In mid-November, I decided to move from my job, my studio, and my people in San Francisco to enrich my life through travel, skills-building, and part-time courses. Over the last two months, I spoke with a fellow backpackers and reflected on my experience to share some wisdom about traveling to South East Asia solo.

The Basics

You can’t be a backpacker without a backpack. The bag that I use is waterproof with a roll-up top for “extra” security, but the one-pocket-fits-all design is limiting. Some of the best backpacks I’ve seen have a large zippers in order to lie the backpack flat on the ground while arranging your items. These bags also have tons of pockets, which would have been helpful for a few things that we’re spilling out of the side pockets of my backpack. The major downside is the temptation of bringing too many things. If you fly frequently, a large bag may prompt the airline to check-in your bag. 

It’s not excessive to bring two combination locks. In my time traveling, I haven’t regretted being extra cautious with my things. One way I’ve managed to keep my bags secure is by purchasing two locks: a combination lock for my smaller backpack with my money and laptop, and another for my large backpack with clothes and such. It has helped bring piece of mind when I leave my items at the front desk after checkout so that I can explore the city a bit more. Additionally, I can use them to temporarily replace the locks provided by my hostel since they probably have another copy of the key. For this reason, combination locks are your best best. You don’t ever have to worry about a key, just don’t overcomplicate the combination you set (don’t use your birthday).

Traveler Tip

Kristin from Germany
Purchase a secure carry bag with steel lock. It provided her with ultimate security for her valuables, like her passport and laptop, at the hostel while she was away. She just tied the steel cord to the bed, sealed it tight, and went off to seize the day! (She also suggested condoms and lube, which I totally agree with! You honestly never know and having a few handy will make you thank your past-self for being extra precautious)

Jan 16, 2018 – Kristin’s security bag with steel frame, cord, and lock.

Get official stuff out of the way early. It goes without saying, but remember to bring a passport that doesn’t expire within the next 6 months. Some countries are really strict about this and will not let you board the flight. Also, make sure you’re covered with a visa. For US citizens, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia have 30-day visa on arrival. However, it gets tricky if you want to extend unless you go to another country temporarily. Visas from Myanmar (Burma) and Vietnam are obtained electronically at least two weeks before your flight.

Preflight Planning

Store items in separate bags. One benefit of having parents who work in earthquake safety is that there are always bags with zippers around. By carrying separate bags, it was easy to take everything out and know where it all was. I stored my shirts in one bag, my socks and underwear in another, shorts in another, and so on. In fact, it doesn’t matter how you store things, some people pack each outfit in separate bags. What matters is that a separate, empty bag is reserved for laundry—in this case separating by outfits doesn’t require a standalone laundry bag since a dirty outfit can be repacked in its own bag.

Look into getting an international driver’s license, but definitely bring your own. In Malaysia and Thailand, hostels offer 24-hr motorbike rentals to guests because many locals use motorbikes to get around. The convenience of heading to nearby markets and avoiding overpriced taxi rides makes a motorbike a handy mode of transport.

Bonus

Purchase a small fanny pack for your day-to-day valuables. Before purchasing one at Kuala Lumpur, I was constantly worried about pickpockets, snatching my phone or wallet or passport at any moments notice, or even worse having these things fall out of my pockets. Sure, I look a bit ridiculous with a fanny pack, especially when I’m pulling money out, but I never worry about someone snatching my most important travel items. It also worked well as a hands-free storage area when carrying my large backpack and laptop.

Get a debit card with no ATM fees and a credit card with no foreign transaction fees. [This is the part where I promote companies even though I don’t get paid fo it…] I use Radius Bank for my debit card since it refunds all of my ATM fees at the end of the month, which is especially nice on a tight budget. I used Ally Bank before but they have a $10 max refund. Also, I use my Capital One Venture card when I can for its 0% foreign transaction fee, that means I buy things at a the market exchange rate.

Dec 21, 2017 – Two children on a swing in Penang, Malaysia

Bring a reusable bag to carry around. I use a string bag I got for free at Yale to carry water, raincoat, a notebook, and pens wherever I go. It’s a bit annoying to have things hang on your back the whole day. However, its a nice security measure if it rains or when you don’t want to carry water all the time in your hand, just put it in your pack and you’re ready to go. A string bag is especially helpful because I can roll it up and stow it away when I move cities.

Quickie

Bring a 100mL bottle of sunblock! It’s less expensive and better quality to buy one back home than in the region. A lot of lotions in South East Asia have “whitening” properties. The locals seem to accept this as fact, but it doesn’t really translate to cheaper sunblock.

Bonus

Bring a bed sheet and a small washrag. Cuz hey, you never know if the hostel gives you shitty ones or they don’t give you any at all (a few places charge guests to rent towels!).

