Lessons Learned · Travel

What 3 months of solo backpacking taught me

I’ve been mulling over my trip for almost one month now, talking about all of my favorite (and not-so-favorite) memories to anyone and everyone who will listen. Plus, I wanted ample time to be able to reflect on such a massive undertaking. It’s hard to wrap my head around the fact that I’m sitting on my couch back home in Washington mainly because it felt like just last week that I was packing and repacking my 45L pack in preparation to leave.

Being back is….strange. I’m having reverse cultural shock. What do you mean, I can drink the tap water and I won’t get explosive diarrhea? Are you saying I don’t have to carry my backpack on my chest because no one will try to rob me? I don’t have to dodge a sea of motorbikes just to cross the street? I can go into a bathroom with a real toilet and not have to BYOTP (bring your own toilet paper). Thank the lord. The last one was a real pain in the ass.

Since I’ve been home, a lot of people want to hear about my trip. It’s exciting because I get to share what I saw and learned about the world but I also get to relive it. The most common questions include: What was your biggest challenge? What did you enjoy most? What have you learned about yourself? What type of career do you want to dive into? If I didn’t know any better, I’d think this was a business interview! Sheesh. To set the record straight, I don’t have great answers to any of these questions; they are difficult questions because there’s not one, easy, straightforward answer. My trip was magical, inspiring, chaotic, challenging, reflective and transformative. And no, I still don’t have a clue what I want to do with the rest of my life.

Before I left for SE Asia, I had heard people say that traveling not only broadens your perspective of the world but it broadens your mind as well. To be honest, I thought this was a bunch of bulls**t. But as I began to travel and experience new things, I found this to be 100% true. Travel forces you to do things you didn’t think you were capable of doing. To face fears.  To eat foods you can’t pronounce. To learn to be comfortable in uncomfortable situations. To talk to people you wouldn’t ordinarily talk to. To be self-aware. To appreciate.

So without further adieu, here are the most important lessons I’ve learned from 3 months of solo backpacking around Southeast Asia.

