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Backpacking Asia: It’s A Love/Hate Kinda Thing

backpacking asia
On my first visit to Sri Lanka back in 2008, I was shocked by the chaos, the dirtiness and the poverty on display in the majority of the country.

Granted, this may have been heightened by the fact that the country was still trying to get back on its feet after the tsunami, but it was still a shock to the senses. Before that I had only ever visited much more developed and Westernised countries and was somewhat unprepared. The travel brochures show you the gorgeous sandy beaches and the hypnotising temples; what they don’t show you is everything else.

Something about how foreign and exotic the place felt made further thoughts of backpacking Asia quickly creep into my subconscious. Which was why, two years later, when faced with several decisions on where to take my first solo backpacking trip, Vietnam was the only place that truly captured my imagination. That time, however, I was more prepared for what would await me when I arrived.

I now find myself back in Asia – Malaysia to be exact – and the same conflicting feelings from my first two experiences have resurfaced. If you have ever travelled around parts of Asia you will know exactly what I’m talking about when I say I love it and hate it in equal measure.

Of All The Things I Miss The Most

Right now I am in Eastern Europe and am enjoying it far more than I thought I would. I love that I can get good pizza in almost every place we visit, that there are leafy parks and avenues to stroll down, that there are old towns overflowing with history.

But for me, there is something missing. It just isn’t Asia.

I have talked in the past about how I have a love/hate relationship with backpacking in Asia and how it intrigues me. I have taken holidays to Vietnam and Sri Lanka, stayed in both hostels and hotels in Hong Kong and have dreamt about visiting China and Japan for almost as long as I can remember. For years, the culture and diversity of Asia has intrigued me and for the most part has been the only place in the world that I have wanted to concentrate my travels on.

But circumstances change, and we left Asia to come to Europe and dogsit for some friends in the summer. Don’t get me wrong, as long as I’m travelling, I am enjoying myself. But I haven’t yet found an area of the world that gets me as excited as Asia, and quite frankly I can’t wait to go back.

Here are just some of the things I’m missing about Asia and our extended time in Malaysia:

How everyone smiles at you and will attempt to help, especially when you are struggling

The food. I miss laksa, spicy curries, dim sum, pork buns and tandoori chicken roti.

tom yum soup malaysia

10 Things You Should Know Before Travelling to Vietnam

The facilities are good, use them

Before I got to Vietnam I had visions of squat toilets all over the country, like that of many other South East Asian destinations and so steeled myself for having to ‘hover’ on a regular basis.

This turned out to be a misconception and the only squat toilet I encountered was at a service station at the side of the road. Apart from this, the plumbing tends to work in much a similar way to Greece: don’t block the pipes by flushing the toilet paper down; instead use the bin provided and everything will be fine.

As with anywhere in Asia, arm yourself with plenty of tissues and antibacterial gel in case you’re caught short with no supplies. You may also be charged to use toilets if they are situated at popular tourist sites. Don’t be cheap and think you can get away with paying the minimum price unless you are male and are used to using public urinals. I made this mistake and was shown to an exposed toilet bowl with no door that could be seen from the street!

It WILL rain – there’s no best time to visit Vietnam

If you are travelling from one end of the country to the other, it will rain at some point during your trip. The seasons vary throughout the country and I encountered rain in both Hoi An and Hue. Even though it was still warm, the rain was heavy at times, but don’t let it dampen your fun.

Ponchos can be bought for a minimal price when you are there (the thinner plastic ones are good just for walking around whereas you should invest in the thicker, longer ones if you’re planning on riding motorbikes and cycles a lot).

Also, don’t bother packing an umbrella – it just adds to your baggage weight and even the lowest class of hotels tend to offer them free in the rooms. Note –  Make sure you return the umbrellas before you leave as you will be charged for them otherwise.

The trains never run on time

Once you’ve spent a few days in Vietnam you’ll realise that the Vietnamese are a laid-back people, who are never in a rush to get anywhere. This translates to their public transport system also.

Having used a few sleeper trains during my stay, it became custom to never expect to arrive at your destination at the intended time, even if you had set off within an hour of your departure time. Just go with the flow and be ready and alert to leave the train at your station when you arrive because they don’t hang around for long and you never know where you might end up if you have to stay on the train until the next stop.

A Guide to Asian Street Food

Asian street food

Many visitors to Asian cities find that when out exploring they feel hungry a lot of the time. Be warned – if you are on a diet you will need to be strong-willed. The reason is because the streets are full of the most tempting cooking smells, and thinking about food constantly, and wondering what dish to try next becomes a natural reflex that is difficult to overcome.

The cities of Asia have some of the best street food to be found anywhere in the world. It is not necessary to sit in stuffy restaurants to have a gourmet experience in cities such as Bangkok – get out on the streets and search out the best food stall chefs.

Forget the menu

The vast majority of street food vendors don’t have a menu. The best way to go about ordering a meal or snack in these places is to check out what the other customers are eating; decide what looks best and simply point at it. If a lot of the local customers seem to be dining on the same thing there’s a very good reason.

Be adventurous

Scorpions and grasshoppers wouldn’t be at the top of most people’s list of recipe ingredients, however, Thai chefs are not squeamish and are happy to cook both. If you are looking for an unusual gastronomic experience you will certainly find that in Thailand. For example, Larb Mote Daeng is made using red ants and their eggs and is said to be delicious. So, don’t get into a rut with the same Thai/fried rice dishes. Look for the exotic and unusual foods, be adventurous and try some!