Backpacking is one of those things that’s on every post-puberty adolescent’s bucket list. It seems so surreal and totally exciting…until you’re stuck on a sixteen-hour night bus with no air conditioning or bathroom. And so what do you do in this situation? My solution was to take a valium bought over the counter for twopence halfpenny and blare out some Ben Howard in the hope that it would lull me to sleep.
Everyone has their own take on backpacking – but these are the things that I found to be invaluable.
Do…pack as lightly as possible
During my three-month sojourn through South East Asia and Australia, I took only what was on my back…which was a 30L backpack. And that was taken up mostly by a hoodie, a towel, and a copious number of books. Now, although I did get rather sick of wearing the same three pairs of shorts over and over again, and I lost count of the number of times I handwashed my clothes in a sink using shampoo, it was certainly satisfying when we caught sight of others with their backs bowed under their huge 80L rucksacks. Moreover, it was practical. I could carry my bag through forty-degree heat without thinking I was going to die. I could actually find things in my bag, because the space wasn’t cluttered by yet another unworn top or a pair of hair curlers. Finally, I didn’t have to wait in long queues to check in bags, and I could even have it on my lap during long bus journeys, avoiding the hustle and bustle upon arrival of desperately trying to locate your rucksack under several hundred kilos of other sweaty suitcases.
Do…split up your belongings
Although we were fortunate enough to return with all the possessions we left with (aside from my phone which I dropped in the Andaman Sea!), I did take the precaution of splitting up my cash, my credit cards and my (prescription) drugs into two bags. And so, were a nimble-fingered young ruffian to steal my purse, I would not have to make the long trek to the embassy or call home to ask for more money. I also locked away my valuables in a small section of my rucksack – and although that probably drew more attention to them and the flimsy fabric that would be easy to cut through, it certainly seemed to work.
Most people go to places and look up on Tripadvisor the best things to do. But the best things to do aren’t always the more touristy things. Sure, I can say that I’ve visited the Grand Palace in Bangok, but unless something truly spectacular happens to me there, it’s not going to be one of my more memorable experiences. I’m not saying don’t do the touristy things – by all means do, they’re touristy for a reason! Just take the time to explore the place properly, discover hidden places that have yet to feature on Tripadvisor, and say yes to everything. We were motorbiking down a foul-smelling alley just outside Hue, the old imperial capital of Vietnam, when a fisherman invited us in to his house. We then proceeded to have what I can only describe as a feast of rice, soup and the best fish I’ve ever tasted in my life, with all thirty other members of the fishing village. Now that was memorable.
Don’t…book in advance
This is the main thing that I learned: flights rarely go up the day before. My friend booked her flight back to the States two months in advance, and the day before, it had gone down by $40. Leaving things unbooked leaves you with the flexibility and the ability to properly embrace travelling. We met some people in Da Lat, and spontaneously decided to take a night bus to Hoi An and then bike the 150 odd kilometres to Hue. In Northern Thailand, in Pai, we were in sudden need of a beach, so booked a flight to Krabi the next day. Now this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t plan: planning is great! Just leave yourself open to the crazy things life throws at you, and go with it.
Don’t…forget where you are
We met a “lad” named Jim in Chiang Mai, who never paused for a breath and didn’t once ask us a single question. Instead, he regaled us with terrible things that had happened to him during his travels. And you know why? Because he was loud, brash and ignorant: the perfect target. If you treat the locals with respect and remember that you’re in their country, they’ll be much less likely to try and scam you. Even better, learn some of their language.
Don’t…drink yourself silly
People often make the mistake of getting so excited about being away from home that they go out every night, returning a drunken mess and not remembering the night before. As a result, they’ll be too hungover to explore the place and get to know the culture. Remember, you can go out and get drunk any time you like at home. Sure, the alcohol here is wonderfully cheap (and lethal), but alcohol is always going to be accessible to you. The multitude of temples at Ankor Wat, on the other hand, is not. Don’t take things for granted. Get out and explore.
Photograph: Kat Hind