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Lessons from a backpacking adventure

10 ways riding solo changed my life

Before I departed on my overland trip through Asia last July, one of my greatest anticipations – aside from visiting many incredible countries – was to write this blog post at the very end. I was keen to know how this experience would change me. To justify it to the various curious people, I described this as an adventure “within” and a “character building experience”. In all honesty though, I hadn’t a clue what to expect.

While it undoubtedly changed me as a person, it definitely wasn’t in ways that I anticipated. The only reasonable expectation I had was that it would be the best few months of my life. And it was, unquestionably.

Here’s a few takeaways from solo backpacking adventure that has influenced my day-to-day life today.

1. Stay cool

Solo backpacking is one big problem solving exercise. Especially so when done on a budget and over a long period of time.

Certain problems can be anticipated, like determining where to sleep tomorrow, or finding the cheapest train ticket out of town. Some appear out of the blue, like staying safe after getting within a hairs width of being mugged in Moscow. Others can be downright frustrating, such as attempting to recover a credit card munched up by a stray ATM in Ulaan Baatar or just trying to get from A to B in congested places like Hanoi or Bangkok. Whether the stomach rumbled or I was in need of a good night’s sleep, it became necessary to clear the haze of frustration and irritation to unmask the solution.

With plenty of opportunities for practice, I managed to find a way to focus past the emotional hurdles. Instead of suffering a meltdown and cursing at myself, I started to rationalise problems with perspective, asking, is this actually something I need to stress about? Arranging a “pre-mortem” of things that could go wrong and making it a priority to plan adequately helped ensure I arrived home safely and with virtually everything I left with.

It’s impossible to eliminate problems, but today I deal with them rationally without getting flustered like I used to. Even when things don’t go my way, I’m prepared to expect losses, or just let them slide. As they say, “you win some and you lose some”.

2. Take it slow

This one I already knew beforehand, but my backpacking adventure reinforced it further.

It takes a few days to fully appreciate the inner workings of a destination. To rush around from one place to another makes the experience stressful rather than enjoyable, and that defeats the whole purpose of the trip. I’m sure I could have spent a day less in Siem Reap, but then I’d have missed out on seeing the incredible carvings at the Banteay Srei temple. Equally there were places I should have planned to spend longer, like Lake Baikal and Mongolia, but that’s a takeaway for next time.

I hate to bring up clichés, but choosing “quality over quantity” is a key consideration to pacing a travel itinerary, and life in general. It’s not worth chasing ‘good’ memories – these will all fade away over time. 1 ‘incredible’ memory beats 10 good ones any day, so these days I spend time focusing on achieving exactly that.

The slow pace of my trip came out of acceptance there is only so much that can be accomplished each day. The same principal applies for me today. I’ve realised the value of small, incremental progress to reach my goals – even if it takes time to get there.

3. Trust wisely

Trust is a precious commodity and it shouldn’t be extended to everyone.

Being in foreign countries less safe than my own called for staying alert, taking precautions and carefully weighing up situations. Especially after my experience in Hanoi, I stopped reading and hearing things at face value and approached situations with polite suspicion. This attitude saved me much frustration and a heap of cash on a number of occasions. It’s a fine line to tread when it comes to suspecting people versus enjoying genuine hospitality, and I found myself on the wrong side of it too often. But I improved with time.

Above trusting others, I found it was also important to trust myself, specifically my instinct. Some of the greatest dangers I faced were entirely self-created, whether it was activities I embarked on or the places that lured me there. Travelling made me more in-tune with my risk appetite. When I was alone deep in the jungle, my instinct told me to find a way out rather than venture onwards. And, despite the constant lure of hiring a motorbike through Vietnam, my instinct told me to wait until I found the safest place to travel on two wheels.

Solo backpacking made me more streetwise, and better prepared to avoid trouble.

4. Lower expectations

One issue I openly admitted to having before my trip with was having sky high expectations of everything, whether it was the next concert or the travel destination. More often than not, in these scenarios I left feeling underwhelmed having expected the time of my life.

I’ve realised it’s impossible to see and experience everything in the world, even if travelling was a full time job. The constant thought of the opportunity cost – what I could instead be doing and possibly enjoying even more, fizzled away. I stopped reminiscing about the experiences I did miss out on, like trekking through Sa Pa in north Vietnam, but rather savoured the other opportunities in their place, like sailing through the floating markets in Can Tho. Reducing expectations also helped soften the blow when faced with nightmarish situations (that overnight 4th class Chinese railway journey comes to mind here).

