A 2014 Travel Review

It is December again and time for the annual travel review here at The Furious Panda. Every year around this time, I look back to the previous year’s travel and basically give thanks for all the opportunities I’ve had to travel.

You can take a look at past years’ travel review at these links: 2011 review, 2012 review, 2013 review.

The theme for 2014 was travelling with friends, and visiting festivals in the region. I managed the former OK I think, almost half of the year’s trips were with friends. The festivals bit not so much, but not for lack of trying. Considering I was not on an extended year’s break like in 2012-2013, I think the past year has been a pretty decent year of travelling. Many micro-adventures around the region. Let’s take a look at what was accomplished in 204.

Jan – Indonesia (Medan) – A solo trip. There is a distinct focus on cultural and historical places for this year’s trips. Medan of course, is a common Indonesian city to visit. But I also visited the Batak region of Sumatra, around Lake Toba. A highlight was the largest Batak museum in the little visited town of Balige.

April – Malaysia (Tioman) – This must be my third visit to Tioman for diving. Just a weekender, but a fun trip nevertheless, with colleagues and friends.

April – Indonesia (Jakarta) – Indonesia is my happy hunting ground. My destination of choice whenever I need a getaway. But I’ve yet to spend any time in the capital. So Jakarta visiting a friend means a proper introduction to Indonesian lingo. And food, especially food.

May – Thailand (Sukothai) – One of my favourite solo trips this year. Thailand was my go to place back then (Five trips to various parts of Thailand from 2003 to 2008). So it is a pleasant return to the Land of Smiles. The Buddhist temples of Sukothai are wonderful. Even more wonderful are the obscure satellite towns of Kamphaeng Phet and Si Satchanalai, both sites of the ancient Sukothai kingdom.

May – Malaysia (Kuala Lumpur) – Everyone knows KL, but my little tour of the Seven Wonders of KL, is a pleasant diversion from the usual exploratory trips this year. I got to visit parts of KL I would never have visited on my own.

Aug – Indonesia (Tana Toraja, Ambon “The Spice Islands”) – This is one of two highlight trips this year. The elaborate funeral festival of the Toraja people has always been on my bucket list. To be able to see an actual Toraja funeral up close is a treat. The icing is the impromptu decision to fly to Ambon, one of the Spice Islands of the Moluccas.

Aug – Taiwan (Taipei) – Not so much a personal trip, I nevertheless spent a morning spotting Taipei’s major tourist sites during this work trip.

Oct – Lebanon (Beirut, Tripoli, Sidon, Tyre, Baalbek) -The other highlight trip of 2014 and the only one this year out of South-east Asia (not counting Taiwan). After plans to visit Iraqi Kurdistan got canned (no thanks to ISIL!), I decided to go to Lebanon. The return to the Middle East and the welcome return to familiarity: the falafels, the language, the people – made the long journey there worthwhile.

Oct – UAE (Dubai), Oman (Ras Musandam Peninsula) – Together with Lebanon, I met up with a friend and we went on a road trip to the Ras Musandam strip, that little sliver of Oman separated from the rest of the country. It was my second visit to Oman, but the first to this region.

Nov – Indonesia (Batam) – A weekend trip to nearby Batam, for the foodie in me.

Dec – Myanmar (Yangon, Bagan, Mandalay) – To close off the year, I went up to Myanmar to see the famed pagodas of Bagan. And broke my collarbone in an electric bike accident.

In summary, it was a pretty eventful year, despite not going too far out of Singapore. I managed one new country (Lebanon) and many revisits to once familiar countries. 10 trips out, with only 2 of them being solo trips.

2015 is going to be a very exciting year for me. It looks like I’m going to have a permanent travel buddy. 🙂

What if?

What if you could travel the world and money and time is not a concern? Would you go on a round-the-world trip? How would you go about doing it? Will you go alone? Or will you bring a friend? Where would you go? Which countries are a must see? Will you go on a luxury trip? Or would you have to budget your finances carefully? What if you have no option in this, because the most luxurious place you can stay in the islands off Vanuatu is in fact a shithole? What if your friend who is an annoying little twat wants to come along? Will you allow him to join your RTW? What if he tells you that he needs western toilets everywhere he stays? And if there is no toilet paper, what would he do? Do you even care?

Why not just go alone? What do you really want to get out of this trip? Is it because you need a getaway? Why not just take a weekend staycation in a local five star hotel and blog about your wonderful ‘travel experience’? Or do you actually want to realise your dreams and see the world? Which idiot came up with the word ‘staycation’ anyway? Maybe you want to explore different cultures and meet the locals? Or have full moon parties in the beaches of Thailand? Aren’t you such a cliche?

