I spent three weeks backpacking Asia in March with one of the other Suitcase Six ladies. Marie and I had an unforgettable time exploring Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, and Hong Kong together. As I come to the end of sharing my Asia adventures, I wanted to share a few of the lessons I learned the hard way on this trip and what you can do to avoid making the same mistakes we did. Without further ado, I bring you the 6 mistakes I made in Asia.
1. Not Staying Hydrated
I did not think to bring my own water bottle on our three week trip. I totally underestimated how thirsty I would be after walking around in the heat and humidity sightseeing, trying to figure out where the hell we were as we lugged our backpacks around the streets. The tap water was not safe to drink in many places we stayed so we could either buy bottled water or drink something else most times. I hate paying for bottled water because I don’t like wasting the plastic and I know I can often get it for free if I’m resourceful. It’s so much less satisfying to spend your travel budget on bottled water rather than on new food or activities.
Unfortunately, without a water bottle I was not all that resourceful and I ended up just going without water a lot of times I probably should have sprung for some. I ended up with a few minor dehydration headaches and one terrible hangover which would likely have been more bearable if I had chugged some water before bed. If you’re one of those people who drinks water regularly at home, know that you’ll probably want to drink more when you’re traveling because you’re often doing more physical activity than you might be on a regular workday in the office.
My recommendations? Pack a water bottle. Remember that the heat is serious and that a bad hangover can really wipe out a precious day of travel – drink your water whenever you come across a clean, free supply, and make sure you include water in your travel budget so you aren’t surprised or hesitant to “splurge” on the necessities.
2. Shoe Struggles
I have problematic knees that often send sharp pains up my legs when walking long-distances. This is exacerbated by shitty walking shoes, the likes of which are usually quite fashionable but impractical for the heavy wear and tear of backpacking life. Our first full day in Singapore, Marie and I had to spend some time in a mall looking for walking sandals that would get me through the next 20 days. I was already starting to limp and hobble around and at that point we had really only navigated to and from our hostel. I was lucky to find a pair of sandals that were quite comfortable, met my fashion bare-minimums, and didn’t cost a fortune. However, it would’ve been a lot easier if I just made sure I packed shoes I knew were good for walking long-distances, rather than packing several cute sandals that rendered me incapable of walking after a few miles.
I also brought flip-flops to wear in the shower but those were stolen by a small dog at the Banana Bungalows who had a penchant for running off with spare flip-flops left outside the dining hall area. As in many Asian cultures, taking your shoes off before you enter someones home is a sign of respect. At the Banana Bungalows this was a practice both for that reason and to prevent tracking sand all over the common area, but it meant a smattering of shoes were available for the taking by mischievous pups. Unfortunately, when a dog ran off with you shoe it probably ran into the bushes or mangrove forest. I assumed there were snakes and spiders and all other number of animals that I cared more about NOT encountering than I did about recovering my flip-flops so I left them behind and spent the next two weeks in a constant mental battle between wearing my other sandals into the shower (which would leave them wet and soggy for an indefinite period of time) or risking a trip into the shower room without them (and gambling to expose my feet toward God knows what on the floor of the hostel communal showers).
My recommendations? Don’t pack shoes that suck for walking just because they’re cute, and keep an eye out for small dogs who are notorious for stealing flip-flops.
3. Not Bringing Snacks
The first few days Marie and I were in Asia we struggled to figure out how to feed ourselves. We are both very prone to hunger and need to eat every three or four hours or we get rather irritable and have a hard time thinking straight. The problem is that we would wait to start looking for a place to eat until we were already quite hungry and by the time we figured out something we wanted and managed to navigate there we were often past the point of hunger. Couple that with the fact that we often didn’t know what we were getting and more than once ordered something that ended up being spicier than our palates could comfortably handle.
