koh Samui and I wanted to be able to experience a mix of tourism and seclusion.  The beach was perfect – white sand and clear blue water.  There’s also enough shade from the palm trees to get away from the strong sun.
  • Accommodation: Jungle Club in Chaweng Beach.  I found this place online through sawadee.com and picked it because of it’s location away from the busy beaches of Chaweng.  Jungle Club is like a posh resort but at backpacker prices – the grounds are beautiful, well maintained and the staff are super friendly.  I stayed in the Jungle Hut which was very new and clean.  The restaurant opens out to a breathtaking mountain top view and there are plenty of places to chill (for example, in the gazebos perched on the edge of the mountain complete with plush pillows and lanterns or the sun chairs surrounding the infinity pool on the mountain edge!).  The staff are very friendly and welcoming and they definitely go out of their way to make you feel at home.  Travelfish.org and sawadee.com have lots of places to stay listed.  If you’re looking for more relaxation and peace/quiet, stay away from the main Beach Road area and out of Chaweng Beach where there is a definite party atmosphere.
  • Activities: beach and sun, do I have to say any more? Chaweng Beach is beautiful but more touristy than most beaches.  But then again, Koh Samui is more touristy than its neighbouring islands Koh Tao and Koh Phangan.  Beach Road, which is the main road that runs behind the beach, is especially busy with many tourist agencies, sunglasses stores, restaurants, bars/cafes and “Armani” suit shops.  Word of caution though: I doubt the store “Armane” which sells “Armani” suits is real.
  • Transportation: flew into Koh Samui from Penang, Malaysia via Firefly airlines.  A very convenient way to get to the islands from the mainland or from other islands is with Lomprayah High Speed Ferries.  This is the most popular company operating between the islands and the mainland.  They are very organized and a convenient way to go island hopping.  Since Jungle Club is perched on the top of a mountain, a 4×4 jeep is the only mode of transportation from the town below.  Within the town itself, it’s very easy to find songthaews, especially along Beach Road.  These go short and longer distances and are the cheapest way to get around (cheap as in less than $1).  If you don’t feel like finding/bargaining your own transportation, most accommodations can arrange transportation to and from the airport and the ferry dock (to get to other islands).
  • Food: Most resorts and places to stay have their own restaurants which have a variety of Thai and continental cuisine items on their menus (depending on the place) .  There are also multiple cafes along Beach Road which serve a mean mango shake.

Koh Phangan – Bottle Beach/Haad Khuad

  • Beach: I highly recommend staying at Bottle Beach for anyone visiting Koh Phangan or the Gulf of Thailand islands for that matter.  It is very secluded since it’s only accessible by long tail boat and has a sense of community since everyone knows each other. Walking down the beach, you’ll be greeted by name by locals and tourists alike.  As for the beach itself, the water is very shallow so good for wading around but be careful of the rocks.
  • Accommodation: Haad Khuad Resort (or more affectionately called Bottle Beach 3) in Bottle Beach.  There are 4 places to stay along the beach – three creatively called Bottle Beach 1, Bottle Beach 2 and..you guessed it…Bottle Beach 3 and are all owned by the same family.  The fourth place to stay is Smile Bungalows which is on the west end of the beach.  All are clean and have a range of accommodation from thatch huts that almost touch the water to larger 2 bedroom cottages further away from the beach.  I picked Haad Khuad Resort just because it was the newest one but walking around, they all seemed the same.
  • Activities: I’m a beach bum so of course, I just relaxed on the beach most days.  There’s also another nearby beach which you can hike to but be warned: make sure you stay on the path or else it’s very easy to get lost in the jungle (I did, which in hindsight is a funny story but at the time was pretty scary).  You should also have some cash on you because there’s a man who charges 20 Baht to cross through his land on the mountain which the path does.  At night in Bottle Beach, it’s a very different story! Each night, there is a poi fire show on the beach with dancers and drunk tourists who think they’re fire dancers.  You can also take part of the communal lighting of paper lanterns and drinking out of the communal plastic bucket of liquor (you do get your own straw though, we’re not savages here!).  And then there’s the Full Moon Party which Koh Phangan is famous for.  I’m not going to go into the details of what this is since I’ve heard and experienced too many crazy unbelievable stories to count so if you don’t know about it, just google it.
  • Transportation: The best way to get to Koh Phangan is via a high speed ferry.  Lomprayah (see Transportation section for Koh Samui above) is the most popular choice.  You can get around the island either by long tail boat, songthaews, taxis or by scooters (but be careful, the number of tourist deaths per year by scooter accidents is alarming).  It all depends on what your budget is and how adventurous you are!
  • Food: All four places to stay on Bottle Beach also have their own restaurant which serve delicious Thai food and ice cold drinks.  All the places are about the same in terms of quality of food so my suggestion is to try all 4 places.  Also, don’t forget to get an ice cold Singha while you’re lounging on the beach.

