Backpacking trip planning advice.
November 15, 2011 9:37 AM   Subscribe

Help with planning a backpacking trip covering Asia->SE Asia. Details inside.

I am currently living in China and have roughly 6 weeks off for the Chinese New Year. My plan is to set out to Tibet/Yunnan Provinces and then from there take off to Nepal, India, Thailand, and possibly Vietnam.

I am a female solo-traveler, planning to bring camping gear along just in case the moment arises or I'm in a pinch. (I know, I know-- traveling as a female solo is dangerous in all sorts of ways, but I've traveled alone before and find that just using common sense and following your instincts works best for keeping you safe)

I will mostly be traveling and staying in cities, using the guide of Lonely Planet and internet resources. Some hostel stays will probably be booked prior while others will be more spontaneous.

I was wondering if mefe's could lend out any advice about how to prepare for the trip, how much time do you think would be needed in each country (I'm thinking about 1 week in each), how to budget accordingly, currency conversion information, etc.

Roughly, my budget is looking like it will be around 16,000 Yuan (~$2,500 USD).

I will be budget traveling-- eating low cost meals, staying in hostels, and taking trains/buses as much as possible. Only considering a flight on the return after finishing the trip. Most of my trip I'd hope to be just touring the cities on my own, hiking a bit, etc (no need for tours so much with the exception of Tibet).

Does this sound feasible? From your past experiences hopefully you can fill me in on what worked/didn't work/wish you planned for, etc during a backpacking trip you embarked on prior.

Many thanks in advance. :)
posted by melizabeth to Travel & Transportation around China (10 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
You may find it more interesting to follow your route via Sikkim and/or Bhutan rather than [India] per se - I don't know if it would be worth the hassle for just a week. Also look into how difficult it would be to enter India after having passed through those regions (politically speaking).
posted by infini at 10:00 AM on November 15, 2011

i think it sounds feasible, especially the budget traveling. since you live in china, you know what that really means.

one thing to keep in mind: viet nam also celebrates the new year at the same time. so, i'd try to avoid it, actually, the week before and week after the actual holiday.

i'd suggest looking for some budget airline flights so somewhere relatively far away, then working your way back. Beijing to india? singapore? jakarta? then also pick a place to fly back from, maybe ha noi, or bkk. for example, i got a saigon to singapore flight for something like $50.

also, don't try to pack too much in: you'll be too rushed and only get to do the big touristy things, then miss some of the cooler things. and if a city sucks, you can just go to the next one early.

use lonely planet as just a rough guide, it's not a bible. try to stay at hostels/go drinking w/ some other backpackers, and ask them about their trips, what places were cool, etc.

currency: bring dollars, and convert in country. for example: lao currency is worthless, just use baht or dollars.

don't bring a computer, just bring a flash drive and use internet cafes.

time per country: totally depends on you.

the trip i did was: singapore, malaysia, thailand, laos, thailand, cambodia, vietnam. all in about 6 weeks.

feel free to pm me if you want more info.
posted by cupcake1337 at 10:16 AM on November 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

I would leave the camping gear at home. It's heavy and you are not likely to use it in Thailand or Vietnam. To get an idea of costs, look at these daily budgets for Vietnam and Thailand. Also have a look at South East Asia Backpacker and the forums on BootsnAll.
posted by Ariadne at 10:25 AM on November 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

Take it from me, traveling in China during the New Year is really difficult. I lived in the country for 3 years (left last year) and traveled during every holiday period, including in Yunnan during the holiday. Tibet, and Tibetan areas of Sichuan, really close off to foreigners during the holiday period. I'm not sure what the current situation is, but in 2010, I was denied access to any Tibetan area of Sichuan province.

Traveling by train during that period absolutely requires that you get your ticket on the day they go on sale. This sounds easy, but it isn't. Each train station (or city or province...I never could figure it out, even though I was traveling with someone totally fluent in Chinese) is different. In some, the tickets go on sale 5 days before the day or travel. In some, 7. In others, 8 or 10. In some places, if you have an early morning ticket, you're allowed to buy it the night before they would technically go on sale. In most places, you can't buy the ticket except in the city from which you will depart. That means that it's really difficult to arrive somewhere, stay a day of two, and then leave the next day. Be prepared to get stuck somewhere for a few days because of this. If you can, make a circuitous route. For instance, arrive in Kunming and that day buy a ticket to leave Kunming 10 days later.

Also, in some of the outlying areas of China (not sure about the other countries) buses stop running during the New Year period. Southern Xinjiang is that way. When traveling there, we got on to the last bus that would be going through that area for 1 week. Barely avoided getting stuck there, and we had a wedding to get to.

I'd also advise buying bus tickets well in advance. Every type of ticket dries up during the holiday period, so the more in advance you can plan and purchase, the better.

