Southeast Asia forum

First-time backpackers, planning on spending 18months in SE Asia... Crazy?

  • swampgum

    Joined Travelfish
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    Firstly, I have to take the chance to say what an incredible site this is, and how genuinely helpful the articles and advice here have been in convincing us to do this trip!

    So we are a 23 & 26y.o couple, neither have travelled overseas before and we definitely feel like it's time for our first adventure together. We will be flying in from Australia to KL late April 2012 and plan on backpacking for around 18 months.

    We've done a solid amount of research and basically want to do an entire loop covering...
    • Malaysia / Borneo
    • Philipines
    • Indonesia
    • Thailand
    • Cambodia
    • Laos
    • Myanmar
    • Vietnam
    • I have no idea if it will be realistic, but we would love to see Nepal too.

    Also, we intend on spending at least 2-3 months in Cambodia volunteering (yes, I promise we will carefully research the project we work with ).

    At the rate we've been saving, we should leave with about US$20,000 between us.

    So to me, that says about 6-8 weeks in each country, and 3 months in cambodia.

    I don't want to plan this trip into oblivion, but I'm trying to arrive at a vague understanding of how long we can happily spend in each country. Because I've never travelled, I am struggling with this. That's where I hope you come in...

    TL;DR - Is 18 months too much time in SE Asia for first-timers? Is $20k going to last 2 people 18 months?

    #1 Posted: 11/7/2011 - 18:45

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  • exacto

    Joined Travelfish
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    people from my country rarely get the chance to spend such a large time out traveling, so i think it is great that you'll have so much time to spend. but at the same time, 18 months seems like a large undertaking for your first time out of the gate.

    one of your biggest logistics challenges will be visas and the amount of time you can spend in each country. many of the places you mention allow up to 30 days with a visa-on-arrival, but that won't get you through the 18 months you plan to be out, so you'll want to look at longer-length tourist visas for some of the countries you plan to visit.

    your budget of roughly $1000 per month will be a bare bones sort of thing with basic accommodation, ground transport, and local food, but won't have room for many luxuries. given the time and budget you have, i might look at spending a big chunk of time in indonesia, particularly if you can work out a longer-term visa ahead of time. prices/values are better there than some of the other places you mention and it is a great place to really stretch out and explore.

    have you looked into travel insurance yet? if i were planning to be out that long, i'd definitely want a good medical policy with an emergency evacuation clause.

    have a great time. cheers.

    #2 Posted: 11/7/2011 - 19:29

  • MADMAC

    Joined Travelfish
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    It's not too long. I came here twice, spending a total of 60 days - the third time I never left.

    But it's not enough money. Maybe if you got an apartment and stayed someplace (I mean one city) about three months before transiting to the next country, then you would save a lot on lodging. You can get a crappy little apartment for 1,500 baht a month in provincial Thailand. But most people don't want to do that, they want to move around. So even with cheap accomodation, you're looking at one third of your budget going to accomodation. Then there's transportation costs, visa fees and then food and incidentals. This is before you've done a thing. Go to a bar - costs. Go to a National Park - costs. Etc. etc. I would plan for about nine months, including your volunteering. And I would spend at least two months in each country. So given your financial contraints, that's the framework I would start with.

    #3 Posted: 11/7/2011 - 19:31

  • Rasheeed

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    Also leave enough flexibility because you will love some place you thought you wouldn't and will hate somewhere everyone says is great. Or maybe you will hate SEA entirely...

    #4 Posted: 11/7/2011 - 20:08

  • Rasheeed

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    And yes. CRAZY!!!

    #5 Posted: 11/7/2011 - 20:10

  • MADMAC

    Joined Travelfish
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    OK, Rasheed's first post is excellent - second post - stop scaring them Rasheed.

    And truth be told I've never met anyone who came out here and hated it. Even my 76 year old mother liked it. But I suppose said person does exist.

    #6 Posted: 11/7/2011 - 21:50

  • Nokka

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    18 months in one region, however varied, does seem a long time for a first trip. Whether it is right for you is difficult to say as we don't know you, nor your reasons for doing it.

    So, any reasons why you are considering going for so long ? Why only SEA ? Its a big world - why SEA only and in particular ? I confess that if I had 18 months I'd look at more world regions - but perhaps you have your reasons ?