Have you looked through your bucket list of countries to visit? Is it possible to plan a route that covers everything without having to backtrack? Does it make sense to buy an RTW ticket? If so, which airline? And is it open jaw? Why is airline food so bad? Does anyone even pay attention to the airplane safety demonstrations nowadays? What if they had supermodels doing the safety demonstration? Would you pay attention then?

Will you fly from country to country? Or would you rather go overland? Will you hire a car and a driver to bring you to the border? Maybe you might want to consider the cross-country train? Or will you take the public bus? What if the bus ride is an excruciating 16 hour ordeal through northern Pakistan? The scenery along the Karakoram highway is beautiful, is it not? Would that justify sitting in a cramped space with your backpack on your lap throughout? How come the bus does not stop for toilet breaks? Why does everyone one in this frigging bus seem to have superhuman bladders? What if you really, really need to pee? Will you then shout for the bus driver to stop? “Hello mister driver, can you please stop so I can pee?” What is that translated to Urdu? Will everyone in the bus with their superhuman bladders laugh at you? Maybe before the next bus ride you should do a little planning? How about not drinking anything for the next 16 hours so that you would not have the urge to relief yourself? Doesn’t that sound utterly ridiculous? But what if the alternative is a random god-knows-when stop where everyone lines up by the roadside, hitches up their shalwar kameez and empties their bladder in a contest to see who can shoot the furthest? How about the women in the bus, don’t they have to go? These women really do have superhuman bladders, don’t they?

How about visas? Will you get them before you leave home? What if the visa is only valid for three months, what then? Why do some countries have the most stupid visa requirements? Are they so determined to keep out tourists? Why do you need a confirmed hotel booking, an itinerary and a flight ticket out in order to get a Chinese visa? Why can’t they just go visa-free, it’s not like we tourists want to overstay in China for 6 months and laze around in the hostel all day, under the pretext of “learning Chinese”, right? Right?

Since we are talking about hostels, where would you stay on your RTW? Will you stay in hotels or hostels? Is AirBnB an option. especially if you were headed to Sochi? Or maybe a good idea is to couchsurf? But what if all your Turkish couchsurfing host wants to do is hit on you? What if his house smells faintly of onions and it permeates through all your clothes and you cannot stand the smell and all you want to do is to flee from his home? Wouldn’t that be rude? What is the etiquette of couchsurfing? Must you bring a gift for your host? Or do you have to cook for him as a gesture of thanks for hosting you? What if all you can come up with is instant noodles? How come supermarkets in Turkey don’t stock instant noodles? Don’t they eat ramen? Can you just live on kebabs everyday? What is the difference between an Adana kebab and an Iskender Kebab? Don’t they all taste the same? Isn’t a kofte kebab just a doner kebab on a stick? Have you tried asking that to a Turkish kebab connoisseur who gets so appalled that you don’t know the difference between an Adana and an Iskender that he spends the next 30 minutes explaining to you about various kinds of kebabs? When in your mind all you want is a packet of instant noodles?

What will you pack on your RTW trip? Will you bring a backpack or a suitcase? How heavy will your luggage be? Won’t you have to carry everything you have on your shoulders? Do you really need to bring five pairs of jeans? Are you going to bring along your favourite red socks? What if you are in Bosnia and everyone else is wearing black jackets and black socks and you look like a complete idiot in your red socks? What if you are in a mall in Sarajevo and a blonde Bosnian supermodel is about to come up to you and chat you up and notices your red socks and immediately changes her mind and walks away? Maybe it wasn’t the red socks, maybe you just smell funny? Could it have been the onions from your Turkish couchsurfing friend?

How would you keep in touch with everyone back home? Will you use Facebook? Or will you Skype your way through the world? Will you keep a blog so that family and friends can keep track of your travels? Will your blog be updated regularly or will you decide to go “Fuck it, I’ll update the blog when I get home” and then realise you have a backlog of 6 months worth of posts to update? What will you do then? Will you create a stupid blog post asking all sorts of questions incessantly and hope your readers won’t notice that your last RTW recap post was more than a month ago?

What if you could travel the world and money and time is not a concern? Would you go on a round the world trip?

ps. If you have not yet realised, every sentence in this article is a question. the idea behind this post comes from Padget Powell’s ‘The Interrogative Mood: A Novel?” which is a good read that you should definitely check out and perhaps pick up for your travels.

pps. Everything in the article happened, except for the bit about onions.

