by Emma Higgins
I recently got back from a three-month-long trip, backpacking Southeast Asia. I had the time of my life. Starting in Thailand, I made a loop around all the larger countries and ended in Singapore. Each day brought something new to explore, take a picture of, or eat (or… all the above, sometimes). Backpacking Southeast Asia was equal parts challenging, eye-opening, and amazing, and I learned a lot while traveling, both about Asia and myself. I experienced things that are truly once in a lifetime and gained a deeper appreciation for travel. I’ve come to the opinion that everyone should take a backpacking trip, and I’ve compiled a list to explain why.
1. You’ll learn how to say “water” and “bathroom” in tons of new languages.
I’ve traveled to eight different countries in Asia. I can now say “rice” in all eight national languages. I’m still not sure if that’s an interesting personality trait or just a cool party trick, but it sure came in handy many times over. There is something oddly comforting (and a little unnerving) about getting to a new country and not being able to understand street signs, eavesdrop on conversations, or ask where the closest bathroom is. When you step foot in a brand new country, you’re instantly filled with wonder, amazement, and curiosity. With every new syllable gained a greater appreciation for learning something new grows.
2. You’ll become okay with being uncomfortable.
It’s no surprise that different countries are, well, different. They have different cultures, different customs, different bathrooms. And with different often comes uncomfortable. I can’t tell you how many times I got funny looks for asking a simple question — but after a while, it just becomes second nature. You start to learn that it is okay to ask for help or to be a beginner at something. It’s okay to embarrass yourself and use the ketchup machine wrong. And with every wrong move you make, you learn that that’s how other people sometimes feel when they explore your home. You gain empathy for people that try something new or are still learning. You learn to be okay in the discomfort that comes with being uncomfortable while backpacking Southeast Asia.
3. You’ll see once in a lifetime sights backpacking Southeast Asia.
I probably don’t have to explain this one. Anywhere in the world will have amazing sights, but Asia is the only place I’ve been where you can truly see it all. If you’re into temples, museums, and history, try Cambodia. If you want nature, waterfalls, and beautiful hikes, Indonesia or the Philippines is your place. Maybe the city and metropolitan lifestyle is more your speed, in which case, Singapore is one of my favorite cities I’ve ever been to. Whether it’s Angkor Wat in Cambodia, pink beaches in Indonesia, or the famous Marina Bay Hotel in Singapore, SEAsia has any type of beauty imaginable.
4. You’ll learn the value of ordinary things. Like socks. Or hand soap.
Something odd about Indonesia: hand soap isn’t a guarantee in bathrooms. The germaphobe that I am, I started lugging around a bar of soap in my 23kg carry-on. And when you’re backpacking, everything you own must be carried around. So for that bar of soap, something else had to go. When you have to lug everything you own, you start to really question just how many t-shirts and pairs of socks you actually need. Backpacking inevitably produces minimalism, and minimalism produces a greater sense of appreciation for the things you own. With less stuff, the greater you’ll value the stuff you already have.
5. You’ll learn how many different ways you can fall asleep.
Traveling by train through Vietnam was probably one of the coolest things I’ve ever done and definitely something I’ll never forget. However, it was my favorite — but, probably not for the best reasons. On our second week into the trip, we were on an overnight train traveling a few hundred kilometers southward through the country. Shortly after we boarded, my travel companion and I noticed our chairs sat bolted up-right and made for people a foot shorter than us. We also noticed that there were roaches. And, it didn’t seem like the fluorescent lights would dim any time soon.
To say we were uncomfortable was an understatement. At the time I wanted to cry, but by the end of my three months, I probably wouldn’t have even batted an eye at all of the discomforts. You gain a deeper appreciation for the small things, and, in turn, the small things (even the small roaches) start to become less scary.
6. You’ll win the coolest Christmas present award from your friends and family.
I came back two weeks before Christmas, so I knew it would look bad if I came home after all of my travels empty-handed. I started collecting things to put under the tree. And as heavy as my bag weighed when I got home, it was totally worth it to see all of the neat artifacts and beautiful souvenirs that were taken home by family and friends. I’ve said before that stuff is sometimes just stuff — but some stuff can also be really special. When I gifted a handmade Batik painting from Indonesia or a thrifted porcelain elephant from Thailand, I got to share a really spectacular time in my life with really important people in my life.
7. You’ll eat tons of delicious (and weird) foods.
A lot of people’s favorite part of traveling is eating — and I can’t say I blame them. This is especially so in places like Asia, where food is cheap, exoctic, and amazingly delicious. I’m not exaggerating when I said the majority of the food we ate costed around $3 a meal. I’m talking rice, vegetables, and chicken curry; Or barbequed chicken, pork, and shrimp that you eat with your hands; Maybe even a huge bowl of chicken noodle soup and a beer.
Some places don’t have English menus, and sometimes you’re not exactly sure what you’re eating, but it’s always yummy. Restaurants are usually family-owned and are typically farm to table, so you’re always getting fresh food. It’s always prepared by someone who absolutely knows what they’re doing. Asian food is amazing for so many reasons, and an excuse enough to travel there yourself.
8. You’ll meet tons of new people.
It just happens naturally and constantly. I think it would almost be hard to backpack in Asia, stay in a hostel, and explore a country without meeting people and hearing all types of stories. And it’s fun! I classify myself as an introvert, and still one of my favorite parts of traveling is meeting new people, chatting about their travels, and learning about their life. Once we were in the Philippines, in a beach town called Moalboal, and we met an older man from Germany who had lived in Spain for thirty years. He had retired in the Philippines. Needless to say, his story was exceptional and we got to hear about history and culture in ways history textbooks can only dream about. You learn about the world and history and people, and it’s hard not to let your heart grow and your compassion becomes more secular.
9. Your patience will be tested in unprecedented ways.
Anyone that’s ever been in an airport anywhere can attest to this one. Traveling is stressful and overwhelming, and can really boil your blood at times. But the quickest way to learn patience would have to be to spend three months in a part of the world that was founded on the practice of patience and stoicism. Thailand’s red lights are 180 seconds long. Cambodia’s most widely used transportation is a tuk-tuk that can’t move faster than 35mph. Your bus ticket in Malaysia will say departing at 10:05, but you’ll still be sitting at the bus stop 45 minutes later. It happens.
Your patience will get tested, and then tested again. But in all of that time you spend waiting, you’ll learn that the innate western need to “get going” isn’t all that important. There’s no prize for hurrying and there’s not a competition of who can finish life faster. When you’re forced to stand still, you find out it’s really not so bad, after all.
10. You’ll get a deeper appreciation for people and culture.
This one might seem a little obvious, too. It’s one of my favorite reasons for traveling and is the biggest aspect that always makes me want to keep going. I love talking to the taxi driver who has stories about the school systems in Malaysia. Going to lunch and conversing in broken English with the grandma who started the restaurant feels awesome. I love sitting on a beach and getting approached by a fourth grade class who is practicing their English and dream of going to America one day. It’s no exaggeration when I say it’s life-changing. You’re reminded of just how insignificant and trivial the stresses of our lives are. When you share a joke with a street vendor who is just trying to pay for his children to go to school, you begin to learn what life is all about.
Why Everyone Should Try Backpacking Southeast Asia
Backpacking anywhere is tough and not for the faint-of-heart. But, boy, is it rewarding. You learn new things, eat new things, and become comfortable with new things. You collect memories and souvenirs. At the same time, you learn what is worth holding onto. You set out for an adventure and come home with a new perspective on life.