Best travel apps for backpackers

apps As a techy chick, many people asked me what sort of gadgets I was bringing along for a four-month trip. I could have brought lots of things but I only planned to bring my smart phone (no phone service, just as a wifi access device). This response surprised quite a few people and was followed up by tons of questions: Don’t you need a Kindle to read books? Don’t you need a laptop to Skype home? Don’t you need a USB drive with your important documents? Nope, don’t need any of it.

Here’s how to get by with just a deactivated smart phone and a few sweet apps:

1. Find a place to stay – HostelWorld and Agoda
Both HostelWorld and Agoda allow you to search, price check, and book accommodation through the app. No local phone calls, no mobile-unfriendly websites – all you need is the app and a wifi signal. Typically, I would book 1 day in advance or day-of so I had plenty of flexibility. It helped when you arrived in a new city to have an address for a tuk-tuk driver. HostelWorld works great for hostels and Agoda works great for hotels (when you need to splurge for a nice shower).

Get HostelWorld for Android or iPhone

Get Agoda for Android or iPhone

2. Store your important documents offline – Google Drive
When traveling alone, access to a few documents provided some peace of mind. I wanted to store scans of my passport and the phone numbers for my debit and credit cards in case any of them were lost or stolen. I also wanted to store my visa for Vietnam, my flight details, addresses for postcards home, notes from other travelers, etc. Most importantly, I wanted access to everything offline so I wasn’t dependent on a wifi signal. Google Drive does all this and more.

Get Google Drive for Android or iPhone

3. Call home – Viber
Viber makes international calls and text messages for free, all over a wifi signal – genius. Call quality wasn’t the best, but it was a great way to make short phone calls to stay in touch. The user you’re calling must also have the app installed, so this doesn’t work for local phone calls. A paid Skype account is still the best option for that.

Get Viber for Android or iPhone

4. Read up on your destination offline – WikiTravel.org + Pocket
WikiTravel.org is the best travel guide you could ask for. The information is up-to-date and updated by fellow travelers. I used the “Get In” sections to get my bearings in a new place and avoid common scams. Pocket is an app that converts webpages into documents that can be read offline. I used Pocket to store WikiTravel.org pages on my future destintations so I could read them offline while I was on a bus or at the airport. The combination was a life saver!

Get Pocket for Android or iPhone

5. Read ebooks – Aldiko Book Reader
Aldiko Book Reader reads .epub files all from your smart phone. I didn’t want to deal with the hassle of charging another device like a Kindle or any other e-reader, so I opted for Aldiko. At first, I wasn’t sure if I would like the small page size, but I ended up really liking it – the text was large enough and a small device was easy to hold in one hand.

Get Aldiko for Android

6. Negotiate like a boss – Easy Currency Converter
When you show up in town with a backpack on your back, all the street vendors see dollar signs written all over you. A quick currency calculation can save you some moola when you start negotiating for goods/services. I used Easy Currency Converter, but any currency app will do. I liked this one in particular because it updated the exchange rates in real time (with a wifi signal) and it saved your favorite countries for quick reference.

Get Easy Currency Converter for Android

Fellow travelers: Have I missed any?

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Follow up: I must pack light… very light.

packlightI began this adventure with a mission – pack light. It made everything easier: less weight to carry, less to worry about if my backpack gets stolen, less attractive to thieves, easier to keep track of everything, easier to lift onto the top bunk. However, packing light is easier said than done.

Check out my original packing list to see what I brought on a four-month trip. Now that I’m back, this is what I would have changed:

I should have brought…

  • a long sleeved shirt
    In conservative areas I felt more comfortable when I was covered up. I brought a jacket, but it didn’t breathe in the humidity. A light long-sleeved shirt was perfect.
  • a lighter
    Lighters are great for seeing down dark alleys, getting leeches off you, cutting extra strings off clothing, etc.
  • Tiger Balm
    This was the only product that soothed my bug bites enough for me to forget about them for an hour or two. An ice cube followed by some Tiger Balm = bliss.
  • more Q-Tips
    I tried my hardest to find Q-Tip brand cotton swabs abroad and failed miserably. I’m particular about my cotton swabs, so if you are too, stock up before you leave!

I shouldn’t have brought…

  • reusable water bottle
    It was very difficult to find safe drinking water for refilling in Asia. Unfortunately, bottled water is the safest option and it is readily available everywhere. I ended up shipping my bottle back because it was under-utilized and took up valuable space.
  • water purification tablets
    I brought these in case I got in a water pinch but never needed to use them.
  • cell phone
    I had intended to use this to make local phone calls. I was able to meet all my needs with my smart phone instead.

