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We’re backpackers. We’re trying to see the world on a budget, and more often than not it means that we must sacrifice some things that were used to at home. These sacrifices also usually happen whether we like it or not…. Living with less, sometimes on $15 a day, comes with the territory of backpacking through an area that is culturally… well…. different than what we’re used to. In so many ways.
Asia has so incredibly much to offer and so many beautiful sights and places to see. But seeing these places often requires adapting to a little bit of a different lifestyle – especially if you do it the way us backpackers do.
We wouldn’t stop doing what we’re doing for the world, and the lessons we are learning through backpacking Southeast Asia on a budget and living so differently and impermanently out of our packs are completely irreplaceable.
But, it’s still pretty hilarious to make light of a few things that Southeast Asia doesn’t really do like the West does. Here are a few things you take for granted until you arrive in Asia:
This one goes without saying. Toilets with paper are a serious luxury here. Your options are usually to bring your own roll, prepare to drip-dry, or embrace the bum gun… Ah, bum guns. Such a love/hate relationship.
The amount of times I have dried myself with another article of clothing or the clothes I was about to put on, because my towel is in the wash, forgotten, or lost, is insurmountable. Hobo lyfe. Hostels with towels, we love you.
A serious luxury. I do a small happy dance each time a toilet actually has soap. Otherwise, I pray that running that water over my hands will get at least some germs off. Hand sanitizer, where you at?
Read More: Choosing the Best Travel Backpack
Hand Dryers /Hand Towels
This goes hand in hand with not having soap to clean my hands – not having a towel to dry them. We shake them out, and use our shirt. I just love walking out the bathroom with two huge wet handprints on my shirt. Love it.
Getting a Good Night’s Sleep
Snorers. People coming home drunk at 3am and clashing about. 12 Beds in one room that squeak and shake and creak. People who have no regard for others and talk at full volume. In hostels there is ALWAYS something to wake you up…. Earplugs are a necessity!
I’m not even kidding that this was my night ferry from Koh Phangan to Surat Thani. There were 2 bed numbers per less-than-full sized “bed,” and you got to sleep next to people you didn’t know. And basically wake up spooning 36 strangers. What an experience.
Having a Room to Yourself
And not having to keep your belongings locked up at all times. I mean, I love waking up next to 12 strangers every morning but…
Privacy in General
Things were used to: Hoping no one comes in the hostel room while you’re changing. Using communal showers and bathrooms. Waking up and going to sleep in the presence of many others each day. In the backpacker life, you get no privacy. That’s just how it is. If you ever end up with a private room while backpacking Southeast Asia… SERIOUS LUXURY. You mean I can just put my stuff wherever I want? And can walk around naked?!?!
I’m not sure how they get away with calling these hard-as-concrete slabs with sheets ‘beds,’ but there you go. Classic Asia. When you get a comfy bed it’s seriously like you won the lottery!
Being Able to Flush Toilet Paper Down the Toilet
Although most of us accidentally forget a majority of the time. It just doesn’t feel right to wipe yourself and throw the toilet paper in the trash can. It just feels… Wrong.
I do miss Sriracha, Tabasco, Cholula, etc.. When a restaurant has Tabasco it’s a serious win. Chilli is ok though- chilli sauce on errthang. If you can;t live without it you might want to add it to your Southeast Asia packing list!
Apparently people here are just flawlessly able to eat without making a mess. I haven’t reached that point yet unfortunately. Wiping on my shorts it is! When they do have napkins, they tend to be like 4 times thinner than normal and turn into a tiny shriveled ball with one wipe. Well, I suppose I will just have to use 12.
Toilets That Flush or Have a Seat and Aren’t a Hole in the Ground
We have all learned to be experts on the squatter toilets by now. Or the ones that you flush by dumping a bucket of water down them. Those were so confusing at first.
Pee. On my shoes.
Bathroom Floors That Aren’t Sopping Wet
Really though, are there any in Asia that aren’t? Don’t ever think of going to the restroom without shoes. Damn you again, bum guns.
