At home, I usually pride myself as a reasonably put-together person. I may only wear one pair of shoes… but they’re a pair of platform wedges. I wear more dresses and skirts than the average college student. I at least attempt to swipe on black eyeliner and some concealer.
However, backpacking takes away all your pretensions. There you are, dancing away in light-up Minnie Mouse ears and sweatpants while some Australian dude spills a bucket of whiskey coke all over you. Oops. God forbid you get in the way when a Thai bartender slams a beer bottle on belligerent reveler, knocking him bloodied and unconscious.
So let me share my style lessons.
1) Flip flops. I’ve scaled steep, slippery rocks in a bikini and flip flops. I’ve motorbiked in flip flops. I’ve partied in flip flops. I would probably scuba dive in flip flops if it made any sense. Pro tip: after Full Moon Party on Thailand’s Koh Phangan, hundreds of flip flops wash up on the beach by mid-morning. Free flip flops galore!!
2) Parachute pants. You see all those hippie backpackers with the dreads and funny looking pants. You laugh at them silently and think, gross hippie backpackers! I’m not like them! Then your hair gets all dusty and matted and locals ogle you because you’re wearing shorts and a tank top, plus it’s just really hot. Then you realize that parachute pants are God’s gift to backpackers: cheap, comfortable, cooling, light, and let you sprawl around without being indecent. Just be careful when getting on bikes or motorbikes – I always end up getting twisted around the back of the seat. Thank you, hippies, for letting me see the light.
3) Helmets. I have worn so many suspect motorcycle helmets. The top will be so scratched that it looks like the previous owner was tossed headfirst from a cliff. The buckle won’t stay buckled. The visor will be hanging off one hinge. Wear your damn helmet. And make sure the buckle works. Remember, don’t do drugs and go tubing/cliff jumping/rope swinging.
4) Viscose. Let me champion the cause of manmade fibers. These wholly unnatural fabrics will dry with amazing speed after a day of carting your 20 kilo (see, I’ve been away from the US too long) backpack and trying to haggle with tuk-tuk drivers by making silly duck faces after their ridiculous first offer. It helps me avoid getting angry, which is the kiss of death for haggling in these parts. So don’t get angry. Make weird duck faces, puppy faces, hop around like a rabbit, something. Laugh. Then, “You give me good price?” They will be so confused, they might just slip up. Also, if you just stay silent for a long time, then walk away, that works too.
5) Swimwear. If you pay the exorbitant fee to go walk in the shark tank at Bangkok’s aquarium, they give you a bikini for free. Free! For only the cost of a lame shark tank experience that could easily net you 2 real scuba dive sessions in a beautiful island dive site. Not worth it. But good for feeding monkeys in.
5a) Monkeys. They are not your friends!
5b) Monkeys, part II. Monkeys are like rats, but cuter and with brainpower and opposable things. Think about how terrifying this is. They will snatch your plastic bags and potato chips. If you try to feed the baby monkeys, the big monkeys will yell and take their food. However, they’re pretty cute when you throw them pineapple chunks from your kayak and they wash the food first before eating it. Repeat after me: Monkeys = not your friends.
6) Hair ties. Buy them at 7-Eleven. Or cut a section off your pantyhose.
7) Pants. Wear them when you ride elephants bareback. Their hair is really coarse and wiry. Also, you shouldn’t ride elephants bareback. At least, I don’t think you’re supposed to. But no one else was watching and the Thai guy said it was fine. “Will I fall off?” “No no,” he says, smiling. Good luck.
8) Daypacks. Motorcycle bag snatches are not uncommon here. Sometimes, the thief will carry a knife to slash your bag strap as they make a 2-wheeled getaway. Always let go, or else you’ll get dragged into the street and I will cry. So, like the anxious wreck I am, I carry a small backpack everywhere. I bought it in Ipoh for like, 30 Ringgit. (~$10) Which was too much. I saw a pile at the discount store in Kuala Lumpur for $15 Ringgit. (~$5) I should have bargained harder! My backpack brings all the boys to the yard. Along with my juvenile Asian pencil case that I stick antibiotics, eyedrops, and bandaids in.