    Aussies are great travellers generally and many are curious about the rest of the world. They seem to get where fresh air doesn't. Often they combine some travelling time with working, especially when young. I know a number of Aussies in my city in the UK - working in bars or other similar jobs. Always a friendly bunch - work a while, travel a while; they can be away for years. But no work and your money will run out, then home skint, often to an uncertain job market. Are your skills such that that is less a problem ? Let us know a bit more about yourself and the advice you receive will be much better.

    #7 Posted: 11/7/2011 - 22:18

  • christay2009

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    Pah, Just go for it. Don't think too far ahead or you will never do anything!!

    If you decide, after 10 months, that you'd rather go some where else then go somewhere else. Add China to the list or something, go to India. There are plenty of options.

    6-8 weeks in each country sounds perfect. I do agree with Rasheed that maybe you'll find you want to spend 12 in Indonesia (for example) and only 4 in Malaysia.

    Nepal - you going to carry around hiking/trekking gear for this part of the trip? If not, are you going to be able to afford to buy what you need?

    Lots to consider, just don't get too bogged down in questions! there will always be more questions!

    #8 Posted: 11/7/2011 - 23:26

  • SBE

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    So to me, that says about 6-8 weeks in each country, and 3 months in cambodia.

    Hmm. Visa wise it's usually 4 weeks or 8 weeks. Don't waste money on 6 weeks. Why 3 months in Cambodia? Rashheed knows a lot about that country but rarely expands in public. :-)

    You need a lot of time in Indonesia BTW... big place and transport isn't designed for people in a hurry...sometimes only one ferry a month.

    #9 Posted: 11/7/2011 - 23:54

  • MADMAC

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    I have to go to Bali. The salsa scene there is suppose to be pretty good.

    Chris is right Swamp. I think you'll run out of money sooner rather than latter, and so plan for that contingency, but after that, just go. Screw it. If you've got the time, you can always go back earlyt. Remember it's easy to talk yourself out of doing anything.

    #10 Posted: 11/7/2011 - 23:58

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  • Tilapia

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    Hi,

    Wow! I'm envious!

    I think that 18 months in SEA as well as Nepal is a great amount of time, especially if you're able to sidestep monsoon seasons.

    Like some of the other folks have mentioned, you may find yourself a bit short on cash after a while, even if your food and board are provided for in Cambodia. But there's only one way to find out. You can adjust your expenses as you go along (Okay, we'll have to share a beer today), or adjust your travel plans (Okay, we may not be able to swing Nepal since the only reasonable way to get there from SEA is by air and we don't have the cash for the flights. And we can forget about the full moon party on KPG, as well as the Gibbon Experience.) You might have to get the folks to pop a bit more money into your bank accounts along the way if you start finding yourself running short, or bulk up the credit card. I'm sure you'll adjust as necessary.

    You could easily spend 6 weeks in Burma. You'll only be able to get a 30-day visa ahead of time (not on arrival), and unless things have changed, you can get a 2 week extension when you're there. It's worth it. The country is loaded with incredible sites, but transport is tediously slow and often unreliable. So, the more time you have there the better. Save your best U$ bills for Burma. If you eat in markets, and take your lunches in tea shops, you'll find that the $ can go a long way in that country.

    For Nepal, I'd reckon on about 6-8 weeks, especially if you want to do a big trek, like the Annapurna Circuit, Everest, or Kanjanjunga. I haven't been there for ages, but from what I understand some of the trekking routes have become parks and prices have been standardized ... and they aren't cheap anymore. You can rent all the equipment you need for trekking, so no need to lug it from home or buy it outright. Amazing place!

    If I had to choose between the two places, depending on the time of year and finances, I would likely go for Burma. It's less expensive to get to and from when Bangkok or KL is your base, and less expensive on the ground. If I could afford both, then I'd go to both.

    Thailand? A couple of months, easily. Same with Laos if you want to take it slow and see the place from top to bottom, or bottom to top.

    You will be able to stretch your money by avoiding the tourist hot spots as much as possible, and spending more time in less-visited areas such as southern Laos and Northeast Thailand where prices for food and accommodation tend to be relatively less. Going 3rd class on the train will save you a bunch of money, as will going easy on the booze. Take regular buses from the bus stations rather than VIP tourist buses from outside of tour agencies. City buses rather than taxis. Avoid boutique hotels and splashy beach resorts. Eat on the street. You might just make it.

