Category Archives: Laos

Backpacking: Southeast Asia Itinerary

The time has come to travel again. I was aiming for a trip towards the end of the summer but for some reason wasn’t feeling motivated to figure out where to head to or to make travel plans. Thankfully that has changed. Travel is and has been one of the best things in my life for a few years now. It’s opened up my view of the world. It’s allowed me to connect to and understand different people from both my country and from the world. It’s allowed me to see some of the most amazing things that both nature and humanity have been able to create. I need travel. I need to see the world. It’s something that I have to have in my life. So if there’s ever a time I don’t want to be making travel plans, it is worrisome for me. It’s an indication that some part of me is broken. I’m glad that the desire is back, and I can’t wait to get back on the road.

I have a somewhat rare chance to be able to do whatever I want to do with my life. For months now there have been no restrictions on what I’ve been able to do. I haven’t enforced any rules for myself and I’ve stepped into areas that I was not able to explore previously. I’ve been able to live exactly as I have wanted and have been able to openly feel and explore the world. It’s been great. Time like this is somewhat rare, but an effort should be made to obtain it if you can find a way to do so. With having so much time to myself I knew that I wanted to go through with some big travel plans.

My top five lists of travel destinations in no particular order are:

  • Southeast Asia
  • Eastern Europe
  • Hawaii, Australia, New Zealand
  • India
  • Southern Africa

When I travel I like to visit a lot of places in a short period of time. I like to road trip around and bounce from place to place. There are few better places in the world for me than being on the road, or the water, or in the air traveling to some new destination that I have always wanted to go to but have never been to before. These five destinations provide plenty of earth, water, and sky for me to explore. They are all places I have never been to but want to go to at some point in my life. I’m not really sure where the desires come to for some of them. I definitely want to see the entire world, but these five are preferences that I want to see first.

Initially when looking at this list, there was no place where I wanted to go to more than any other. So I needed to work through some sort of process to figure out where my adventure would be. One thing that I usually do when I travel is check up on current events. The first place I usually start is the U.S. Department of State’s International Travel’s list of alerts and warnings. The U.S. will “issue a Travel Alert for short-term events they think you should know about when planning travel to a country… and a Travel Warning when they want you to consider very carefully whether you should go to a country at all.” I wouldn’t use this list exclusively to determine if a location is safe or not safe to travel to, but it’s a pretty good start.

There are currently some interesting alerts and warnings on this list. For example there is a Travel Alert for the entire continent of Europe. That’s something that to me seems insane. Specifically France is listed for the European Soccer Championship and the Tour de France cycling race. Poland is listed for the Catholic Church’s World Youth Day event, which is expected to draw up to 2.5 million visitors to Krakow. There’s no other specific countries European countries listed under this travel alert but the U.S. had decided to group the rest of Europe in as a general alert.

The Philippines Travel Warning was another thing that I was not familiar with. It applies mostly to the Sulu Sea area and is there due to the high threat of attacks and kidnapping of international travelers.

The list of alerts and warnings and the state of the world is constantly changing, so this information will be out of date within a few days, but the point is that it would be somewhat irresponsible to head out to a location without knowing a bit of the risks associated with the journey. I wouldn’t let most of these alerts or warnings keep you from traveling but you should be smart about the environment to limit your risks.

I laid down the 42 alerts and warnings listed at this time on to a map. I used the online tool from Maploco if you have an interest in generating a similar map. It’s pretty remarkable what is listed here as either an alert or a warning. Again this map is not definitive. It includes areas that I don’t feel should be on here and it does not include other areas that it probably should. For example you are probably fine touring around the vineyards of Bordeaux or the Alps of Switzerland although there technically is an alert for these areas. You also might want to consider Rio if you will be in the area during the Olympics. Research the area you are going to for current events and be smart and keep an eye out when you head to new locations. Don’t be paranoid, but be safe.

Travel alerts and warnings
Travel alerts and warnings

Most of my top 5 came up as places that were safe to travel to. Eastern Europe I guess is technically under alert. Sure the eastern areas of Ukraine around Donetsk and Luhansk are certainly pretty dangerous. Violent clashes there have led to over 9,000 deaths. A portion of the Philippines is under warning. While eastern Ukraine and the southern part of the Philippines are likely to be off limits for me personally, most of my top 5 is still feasible.

Now that safety is confirmed, I need to look at some other aspect to cut down my list to an individual destination. One place I can remove from that list is Eastern Europe. I recently saw a large portion of Western Europe two years ago. Eastern Europe, while extremely different, is too similar of a destination for me. It’s not challenging enough to me at this point in my life. I want something more difficult. I want something that will change my worldview and push me as a person.

For the same reason I can get rid of the Hawaii, Australia, and New Zealand trip. That also would be a tremendous trip. But the difficulty level associated with this trip is not much. It seems too easy and not rewarding enough. How challenging can it be for me to be relaxing on the beaches of Waikiki, spending time in Sydney, or bouncing about the Milford Sound? That’s all stuff I’d love to do someday, but it won’t be my first choice for this trip.

