15 Random Lessons from 15 Months of Travel In Southeast Asia!

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I am home! I have been back in Canada for a few weeks now, enjoying family time, catching up on sleep, and also thinking back on the past 15 months of my life. When I first moved to South Korea as an English teacher I wasn’t sure I would last more than 6 months, but then I ended up staying a full year and subsequently embarking on my lengthiest trip to date – 15 months to be exact!

I still have plenty left to write about this great adventure, however, since I’m in the mood to contemplate and reminisce, here are  some of the things I have learned over the past 15 months of travel:

15 Random Lessons from 15 Months of Travel In Southeast Asia! Round the world trip with That Backpacker and Nomadic Samuel

(1) Just because you’re a backpacker doesn’t mean you have to carry a backpack.

I would not travel for 15 months with a backpack ever again. It’s not like my backpack was even that heavy – I only had a 60L and meanwhile I encountered other girls hauling around 80L – however, I think it’s unnecessary to carry all that weight on your back! My logic behind getting a backpack was that I would be walking through crowded markets in Asia and uneven cobbled streets in Europe, but in reality, wheels would have been fine! I’m heading out on another little adventure in just a couple of weeks and this time my roll along suitcase is coming with me!

(2) Crossing the street in Asia is an art form.

I spent the last weeks of my trip travelling in Europe and I was shocked every time a car would stop to let me cross the street. If you’ve travelled around Asia for a while you’ll know that crossing the street is a bit of an acquired skill. In Saigon I had to just step into oncoming traffic, walk at a slow and steady pace, and hope the scooters would swerve around me. In Chiang Mai vehicles were always running the red light so I had to stick out my hand and glare at drivers for them not to run me over. And in Hong Kong I found safety in numbers; you can’t run over a swarm of pedestrians even if the light has just stopped flashing green.

(3) Carrot cake isn’t what you think it is.

When I first set foot in a food market in Malaysia I noticed that there were ‘fried carrot cake’ signs everywhere. Not being one to shy away from sweets, I decided to order a portion. What I received neither looked like cake nor tasted like carrot. As it turns out, fried carrot cake is actually a type of stir-fry dish made with white radish. Very tasty, just not when you’re craving something sweet.

(4) Food poisoning strikes in the least likely of places.

During my 15 months of travel, I never ever got food poisoning from eating street food. The culprit was usually a favourite restaurant that I had frequented many times before and it always came as a shock. When I first set out travelling people told me, “Stay away from ice cubes. Don’t eat fresh vegetables. Don’t eat anything that has been washed with tap water…” As it turns out, I did all those things and I was fine. My rule of thumb when eating street food is: go where the locals go (they know where to find good food), and eat at stands that look busy (that way you know the food is being freshly made to keep up with the demand).

(5) Sometimes it’s worth splurging for comfort.

Ahhh, travel budgeting. A backpacker’s dilemma – do you want to save a dollar wherever you can so that you can travel longer, or are you willing to pay a little extra for your own sanity? This trip taught me that paying a few extra dollars can have a huge impact on my mood and the way I experience a destination. The lesson? Sometimes it’s worth skipping out on the $1 train with the hard metal benches, no AC and dirty diaper under the seat. Yes, that happened and it was 5 hours of agony.

(6) Always know when your passport expires.

Aherrrm, we had a little incident earlier this year that we can all laugh about now, but which caused a little meltdown at the time. We were travelling in Thailand with Sam’s parents and a few of their friends, when a few days before there was a flight to catch Sam’s dad realized his passport had less than 6 months of validity left on it. Most countries don’t let you enter with less than 6 months on your passport, so that meant he wouldn’t be allowed to board his onward flight to Cambodia... Every traveller’s worst nightmare! We had to book him on the next domestic flight to Bangkok, where he was thankfully issued a temporary passport to continue on with the rest of trip. Yikes!

(7) On that note, always check if you need a visa because sometimes the least likely of countries actually require them!