2013 Travel Review

As is becoming a tradition on this blog, here’s a 2013 Travel Review. The first half of the year was packed, so packed that I hardly had time to sit down and properly take in all the experiences. The second half is more mute, and on hindsight, more introspective. I finally sat down and sorted out photos. Still slowly writing out the blog entries, and while doing so, reliving the great memories of 2013.

Before that. A look back at travel resolutions. I realised I did not write an entry for 2013, but looking back at 2012’s entry, I’ve crossed off another 4 from that list: The Wakhan Corridor, Iran, Central Asia and Georgia. Good times.

Without further ado, here is a summary of the places and countries I visited in 2013.

January

Romania – Counted down the New Year the square outside Bucharest’s Parliament Palace. Had a hair-raising time sliding on ice covered sidewalks in Translyvania trying not to break my neck.

Bulgaria – Went traipsing around medieval castles, ancient monasteries and rolled about in the knee-high snow. After a month in Europe I was getting used to the winter and starting to enjoy myself.

Macedonia – A brief stay in Skopje, amazed by the sheer number of monuments that has been put up. Highest concentration of statues in one place I’ve ever seen.

Kosovo – My whirldwind tour of the Balkans takes me to Kosovo. Youngest European country and youthful to boot, with an median age of 26. I spent time in local cafes mingling and making friends in Prizren.

Albania – What I remember from Albania, besides the beautiful cities of Berat and Gjirokastër is that it’s very wet. Six days in Albania and five of them in the rain. I loved exploring the Roman ruins of Butrint alone, underneath my umbrella.

Greece – Greece was a stopover, en route to Turkey. Liked it more than I expected, and that was largely due to the sun, after almost two months of snow and rain. I did not visit any of the islands though, so a return visit in the future is warranted.

February:

Turkey – A full three weeks in Turkey. Yet I was barely able to explore the country. Cappadocia which I was skeptical about lived up to its reputation as a wonderful unique destination. A highlight was finding out about an annual travel industry fair in Istanbul, where I got to experience the multitude of cultures in and around Turkey.

Cyprus – The unique experience of going to Cyprus by barge ferry (and flying back into Turkey). And Nicosia is the last divided capital city in the world.

Republic of Northern Cyprus – I would classify this anomaly as a country on its own. Occupying the northern part of the island of Cyprus, it is very Turkish, compared to the Euro-centric Greek southern half of the island.

Georgia – Everybody I cannot recommend Georgia enough, and it’s easy to see why. Tbilisi ranks as one of the best cities I’ve visited this year. Perhaps I’m biased because I spent a total of 6 nights there. And trudging through thigh-high snow up to the Kazbegi Monastery? Unforgettable.

Abkhazia – This was always planned when I set out on my long trip. An unrecognised state that is de jure part of Georgia. English was completely useless here, only Russian works. The abandoned city feel throughout the capital Sukhumi is prevalent.

Azerbaijan – Not my favourite country. Most people were friendly enough, but between getting an 8 day visa despite paying through my teeth and a visa process that took even longer than 8 days, and getting my bags emptied each time I took the metro, I was not really a fan of Baku.

March

Armenia – Loved Armenia. Met lots of people who showed me around. The churches were especially picturesque.

Nagorno-Karabakh – Since I was on a roll visiting countries that don’t exist, why not visit Nagorno-Karabakh. Officially part of Azerbaijan, it is a mountainous country that feels like an extension of Armenia, with its churches and friendly people.

Iran – My favourite country by far. Perfect for the history buff in me. Couple that with the most welcoming people I’ve ever met and some beautiful architecture. A life-changing highlight is getting stranded in the Valley of the Assassins and almost dying.

April

Uzbekistan – Always on my bucket list, Uzbekistan lived up to my expectations. The definitive silk road city. Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand are gems.

Kazakhstan – The most modern of the Central Asian states. Almaty is a good place to relax and just recover from travel fatigue. Streetside cafes and fashionable brands everywhere.

Kyrgyzstan – Ranks up there as one of my favourites. Horse-trekking and hikes through spectacular hills and lakes can be interspersed with relaxing in Bishkek and navigating the bazaars of central asia.

May

Tajikistan – The Pamir Highway is an obvious attraction, but my Tajikistan leg was defined more by walking through the central asian bazaars and towns of Khorog, Istaravshan and Khojand.

Afghanistan – A brief jaunt into the Wakhan region of Afghanistan. I regret not travelling beyond Eshkashem, but nonetheless, this was a unique experience.

China – The finale of my trip takes me back a full circle into China. This time in the Xinjiang region, and going east to Beijing overland. I was in high spirts, and everything – the Mogao Caves in Dunhuang, the Terracotta Army in Xi’an – seemed fantastic.