That leaves me three locations that I might want to travel to at this time. Southeast Asia, India, and Southern Africa. All three of these locations are going to shatter my worldview. They are going to challenge me. I am going to grow from the experience of traveling around these places.

At this point I’m going to read about other people’s trips to these areas. I’m going to try to assemble a list of things I want to see or do in each location. If this sounds like a lot of work to you, it’s probably because it is. It’s just the way I like to travel. I don’t mind the work and research because in doing so I am learning about the world and learning about myself. Any time spent on travel in any way, even these planning stages, has always paid dividends in my life.

The plan is to spend about a month and a half or two months traveling. I’m not sure why that number but it just feels right based on past travel, the time I have available, and the things that I want to see on this trip. Anything less probably wouldn’t gain me the experience I am looking for and anything more would probably conflict with things that I want to do after this travel is over.

After some time looking into my remaining locations I decide on Southeast Asia. I chose it mostly because it’s a popular traveler location. The path is fairly worn. The areas have been tested and tried. I’m not pioneering anything by going on this trip, but it allows me the right mix of seeing a totally new part of the world while still doing it in a safe and comfortable way. Sure every travel blogger and instagrammer has been here and taken all of the cliche shots way before me. But for me this trip is pretty much exactly what I want. It seems like a natural progression from my Western Europe trip.

I also really really want to eat the food that I’ve seen so much of on television from this area. Soups and noodles and mystery meat street food. And the sights. Epic historic buildings and locations that I haven’t even heard about yet. Cultures that I have no experience in. Beautiful beaches. Nature that I can’t find anywhere else. I suppose this would have been the same for the Southern African region or the entire country of India, but I just am a bit more interested in Southeast Asia at the moment. It’s been a thought on the backdrop of my subconscious for a long time.

So where am I even going? How do I get around from place to place? How long am I going for? Do I have time to squeeze in a bit of Hawaii, New Zealand, and Australia since it’s on the way? Will I be able to swing further up the coast into China, South Korea, and Japan? Time to plan out this itinerary.

The way I went about building an itinerary is to start with googling “best places to visit in Southeast Asia”. From there I took the first two pages and parsed through the results, assigning a ranking to each location and country based on how many times it showed up on a list and how high it scored on the list. This is a process I think I want to automate when I get back as it is very valuable. I basically have no clue about where to go in Southeast Asia outside of some general ideas. But by parsing through Google results I am able to assemble the knowledge of many professionals which gives me a good idea to start with. By using the average knowledge of various experts you quickly have access to very useful information even though you are clueless on a topic.

For example the countries that showed up the most are shown below. Note that results like China and Japan and India show up. Sure they are not part of Southeast Asia, but within the first two pages of Google results there were articles for “Best Destinations in Asia” and “10 Best Places to Visit in Asia” etc. Personally I don’t mind these results showing up. The ranking algorithm I used keeps them towards the bottom of the list. I think there is an advantage to keeping these false positives in the list of results. It gives me ideas for where the trip can extend to. The 11th and 12th results for best places to visit in Southeast Asia return China and Japan. Even without knowing the geographical location of these two countries, this list suggests I may want to look into them to see if they fit into my trip itinerary. These false positives provide suggestions to better my trip in ways I may not have initially considered. I am pretty happy with this list. It is hard to argue against Thailand, Vietnam, and Indonesia as three of the best countries to visit in Southeast Asia.

Southeast Asia country rankings
Southeast Asia country rankings

Likewise I went through and parsed out and ranked the specific locations. In order to do this I had to make some decisions as to how to cluster the data. I mostly tried to keep these location results at a city level although sometime it dips down into the individual attraction level. I am kind of more interested in the general city or province level of granularity because from there another Google search can easily return the top things to do in that location. I am pretty happy with these results using rough algorithms and clustering. But eventually I would want to improve on them if I do ever automate this process. Again these results are just ideas and suggestions for someone who is clueless on the area. I think they ended up being rather useful. It’s hard to argue against the beaches of Bali, the ruins of Angkor, and the city of Singapore as being some of the best things to see in Southeast Asia.

Southeast Asia location rankings
Southeast Asia location rankings

I previously used a similar process to this to come up with a list of books to read, without having any knowledge of these books. Obviously the power of being able to assemble such information automatically without having to have any knowledge of the subject is extremely powerful. It certainly is the way that search results are heading. Eventually you will be able to tell Google “give me an itinerary for a month and a half to Southeast Asia” and it will give it to you. Until then we have to struggle through with a lot of manual data collection, parsing, and interpreting.

After laying out these Southeast Asian locations on a map, I made an initial route and timeline. From there I saw that I might have some more time available in my travel. I decided to look into Australia, New Zealand, and Hawaii. I ended up googling “best places to visit in Australia” and parsed through results and made a potential route for this area. Same with New Zealand and Hawaii. At the moment I am leaving these destinations as audibles for the trip. The ease of these locations may provide a nice contrast to some of the more difficult travel that I will be on.