Sam and I were having dinner with a group of bloggers in Bangkok a few weeks before travelling to Australia when fellow blogger Ian asked us, “So you guys got your visas?” We stared at him blankly. “Pfff, visas? We’re Canadian, Australia is Commonwealth. We don’t need any visas…” Ho-ho, wrong! As a fellow Canuck, he had made the same mistake before heading out on his trip to Australia, and he’d only learned about the requirement when he was at the airport trying to check in. He was able to get one last minute and board his flight, but that’s not the kind of thing you want to discover at the check-in counter.

(8) The ‘touristy’ attractions are often worth visiting.

Some of the highlights from this incredible 15 month trip included watching the sunrise over Angkor Wat, sailing aboard a junk boat in Halong Bay, setting foot inside Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, coming face to face with the Lost City of Petra, rafting down the Li River in Yangshuo where the landscapes looked straight out of Avatar, and many more. All of them ‘touristy’, yet no matter how crowded these places may be, they still take your breath away!

(9) That island paradise won’t always be what you expect.

Prior to travelling to Thailand I idolized Phuket. Television and Google Images had fed me a steady stream of pristine beaches, crystal clear waters, and not a soul in sight. Imagine my surprise when I arrived in one of the seediest islands I have ever set foot in. Walking through the town I was met by women trying to lure my boyfriend into massage parlours even though I was standing right next to him, men trying to hand me flyers to ping-pong shows (gross), and a steady stream of drunk backpackers wearing far too little clothing. There are nice islands in Thailand, but I can’t say Phuket is one of them.

(10) Sometimes it’s nice not to travel.

When you’re going on a short 1 week trip you usually want your schedule to be jam-packed with sightseeing and fun activities; the “so much to do, so little time” mentality works in this scenario. However, when you’ve been at it for months you start to crave a slower pace. That’s how I ended up hanging out in Chiang Mai for 3 months and then renting an apartment in Berlin a few months later. It’s okay to slow down and re-charge.

(11) Travelling as a couple will bring you closer. 

Think about it – often times it’ll just be you and your partner in places where locals don’t speak your language. You’ll be spending a lot of time together, you’ll face challenges and have to work as a team to solve them, and then there’s the matter of getting sick. Nothing brings you closer in your relationship quite like hearing the other person puke their guts out at 3 in the morning after eating a funky enchillada…

(12) Sometimes you’ll have no idea what is going on around you.

I remember while staying in Chiang Mai, there would always be these random parades down the street. This one particular day I heard music and drumming approaching so I went out to see what was going on. There was some kind of parade with a family shaking a tree down the street….I know, it sounds so weird, and to this day I wonder what was going on. You won’t always get answers to your questions and sometimes all you can do is sit back and observe culture unfold in front of you.

(13) Travelling is not that difficult and it’s not that extraordinary.

What I mean by that is that I am doing something that you can too! Travel is not that scary and far-fetched. It may seem that way before you jump into it, but don’t worry, you’ll get the hang of it. I am in no way a brave adventurer! Sure, I like travelling to far-flung places, but there are countless people my age doing the same thing.

(14) The people you meet along the way are what makes your trip memorable.

Getting to experience a new destination is fun, but getting to experience it with locals is even better. I feel very fortunate that in many of the places I travelled to I was able to meet up with bloggers and readers, hear about their city, and experience it through their eyes. So to everyone that met up with me along the way, thank you!

(15) I want to keep doing this!

If there’s one thing this trip helped reinforce it’s that I love Love LOVE travel! I love the foreign, the unexpected, the challenges, and the surprises. No matter where the road leads, I want to continue experiencing new places and living overseas for a long long time.

What lessons have you learned on your travels?
Feel free to share in the comments below. 

Join the Conversation


  1. says: Natalie

    Great list! What’s it like going back? We’re getting ready to head home in a few months and I’m really nervous about going from “backpacker” to “responsible adult” or something that resembles a responsible adult.

    1. says: Audrey

      It has honestly been really nice being back home and just relaxing after such a hectic travel schedule. I still have a few little trips planned around North America, so it hasn’t been a very abrupt change because I know I’m heading out again soon.

    1. says: Audrey

      Hi Katie, good question! I hadn’t experienced culture shock until I went into Costco yesterday. Seeing those giant shopping carts loaded with jumbo sized products was a bit shocking. One of the things that surprised me the most was the amount of stuff people buy. After living with very little it kind of makes you question what you really need…

      1. says: Mike (Nomadic Texan)

        Touche Audrey. My wife and I have “downsized” twice. Our current home is half the size of the house we raised our three sons in. Yet we still have a boatload of crap we don’t want or need.