What didn’t go well – Not much really, it has been a great year. I failed to get a visa into Turkmenistan, so that’s certainly something to go back to. And South Ossetia, Moldova and Transnistria were on my “maybe can do” list on the trip, but visas were too much of a hassle considering the time constraint. And Syria: When I began the trip in 2012, I thought that the country would be OK by the time I reached it. Sadly, it was not true.

So that’s 2013. Twenty new countries, lots of memories.

An Ode to the Humble Tuk-tuk

.The first time I rode a tuk-tuk was probably in Bangkok. I didn’t have the best memories of that ride. I remember trying to bargain down the price. The driver was a young guy, wearing a t-shirt, jeans and flip-flops. He insisted on 100 baht for the journey, and was indignant when we offered only half that. We eventually agreed on 80 baht. He beckoned for us to board his three-wheeler, and we did. He was the pilot, and we the passengers. Of course, I later realised that we were still paying more than three times what the locals paid.

Despite that experience, it is hard not to be a fan of the humble tuktuk. I have travelled to more countries since then, to many places where the ubiquitous tuktuk is the mode of transport of choice of the local populace. Often painted in bright colours, their exteriors are simple, though in some countries, the sides and back panels are decorated with flowers, stickers and lavish patterns. Proud tuktuk drivers furnish the interiors of their tuk-tuks with fascinating paraphernalia that gives each tuktuk its own distinct personality.

In my opinion, the tuktuk is the best way for a solo traveller to get around. More versatile than buses, but cheaper than taxi cabs, the tuktuk can take one passenger and one backpack comfortably. Most can take up to two or three passengers, though I been squeezed in with five before. The tuktuk has a top speed of around 100 km/hr, though most are content to chug along at 60 km/hr. The biggest advantage of a tuk-tuk over a cab is that it is able to slip in and out of little side roads and bypass heavy traffic jams. They are also surprisingly able to cut through rough terrain. It’s perhaps not the best form of transport if you are sensitive to dust and fumes, since most tuktuk models are exposed to the outside environment. Also, they don’t do steep inclines very well, they: I’ve actually been charged more for a ride going uphill in Udaipur, India.

Here is a series of photos of the different variants of Tuk-tuks found all over the world.

Indonesia

More commonly known as Bajaj, after the manufacturer’s brand, Bajaj Auto. Tuktuks in Jakarta traverse the city, each within its own district, which is often listed on the front door.

A Jakarta bajaj driver sportingly gives the peace sign

I’ve seen another form of three-wheeler in Indonesia. This motorcycle and sidecar is the preferred mode of transport in Aceh and some other parts in Sumatra, Indonesia. Called the becak, it’s more pleasant to ride on one, since it gives you a better view of your surroundings. Also, you get the wind in your hair.

A photo of two becaks taken from inside a becak. Aceh

Cambodia

The Cambodian variant of the three wheeler is different from normal tuk-tuks, though both use the same name. This one seen in Siem Reap is a motorcyle attached to a cabin in the rear. Kind of like a motorcyle-powered bullock cart.

A parked tuktuk by the side of the road

India

The tuktuks in India are called autos, short for auto-rickshaws. These are found everywhere in the country. Best for short distances, but I’ve taken a 15 minute ride after a late night in Delhi. Try your best to get them to use the meters.


Besides passengers, tuktuks also carry other loads. Trivandrum, India.


Autos on the streets of Trivandrum


Autos parked outside Jagdish temple in Udaipur

China

The only time I sat in a tuk-tuk in China was in Kaiping, en route to see the famous diaolous. This was the Chinese variant of the Tuktuk. Another type I’ve seen are those that resemble 3 wheeled mini-trucks, called san-lun  san-lun

A san lun on the streets of Xingping, Guangxi, China

A san lun in the Dong minority village of Zhaoxing, Guizhou, China


View from behind a tuktuk driver in Kaiping city.

Sri Lanka

In Sri Lanka, they call them tuk-tuks. Very much similar to the Indian auto, they are found in many cities all over Sri Lanka, in various shades.

Tuktuk drivers watching a game of cricket at Galle’s Old Fortress


Colourful tuktuks of Hikkaduwa.


A decorated interior of a tuktuk. Hikkaduwa


A bearded tuktuk driver taking a break in Kandy


A row of parked tuktuks in Nuwara Eliya

Sudan

Tuktuks exists elsewhere too. This was a scene in the capital of Sudan, Khartoum. Locally known as rakshas, they are used to get from place to place all over town.

Rakshas in the central market area of Khartoum


Rakshas in the town of Kuraymah


Three travellers inside a Sudanese raksha

Ethiopia

The tuktuk in Ethiopia are known as a Bajaj, again after the brand. All of them are blue in colour, with a white canvas top.


