Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Another chapter ends

Total traveling miles: 64,174

As I write to you now I find myself sitting within the dinning room of my home. On my laptops screen I seem to have my blog open and a post waiting to be filled. But how am I supposed to end one of the best years of my life? How do I draw this chapter to a close? After a lot of pacing, sighing and staring out of the window I've decided to try and write some useful tips for 'would be travelers' who, right now, are flicking through guidebooks trying to workout which part of the world they want to travel to. First of all I would like to recommend a book – called 'The Backpackers Bible' – which I read before starting my trip.

To do this blog justice I've broken it down into the below topics:

  • What is traveling?

  • Where to go?

  • Budgets and money

  • What to pack?

  • Be prepared

  • How to stay safe?

  • Keep organised

  • Looking back would I have changed anything?

  • How much have I spent?

  • What wasn't I expecting?

  • Have fun

  • So where's next and when?

What is traveling?

I suppose the best way to start is to tell you that traveling is NOT a holiday. Not only is the amount of time, and amount of money, different but, I believe, there are three aspects to traveling, two of which a short holiday can never fulfill:

  • Sightseeing

  • Gaining an insight into a countries culture

  • talking to other travelers

Of course it would be stupid to visit Cambodia and not see the temples of Angkor; of course the terracotta warriors are a 'must see' and hiking through the Rockies is a highlight of any Canadian trip. All of these tourist destinations are called 'tourist destinations' for a reason and some of my most favorite memories involve these sites. However some of my biggest expenses, and use of time, have been on 'must see tourist sites' that have left me disappointed. As you travel you'll come to realise what is worth seeing and what isn't; this list differs for everyone as we all like different things. At the start of my trip I paid to enter museums, zoo's and aquariums however, over time, I realised that these for me never became a lasting memory. Don't feel as though you must see something everyday; due to the length of time you'll be away you cannot afford to see sites all the time. Walking around a city, with no particular location in mind, or visiting places who's 'tourist pull' maybe low, or none existent, might be a better use of your time. It's these places that will ultimately give you the insight into the countries culture that so many tourists aim for.

Being the only tourist within a city is no bad thing and it's at these times that observing becomes crucial; walk around, sit in a restaurant over looking the main street or wonder through the main market and you'll witness the local population perform daily routines that may seem alien to you. It's at these times that questions will come into your head and trying to understand why the locals do things the way they do is ultimately one of the most rewarding aspects of traveling. Handy wrote that 'culture is the way we do things around here' and the meaning of that statement will become clear as you wind your way through the world.

On a holiday you may find yourself zipping from place to place conscious of fitting in as much as possible within the boundaries of your 'leave'. Traveling allows you to take your time and there's nothing wrong with filling your days sitting in a bar and observing. My own travels have taken different forms depending on the size, cultural aspects and time within a country. For example; within New Zealand and Canada I moved quickly (spending no more that three or four nights in a town) to try to see as much as possible as these countries culture is similar to my home. Within South East Asia I found myself spending six or seven nights within a town; the number of tourist attractions may have been less but the culture was so different that observing how things are done took time.

Finally I'd say that meeting other travelers is a major aspect of traveling that you would never experience on a holiday. Sharing a dorm, with like minded people, allows you to find out about their home countries (providing potential future destinations), find out about places that no guidebook lists', find out about the cheapest eats and the cheapest ways of getting around. Spending many a night playing cards, within the common room of a hostel, talking about individual experiences has been very rewarding.

Where to go?

Always a difficult choice. For most travelers 'where to go' is usually dictated by their budgets; I would say that this is not a wise method. First of all read a few guidebooks, look at photos and watch TV programmes; think about what you enjoy doing and work out where to go from that. I had five countries that, for one reason or another, captivated me that I built my traveling route around:

  • Canada (nature)

  • New Zealand (nature)

  • Japan (history)

  • Vietnam (Top Gear Special)

  • China (history)

With these five countries as my core I built a logical route around the world adding the USA, Fiji, Australia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. For different reasons I've loved each country though the amount of time spent in each could have been better proportioned.

My biggest advice to 'would be' travelers is to, for now, forget about money and concentrate on the country(ies) that you feel would give you the most enjoyment. Read about those places, look at photos and watch programmes and then, when decided on the location, look at how much you're likely to spend a day. There is no 'official' amount of time you have to be away for; I'd say that a minimum of three months will give you a good feel into traveling but, if you fancy traveling around an expensive country, don't be put off that your planned six month trip might have to be cut down to four.

