One year backpacking South East Asia. A Retrospective

With friends in Tanah Toraja, Sulawesi, IndonesiaI had struggled quite a bit before I finally decided to quit my corporate job in marketing and set out what would be my biggest adventure so far. A struggle because voluntarily leaving a well-paid job in a society which seems to put security, continuity and conformity over personal freedom is not an easy task. Being at a slightly older age already and at a stage where people around you start to steer their lives into the save havens of family, house and career didn’t make things any easier. But since I can remember, I have been suffering a severe case of wanderlust.  A virus which sometimes was just lingering inside but most of the times ferociously demanding for a cure. I was tired of the regular 2-3 week vacations which just allowed for a small glimpse of a country, its culture and its people. I wanted more, I wanted to time to explore, time for adventure and time to reflect about myself and life in general. Despite all of the adversities I finally decided to take the risk and go for it. In the end, I figured, I wasn’t getting any younger and time is the most precious thing we have. Funnily, once I had taken that decision, I never had any second thoughts. To the contrary, it all of a sudden seemed to be the only right decision there was and I was wondering why I had struggled so much before. Also friends and family congratulated me for making the move and were full of support. The feedback I received was great and from then on, the planning stage could begin and anticipation was rising.

Temple garden Chiang Mai, Thailand

Message in a temple garden in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Keeping the planning to a minimum
Talking about planning. I did some planning before leaving but most of it was more of a general nature. I tried to get an overview of which countries and places I definitely wanted to see and designed a rough outline. I didn’t plan any details, made no pre-bookings except for my first nights in Bangkok. The key for long term travel is to stay flexible and not constrain yourself to the corset of tight itinerary. As I backpacked Australia and during my previous Asia trips, I knew that plans can change quickly. Being able to adapt to the changes, to go with the flow, is probably one of the biggest differences compared to a regular holiday and also one of the biggest luxuries. I was basically planning my trip on the go, reading guidebooks on long distance bus rides, talking to fellow travelers and locals and taking it from there. This for example enabled me to leave Cambodia on a short notice to meet up with my Belgian friends Dolf and Chris in the Philippines in order to travel together for two months. And this actually turned out to be one of the best experiences of the whole trip. You just gotta stay spontaneous.

Batad Rice Terraces in the Philippines

Spontaneous decision. Dolf, I and Chris reunited in the Philippines. Batad rice terraces.

Traveling slowly and thoroughly
The way I like to travel is probably unlike a lot of other people out there. I enjoy getting a real taste of a country, watching how people go about their daily lives and interact with the locals. Checking off all of the top sights in the guide books is not so much my thing and I love taking my time. I traveled almost a full year and saw 9 countries overall. A lot of people make it to twice that number in a year and visit at least two continents. But to just boost the number of countries visited and work my bucket list never was my ultimate goal. Low and slow was my way to go. That means I took ground transportation whenever possible, tried to travel like the locals do and tried to spend a good amount of time in every place I visited. Of course this mode of traveling can be uncomfortable at times but it allowed for unique experiences and encounters. You can rush through a country and it is totally understandable if you are on a tight itinerary. I did it before as well. But in my opinion this is not a sustainable way of traveling if you are on the road for a longer period of time. It will take a toll on you and you might become saturated with all of the new impressions leaving you with the so called “Just another Syndrome”. My recommendation is to stay a bit longer if you like a place, take your time to just relax and observe what’s around you. I have also been receiving messages from people who plan on visiting parts of South East Asia with having only a couple of weeks’ time.  My take on this is that less is usually more. Don’t try to see as many places and countries as possible but rather deliberately chose the places you really want to see and take your time to explore those. It will make for a better experience and you can always come back to see the rest.  No need to stress and no need to worry that you might miss something.  Take it slowly and enjoy.  The ox moves slow, but the earth is patient ….

Bus to Phongsaly, Laos

The local bus up to Phongsaly, the Northern tip of Laos.

Lunch break Phongsaly, Laos

Lunch break in the middle of nowhere. ON the way up to Phongsaly, Laos.

Tricycle in the Philippines.

Overloaded Trycycle – the local transport in the Philippines.

Take your time, get to know a place. The ox moves slow, but the earth is patient ….

Take your time, get to know a place. The ox moves slow, but the earth is patient ….