9) Skin ailments. Not usually part of my beauty routine. At least to not to this scarring degree. But I like to think my shoulders, once pristine and now populated with white, polka-dot like patches, are the new fashion trend. Backpacker skin FTW!
10) Sarongs. I already detailed why I love sarongs in a different post, but my love just never ends. They also make for good ninja disguises and neck rests on long bus rides. Also for posing in Khmer Rouge’s legacy of abandoned houses in Kep.
BONUS: 11) Tshirts. Wearing a “SAME SAME” (front) “BUT DIFFERENT” (back) shirt doesn’t make you cool.
BONUS #2: 12) Lobsters. They’re giant sea bugs. Just think about it.
I hope this list helps you.
Hello from Kampot, Cambodia!
A college friend asked me a bunch of questions on traveling alone. I feel like there’s a dearth of good information on what it’s like to travel alone as a female, so I’m posting my responses here.
Keep in mind that my experience is unique and that I’m talking only about Southeast Asia (which is great for female travelers! Other locations are less so).
Thanks for responding to my facebook message. I think it’s awesome of you to venture out on your own. I’ve traveled alone for a few days this summer, and it’s definitely a strange experience, in that it both opens you up to new experiences but at the same time also closes you off (i.e. you have to look out for your own safety, so no accepting drink invitations from strangers). Below are a few questions. There’s no rush, so I’d love to hear your thoughts whenever you have any time.
1. How do you locate budget-friendly and female-friendly lodging? If you do choose to stay at a hostel, how do you go about picking a relatively clean/non-sketchy one? I tried staying at a hostel when I was traveling on my own in Amsterdam but was told that all the rooms were co-ed. One look at the many European boys in tattered jeans smoking on the front steps drove me to shell out $100 for a hotel room.
Well, there’s a key difference between Europe and Southeast Asia. That is, you can easily afford your own room ($5-15) in Southeast Asia.
That being said, hostels can be great too. They sometimes have private rooms or female only dorms. However, I wouldn’t wholly rule out a coed dorm, either. I think you’ll find that most of those seemingly sketchy European boys in tattered jeans aren’t all that bad. Sure, they smoke, but a lot of Europeans do. (I hate smoking. With a passion.) There’s always creepy men in every hostel batch, but most of them are probably just like you – bright-eyed university students looking to have a good time while traveling. You’ll probably find that loud partiers of any gender barging in at 5am a bigger concern than the presence of men.
Try reading reviews on HostelWorld.com and HostelBookers to see if you’ll like the vibe there. Some hostels are notorious for being all night parties, others are for quieter travelers. Pick accordingly.
As you travel, you’ll find yourself doing things that would be considered lunacy back home – squeezing 7 people into a 5 person car, driving a motorbike in the opposite direction of traffic, spinning fire poi naked – and that’s part of the experience. That being said, just keep a comfortable level of vigilance that allows you to be safe while still trying out new things. Remember, you can always switch hostels. Bring earplugs!
2. From your travels, it seems like you’ve had no trouble making friends with fellow travelers and the locals. I always feel a little hesitant approaching new people (or new groups of people), mostly out of safety concern. Do you have any advice on how to do that?
Make sure you read safety warnings in travel guides and online. Different destinations have VERY different guidelines for do’s and don’ts regarding safety. For example, in Mexico City, it’s imperative never to randomly hail a cab off the street. In Asia, this isn’t an issue at all. In India, the chances of harassment as a female are much higher, and you have to act/dress accordingly. In Thailand, if someone speaking English approaches you on Khao San Rd (a popular tourist spot) with some sob story or gem-selling scheme, it’s a scam. Etc. Etc. You just get used to these after awhile, and learn how to ignore them. You’ll find that looking Asian insulates you a bit from these, since people aren’t sure if you’re local or not. Just be sure to do some initial research so you can spot scamsters and know where’s safe to go.
Met up in Koh Phangan with a bunch of friends made through a Couchsurfing meetup.