Koh Tao – Haad Sai Daeng

  • Beach: I picked Haad Sai Daeng after looking through Travelfish’s guide to accommodation.  It is less busy than most of the beaches in Koh Tao and the one thing that attracted me was their close proximity to Shark Island where you can scuba dive with reef sharks.  There are only 2 resorts in Haad Sai Daeng so it is very peaceful.
  • Accommodation: Coral View Resort.  The resort consists of multiple island huts and villas tucked in a little cove along the water.  I stayed in the Traditional Island Hut which was rustic and still very clean but not as spotless as the huts on the other islands.  If you have the cash and are sensitive to noises (especially from crickets and geckos), splurge for the villas.  The main positive was the dive center – Coral View Divers.  The dive instructors are all very friendly and the groups are small so it’s more personalized.  In fact, I was the only student with the Dive Master, Robert, who was super nice and patient since it was my first time scuba diving.
  • Activities: Diving, diving, diving! Koh Tao is known as one of the best places in the world to dive so if you have the chance, go diving! Most resorts have their own Dive Center who can arrange everything for you.  They offer a variety of courses and dives ranging from those who have never dived before to pro-star divers.  If you’re still uneasy going scuba diving, you can also see lots just by snorkeling.  Most resorts can either arrange a snorkel trip for you or rent out snorkel gear so you can swim around to your little hearts desire.
  • Transportation: Coral View was very helpful in arranging transportation for me after being herded off the Lomprayah ferry from Koh Phangan.  There was a driver waiting for me at the pier holding a sign with my name on it even though I never told them what time I would be arriving.  I can’t comment on getting around the island because I mostly stayed in Haad Sai Daeng and got around on foot.
  • Food: Delicious as usual.  The green curry at the restaurant inside my resort was amazing! And as always, accompanied by a mango shake.  The view from the restaurant also drew in tourists who weren’t even staying at the resort.  There are lots of places to eat around the pier in town which serve a variety of food if you’re all Pad Thai-ed out.

So there it is, a quick guide to the islands in the Gulf of Thailand! For more information, don’t forget to check out travelfish.org or look through the many travel guidebooks out there (my personal fav is Lonely Planet)!

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Questions to ask yourself while planning a backpacking trip

So there’s really no good/bad way to plan a backpacking trip and it really depends on where you’re going.  But here are some questions you should ask yourself (along with my 2 cents) in order to plan a trip that you will truly enjoy.  I’ve followed these general guidelines for my backpacking trips  (Europe, Southeast Asia, India and Africa) and found they worked for me.  However, some may think this is too much/too little planning so you can chose to follow it or not.

 

  • Where do I want to go? Once you’ve figured that out, get a travel book.  This is KEY for backpacking since none of us are experts on a country we’ve never visited before.  Most travel books have sample itineraries and highlights for each country.  Skim through it, google some itineraries online and start mapping a rough path based on what you find interesting.  For example, do you want to do more historical sightseeing? Or go to party hot spots? Or maybe both? You don’t need to plan every single place you’re going to visit but a rough path (like what countries are you visiting? Are you going north to south or east to west?) will help with further planning, especially length of trip and budget (question #3 and #5 respectively). 
    My 2 cents:
    I personally use the Lonely Planet books like a bible while on the road but there are other great books out there like Rough Guides, Frommer’s  etc.  Also, check out the Travel Independent.info sitefor tons of info aimed at backpackers and region specific websites like travelfish.org (for SE Asia).