Off the beaten Path
Traveling along the pancake trail, as South East Asia is often referred to, can be a very touristy affair if you only stick to the highlights of the Lonely Planet. Don’t get me wrong, I still went to see all of the major highlights like Angkor, Bali and Luang Prabang in Laos and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. But I usually find myself a bit restless and left with a vaguely unsatisfying feeling after having been on the well-trodden path for too long. I can say that traveling to places off the map, usually not even offering any touristic highlights, made for some my best experiences. Arriving in a remote village in the Shan Highlands of Myanmar, getting invited into people’s houses, chatting with the kids and trying to get a good shot were simple experiences but all so worthwhile. It makes me forget about the world around me and all its constraints, it makes me humble and it makes me appreciate the simple things in life.  In these off the beaten path areas, you will meet the real people, kind and welcoming and not yet spoiled by the effects of mass tourism. It makes for a whole different travel experience and it usually presents you with great photo opportunities. Of course, getting to these places can be difficult, uncomfortable and sometimes even dangerous. Sometimes things might not work out as planned or not work out at all. But the excitement of heading to a remote location, the unforeseeable nature of these endeavors and the butterflies in the stomach are the essence of adventure and the spice of a journey.

Overnight stay in a small monastery somewhere in the Shan Highlands of Myanmar

Overnight stay in a small monastery somewhere in the Shan Highlands of Myanmar

By motorbike along the Chinese border in Northern Vietnam

By motorbike along the Chinese border in Northern Vietnam

Being invited for lunch in a remote village somewhere in Northern Vietnam

Being invited for lunch in a remote village somewhere in Northern Vietnam

Sunset in the Shan Highlands of Myanmar

Sunset in the Shan Highlands of Myanmar

The children of our host in a Burmese village

The children of our host in a Burmese village

The thing about traveling alone
I started my trip alone and I continued traveling alone for the most parts of it. It’s not that I necessarily want to travel on my own but it is hard to find people who are also willing to take a longer period of time off, want to see the same things and who you actually get along well with. So if you want to go and explore some of this magical world out there, you sometimes have to do it alone. I myself also need my alone time every now and then, it has always been like that and won’t probably change anytime soon. But then there are these moments, where you just want to share a special moment with someone, where you want company other than the fleeting acquaintances on the road, where you are tired of being the only white guy around in need of a normal conversation. These times will come but they will pass. On the other side, I found that traveling solo makes you more open to meeting new people, let them be other travelers or locals. You tend to become more social than traveling with a closed group of friends and in the end; you are never really alone when backpacking. There is always a chance to meet someone or strike up an interesting conversation. I experienced both modes of traveling during my trip and both have their advantages and disadvantages. In my experience a lot of people are hesitant to try solo travel, but I am certain that really everyone can do it. Start out with a small trip, see how it goes and then work your way up. I think it is a great chance to reflect, learn more about yourself and grow as a person.

Started off alone in Northern Thailand. Mae Hong Song Loop by motorbike

Started off alone in Northern Thailand. Mae Hong Song Loop by motorbike

Solo traveling doesn't equal loneliness ...

Solo traveling doesn’t equal loneliness …

On the Thakhek Loop, Laos

Best of both worlds … This time shared memories with travel mates Dolf and Chris

South East Asia as a travel destination
I was already fascinated by the region before I started this trip. I had been there before and was always a bit annoyed by the fact that I had to leave just a few weeks after I had arrived. South East Asia is so diverse and has so much to offer that I felt the need to finally spend a longer period of time there and thoroughly explore this amazing region. I mean once you are there, having paid for the flight, you can live comparably cheap coming from Europe. SEA has something on offer for every taste, let it be adventure, culture, outdoor activities, beach bumming or partying the nights away – you can chose.  What struck me most was the friendliness and welcoming attitude of the people. Wherever I was, I had great moments with the locals. Let it be getting drunk in a village in remote Northern Vietnam, spending the night in a Burmese monastery hosted by monks or living with Filipino locals for more than a month. I recommend learning the basics of the language of the country you are traveling as it will help immensely and make for a much better experience.
Of course I was overcharged every now and then but come on… it’s Asia and you know people will try, in some countries more than in others. It’s something you have to factor in and after a bit of time you will learn to haggle and avoid getting ripped off. Just be smart. I never had any serious problems during the whole time of my trip, the only exception being the theft of my beloved camera in Saigon. But even that I can partially ascribe to my own carelessness.
I usually tend not to come back to places since there is so much out there to explore, but Asia definitely got me and I will surely return to some of the places I have been. The mix of exotic cultures, friendly people, good food and adventure is just too much of intriguing combination.