        As we are preparing to relocate abroad we keep selling stuff and hardly make a dent. Best advice to young people just starting out is to only buy what you can carry in wheeled suitcase.

        BTW there is a nice side to Phuket, but unfortunately you have to get outside of the city. Great post.

    2. Ha! I haven’t done nearly as much traveling as you, but the bulk stores like Sams and Costco have always made me anxious. I won’t shop there. And when I go grocery shopping, I bring my one big shopping bag. It leads to a lot of trips to the store, but I’m always buying fresh food that would go bad anyway if I stocked up. I’m not sure why we (Americans/Canadians) tend to shop in bulk more than the rest of the world…? Maybe the distance/time it takes to get to the store?

  2. says: Flydogz

    Mostly great advice. As for #8, those “touristy” sites didn’t get that way unless they had some greater appeal. As for #9, give Phuket another chance, but stay away from Phuket Town. The beaches in Bang Tao are beautiful and the boat rides to the little islands offshore are amazing. For every amazing story you’ll tell, there is always a seedy story that you’ll later find a way to laugh about.

  3. says: Emily

    I would also say crossing the street in most places in South America also is an art form. We thought we’d seen the last of the chaos when we left Bolivia and dipped into Chile (shocking: the drivers stop for you and wave you across the street!), but we are in Argentina and it’s Frogger all over again!

    1. says: Audrey

      Ahhh, Argentina! This reminded me of crossing Avenida 9 de Julio in Buenos Aires – the widest avenue in the world! I could never make it across that street in one go!

      1. says: Pilar

        Audrey: I don’t think anyone can, not walking anyway.

        Emily: I apologize on behalf of all of us and wish you the best of luck. It’s true that most people here are horrible drivers, and it’s only getting worse! Hope you enjoy your stay all the same :p

  4. I enjoyed reading this post because I find myself smiling at most parts. The thing about backpacks and wheels is one of the points i can relate to. I have a back problem so I am not really encouraged to carry a mega bulky backpack. I don’t care anymore if some would say that I am being vain about it. Health is more important for me and if I can lessen the stress, why not? πŸ˜€

    It is also important to take it slow sometimes. I’m not sure if it has anything to with me getting old (gulp!), but i wouldn’t really mind splurging from time to time especially if i have extra money πŸ˜€

    What’s next for That Backpacker? πŸ˜€ Enjoy your homecoming πŸ˜€

    1. says: Audrey

      Thanks Mica! I have enjoyed being home. πŸ™‚ Next up for me is a little trip around a few North American cities. I’m planning to make the most of the summer weather with visits to Montreal, NYC and Chicago. πŸ™‚

  5. says: Jim

    Making sure you’ve got a valid visa is a must, I actually made it to Austrailia with out a visa and was very nearly arrested at the boarder for being an unlawful none citizen, not the best way to start a trip.

  6. says: Karisa

    I totally agree about the backpack! I ditched my huge purple backpack for a cute little carry-on sized suitcase and it has been great! πŸ™‚

    1. says: Audrey

      Good move! I’m doing rolling luggage on my next trip. My little Heys suitcase is coming out of hiding. πŸ˜‰

  7. says: Betty J. Ogburn

    …Even though I’ve only been to 4 countries so far, I’ve learned one major thing: I don’t want to STOP exploring!!…I know it’s totally cliche to say this, but traveling abroad really is an eye-opening experience!!…

  8. says: Ivana

    Lovely thoughts! I had to laugh at #9 &#12! Yeah, our imagination of a paradise is often richer that the reality, as we could experience in Krabi in Thailand or in Ayutthaya.What we have learned as well is to check the date and the HOUR of the flight properly. We missed our flight to Manila just because we did not realize that 00.25 am of 1st of April means to get to an airport 31st of March πŸ˜€

    1. says: Audrey

      Oh, no! That sucks to hear about the missed flight. It’s always tricky when the flight leaves just past midnight. I think that’s quite a common mistake – I’ve had friends do the same.

