It was almost a given that we were going to travel around South East Asia on our first backpacking trip. I don’t think we really gave anywhere else much thought, although our original plan included India and Nepal.
We settled down with some maps printed off the internet and a collection of guidebooks and plotted a route which would take us around Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Singapore over seven months.
For each country, we factored in the weather at that time of year, any celebrations or events that we wanted to see, transport, and roughly how much time we wanted to spend in each place. We also looked at visa restrictions and security issues in each country.
We planned to spend roughly a week in each place, but we also wanted to be flexible and stay a bit longer in places we liked and shorter in some places, like the big cities. We also factored in the cost and time of travelling from one place to the next. This was very important in places like Indonesia, which is a huge country and difficult to travel from one place to the next. We wanted to avoid flying wherever possible as this was both expensive and not environmentally-friendly.
We made mistakes. We managed to be in one of the most expensive areas (the islands of Southern Thailand) over Christmas (i.e. peak season). Accommodation prices doubled, and availability dropped. We also should have bought tickets and accommodation for the Full Moon Party in Ko Phan Ngan much earlier as most of the accommodation on the island was booked up, and we were left with extremely expensive or really poor accommodation, or the option of travelling to the party from elsewhere, which is what we decided to do in the end.
During our travels, we managed to coincide with New Year celebrations in three places: Thailand (January 2018), Vietnam (February 2018) and Cambodia (April 2018). Transport was all booked up, and more expensive than normal, and many of the attractions were closed. We got stranded in Hoi An as there was no transport available.
It is worth considering what celebrations are happening in each place when you intend to go. It sounds like fun to get to a place during a major festival but bear in mind the impact that will have on accommodation and transport. If there is a major event happening during your visit (e.g. the Grand Prix in Singapore), you may want to consider booking accommodation well in advance or arranging to stay further out and travel in to the city.
Another factor to consider: some countries e.g. Singapore and Japan have restrictions on how much prescribed medicine you can carry, which meant we had to move Singapore to the end of our route. You also need to factor in whether you need a standard visa (usually 30 days) or an extended visa (up to 90 days), how much this will cost and whether you will need to get this in advance.
There are some things you just can’t control. My sister, who lives in Australia, was planning to visit Bali in October 2017, so we wanted to meet up with her. Unfortunately, Mount Agung, a volcano in Bali, was threatening to erupt and the situation and travel advice kept changing. We were concerned that if the volcano erupted, then we might lose our flight or get stranded in Bali (not the end of the world, but not something you would choose to do). We were debating this issue right until week before we set off, when my sister sensibly suggested we flew to Kuala Lumpur first, and take a separate flight to Bali. If the flight was cancelled, we would end up stranded in Malaysia instead and could continue our journey from there.
No matter how hard you try, you can’t fit everything in. You need to factor in some down time, and there might be times you get sick and need to stay in one place for a while to recover. You may arrive in a place and find it’s nothing like you expected, in a good or a bad way, so factor in some flexibility by booking just a few days’ accommodation and extending your stay if you want to. As you travel, you will meet people who will recommend places to go, and you want to be able to change your route accordingly.
The world is a big place, you won’t see everything in one trip. We were sorry to miss out India and Nepal and, on reflection, would have preferred to have gone to the Gili islands instead of Java. However, that just gives us a great excuse to go again!
• Plan a route but keep it flexible so you can stay longer in places you like or follow up on suggestions as you go.
• Factor in major events and celebrations e.g. New Year as this will impact on accommodation and transport.
• Check visa restrictions for each country – how long are you allowed to stay? Will you need an extended visa? And do you need to get it in advance?
• Factor in at least a day to get from one place to the next. Journeys that allegedly take five to six hours inevitably turn out to be much longer!
• You can’t control the weather but be prepared, read the forecasts, and don’t put yourself in harm’s way if a major weather event is threatening to happen.