Traveling the world nervousness, questions, and suggestions
January 23, 2014 10:25 AM   Subscribe

I'm trying to make travel plans, however, the whole situation is changing so rapidly. I have not booked any tickets yet. My rough original intention was to travel throughout Southeast Asia through China (Hong Kong) then up to Europe. I originally planned to start in Singapore and work through Malaysia, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam but the recent situation in Bangkok has made me nervous. I'm trying to stay as safe as possible. I want to do as little backtracking as possible. I have saved up a bit of cash and am using the trip as a personal sabbatical/soul searching. My time frame can be up to a year on the road. What would a typical itinerary look like/do you have any alternate suggestions? What do people generally do when on the road for this long/any suggestions to stay busy during this time?
posted by nathanm to Travel & Transportation (14 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
As far as planning itineraries go, I have found the "TripPlanner" at AirTreks to be useful even if you don't use them to handle arrangements, because their flight database makes their alternative suggestions reasonably useful. Consequently I find it very handy when noodling around thinking about routes etc.

As for typical itineraries, I'm not sure there is such a thing, but if you view the prefab AirTreks specials you might get some ideas. I'm not trying to be a shill but I have used them in the past to handle some pretty wacky yearlong trip flights and it worked out really nicely. Try to limit flights to routes that cannot reasonably be covered by land; land-travel is more flexible so if things go out the window it's a hell of a lot easier to grab the next bus rather than try to rework flights.

As for staying busy, well, I suspect that you probably shouldn't try to "stay busy." You will be swamped. You will also be bored. These things happen, and I would suggest that you will be happier if you're prepared to simply take things as they come. Don't be the guy who flips out because the ferry to Samos is late; be the guy who thinks "huh, OK, well time to go check out the town then!"

The more flexible you are, the happier you will be.

To fill the inevitable dull moments I took up knitting. Then I discovered that I had no dull moments, and never knitted a dang thing that entire year, not even when my bus spent 6hrs parked at a military checkpoint in Burma with nobody allowed on or off the bus.
posted by aramaic at 10:51 AM on January 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Could you speak a little bit to what "safety" means to you? Because it means different things to different people and is going to depend on your comfort zone.

For me, personally, I don't worry so much about things like mass political protests in a particular part of a country I want to visit. In fact, I once found myself traveling in a region (Kolkata and Darjeeling, in West Bengal, India) where there was political unrest somewhat similar to what's going on in Bangkok right now, but which I couldn't have foreseen before I arrived. It made some aspects of travel complicated, and I had to fly by the seat of my pants a little bit, but it wasn't dangerous per se.

Keep in mind that you always have other options. There are other cities in Thailand you could visit instead of Bangkok, if things really are that dangerous. My understanding is that all the beaches and hillside resort type areas are perfectly safe.

However, as I said, this really is different for different people. I have a friend who spent 3 months in Sri Lanka during their civil war and thought nothing of it. I have another friend who is leery of visiting Paris because she's worried she could get pickpocketed on the metro. I know people who've been basically kidnapped and thought it was all a funny anecdote, and people who thought their lives were endangered because a man stared at them on the street.

You should do whatever works for you based on your own comfort level.

Here's some advice about the current situation in Bangkok specifically from an Asia-centric travel website. You may want to also check your country's travel advisories.

If things get really dire, at the very least it should be perfectly safe for you to use the Bangkok airport as a layover point. Nothing wrong with flying from Saigon to Hong Kong via Bangkok, if you don't feel comfortable staying there.
posted by Sara C. at 10:54 AM on January 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'll also say something about "typical itineraries".

There absolutely is a "banana pancake trail" in Southeast Asia. And it wouldn't surprise me if there was a typical tourist route in China. Europe changes all the time because of things like new countries being admitted into the EU and budget flights and such, but when I was in college and knew people who were Backpacking Through Europe, there absolutely were popular routes, or at least popular side trips from a particular city, popular orders to do things in, etc.

Here's the thing about that stuff.

Sometimes the "banana pancake trail" can make life easier. There will be lots of buses or trains or flights, and they will leave and arrive at convenient times. There will be hostels and tour operators and lots of people who want to help meet your needs on the road. There will be plenty of places to get food you will want to eat, at hours you want to eat it, with standards of cleanliness you find appropriate. You will meet other people along the way. It's a little easier to make sure you're on the right bus, because, oh, right, it's the one with all the other backpacker types. Also, sometimes the tourist trail is the tourist trail because it really is the most convenient way to get from point A to point B.