I’m SO glad I brought…

  • sarong
    I absolutely LOVED my sarong. Read my dedication post >
  • sleep sheet
    Whenever I wasn’t 100% certain about the cleanliness of my bed, I busted out my silk sleep sheet. It covered my pillow and was the perfect cocoon to slip into. I knew it was clean and it kept me cool during hot nights.
  • argon oil
    I felt like a bit of a princess when I packed a fancy hair product, but I’m glad I did. Ocean water, sun exposure and wind really damaged my hair. When I started using my argon oil again it looked and felt much healthier again.
  • face moisturizer
    I also felt silly bringing face moisturizer. But, when I got out of the shower and still didn’t feel totally clean, the scent of my face moisturizer brought me to a clean state of mind. Little “luxuries” from home can really make a difference.
  • hand sanitizer
    In some areas, you’re lucky to get a sink in the bathroom. When you do get a sink, you’re even luckier if there is soap available. Stay healthy, bring hand sanitizer.
  • watch
    Whether you’re catching a train or meeting a travel buddy for dinner, you always need to know what time it is. In many situations, busting out a smart phone to check the time is not the best move (clear display of wealth in a poor country). Much easier to glace at your wrist.

In the end, you don’t need nearly as much as you think. Packing light is the way to go!

Travel buddies are joy

When I bought my plane ticket for this trip, I only bought one. Just one ticket, just for me, goin’ solo. As an extroverted person, I was worried about how I’d fare when spending a significant amount of time alone. As it turns out, I can count the number of days I was completely alone on one hand (and I was gone for 116 days!).

This post is dedicated to all my travel buddies, who I had the pleasure of spending time with both long and short term. We explored the world together – saw the sights, rented motorbikes, swam in the ocean, ate delicious food, soaked it all in. We swapped life stories. We shared experiences I’ll never forget. Even though we shared only a few weeks or days together, I’ll cherish those moments forever.

Here’s to you:

Travel buddies from home

  • Mandy (4 weeks in Malaysia, Thailand, Laos, N. Vietnam)
  • Mom & Dad (5 weeks in Australia, New Zealand)

Travel buddies on the road

Long-term:

  • Celine from France (2 weeks in Vietnam)
  • Mack from the U.S. (10 days in Cambodia)
  • Liberty & Lisa from the U.S. and Canada (2 weeks in Bali)
  • Sam from Australia (2 weeks in Gilis/Bali)

Short-term:

Amy (Scouse), Anne, Argo, Bianca, Brian, Chris, Danielle, David, Dominika, Duhwee, Jane, Jen, Jennifer, Ketut, Leona, Marlotte, Melinda, Melissa, Michele, Mike (The Gov), Mulray, Muria, Nerine, Ong, Rory, Sara, Tola, Tuomas, Walker, Wilkie, and all the ones I’ve forgotten!

The sarong – a traveler girl’s best friend

I had read and listened to tons of advice before I left on my trip. One of my takeaways – Buy a sarong. I wanted to buy one in SEA so it was one of the things I didn’t pack. Although I did include it in my original packing list.

I found the perfect one at the Central Market in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. It had a cool traditional pattern on it and could be dressed up or down. I knew I would use it, but I had no idea I’d use it on a daily basis!

Uses for sarongs while traveling:

  • Skirt for casual wear, can be worn long or short
  • Dress for a beach day, tie behind the neck
  • Scarf/shawl when it gets cooler at night
  • Blanket for chilly bus/plane/boat rides or hostels with thin blankets
  • Shawl to cover your shoulders at temples and conservative regions
  • Shawl to dress up your outfit and get into a fancy bar when you only have backpacker clothes
  • Headscarf for windy boat rides
  • Umbrella for unexpected rain
  • Towel to lay out at the beach, at the pool, or at a park
  • Towel to dry your hands when there are no paper towels in the bathroom
  • Laundry bag, when tied up around dirty clothing, it holds ~2 kilos of laundry

What no one tells you – Nap time

When I left for this trip I was planning to see temples, swim in the ocean and eat weird food. But sometimes when you travel you experience things you weren’t really expecting to see and no one really mentions.

One of these phenomenons is “nap time.” Across SEA I’ve seen many people sleeping on the job in public places — everyone from desk attendants at a hostel, to vendors at a street market, to tuk-tuk drivers. In the States I’ll occasionally see a cab driver dozing between customers, but never to the extent I’ve noticed here. It makes me wonder if they are napping because it’s more socially acceptable or because they’re simply exhausted.

When I encountered a sleeping employee, I’d make a little noise in hopes it would wake them for a bit. One time, Mandy & I wandered into a massage parlor in Langkawi, Malaysia. We called “hello” when we didn’t see anyone. Mandy started to peek into the next room when I noticed the desk attendant was napping under the desk just inches from where we were standing. We quietly snuck out without disturbing her. In other cases a neighboring street vendor would wake them up if a customer was browsing through their merchandise. After all, you can’t make a sale if you’re asleep!

These photos are dedicated to all the sleepy heads out there counting sheep at work:

Hotel receptionist nap time

Hotel receptionist nap time

Double nap time

Double nap time

Nap time at a fruit stand

Nap time at a fruit stand

Taxi driver nap time

Taxi driver nap time

Tourist nap time

Tourist nap time

Where’s your sticker? – Transportation in SEA

She's got a yellow sticker - boat access granted.

She’s got a yellow sticker – boat access granted.

This was during our buss ride from hell, but don't worry, we had orange ribbons, so we got on the bus.