Here are some rules for making friends safely:
1) Don’t try to break into large groups of men. They’re not that much fun, anyway – they usually want to drink as heavily as possible, talk about sports, and light things on fire.
2) Don’t go chat up that dude in his 50’s who’s sitting all alone at the bar, nursing a double scotch. He will think you’re a prostitute.
Other than that, it’s not so bad. Here are prime targets for friending:
1) Another female traveling alone. This is one of the easiest and most promising friendships to be struck. Try spotting her in a hostel’s common area or chilling at a cafe, reading her Lonely Planet.
2) A mixed gender group.
3) Another male, around your age, traveling alone who seems nice.
4) A couple. Good for a casual chat, but unlikely to become your sightseeing partner.
5) Go to meetups. Major cities all have weekly Couchsurfing events where you can meet locals and travelers.
You’ll find that giant social groups naturally form at hostels, but it’s easy to meet people anywhere. As far as safety, just use your common sense. If a dude seems creepy, he probably is. But don’t let that deter you from all the genuinely friendly, uncreepy folks out there. Not much can happen in a well-lit, public area with other people around.
Please, please read my friend Lena’s fantastic blog entry on rejecting pushy dudes for the socially awkward. I think any girl who’s worried about “offending” a guy will identify with what she says.
– “Hey, did you mention you’ve been to ____(Amsterdam, Outer Mongolia, Reykjavik)___? What’s it like? I was thinking about going there next.”
– “Do you know where ___ is?”
– “How long have you been traveling for?”
– “Where have you been so far?”
See fake engagement ring on my left hand. Yes, we’re making animal faces. No, I don’t have a better picture of my fake engagement ring.
I bought a fake engagement ring for $3USD in a night market. Not sure how much it has helped. It’s good for quick, easy to rejection at loud parties – just point to your ring finger and shake your head. But I’ve been traveling a lot with people that I’ve met on the road and generally haven’t had any issues.
3. What about meals? I’m sure you’re trying out local cuisine wherever you go. If you want to dine at a relatively upscale place, do you feel comfortable eating alone or do you find someone else? if the latter, how?
In Southeast Asia, upscale places are usually an expensive disappointment. The best and cheapest food is at street stalls, which are easy to sample by yourself. But I usually eat with someone else anyway. If you meet someone who seems nice earlier in the day, just casually invite them to dinner. They’ll say yes 99.9% of the time. Or maybe you’ll acquire a temporary travel partner. If you meet someone who seems cool and who’s heading in the same direction as you, try planning on catching the next bus together. That way, you’ll save yourself from boredom on long trips and have a new travel buddy in the process.
4. Packing, part 2. You’ve covered a good deal of the packing on the blog already. I had a few questions about packing a camera/laptop/other heavy equipment. There’s obviously a trade off between bringing along a fancy camera to take really nice travel photos and being able to carry all of that and walk for a few hours. What do you do about camera? Do you opt for a compact one? What suggestions would you have for people who want to bring multiple camera bodies/lenses but at the same time still only one backpack, like you suggested on the blog?
I would err on the side of less equipment, unless photography is a main goal of your trip. I have a DSLR with me and wish I didn’t. It’s fine if you’re taking a shorter trip and not moving around too much, but I’d rather have a high quality compact camera. I usually don’t even carry my camera around because it’s so annoying to have with me.
5. How did you pick your travel locations? Did you plan the whole trip out before you started, or is it more spontaneous? Where have you been?
I’m not entirely typical in that my entire trip has been spontaneous. I ended up in Malaysia and Cambodia by accident. I’d meet someone who mentioned they were crossing the border to X or Y and I’d think, hey, why not? My visa is expiring anyway. You’ll find that there is a well-worn route of bus stops and ferry links – the typical tourist trail, if you will – and that other travelers will be going/coming from the same places. So for overland travel, being totally spontaneous is very much possible. Flights are a little different. Fares vary wildly depending on when you buy them, so better to plan about a month ahead on these to grab the promo fare.