Traveler Tip

Toni from Finland

If you’re traveling to remote areas, a headlight will be your saving grace. He found it super helpful for simple tasks like brushing his teeth after lights went out at 10pm.

Preparation On-the-Go

Buy a local prepaid data plan. I get mixed reviews about this recommendation since many travelers look for nearby Wifi hotspots instead. In the end, I’ve accepted the fact that my life is better off with the internet. I have saved myself a lot of grief and time not having to constantly search for a Wifi connection for simple tasks like checking directions on Google Maps, receiving messages on WhatsApp, or ordering cabs on Grab. I DO NOT recommend Starhub’s international plan. It works well in Singapore and Malaysia; everywhere else like Indonesia, Thailand, and Philippines, service is unreliable, expensive, and I almost never received a 4G connection. I wasted $50 learning this the hard way and replaced my plan with a local $3 data package. Asking locals where to get Wifi or places to go is a good option to save money, but I’ve found it worthwhile to have the world’s internet knowledge at my fingertips.

Traveler Tip

Jered from UK

Don’t drink the water. When travelers get stomach issues, they often blame the food or excessive drinking and forget to consider the water they used to brush their teeth the night before. Fortunately, most hostels have huge jugs of filtered water for their guests. He often visited the local grocery store to buy locally-branded bottled water instead of a foreign brand since it’s almost always the cheapest option and it’s just as good. He’s traveled a lot and has credited his nearly flawless health record on this practice.

Mosquito repellant to the rescue. If you’re prone to mosquito bites, you know what I’m talking about. Local markets and pharmacies should have a few bottles, even hostels may loan you one for the night. I made the mistake of not carrying one in a fan-only room and woke up the next day with 10+ bites. One of them could have had malaria!

Eat where the locals eat. It doesn’t matter if the kitchen is under a tarp or that none of the staff speaks English, the best and least expensive places I have eaten have a few locals dining there. Not only do you get a taste of the local cuisine, but also someone’s mom or grandma is the head chef so you know its good. Some of the best hole-in-the-wall places I have been to don’t have a menu– I just point to someone else’s dish. It’s a bit rude, but harmless and I’ll get to eat the delicious food they’re having.

Dec 3, 2017 – Train station at Hong Kong International Airport

Buses will always be cheaper, flights save you more time and trains are ideal in the city–strike a balance. As a backpacker, I’m constantly tempted to save, even a few cents, to make my money last the whole trip. When the landscape is flat, like when I traveled from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur to Penang, I’ve saved as much as $30 USD by choosing to ride the bus. When traveling farther distances, like Phuket to Chiang Mai, or through mountain ranges, like Jakarta to Jogjakarta to Bali, I’ve purchased cheap, quick flights through AirAsia. Since I don’t have any baggage to claim, I check-in through the app and speed through security, even for international flights. In some cities, airport security requires you to print out your boarding pass so app check-ins may not be entirely useful. On trains, purchase a transit card to speed up travel, especially if you’re staying for more than five days.

Quickie

If you’re traveling by bus, they usually stop for food so either have the some local currency on-hand or buy food before the trip. If you’re flying on a budget airline, eat beforehand or bring a meal onboard. I usually buy a to-go meal and a bottle of water after passing security. Strangely, Changi airport in Singapore has additional screening in the waiting area. Security was pretty good about letting me pass food but I brought an empty water bottle to fill up before I boarded.

Traveler Tip

Chris from Philippines

The best tips for specific questions during your trip are FB traveler groups. People are really particular about the questions they post which makes searching many issues easy and most have 3+ comments per post! Don’t be discouraged if the group is closed and asks you to fill out a form, admins are simply trying to create a respectful community.

Jan 20, 2018 – View of habor at Nusa Lembongan, Bali

Learning Adventure

I’m often asked if I would travel alone again. Looking back, traveling to South East Asia was the best decision at the time. I took the whole experience as a learning adventure:  I learned how to travel, learned I don’t like speed boats, picked up Thai cooking, took a digital marketing class, found out my nose bleeds after every dive, met new people from everywhere, and basically yolo-ed my way into a lot of unforgettable experiences. Sure, at times it would have felt nice to share ridiculous experiences with someone, problem solve together, or even just have a trusted companion to listen to my complaints. Despite a lingering sense of loneliness, my time alone fueled my personal growth to new heights. It gave me time to think, ground myself, and live in the moment.

The truth is I will likely forget these two months in a few years. However, my newfound wisdom will enrich my future travels, personal relationships, and daily experiences in profound, yet inperceptible ways.  So to people who ask about my solo trip to South East Asia, I say, of course I will travel alone again, but this time I’ll invite friends and family who want to come along, even for part of the trip. Anyone ready for Europe Summer 2018?

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