Backpacking is a real rite of passage for young Australians. So after I finished uni, with more confidence than I knew what to do with, I booked a three-month solo backpacking trip through Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand. It was my reward for the hard university slog, and the chance to conclusively prove my new adult status. Right?
Um… not quite. I made more than a few mistakes, and while I survived, I made some dumb decisions you’d do well to avoid on a backpacking trip of your own.[related_articles]67907,62903,60286[/related_articles]
Here are some of my best backpacking tips, formulated from my own backpacking mistakes.
#1 Decide to volunteer… for two weeks
How self-righteously proud was I, organising the first month of my trip as a volunteering stint with a child rights’ organisation in Phnom Penh. I was tasked with conducting a survey – two weeks of interviews in the city, then the freedom to write up my findings from a Thai beach or mountain village as I chose. Helping on my holiday. Great, right? As I discovered, not so much.
A lot has been made of so-called “voluntourism”, but it’s not always what it’s cracked up to be – for the traveller or for those who need help.[related_articles]47847,63648,24675[/related_articles]
As a short-term volunteer who didn’t speak the language and didn’t understand the context, I was more burden than helper – but I didn’t appreciate this because I was so busy feeling frustrated at the fact that I had to visit this dingy office across town every day, when I was meant to be finding myself on a Vietnamese fishing boat, thankyouverymuch.
Do this instead: Don’t think you can solve all the world’s problems by swanning into a developing nation to give your time for a few weeks. If you’re interested in volunteering (genuinely a good thing!) research hard to find a good place to work with, be prepared to stay for several months to learn context and language, and consider whether you’ll be contributing something of value. If not, maybe volunteering isn’t for right now, and that’s fine – enjoy your holiday resentment-free instead.
#2 Ignore your travel style
I made some of my happiest memories from this trip after my feet got so badly sunburnt on an eight-hour-long, full-sun boat ride that walking turned painful and I was rendered near-immobile in Battambang for a week.
Turns out, I love staying in one place. I love finding regular cafés, restaurants and galleries, and I’m not as hungry as a country-bouncing backpacker should be for new experiences and unusual places.
Do this instead: Take note of this before you leave for your trip. At home are you energetic and extroverted, the first to say yes to a stranger’s party or a spontaneous weekend away? Do you love your regular brunch spot and reliable Sunday yoga-markets-Mum’s place routine? Observe your own behaviour and plan your backpacking jaunts accordingly.
#3 Think the rules from home don’t apply
While you’re travelling, you’re more anonymous, more on the move, and more relaxed than at home. That doesn’t mean the things that apply at home don’t apply overseas. Please refer to the above sunburn story.
I coated my whole body in sunscreen before that boat trip but underestimated the sun’s power – arrogantly and incorrectly believing that as a hardened Aussie kid I’d be immune to rays at the Equator. While my blistered feet and red-raw shins healed quickly, neither the embarrassment nor the lesson have faded. Not to mention the potential lasting damage to my skin (“tanning is skin cells in trauma!”).[related_articles]67360,69296,67724[/related_articles]
Backpacking tips like this apply to rules like being courteous, eating properly and caring for your things.
Do this instead: Follow all the same rules as you do back home: wear sunscreen, exercise, drink water, be polite, don’t drive drunk, even if this rank backpacker town has no breathalysers and the cool British hippies are driving. I know I sound like a total grandma and this is one of those backpacking tips you’ll probably ignore, but it is worth a mention: you’re sans Medicare and sans Mum, and it pays to be sensible.
#4 Forget to plan an itinerary
There are good arguments for not planning every step of a trip before you leave home, and I did appreciate my open-ended plans when a bleary-eyed backpacker told me in Chiang Mai to head north to a cloud-wreathed mountain town called Pai, because it was “like, epic, hey”. It totally was. But here, friends, is my favourite among backpacking tips.
My failure to realise how many cool-sounding places there were in each of the countries I visited meant I arrived in each bustling, dirty capital, felt immediately overwhelmed, picked the second-biggest town from the fat Lonely Planet guide I carried, and got on a bus for a safe steady week in a manageable-sounding place.
Do this instead: Have a clear idea of the activities you want to do and the experiences you want to have, and be prepared to say no – there will be more places than you can visit, so don’t be afraid to skip a five-star location if it just doesn’t fit with what you want. It also goes without saying – do a tonne of research before you leave.
#5 Instigate a last-minute break-up just before you leave
I knew my long-term relationship was on its last legs, so I decided, prudently, that my months away would be as good a time as any for my boyfriend and I to start recovering.
Just a couple of weeks before my flight to Phnom Penh, I broke the news – leaving both of us crushed, but me with at least a sophisticated, self-affirming tropical jaunt in my future, right?
Um, not quite. While I was the one who called the break-up, it left me shattered and solo – after four years of joint decision-making and constant companionship, I was alone, and in a strange, sweaty, foreign place where middle-aged women inexplicably did aerobics on the footpath every evening.[related_articles]23558,42590,67086[/related_articles]
Do this instead: don’t underestimate how emotionally jarring it can be to be in a new, different place. Avoid making any big decisions before you leave, and appreciate that you won’t have the emotional energy to join the spontaneous geriatric dance group if you’re processing emotional chaff from 3,000 kilometres away.
Now you have my backpacking tips, check out these weird backpacking hacks nobody tells newbies.
(Lead image: Rawpixel / Pexels)