Not planning is fantastic because if you like a place, why not stay longer? Or if you hear about some other cool town, why not go visit? You have to trust that nothing will go too wrong. Because it generally doesn’t. Unless you’re so off-the-beaten-track that finding transportation is an issue. In which case, be a bit more careful.
The most helpful thing is to have a end destination in mind. For me, that’s Shanghai, where my return flight is. So I’ve been meandering across the continent, but I try to keep on a generally northward path. Having a full 4 months means that I never worry about the time.
6. What has your travel experience been like so far? I feel like female travel memoirs like Eat Pray Love or Wanderlust make it all seem so easy, but it’s actually much more difficult in real life (or maybe it’s just me). Have you encountered any difficulties? Memorable experiences?
Travel isn’t hard. Think about it this way: there are millions of other people your age, much stupider than you, who have successfully backpacked across Southeast Asia. In time, you’ll find that the occasional hard bits make for the best stories and memories.
Probably the most annoying thing that’s happened is my skin flaring up like crazy. Nonstop traveling is tough on your body, particularly in an unfamiliar climate, so I’ve been careful to pick rooms with A/C, get enough sleep, and give myself long breaks. The most likely difficulty you’ll encounter is getting ripped off. But I’ve felt myself really grow in this respect – I’ve learned how to bargain without getting offended about being scammed, and sometimes just accept that I’ve been scammed. (It’s just a few bucks. No big deal.)
The most important thing I’ve gained is a sense of humor and patience in dealing with unfamiliar situations. Sometimes a bus will mysteriously break down, or drop you off at some random travel shop for 2 hours while you wait for an unexpected transfer. You just learn to stretch your legs, buy some pineapple, and pet a local kitten. Bring a book to read – there are book swaps at most guesthouses once you’re done with it.
As a side note, you’ll find that frequently touristed places – like any major city or place listed in the Lonely Planet – are really, really easy to navigate. Tons of people speak passable English and signs/menus/schedules will be available in English. It’s also helpful to have a phone to meet up with all your new friends, either with a local SIM card or prepaid phones. I’ve been trying to get by on wifi and Skype, but this is proving to be antisocial and a Really Bad Idea.
As for memorable experiences, there are too many to count. Friendly people, beautiful sunsets, inexplicable scenarios, massive parties, and moments of unexpected awe.
7. Who takes your photos?
I take photos with my camera, but as far as pictures of me, usually a travel partner or staff member.
8. How do you fund your travels?
I happen to freelance as a web designer while I travel, so I can work from the road. However, there are a million other ways to finance your travel that don’t involve having technical skills and a wifi connection. Some people just save up before they leave. (You only need $30-50 a day to travel very comfortably in SE Asia. Less, if you’re willing to forgo some creature comforts.) Many hostels will let you work a few hours a day in return for free room and board. I’ve met people who taught English, played online poker, worked at hotels, or just lived at home and saved up some cash from a secretarial or bartending job before heading out.
After 2 months of backpacking through Southeast Asia, I have my luggage down to a science.
The most important part of packing is to not pack anything. It’s too easy to just hear this statement and just go “yeah yeah yeah, I’m going to bring my travel-size hair dryer and travel-size hairspray and only 4 pairs of shoes because everyone needs their slutty pair of heels.”
Put all your crap into your backpack. God forbid you bring a suitcase. Have you tried arriving at an island in a rickety wooden longboat, wading through waist-deep water, and then trekking for half a mile across a beach with a suitcase? Because I have.
Do you see those little boats in the water? And how they aren’t directly on the shore? You have to walk through that water.
Then go to the gym, turn off the A/C, and go for a brisk walk on the treadmill for 1 hour straight while sweaty weightlifters beat you up, mosquitoes attack you, and someone blasts ABBA in the background. (This is a frighteningly accurate depiction of arriving in a new city.) See how much you want your travel-size hairdryer then.
These are the clothes you should bring, and the ONLY clothes you should bring for Southeast Asia (list tailored for females):
Don’t even THINK about bringing anything else.
Once you’re there, you should purchase:
A sarong will save your life. A sarong is the most versatile and amazing thing in the world. It’s more awesome than Santa Claus covered in rainbow sprinkles.