And don't rely on food on the trains or in bus stations. If you can, get to a market or supermarket and get a bag full of stuff you like. Otherwise you'll be stuck with really overpriced, luke-warm bad Chinese food prepared on the train, prepackaged ramen, or whatever strange snacks the conductors happen to be selling. There is boiled water available in every train car, though, so bring something to fill up.

And trust me on this, you may think you can handle a seat or a standing ticket for an 8 hour trip, but you really can't. A few times, I was stuck somewhere and those were the only tickets available, and it was more miserable than I can even describe. Pay a little more and plan in advance so that you can get a hard sleeper. They're comfortable and well worth the small additional cost.

Some hostels and hotels can book train tickets, but they've got the same limitations on purchase period that you do.
posted by msbrauer at 10:31 AM on November 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

don't bring a computer, just bring a flash drive and use internet cafes.

In China, most usb ports in internet cafes are either disabled or don't work. I've needed to use a USB device a few times in internet cafes, and it usually involves me moving from computer to computer and cafe to cafe until I find one that actually works.
posted by msbrauer at 10:33 AM on November 15, 2011

I am a female solo-traveler, planning to bring camping gear along just in case the moment arises or I'm in a pinch

i missed that at first. oh dear god, do not bring camping gear. the *only* time it could be useful is if you're on a trip in some forest, but you'd only do that on a guided tour, and they would already have the needed camping stuff.

but camping near a city? finding some random place to setup a tent and sleep for the night? i would seriously fear for my life.
posted by cupcake1337 at 12:18 PM on November 15, 2011

Camping gear seems like a lot of added weight for not enough reward. Hostels are quite cheap and surprisingly decent.

1 week in each country seems pretty crazy - I spent 5 weeks just in Yunnan. You'd probably save yourself from a lot of rushing about if you just stuck with one or two countries.

Maybe just do three weeks in Vietnam and another three in Thailand.
posted by backwards guitar at 1:30 PM on November 15, 2011

You might want to research how and where you can do border crossings, unless you're planning to hop around by plane.

For example, Laos - Yunnan was possible last time I looked, but I have no idea whether China - Nepal can be done overland at all (Nepal is a kind of buffer between India & China, and impenetrable northwards AFAIK).

Eastwards from India, you're not going anywhere. On the Indian side there are the Northeastern Hill States, where the government severely restricts access, and even if you could get to the Burmese border, the Junta don't want you in that part of Burma either.

Contrary to what infini said above, though, Sikkim - India should be possible; as Sikkim is practically indistinguishable administratively from India (I got a cute little stamp from the District Magistrate in Darjeeling to allow me to enter Sikkim, a simple formality). However, I doubt again that there's an overland crossing into Sikkim from the north.

PS - I agree that the camping gear should be left behind. You really don't want to be camping out alone, and it'll just piss you off, lugging that stuff around everywhere.

Budget-wise, you're averaging USD$60/day, which is way more than enough to cover all your on-ground costs (food, land transport, accommodation, sights etc) as these countries probably average under $20 per day for a regular budget backpacker who splashes out when appropriate, but visas can take a big chunk out of your budget. If you're seriously thinking of around a week per country, look up what the visas & exit fees cost, and re-evaluate after that.
posted by UbuRoivas at 6:56 PM on November 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

First, as mentioned, China and Vietnam are not good places to visit during Lunar New Year. Stores and restaurants and hostels will be closed.

Second, no camping gear.

Third, I think you're itinerary is far too ambitious. Six weeks is a nice chunk of time, but hell, I'm planning a four-week trip to India during the same time and I've resigned myself to doing far much less than I wanted. Remember that a day on a train or bus is a day you won't see many interesting things.

Fourth, your budget is fine.

Off the top of my head I'd consider something like Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, or maybe just India for six weeks.

I know nothing about China.

In general you'll be fine as a solo female as long as you follow basic safety rules, remain aware of your surroundings, and I'd suggest buying a money belt for your passport and main sources of cash.

Chances are you'll overpack -- I usually do. In any decent hostile or hotel you'll be able to ask for laundry services. (In Cambodia or Laos you can was -- literally -- pounds of clothing for about one dollar.)


Stay light, consider a less ambitious itinerary.
posted by bardic at 8:59 PM on November 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

Or, if you go from west to east -- Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam. The Chinese New Year lasts a week so it should be over by the time you get to Vietnam. Fly into Bangkok, bus through Laos and Cambodia (although flights may be cheaper than you'd expect) bus and/or train it up the Vietnam coast, fly back to China from Hanoi.

Of those countries, Laos and Cambodia were my favorites. Very safe places as well. Thailand and Vietnam are a bit sketchier for different reasons, but in general you'll be fine.

A nice, air-conditioned one-bedroom in Laos, Cambodia, or Vietnam will run you about 20 USD a night. You can go even cheaper for a dorm-style situation.

Thailand will be more expensive, but not prohibitively so.
posted by bardic at 9:02 PM on November 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

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