  9. says: Hannah Wasielewski

    I never use a backpack when I’m going to stay in one destination for a while a suitcase with wheels is so much easier! I agree about the touristy places, I hate when people feel like they don’t need to see them because it’s not the “real (insert country here)” What? Although Brazil is extremely diverse, seeing Rio is a must! great post!

  10. says: Rachel of Hippie in Heels

    I just gave in as well after a year (I’m home in Ohio for one month) and got a rolly-suitcase. I was also getting annoyed of my backpack! Crossing the street in Asia IS an art form for sure lol! I’m back to India in 2 weeks and am missing it a lot. Enjoy your time home! x

    1. says: Audrey

      Those visits back home are a must, especially if you’ve been travelling or living overseas for a while. I’m the kind of person who misses family a lot, so it’s always nice going back, catching up, and recharging. I hope you’re enjoying Ohio!

  11. says: Elena

    #1 is SO TRUE! I’ve traveled around India with a tiny wheeled suitcase and it survived literary everything – the lack of roads, being tossed a lot by the drivers, Indian Railroad travel and even riding a rickshaw. I’m a girl and it’s hard for me to carry a backpack all the time, especially when it’s hot.

    My top lessons are: always take a torch when you go tracking around the jungles (who knows when you’ll come back?) and that I’m a really calm person and can stay cold-minded either when I’m lost with the jungles, when I’m getting terribly late to the plane and the French drivers are on strike or when a dozen of Indians try to picture me all in one time πŸ˜€

  12. says: Naomi

    The lessons I’ve mostly learnt are random like having a bottle opener to hand is the one of the easiest ways to make friends (the easiest ice breaker if anything) but I suppose the most important one/massively clichΓ©d but true is to go with your gut feeling – it’s amazing how when I’ve gone against it, it turned out to be right!

  13. says: helen

    Number 9 made me smile – a few weeks ago I landed in Phuket. Had been warned it was a bit of a hole so only stayed one night – then headed to Phi Phi Island. Wow…goes to show you just how much Pinterest can lie. But lucky for us Ko Lanta was only a ferry ride away πŸ™‚

  14. says: CurlyTraveller

    I recognise a lot in what you summed up, Audrey.

    I had the ‘passport valid less than 6 months’ situation; very stressful, but it all worked out at the very last moment; pfjew!

    I had my share of visa-issues, one of them right now, but hopefully nothing a trip to Bali can’t solve;-).

    I have been lucky regarding food-poisoning so far, but am aware that it can hit you at any given moment.

    Being able to travel slow and go more in depth at a certain city is wonderful; I love it!

    1. says: Audrey

      Passport expiry dates can creep up on you real fast! That actually reminds me, I was once catching a flight to Tokyo and there was a man that had somehow made it through check-in and security with an expired passport. They didn’t catch this error until he tried boarding the flight….He was just as surprised by the news as those around him. Not the best way to start a trip!

  15. says: Sofie

    One of the most important things I learned while traveling is that you’re trip will be as good as you’re going to let it get.
    By that I mean that the more you are open to new experiences and other people, the more opportunities will arise and the more you will enjoy everything.
    At least, that’s how I’ve experienced it so far:)

  16. It sounds like you have learned a lot of different things from travelling Audrey! I totally agree with you that travel brings you closer, that it’s necessary to slow down sometimes and that it even makes sense to treat yourself sometimes. But I don’t quite agree that a roll-along-suitcase would be better than a backpack. In a lot of places I have been to, I wouldn’t want anything to be rolling on the ground, but I am looking forward to your experiences. Oh, and I am really looking forward to you changing your blog name to β€œThat Roll-Along-Suitcaser”… πŸ˜€

  17. says: rebecca

    great tips! I couldn’t agree more with traveling slow sometimes, I learnt from that mistake when traveling Europe a little too fast

  18. says: Tena

    Aloha! Until this post i was reading you only on FB. This 15 things really interest me so i open. I like how u write. I like all that idea of travelling and writing.
    I’m travelling last 2 years like crazy, i dont even know where i was last month, but i’m not writing anything. I wish i can. I wish i am not lazy for that. Before i used to write now i cant find that time.
    One more time good good idea! :))
    Good luck in future. πŸ™‚

    1. says: Audrey

      Thanks for dropping by the blog, Tena. πŸ™‚ There are lots of ways to document your own trips. If not blogging, maybe capturing photos of the places you visit and sharing them on Instagram?