Kids in Tanah Toraja, Sulawesi

Kids in Tanah Toraja, Sulawesi

Drinking rice wine with the locals somewhere in Ha Giang, Vietnam

kids along the way to Ruteng on the island of Flores, Indonesia

Curious kids along the way to Ruteng on the island of Flores, Indonesia

Last thoughts …
I could go on and on here, but I think for now this sums it up quite well. Looking back at it now, I can surely say that having left my job to go traveling, although it was a tough decision, was the best decision I could take. No regrets at all. Thinking about all the things I was allowed to experience, of all the great people I have met and looking at my pictures just makes me very grateful. I came back with a treasure of memories and good stories which no one will ever be able to take from me, no matter what will happen in the future.  I experienced firsthand, that there are other ways of living life that people in other worlds have way different priorities than we do and that you don’t really need much to live happily.
I think you can never go wrong when traveling. Unfortunately I am not one of those persons who can say that they don’t regret anything they did in their lives. I admit that I regret a few things and that I probably would do a few things differently if I cold chose to do so. However, the only things I never regretted and which always turned out to be 100% right, where my travels and trips abroad. And this time it wasn’t any different.

As I said, I could have gone on and on here. But maybe there is something you guys want to know about, something specific or a topic that you would like me to write about. Please let me know and I’d be happy to cover it for you. The next post will contain a list of all the Best ofs and all the worst things that happened during my trip. Short and sweet and definitely good for a few laughs…


Categories: Travel Tips | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 23 Comments

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23 thoughts on “One year backpacking South East Asia. A Retrospective

  1. Thierry

    Hey Phıl… How am I goıng to wrıte my return blog post after thıs one ? You are such a good wrıter. I repeat ıt, I thınk you should wrıte professıonnaly. You always manage to put words on feelıngs we (I) hardly manage to express. Thank you for thıs. I guess as a traveler I understand totally your statements. If I had one small comment about the advıce you gıve to people about encouragıng them to travel longer but on a lımıted area; I would say that ıt’s a good ıdea… The only problem ıs that you know a great part of South East Asıa. Not every one does 😉 So unless people come to you to ask for a specıal place where to go, they won’t have a clue what pıck to make. But that only shows how lucky you are to have accomplıshed thıs… Congratulatıons for your trıp and thıs amazıng blog.

    • Hi Thierry, good to hear from you my friend and thanks so much for your motivating feedback. I really appreciate it. Be happy that you don’t have to write a return post (yet). You are still on the road and living the life and after coming home for a bit, you will return to traveling. That’s just great. In any case, we definitely have to meet when you are back in France….I will make it happen. Let me know when you will be there?
      Thanks for your critique as well. The background of my comment was, that people for example me if 9 days would be enough to travel like 4 countries in SEA. Whereas I can understand the motivation that, I think it is just not a feasible thing to do. In the end you will spend more time on buses than anything else. My advice was to pick one or two countries that will suit your interests (culture, outdoor activities, trekking etc.) and then spend more time really enjoying the stay. But yeah, everyone to their own liking.

      Thierry, thanks for following along man. I hope to see you again soon….if not in France then somewhere on the road …. Cheers my friend!

  2. fantastic! the pictures are great 🙂 safe travels

    • Hi Muse, thanks for your feedback. The pictures are artistically not the best but I thought they would go well together with the written content and represent best what I wanted to say. Happy that you still liked them. So yeah, thanks again and thanks for following me around here… Cheers, Phil

  3. Around the World with Kirsty

    I love your blog – your stories, your photographs, your words, your outlook.. I have enjoyed reading about your incredible journey and it makes me excited to eventually start planning mine.
    I wonder, do you have any other plans for travelling in the future? If so, where?