This was during our bus ride from hell, but don’t worry, we had orange ribbons, so we got on the bus.

The sticker says "Sok" - bus access granted.

The sticker says “Sok” – bus access granted.

This sticker means I can cross the border!

This sticker means I can cross the border!

They wrote "bus" our hands - we definitely got on that bus.

They wrote “bus” our hands – we definitely got on that bus.

“Where’s your sticker? How they know you go to Koh Lipe together?” our perplexed hotel manager asked. We told her we were going to Koh Lipe, but we didn’t have a yellow sticker. She looked at us like we got scammed and wished us luck. Stickers, ribbons, notes on your hand, and little slips of paper are how you get around SEA. Without them you don’t get on the boat/bus. Luckily, in this case we arrived at the travel agent and stickers were distributed. We got stickers, we got on the boat.

One of the more interesting incidents was our journey to and from Khao Sok Forest. We got on this mini-bus like we’ve gotten on many buses this trip – wait in the lobby and a driver will arrive an announce your destination. You show him your slip of paper and hope that it gets you to the right spot. We drove around town picking up other travelers from their hostels and then we were dropped off at a bus depot.

As we got off the bus a guy stuck stickers on us that said “Sok” and gave no further instruction. He pulled away and we were left at a crowded bus depot with other confused looking travelers. We wait there, but the bus is late. Everyone’s stickers said something different, so we walked around and found other people with stickers that said “Sok.” Our new mission was to stay with them.

We watch the process unfold. A guy in a Hawaiian shirt is the only one that knows what’s going on. Buses pull up and he yells a destination. It’s pretty hectic and loud, so not everyone hears him. He walks around and reads everyone’s stickers to extract the travelers that didn’t hear the announcement. He points at them and then points to a bus. Everything seems to work out.

On our way out of Khao Sok we may have gotten on the wrong mini-bus at the start. We had a slip of paper and the driver took it, but when he dropped everyone at the pier, we told him (again) that we needed to go to the train station. He dropped us at a local bus depot where we waited, trusting that it would work out. The bus drove clear across town (~45 min ride). We didn’t have a sticker or a slip anymore. We crossed our fingers it would work out. And then it did! We arrived at the train station and bought an overnight train ticket.

So far we’ve magically gotten everywhere we needed to go and trusted that it would work out. Trust is always part of traveling, no matter how far away you are. You trust the pilot to make a safe landing. You trust other drivers on the road to stay in their lane. You’ve just gotta trust that everything will work out. Traveling in SEA just requires a little bit more.

Meditation challenge – Trip from Thailand to Laos

Meditation is a tool I’ve used to help calm the mind. Oftentimes, I escape to a place like Koh Lipe – beautiful scenery, gentle waves curling into the sand. Whether to contemplate something specific, or to just relax, it’s always been an effective way to relieve stress.

Meditating on a beautiful beach is easy because you’re already in an ideal place. Meditating after a stressful day at work is a little tougher because you’ve gotta transport yourself to that ideal place. Meditating on a rickety overnight bus with no reclining seats that is tearing down a bumpy, winding, unpaved road is an entirely different experience all together.

The beginning of the adventure turned out alright. A comfortable mini-bus picked us up from our hostel on time and took us to the Thai/Lao border. We were stamped out of Thailand and shuffled on to a small boat to cross the Mekong River. We reveled in the few moments that we were stamped out of everywhere and stamped in to nowhere.

Once we hit the shore we were promptly stamped in to Laos! We hopped on a tuk-tuk that took us to the bus station. This is where our second comfortable bus with reclining seats would take us to Luang Prabang – a 13 hour journey, 6pm-7am.

This is an example of the bus the travel agent told us we’d be on. Fancy, huh?:
P1080792

We get to the bus station and there is only one bus there. It’s a small, older-looking bus with no reclining seats that was packed with people. It had three seats on one side, one on the other and then an additional un-cushioned seat folded out into the aisle. At that point, I was thankful I actually got a cushioned seat. The reality set in quickly though – we’re about to spend the next 13 hours on this thing.

This is the bus we got:
P1080790

By 2am, my nostrils are full of dust. The bus is not totally sealed from the outside, so a thin layer of dirt is all over me. The road is so bumpy I’m bucked out of my seat every so often – not a slight bump, an inches out of my seat bump. The road is winding up and down the mountainside, the full moon casting an ominous glow over the landscape. We pull over a few times for the driver to check on the busted front tire. There’s really nothing left to do at this point but to grit my teeth and wait until the journey ends.

I decided it could be quite possibly the most challenging meditation experience of my life. How could I let this opportunity go? (Keep in mind how deliriously tired I was at the time and this game might make more sense.) I closed my eyes and went to Koh Lipe. I timed my breathing with the tempo of the waves. I felt my feet sink into the cool sand. I felt the slight breeze on my cheeks. And I disappeared.

Five hours later, we arrived in Luang Prabang. Although it was quite the challenging journey, we made it safe and sound. Plus, I was able to transport myself out of my body in a way I’ve never done before. I’ll take it.