The first travel adventure article in the The Road Today Travel Series!
I introduced the travel series a couple of months and you can click here to read about the background and context in that post. Basically, I highlight four foundations that are important to making travel happen – desire, health, money, and time. When those are in place, there’s literally a world of opportunity available to you, and then it’s “simply” figuring out the why, where, when, how, and what of the travel adventures.
Since I’m hitting the one year anniversary, I’d like to share about my good fortune of extended travel to Southeast Asia. In the end it was nine weeks of solo travel covering Taiwan, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia. As many people have said to me, “that is the trip of a lifetime”. Agreed! On the other hand, I wouldn’t mind making it the trip of the decade or the trip of a few years or the trip of the year! Needless to say it was an amazing experience and a destination that I highly recommend.
The Seeds of the Trip
The idea for the trip officially started years, maybe even a couple of decades, ago when I put together my “bucket list”. Originally I put Thailand on the list simply because I love Thai food! Over the years I got to learn about Vietnamese food and that made my bucket list as well. Fast forward many years with the family life, raising the kids, and them launching to making their own paths in the world. Then I had the unfortunate (or perhaps most fortunate?) event at work of my former company selling the division where I worked and laying off the back office team. That was the linchpin for the fourth foundation – time! Previously I had the desire, health, money, but no/limited time with the corporate work life.
The announcement of the sale of the division got my wheels turning and I started kicking around ideas. I choose Southeast Asia because it was so outside of my past travel experiences and I figured it would really open my eyes to a new part of the world. Besides there’s tasty food available and it’s on my bucket list!
How do you plan an extended trip? Carefully. Loosely. Flexibly. Flowing. Balancing. Read and plan, then read and plan, then keep repeating. As you learn more, the plans will evolve and adapt. For example, after some initial reading I estimated a four week trip, then as I started planning I realized there’s no way. There was simply too much to see and do in four weeks, so I changed to six weeks. Then I decided to visit a friend in Taiwan, so I added another week. Still too much to do and see, so it became 8 weeks.
My itinerary was a loose circle traveling from Taipei to Bangkok to northern Thailand into Laos. From there I planned to fly to Hanoi and travel south through Vietnam and end up in Cambodia. My final leg was back to Thailand for the islands in the south before flying home from Bangkok. This is affectionately and loosely known as the Banana Pancake Trail. I had no “fixed” dates along the way because I wanted to travel with the flow. I stayed until I was ready to move ahead to the next spot. In the end, I extended my trip by another nine days because I simply ran out of time and didn’t want to cut the whole section of the trip to the Thai islands.
This took some planning, but most happily it worked out well. Back when the corporate sale was announced I opened a Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card. I knew I was going somewhere and that this card would be valuable for travel rewards, trip insurance, and lounge access. I got a nice big signup bonus which provided $750 of travel rewards. Through additional spending over the next few months I was able to accumulate enough reward points to buy a $935.91 flight round trip from Los Angeles to Bangkok on a quality airline. (By the way…the lounge access component was super great! I used probably 8-10 airport lounges along the trip which provided a place to refresh before the flight with good food and drink, comfortable seating, and clean bathrooms.)
In addition to the Chase Sapphire Reserve Travel Rewards, I used some Southwest Airline points to get out to Los Angeles. The flight was about the equivalent of $200 round trip. Together my free flights had the value of $1135. By flying out of Los Angeles instead of my home city I saved about $300, as I was originally looking at flight costs around $1400-$1500. The reason is that Los Angeles is a competitive market for international flights versus the limited choices I had from my home city.
Packing for Extended Travel in Southeast Asia
Having backpacked through Europe for an extended trip in my 20s, I knew that I wanted to be a light traveler. The benefits of traveling light are great! Less stuff to sling around as you move from place to place, easing the wear and tear on the body. More flexibility for different travel modes from plane, train, bus, boat, and even riding the back of a motorcycles, as I found out. I didn’t have to track as many items and less to possibly lose. More room for some strategically sized souvenirs. In fact, after a point it doesn’t matter if you are traveling for a week or nine weeks, the amount of clothing needed is about the same as long as you plan to wash clothes along the way.