    #11 Posted: 12/7/2011 - 00:19

  • swampgum

    Joined Travelfish
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    Posts: 7

    Thank you all for such supportive and constructive feedback, I really am very grateful.

    Well, it sounds like we definitely need to bump up our savings a little, which should be fine (goodbye morning coffee and friday night drinks). We shouldn't have much trouble raising an extra $5000 or so between us. I might even take a second job for the last few months and go with $30k instead of $20. We'll see.

    We're not big partiers at all - this trip is more about culture, nature and adventure to us, though I'm sure there will be the occassional drunken dance on a beach somewhere, ha [img]smileys/smile.gif[/img]

    @Nokka: Why SE Asia? Well, Everyone I know is off to South America these days (the 'new banana pancake trail'? ) and Indo / Malaysia / Philipines are my neighbours, so I'd love to learn more about them. I've always had a slight fascination with Asian culture, and like many, a long romance with eastern philosophy. I think my reasons for choosing SE Asia are probably fairly typical. Food, culture, climate, nature and just to see a different world; from the untouched to the agrarian, from the developing to the over-developed. It just seems to encompass the whole scale. I like that.

    We plan on travelling more later on, so we are not worried about only seeing one part of the world this time. But as you say, India and China are not far away - and my best friend will be in India at the same time we're abroad so it's certainly an option.

    Why so long?
    Well, we just want to get out of our routine, out of our comfort zone, and out of our culture for a while. (once again, pretty typical reasons, i assume) I've had a full-on time the last few years, I ran for The Greens in State Politics and it left me weary, too serious and a little bit cynical. So I want to put a big spanner in my works. My gf is finishing up her study, and wants a big adventure before heading into the workforce.

    But really, the only good reason I have is that it just feels right, we feel ready.

    Are you saying that because you think we will get... ahh... bored? Boredom seems almost impossible in my naive, pre-backpacker state. Does that happen? Or is more about homesickness etc?

    @Tilapia: Good points, we already seem to be gravitating to spending larger amounts of time in Indo / Laos / Burma, rather than the big tourist hotspots, so from what you guys are saying that should help. Will be avoiding Kuta Beach etc like the plague - last thing we are looking for is to hang out with drunk Australians everywhere, when that's the culture we want a little bit of respite from!

    Sounds like Nepal might be a trip to take another time. I didn't realise that the trekking was relatively serious business (compared to a thailand jungle trek). Might get a bit pricey, but I'll do some more reading anyway and paint a better picture...

    @SBE - We are not wed to the idea of volunteering in Cambodia specifically, but it seems from my little bit of research that perhaps that is an area where my organic farming / permaculture skills & my partner's teaching degree could be put to good use. (We may do an ESOL course before we leave, but I'm still not convinced that teaching English is the best way to help in the long-term - anyone got thoughts on this?)

    But anyway, I'm sure we could make ourselves useful in most places... it's just that Cambodia seems to have really copped it over the last 50 years.

    @Rasheed - I'd ask you to give me the low-down on Cambodia, but I'll have a rummage in your post history first [img]smileys/wink.gif[/img]
    _________________
    I've probably missed some points, will check again in my lunch-break.

    Once again, thank you. Just reading these replies has brought up a lot of things that hadn't really crossed my mind yet.... thanks travelfishermen/women.

    #12 Posted: 12/7/2011 - 08:30

  • Tilapia

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    Hi Swampgum,

    There are trekking possibilities in that country to suit every timeframe, ability, and budget. You can do 1 night, 2 nights, 3, etc. There are hundreds that can be done. You just need to pick the one that's right for you. Mine was 28 days. In the time it took me to do mine, others I knew had done three!

    But, yes, considering your budget you might want to make Nepal a separate trip, and stick to the immediate area of SEA.

    Oddly enough, when I did my first big Asian trip, Nepal was the one place I went to that was out of the way ... but that's a long story.