 

 

  • Why do I want to travel? This may seem like a no brainer or existentialist question but if you know why you want to go, it’ll give you the drive to plan your trip in advance between 10 hour workdays and having a social life.  It’ll also give you a goal for your trip and get your butt out of bed at an early-ish time every day while on the road.  Sometimes backpacking can get exhausting but if you always keep in mind your goal, it’ll be easier to get through the weeks, months and maybe even years of traveling from city to city.  It can be as simple as “I want to see the Eiffel Tower” to “I need to find myself and figure out my path in life”.

 

 

  • How long do I have to travel? This may be the restrictive factor on how many places you can visit and how fast paced you want to move from city to city.  If you have an indefinite period of time to travel, budget may come into play (see point #5) or something that people sometimes forget is how long can you last living out of a backpack and without sleeping in your own comfy bed at home? You’d be surprised how long you can stand wearing the same clothes and having all your toiletries in a plastic bag once you get into the routine of backpacking. 
    My 2 cents:
    Build up your “travel immunity” – pick a comfortable period of time for your first backpacking trip, then double that on your next trip and then double that on the subsequent trips etc.  If you can come up with a number of days based on the list of cities you want to hit, factor in sightseeing and travel time, you should still DOUBLE that time to give yourself buffer for the unexpected (like loving a city and staying longer than planned, getting tips from fellow travelers along the way on must-see places or unreliable transportation).  It’s always better to have more time to see unplanned sights than to rush through your itinerary and miss sights.  TIP: If you come from North America or Europe, do not expect transportation to take the same amount of time in less developed countries than at home.  Hardly any buses go over 70km/h (even on highways) and “express trains” means it’ll stop maybe 15 times instead of 20.

 

 

  • What is my travel style? More on the grimey side or luxurious side? This will be a big factor when deciding your budget (see point #5) and vice versa.  Are you trying to see how far you can push yourself on the hygiene scale or does the thought of squat toilets make you shudder? You’d be surprised on how much you can live without on the road so don’t rule out squat toilets just yet (they’re apparently cleaner and easier to use than Western style toilets).  Ask yourself, do you really need 1000 thread-count Egyptian cotton sheets, A/C buses with tinted windows that block the sights/smells/sounds of the landscape rushing by or hot water showers in 45C weather? But don’t go too far off the deep end, everyone needs to keep a certain level of hygiene to avoid getting sick or smelling like B.O. (for your sake and for the sake of the 40 other people packed in with you on the 10 hour bus ride).

 

 

  • What is my budget? Keep in mind that different countries require different budgets.  For example, you can easily live off $30/day in India or SE Asia but if you keep that budget for Western Europe, you’ll be eating sliced bread from the convenience store for every meal (true story) and run a higher risk of getting bed bugs from the 14 bed dorm you’re staying in.  Most travel books have a typical budget/day for each country and a range of accommodation/restaurant choices from low, mid to high end.  If you’re looking for more of a backpacking budget, the Lonely Planet “on a shoestring” guides are great for low budget suggestions. 
    My 2 cents:
    Take your budget/day at home to start with (especially if it’s your first backpacking trip) and start logging how much money you’re spending/day once you start traveling.  After a week of logging, review your expenses and readjust your budget based on that (if you’ve underspent your initial estimate but hated the moldy bathroom then increase your budget or if you found that you didn’t watch the TV that was in your room, maybe you can live with a less expensive place to stay in the next city).

 

 

  • How adventurous am I? This may be a vague question but it’ll help decide whether you want to backpack on the beaten path or venture out on your own.  It also depends on the region since Southeast Asia and Europe has a fairly well-traveled backpacker path with an established tourism industry whereas Africa may not be as easy to travel through.  However adventurous you decide to be, always do it in a safe way – remember, no one cares how hardcore of a backpacker you are when you’re being robbed at gunpoint in a shady alley at night.

 

In the end, as long as you backpack smartly and keep an open mind, you’ll have an awesome and unforgettable trip! If you have any other suggestions on how to plan for backpacking trips, feel free to add your 2 cents in the comments section.