That’s me, rocking a sarong on laundry day at the beach in Ko Lanta, Thailand.
You can wear a sarong as a flowing tube top. Or a halter dress. Or a skirt. You use it as a bag. If your sheets are kinda gross, you can lay it on top and not fear catching yet another weird skin disease. It’s a fantastic beach towel, head wrap, modesty shawl for temples, pillow case, and blanket for chilly bus rides. You can fold it up and prop your head on a windowsill. It is amazing, dries quick, packs light, and the possibilities are limited only by your imagination and manual dexterity.
Don’t forget to bring a first aid kit and sunscreen (sunscreen is not cheaper in Asia than at home). You can always buy this upon arrival at a 7-Eleven, but it’s convenient to have. Every single scratch and cut gets infected with alarming speed in the tropics.
I never really paid attention to cuts back home – they inevitably healed up without my intervention. But I’ve become an iodine nazi now, swabbing antibiotics every 2 hours and changing bandages twice a day. Because infected cuts ain’t fun!!
Equally important is HOW you pack your backpack. Remember this: plastic bags are your friend.
Put your tops and dress in one bag. Put your bottoms in another. Bring another plastic bag for dirty clothes. Bring zip-locks for your chargers, USB, makeup, first aid kit, and other miscellaneous items. When you arrive in your ganky-ass hostel, this will save you from having to dig up the entire contents of your backpack to find your swimsuit, only to repack it hastily upon departure. Just remove the plastic bags and put them back in once you have to go. Easy!
Now you are ready to go on an adventure.*
*And by adventure, I mean hanging out with drunken British teenagers on their gap year.
I spent a week in the desert for Burning Man 2011.
Burning Man, by its nature, is hard to describe. It’s a festival of 50,000 people in the desert, where participants leave no trace and commerce or advertising is not allowed. It’s not a barter economy, but a gift economy – people give things away, ranging from food, to alcohol, to performances, to trinkets, with no expectation of receiving anything in return. The only things you can buy there is coffee and ice – you have to bring all your own food, water, and camping supplies with you, and all your trash out at the end of the week.
It’s a farmer’s market, for free, in the desert. Duh.
One of the most incredible things is how fully-realized “Black Rock City” is. There’s a post office, 3 publications (BRC Weekly, The Shroom, some other one), street names, villages, and police. One camp set up a farmer’s market, where they gave away fruits and vegetables, as well as serving up homemade chai and hand salads. Improbable, interactive art structures dot the landscape, inviting you to climb or contribute. There are incredible parties that happen at all hours of the day (whether it’s 3am or 10am). This is the land where drinks are free (just bring your own cup); the dubstep blasts at top volume; the people are gorgeous; and everyone’s respectful of your personal space. I felt a lot safer here at night than walking around around Boston during the day.
The environment is intense. The hot, dry air immediately wicks away moisture, which proved hellish for my skin. They recommend you drink at least a gallon of water a day, which isn’t an exaggeration. You have to carry goggles and a bandanna at all times in case a dust storm kicks up, reducing visibility to 10 feet.
The temple, before being burned
The temple, in a choreographed burn.
Conversely, it’s also some of the most beautiful landscape I’ve seen. Biking around the playa as the sun sets is breath taking: the gasoline-slick of sky slipping behind the mountains, bikers in fantastical outfits criss-crossing the desert while white dust rises like fog. Look around, and you’ll see a stunning two-story temple built out of wood (which will be artfully burned to ashes at the end of the week), a Trojan horse, and of course, The Man – a wooden effigy that is burned on Saturday night after a frenetic fireworks display and 200 foot-high mushrooming green flames, putting every action movie to shame. At night, the playa lights up in all directions, a cross between an amusement park and an acid trip’s rendering of Vegas.
Photo by Bruce Miles
Imagine all this, while art cars – moving vehicles you dance on, ranging from sharks to yachts to octopi – blast their best dance music around a screaming throng of thousands. Some art cars carry giant propane tanks so they can spew 30 foot high flames into the night sky while they serve you drinks. The heat from the flames is actually somewhat painful, reminding you that yes, this is actually happening.