  19. says: sam

    #12 the parade is a part of traditional Thai wedding ceremony. It usually happens in the morning when the groom and his family travel to the bride’s house to ask for her hand in marriage.

    1. says: Audrey

      The mystery has been solved! Thanks for this Sam. I still think about that parade to this day, so it’s nice finally knowing the meaning behind the tree they were carrying. πŸ™‚

  20. Good point about the backpack. Mine was only 55L and it wasn’t even full when I started my journey but it was pain in the butt to carry it on my back. I am going for one year to New Zealand soon and definitely taking a small suitcase and small backpack for day trips with me. About nr 10. After 7 month of cruising around South America I really felt like going back to Berlin and staying there for a while visiting my friends. It is definitely nice to settle down for a little bit…not too long tho! πŸ˜‰ What I also like about travelling is meeting the same people over again and visiting the ones that I met on the road. I had so many visits from the people I met in South America here in Berlin! It’s been great. Now i am looking forward to seeing them on the other side of the world πŸ™‚

  21. says: Justine

    I totally agree with #5. As a budget traveler I find it hard to justify spending more money on something I can get at a cheaper price. But, seriously, spending $10 more to get a room with AC or $5 more for a nice filling meal can make all the difference. Traveling can be difficult, challenging and frustrating at times. And spending a few more dollars can go a LONG way in terms of improving your mood and your experience πŸ™‚ Great tips!

  22. says: Carolina

    Best solution ever to number one, in my experience is: the wheeled backpack. Whenever you can roll it, you do. If the floor in not suited for that, you carry it on your back!!

    1. says: Madeleine

      I guess it’s about how much you’re willing to sacrifice. Will you sacrifice the security of a job when you return, the comfort of sleeping in a huge soft bed, the comfort of knowing people wherever you are, the familiarity of eating normal food etc.

  23. says: Glamourous Traveller

    Awesome article! I agree with the backpack! though to be honest I felt that having a backpack in Europe was much better than bringing a suitcase with wheels, but only if you have good grip shoes to handle those slippery cobblestones.

    Personally my travel lesson is to pack the normal clothes you wear at home for travel. Traveling should be a way of life, not a thing you ‘do’ which means you don’t have to wear any ‘costumes’ or ‘outfits’ specifically for travel. Just bring your fabulous self!

  24. says: Karyn @ Not Done Travelling

    Great lessons! And I agree re Phuket not being an island paradise. I do like it – you just have to know before you go that it’s not paradise. I kind of equate it to Bali, in a way. If you know Bali’s got negative aspects before you go, you can get over it and just enjoy it for what it is. But if you thought you were stepping into Eat Pray Love, you’d be very disappointed. Phuket is the same, for me.

  25. says: Katie

    Sounds like an excellent bunch of things to learn – particularly the last one. I love how travel never seems to quench the thirst for new places, it only makes you want to travel more.

    I think one of the most important things travelling has taught me is that it’s ok to get home-sick. As much as I love travelling and experiencing new places, nobody can be happy and bubbly all of the time, and there are always going to be days when you feel rotten, wherever you are in the world. And that’s fine. I guess the skill is in bouncing back from times like that, to make the most of the red letter days that follow!

  26. says: Amanda

    Some great lessons! And congrats on 15 months of travel! I could never be on the road, living out of a backpack/suitcase for that long. Major kudos to those of you who can!

  27. says: Anna @ It Started in Asia

    Great to read a retrospective piece! Totally agree that visiting ‘touristy’ spots is not all that bad, and at the end of the day, we are all tourists in new places. Opting for the packs over suitcases was a no-brainer for us commencing our travels in Asia because of sidewalk conditions. I second point #11 & #12 – having no idea about what the spectacles are about forces you to sit back and take time to observe. I also think travelling makes you think about what is really important in life. Quite often we sweat the small stuff and get caught up in material things. I’m glad you’ll be continuing your journeys as I absolutely love reading all about them πŸ™‚

  28. says: Yixiong

    Yup. I had the pain of finding out I needed a visa for Australia at the check in counter as well. And I’d only intended to spend a day there on my way to NZ for a 3 week road trip. Thankfully I managed to get one before boarding my flight as well. There were some administrative issues when I reached Australia though, mainly due to some system error as my visa didn’t seem to appear in the system. So it’s definitely a good idea to check beforehand regardless of where you’re going!