However, in other ways it can actually be easier to do things your own way, in the way that makes sense for you or in order to optimize the kind of stuff you want to do on your trip. When I went to India, my itinerary was mostly built around having friends to visit in some cities, and also the fact that the cheapest flights were out of Mumbai. So I ended up diverging pretty seriously from the tourist trail. A lot of my best experiences in India happened when I was doing the stuff I needed to do in order to make my trip work, rather than the Typical Itinerary. I met more locals. I ate more interesting food. I had to experience India as it really is rather than just hop from tourist ghetto to tourist ghetto. Do not be afraid to leave the tourist trail!

You can find out the local "banana pancake trail" from any Lonely Planet guidebook. In fact, with a Lonely Planet it can often be difficult to get off it. So if you want to know what that typically is for a given region, definitely check the Lonely Planet. From there, you can figure out whether that actually meshes with the trip you intend to take, and how to get off it.

If you want advice about building a travel itinerary off the gringo trail (especially if the issue is "I need to get from City X to City Y for Reasons, even though western travelers never do that"), PM me. I end up doing it for almost every trip I take, and there are tricks to it.
posted by Sara C. at 11:10 AM on January 23, 2014 [3 favorites]

Bangkok is currently dangerous - avoid.
posted by Kruger5 at 11:16 AM on January 23, 2014

Came in to say the opposite - I have extended family in Thailand and each time there's news I email asking "omg is it safe?" and they say "business as usual in Thailand, they like to get worked up about their protests!"

Currently there is a travel advisory against Bangkok for 60 days
, so it depends on when you plan on leaving.

Finally on long-term "self-searching" traveling in general: bring a notebook. Then go where the winds blow you.

Find the top 5 things you'd like to do in each city/region and then when you arrive you can decide if you're actually going to do those things. If it's the journey and Not the destination then the most important thing is to be flexible. It's not about staying busy, it's about tapping into "the flow" of travel and then just go with it. Then it doesn't really matter if you didn't get to that museum on time, trust me.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 11:32 AM on January 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Regardless of what you do on your trip: travel insurance. is a good place to compare policy coverage and needs. Look for medical and medical evacuation as a bare minimum.

The US State Dept. (and the Foreign Offices of other major nations) publish up-to-date travel advisories. You can also register your travel with the state dept. so the respective embassies know where you are, and when, and how they (and your family) can contact you in emergency.
posted by blue suede stockings at 11:32 AM on January 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Do not rely on family, people living in Bangkok - they have familiarity with the land. A traveler does not. A traveler (esp first timer) needs to avoid a situation that could spiral out of control.

in the last Bangkok protest, many travelers did not heed warnings, and got stranded at the airports, unable to leave immediately. Large-scale political protests such as the ones in Bangkok are no joke.
posted by Kruger5 at 11:40 AM on January 23, 2014

In general, if you ever are caught in a situation like this*, the best advice is:

- Listen to advice on the ground. If other travelers are staying away, stay away. If you get in a taxi and the driver doesn't want to take you somewhere, respect that. If your hostel prints up a local map and has certain areas pointed out as not safe, they probably do that for a reason.

- Follow advisories and warnings on the ground. When I was in India, there were three different situations where for complicated (but not dangerous) political reasons, travelers were given specific instructions from the government. I'm sure people who ignored these warnings were up shit creek when, for example, they missed the last bus or the airport was closed or roadblocks meant travel times spiraled out of control.

- Use your head, for chrissakes. It's all well and good to be "finding yourself" and footloose and fancy free and flexible and that's just, like, your opinion, man. But don't be oblivious. Stay away from political protests. Don't be a hero. Don't get any silly ideas that you are going to be in Tahrir Square documenting an uprising for posterity, being Part Of History.

- Don't think that local laws, social dynamics, or cultural mores don't apply to you, or that you can just bribe your way out of any inconvenient situation. Don't fall into that weird trap white people sometimes do in developing countries, where you just think to yourself, "Come on, it's Thailand, man..." as if other countries are a video game and not actual real life.

*Keep in mind, too, that if you're planning on spending a year traveling all over the world in and out of developing countries, it is very likely that you're going to run into some form of instability at some point.
posted by Sara C. at 11:54 AM on January 23, 2014

I did a 6-month backpacking trip around Asia in 2001 and had two unexpected political events disrupt my travel: the royal family of Nepal was massacred two weeks before I was supposed to fly from BKK to Kathmandu (resulting in mass protests) and then September 11 happened one week before I was supposed to fly home to Boston.

In the first case, I just rearranged my travel. Actually, I had booked through Airtreks (had no idea they were still in business! they were great!) and they were able to help me rebook my flights so that I went to India first instead of Nepal. Not a big deal at all. September 11 was more of a problem because it was at the end of my trip and I was completely broke + stranded in BKK for a week, but that worked out OK too. What I'm trying to say is that these things happen, and you can roll with it.

