On the benefits of spontaneity: a convoluted route of my 170 day journey across South East Asia.

Setting off on this open-ended journey, I silently wished to learn how to let go of expectations, go with the flow and become more spontaneous. All of the above transformations indeed took place in me over a period of a few months. I noticed that although my travel plans kept on changing significantly, sometimes from moment to moment, it certainly did not tend to upset me.

The rough plan of the journey

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Initially, I had just a very vague idea of what our route would look like. It was due to my conscious efforts to avoid planning. I only knew that I really wanted to make the whole circuit around South East Asia solely by land. I had in mind leaving from Kolkata (our Asian base and the home city of Sayak) and travelling across north-eastern states of India to Myanmar. From there, I wanted to go to Thailand, carry on to Laos, cover the entire Vietnam, move on to Cambodia and return to Thailand. From there we could fly back to Kolkata or travel further on to Malaysia and maybe even Indonesia, depending on our financial situation.

First factor: visas

This plan had to be reviewed as soon as I started looking closely at the visa regulations in different countries. At the time we were getting ready for our journey (in March 2018 and just one month before setting off), the land border between India and Myanmar was severely restricted. Not only crossing the border required an expensive, special permit but we could also use only the same border crossing to enter and exit the country. The moment I learned that, the first plan crashed. After checking the flight prices to Yangoon and Bangkok it turned out that the prior was almost twice the price of the latter. The choice of the starting point became obvious.

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Visa requirements forced us to start the journey with a flight to Bangkok

Second factor: weather

Digging deeper into the matter of the climate in Thailand, it turned out we should head south as soon as possible if we wanted to enjoy sunny weather and calm seas. The monsoon kicked in South East Asia earlier than in India, in May.

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If we wanted to enjoy calm water and blue sky on Thailand’s paradise islands, we had to hurry
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Knowing all  of these, we decided to turn the route all around. Our planned route looked at that point like this:
Bangkok+southern Thailand-Cambodia-Vietnam-Laos-northern Thailand-Myanmar.
After visiting Myanmar we were ready to fly back to Kolkata if necessary or cross the land border if only it was possible.

Thailand: learning the flexibility

Since Sayak required a Thai visa anyways and could get a visa with 2 months validity, I applied for one as well. I bought my visa even though as both a Polish and a British citizen I could stay in Thailand for a month for free. It made sense as the visa was inexpensive and I didn’t want to rush. The problem with obtaining a visa was that the Thai consulate required the return/onward FLIGHT tickets and a full itinerary of the trip. Thailand was a real pain in this respect: Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar were all far more relaxed regarding visa requirements.

Like everybody else, we made bookings which we could later cancel for free. Nevertheless, as we had to present a plausible route, I simply drafted our real Thai trip route. It wasn’t such a bad idea- we ended up cancelling just half of the bookings and keeping another half.

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We forsaked Khao Yai for Phuket to meet our good friend coming from Singapore

Our Thai route changed from the expected: Bangkok-Ko Tao- Ko Samui- Ko Lanta- Krabi- Ko Phi Phi- Phang Nga- Kao Sok- Bangkok- Kao Yai- Bangkok to (…) Krabi- Phang Nga- Kao Sok- Phuket- Bangkok just because we wanted to catch up with our friend for whom the flight to Phuket was the most convenient one.


Cambodia: just a bit of pre-planning

Thai visa requirements forced us to plan at least the starting point of our adventure in Cambodia. Reluctantly, I bought flights from Bangkok to Siem Reap (knowing that a direct bus connection on the same route existed). At that point, I still believed we’d be travelling and working for most of our journey to make it last longer. Therefore, I found a yoga- for- lodging exchange in Siem Reap and committed the first two weeks in Cambodia to this project. The rest of our stay remained unknown: we were planning on a day to day basis.

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The last thing I planned way in advance was a yoga exchange program in Siem Reap

Letting go of planning the journey

From Cambodia onward, I would start reading about the country we were going to when we were already on our way to that country. I would get just a general idea about the interesting sites and make a preliminary plan. The more in-depth research of a particular area was taking place every evening, while we were already in that area.
Many a time, we got influenced by other travellers’ or local people advice and changed our plans completely.

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Wet season in Cambodia completely changed our travel preferences

Sometimes it was the weather which made us change our decisions. For example, having experienced a very wet weather on the Cambodian coast, we decided to skip all the exciting parts of the country and stay near the Vietnamese border.

Vietnam: when you simply have to stay longer

The next major disruption to our overall plan was the irresistible charm of Vietnam. The Vietnamese visa was relatively expensive so we thought we could manage to see the whole country in one month, just like we did in Cambodia. This was a single biggest mistake of this trip.