A tuk-tuk turns the corner on the streets of Mekele.


Parked tuktuks by the road in Harar.

Bangladesh

The tuktuks that roam the streets of Dhaka in Bangladesh are called CNGs, named after their fuel source. They are green in colour, to indicate the environmentally friendly fuel that they use. Interestingly, Dhaka CNGs all have metal grills separating the driver from the passenger.


Looking out of the side window, towards another CNG. Dhaka


The driver takes a break at a traffic light


A lone CNG struggles to get past the other popular form of three-wheeler in Dhaka, the cycle-rickshaw

Pakistan

In Pakistan, I’ve seen two different kinds of auto-rickshaws. One is the Vespa three-wheeler model, similar to the Indian models, but more angular in design. They are called rikshaws¸and often have fancy decorated windows and sides.


A rikshaw in Multan

The other type of three wheeled tuktuk I have seen in Pakistan is the modified motorcyle. This type is called the Qingqi, named after the Chinese brand that made it.


A Qingqi in Multan

The Furious Panda Guide to Preparing for your RTW

So you are thinking of heading off for a round the world trip. Or at least a period of extended travel. Sounds like a pretty big decision. Lots of research and planning to be done. Where do you even start?

After being on a few long trips, I have collected a wealth of information, some learnt the hard way, that I would like to share with you.

Here’s my non-definitive list: 30 things you should do before you take that flight.

Route Planning

  1. Plan your route

    The first thing to do of course, is to plan the duration of your travel and the places you want to visit along the way. Some people know exactly when they need to be back home. Others figure it out along the way. I have also met travellers who carry on until their money runs out.

    Personally, I have tried out the first two, a definite end date and one defined along the way. The most important thing to do though is to plan a general route, and assign how long you will be staying at one location. Estimates are fine at this juncture. For example: Two months in China, then three months in South-east Asia.

    End product: A very rough travel itinerary.

  2. Research, research, research – country quirks

    Next you need to refine your route. And this involves quite a bit of research. Safety advisories, for example, means you may need to re-route your journey. Some mountain passes may be closed during winter. Roads to Tibet can get closed off during periods of unrest.

    Some countries also have their own quirks. Having an Israel stamp on your passport means you will have difficulty going into certain countries. If you are travelling in the Caucasus, you need to go to Azerbaijan before Armenia, because having an Armenian stamp will deny you entry into Azerbaijan. Pre-trip research is required if you don’t want to miss out.

  3. Research, research, research – visa requirements

    Some countries have draconian visa requirements. You may need a Letter of Invitation from an inviting agency. Occasionally, you can only enter as part of a tour group. Some visas take ages to apply. If you intend to apply on the road, know where there are embassies or consulates, and which ones are more “lenient”.

    Preparing your Letter of Invitation beforehand and obtaining visas from your home country (which is almost always easier) can reduce a lot of uncertainty – allowing you more travelling and less waiting.

  4. Book the first flight in

    After planning your route, have an idea which airport will be your point of entry. Then look at the available airlines that fly there. Bearing in mind that this site talks about budget travel, we are looking at cheap flights. Some advance planning is thus needed to book the best deals.

    You do not have to plan out all subsequent flights, just that first one. Plans will change after all.

    Use this handy table of budget airlines to plan your flight out of Singapore.

Finances

  1. Plan your trip budget

    Before you leave home, you need to sort out your finances. How much are you budgeting for your trip? How much is your planned daily expenditure?

    Look back at the trip itinerary, try to estimate how much you will spend in each country. Some places will surely be more expensive and others will be cheaper. Average them out and you will end up with a daily/weekly/monthly budget.

  2. Find a way to keep track of your expenses

    For the last trip, my daily budget was 50 SGD (That’s around 40 USD, or 30 EUR). Some people keep track of their expenses in their notebooks. I keep a full-blown tracking spreadsheet. http://i0.wp.com/www.thefuriouspanda.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/expenses.jpg

    No, I’m not insane. It is actually quite simple to keep track of your spending in so much detail. There are many budget tracking apps out there, but we RTW travellers want something that runs offline. Moneywise is the app I have been using. You record down your expenditure, and categorise it. This is added to a database which you can export out as a spreadsheet.

    End product: Data, which you can use to plan your budget better

    Moneywise screenshot

  3. How are you going to get cash?

    It is going to be a long trip, and you don’t want to be carry thousands of dollars in cold hard cash. So you need a way of getting cash along the way. The best way is through an International ATM.