We were eating infrequently, eating less than we were used to when we did sit down to eat, and experiencing some digestive pains as we adjusted to it. I was also experiencing my terrible hangover on one of these earlier days and I really wished that I’d packed a few Cliff bars or snacks in case of emergencies like this. I dislike eating American food when I’m in a new place with towns because I want to soak in the culture. But when you’re sick, exhausted, and desperate for some comfort food you don’t have to break out a map to obtain, having a familiar snack is very nice. In Leana’s Woman of the Week interview she recommends packing some peanut butter because you can eat it with a lot of different fruits and carbs it gives you good protein. She also recommends bringing lemon ginger tea for the stomachaches that are all too common when filling up on unfamiliar cuisine.
My recommendation? Bring something easy on the stomach to snack on in case of emergencies. High-protein snacks like a jar of peanut butter or peanut butter crackers are perfect.
4. Not Googling Walking Distances
For some reason when I’m traveling I don’t seem to take walking distances as seriously as I do when I’m home. If you told me I’d have to walk a mile and a half from one bar to the next when I’m in Indiana, I wouldn’t do it. But if you told me that our hostel is a mile and a half from the city center, I’m like “Oh, that’s a piece of cake, we can walk that easy.” This is a poor assumption. It’s almost always harder to navigate abroad than at home.
There were several times in Asia where we set off on what we thought would be a short walk only to find that we were either completely lost and misguided on how to actually gets to our location, the location was much further away than indicated by whatever hostel staff we talked to, or the path was rather treacherous to walk and not so much a path at all. I’m not sure there’s always a way around this – if you don’t have access car then you’re left to your bipedal devices. But it’s something that you should take into consideration if you’re directionally challenged like me.
My recommendation? I think this hints at a need to either spend more time researching hostels/accommodations that are close to the attractions I want to see, or get better at reading maps. Hard to say.
5. Assuming The Weather Was The Same Everywhere
Before our trip I researched the weather in Thailand and double checked it in Singapore. It seemed pretty consistent and I naively assumed that all of Asia would be experiencing similar warm climates. By the time we got to Hong Kong, on our third week of the trip, we realized it was actually much cooler than the beaches of Thailand. Fortunately the temperatures weren’t so drastic that we were miserable but it was a good reminder that weather can change quite a lot in what may seem like a small distance on a map.
My recommendation? It’s probably worth checking out the weather in every location you’re visiting, especially when going for long directions where seasons may be changing. There’s nothing worse than stepping out of the airplane and realizing you’re going to be frozen for the next 24 hours until you can buy yourself a sweatshirt, or that you packed 90% black clothing items for a trip in Asia where you’ll be walking around outside in the sun most of your days.
6. Underestimating How Early Morning Flights Really Are
We had a 6 AM departure flight at one point from Chiang Mai to Hong Kong. I knew this was early when we booked but I didn’t really think through how early it would be and assumed it meant we could explore the rest of the day in Singapore. Theoretically, this was true but it didn’t take into account how absolutely exhausted we were by the time we’d gotten to our Singapore hostel.
For most international flights, especially when you’re in a place where you don’t speak the native language, it’s a good idea to get to the airport about two hours in advance. This put us at about 4 AM to arrive at the airport, which meant we had to wake up and secure transportation from our hostel to the airport even earlier than that. We ended up getting a taxi but it meant we had to go to bed decently early the night before so we weren’t zombies trying to navigate through the airport on two hours of sleep. We were tired anyway by the time we got to Singapore and didn’t have the energy to do as much as sight seeing as we might have otherwise.
My recommendations? Figure out how long it will take to get to the airport for these early morning or late night flights. If you’re staying in a small town or a far distance, it may be quite difficult to secure transportation. You don’t want any unexpected, huge expenses but you usually don’t want to mis your flights and will do whatever it takes to get to the airport. Plan ahead and ask your hostel/hotel staff if they can help you arrange transportation in the middle of the night if you need it.
Have you had any travel blunders or travel tips for backpacking Asia? Share them below in the comments!