An insiders account of backpacking solo through South East Asia. Our friend and travel blogger Rachel Mcvay gives us some tips and advice on what to be aware of when setting out on your big adventure. The ups, the downs and everything in between.
In my two years of intermittent backpacking I have experienced some truly amazing things.
I would later tell my friends and family of the beautiful beaches I stayed on, the breathtaking sunsets that are impossible to capture, even on the snazziest of go-pro and the magnificent Temples I visited; but nobody likes talking about the grittier side of travelling. Here’s what you really need to know about backpacking when you’re going it alone.
#1. Stir up your inner rebel.
The first thing is to stir up your inner rebel, but no less awesome sense of complete and utter freedom. No alarm to set, nowhere to be, no meetings or dull errands to run. You can literally do whatever you want! Wake up and want to see the majestic Angkor Wat? Go for it! Wake up 4 hours later because you went out the night before and slept through all your dorm mates trying to wake you up? Also fine! No one will tell you you’re ridiculous and give you a verbal warning. (Although speaking as someone who did precisely that; you are ridiculous and deserve a verbal warning.)
#2. Worried about making friends? You needn't be!
Backpacking alone is one of the easiest ways to meet new people and trust me; you’ll make friends for life. At least 50% of the people you encounter are travelling alone and just as daunted and nervous as you are. Because of this you’ll form almost instant bonds with each other after only a quick 5 minute chat. At some stage you will almost definitely meet a pair of overly-loud gap YAAR's who have just finished uni and have endless funds from Daddy. While you want to roll your eyes at them, they’re so damn sweet and excitable and you’ll inevitably get drunk with them, exchange friendship bracelets and wake up with 4000 selfie’s on your camera roll.
#3. The stereotypes
At some point you’re going to get in a conversation with a diving instructor. He’s usually Australian, English or American and has been living on whatever island you’re on for anywhere between 6 months- 3 years. This, as will tell you in detail and constantly, means he is NOT a tourist. Or a backpacker. He LIVES there. And he wants everyone to know it. He’ll usually demonstrate this by having long matted hair, going barefoot everywhere, and donning approximately 700 bracelets and anklets.
#4. Dorm Room Politics
At first the idea of sleeping in close proximity to at least half a dozen strangers will fill you with dread but you’ll soon come to realise it’s the most fun ever. Like a giant sleepover only with booze and no bedtime curfew. The people you meet in dorms will instantly become your newest travel buddy/drinking partner and you’ll end up travelling with at least one of them for the next few days, if not weeks. Word of advice to the wise: BRING EARPLUGS.
#5. Get chatting to find the all the best hidden gems!
Full moon party, Tubing, Gili T, and diving.Get to know these 4 things well as people are going to ask you about them all the time. E.g.: “Did you go to/have you been…?” In South East Asia most people are doing the same sort of itinerary and so have either just come from the country you’re going to next or travelling the same route as you. This is an excellent way to get insider tips and advice ahead of your next stop and get off the beaten track of your guide book. Some of the best places I’ve visited have come from recommendations from fellow backpackers that I otherwise wouldn’t have known about. It is for sure definitely one of my favourite things about travelling.
#6. Local Beer.
Beer for breakfast, beer at the airport, beer after your day trip, beer DURING your day trip. Who cares?! You don’t have to go to work, remember? Plus you’re totally helping the local economy! It’s a win/win!...BEER!
I’ve long maintained that the worst part about travelling is the actual travelling! Some journey’s are going to be long and hot so make sure you remember to pack these items:
- A hoody - (air con gets chilly once you nod off)
- At least 3 books (or a kindle, so you can bring as many as you like without weighing your bag down) and a reading light.
- A portable charger in case you find the Holy Grail of night buses and actually manage to get Wifi on board.
- A deck of cards (excellent ice-breaker)
- A big bottle of water and snacks! Some trips can go a fair few hours without stops and if you’re anything like me the “hangry” mood is REAL. Snacks and water- Sorted.
#8. Learn the local lingo.
Take the time before each new country to memorise a few keywords/phrases such as “Hello” “Thank you” and “How much”. Not only is it polite, it shows a mark of respect for the culture that will not go unnoticed. If you’re travelling with a guide they will always teach you these but Lonely Planet guides are also great tools for brushing up on the basics.
#9. We are all in it together.
You’ll very quickly come to realise that the people you meet out there are the greatest and most interesting bunch you’ve ever met. That’s because they’re exactly like you. They all decided to go in search of something bigger too. The backpacker lifestyle really is like it's own little alternative sub-culture where you can just be free and wild and no one is going to judge you. Material things hold little to no relevance in this World and no one cares that you’re a little bit of a mess because they are too! At some point you’ll sit under the stars on some remote beach with a motley crew of strangers and feel more at home with them than you have with people you’ve known your whole life.
#10. Just Go!
In short, it is the greatest damn adventure you’ll ever have. If you’re like me and always think the grass is greener (or at least MIGHT be) then go. Seriously, JUST. GO. Sure it can be tough but despite every scam, every roadside breakdown and every bed-bug ridden bunk it is without doubt the most fun you’ll ever have. If you’re sitting with a couple of extra quid in the bank and no immediate need for it then as the great Hunter S Thompson said “Buy the ticket, take the ride!” Then thank me later!
Words by Rachel Mcvay