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Monthly Archives: March 2007

Adventures in Asia, Part 11: What Have We Learned?

main steetI’ve been back in Canada a few weeks now, posted my pictures, written it all up in my blog. Here, I just want to write a bit about what I’ve learned. It’s not really advice, per se, since I can’t speak to how well this would work for, say, you. It’s just things I learned about travelling that I will incorporate into future trips.

on packing

I packed very light for a five-week backpacking trip, and I’m really glad I did. You can see what I took here. Oh sure, I needed to buy a few things, but they were all cheap. (Incidentally, nothing on that list did I actually regret bringing. I owe a debt of thanks to the Travel Independent packing guide for the “pack light, buy what you need” philosophy and tips.) However, there were a couple of things I really wished I’d had at times.

Number one was a lightweight, windproof, waterproof, hooded windbreaker. For travelling on boats, mostly, where it really can be cold, wet and windy. I even have one — I just forgot to bring it. I tried to buy one, but not until I was in the middle of nowhere, and I couldn’t find one that fit me and didn’t suck.

Number two was a pair of jeans. I had a pair of light cotton pants, but just one. And while it’s always possible to get laundry done, it can easily take 24 hours before you get it back, and you don’t want to be in the mountains of Northern Thailand in the middle of winter for a day and a night in a pair of shorts. Now, persons of conventional dimensions might have been able to just pick up a pair of jeans in Asia — it’s a big continent with lots of people, but my problem is, I’m too damn short for Western sizes, and too damn… “cuddly” for Asian sizes. So getting a pair of off-the-rack jeans that fit me simply didn’t happen.

a strange culture indeedon Lonely Planet

The Lonely Planet books are useful for getting a handle on regions, but are best ignored for details. Once you’re in a town, you don’t need the LP to tell you what a good guesthouse or restaurant is. Just take a look around first, trust your first impressions, and you won’t go far wrong. The problem with the LP books is that they are so popular (especially Southeast Asia on a Shoestring) that pretty much anything that gets a mention is going to be packed, while places just as good — or, often, better — but unlisted will be half-empty. I also found a much better source of recommendations in simply approaching friendly-looking backpackers who have been in the place for a while.

Incidentally, for maps and trip-planning info, I found South East Asia: The Graphic Guide to be an excellent alternative to the Lonely Planet, with a lot less hand-holding.

on pre-planning

Speaking of accommodations, before I left, I was kind of nervous about travelling at the highest part of the high season, so I booked a few places before leaving. This wasn’t a bad idea, but it was mostly unnecessary, not to mention limiting and probably more expensive. Turns out there’s always something available. Even arriving in Luang Prabang the night before New Year’s Eve, or in Saigon at 2AM, I had a room in under an hour. Not that it wouldn’t have been nice to have a place waiting on those occasions, but really, I needn’t have worried. And you know, I’d heard such planning was unnecessary, but still I needed to do it for my peace of mind.

Also, because I only had a few weeks in Asia and was coordinating with other people, and generally didn’t want to waste time, I ended up flying a lot, which meant holding to a pretty tight schedule, which meant planning things out in advance. The plus side of that was that I did actually make it to all the places I wanted to see. The cost, though, was flexibility. For instance, I really, really loved Laos and wanted to stay there longer, but I had a whole itinerary for Vietnam that I had to get to. I’m glad I actually got to see all the things I did, and staying longer was simply not an option, but next time, I’d like to go for a longer, more flexible trip.

across Asia in Chuck Taylors
across Asia in Chuck Taylors