    There are tourist hot spots in every country. Some you can't avoid, nor should you. Many are hot spots for a very good reason. Angkor, for example, and Bagan in Burma. Luang Prabang, Tirta Empul, Borobudur, Annapurna Sanctuary. These are all places worth seeing in my opinion. Even the places that are often brushed aside have their charms, like Vang Vieng and it's stunning surroundings, and the absurd circus that is Khao San Road. Always worth at least a quick look.

    No doubt you'll feel things out as you go along. Your best sources of info will be from the people you meet while you're on the road.

    Have a blast.

    #13 Posted: 12/7/2011 - 09:56

  • MADMAC

    Joined Travelfish
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    Hey Swamp - you come out to Mukdahan and I'll see what I can do about hooking you up with a cheap place to stay and if we're real lucky a motorcycle you can use. I got a lot of friends here.

    #14 Posted: 12/7/2011 - 11:16

  • swampgum

    Joined Travelfish
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    @ MADMAC - Thanks for the offer, you just might get a PM from me in June next year :) What's June/July like in your part of the world?

    @Tilapia - Thanks for another great post. I think I read an article here about that (don't avoid places because they're popular), but you're right - we will check those places out, we just probably won't linger long.

    Being newbies, is it wise to have a pretty solid plan for the first 3-4 weeks, then loosen up a bit? Or should we just know where we are staying the first few days, and let the rest come to us via word of mouth etc once we're there?

    #15 Posted: 12/7/2011 - 11:24

  • MADMAC

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    Pretty hot and somewhat rainy - but not to the point where it's intolerable. Rains about one evening in three, though when it rains, it rains! Mekong is nice that time of year. High and pleasant. People tell me it's hot, although personally it doesn't seem so hot to me. Sits in the 90s most days.

    #16 Posted: 12/7/2011 - 11:59

  • swampgum

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    Thanks MADMAC, that sounds pretty bearable!

    #17 Posted: 12/7/2011 - 12:32

  • christay2009

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    #18 Posted: 12/7/2011 - 15:54

  • SBE

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    An acquaintance of mine went and did some volunteering in Cambodia earlier this year. She worked at an orphanage/school. She went as a replacement for one of her friends who was supposed to be going but had had to cancel at the last minute because she'd just been diagnosed with cancer.

    My friend and her husband grow trees in Canada (or something like that) so her expertise was more agriculture. She went to help the school/orphanage plant food crops for the school but they also wanted her to teach English (I don't think she has a teaching certificate). I can ask her if you like but I've a feeling it was one of those volunteer jobs where you have to PAY to volunteer!

    #19 Posted: 12/7/2011 - 16:52

  • Nokka

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    Thanks for the extra detail, Swamp. Your reasons for travelling for so long seem pretty solid to me, so the very best of luck to you both.

    Its difficult to know whether you will get bored or homesick while away. I guess everyone reacts differently to being away from home for an extended time. Actually, boredom is probably less likely than homesickness, which probably affects many long term travellers from time to time. I have never travelled for as long as 18 months - my own trip round the region was only 4 months. I plan to come back to the region, possibly many times in future, but for me 4 months in one go was sufficient. It did what I wanted it to do - took us away from normal routines and life. To be honest, though, at the end of the 4 months I was ready to return home - to start using my brain in a different way again, solving business problems, for example. Long term travel can be a wonderful opportunity, but it becomes a way of life, I suppose, and your brain can get a bit mushy if you're not careful. Others, though, will disagree, I'm sure - many could probably happily travel forever. Others again cannot leave home for more than a few nights without experiencing panic - we're all different. How you cope and what you get out of it is part of the whole learning experience.

    #20 Posted: 12/7/2011 - 17:01

  • SBE

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    Being newbies, is it wise to have a pretty solid plan for the first 3-4 weeks, then loosen up a bit? Or should we just know where we are staying the first few days, and let the rest come to us via word of mouth etc once we're there?

    I'd say know where you are staying for the first few days and have a vague plan for the first month (as opposed to a solid one). Do some research about where you think you might be interested in going but don't plan "Day 1 we go here and see this and Day 2 we go there and do that" kind of thing.

    #21 Posted: 12/7/2011 - 17:03

  • swampgum

    Joined Travelfish
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    @Christay - I looked into WWOOFing, but it seems pretty limited in SE Asia... am I mistaken?

