Help me plan my trip to Asia!!
August 10, 2012 4:00 PM   Subscribe

Help me plan my trip to Asia!!

I will be completing my bachelors degree this year and decided to take a break from academia.

I have originally planned to go to Japan to teach English, but since my dad is retiring (he works at China airlines) I want to capitalize on his flight discounts and see other parts of Asia before I do that.

Since it's so hard to organize with others, I am most likely traveling alone.

I have been working quite a bit and should be able to have 4-6k Canadian saved up by next April (I plan to travel around this time).
My father seems really enthusiastic about me traveling so he even offered to lend me some money during my travels if I need it.

I can speak intermediate French, fluent Mandarin, fluent English, and beginner level Japanese.

With all this being said, I really want to see some amazing sights, know more about myself by traveling alone, and also also experience some sort of spiritual enlightenment by doing things I would never normally do.

The locations/activites I'm really interested in are:

Tibet - Trekking, hikes
Nepal - Trekking, hikes
China - see the mountains, great wall, etc.

I will definitely be going to Taiwan to see family, and Japan and Korea in the future, so I left those out!

Some of these places I haven't done as much research, but I was just wondering what other places in Asia you guys might suggest, and also activities? I am open to all suggestions, I really want this to be an eye opening journey!
posted by Trinergy to Travel & Transportation (14 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I've only been to Thailand, but my one big suggestion on traveling to Asia from North America would be to schedule in plenty of rest and relaxation spots - Asian cities are super crowded and overwhelming (and I say this as a NYer) - we went to Bangkok and then to Phuket to chill and that was perfect. You may also want to research where the North American expats or travelers hang out, if you feel that may be beneficial for you.

Have a great time, this sounds like a really awesome trip!
posted by cestmoi15 at 4:18 PM on August 10, 2012

I agree with cestmoi. I haven't been to any of the countries on your list, but the best decision I made when I backpacked around India was to fly into Mumbai, spend a day or so, and the almost immediately head to Goa for some relaxation. It was a great way to get acclimated to the culture shock stuff without also dealing with the exhaustion and overwhelmingness of the Asian megacity.
posted by Sara C. at 4:24 PM on August 10, 2012

I have traveled extensively in all the places you list except Vietnam. I would suggest first reading through some Lonely Planet Thorntree forum posts and going to the library to browse guidebooks.

Based on the places you list you could do a trip similar to one I've done (and remove Nepal and India):

I flew into Beijing and traveled overland to Ulan Bator. Once there I joined with a few others and we took a 3 week trip around the country in a van with a driver. This is pretty much the only way to go there and isn't too expensive (30-40 USD/day). Indeed a lot for Asia, but not for a tour.

After that I headed back to Beijing and made my way to Chengdu overland. Once there I booked a flight to Lhasa. From there I saw the region and then took a bus to Kathamandu. pent a month or so around Nepal and then buses and trains down to India.

After two months in India I flew from Kolkata to Bangkok. From there I explored Thailand, Laos and Cambodia, then down to Malaysia and Singapore. Since 2005 I've spent about 3-3.5 years in Asia just traveling around.

Google and make lists and make a plan- all you need is an idea of a route. The ONLY reservations I had for the trip described above- ticket into Beijing, ticket out of Singapore, ticket booked with Chinese agent (paid for once arriving in Beijing) for Beijing to Ulan Bator, and a hostel reservation on Beijing so I would get picked up at the airport for free.

Guidebooks are awesome-don't be too cool to use them, and not too scared to find other ways. If anything, they are awesome for maps and bus timetables (etc). Pack light. I've traveled as long as 29 months non-stop with 13-15 pounds of stuff. You do not need a laptop in most cases.

Good luck! Yay!
posted by maya at 4:27 PM on August 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've been around SE a few times, and based on those experiences I would strongly suggest including some time in Cambodia-- fascinating place and Angor Wat is wonderful-- and, depending on the time that you have, thinking carefully about Indonesia's inclusion. I love Indonesia and if you can do it, do, but be aware of the geography's limitations, relatively speaking. Because it is an archipelago it is more difficult to navigate cheaply and in a straightforward manner than other parts of SE Asia. There are boats and cheap flights (which go up significantly if booked close to the date and sometimes do not accept foreign credit cards) but the boats are slow and the flights-well, that is a different experience of travel.

No doubt the Mandarin and English will be extremely useful, and the French occasionally so in parts of Vietnam (and Laos, if you happen to get there-- another wonderful spot), though in 3 trips I met one person only who spoke French and not English.

Someone will probably vehemently disagree with this but I would drop Malaysia and pick up Laos or Cambodia in a heartbeat. In fact, I would skip Singapore (clean and clinical in my limited experience) and Thailand (depending on where you go, of course-- overly touristed and full of young men looking to have tacky cheap experiences...) too. But that really really depends on what kind of holiday you are after and what your experience of this part of the world is and what your motivations are.... How tolerant you are of cultural difference and how tolerant/pleased you are by seeing lots of foreigners doing the same things/potentially acting quite crassly towards the local culture-- these are really significant in planning a trip.

And the really major thing missing from your post is how long you have. Because that changes everything!