Overall I was extremely pleased with my packing. I never felt like I was missing anything during my trip. I had a clothes, shoes, and accessories that flexed to meet all of my trip needs with the changing locations and environments. If I got really pressed, I could more than likely buy the item locally and it might make for a nice souvenir anyway. Traveling in Southeast Asia in April and May was consistently hot and humid so that definitely eased the need for bulky clothes. A mixed blessing as one of my favorite items were my bandanas for wiping off my sweat all the time! My backpack weighed in at 25lbs with another 5lbs in my day pack. You can read about my packing list here: Packing in Review
Costs for the Trip
$7441.63. Total. All in for everything for 67 days! That covered the guide book to the in region travel by plane, boat, bus, and motorcycle to lodging to food to activities. A sampling of activities included cooking classes, guided tours, hiking trips, overnight “cruise”, historical/religious sights and museums, and scuba diving. As far as lodging, I primarily stayed in hotel style room with AC (much needed!) and an en suite bathroom. Sometime I stayed at hostels and one night was on a bus folded like a sardine into my compartment seat. My food ranged from provided breakfast at the hotel to lots of street food to a range of restaurants. The food is so inexpensive that it rarely made sense to prepare my own food. Pretty much anything I bought was snack food for travel days. Could it have been cheaper? Yes somewhat. Could it have been lots more? Easily.
There are too many great stories to share here and you can read through my travel blog also called The Road Today on WordPress to see details of the trip plus a whole lot of pictures. In fact, over 4400 pictures between my phone and my trusty point and shoot! Anybody want to watch a slide show? The best parts were the wonderful people I met along the way from locals to foreign travelers, the variety of so delicious food, the sights, and the experience of the journey itself.
A small smattering of moments throughout the trip:
- I rode on a scooter through a food market in Taiwan where people parted to allow us through with inches of clearance on each side.
- In Hanoi I sat on a little plastic stool on the sidewalk to eat the one specialty dish that person makes for literal street food.
- During the Buddhist New Year in Laos, I enjoyed two days of water fights in the 90 degree sun and walked into a giant party on an island in the river where people shared their beer and food despite that we could barely talk to each other.
- I saw Vietnam first hand after much reading about the Vietnam war and saw how the war impacts still show themselves today. Also importantly how the country has transformed since then and how proud the people are today to share their country.
Epic Day with EasyRider
One of my epic days was riding on the back of an Easyrider motorcycle from Hue to Hoi An in Vietnam. You get a whole different perspective of the world from driving traffic to the sights! I stopped in a primitive fishing village and shared a coffee with a family, swam at the Elephant Springs on their Independence Day holiday with many families and groups, had a fresh seafood lunch overlooking a scenic village, traveled over Hai Van pass (a strategic outpost in the Vietnam War), climbed Marble Mountain with its beautiful statues, temples, and pathways.
Nine hours later I finally climbed off the motorcycle for the last time that day in front of my new homestay in Hoi An. It was an exciting, sunburned, whirlwind day and I slept well.
Advice – Would I Travel Again?
I would encourage anyone to travel and experience a different part of the world. I would recommend extended travel in Southeast Asia as one possibility.
Blend in as best as you can. Obviously hard for me in Asia, but you can make efforts to speak some basic words of their language. I can’t tell you how many times people were so happy to hear me say hello, please, thank you, one please, two please, etc. Ask questions and be curious about their life, their dreams, and what they think about their country in the world.
Once I got into the flow of travel it really was super simple. No issues. I easily met people when I put myself in those situations on buses, restaurants, tours, sights, or hostels/hotels. The people there are so incredible and in many places, especially in the not so touristy spots, they really were open to share their stories and country.
Community Conversation Questions:
Please share some of your thoughts, stories, and perspectives around your travels and adventures.
- What is one of your epic travel experiences? What made it so special?
- How do you plan and budget for your travels? Any tips and hacks that have served you well in the past?
- Why do you like to travel? How does it fill your cup?
- What’s on your bucket list of travel destinations whether locally, nationally, or internationally?