Backpacking Southeast Asia

Part Three: My First Time Trying Everything Once

Text by Rebecca Bowslaugh
Photos by Rebecca Bowslaugh and Stephanie Hiltz

It doesn’t matter who you are, everyone should share this one travel motto: Try Everything Once. Go ahead and say that once out loud. Write it down on a piece of paper and mail it to your mother. Have it cross-stitched inside your underwear. And finally, repeat it over and over inside your head until it becomes the background music to your days on the road. 

As I mentioned in the first part of my series, my second backpacking trip to Southeast Asia wasn’t a lone mission. I was dragging along three good friends, and I wanted to make sure we all had a great time. Stephanie was already a world traveller (her country count is higher than mine), Shannon had gastronomically survived India (albeit several pounds lighter), and in high school Meaghan used to let me drive her around in my beat up, two-toned, ear-splitting, ’87 Chevy Cavalier (which we affectionately nicknamed “death mobile” and “amazing discombobulator”); I knew they were ready for anything.

Having such a strong team of intrepid travellers along made me excited to try as many new activities as possible. It also made me realize that I wouldn’t be able to chicken out of anything.

What are friends for, if not to peer pressure you into terrifying new experiences that will later be your fondest memories? 

Rebecca Part Three1The gang after some sweaty trekking on Cat Ba Island, Vietnam

Southeast Asia is a great place for newbie backpackers to break in their travel shoes.

There are adventure options for all types of traveller, no matter what floats your boat. If you want to spend your entire trip in or around the water there are endless snorkel and diving options, whitewater rafting and kayaking tours, and you can even hire a boat and driver to explore surrounding islands.

If you prefer dry land, you can find all kinds of trekking possibilities, including rainforests and village stays. You can base your trip around nature reserves and wildlife sanctuaries. There is also a strain of backpacker who jumps from party to party, but you miss out on almost all the local culture, so I don’t recommend it.

I used my trip as a chance to put my motto to use.

Overcoming fears is a major step towards absolute travel enjoyment.

Despite my fear of heights (or more accurately to spite it) we went zip lining and slept in a treehouse high in the canopy of the Bokeo Nature Reserve in Laos (which also turned out to be a good place to overcome a fear of giant spiders). We took a really long ride in a glass-bottom cable car and I didn’t projectile vomit all over Meaghan. We jumped off the top of our junk boat in Halong Bay—no wait, I didn’t do that but everyone else did. The water was cold (I am a terrible Canadian—I turn blue swimming in cold water in about three minutes) and let’s face it, Rome wasn’t built in a day.

Rebecca Parth Three5Halong Bay, Vietnam and zip-lining in northern Laos 

Travelling is a great way to push your boundaries and see what you’re capable of. That’s where “Try Everything Once” comes in handy. I got my first tattoo in a beachside shop in Koh Chang, Thailand. I went whitewater kayaking in the Mekong, fell into the rapids twice, and didn’t even—despite my inherent beliefs—drown. I met my lifelong love—the ATV—in the Cambodian countryside. I ate a wide variety of strange (to me) cuisine, including water buffalo, silkworm larvae, sheep penis, fetal duck egg, river algae, and a frozen dessert that tasted and looked exactly like a cob of corn.

Rebecca Part Three4Getting a tattoo in Thailand; ATVing, white water kayaking on the Mekong and fetal duck snacks in Cambodia 

As a backpacker, you don’t always have to be on a crazy adventure. You can also go slow and try new things that don’t even scare you a little. On our trip, we tried to have a little of both. We trekked through the Laotian countryside with local guides and participated in a village stay. We visited a wildlife sanctuary and hung out with an elephant in Cambodia. We went to several cooking classes so that we could recreate all the amazing food we were eating when we got back home again. We visited a floating village and canoed through the treetops. 

Rebecca Part Three3Boat driving in Vietnam, boat riding on the Mekong in Laos, and the floating village in CambodiaRebecca Part Three2 Village stay in Laos (including the banana-leaf picnic); Wildlife sanctuary and cooking class in Cambodia

There is a downside to wanting to try everything once. Due to the fact that you are a visitor in a foreign country, you will probably end up participating in activities that seem like a great idea at the time, but you will later realize were not exactly (or nowhere near) ethical. We rode elephants at Angkor Wat, had clothing tailor-made in Hoi An, and petted playful tiger cubs and their docile full-grown parents (we later found out they were probably drugged to make them drowsy for tourists). I’m sure there were other blunders we made and unfortunately, the only things we can do are learn from them and share our experiences to help fellow travellers avoid the same mistakes.

If you’re worried about ethical travelling, try to do as much research as possible before you start backpacking. Or at least ask other travellers about their experiences to find out if a “sanctuary” is actually a few sad elephants in a dusty parking lot. “Try Everything Once” shouldn’t be applied if it’s to the disadvantage of anyone else.

Backpacking is about exploration and experience. Keep your eyes open all the time.

If you are scared to jump, travel with a friend who will push you over the edge.

Try as many new things as you can and don’t be afraid to step (or live) outside your comfort zone. Plan a trip that will, if possible, change your life and start a lifelong passion for travel.

If you’re thinking about planning a big trip but have no idea how to get started, stay tuned for the final part of my series next week: How To Plan A Group Backpacking Trip. 

Rebecca just moved home after six years of wandering (mostly) aimlessly around the world. After visiting 24 countries and living on three continents, she decided it was high time to get down to work. When she’s not on an airplane, Rebecca can be found eating homemade chocolate snacks directly from the freezer, building lampshades out of recycled cardboard, or trying to read and walk simultaneously. She is also a self-proclaimed chip connoisseur and is happy to be home (at least for a few minutes) in the land of many flavours. Twitter: @BeckBeforeDawn

Click Next to read Part 4 of Backpacking Southeast Asia: How to Plan a Group Backpacking Trip

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