Another important thing to mention is that distance doesn't matter; traveling around neighboring countries can be just as rewarding as traveling thousands of miles and my next big interest is in Europe and my home country.

Once you've decided where you want to go, and for how long you can afford to stay, the hardest work is over.

Budgets and money

Something that I haven't been very good at. The first thing to do, in regards to budgets, is to set a daily amount for each country; most guidebooks will give you a rough estimate but you must take into account the age of the book and expect things to have become more expensive for every year passed. Another good thing to do is to go on the internet and work out possible costs from there. Before entering Canada I went on the Canadian Greyhound website to look at the cost of coach journeys from 'x' to 'y'. I also looked into hostel costs and some attractions. Once you have a daily figure in mind this will allow you, once traveling, to benchmark yourself and see how you're doing; every week I would work out my average spend to see how I was doing.

Try not to make your budget too tight or enforce it too strongly; there will be times when you need a little 'comfort shopping' after a horrible train journey, or a bad experience, and always counting the pennies can ruin a trip. Having said that the old phase 'look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves' rings true in traveling; you wouldn't believe how much you can save if you downgrade to the twelve bed dorm (saving you 50p) and if you opt for the less expensive meal. 50p here and 50p there really does add up.

Personally I like to walk and so I've spent very little on local transport. I do, however, like my food ... especially cake. I would think nothing of spending £3/£4 on a slice of cake, and a hot chocolate, if my taste buds tingle afterwards. The thought of having a lovely slice of chocolate cake has got me through numerous nights and bus journeys.

To summarise; the important thing about budgets are:

  • try to work out a possible daily amount

  • try not to make it too rigid

  • balance yourself between traveling on a budget and having fun

  • Keep checking how you're doing

In regards to money make sure you keep an 'emergency credit card' somewhere away from your wallet. If my wallet became lost, or stolen, I had a spare credit card to get me through for a while (kept with my passport). Take more than one card - which allows the withdrawal money – with you and make sure that you mix the providers (for example one visa card and one mastercard) encase ATM's, or shops, don't accept your first choice of payment.

In most countries cash is king; this allows you to easily see how far your money is going but, once withdrawn, carrying a large sum can seem daunting. Before a withdrawal I would have a list of items I needed to purchase; for example a train ticket, a souvenir or some toiletries. I would wait until I'd withdrawn a large amount before purchasing all these things to bring my cash level down to a safe level. Having said that, it's unwise to spend a lot of money as soon as you enter a country. Give yourself time to work out the true value of food, travel etc or else a 'bargain', in your previous destination, might be expensive here.

One, off the topic note, if you want to purchase a souvenir but worry about the weight, post it home. I'm still waiting for parcels from China and Vietnam but everything I've posted has arrived home. Plus if sea mail is chosen it's not too expensive.

What to pack?

A difficult decision to make. What you pack will depend on three things: where you're going, your interests and how much you can carry. If you're spending six months in Fiji then you might be able to leave your thermals at home; if you're heading to Russia then maybe the thermals might be a good idea. Always research the weather of your intended country; the northern parts of South East Asia (Laos and Vietnam) can be extremely cold and I've seen numerous people freezing in a t-shirt.

If you're planning on trekking for days, visiting remote villages or spending time within poor countries then it would be unwise to travel without a decent medical kit. Paper is heavy so limit yourself on one novel and a guidebook; most hostels have a 'book swap' section.

Most of your bag will be filled with clothes; remember that you're traveling and do not need to be fashionable (try to avoid 'named brands'). Also, if you're heading to South East Asia, you have to cover your shoulders and knees when visiting temples. Two weeks of clothing, I feel, is the correct balance between weight and continual washing. I took:

