Lessons from South East Asia

As with anything that ends, I get unbelievably nostalgic and sort of melancholic (whoa), and this SE Asia trip ending is no different.  Hence, I find myself sitting here thinking over all the lessons I have learned and the new things I have picked up, as well as the things I left behind during the 6 month trip.

Bonfire and sunset in the Philippines.

I’m not sure if it’s making me feel better or worse reminiscing like this right now, but I once watched a Japanese TV show about how to declutter your life, and about how it’s good to acknowledge the good in things before saying goodbye to them – so maybe that’s what I’m trying to do here also. (I looked into it and it was that bloody Marie Kondo, who is the epitome of awesome!).

So here they are, some lessons this trip taught me:

~ There’s more to Asia than what people tell you ~

One of my favourite travel quotes is by the English writer and poet Samuel Johnson: “The use of traveling is to regulate imagination by reality, and instead of thinking how things may be, to see them as they are.

Pretty much everyone I know has been somewhere in South East Asia.  Whether it is a similar backpacking trip like the one I embarked on for a long period of time, or whether it was simply to Thailand for a week of relaxation (or drinking).  So of course along with that, everyone had an opinion on where I should go, what I should do, how I should get there, what it was going to be like, how the people are, etc… I mean, the fact that I write a travel blog suggests that I too can hand out just as much of that as I was given so I won’t knock it too much!

Condensating Bintang in Belitung


But my point is that after a while, I just couldn’t wait to get there and see it for myself.  I had been thinking about and preparing myself for so many years on what it was going to be like, it was finally time to take all those ideas and preconceived notions and see if any or all of them were true.

Top things people warned me about:

  1. The amount of illnesses that are contractible there.  So I took an extra-strength bug spray, a full medical kit and 3 months worth of malaria tablets…never used any of it!
  2. The high crime rate.  Everyone told me how dangerous Asia was.  Alas, I am inclined to believe that however dangerous you report Asia to be is a direct result of just how careless or ignorant you were. (Some unlucky events aside obviously).
  3. To be careful with the alcohol.  Asia has quite a problem with their hard liquor, as it isn’t produced in the ‘correct’ way – basically fake alcohol.  Instead of drinking the cheap $2 cocktails, I simply stuck to bottled beer (or the occasional bottle of wine – usually brought duty free when flying somewhere!).



~ Appreciation for myself as a traveller ~

I know this will sound ridiculous to most people, but backpacking is hard sometimes! Most people think it’s all lying on the beach and riding scooters in the sunshine – but there are different elements of traveling that suit some people and really bring down others.  I’m quite fine organizing things or finding places to stay or eat – this is where my skills come in handy.


Problem solving however, when forced to stray beyond the organisation, is something I’m not so good at.  I get stressed easily when it comes to spur of the moment situations – I’m not comfortable waiting until the last minute to book accommodation or transport, and when my well laid out plans don’t go exactly that way – I’m frustrated and annoyed.

Something else that, after a long time traveling gets to me, is the extra steps you have to take in order to do some of the most simple things.  Things like laundry (gather the dirty clothes into a bag, wander around town looking for a laundromat, figuring out the cost, having to wait at least 24 hours to get it back, etc), hailing a taxi (Taxi: “500 baht”, Me: “No, only 100 baht.” “200?” “50.” “700?”) or even just buying dinner (‘I want that’ *points*).  I miss the ease and comfort of being able to walk into a familiar restaurant and order my favourite thing from the menu, in a language I speak and understand.

Having said all of this, during this trip I’ve really learned that it’s okay to give yourself a break sometimes if things are difficult.  I always try to stop myself when something is testing me and ask, ‘Will this matter a year from now?’ – or will it just be a really great story to tell one day!?

Consequently, I now have a huge appreciation for myself as a traveller.  In each and every testing time, I have come out the other side either having learned a lesson, or having had an amazing travel moment!  The amount of things I’ve accomplished – albeit not very gracefully most of the time – astonish me.  I literally find myself looking at photos going ‘I can’t believe I actually went to the Philippines, rode a scooter around Siquijor island, drove to a waterfall and swam all afternoon.’


~ Not everyone recycles ~

Holy crap – South East Asia has a trash problem.  A serious, all-consuming, over-whelming mentality of not giving a shit about the planet or what the trash is doing to it.

An article by the Guardian suggested that just five countries: China, Thailand, Philippines, Vietnam and Indonesia are accountable for over 60% of the plastic pollution in the ocean, and having seen it with my own eyes – I would absolutely believe it.  Every single beach we went to had some element of plastic pollution.  They hand out plastic bags for things that don’t need plastic bags. They throw trash anywhere.  Trash cans are impossible to find.

I was actually astounded by not even the fact that no cared, no one even thought about it at all.  Throwing trash on the ground normal.  We walked up Mt Ijen (a beautiful active volcano that is world famous for the blue flame), and there was a pile of trash on the ground RIGHT NEXT to a trash can.

I know most people will also assume that tourism is a huge factor in the pollution – and I’m sure it doesn’t help, however, most of the trash we saw wasn’t being discarded carelessly by tourists, but by locals.  Household items, packaging, bags, all thrown on the road, into the bush, or as below, into the rivers and streams.  One local we asked about it in Indonesia literally said that ‘they don’t care about the trash problem’.

Not only was this river in the Philippines covered in trash, it smelled so terribly bad we almost threw up walking passed.

Luckily, there is a way to get involved when you are in these countries to try and help out. Firstly, do a bit of research for where you are going and find an organisation that works to make things better.  We found loads of eco-projects in Indonesia that arrange beach clean ups weekly if you want to get together with any like-minded travellers.  You could also simply grab a trash sack and wander along the beach if you have some time to kill before your ferry out (just make sure you place that trash bag in the appropriate large bins by hotels/restaurants/etc so it is disposed of in a better way!).

You can also get involved in your own country (because every piece of trash in the ocean starts somewhere), so look into the charities you can support once your travels are over

~ I’m better than my anxieties ~

I’m an over thinker, you see.  I’ll overthink and over-analyse a situation until every possible outcome has been considered and poured over and dissected to within an inch of sanity.  Not quite the backpacking mentality, is it!!

That’s what I love about travel, however, as it doesn’t often allow the luxury of all that time and mental capacity to overthink anything.  At first, it frustrated me.  How was I to know if the decision that was made was the best one?  Well, this trip taught me that it doesn’t matter.  Mainly because I’m pretty resourceful, I’m very logical and can cope with pretty much any situation that does arise.  Realizing this and taking things as they come meant more time to enjoy myself.  It’s an unbelievably freeing feeling actually.



~ I am travel ~

I know a lot of people don’t understand the travel life.  Wouldn’t choose it if you paid them.  The idea of packing up and living out of a backpack scares most people I speak to. Security is a wonderful thing….if that’s what you want.  On the other hand, the idea of not being about to pack everything up, being tied down by things, is the notion that doesn’t fit me.  I love to travel.  I love being a hot, sweaty mess, schlepping my 20kg backpack down some dodgy back alley to my hostel in the middle of nowhere.

Happiest little backpacker that ever was!

For now,

Nat x

Do you have any lessons you learnt on a backpacking trip?  Do you agree, disagree?! I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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