  • You are never really alone: Many parts of SE Asia are crawling with backpackers. Everyone is trying to have their “eat, pray, love” moment (and why not, right)? And because SE Asia is so well traveled, there’s now a popular backpacker route. If you stay on this route, you’ll rarely encounter “being alone.” But even if you steer off the main path, you’ll still run into at least a few other backpackers…it’s inevitable. Moral of the story is that you can always find someone to talk to and you are never really alone, if you don’t want to be.
  • Live simply: It’s so easy to overpack – whether it’s for a week-long trip or a 3-month backpacking trip. There are so many “what ifs” and “I can’t live without that” but guess what? You will survive! Packing light is KEY and that becomes extremely clear when you’re schlepping a backpack around. You learn to not wear makeup, to recycle the same 4 outfits, to use less shampoo and to buy less. When you have limited space (and believe me, you don’t want to carry more than a 45L pack), it becomes easy to distinguish what’s really important and what’s just….nice.
  • Ditch the plan: I’m a planner by nature. It’s in my blood. I feel anxious when there is no plan. But funny enough, some of my most memorable experiences in SE Asia completely took me by surprise. When you plan too far in advance, you limit yourself from seeing, meeting incredible people and doing daring things. Being flexible and having a “go with the flow” attitude is the key to new and exciting opportunities. A city in Vietnam I had never heard of in my pre-trip planning ended up being one of my favorite cities of my whole trip. I was stunned by the local culture, the kindness of the people and the magnificence of the scenery.
  • Appreciate what you have: Traveling to third world countries makes you so incredibly grateful for the life you’ve been given (which may also be contributing to my culture shock). Honestly, every time I saw a real toilet, I nearly cried. There was one hostel I stayed in that had hairdryers and Q-tips (spoiler alert: I extended my stay there)! Not only was I thankful to feel pampered every once in a while, I began to realize how grateful I was to live in a first-world country. For example,  I’ll never forget the amount of trash that litters these countries and the images of the local people sitting in and on their own trash. In the states, it’s easy to take for granted the policies we have in place to take care of our trash because it just gets done. But proper waste collection along with a hundred other things, make me feel gratitude on a daily basis.
  • Wealth is measured in different ways: Even though our world runs on money, money is not our whole world. This is a lesson I’ve learned while traveling but still trying to apply back in the states. I left for 3 months in SE Asia with just a few thousand dollars and came back to only a few thousand dollars in my bank account. I may be broke, unemployed and currently living with my parents, but I feel like I’ve gained wealth in other ways –  in knowledge about the world, in friendships, in the beauty of an open mind. And while it may take me a while to reach that financial independence my friends have, ultimately I know that money isn’t everything – experiences are.
  • You are capable of more than you think: There were countless times I was dropped off in a brand new city with no data, no directions, no clue where to go and not sure who to trust. When it’s 5am and it’s dark and you’re wearing a heavy backpack and sitting on the side of the road is not really an option, you learn to think on your feet. You use the resources you have to come up with a plan. I’ve learned that although there’s lots of things I don’t want to do, I am capable of doing them. There is most certainly a difference between the two and traveling helps bring out that inner strength you never knew you had.
  • Some things are totally out of your control: In addition to being a neurotic planner, I also like to feel like I’m in control of certain situations. Backpacking throughout SE Asia was a huge reality check from the get-go because there are so many things that are out of your control. Crazy bus drivers, road conditions, toilets (or lack thereof), critters, weather, bus delays, motorbike breakdowns, and the list goes on. At first, not being in control of the aforementioned situations really irked me and to be honest, it’s still something I’m completely comfortable with. But I can handle unexpected situations much better than I could 3 months ago. Plus it’s so much easier to deal when things go terribly wrong when you can sit back and laugh about it (especially with a friend)!
  • People are people: Traveling makes you realize that although we live in a world with 7 billion people, we are all the same. We may look different, eat different food, practice different religions and partake in different cultural traditions but above all else, we are human. We all feel deeply, deal with complex issues, take care of each other and love equally. It’s really a remarkable thing to bond with people who are not like you. I remember sitting at a small plastic table eating street food in the capital city of Vietnam and this group of 4 middle-aged guys sat beside me. They all ordered beers and ordered me one. We sat there, cheers-ed, laughed and I blurted out all the Vietnamese words I knew. We might not have shared a language but we shared a real, human connection…and isn’t that what life is all about?

My friends: Traveling is not that scary.  And that carries a lot of weight coming from someone who was afraid to stay home alone until she was 14. If I can do it, you can too. Sure, being in a foreign country is daunting at first but once you settle in, it becomes second nature. You learn to deal with the challenges as they arise and after some time, those “challenges” are no longer challenges, they just become things to deal with.

If I could give you one piece of advice, it’s this: If you are contemplating long-term travel, go ahead and just pull the trigger already. The longer you put it off, the less likely you are to do it. Traveling is the best investment of your money but even more importantly, the best investment into yourself. It opens your eyes to the vast and complex world we live in and makes you not just a citizen, but a global citizen. It leaves you speechless and then turns you into a storyteller.

So…what are you waiting for?




3 thoughts on “What 3 months of solo backpacking taught me

  1. This is great Alex. I hope other people follow your advice and learnings. But life’s lessions can dissipate fast under pressure of current situations. So, always strive to remember your thoughts and experiences. Add to this blog or any other form even more rememberences. I did Europe for 5 months long before there was any means to capture and retain thoughts and experiences other than paper and pencil and 35mm slides. It remained very personal as there was no easy way to share. Without some feedback from others it became difficult to add to my journal. I did reread what I wrote for a short while but life goes on and new stuff takes over. You have the opportunity to let these past 3 months live a long life. Do it!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey Harvey,
      You make a great point. It can be so easy to lose all those small yet vital details that make a trip as special as it is when you’re thrown back into the daily grind of life. I’ll have to think on this point and see how I can make sure that these memories are not short-lived. Thanks for the brilliant advice!


      1. Maybe you can turn your photos into a brief movie with some narration about your experiences with each photo. There must be software that makes this easy. At least this way you have captured for posterity what you experienced in your own words. You have already done some of this with your posts. Well, just an idea.


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