Chiang Mai, Thailand.
I’ve spent the last three months ultralight backpacking around Asia. My plan is to be gone for a lot longer than three months, but I’ve already learned valuable lessons from the road.
Foreign countries are complicated, and you’re going to look like an idiot the first time you do something. You’re going to make mistakes. But the sooner you look like an idiot and make mistakes the sooner you’ll learn not to do them again.
Let me share some with you some of the mistakes I’ve made.
- Don’t tell people you’re traveling alone. If a taxi driver asks you why you’re going somewhere it’s easiest to say “I’m meeting friends.”
- Always look at the menu before ordering.
- Be skeptical of anyone who approaches you in public and wants to be friendly. At best this cost me $1 to buy a guy beer after he gave me a free tour of Bangkok, at worst it cost me $50 in tea in Beijing. A friend of mine bought a girl a beer in Budapest and a bartender with a gun demanded $200.
- Never accept a taxi that is offered to you. Flag one down. If you’re at an airport generally you should pay a metered rate inside before getting into a taxi and they will give you a ticket. A taxi at the airport will often cost more than a hotel room, it’s a good time to make friends with other tourists and split a cab into town.
- Never put your bag in the trunk of a taxi. Drivers will often try to extort you for extra money using your bag as collateral.
- Be nice to security and cops. They can make your life hard. If they give you trouble ask them if you can “pay the fine here” — it’s a good code to let a cop know you’re willing to bribe them without being specific enough to get you into trouble.
- If a man with a gun asks for a bribe you should probably pay him, but it doesn’t hurt to negotiate.
- If you see cops, slow down a little bit but don’t make eye contact. Make it clear that you won’t resist stopping but don’t give them an opportunity to stop you without a good reason.
- Your passport is worth about $10,000 on the black market. Treat it like it’s the most expensive thing in your bag.
- Don’t be afraid of street food, but bring strong antibiotics and Imodium. You can’t macho yourself through food poisoning.
- Squat toilets aren’t that bad, but make sure you can actually get into the right position first. Many American’s can’t and it’s worth practicing squatting before show time.
- If you need to buy something Google Image search is a great way to show someone exactly what you want and get them to point you in the right direction.
- Don’t be afraid to buy things and later give them away. If your clothes are dirty and a cheap shirt costs $3, buy one and give it to someone when you’re done doing laundry.
- A lot of tickets are fully refundable. It’s free money if you ask.
- But don’t buy or bring a fancy lighter anywhere. That thing will get stolen by security in a heart beat. Same story for scissors.
- If you plan to ride a motorcycle learn to brake first and practice braking hard from every speed you’ll ride at. Smaller bikes can go much faster than they can stop and stopping distance doubles for every 10mph you increase in speed.
- Let the clutch out gently on all manual transmission vehicles.
- Keep a real flashlight in your pocket. The one I carry can be had for $26 on Amazon. Why? Flashlights prevent accidents at night, they help you find stuff in your bag, and they are surprisingly good for self defense. You’re not planning on getting attacked, and the flashlight isn’t a great weapon, but in a pinch it can blind someone, scare them away, or be pushed into their sternum to move them away from you 1.
- About your bag: get a bag with a light colored interior. The only company I know that does this is Tom Bihn. It’s so much easier to find a small pen against a lime green interior than inside a black cavern.
- While you’re at it: get a small bag. Mine is only 18 liters and it’s smaller than what I carried to grade school. Don’t aim for something that fits in the overhead bin, aim for something that slides under the seat in front of you. Smaller is better in so many ways that it’s hard to count.
- Separate your things into what you need all the time, what you need in your hotel, and stuff you rarely need. Put each of these into clear loksaks (high quality plastic bags) or stuff sacks (Tom Bihn makes great stuff sacks). Bags inside bags is much easier than everything mixing around together. When you get to your hotel leave those second two bags in the room and go wander around the city.
- Pack your clothes toward the bottom of your bag. This serves three purposes: first, heavier stuff on top of your bag will compress your clothes down and make them take up less space. Second, heavier weight in your pack toward the top will make the bag feel lighter because the center of gravity is closer to your center of gravity. Third, heavier things are generally more expensive than clothes. The clothes will provide padding when you drop it.
- To make most bags lockable: thread key-rings through the zippers on your bag, then pull the zippers together and put a combination lock through the key rings. It’s not perfect, but it’s much better than nothing. I even lock my bag when I walk around sketchy towns late at night.