You probably need two cards to cover all the networks. One for the Mastercard-Maestro-Cirrus network and another for the Visa-Plus network. Why these two? Because some countries may only have one network but not the other. Having an American Express or maybe a UnionPay card if you go to China could be useful, but not really necessary.

Get a bank that doesn’t charge interbank fees. I use a Citibank card (the one with the blue arrow). HSBC also has a pretty good global network. I try not to use my credit cards at the ATM to avoid charges.

  1. Set up Internet Banking

    Before you leave, make sure your bank’s Internet Banking has been properly set up. This allows you to get online and check your bank statements anytime, especially just after you have used a foreign ATM. You don’t want a shock when you get home and realise that someone has been phishing your card.

    Also, Internet banking means bringing your bank security token with you, the one you use to log into your account securely. From experience, it takes some time to get one ready, so prepare early.

  2. Have more than one bank account

    For security, I would advise that you have a couple of accounts. What I did was to keep withdrawing money at the ATM from my Citibank current account. This account always has less than a 1000 SGD on it. When the money is depleted, I log on to my Internet banking, in the safety of my hostel room, and transfer money from a second account to my Citibank account.

    That way, if my account was compromised, I would lose 1K, and not my entire trip budget.

  3. Bring enough US Dollar notes

    Not carrying too much cash is ideal, but sometimes you don’t have a choice. For example, due to ongoing Western sanctions, the local ATMs in Iran do not accept foreign cards. So you have to carry the entire duration of your stay’s worth of cash on you. Even countries that accept foreign cards can be problematic. I knew a guy in Tashkent who spent an entire day ping-ponging from one bank to another, trying to get a cash advance because all the ATMs rejected his card.

    So it makes sense to have a supply of cash on you. Besides local currency, the US dollar is king in many places (and the Euro in Europe, of course). Have a supply of BRAND, NEW, CRISP dollar notes. Good luck trying to exchange your grimy, wrinkled dollars in places like Myanmar, Indonesia or Uzbekistan. They are worthless there.

    I keep my notes double sealed, with padding in between individual notes. Bring large bills, and perhaps some small change because there are a few annoying visa offices out there that accept only payment in cash, in the exact amount.

    Oh, and go buy a hidden money-belt to store your cash.

  4. Sort out your scheduled payments

    Back on the home front, you need to sort out your monthly payments before you leave. Like your car loans, mortages, insurance premiums and the like. Hold back payments, cancel subscriptions you don’t need, downgrade your phone plans. For whatever’s left, make sure there is someone managing them for you while you are away, or make sure it can run on auto-pilot, with you logging on once in a while to check your income statement.

Packing List

  1. Prepare your packing list

    It is a good idea to list down all the things you are bringing with you for your RTW trip. Since you are not on a holiday and cannot wait till you are in the comfort of your own home, you will need to include items that facilitate day to day chores, like laundry and cooking.

    Tip: Uncommon items that you will find useful only after being on the road long enough: Pegless clotheslines, universal kitchen sink plugs, an electric kettle (or at least a heating coil), little transparent resealable bags (buy 50 of these for 2 SGD at Daiso), combination locks, a rain cover that wraps around the entire backpack, mini-carabiners (bring a hundred, everyone seems to want one – you can trade them with locals for cookies.)

    pack list sample

  2. Bring the correct power plugs

    This is important enough to deserve its own section. Each region has its own type of power plug and socket. (I recall seeing a better graphical link, if any of you readers know the link let me know).

    Get a travel adaptor or converter, maybe one with surge protectors. A universal adaptor should cover all possible combinations. Good ones nowadays will even have a USB port.

    At times though, getting a dedicated adaptor instead of a universal one has its advantages. The two pins of my universal adaptor have smaller diameters than the European two-pin sockets, and they keep falling off. That or the sockets are inside round recesses which my adaptor pins cannot reach. It pays to shop around a bit for the correct adaptor before leaving home.

  3. Pack less

    “He who would travel happily must travel light.” – Antoine de Saint-Exupery

    RTW newbies will inadvertently pack too many things, thinking that they might need them on the trip. They end up lugging around 10 extra kilos of clothing for six months. Clothing that they never wear.

    How do you know how much to pack? Just pick enough clothing to last you a few days. Then half that. For me, I have three tops and three pairs of slacks. You can wear one set, wash one, and hang another out to dry. You are travelling after all, and no one will notice that you keep wearing the same thing over and over. Unless you post your photos onto Facebook.

    striped blue polo photo

    You will lose things, and clothes will wear out. Just replace them along the way. It is often cheaper and more appropriate to wear what the locals wear.