Have a great time.
posted by jojobobo at 5:30 PM on August 10, 2012

I really want to see some amazing sights, know more about myself by traveling alone, and also also experience some sort of spiritual enlightenment by doing things I would never normally do.

I haven't been to China, Mongolia, Vietnam or Tibet but I travelled as a single woman for 5 months through Burma, Thailand, Malaysia, Loas and Cambodia in 2004 and I've spent approx 12 months in India, Nepal, Bangladesh & Sri Lanka combined in the late 1990s.

My tips:
*Take it easy, don't try to fit in too much. Travelling is great time to learn about your own rhythms.
*Don't plan/book too much in advance. Play your travels by ear. Welcome serendipity.
*Do book a few nights in a hotel at your place of arrival to get your bearings and make plans for your next stop.
*Pack very light. Everything you need can be bought somewhere else.
*Do pack a compact high quality water filter to save buying bottled water of dubious quality. You can save hundreds of dollars and a volume of landfill by filtering your own water on your travels.
*Do take out top-quality travel insurance. It will give you courage and peace of mind.
*Guidebooks are good. Buy digital copies. The Lonely Planet Thorn Tree forum is useful.
*Yes to Cambodia and Laos. Yes to Malaysia, especially Borneo. Don't see much point in Singapore except to fly in/out of.
*Eschew flying and travel overland (or by boat) as much as possible.
posted by Kerasia at 5:42 PM on August 10, 2012

While in Singapore, take the time to eat at Newton Circus. Street vendors are illegal in Singapore, so they're rounded up into state sanctioned 'food courts'. It's best at lunch and late night, some of the best street food I've had - and arguably better than most fine dining! Don't miss the chili crab dishes, tiger prawns, and the chance to have a local make for you what THEY would eat.
posted by matty at 6:54 PM on August 10, 2012

Whoa that's a tall order. Unless you're planning on a 2-3 year trip. So you're probably a bit overwhelmed by the researching and the deciding and trying to find travelling partners and figure out flights so I just wanted to say: take a deep breath. It will all work out and you will have a great time NO MATTER WHAT.

My advice is to stay flexible. If the logistics for using your Dad's connection before he retires get too complicated, just use it for the transpacific flights and rely on AirAsia or another budget airline to hop around SEAsia.

You'll pick up travelling companions wherever you go. They'll have heard of some cool place to stay and you'll join them. Then you'll be talking to some local guy and he'll tell you about another place that sounds wonderful and you'll arrange to meet up with your new-found pals there. Lucky you: internet. So you can all keep in touch and meet up in the next country or two.

Activities? Well, just walking down the street is going to be pretty fascinating compared to back home. If you are interested in trekking, you might make that the focus of your trip and plan a trek in each country. Or visiting temples or markets or beaches.

But if you feel you are constantly pressuring yourself to see Most! Famous! Site! stop and ask yourself a) do you really want to see it, is it meaningful to you? and b) could you wait and catch it on your next trip?

Oh yeah, and familiarize yourself with national and religious holiday dates and avoid travelling on them at all costs.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 8:01 PM on August 10, 2012

I did a similar trip a while back and it was amazing. Some suggestions:

- Definitely don't plan on going to all those countries unless you have, like, 2 years. I spent 6 months in four countries (Thailand, Laos, Northern India and Nepal) and there's so much more I could have seen in at least one of those countries (India). Long-haul traveling is different from a short vacation in that it can get pretty tiring, and you'll want to work in some time to just hang out for a bit. Also, the slower you travel, the more you really get a feel for the places you go, the culture, etc. Travel too fast and you're just seeing the guidebook highlights. ALSO, there will always be delays in developing countries.

- Please do go to Laos and/or Cambodia. Laos is unbelievably lovely. If you want a real adventure, take a wooden boat up the Nam Ou River - it's like floating through a Chinese watercolor.

- I didn't make it to Tibet but I did go to Ladakh in Northwestern India and it was a great way to experience Tibetan culture. I've actually heard that it's a better place to experience Tibetan culture and Buddhism because it's more freely expressed than it is in Tibet. It's right where the Himalayans, the Tibetan Plateau and the Karakorums all jut up against each other and it was the highlight of my trip.

- Your first stop in any new city should always be the market (night market if the city has one). Great way to get a sense for the local culture and eat some amazing (and amazingly cheap!) food.

- Definitely stay open to changing you itinerary based on what you hear or people you meet. I can't tell you how many times I planned to do one thing and then changed my plans because I met some cool people who were going somewhere else. These were, without fail, my best experiences.

- Do pay attention to seasons. For instance, I trekked in Nepal in July and wouldn't recommend that because it's the rainy season. But it was great for Ladakh because you can only go there between June and September. Laos might also be a bit challenging in the summer since there are so many mountainous unpaved roads, but I've traveled in Thailand during that time and it was absolutely no problem. But if you're leaving in April, definitely make Thailand your first stop so you can experience Songkran!

