Hello again. Thank you to everyone for your feedback and kind words on my last post. I wasn’t even sure who that post would reach since I’ve been out of the blogging game for awhile, but it was so lovely (one of my new favorite words) to hear from people. It’s weird to some people, but I’ve always loved the connections I’ve made over the internet and it’s heartwarming to hear that people were excited to hear from me and that they totally understand the feelings that I have. So, thank you.
I wanted to start with that post because there’s so much talk in this world about showing a perfect life without showing the turmoil that is going on behind the scenes. I’ve had plenty of ups and downs over the past year, much of which is not to be shared on the internet because I don’t need to air dirty laundry, and I think it’s important to share that life isn’t always great.
This is especially important before I talk about my trip to southeast Asia because otherwise it would look like my life is full of roses. And let me tell you – the trip was 100% full of non-literal roses and literal sunshine! It went better than I ever could have imagined and it was exactly what I didn’t know I needed.
So on we go…
Many people asked me why I took this trip and why I chose to go where I chose to go. I’ve always loved to travel. In second or third grade, I really, really wanted to go to Space Camp. I lived in Chicago and Space Camp was in Alabama or Florida, and you couldn’t go until at least fourth grade. I saved up my birthday/Christmas/allowance money year after year, and one year my grandparents’ gave me the Christmas gift of a plane ticket to Space Camp. I finally went in sixth grade – my parents put me on a plane to Florida and it was the best week ever, so one could say I’ve been solo traveling since the age of 12.
Although I was lucky enough to be able to still travel a little bit while in anesthesia school, I knew that I wanted to take time off between graduating and starting to work again to do some more extensive traveling. Going to the other side of the world is pretty easy (plane travel still amazes me no matter how many times I fly), but it takes a lot of time. If you only have a week to travel, going to Asia isn’t the best use of your time. And once you get there, it’s quite cheap! I knew once I started working, I wouldn’t have the opportunity to go away for weeks upon weeks at a time, so I held my start date at my job until as late as I thought was fair to both of us. (Another student from my class started the same day as me, so it worked! And I need a paycheck….)
So anyway. This was the best opportunity to travel so I took it. A friend from college conveniently scheduled his wedding for two weeks after I finished anesthesia school – convenient because it was in China and I wouldn’t have been able to go if school wasn’t over! My original plan was to finish school, take my boards immediately, and then peace out to Asia for a couple months.
What actually happened was that I wasn’t totally sure the paperwork to allow me to take my board exam would be processed in time for me to take the exam before leaving for the wedding, plus my great plan to spend the summer studying was thwarted by my need to just survive anesthesia school. (So a little of column A, a little of column B.) So I changed my plan to fly to China for the wedding (I left a few days after I finished school), use that as a rest/reset, come back and study for my board exam, then jet set worry free until I needed to come back to start my job. Two trans-Pacific flights wasn’t ideal, but this worked out very well for me and I’m glad I did it the way I did.
Thailand has been on my list for a long time. As readers may know, I love elephants. LOVE THEM. And Thailand has elephants. (Not as many as they used to thanks to poaching, etc, but still a lot!) Plus, I’ve heard it’s beautiful, friendly, and cheap, and anyone I know who has gone has loved it. Sign me up. I figured I’d be over there for a long time, so I’d throw in another country as well – Thailand and Cambodia are a popular combination, and now seems like a good time to talk about some planning.
So, let me tell you a little bit about myself. I love a plan. I love when things go according to plan. I do not like spontaneity and that’s fine, that’s who I am. I like to make a schedule (hello, marathon training?), I like to know what I’m doing and when I’m doing it.
Well, often times the key to SE Asia is that you don’t have to have a schedule. Many people go and just see where the wind takes them, and I was hoping to do this too. I was also originally thinking I’d have a few more weeks in Asia, and it definitely makes it easier to wing it when you have more time to account for mishaps and such. That being said, I didn’t actually plan my trip until about four days before I left. The thing about anesthesia school – and I forget who said this, but they said it best – is that is kind of like an abusive relationship. While in it, I knew that there was a time that it would be over, but I just couldn’t imagine a time when it would actually be over. So I didn’t make any plans for the time when I wouldn’t be in school anymore because I never thought I would reach that point. I also didn’t want to buy a plane ticket until after I passed my board exam because I didn’t want to jinx anything.
So all that to say, I booked my plane ticket around the world a few days before I left, which is pretty un-Susan-like. Bangkok is the hub for SE Asia, so I booked round trip through there. It was only $782, which I attribute to it still being low season. (High season starts in November, otherwise it’s considered the “rainy” season, so less people travel there. It didn’t rain much haha.) When I had looked months earlier, tickets were about $650-700, so I paid a little more than I could have, but less than $800 to fly halfway around the world is a steal.