    @ SBE & Nokka - Thanks once again for the good advice, I'll take it.

    Oh, and Nokka, that's really the only little source of apprehension I have about this whole trip: Planning something for 12-18 months when I've got no idea what the experience will be like... I think that's the 'are we crazy' aspect of my original question, ha - and you've summed it up nicely.

    Very nutritious food for thought [img]smileys/smile.gif[/img]

    #22 Posted: 12/7/2011 - 19:02

  • Nokka

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    The main thing, as far as I see it, is keeping your eyes and your minds wide open. You have designated 18 months to do what you want to do. Its 18 months to do something different, have new experiences, learn new things. In practice you will decide what you wish to do with that time as you go along. If SEA suits you and you are getting everything you want from that experience, then great. But nobody will be holding a gun to your heads and forcing you to only do that. You can change - different travel plans, different countries, even going home & trying different things in a new place, or even where you're from. Treat the time as an experiment and as an adventure - and you won't go far wrong.

    I doubt very much whether you will even consider changing in the first few months. Everything will be so new, so fantastic. After a while its possible your perceptions may change a little. Maybe.

    Actually, I think the biggest problem long termers have is not acclimatising to their new surroundings when away - its that massive culture shock when you return home. Now that can be hard - and it can take you some time to re-adjust.

    #23 Posted: 12/7/2011 - 20:02

  • MADMAC

    Joined Travelfish
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    "Actually, I think the biggest problem long termers have is not acclimatising to their new surroundings when away - its that massive culture shock when you return home. Now that can be hard - and it can take you some time to re-adjust."

    Man, you got that. I would have a very hard time going back now.

    The inverse is also true. My Thai wife used to complain daily when we were living in Germany about how she wanted to go back to Thailand to live. But she lived in Germany 12 years, and when I retired and we went back, the first two years were brutal. She complained about everything from Thai people to Thai food to Thai building standards... you name it. She was begging to go back to Germany (Like Cortez, I burned my ships so going back wasn't a realistic option).

    #24 Posted: 12/7/2011 - 20:44

  • savorygal

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    I will also be traveling for 18 months... I'm 6 1/2 months into the adventure now, and while I am not homesick, nor do i think my brain has turned to mush, some days are just plain hard. not many, but some. But I usually find that a shower, and a good night sleep is all it takes to set the world right again. But you should anticipate that there will be days that just plain suck. (just like life at home) Take it as it comes, you will find your rhythm & find places that "fit"
    I think your budget is going to be hardest thing, I have found that certain frustrations & problems can be alleviated or eliminated by having a little extra cash. There are some days that you are not going to feel like taking 3 buses to reach your guesthouse in the pouring rain (or oppressive heat or if one of you doesn't feel well) & having that extra bit of cash to take a taxi can be lifesaver, for example.
    If one of you gets sick, trust me, you will want your own bathroom. You also won't have much of an opportunity to do many of the fun things that SEA has to offer like diving, rafting, cooking classes, museums, etc. The temples at angkor alone are something like 40-60 USD per person for a 3 day pass.
    But maybe I just need more creature comforts.....

    #25 Posted: 12/7/2011 - 22:17

  • MADMAC

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    For me it's my daughter. No matter how bad my day went, when she wraps her little arms around me and says "Papa I love you" all is right with the world. I know that sounds pathetic, and me being a pretty hard bitten guy as well, but it's true. You guys got each other, so that's something to lean on when your day just isn't working out right.

    #26 Posted: 12/7/2011 - 22:22

  • Tilapia

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    I agree with SBE. Have a spot to stay for when you arrive, get your bearings, and start checking things out.

    Considering how much time you've got, you'd be crazy to stick to any kind of schedule. Your plans are going to change as you find out more about the area, talk to people, learn how to get around, etc., anyways. Have an idea of what you'd like to see and do, but be ready to add to (and subtract from) that list as time goes on.

    One of the biggest gaffs people I know make when they go over there for long trips is not familiarizing themselves with visas and border procedures. Have your U$ available, plus small bills for "tea money" at some of the borders. Get a bunch of passport size photos made (in Thailand this can be done at any photo shop very inexpensively), and don't forget that if you come back into Thailand overland from Laos or Cambodia or Malaysia that you'll only get a non-extendable 15-day visa.