  • 1x waterproof coat

  • 1x fleece

  • 1x beanie hat

  • 1x baseball cap

  • 3x t-shirts

  • 2x long-sleeved shirts

  • 1x pair of 'quick dry' trousers

  • 1x pair of trousers with 'zip-off' shorts

  • 1x pair of knee length shorts

  • 7x pairs of socks

  • 7x pairs of pants

Do not take jeans as there are heavy and a pain to dry. Shoes are the most important piece of clothing you'll take with you. Time is not wasted when purchasing footwear and getting it right is crucial. I went for a pair of 'Merrill approach shoes'; half trainer, half hiking boot, these lightweight, waterproof boots have been perfect. All the way through my travels, in any terrain, these shoes have felt comfortable and prevented my feet from blistering. Looking at them now they are full of holes but they are the heroes of my travels, taking me where I wanted to go without complaint. My sandals, on the other hand, weren't that comfortable; I'm not really a sandal person so maybe its because I haven't worn them much but they never felt right and would rub against my toes. Another important thing to do is to wear in your shoes before you go. If you decided that they aren't right purchase another pair; getting your shoes 100% correct is not a waste of money. If you take nothing from this post please chose your shoes carefully … have I stressed this point enough?

The rest of your baggage depends on your interests. For me this blog and photography were two important aspects of my travel and so I took a netbook (which, considering how much free wi-fi there is within Asia, has saved me a fortune), a Nikon SLR and a full length tri-pod with me. These three items have been heavy but worth carrying. I would also recommend bringing a compass; mine has helped me many times, most of which have been when hostel directions have instructed me to 'head south'.

Speaking of weight check out how much your bag weights by putting it on; as a rule of thumb if you can walk, with your pack on, for around forty minutes to an hour then you should have no problems. Making sure that the weight is evenly spread, within your pack, will make it more comfortable and putting things back in the same place will allow you to find possessions when all the lights, within your dorm, are out.

For a good kit list please read The Backpackers Bible.

Be Prepared

Read, read and read again. Read guidebooks, read blogs, read travel articles and get a good knowledge of how the country your visiting operates. From cultural taboos, to the weather to medical facilities you need to be prepared for anything the country can through at you; the beginning of guidebooks are especially good for this.

How to stay safe?

This is a huge topic therefore I've split it into the below sub-topics:

  • Food safety

  • Possession safety

  • personal safety

  • scams


Whether its a restaurant or a street food stall the appearance of a food outlet has little to do with the quality. Once your meal has a arrived make sure that its piping hot; if the meat seems cool it's better to leave it than risk being ill. Salad is no safer than meat as the water used to wash it can be harmful. If you order tea make sure that the water has been boiled. Basically the hotter the food the better. If the meal isn't supposed to be hot cut into the middle, of any piece of meat, and make sure that its cooked all the way through. Anything deep fried should be fine and if an important day is coming up (for example sightseeing the temples of Angkor) I'd recommend eating fast food to make sure that you don't become ill.

Drinking coke with a meal is a wise choice; coke can destroy teeth and clean coins therefore it can also kill any bug within your stomach. When dining in a restaurant, for the first time, I'd usually order a coke with my meal; if all is well the next time I visit I'd have whatever drink I fancied.

Be careful of dairy products, salads and water. Purchase only brand name ice creams, check salads for water and drink only bottled water. It's not really needed but I used drinking water when I cleaned my teeth and even when I needed water boiled.

Possession safety

As you walk around a city try not to show off. Avoid wearing brand name clothes and, if you have an expensive camera, take the photo before concealing your camera once more. Use locks on your bags and walk on the pavement as far away from the road as possible (to avoid bag snatching). Keep your possessions in different places; my camera was in my bag, my wallet was in my front pocket (never my back) and my passport was stored within a concealed pouch along with a spare credit card.

Within hostels keep your stuff locked and tidy. I purchased a 'pack safe' net that could be placed around my bag if no locker was provided. Try not to show where you keep your wallet, phone etc whilst you sleep and make sure that no one is watching as you input your number combination into your pad lock. Number padlocks are always better than key padlocks encase of loosing said keys. Most hostels have a safety box which, personally, I rarely used. It's true that if your laptop gets stolen from your bag your insurance company might not pay if there was a safety box available, however some of the hostels I've stayed in looked a little dodgy. Don't leave money within your hostel room.

When traveling keep your possessions on you. If you need to leave your seat (to go to the toilet) do it whilst the vehicle is moving as that means no one can leave, or board, whilst you're away. Night travel is the worst; once again I would use my 'pack-safe' netting to lock up my bag with my possessions inside. Within South East Asia I've been told that some long distance buses hide people within the luggage compartments; there's nothing you can do about this apart from making sure that anything valuable is kept with you. In all honestly I'd avoid night travel as much as possible within poorer countries; most people argue that it saves on accommodation but I counter that by saying the view of the surroundings is worth the cost.

