Backpacking Southeast Asia

How To Plan A Group Backpacking Trip

Text by Rebecca Bowslaugh

After reading the first three articles in my series, your backpack is probably half-packed, your bucket list is written out and “Try Everything Once!” is painted across your living room walls. Now it’s time to take a step backwards. You’re not ready yet.

First you need to actually plan your trip.

This is where I defenestrate my aforementioned love for all things easy-peasy and dust off my obsession for all things neat and orderly. Oh, did I not mention that? I love making to-do lists and checking things off. I enjoy writing events, meetings and appointments in my calendar. I am positively gleeful when friends and family ask me to help them organize their closets. Coming up with a two-month-long itinerary was pure bliss.

RB Part4 Image 4Unfortunately, I didn't take pictures of myself planning, but this stock photo sums it up nicely (exciting, I know!) 

I started by purchasing a few guidebooks.

I scoured them for details and then went online and further researched every activity and location they suggested and then researched every activity and location near anything they suggested. Then I straight up Googled everything that came to mind: top 10 lists, best reasons to visit Southeast Asia, why you should do this and that, what to do when you travel, how to get from A to B, most popular destinations, most popular activities and adventures, the most delicious food and finally the dangers and cautionary tales of backpacking all the regions we intended to travel through.

I continued with my research almost every day for about a month.

Then I Skyped with Meaghan to get her ideas and added them to our ever-growing list of destinations (I had an entire notebook filled with somewhat decipherable travel scribbles). When the general plan was starting to formulate, I sat down in my living room in Haebungchon, Seoul with my then-roommate Stephanie and neighbour/friend Shannon. We spread everything out on the floor and then they proceeded to help me sort through it. I am terrible at making big decisions. I can make the small ones without batting an eye and have no problem helping you make all of your minor decisions as well.

Trying to whittle down our massive to-do list was beyond my capabilities. I needed help.

I needed Shannon and Stephanie to hold my hand through every “No” as we cut out places they weren’t interested in, or activities that we just didn’t have time for. When you’re planning your own trip, you will need this kind of support. You will also need to compromise, at least a little. For anyone thinking about taking the lead role in a group travel scenario, here are a few words of advice that I could have used before planning my own trip:

You can’t do everything

I know you’ll want to. We all want to. But you just can’t. If you try, you’ll inevitably miss out on something or not allow yourself to fully enjoy a single location. Give yourself plenty of time to fall in love with every destination.

During my first trip to Thailand, I met a Canadian girl in Krabi when I was staying on Ton Sai beach. She was working at a local bar and because I was alone, we started chatting about travel. When I asked her how long she’d been in Ton Sai she replied, “I came for a three-day climbing adventure, but that was seven months ago.” She fell in love with Ton Sai, and instead of leaving (unhappily) when she planned to, she decided to stay (happily) for as long as she wanted.

RB Part4 Image 1Ton Sai beach is glorious—why wouldn't you want to stay there forever? 

Ask as many questions as you can

Another important lesson I learned when planning a trip involving other people is you need to ask specific questions. That way, when one of your friends starts complaining about your rainy day snorkel tour as if it’s your fault, you can say, “You’re the one that wanted to swim with the bioluminescent plankton, so suck it up and flutter kick somewhere else!” Ask your friends where they want to go. Then find out why they want to go there.

At the start of our trip, Meaghan suggested we spend more time in China (pre Southeast Asia), not just Beijing and Xian. Instead of asking her why, I brushed off her suggestion, claiming we needed more time for Laos and Cambodia. After our trip was finished and we were back in Canada, we started the inevitable “I wish” conversation about all the places we didn’t get to visit. Meaghan brought up China again, this time mentioning the Yunnan Stone Forest. I took a look at some photos online and was overwhelmed by regret. If only I had known.

RB Part4 Image 5These stone forests look amazing—I didn't go, but you should!

Be open to suggestion

Your friends are going to make suggestions that don’t suit your personal travel needs and wants. Trust me when I tell you that everyone will be happier if you occasionally let somebody else take charge of the travel reigns.

Shannon suggest we go to Halong Bay in Vietnam. It seemed like an obvious choice, but being the all-encompassing trip planner that I was, I agreed to schedule some time on a junk boat. It turned out to be one of my favourite parts of our trip. We kayaked between the islands, ate fresh seafood, climbed Cat Ba island and were rewarded with an amazing view, slept “at sea” and jumped off the top of our boat. Being open to suggestion just increases your chances of having a good time.

RB Part4 Image 3Halong Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage site for a reason! 

Don’t be afraid to split up

This is another big one. Sometimes travelling as a group can be frustrating, especially when personalities clash or opinions differ. When your group isn’t agreeing on what to do next, split up. Even if you only go your separate ways for a few short days, when you meet up again everyone will be happy again, have stories to tell and be ready to get along peacefully once again. Spending every minute together won’t make your trip better. Also, taking some time apart will ensure that you remain friends after your trip is over.

One of the best ways to get some alone time is to wake up before everyone else and go for a morning exploration of whatever location you’re in. I know it can be hard to get up after spending the previous day lugging your backpack around, but in most places the dawn is the best time of day to avoid crowds, see the locals in action and get some fresh air without the overwhelming noises of everyday life. If you think that mornings are best used for sleeping, then try taking making your escape while your travel-mates are napping, resting, eating or showering.

Over-planning versus under-planning

There is a fine line between spontaneity and chaos, being prepared and being overwrought. Try to plan your major stops and any activities that require booking ahead of time (that’s where your research comes in handy). When the guidebooks, online articles and your fellow backpackers assure you that you can just show up somewhere, then trust them and go with the flow.

If you’re going to a tourist-saturated hot-spot, then think about booking a hostel or guesthouse before you arrive, especially if you’re worried about sleeping on a bench or wandering the streets forever with your backpack strapped on. Have a few specific dates on your timeline that help you shape the route you’re going to take. If there is an attraction that you are most excited about, make sure you’re not in town for the days when it’s closed. And just keep in mind that allowing some flexibility in your schedule is going to leave room for adventure.

We had a short stopover in Ho Chi Minh and decided to take a look at their city zoo. It was an extremely depressing experience, especially because we had just visited a wonderful wildlife sanctuary in Cambodia the week before. The otters had no water, the deer had only a muddy pen next to some very loud construction and the lone giraffe looked like he cried himself to sleep every night. If I had only planned our stopover, then we wouldn’t have those terrible memories. 

RB Part4 Image 6RB Part4 Image 2 The world's saddest giraffe and me sadly putting my trash in a penguin (not the best for a zoo!) 

Travelling as a group will never be without problems, but in the end you’ll have other people’s memories and points of view to remind you about the amazing experiences you had. To keep things running as smoothly as possible, be respectful of one another and be nice whenever possible. And just remember: laughing it off is always better than duking it out. 

Have you ever planned a group trip? Share your experiences or tips in the comment below!

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

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