Lowering my expectations was achieved partly by remembering how lucky I was to travel in the first place, and not being greedy and chasing more. Towards the end of my trip, any expectations of further thrills were absent. I had such a great time early on that it didn’t matter if the remainder was completely mundane. Of course, it turned out to be the opposite which made those experiences all the sweeter.

I still have some work to do on this one, but already feel much more easy going. Lowering expectations is about treasuring what we’re lucky to see, and making it count.

5. Give back

Having such an incredible time made me feel guilty for taking great memories but not leaving anything in return. This kept playing at the back of my mind. I felt compelled to do charity at a local level, whether it was helping the elderly cross streets or giving to the homeless.

With the world unfortunately headed towards environmental and ecological crisis, one of the motivators for this trip was to see some of the planet’s last remaining sights before they disappear, like the rainforests in Malaysia. At times it was emotionally difficult to stumble across scenes of environmental degradation, pollution, and animal cruelty. Switching to a vegan diet was spurred on unintentionally, but expedited after realising the impact of livestock farming on the planet. Other choices like paying extra to join eco-friendly activities and avoiding exploitive practices were not always cheap or easy, but wholeheartedly worth paying a premium for. I can no longer remain ignorant about such issues, so instead champion my own morals through what I consume and causes I support.

At times this proved to be a moral dilemma, as if my small contribution was insignificant in the wider context. As much as I’d like to, it’s impossible to change the world alone. But in doing everything possible to change myself, like minimising needless and destructive consumption, then I can live at peace that I tried my best. As Queen Elizabeth II mentioned in her 2016 Christmas speech, “the cumulative impact of thousands of small acts of goodness can be bigger than we imagine”. Our choices to do good are never made in vain.

6. Spend smart

When given the chance, it’s surprising how much money can buy aboard. It’s also surprising how unconsciously it can be squandered at home.

Parting with luxury was the most effective way to save money, in particular swapping hotels for hostels and choosing public transport over tourist tickets. Eventually living on a budget became a lifestyle choice rather than a conscious effort – and it didn’t even have to come at the expense of my enjoyment. Avoiding tours for the most part and pursuing activities myself ended up being far cheaper and more of an adventure than getting someone else to do the hard work for me. Treasuring the simple things like walking around parks or through museums didn’t need to break the bank either.

Appreciating money meant spending it ethically too. More and more throughout my trip I moved away from purchasing from multinational corporations but instead from the smaller, independent outfits.  It felt better to reward the entrepreneurial ‘little guys’, and savour the local produce, which was often better in quality too.

Living on a budget also made me more opportunistic, like calling up guesthouses to negotiate better rates than the online price, or receiving free three course meal at a luxury 5* hotels. Over time, though, I realised there was a line to be drawn when it came to opportunism and negotiation. I was constantly reminded how greediness is fuelling much of the injustice in the world, and it became important to consider the needs of others and not always chase more for myself.

Today I’ve never appreciated the value of money more because I’ve seen what people are prepared to do to earn it. I’ve become hypercritical about every pound I part with. Can I wait a few months to watch a film online rather than cough up to visit the cinema? Do I really need to head to Starbucks for my morning beverage versus making it myself? My mantra to eliminate all spending that doesn’t add genuine value to my life brings me nicely on to the next lesson.

7. Cut the crap

Let’s face it, we’re the luckiest people in the history of the planet. Even the fact that I’m writing and you’re reading this article on a modern piece of technology makes us more fortunate than most of the global population.  Yet, somehow, many in the western world aren’t happy. Studies show mental illness and suicides are far higher than the less affluent in the East. So if our needs and wants are being fulfilled and we’re still not satisfied, then something is clearly wrong.

We’ve been led to believe in today’s society that owning more makes us prosperous, as if these material objects ignite pleasure within us. My stay with the nomadic Mongolian family inside a small yurt in the vast wilderness was a wake up call. Possessing only the basic essentials to survive, the father risked life and limb each day on horseback just put food on the table, yet his everlasting smile told me what it really means to be content. The mantra of “less is more” was re-enforced at my stay at Ganesha Eco Lodge in Kampot. The eccentric French owner explained how he stripped out unnecessary material needs and reverted completely back to basics.