This entire itinerary is open to how I am feeling at that time. I booked a one-way ticket to Myanmar. I have nothing else booked. I looked into travel and it look like I’ll be taking a lot of flights. I hear the flights are the best option but there are overnight buses and buses that you can sleep on that I may try out as they provide a great look at the country scenery. My trip is definitely extremely aggressive, so I may remove some of these destinations. I may spend more or less time in certain areas. I will book flights, buses, hotels, and attractions as I go. And I will take a one-way flight back home when I am ready.

SOUTHEAST ASIA:
4-Aug NYC
5-Aug Flying
6-Aug Yangon, Myanmar
7-Aug Inle Lake, Myanmar
8-Aug Bagan, Myanmar
9-Aug Mandalay, Myanmar
10-Aug Chiang Mai, Thailand
11-Aug Chiang Rai, Thailand
12-Aug Luang Prabang, Laos
13-Aug Luang Prabang, Laos
14-Aug Hanoi, Vietnam
15-Aug Ha Long Bay, Vietnam
16-Aug Hoi An, Vietnam
17-Aug Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
18-Aug Phnom Penh, Cambodia
19-Aug Angkor, Cambodia
20-Aug Bangkok, Thailand
21-Aug Ko Pha Ngan, Thailand
22-Aug Ko Phi Phi, Thailand
23-Aug Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
24-Aug Singapore, Singapore
25-Aug Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park, Java, Indonesia
26-Aug Bali, Indonesia
27-Aug Komodo National Park, Indonesia

AUSTRALIA:
28-Aug Sydney, Australia
29-Aug Sydney, Australia
30-Aug Melbourne, Australia
31-Aug Great Ocean Road, Australia
1-Sep Adelaide, Australia
2-Sep Uluru, Australia
3-Sep Uluru, Australia
4-Sep Uluru, Australia
5-Sep Cairns, Australia
6-Sep Cairns, Australia
7-Sep Great Barrier Reef, Australia
8-Sep Gold Coast, Australia
9-Sep Gold Coast, Australia

NEW ZEALAND:
10-Sep Christchurch, New Zealand
11-Sep Aoraki/Mount Cook, New Zealand
12-Sep Milford Sound, New Zealand
13-Sep Queenstown, New Zealand
14-Sep Punakaiki Coast, New Zealand
15-Sep Lake Taupo, New Zealand
16-Sep Lake Taupo, New Zealand
17-Sep Rotorua, New Zealand
18-Sep Waitomo, New Zealand
19-Sep Bay of Islands, New Zealand
20-Sep Auckland, New Zealand

HAWAII:
21-Sep Hawaii, Hawaii
22-Sep Hawaii, Hawaii
23-Sep Maui, Hawaii
24-Sep Oahu, Hawaii
25-Sep Kauai, Hawaii
26-Sep NYC

Where I might be
Where I might be

Once the itinerary was planned it was time to get vaccinations and visas. I would recommend getting these done as early as is possible. If you definitely know the countries and style of traveling you are doing then definitely get these vaccinations done first. Vaccinations can take months to get done. Visas may take weeks. Obviously these things are critically important. I would recommend the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website for vaccinations needed for each country. Is Zika prevalent? Do I need the typhoid vaccination? Is the yellow fever vaccination required to enter the country? Etc. You’ll find the answers at that site.

Same with the visas. If you don’t take care of this stuff you may not be able to visit a country. Or worse, you may be arrested, deported, etc. during your travels. Make sure you research this from an official source as these requirements change. I would recommend the Department of State’s travel page. How many passport pages so I need? Is a visa a required? Can I get the visa in person in the country or do I have to get it before I leave the US? Are there any entry/exit requirements I should be aware or? Any events that I should be aware of when traveling there? You’ll find it all there.

As far as packing I’m going to be backpacking. I’m pretty excited about this. I’ll be using some of the gear that I picked up for hiking but also a lot of other stuff I have lying around the house. I wasn’t sure that I would be able to fit everything inside of my pack, but after watching some YouTube videos I became pretty confident that I would be able to. Some people travel for a really long amount of time with a really small pack (18L!) and only like two quick drying shirts, two underwear, and two socks and just wash them every day in a sink. I kind of want a bit more comfort than that so I’ll be going with about a dozen of each. The environment is pretty hot and casual and a complete downpour depending on the country so it shouldn’t be too difficult to keep the clothes light and compact. It’s also nice that I don’t have to pack my tent, sleeping bag, food, etc. like I would if I was hiking. There should be plenty of room in the pack for everything I need, and it should all fit as a carry-on.

So that’s about it. Can’t wait to get out there. If anyone is interested in joining up for any part of this trip feel free to reach out. I won’t be available on text or phone for the next two months but will have WhatsApp, Facebook and Messenger, Google Hangouts, email, Snapchat, Twitter, and this site during times when I grab Wi-Fi. I don’t believe I’ll be rocking a phone plan because Verizon doesn’t offer service in some of those countries and I don’t feel like grabbing a new SIM card every time I cross borders. It will be nice to unplug and go see the world.