Photo by Bruce Miles
I ended up at Burning Man on total whim. A friend of mine from Harvard was organizing a theme camp and described it as an “art festival in the desert.” I was looking for things to do in my year off after college, so I shrugged and figured going with her was a good bet. It wasn’t until after I bought my ticket that I had this conversation:
Me: So, uh, what about running water?
Natalie: Well, you bring all your own with you.
Me: Oh. So what about showers?
Natalie: There aren’t really any, but we’re going to have a solar shower for the camp!
Me: But there’s electricity, right?
Natalie: No. But some people do have generators!
Me: Wifi? Cell reception?
Me: AM I GOING TO DIE?
Me: [hysterical] I’M GOING TO DIE. AM I GOING TO DIE?
I haven’t gone camping in over ten years. I was more nervous than excited as I rolled onto the playa in an overloaded sedan with Natalie’s friends from Berkley, CA.
The car engine immediately broke into pieces. We fretted for a few minutes, then the 5 of us pushed the car for 3 hours until we reached will call to pick up our tickets. They wouldn’t let us push the car the last two miles, so we hooked up the sedan, all of our luggage, and all 5 of us to the back of a Budget truck with nothing more than nylon rope thinner than my pinky finger. Miraculously, it held.
It was an inauspicious beginning, and my first full day on the playa beat me up physically. Scorching dry heat and high altitudes make you feel like crap. I drank some water, wandered around, went to bed early. My tiny tent and sleeping bag that night felt more luxurious than any 4 star hotel.
The hardest part to deal with is not the heat. It is the superfine, alkaline white dust. It coats everything and stays there, even if you rinse off your hands with water. Your fingers are perpetually chalky, and you’ve never had a worse hair day. There’s a coating of dust on your cooking supplies, dust sneaks into your sleeping bag, and dust grinds in your contact lenses.
My skin revolted, my feet ached, my hair felt like plastic. I gave up on makeup.
To my surprise, I didn’t die.
I normally wrestle with a perpetual baseline of anxiety. Sometimes I’m aware it’s there, sometimes I can’t even perceive it. Like many others, I’m always attempting to control the world around me, and sorely disappointed when it fails to comply. Friends flake despite followup emails; it rains during a barbecue; my taxi sits in traffic before an important meeting.
Time exists fragmentally at Burning Man. Few bother with clocks. There are no cell phones, so you can’t text someone demanding to know where and when they’ll show up. Strip away the controls, and you find that social machinery still churns, with even more life and verve than before. I met the most incredible people by accident, and soon, accident became fate. People there, as a rule, are incredibly friendly and helpful.
At the same time, Burning Man only exists a week a year. The entire city is transient, burned or carried away with beauty and sullen efficiency. I caught myself pining for certain moments to be extended. It’s strange. So often, I feel saddest when I’m happy, because I’m thinking about how that particular source of happiness will end. That’s what I took away from the eponymous burning man at the end of the week: that beauty exists for a certain finite period in time. Its end is inevitable, even desirable. It is a gift to experience happiness, and it is wisdom to let it go.
Have you been to Seattle? I sure haven’t, but my food-loving friend Sam has. (Sam frequently appears on my blog as an eating companion or contributor – he penned a great essay on why Chinese food is so cheap.)
In addition to being an enthusiastic eater and Chowhounder, he’s a great photographer as well. Sam kindly agreed to let me post his stunning Seattle food photos so that you, too, can do some cross-country travel from the comfort of your torn underwear and desk covered in stale Cheetos.
A recent trip to Seattle took Sam and his camera to many restaurants, including Canlis, an ultra-luxe venue nestled into a hillside; Henry’s Taiwan and the Kawali Grill, humble ethnic eateries in inexpensive neighborhoods; Long Provincial, an upscale Vietnamese restaurant open-late downtown; the Lunchbox Laboratory, a completely unique burger joint; and finally Harvest Vine, a very swank tapas place.
A parade of gorgeous photos after the jump.