Hooks in the Bathroom
I never even thought about this one until I got to Asia. But when you have to use the toilet, have a full backpack and purse on, and the bathroom floor is soaking with no hook… what do you do?! #problemsolving
I found my first one a month into my Asia trip in Ho Chi Minh city. It was actually so exciting.
Cooking Your Own Food
It was great when I found said grocery store, but it didn’t matter too much because if I wanted to buy groceries I would have nowhere to cook them. Hostels here aren’t like European ones with kitchens…. And we all know it’s way cheaper to get some $2 street food than cook anyway.
$2 Street food…..Mmmmmm.
Clean Clothes, Dry Clothes, and/or Clothes That Don’t Smell
And not having a massive bag of laundry just sitting inside your bag all the time. The amount of times I have looked at a dirty shirt, said f**k it, and put it on anyway is, well, a lot. We’re backpackers and must pack light… This means that our laundry accumulates FAST. And we’re often dirty.
This is true especially when you’re doing things like waterfall treks, getting caught in rain storms, and swimming in the sea… with 12 hour night busses afterwards. How do we think those wet clothes are going to smell after being in a bag that whole time? And after we likely forget about them for another 12 hours? RANK.
Not Having Mosquito Bites
We have such a hatred for mozzies. Not sure about you, but I am a ‘mosquito magnet.’ Even people who aren’t magnets get devoured here in Asia… I probably have at least 7 on my body at any given moment. Thank god for tiger balm! And OFF. Die, you little life-sucking sneaky buzzing bastards.
Extra Seats on the Bus
You know when you get on a bus and try to commandeer a whole row so you can stretch your legs and get a nice sleep? Not here. They fill every bus, minivan, and ferry to the brim here. Hope you have a neck pillow! And want to make friends with the little old local lady next to you who will share her strange Asian snacks with you then fall asleep on your shoulder.
When the ferry is full so you have to sit on the floor with the only snack you have left – strange green bean crisps.
Knowing What You Are Eating
Okay, ‘chicken’ noodles. Sounds good, ‘beef’ soup. Fish sticks? Squid chips? Strange dried fruits? Food is often quite questionable here, and we have grown to accept just eating most things anyway. It’s all part of the experience… I just hope to the lord it isn’t dog. (too far?)
Normal Bowel Movements
I’m sorry I’m sorry… I’m sorry. But I couldn’t leave this one out. Everyone silently knows it’s the truest thing on here. Didn’t you know laxatives are free while backpacking Southeast Asia? They go by the name of ‘tap water’ and ‘most foods.’ Forrrrreal.
Currencies That Make Sense
By now we’re all accustomed to having at least three zero’s on the end of anything we buy, if not five or six! 150,000 for a night’s stay in Vietnam? Sounds about right.
Places Without Bugs Everywhere
I would honestly be more surprised NOT to have to use the toilet underneath the web of a large black spider. We learn to be friends with the bugs.
There will probably be bugs dropping down on me from this little straw hut. But it is oh, SO worth it.
Ok this is probably the California in me coming out, but I seriously miss a good breakfast burrito. Or burritos in general really. If a menu has a breakfast burrito on it, it’s pretty much game over. Avocado is also an immediate yes. Take my money.
Lets have a moment of silence for the lack of wine in Asia. This is something I was not mentally prepared for… Not a single bottle of cheap wine? Anywhere? WHAT KIND OF PLACE IS THIS?!
Okay, yes, I’m being overly dramatic. I know. But a wine lover like me silently weeps each time they only have a few awful bottles for $15 each when we’re used to paying $1-2 per drink here. That just doesn’t make sense for my backpacking budget but I want it so, SO badly. I miss you, wine. In Asia you are only for very special occasions.
Being Able to Complain
In Western countries, customer service is very important, and you always want to keep your customers happy and will therefore usually try to make people happy if they aren’t. Asia: nope. Not really. There is no ‘Can I speak to the manager” here. No complaining, no nothing. Accidentally spill your drink and ask for another one? They will laugh at you. Find a bug in your food? Oops. Journey take three hours longer than you were told? Ha sorry that’s life!