Buying that plane ticket was half the battle. Otherwise, I had ideas of what I wanted to do, but I still was set on winging it. I was going to do true backpacker style and meet people, see what they’re doing or what they’ve done, and figure it out as I go. Well, I decided to buy the Lonely Planet books for Thailand and Cambodia to get an idea of what there is to do there. I 100% was going to Thailand and figured since I had five weeks, I’d go to Cambodia too (Angkor Wat and all that seemed pretty cool).
A few months ago I had also reached out to a friend who did the quit-my-job-and-travel thing, so she sent me so much info about traveling and what to do and all types of tips. I posted on Facebook for tips from my social network. I also started searching for travel blogs about southeast Asia and what other people had done. There’s a wealth of knowledge out there and travelers, for the most part, are very excited about and willing to share what they did and how they did it. Simply googling “Thailand travel blogs” or “best things to do in Cambodia” will give you so much to start from. I’ve also started using Instagram hashtags to search, although you have to filter through a little more to find what you’re looking for. (You can also google things like, “How to cross border from Thailand to Laos” and get full blog posts with pictures. The internet is so great.)
Once I started looking around more, I realized there was so much I wanted to do and things that I would be upset if I didn’t get around to doing. I also decided that I wanted to add Laos to my itinerary. My dad had a coworker from Laos and my mom had a friend who just went to Laos and put up beautiful pictures on Facebook, and it’s right next to Thailand and Cambodia. A little searching brought me to the Gibbon Experience, and despite being terrified of heights, I knew I wanted to work that in. Since I needed to get a visa (on arrival) for Laos, I figured I might as well stay there. A little more searching and I found that Luang Prabang is a fun city to visit in Laos, so I added that in. Planning was all pretty organic, actually. Once I had a list of things I wanted to do, I realized I wasn’t comfortable winging my trip and panic planned everything about three days before I left.
Five weeks is both a lot of time and not a lot of time. Getting between places in SE Asia can take awhile – they’re close but not close, and many times you take buses or trains. Since I wasn’t really on a backpacker budget, I ended up flying between places that would have taken much longer to get to just to save myself time, so I panic booked those flights. (I learned about apps that help you figure out how to get between places – Rome2Rio is great, but also just google it and you’ll get plenty of info).
The problem with booking flights is that you need to do when and where you’re going, which meant I needed to figure this out. (Fun fact: I probably could have booked them the day before and been fine, but like I said, I got nervous. Not spontaneous over here…) Of course, I didn’t fully know how much time to spend in certain places, so guess how you figure that out? You google things like, “How long to spend in Siem Reap” and you get answers! The internet is a beautiful thing. I did a quick mapping out of where I wanted to go, the big things I wanted to do/didn’t want to miss, and how long I wanted to spend there. It looked something like this:
At some point I’ll post my actual itinerary, but this was 95% what I ended up doing.
As for booking things ahead, there were a couple things that I was worried about selling out and would be sad if I didn’t do, so I booked them ahead of time. Of course, it was low season and basically nothing sold out, so my fears were for nothing, but I felt better having some things booked. Things I booked ahead were:
- Elephant Nature Park – I wanted to do the overnight stay, and actually a couple nights were sold out. Elephants were the main reason I was going to Thailand, so actually this was the main catalyst for me to start booking some things.
- The Gibbon Experience – This was the main reason I decided to go to Laos, so I wanted to have that booked and ready to go. When I got back from the three day experience, some people were actually running into dates that were sold out, so I’m glad I booked ahead. (It’s also sad for those because Huay Xai, where you start for the Gibbon Experience, doesn’t have much to do…)
- Hostels – I’ll talk more about hostel life in another post, but I booked a bunch of hostels before I left. Many people just show up in a city and book a hostel when they get there, but I liked having things mapped out. I used Hostel World to search for hostels – they have ratings, reviews, and pictures which is very helpful. I had most of my hostels booked, but it’s pretty easy to cancel and rebook on the app, so I changed some hostels based on talking to people along the way.
- Luang Prabang Half Marathon – Yes, I ran a half marathon on my trip! I knew Angkor Wat had a half marathon, but I wasn’t sure when it was. (It’s in December, I learned, so I wasn’t there for it.) I did some searching the morning of my flight to Bangkok and found that Luang Prabang (in Laos) had a half marathon while I was there, so I signed up. It ended up selling out, so I’m glad I did!