    • Hi Kirsty, thanks a lot for your comment. Really good to hear from people that like what I have been doing here. I am happy to have been able to give some inspiration for your own adventure and the planning of it. So how far advanced are your plans by now? I am always interested in other peoples travel plans myself. To answer your question, I definitely will go travel again. It is like a drug and once you start you can’t top. However I don’t any specifics at this time. The countries that have been fascinating most recently are some of the remoter parts of India, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and China. I guess I fell in love with Asia and I wanna see more of it. What will be the first places be you will head to? Cheers Kirsty and thanks again for following me here ….

  4. Amazing! I traveled extensively throughout SEA 2012-early 2013 and I almost cried looking at your pictures! The places are beautiful, but it’s the people that make it magical. You did such a great job capturing that. Beautiful blog.

    • Hi Traci, thanks so much for your feedback. You are so right, the people make it magical and the many encounters with locals make for my most memorable experiences. I think that is what real travel should be about. What were your favorite places when you traveled the region? Any plans to go back soon? Cheers, Philipp

      • Ugh I don’t think I can choose a favorite!
        But yes, I’m headed back later this year. I’ll be going to Europe for the first time in October and then heading back to SEA in November. What about you, any plans to head back soon?

    • Hi Traci, you are lucky. Where will you be going this time? Any plans? I won’t head back too soon since I gotta work and save up for now. But yeah, I definately wanna return. I’d like to see more of Burma and I also wanna go back to the Philippines to visit friends there and relax. Hopefully not before too long. I really love Asia.

  5. AJ

    Your sentiments mirrored mine and most others. Very well said. Hit it perfectly right. And btw, your photos are great. They spoke to us and we understood.

  6. Gracey

    I agree so much with your thoughts on traveling alone. A lot of people are hesitant to do it because of fear. It’s true that fear is just in the mind and you will not know the truth about your fears if you don’t put yourself out there. I realized that there is nothing to be scared about traveling alone because there are just so many nice people out there that I have yet to meet.

    This year, I finally tried solo backpacking in Palawan (Puerto Princesa, El Nido, and Coron) and it was the most exciting and most fun part of my life, I’m definitely going to do it again! I got to meet a lot of people from different parts of the world and I really learned a lot from them. It’s much more fun because you don’t have to think of someone else when you make plans, plus you can be as spontaneous as you want. Yes, you can experience loneliness sometimes, but it lasts only for a moment.

    Anyway, I’m really enjoying reading your blogs and it’s feeding my wanderlust all the more. Next in my bucket list is to backpack in Europe, Canada, and South America. Good luck on your future travels, Phil! Be safe. Cheers! 🙂

  7. Great blog. I really enjoyed reading and seeing your experience through your eyes. Wondering how you are integrating back home after such a fantastic journey…. As I dream of starting my own journey someday soon.

  8. Sidney Anover

    Hey man!

    I’m quite amazed how you managed to travel all those places in Southeast Asia particularly here in Philippines. I’ve been traveling around the world since 2010 and I’ve been reading quite ample travel blogs, plan future trips and keep myself inspiring on more travels and adventures in the future. I’ve also hosted few solo travelers and travel bloggers mostly from Europe who came here to fulfill their own wanderlust. Right now, I’m planing my big trip next year to South America which will probably take me at maximum of 15 weeks duration. However, I’m still caught up in the corporate world at the moment and battling on figuring out how to make all mi future travel plans happen and do my bucket list.

    I believe it’s a very life-changing decision to make and I know you’ve gone through this in your life.

    Nice blog bro and keep traveling!


  9. lara

    Wow. First of all,you are an amazing writer. This blog, let alone this post, deserves more than just becoming a blog. It should be featured on national geographic or something. Second, you have breathtaking, spectacular, perfectly-captured photographs. You can really get into that moment and freeze it. Amazing. Again, maybe nat geo for photo features? Or better yet, hold one of the Ted talks. You are an inspiring person. You should continue on sharing your experiences to the world. Not only because you’ve seen beautiful places, but also because you were brave enough to let go the bonds of this seemingly conforming society, where life is usually already planned out even before it starts. What i mean is, people are expected to get a really good education, find a high paying job, even if the job is the most dreadful, lifeless andboring one, work one’s life out of himself, collect all sorts of insurances, buy a house, get a family, and retire and then you’ll get pension….it would take 35-40 years of those things, and it’s true, you only get to see something different for a few weeks eavch year….thus my friend, people forget to look beyond what they see….there is so much more out there. You had the courage to step out of what society expects of you and i admire you for that. Not many people could do that, though i wish they would…that WE would…i just thought i’d let you know some of my thoughts, and that im happy for you. Most of your sentences on this post really struck a lot of points. And i know what you mean..i also live in germany and can see the very secure mentality of stability and correctness in the society….s enough on my side, i wish you luck on your next adventures. 🙂