- Don’t carry any bigger than travel sized toiletries. Unless you’re going really far off the grid you can get all the soap, toothpaste, and deodorant you want at any local convenience store. Travel sized toiletries last me a month if I’m careful. It’s also really not that bad to go one or more days without any of these things if you run out.
- If you do run out of something, ask at the hotel. Chances are they have it and they’ll give it to you for free. This applies to soap, tampons, shampoo, toothpaste, razors, toothbrushes and combs.
- Put all of your pills and prescriptions in one bottle, then write down the numbers on the pill and what the pill is into a note on your phone. Worst case you can Google the numbers on a pill at any time and find out what it is. I then transfer my daily prescriptions into a film canister and keep it in the top compartment of my bag where I’ll see it every day and remember to take them. While you’re at it — take pictures of the original bottles and prescriptions just in case anyone in customs asks — but they have never asked me.
- Bring napkins with you, they’ll also work as toilet paper in a pinch. A surprising number of restaurants think one napkin will get you through dinner, and a surprising number of restrooms don’t have toilet paper.
- A bit of gaffers tape and string is always handy. Black tape does a fantastic job making expensive electronics look cheap or broken, and string is useful as a clothesline or emergency shoelaces.
- Cut your toothbrush in half. Apply that logic everywhere else in your bag and you’re probably still packing too much.
Where to stay
- Hotels are often cheaper than hostels, even in Japan. Shop around. I stay in hostels to be social but not generally to save money.
- In China it really helps to have a local book your rooms. Hotels for tourists in China have entirely different processes than hotels for locals because tourists must register their lodging with the police. The thing is, no one actually cares, and you can save a lot of money staying in local hotels.
- Be careful about booking rooms online. You’ll often overpay and the pictures always lie. Unless there’s a major holiday in town you can just wander around, look at rooms, and negotiate on prices for cash payment to get a better deal. I show them the Agoda price, tell them I know they’ll only get a percentage of that amount, and ask them to split the difference with me. You can also generally pay one day at a time and avoid having to ask for a refund if you check out early.
- Only book a room online if the pictures look fantastic. If they can’t even dress the place up to look nice in photos it’s going to be really bad looking in person.
- Hotels have the best public restrooms by far. They also have no idea that you aren’t staying there. Walk in like you own the place.
- If you don’t eat or drink something tell people “it makes me very sick” and pretend you’re allergic. They’ll think you’re weird, but they won’t be offended.
- People in China don’t seem to say “thank you.” I got criticized for saying “thank you” too much by a local friend. The Chinese culture might feel abrasive because it lacks so much of the formality we’re used to in the West.
- People like to stare. It’s not a big deal. Smile at them.
What to wear
- Buy as many things as you can made of wool. It refuses to smell bad, it can hold half it’s weight in water before it feels wet, and it can be washed with shampoo (it’s just hair… which is kind of gross to think about).
- Other than that I buy the lightest things I can, often they’re expensive. See my whole packing list for suggestions.
Things you don’t need
- Anything you think you only might need. Good chance you don’t need it. I’ve cut my bag almost in half from what I originally carried.
- More than two of any article of clothing.
- More than a few of any pill you aren’t taking regularly already. Over the counter and prescription drugs are stronger and cheaper in Asia than in the US.
- A clothesline. I just hang my clothes over the bathroom door or the shower curtain rod.
- A travel sleeping sheet. Online reviews mean that bed bugs will end a business overnight. I talked to a guy who has traveled off and on for the last 10 years and he threw his sleeping sheet away 5 years ago. It may be worth keeping a silk one though since they’re incredibly comfortable. It’s also nice to have a silk sheet when sleeping on damp boats or trains that don’t provide sheets.
- Shorts. In most cultures it’s disrespectful to wear shorts if you aren’t at the beach. If you are at the beach you can just wear a swimsuit as shorts.
Get out there and have fun. If you are street smart the world is a fascinating and safe place. In three months I haven’t had a single thing stolen and have met tons of fantastic people.
P.S. I’m sorry if this sounds excessively prescriptive, but “you should …” is much easier to write than “what worked for me is …” over and over.
- I learned this in a handgun safety class. The instructor strongly suggested that everyone carry a flashlight instead of a gun. [return]