Health & Safety
Your fate is in your own hands out here. There will be no railings on cliff edges, seat belts in cars, or inspections for cleanliness, usually. H & S goes out the window here, which can be a great or awful thing depending on the situation!
In the US, someone would be making me sign waivers and line up to jump off the cliff behind me, with lifeguards standing by. In Thailand you just…. jump. Which I did a few minutes after this photo.
Alright, I know this one is extremely relative to personal music taste. And that there are a lot of variations of music In Asia, live and recorded, that you can find to make anyone happy. But I can’t be alone when I say I honestly can’t handle much more awful “5, 4, 3, 2, PUT YOUR FCKNG HANDS UP!!!!” Electro from hell that is extremely prominent on most nights out. Kill me now. When you find a place that caters to your musical taste it’s like a sweet breath of fresh air.
Being In Contact with the Outside World
“Sorry mom, I was traveling for 17 hours then the wifi at my hostel didn’t work for two days!”
Literally, good wifi were is a LUXURY. If you can get texts out and check your Facebook, that’s pretty good. If you can actually upload things and load photos, amazing. We generally tend to get stuck for an hour or more in cafe’s that actually have good wifi, or base our meal selection on the condition of the restaurant having wifi. Gotta let the parents know were alive… and post that Instagram, and that Facebook status, and a tweet or two….
Lol, there aren’t any here. Especially in Vietnam. I actually low key love it. It’s going to be bad when I go home and try to jaywalk across the 5 lane highway or disobey all traffic lights.
Vietnam. The home of, “family of four driving on the same moped without helmets on the wrong side of the road”
Knowing What is Going On Or Where You’re Going
Not a single time have I understood the process of having joint tickets to get to my next destination, crossing borders, or traveling anywhere in general. It is just something that you come to terms with here – not understanding what is happening or where you are supposed to go during traveling . You just end up trusting it at a certain point.
“Get on this bus.” Okay. “Get off now.” Okay. “Get in this line.” Ok…. “Stand here.” Okay. “This is your tuk tuk.” Ok, getting in. “Sit in these seats and wait for 45 minutes for the ferry.” Right. You got it, tiny asian man. I trust you will get me where I’m going, albeit probably 4 hours later than the travel agency said.
Being On Time
I don’t think I have ever actually arrived at my destination when I was supposed to, or left when I was supposed to either. Just the other day I was still waiting at 2:15 for my 1pm bus. The one and only time I have ever been early was when my night ferry arrived at 4am instead of 6am… the one time I needed the extra time to sleep. Classic.
This is just life backpacking Southeast Asia. Don’t plan on getting to your destination by the time the hostel/agent said you would. Bring extra food and water. Because if you wanted to have dinner when you arrived in Siem Reap at 5… you had better bring some with you, because chances are you’ll be there at 7:30 earliest. Ah, well. We have grown to love the life of sitting on busses and to fall asleep in the strangest positions, bobbing heads with the people next to us.
Just your everyday Laotian roadblock. One of many reasons you’ll always be late!
No matter what happens or what we do or not not have, backpacking brings people together. The community that traveling cultivates is unlike any sense of community I have ever known. We may be roughing it a tiny (or a large) bit sometimes… but the benefits of backpacking Southeast Asia far, FAR outweigh the costs. We all get through it together.
So here’s to the randoms that we have shared our toilet paper with in the most awful of bathrooms. Here’s to the brave ones who have killed bugs for the more afraid. Here’s to the travelers we have bonded with while brain dead on night bus stopovers trying to buy some Pringles from a sketchy cafe. Here’s to the new friends with whom we have decided to go in on bottles of wine with, to the hostel bunk mates who have evolved into the best of friends, and the people we ended up traveling with for weeks.
Here’s to us backpackers – to the ones who always seem to have their head in the clouds while at home just dreaming of their next destination – but who are able to finally feel at home in the company of other backpackers in the back of a bumpy tuk tuk in a foreign country.
When we travel here, we sacrifice a little to get back a LOT more. Toilet paper, I don’t need you. Memories? Life experience? Knowledge? Culture? Lifelong friends? Discovery? I need YOU.