    And, for the record, I have to add my plug for the route along the Mekong River from Chiang Khan to Nong Khai, or even further down through MadMac's territory in Muk and beyond to Khong Chiam. Fantastic, quiet, scenic, less-traveled route.


    Bon voyage.

    #27 Posted: 13/7/2011 - 03:46

  • christay2009

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    Sorry, just saw farming and jumped. There is a dedicated WOOF site fro Nepal and for China, just FYI.

    try this; http://www.workaway.info/

    #28 Posted: 13/7/2011 - 19:27

  • burgesg

    Joined Travelfish
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    First of all kudos for making a brilliant life-changing decision. I have a few thoughts based on personal experience that I'd like to share with you. Heed them or don't you will still have an amazing time.

    I've taken extended trips with three partners. The first was my ex wife and she and I travelled very well. The second was with my ex girlfriend...not so much. The third was with my current girlfriend--brilliant. So, give some thought to how you can each give each other the space you need to keep things civil while on the road and ask your partner throughout the trip what she might need should things get tense.

    Second, Southeast Asia is brilliant. The region lives up to all the hype--phenomenal food, amazing people, gorgeous geography, warm water beaches, great weather and fantastic historical sites. Eighteen months is a LOONNGGGG time. While I prefer to keep things moving while I'm on the road I've visited each of the following country's highlights in 11-weeks comfortably: Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam & Laos. Would I have loved to have had more time...YES. Did I enjoy my trip though...YES. My recommendation is to take full advantage of this gift you currently have--TIME. While you fully intend to do this again you never know what might happen after the trip--marriage, job, kid, illness, etc... For these reasons I would suggest doing as you suggested and working a second job in order to save up more money so that you can expand upon the region(s) you wish to visit. In 18 months you can easily add India to the list (India will take a while). India is culture shock at its best and it is a great budget travel destination. For this reason it will make a great starting point. From India you can make your way to Myanmar (do NOT miss Myanmar) and from Myanmar you can continue your way through Southeast Asia.

    Third, consult with you girlfriend about how best to approach the trip. Does she enjoy being spontaneous and figuring things out on the road (my girlfriend and I schedule flights into one country and out of another. We plan nothing else preferring to figure it out on the road--not even our first night's lodging! The freedom of travelling like we do is intoxicating and offers us all the flexibility we need (we do still research in advance so that we hit some of the highlights). You may find that she prefers a bit more structure or that she doesn't know and won't know until you get there--you may change your mind too--so stay flexible.

    Lastly, here are a few highlights that I strongly recommend based on my personal experiences. Visit (volunteer) the Elephant Conservation Park run by a lady named Lek. It is in Northern Thailand and hour or two outside of Chiang Mai. Plan this one in advance so you can stay at the park and be a paid volunteer for a week (this is worth a splurge). When you make it to Siem Reap (Cambodia) do not forget to take a day or two with a hired tuk tuk driver to visit the outer temples. Angkor Wat, the Bayon and the othr large complexes are fantastic, but the smaller temples that are further away have much better preserved temple carvings. Eat street food (don't shy away from it)--ask your doctor to prescribe you Cipro (it'll save you on the road when you get a bad stomach). Visit the far far southern islands of Thailand--skip Phuket and islands closer to Bangkok. Visit Kuan Si waterfall outside of Luang Prabang and hike above the falls on the trail (rough trail, but you WILL see lots of life...some of it is freakish like giant centipeds, spiders and I saw two cobras). There is so much more, but you'll have to find it yourself.


    Best,

    #29 Posted: 14/7/2011 - 06:07

  • Tilapia

    Click here to learn more about Tilapia
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    Nice one burgesg.

    If I may just expand on the Cipro recommendation ... it is readily available at just about any Thai pharmacy without a prescription, and is incredibly inexpensive. So are electrolyte rehydration packets. Compared to here in Canada the stuff is practically free. Not a bad idea to stock-up, especially on the packets during the hot time of the year. Sprite is also good for rehydration, but I don't like to plug Coca Cola products ... only big pharmaceutical companies.

    True, the temples on the outskirts of the Angkor area are amazing. Bantray Srei knocked me out!

    #30 Posted: 14/7/2011 - 09:49

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