  29. says: jasmine

    I love this post ! i so agree with the backpack thing (although for my next trip i am using a backpack just downsized) and the extra money for a bit nicer hostel room or hotel i totally agree ! looking forward to hearing about your future travels – following you has given me so much inspiration and for future travels (i never wanted to venture to Jordan and now its on my list for the middle of next year & your 50 things to do in prague – i am def exploring that list in real life soon ! thankyou and keep up the great posts i love reading them.

    1. says: Audrey

      Hi Jasmine,

      I’m so happy to hear that you’ll be travelling to Jordan next year! I really enjoyed travelling through the country – camping in Wadi Rum and seeing Petra for the first time are some of my most memorable travel experiences. Wishing you safe travels and I hope you enjoy Jordan as much as I did. πŸ™‚


  30. says: Heather

    Once I left Asia, it took me MONTHS to get used to the idea that cars were going to stop for me in the crosswalks! It’s something we totally take for granted in the west and I’m sure the drivers thought I was crazy when I waved my thanks to them for not running me over. LOL!

  31. Lol @ #9. I was in Bangkok when we walked past this sex club and the promoter yelled out to my husband, “Come back later without her!” I was like, “Hey, I’m right here!”

    Also, I’ve always been dubious how necessary backpacks actually are. Thanks for the confirmation. πŸ˜€

  32. says: Echo Santos

    I love number 14#! You’re right magnificent sceneries aside, its also the shared breakfast with strangers, the vibrant street parties, the unexpected act of kindness, will always made the journey worthwhile.

  33. says: Mariana

    Love reading these types of blog posts πŸ™‚ I have been doing a lot of reflecting on my living abroad the past 9 months (where did time go?!) and I’ve come to realize many of the same things. It’s funny because sometimes when people talk about travel changing you in big ways these are not the kinds of things you always think of but they’re so true.

  34. says: Alli

    Yes, on the backpack! It did come in handy on some of the boat travel, but beyond that it was not really worth it. I think I want a fancy hybrid one with wheels for my next big trip.
    Also know what you mean about needing break time. I only traveled for six weeks (after my year in Korea) but I was pretty exhausted by week 5 of packing it in. I’ve learned I like to travel slowly on trips longer than a couple of weeks.

  35. says: Katie

    Crossing the street in Asia is for sure an art form! I’ve found that if you just go with the flow, it’s much better. You can’t second guess it. Just commit and go. Fast. Every time I talk about street food, people say I must hvae a strong stomach, but I’ve never gotten sick from it either. I think I’ve had more stomach issues here in the US than eating street food anywhere in the world!

  36. Really great list Audrey! I especially like your bullets about crossing the street in Asia and splurging a little to keep your sanity. We can totally relate to that. When we first left in November, we stayed in dorm rooms and really pinched pennies. Now after being on the road for 7 months, we have figured out how to find more affordable private rooms and this makes things so much better for us!! As for crossing the street in Asia, you are right on with that one. πŸ™‚

  37. says: Phebe

    A ninety-day visa means NINETY DAYS – not three months. Not “you arrived on March 8 so you can leave on June 8.” No, 90 days from the date you arrived until the date you leave, and probably subtract a day for the day you arrive (day 1), and don’t forget to count the months with 31 days………….

    Yes, we overstayed in Malaysia. Yes, we ended up in the back room wondering if we’d pay a fine or be thrown in jail. And no, neither scenario occurred.

  38. says: nandra

    Lovely article! I’ve always dreamt of travelling the world, and caught a serious travel bug after travelling around China this summer. Never thought I’d survive travelling solo! Now my goal for the next couple of years is basically earning enough money to embark on future long-term adventures πŸ™‚

  39. says: Peotravel

    I’m really happy that I found this blog. This post is really interesting and I love it. I personally love backpacking and the way you are traveling motivates me to travel more.

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