  4. Don’t skimp on important pieces of clothing

    One exception to the previous point: Get quality pieces for important bits of clothing. What do I mean by important? Shoes for example. Don’t bring along the oldest pair that you intend to throw away after the trip. You will regret that decision. Get something comfortable because you need to walk around in them all day.

    Similarly, winter clothing, get some good winter wear, so you will not be miserable. Personally, I like comfy undergarments – like good quality quick drying underwear, and a comfortable base layer.

  5. Organise the stuff you leave behind

    Since you will be gone for a while, it is good to store your things properly. It makes it easier to ease back in when you return. I put all my worldly belongings in transparent plastic boxes. At this point, a good idea is to look around your home, do an assessment and get rid of all the things you don’t need. I can assure you that after living out of your backpack for a year, you will be able to live with less when you get back.

    If you really do have a lot of belongings and intend to sell/rent out your home, one thing you can do is keep your stuff at a storage facility. They have storage units that fit in your budget, and using one is probably the cheapest, safest and most convenient way to lock away your valuables.

Gadgets

  1. Go digital

    This ties in with packing. To avoid carrying too many things, go digital. Bring an e-reader or a similar device. You can store all your good reads prior to the trip. I love the feeling when you flip actual pages, but we are looking at practicality here.

    Similarly, guidebooks are great, but they are also heavy, and useless once you have moved on to the next country. Go digital. Lonely Planet sells PDF versions by chapters on their website. Or just get on Wikivoyage or TripAdvisor.

    It is the same for music. Prior to the trip, store all your music in your ipod/mp3 player/phone.

  2. Find a way to stay connected

    Some people say that you should switch off your devices when you travel and just enjoy the journey. Not me. I need my social media, and I like to keep abreast of the news.

    Make sure there is an easy way to get connected. I carry both a smartphone and a laptop. Getting your own device means you get the PC to yourself and some privacy (you don’t want to do your Internet banking using the PC in the common area of the hostel!) Also, you can avoid viruses on your USB flash drives.

  3. Set up VOiP protocols

    You will probably want to keep in touch with loved ones back home, so installing Skype or something similar is a good idea. Don’t forget this also means bringing along a pair of microphone-enabled earphones.

    For those with a little more cash, you might even want to carry an International Sim Card. I usually just buy a local sim card if I’m staying in a country for a month or more.

  4. Find a way to access blocked sites

    Some countries ban Facebook, Youtube and other ‘unsuitable’ websites, but this doesn’t mean you have to go cold turkey during your stay there. To prepare for your RTW, install software applications that circumvent the filters. Some examples are Freegate and Ultrasurf for the PC, and Orbot for your android smartphone.

  5. Download your apps

    Unless you plan to pay exorbitant roaming data charges (not what this site is about, sorry), you want to use apps on your smartphone that run offline. A combination of Dropbox, Evernote and Pocket allows me to access everything offline. A GPS enabled offline map app is also useful.

  6. Optional: TripIt

    One useful way to keep track of all those flight itineraries and hotel/hostel bookings is to use TripIt. This organises all travel bookings in one place, by forwarding confirmation emails to plans@tripit.com. The site will somehow sort out your email and add it to your itinerary.

  7. Optional: Automate it

    I will do a proper post and link it here. But in the meantime, something geeky you might want to do before you leave home is to start using IFTTT. If This Then That is a program that allows you to create recipes that fit the statement “If this, then that”. “This” is a trigger and “That” is a subsequent action the program executes.

Here are a couple that I use:

  • Every time you are tagged in a photo on Facebook, it will be sent to Dropbox. – Useful when I meet fellow travellers and add them on FB. We take a few photos, and when I get tagged on FB, the photo automatically shows up in my Dropbox folder.
  • Every time I send an email to TripIt, any attachments will be sent to Dropbox – TripIt I mentioned earlier, stores all your itineraries in one place. This recipe complements that and adds any attachments in one easy to find Dropbox folder.

There are many recipe possibilities. You can even make your own. Check it out.

Admin

  1. Sync all your important documents in cloud storage

    I use Dropbox extensively, but any other cloud storage provider works. That way I can access my files from both my smartphone and my laptop.

    First scan all the important documents that you think you might need. Then put them into your Dropbox folder. Useful documents you might want to Dropbox:

  • scan of your passport
  • proof of employment
  • blank visa application forms
  • letters of invitation
  • passport size jpg photos of yourself
  1. Get a letter stating proof of employment

    This comes in useful when you need to apply for a visa. Some visa offices require proof of employment. This document is a lot easier to obtain while you are still employed and not when you have quit your job to go on your RTW trip. So do it beforehand, scan the letter and put it into your Dropbox.