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Prepping for South East Asia

Sweating through SE Asia

Grand Palace, Bangkok, Thailand

Countries visited: Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia

Duration: 2 months (May-June 2008)

Pros: very easy to backpack (good transportation network, wide range of accommodation available), safe for solo female travelers, super friendly locals and other tourists, comparatively clean (worse than Western Europe, better than India)

Cons: tout scams, geckos, mosquitoes/malaria

In our society of shortened attention spans, none of us can read through a paragraph anymore so here’s a list of how to prep for a trip to South East Asia (can be applied to most other trips too):

  1. Google map the region, you need to know how it looks like and how long it’ll take you. However long you think it will take to travel from place to place, double it so to avoid being rushed.
  2. Get a travel book. My bible is Lonely Planet’s South East Asia on a Shoestring. It is THE first ever “on a Shoestring” book. Tab/highlight places you want to see. Tip: if you don’t need the entire book, photocopy the pages you need and throw them away as you travel to save space.
  3. Visit travelfish.org. Print out the free guides for a list of accommodation.
  4. Visit the UNESCO World Heritage site for list of World Heritage places to visit. The map helps narrow down the sites depending on what area you’ll be passing through.
  5. Get a student card if you’re still a student (or “borrow” one if you’re not but still look youngish). There are sometimes discounts for park entrance fees, transportation etc.
  6. Visit the doctor for vaccinations and travel medicine. Malaria medicine is required for parts of Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. I took Malarone which was more expensive but with less side effects. Ask for Dukoral which is a preventive diarrhea medicine. Yes, no one likes to talk about this “collateral damage” of traveling but it will happen so you might as well be prepared. For more information, see post on travel medicine necessities.
  7. Book your flight. I usually get an open-jaw ticket for the long haul flight only. Domestic and flights within the region can be booked while you’re traveling. For Canadians, visit TravelCuts for super friendly service.
  8. Get travel insurance if not already covered. Again for Canadians, I found TravelCuts (through RBC) had the cheapest insurance compared to the other banks and travel agencies.

You can choose to follow/not follow this list but if you’ve at least thought about the items above, you’re already on your way to an amazing trip!

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To Baz Bus or Not To Baz Bus

For those planning on traveling around South Africa, there is a very convenient backpacker-geared transportation service called Baz Bus.  Basically, they provide transportation between backpackers/hostels in major destinations with door-to-door service.  They also sell a type of ticket which allows you to hop on/hop off wherever you want for a fixed price.  Personally, I decided not to go with Baz Bus because I wanted to get a local feel of South Africa by traveling as locals do.  However, I would say 90% of the people I met used Baz Bus to get around.  Here are some pros and cons that I found with Baz Bus (having to take it occasionally out of necessity):

Pros

  1. This is the most convenient way to travel around South Africa and allows you to spend more time enjoying your vacation instead of planning your transportation.
  2. Great for meeting new people.  The majority of backpackers use Baz Bus so you’ll meet fellow backpackers and get great tips on what to do, see, eat, stay.
  3. Some of the drivers act as a tour guide, pointing out sites along the way and providing tons of information about South Africa.
  4. Safe, reliable and comfortable travel.  The minibuses they use are very new and easy to fall asleep in.

Cons

  1. More expensive than coach buses or other minibuses (I found on average it was double the price for Baz Bus).
  2. Takes some of the fun out of traveling for me which is independently finding/planning transportation from point A to B.
  3. Less flexible since Baz Bus has only 1 bus per day going in each direction.  Coach buses usually had 2-3 options per day so you can depart and arrive at a time that suits your schedule.
  4. You might miss out on meeting and seeing how local people live since you’re interacting mainly with backpackers from foreign countries.  There’s a backpacker bubble and you may end up traveling with the same people for your entire trip.  Most of the people I met who took Baz Bus ran into people they met previously on the Baz Bus later on in their trip either on another Baz Bus trip or at the hostel.
  5. *New* (thanks Valerie!): It takes a long time to go from Joburg to Cape Town and vice versa because there is no direct route.  You will have to stop multiple times and it can take around 3 days whereas coach buses have direct routes.  Maybe try hop on/off going one way and a direct coach bus on the way back to get the best of both worlds!

My advice is to try a bit of both and see what suits your style of traveling.  Either way, you’ll get to experience South Africa and all that it has to offer!

Baz Bus website: http://www.bazbus.com

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