As for what to do on a day-to-day basis, I remember wondering about that before I left on my trip, but once you get out there you'll see it's not really an issue. It might seem at first like this is a really long version of a normal 2-week vacation, but it's not really. For one thing, you won't need or want to pack your days with sightseeing. Having all this time means that you can be as busy or relaxed as you want.

Also, I've found that the old adage of the "journey is as important as the destination" is even more true when you are traveling for a long time. Some of my most amazing experiences from that long trip had nothing to do with sights I saw - they were amazing bus trips I took, or interesting people I met and hung out with for a week, or the night market I ate dinner at every night for a week in a Thai town.

Likewise, almost without exception, the best experiences I had were those I hadn't planned for. There was the 3 day trip in the mountains of Northern Laos. I hadn't planned on that part because the destination didn't seem worth it, but then I met some really cool people going and figured "why not?" and it's given me some of my best-ever travel memories.

Also, the other thing about traveling long-term is that sometimes you'll have to spend a day just running errands: doing laundry, arranging visas, getting cash, buying and mailing postcards, etc. All of these things take longer than they do at home but they can also be really great cultural experiences if viewed in the right light.

Also, if you get tired of traveling and the backpacker circuit, you can hop off at any time. Stay with locals through for a few days, or spend a month volunteering or taking a class.

If I were in your position, I would book the fewest number of flights possible now. And book a few nights at the nicest hostel in your first city. Spend lots of time researching and thinking about where you'd like to go and what you'd like to do, but don't make any big commitments yet.
posted by lunasol at 12:10 PM on January 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

Anywhere that seems dangerous, unstable, iffy, questionable, or nervous-making, schedule only for LATE in the trip. Three reasons:

1. This will give a chance for events to unfold there

2. You'll understand the dynamics better when you're in the region (even in a global info age, you'll have a better handle from 1000 miles away than from 10,000 miles away)

3. You'll be a savvier, more resourceful and well-seasoned traveler by the end of your trip, so it's smart to save the high-difficulty parts for then (you'll also be way smarter about making these judgements).

So do the easy stuff first.
posted by Quisp Lover at 12:16 PM on January 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm going to venture out and side with St. Peepsburg on this one regarding the protests in Bangkok (I visited from late Nov. to early Dec. last year when the protests were beginning.) Yes, keep an eye out for any new developments, but as long as you avoid going to the locations that the protests are actually taking place, I wouldn't strike out Thailand from your list of places to visit.
posted by misozaki at 2:37 PM on January 23, 2014

Have you factored the weather into your travel plans? I would start with that. Chiang Mai in the hot season isn't nearly as fun as Chiang Mai in the cool dry winter. Peninsular Malaysia has two different monsoon seasons, etc.

Nthing going with the flow. At first, just walking outside will be entertainment enough. Who knew street life could be so fascinating? But I've found that on long trips, I needed some sort of project. It could be photographing a particular subject, or visiting schools/refugee camps/orphanages, or taking cooking or language lessons, or collecting bottle caps or textiles.

Oh, and look up a list of national and religious holidays for each country on your list. Traveling during Chinese New Year is hell.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 6:10 PM on January 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

My only concern for Bangkok is that the international airport has been occupied by protestors before. on the other hand, the disruption wasn't so dire, and my friends just came back from Bangkok in the thick of it (separate friends, different trips). I've been to Bangkok a couple of years back during the height of one of the protests, but I wasn't there to travel, but for work.

So my only advice is, stay chill and be prepared that Bangkok may introduce a wrinkle in your travel in that you may not be able to play tourist there. If you'd like to avoid Bangkok altogether, there are other Thai locations that can serve as your landing/takeoff point. Really, the unrest is located primarily in Bangkok.
posted by cendawanita at 7:16 AM on January 24, 2014

Just got back from a 14 month round the world trip which I did by myself.
You don't have to worry about what you will do day to day to keep busy. You will find your own rhythm. Some days will be filled with adventure and sight seeing. Some days you will be chilling out, reading a book and sipping a beer.

It is not like being on a two week holiday. there is more time to plan and figure out what you want to do.

Be flexible! Southeast Asia is really easy to travel through even if you don't speak the languages.
I would second the advice above about checking out the national holidays in each country. Trying to travel in Laos during Songkran was a bit of a pain.

Check your embassy website for travel advice on each country before you enter it. I also found the following websites extremely helpful when travelling in Asia.

travel fish

wiki travel

lonely planet forum

and of course, Metafilter.

I don't have an itinerary for you. There is a well established loop through Asia that most people seem to take. It is easy to get off the beaten track though.

You will have such a great time.
posted by drugstorefrog at 2:24 AM on January 25, 2014

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