Have fun!
posted by lunasol at 8:05 PM on August 10, 2012

Darjeeling and nearby Himalayan towns in northeastern India are also good places to check out Tibetan Buddhist culture, and slightly more accessible than Ladakh. Especially if you're planning to head into Nepal -- this part of India is about as "on the way" as it gets from Kolkata to Nepal.
posted by Sara C. at 8:39 PM on August 10, 2012

Response by poster: O my god I love you guys, the suggestions are amazing, keep them coming!! I am definitely interested in Lao and Cambodia now, do you guys mind also including the approximate budget as well so I can know how I should distribute my finances. And I will also definitely keep an open mind when traveling, thank you all for the suggestions do far, please keep them coming, the more insight the better!!
posted by Trinergy at 9:26 PM on August 10, 2012

Trinergy, your budget will be imposible to estimate. Not including air travel to and from Asia, preparation costs (a couple of visas needed in advance and purchases like a backpack) and travel insurance, it could be as low as $10 USD a day and as high $100 USD a day.

Your budget will depend on many factors, but mainly 3 things: the speed of your travel, your necessary comfort level, and the amount of alcohol you drink. Of course other things factor in, like tours, excursions like jungle treks or elephant riding, and souvenir and gift purchases.

I usually spend less than the minimum that Lonely Planet mentions, and have so in every continent but Antarctica.

Traveling fairly simply and not too fast, staying in cheap accommodation(hostels, sometimes dorms, often simple rooms with fans and no TV), eating street food and sometimes self-catering, with ice cream or coffee shops sometimes, not too many big expenses like parasailing, you are looking at an average of about $500-$600 a month. I was in India from October 2011-April 2012 and spent $1300! Some countries and days will be super cheap, and others, much more. Mongolia is cheap-Ish if you stay in UB. The best way to see stuff there is to hook up with people as I mentioned above, and this costs way more per day than my India example. In Malaysia you can get by on $12-$15 a day or sometimes less.

Please take these numbers with caution. They are based on my own experiences and level of comfort (1-2 small notches above the cheapest of the cheap travel!). I have records of every penny I've spent on all my trips and can look up some of that, but you are best started with google and the wisdom of hundreds in the form of guidebooks!! Again, pack light! And don't bring stuff you care too much about- buy two sets of lightly used or simple clothes for the road. That will last several months.
posted by maya at 10:35 PM on August 10, 2012

For a slightly different perspective, I spent about $1000 a month in India in 2008. Now, I didn't really economize much -- I did whatever I wanted, whenever, without ever thinking much about money. I didn't drive the hardest bargains. If I pulled into town and got offered a room for 500 rupees (a bit more than $10 at the time), I might dicker them down to 450, but I was never one of those travelers who could brag about how they just weren't spending any money at all.

On the other hand, my understanding is that Southeast Asia is cheaper. Also, if you're there in the rainy season, things might be cheaper still.

But I don't think you could go too far wrong to assume $1000 per month of travel, not counting if you spend time in crazy expensive cities. Any world-class major Asian city is going to have costs on par with its Western counterparts. Traveling quickly and western-style levels of comfort (especially air conditioning) will also pad out your costs.
posted by Sara C. at 10:49 PM on August 10, 2012

Budget - I agree it's hard to say, but I got a good rule of thumb years ago from The Practical Nomad (which I definitely recommend): check out a variety of sources (online forums, guidebooks, etc) and try to figure out rough lodging budgets for the places you're planning to go. Then multiply that by 3 to get your rough minimum daily budget. The idea is that your food costs will roughly be the same as your lodging costs, and so will your transportation costs. This doesn't include extras (like SCUBA diving or guided trekking trips) or small emergencies/things going wrong (like having to spend a night in a nice hotel because you feel like you're dying of traveler's stomach), so multiply it by 5 just to be safe.

Generally, I've found this works pretty well for me. You just have to be honest with yourself - don't assume you'll stay in the cheapest place every night, but also don't assume that you need first world accommodations, either. For me personally, I found that while the absolute cheapest places were usually pretty horrible, the places just a step up from that were often pretty good - and that's where you'll meet interesting other travelers. And a great thing about Southeast and South Asia is that your money goes really far. You can get a (basic) private room for much less than a hostel bed in Europe, an amazing meal at a market for a couple of dollars, and so on.
posted by lunasol at 1:14 AM on August 11, 2012

If I could do this, I would start by making a list of all the things that have long been on my "must see this before I die" list and then figure out an itinerary that covers these as well as gives me a feel for the country. Some examples below, since my particular interest in the ancient Hindu kingdoms that spread across South East Asia.

the former Champa civilization in southern parts of Central Vietnam, Funan in Cambodia, the Khmer Empire in Indochina, Langkasuka Kingdom, Gangga Negara and Old Kedah in the Malay Peninsular, the Srivijayan kingdom on Sumatra, the Singhasari kingdom and the Majapahit Empire based in Java, Bali, and the Philippine archipelago.

And some examples of spots to visit:

Angkor Wat - Kampuchea (Cambodia)
Borubodur - Java, Indonesia
Bali, Indonesia - the only Hindu island

What I'm saying is that with all your background reading and time, find a theme that captures your attention, in this part of the world and then trace that around for a while.
posted by infini at 3:19 AM on August 11, 2012

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