    • Hi Lara, thanks for your nice comment. Most of the things you said are more than true. This cycle we voluntarily put ourselves in is not good at all. We have to learn to become masters of our lives again and not let others determine what is right or wrong. But with all the media, all the norms and expectations it is so hard to break out … even for me it was a huge step. But looking back it now, I can safely say that it was the right decision and that I just regret not having done it earlier. The trip alone also kind of freed my mind and made more relaxed about these issues. I now know that life can be different, that things are not forseeable and safety and security are not everything. Also the fact, that the simple is a good life and the accumulation of wealth and more wealth is not healthy. So yet again Lara, thanks for dropping that thoughtful comment, really appreciate it. All the best, Philipp

  10. Thanks for sharing your adventure! I really enjoyed reading your blog and browsing through your shots. I wanna do my backpacking trips too in Indochina soon 🙂

    • Hi Michael, thanks for stopping by and taking the time to read my posts. I am happy you also liked the pictures. That is good to know since it comes from a fellow photographer. I also liked your shots – just browsed your page. Best of luck for your trip..let me know if you need some inut ….

  11. dines jansen

    Hi Pipz…finally got some time off to read some of your blogs here , as I was too curious of your backpacking experiences not only in the PI but also the rest of SEA. And also hoping to get some useful tips now that we are about to begin our “Buhay Palaboy”as you call it 🙂 This post is just really really good! Direct to the point, but one can feel the sincerity and profoundness of the writer, easy to read too! I have borrowed some of your words, “we do not really need much to live happily”. This is so true and I realized it the more when I was busy tidying up here and preparing the things for our camper trip. How can a person like you of such a young age possess so much wisdom about life and travel? Indeed your travel experiences has molded you into a better person, I think..

    We will try to take it also low and slow and be Flexible. Thanks for this wonderful post. 😉 now, on to your next blog…

  12. Hi Dines, wow..thanks for your kind words. I think you are the first person who says that I possess wisdom… I sure take it although it makes me feel old as well haha. But yeah, funnily I re-read this article myself the other day and I had forgotten most of it already. I liked reading it again since it brought back lots of memories. You guys can be lucky to start the Buhay Palaboy..I think it will be really nice and you will create great memories. And that, I think, is what life is all about. Having a few good stories to tell at the end of it all. I wish I could join you but maybe one day I will just knock on your camper door and say hello..who knows. All the best Dines and good luck …. Philipp (Pipz)

    • dines jansen

      We often asscociate wisdom with old age, but that is not Always the case..some of us older persons get also lots of inspirations and wise words from persons much younger than us, just like you. (Now it is me who feel much older ha ha) It just shows how many experiences you have with regards to travelling and those experiences have opened your eyes to many kinds of people an their culture and made you realize what life is all about and it all reflects on your thoughts, actions, and ways of writings which comes from the heart. Good thing you have this posts, it is Always nice to read back and relive the moments all over again.
      Yeah, who knows we see you on our camperdoor 🙂 Maybe we give you a visit next year when we return this way and head to Germany, when and if you’re still in Germany at that time.. Just keep in touch…I still have a lot of catching up with readings…I dont know where to begin! I see so many interesting posts here… Our best regards… 🙂

      • Hi Dines, thanks again. Traveling has definitely taught me a few things but it also opens some doors which you will never be able to close again. That’s maybe also why fitting in is now harder than ever for me. But yeah, I would never regret anything. Traveling has always been the best decisions I have taken, no doubts about it. So yeah, you guys enjoy your trip to the South and into the sun. That will be awesome and I sure expect some updates and pictures. And yes, if I will be still around next year, we can definitely meet up in Germany when you are on your way up. Just let me know…. Happy travels … BUHAY PALABOY

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