A – Alone. I cannot stress it enough: if you want to go traveling, go by yourself! I’ve met wonderful fellow travelers along the way and I’m grateful for having explored parts of SEA & sharing a ton of memories with them. I still call a few of them my friends and hope to see them soon again (Spain, Germany, New Zealand, USA/China, Poland – here I come!). Nevertheless, I do believe it’s sometimes better to stay alone: it’s easier to indulge into local cultures and surroundings.
Being alone means there are no distracting (even if interesting and fun) conversations with other travelers while visiting sights; I found it far more easy to soak up my surroundings. In addition, I believe locals are more interested in meeting and less shy to talk you. In Myanmar, for example, a ton of locals approached me when I was walking through villages, sitting in restaurants or visiting temples by myself. In Hanoi, I ended up having tea on the street with a lovely, newly wed Vietnamese couple. In Malaysia, I met a great family / groups of friends who I ended up staying with for 2 weeks. People were curious to know where I was from; why a young, Western girl was all by herself; where I was going etc.
Being alone with just your thoughts and silent for hours may be overwhelming. It’s not for everybody but I’ve come to love it. I’m okay with not having a ‘real’ conversation for a few days. I’m happy to bike alone through the countryside, singing songs out loud. Being alone and deciding by myself what to do next have taught me a ton of things, e.g. how much I can endure, how strong I am, what I like and don’t like. I’ve come to accept who I am and in doing so, I have found inner peace. I’m my own best friend.
B – Bagpack. I love my blue-and-grey Bach backpack! It’s only 38l small but that’s enough for me. I’ve packed my belongings into small plastic ziplock bags and know exactly where to put which item. I’ve accumulated some stuff and gotten a bit lazy (I’m hoarding washing powder, for example) so that I’m up from 9kg to 12kg. Still, it only takes me 10 minutes or less to pack my bag!
C – Courage. I’m not the most courageous person but traveling through / living in SEA has definitely made me a braver person and boosted my confidence. I’ve pushed myself, battled my fears and tested my limits countless times. Some examples include: jumping from a 3m high boat’s deck into the ocean (Vietnam); knocking on a stranger’s hotel room and suggesting sharing the room for a night to save money (he was German, a teacher and taking a sabbatical year – that’s why I thought I could trust him; Laos); hitchhiking with my Spanish friend Sofia back to our guesthouse after hiking for 12km (Malaysia); holding on & regaining control of screaming, trumpeting Tutdao as she turned around in circles (there are some elephant stories I better not tell…). I love leaving my comfort zone, and while I don’t go completely ‘crazy’ (traveling alone and being a girl means I need to be careful at all times), I’ve become quite the adventure seeker.
D – Determination. ‘I will get to the top of that hill! I will find that local bus! I will battle my food poisoning! I will get up at 4.30am to catch the sunrise on top of a temple! I will walk to the airport to save money and kill time! I will not let this get to me!’ Need I say more? Determination is the key to having a good experience and being adventurous. It’s what motivates and makes you keep going. Inner strength and positive thoughts. Hang in there!
Halong Bay, Vietnam.
E – Elephant! Obvious one, isn’t it?
F – Food. I have fallen in love with Southeast Asian food! When I return to Europe, I really don’t know what I’ll do without it. I love all the street food and cheap eats sold at morning, afternoon or night markets. I’ve been adventurous and tried frog, snake, crocodile, roasted maggots, and many different kinds of fish. I’m currently traveling through Myanmar and although I have discovered a few nice dishes, I miss Thai food such as Laab, papaya salad, nam prik with sticky rice, and curries. Thai cuisine means home to me. Vietnamese cuisine excites me. Oh, and I haven’t even mentioned the fruits (mangosteen, dragonfruit, papaya, green/yellow mangos, lamyai – the list goes on and on!).