  2. Defer your NS

    If you are Singaporean and male like me, you would have to report back to do your National Service annually. Last I checked, you can apply for an exit permit for a maximum of only one year. So if you go beyond a year, you need to have some sort of reason to defer your call-up and hope your unit S1 is very understanding. Try ‘education’ and pick up a course along the way. Put the documental proof into your Dropbox.

  3. Get travel insurance

    Getting travel insurance is useful for those unplanned situations. Delayed flights, lost baggage, getting robbed. All potential unlikely but possible scenarios. A good insurance policy should cover all bases.

    It might be difficult to get one good one if you’re the sort who end up in ‘dangerous’ places like me. My policy didn’t cover me while I was in Sudan, for example.

    Another thing to note is that, in Singapore at least, no travel insurance covers lengthy RTW trips. 90 days was the maximum I found. Using a dedicated travel insurance company like Global Nomads is an option.

Health & Hygiene

  1. Get those vaccinations done

    Getting yourself immunised can mean the difference between a great trip and having to cut short your RTW. Check with your local clinic to see the recommended vaccinations in the region of travel.

    Get the vaccinations done early before your trip, because vaccine schedules require a few doses spread over time. Some vaccinations, like Yellow Fever, are mandatory if you are travelling from Yellow Fever endemic regions. You will be denied entry into these countries if you don’t have it. Bring along (and keep a copy in Dropbox) your vaccination card, showing the list of all vaccines.

    If you are bringing anti-malarial pills, be aware that if you are travelling for a year, you might be bringing a bucketload of pills! Do some planning, maybe use them only on parts of the trip.

  2. Keep fit

    Maintaining a certain level of fitness prior to the trip is a good idea. Unless you are really disciplined, you will not have much time to exercise while on the road. You never know when a situation might call for some physical exertion. Like running after a moving bus with your backpack on. Or finding yourself in threatening situations. For the record, I went all out and picked up Krav Maga basics after getting mugged in Bujumbura.

  3. Pack some dental floss

    This might be off-kilter, but I recommend bringing floss, especially if you know you won’t be able to find it easily where you’re going. Dental hygiene is important. I learnt this the hard way after two root canal treatments, the cost of which is equivalent to 2 months of non-flossing travel in Africa.

That’s the end of the list. Hopefully, it will help you plan for that big trip.

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Lessons & Realisations

A list of thoughts after returning from almost 1.5 years of travel.

1) When you can live on a 12kg backpack’s worth of stuff, you realise you don’t really need much. No fancy cars, no second property, no expensive brands.

2) When you meet different people who dress in different ways, and have different taboos, and things that may be wrong here, are perfectly alright elsewhere, you learn not to judge someone based on where they come from, how they look, speak or how much they own.

3) When you realise that when different people from different parts of the world from all walks of life can make the effort to do what’s required as part of the religion (like praying 5 times a day, albeit with many different variations, but the intent is the same), you realise that you should follow suit.

4) When you look at the horizon from the peak of a snow-capped mountain, dive amongst schools of fishes, or even trying to survive the night while stranded outdoors in the Alborz mountains of Iran, you realise that in the scheme of things, you are very small.

5) When you end up in a situation that requires you to put your emotions aside because you need to plan your next course of action. You realise that you have no time (and no point) to be angry, or sad or disappointed, because no one cares anyway. You learn to quickly pick yourself up, be objective and move on. Change course and move on.

6) When you travel to Country A and everyone there tells you that people from Country B are all vile, nasty inbreds, and then you travel to Country B and you realise that they are in fact all very pleasant and friendly. But then Country B tells you that people from Country A are all evil, baby-eating monsters. You learn to take what people tell you with a pinch of salt. You also learn that people’s perceptions are based on past history, from a generation ago and it is better to form your own point of views, rather than just agreeing.

7)You realise that sometimes, it is better to listen, gather information, process it yet keep the opinions to yourself. Because not everyone is interested in what you have to say. And some people will not agree to what you say. Forget trying to change their minds, it’s not worth the effort.

8) You get lonely if you keep to yourself for too long. Everyone needs friends. If you are travelling alone, go out and make some. If you are at home, catch up with old friends.

9) A little bit of stress, and regular exercise (in this case lots of walking) keeps you fit and healthy.

10) This last one is a bit tough for me to learn, still getting there: Don’t be so uptight. Planning is good, keeping to a schedule is good and to keep moving is good. But take some time to look up and enjoy the travel.

For more bits of wisdom, check out this list after I returned from travelling 4 months in Africa. http://www.thefuriouspanda.com/2010/03/96-bits-of-travel-wisdom/