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Vietnam really got us hooked

Vietnam was huge, fascinating, very cheap and we loved every bit of it. The month we spent in Vietnam was incredibly hectic, but even moving in a truly relentless pace we still couldn’t even get close to covering the entire country.

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We simply couldn’t miss Ha Giang province in the far north of Vietnam

Desperate to see the spectacular wonders of the north, we were ready to pay insane prices for a one month visa extension. Luckily, that was when our Couch Surfing host Thuy saved us with her advice to go to Laos first and come back to Vietnam in September. It totally made sense, even though we knew that would force us to take another flight to get out of Vietnam at the end of our second visit.

Laos: expect the unexpected

Spontaneity reached its peak in Laos, where we were literally changing our plans in a blink of an eye. Sometimes it wasn’t even our own decision- we simply had no choice! The transportation system during the monsoon season becomes very unreliable in that mountainous country: landslides are endemic and a low number of tourists decreases chances of finding minimum amount of passengers for a boat travel.

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Landslides in Laos in the monsoon season are simply inevitable

Our initial, very chilled out route: Muang Khua- Muang Ngoi-Nong Khiaw-Luang Prabang-Vang Vieng-Phonsavan-Vietnam changed into a crazy, haphazard: Muang Khua-Luang Namtha-Muang Sing-Luang Prabang-Nong Khiaw- Muang Ngoi- Luang Prabang-Phonsavan-Sam Neua-Vieng Xai-Phonsavan-Vietnam.

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Our route was Laos route involved lots of moving back and forth

Within the first few days of our stay, we had to give up plans of boat travel to Nong Khiaw since there was nobody else willing to share a boat with us. We made a decision to go to the remote Luang Namtha/Muang Sing area on the spot, inspired by an eccentric, elderly, French female solo traveller met at a tribal market in Pak Nam Noy.

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A French globetrotter who made us change the bus ticket and join her

We came back to Luang Prabang only to see a boat festival I found out about from the local tourist information centre.

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We wouldn’t know about the boat festival if not for the tourist info center in Luang Prabang

Finally, we had to make a long and tiring journey between Sam Neua and Phonsavan TWICE because the border crossing we wanted to use was closed due to landslides. You get an idea.

India dilemma

But the biggest nasty surprise was yet to come. When we were in Laos, we started wondering where would we fly from Hanoi. It was high time to buy flight tickets if we wanted to make it affordable. Sayak insisted on the idea of going back to Kolkata for Durga Puja festival- an absolute must-see which I hadn’t got a chance to experience.

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Durga Puja festival in Kolkata was a tempting option
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I preferred to go directly to Malaysia, especially because I had a chance to meet my friends in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. We found a compromise: we’d spend just two weeks in Malaysia and from there take a flight to Kolkata. So the final route was going to be: Thailand-Cambodia-Vietnam-Laos-Vietnam-Malaysia+Singapore

Malaysia: a huge visa mess

We booked the flights, went to Vietnam and had an amazing time there until the moment to apply for Sayak’s visa to Malaysia came. To our utter shock, it turned out Indian citizens could not apply for Malaysian visa from anywhere else than India, the country of residence or the countries neighbouring with Malaysia. The whole visa situation totally messed up two days of our stay in Vietnam.  and forced us to go to Hanoi, in a faint hope of sorting things out. In the end, Sayak had to fly back to Kolkata. Since re-booking the flights cost him a fortune, I decided to use the original tickets and travel to Malaysia and Singapore on my own.

I wanted to leave the best (and probably more difficult to visit) bits of Malaysia for another trip with Sayak, so instead of a initial, super hectic plan covering islands and jungles of penisular Malaysia, I covered just a tiny part of the country in a relaxed, city- and friends- oriented route: Kuala Lumpur- Singapore- Malacca- Kuala Selangor- Kuala Lumpur

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Backpacking through Malaysia turned into a two week long city break in Malaysia/Singapore

Back in Kolkata, we had time to reconsider and plan the second leg of this journey since it was only a layover, not an end. But that’s a material for another post…

Food for thought

As you can see, even with the best research you would come across situations and obstacles you simply wouldn’t be able to predict. You could get worked up about that and stay sullen that your perfect holidays/journey just got ruined or you could take it as it is and enjoy those unexpected twists. I very much enjoyed my short solo trip to Malaysia, was  super-happy to be back in Vietnam and even got a perverse thrill risking my life on the treacherous, muddy, mountain roads of Laos. It’s all part of the adventure and the more you allow yourself to be in the moment, the more you’re going to enjoy it. 

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