G – Guesthouse. I’ve slept in 20 bed dorms, 12 bed dorms, 6 bed dorms. Mixed or only female. Double rooms and single rooms. Shared bathroom – own bathroom. A/C or only fan.. Always on the lookout for cheap deals, I’ve experienced it all. My most expensive night was $45 (Monywa, Myanmar) and my cheapest $3 (low season Cat Ba Island, Vietnam – and it was a really fancy room, too!). Due to budgetary restraints, I was expecting to stay in cheap, dirty shitholes for most of the time. Turns out I was wrong. The guesthouses/hotels/hostels I stayed at were all clean, often equipped with A/C (not only fans) and run by cool, friendly, and sometimes a little crazy owners & staff! I met lovely locals and other travelers there. Even though I can’t wait to have my own room or even an apartment, I loved and will miss the countless (random) encounters in lobbies, breakfast rooms, and dorms.
H – Heat. Having spent almost a year in SEA, I’ve experienced all three seasons: rainy, cold, and dry/hot. I was struggling with the heat at first (I actually don’t like summer too much and prefer autumn & winter) and thought I would never get used to it. But I’m okay now (and I do wear a jacket at 20 degrees).Yes, it’s hot, and yes, you sweat a lot and that makes you feel gross – but if you want to explore the region, it’s something you have to learn to put up with. Suck it up, get up early to avoid midday heat and drink loads of water.
I – Insects. Heat & humidity = mosquitos. I notoriously applied bug spray at night during my first weeks but became more relaxed eventually. Long pants and sleeves are much better and healthier for protection (too much DEET is not good for your skin). But all the spiders! And cockroaches! You name it, I’ve seen and had it in my room. I’ve become an expert at overcoming my fear of spiders and killing or ignoring them. I’m also really good at ignoring cockroaches (I’ve only had them a couple of times in my rooms, thank God!) and carefully maneuvering myself around them. The first time I saw one, I remember thinking ‘What an interesting looking beetle! It’s soooo big and has such long antennae!’ It was only afterwards that I learned what it was. Yuck!
J – Joviality. I’m generally a happy person who is pretty content with life. Traveling through SEA has made me even happier. Yes, I’ve had many downs – but I’ve had many more ups. All in all, it’s been the best year of my life. I am relaxed and carefree as seldom before. The same goes for the people here: even though many of them have so little, they seem to be much happier, friendlier and kinder than most Europeans! There’s no place for frowns here… just smiles.
K – Knowledge. Key to understanding a country, its people, culture and customs – and trying to fit in. I love my Lonely Planet’s ‘background on XYZ’ sections. It’s also good for getting an overview of what to do & where to go, although I have started to ignore some of its suggestions. Following the LP means you won’t be lonely anymore: the guidebook has become a victim of its own success. Many suggested places to visit have changed dramatically and are no longer authentic and overcrowded with other travelers. I only use it as a starting point these days; combining travel blogs (e.g. Travelfish), Tripadvisor, travelers’ word-of-mouth, and locals’ suggestions are a better source of information. Doing a little research about places to visit and hotel options reduces stress when getting to a new place; knowing local prices before trying to buy something gives you power during negotiations.
L – Language. I’ve become an expert at communicating with strangers, even if they don’t speak my language(s). I’ve had great conversations & laughs with locals who don’t speak any English, especially in Myanmar. I’m fluent in pidgin English, reading body language, and using gestures to make a point. Smiling is also a great way to communicate! I’ve picked up some local words (especially Thai & Burmese ones). I find myself approaching other travelers and starting random conversations in embassies, restaurants, at airports or on the street. I’m fluent in small talk although I’m also quite tired of it. I’m an expert at pretending to understand what locals are telling me in heavily accented English. Or faking that I understand what somebody tells me in Thai…
M – Map. Almost as important as water! On numerous occasions, locals didn’t know how to get to an attraction and pointed into random and contradictory directions. Signs in Myanmar tend to be written in Burmese – if there are any at all. Therefore, I always made sure to bring a (halfway decent) map to find my way around. Although I would often venture off main roads and get lost in a city (discovering local street markets and good restaurants as a result), I would eventually rely on my map to find my way back. Looking at the sun to tell which direction I was heading also proved to be a valuable skill. Bringing a compass, however, would have been an exaggerated move…
Part 2 of the alphabet will follow soon… stay tuned!