A final important message; keep your passport and bank cards safe at all times. Replacing either of these will be costly in both time and money. Keep checking that you know where they are and always keep them on you.

Personal Safety

When walking always make sure that you know where you're going; before leaving your hostel try to make a memory map for example, “walk past two roads then turn right, fifth street on the left”. Looking like you know where you're heading will make you less of a target. If you do get lost, and need to check your map, do it discreetly; if a change in direction is needed do it quickly. Try to stick to main roads as much as possible, especially at night. When dark try to keep to streets that are well lit and with plenty of traffic; if at all possible walk at night only in a group. The safety of a city cannot always be judged on how affluent the population is; when I was in 'Hoi An – Vietnam' a man shouted at two local girls, on bicycles, when they almost hit us. We were in the road, it was our fault, however tourism is so important that the population cannot afford anything bad to occur to any tourist. Finally if you don't feel safe out at night then there's no shame in returning to your hostel before it gets dark.

Personal safety within your hostel requires a little observation. Are there live wires anywhere? Are there screws sticking out of the floor? Does the door lock? Where's the fire escape? Simple questions like this that you'll answer without realising.

Personal safety on transport is a little out of your hands. Apart from choosing a seat that's properly bolted down, and wearing a seat belt if ones provided, there's little you can do to affect the manic driving you seem unable to believe. In those situations it's best not to think about it and looking out of the window.


There are a lot of scams out there which will leave your wallet empty and a bitter taste within your mouth. Most relate either to someone coming up to you in the street or local private transport (taxi's, tuk-tuks etc). Best thing to do is to walk, or take the local bus, around a city as both would avoid any potential transport problems. If someone approaches you in the street always keep asking yourself 'what do they want'. If someone asks to practice their English it's up to you whether you agree or not however, if they recommend going to a cafe, don't go. The price will be inflated and you'll end up paying hundreds of pounds, for tea, with your new friend nowhere to be seen. If you do want to go for a drink you recommend the place; McDonald's, or any fast food place, may not be the most comfortable but its the safest and easiest to find. Personally I gave both local transport providers, and students, a firm 'no'; it may sound horrible but it kept me safe.

Keep Organised

You will not believe the amount of receipts, directions, train tickets and other bits of paper you'll accumulate over your trip. Once a piece of paper is done with throw it away; I can see it becoming an annoyance if, with five minutes until departure, you can find only old train tickets instead of the one you need.

Looking back would I have changed anything?

I would have changed the allocated time for each country; I spent too long within South East Asia and, even though two South East Asian (SEA) weeks equal one Japanese or Kiwi weeks (due to cost), I would have removed six weeks within SEA and put two more within Japan and and another within New Zealand. Having said that, this change would have meant that I wouldn't have traveled with the same groups.

How much have I spent?

Taking into account my equipment, my European tour, my North American tour and my Australasian and Asian tour I think I've spent in the region of £21,000.00. It may seem a lot but in reality it's less than the cost of most cars and I certainly think the money has been well spent.

What wasn't I expecting?

Just how tired I got; I couldn't believe how tiring traveling was and, if you're not careful, you'll burn yourself out. There's nothing wrong booking into a hostel with nothing planned other than sleeping and playing cards. Believe me, there will be a time when doing nothing seems like the best thing to do.

Have Fun

For most the opportunity to travel only occurs once so enjoy it. If you plan to travel with a group make sure you do everything you want to, even if it means leaving the group for a couple of days. Enjoy a few nights out but don't waste this opportunity sitting at the hostel bar every night. Keep your mind open and smile when your train is four hours delayed, try to learn as much as you can and come home with as many stories as possible.

So where's next and when?

Where is easy; for me I want to explore my own country before visiting Ireland, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Romania, Portugal, Spain in fact all of Europe. When is the difficult question; currently I'm broke and jobless. Once I've found a job – and once I've paid off my debts – I'll start traveling again but I have no idea when this will be. You can rest assure though, even though I'm currently at home this one otter will be back around the world … at some point!

Toodle Pip!


  1. Welcome home Matt, been fun reading your daily blog.

  2. Thanks,

    I'm glad I have my blog as a perminant reminder of my trip; I can see myself reading it when I get a new job :(

    I'll probably see you soon

  3. Not this year, too expensive for me

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    Buzios Pousadas

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