- Flights – I booked flights from Bangkok to Chang Mai, Luang Prabang to Siem Reap, Phnom Penh to Krabi. I booked my bus from Chiang Mai to the Laos border. And that was it! I probably didn’t need to book those flights ahead of time, but I was worried so I did. All other transportation (overnight bus from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang, Krabi back to Bangkok), I booked while traveling. Not everything in SE Asia is online, so you pay and get a little paper slip as a reservation and that is that. (No email confirmation, ah!)
Otherwise I knew that there were things I wanted to do (cooking class in Chiang Mai, Angkor Wat in Siem Reap), but wasn’t totally sure what day I wanted to do them, so I left that up in the air. Some I booked a couple days ahead of time, some I booked the night before. On my flight over (15 hours to Hong Kong, about four hours to Bangkok), I meticulously went through the Lonely Planet books for Thailand and Cambodia and made notes of “things to do” and “places to eat” so I had ideas to refer to when I was there and deciding what to do. I thought it was a nice balance of having everything planned and having a little flexibility to meet people or find out what other people had done. It was also great to be able to move things around or do things based on how I was feeling – did I want a big activity day, or did I want something a little more chill where I didn’t have to get up and moving early in the morning?
If I had to sum up my tips for travel planning, it would be:
- Guidebooks: I used Lonely Planet for China, Thailand, and Cambodia. They’re well researched and any recommendations they had were great. I mostly used them for things to do and sometimes for things to eat. They also have info about where to stay, money, transportation, and some customs. You can get basically all the same info online, but I like having a book because you don’t always have internet, so having the maps and info about what to do while disconnected is really nice. I carried around the books in my bag while in each country and it was great. (Example: My second day at Angkor Wat, I didn’t use a tour guide – just went by the info that was in the book and I enjoyed that.)
- Ask friends! Someone you know has probably been where you’re going. (Some people think SE Asia is exotic, but literally every backpacker known to man goes there, haha.) Post on Facebook and ask for suggestions, and you’ll probably get some leads. Personal experiences are the best to help guide a trip or to have someone to ask questions about how to do something or if you *really* need to pack a pair of jeans. (You don’t.)
- Travel blogs. Google the location you want to go and “travel blog” and you’ll get plenty of results. Sometimes you have to search through people who get compensated for certain things (like getting paid to stay at a hotel or a meal or excursion for free), but overall they’re very helpful and many started by blogging their own adventures (that they paid for themselves). Most people will also answer questions if you have them!
- Instagram hashtags. It’s a little more to sort through, as mentioned above, but I found it helpful to get recent experiences and real life views of certain places. I did this a lot with the Gibbon Experience – I wanted to know what it was REALLY like, so sorting by date can help you find people who had just been there. I had people reach out to me while traveling to ask about where I had just been and what I did, so already having good karma about that.
- Google everything. As I said above, I would literally google “how long to spend in ____” and get ideas of how long to spend somewhere and what to do while there. “What to do in Luang Prabang” or “running in Phnom Penh.” Google anything and everything and someone has written about it.
- Facebook groups. I joined a SE Asia backpacking group and a Solo Female Traveler group. It’s good for inspiration and for some ideas, although I didn’t use them as much as the other options – but things to consider!
There is SO much to do and not always a ton of time. (Five weeks goes fast!) I made a list of things I knew I wanted to do and tried to figure out how to do them. I had a few rules for myself…
- Do what I want to do. If you want to do something, do it! I found a medical museum in Bangkok which had cadavers and all sorts of medical things. I thought it was fascinating, but I got a lot of funny looks when I mentioned it to other people.
- Don’t do what I don’t want to do, even if it’s what you’re “supposed” to do. Everyone raved about the animal rescue on Koh Lanta – you can walk dogs on the beach! It sounded interesting (and can you imagine those Instagram posts?? ha!), but I ultimately just didn’t want to do it. So I didn’t, and that’s okay.
- I cannot be upset about the things that I don’t get to do. You can’t do everything. Every time someone asked me where I had been and I answered about going to Chiang Mai, they would say, “Oh did you make it up to Pai?” “No, I didn’t have time.” “That’s too bad, I LOVE Pai.” I would have loved it too, I’m sure, and I tried really hard to work it in, but I had so much else I wanted to do too! And I didn’t want to spend my time being upset about not doing something while doing something I really wanted to do.
Since you’ve made it this far, here’s an elephant picture for you:
That’s a wrap on most of my planning action – let me know if you have any questions! I plan to talk more about what I did in each city, so more on that to come. I also love travel planning and helping people get out there (it’s not as intimidating as some people think!), so please let me know if I can help at all.