While I don’t plan on walking around outside half naked like him, these days I try and ensure that everything I use and wear at home fits inside my backpack – even if that means just stocking a couple of shirts in my wardrobe. After all, I had the time of my life with just a few clothes on my back. My home possessions hardly bring a comparable sense of freedom or happiness.

Having donated most of my clothes to charity, I now feel much more light-headed without the burden of so many things dragging me down.

8. Live for today

In the years prior to my trip, my mind had become rather unsettled. It had become a challenge to focus on the present and I suffered from overthinking about where life was leading me. All too often my thoughts would wander far into the future, and I’d be consumed by the thought of not achieving my aspirations.

Setting off on an adventure without a detailed itinerary, without a clue where I’d end up, was a parallel conundrum. But adopting a mindset to achieve my short term goals helped overcome this. My thought horizon shifted to become only the next 2-3 days, as the priority became to enjoy each day as it arrived. Longer term thoughts, such as the route through the next country, were still of importance but relegated towards the back of my mind. Simply ‘going with the flow’ removed a great burden inside of me. I no longer succumbed to the mental baggage of all the weeks or months ahead – not even the thought of going back home afterwards.

Life for me today has become about making the most of the current moment, and treasuring the journey as opposed to the end destination. Tomorrow may never come, so it’s pointless to spend valuable mental energy thinking too much about it. Rather, it’s better to live each day like the last, and shape behaviours today to maximise chance of success in the future. It took the sound words of advice from a representative at Singapore National Gallery to teach me this lesson.

9. Feel the fear and do it anyway

One repeated theme on this trip was how I kept surprising myself in a number of ways. Amongst other things, I never knew I could intentionally endure 4 days in a third class rail compartment; canyon down a waterfall; or ride a horse or motorbike through the wilderness. Eventually I became addicted to the thrill out of doing something new.

Even during times of struggle, when my physical capabilities deteriorated after so much time on the move, an unknown source of inner strength kept me going. There were days where I slept starving having eaten nothing but crisps and nuts, yet somehow I managed to stick to a plant-based diet and appreciate it all the more when a great meal was readily available. The adventure ignited a source of fortitude that I never knew existed, and I can genuinely say there was never a point during my trip where I wanted to throw in the towel and head home.

For so long I had under appreciated my own capabilities, and it’s something a lot of us are guilty of. Fear is only an invisible, self-created mental barrier stopping us from doing anything. Whenever I met this barrier prior to doing anything out of the ordinary, I’d listen to the voice in my head whispering, “just do it”.

10. Pursue happiness 

Travelling taught me what happiness really is. It sounds strange, but it’s true.

Without time limitations and only the visa stamps in my passport holding me back, the feeling of true liberation became a joyful feeling quite hard to describe. The constraints of my diet, budget, inexperience and fitness meant that this wasn’t a holiday in the classic sense, but a tremendous learning opportunity. My adrenaline rush came as this giddy feeling of not knowing what lied ahead, and it kept me motivated to soldier on.

Travel became an intensely personal experience. I didn’t read any travel guides as I wanted to remain in my own pursuit of happiness, not anyone else’s. When the time did come to unwind, allocating time for reflection was a source of liberation in itself. Whether at meditation retreats in Thailand or on beaches in Vietnam; spending so much time alone allowed me to discover my inner self and accept that personality.

My proudest achievement on this trip was mustering the courage to doing it in the first place, despite jeopardising my career, health and safety. I was committed to try something new in the hope of bettering myself, and I’m glad that was the result. Hopefully this attitude of reaching out of my comfort zone sticks with me forever.

Above all, I’ve realised life’s too short to spend time worrying over the things that don’t matter: what we own, what people think of us, and what tomorrow may bring. Having the time of my life taught me to make the remainder equally fulfilling – to do what I love, and what makes me happy.

That’s all that matters in the end.

Thank you

In the weeks following my trip, despite reverting back to my old life, I was surprised to find a cheerful smile still on my face. I’m thoroughly enjoying home comforts, like my own bedroom and a washing machine (versus a plastic sack for my laundry!). The visible relief on the face of my parents of having their son home was an additional welcome pleasure too, as understandably the trip had become a prolonged nightmare for them.

I can only look back with a great sense of humility, and remember how incredibly fortunate I’ve been to embark on this experience having seen and done things I never thought I would. I’d like to finish by thanking you for following me on this adventure, and putting up with occasional ramblings. It’s a pleasure to write these stories and I can’t wait to share many more in the future.

-S

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