I Couldn’t Do That! – (Yes You Can!)
Updated: Jul 4, 2021
This is one of the most common reactions we have heard after explaining our current life situation and is perfectly understandable considering everything. But you do not have to completely abandon your current home as we did in order to experience some faraway destination up close and personal.
First, a little background for new acquaintances. Susie and I have always been adventurous, like to travel and share a deep love of water and warm weather. At this point in our lives our parents are gone, and our children are living their lives in other cities & states with no grandkids in sight. We spent 15 wonderful years in Central Florida with our kids & dogs, but we were ready to move on. So this year we both retired, sold the house, kept as much stuff as we could fit in an 8’ x 10’ storage unit (or foist off on our kids), put on our backpacks and took off!
I visited Hong Kong 35 years ago and it was a remarkable experience, always tugging at the back of my mind to return. We have always valued travel experiences with the kids over tangible items and spent 6 months traveling with them in a camper in the US when they were young. We hauled them to Central American and the Caribbean many times. These experiences plus many other stories of traveling and diving in Southeast Asia led to choosing Bali in Indonesia as our first destination. Two- and one-half months later we have visited many islands in Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand and have been having a wonderful time! No regrets!
You may not be ready to give up your home and become a vagabond like us, although it is certainly a nice feeling not to worry about securing the house for the next hurricane, fixing the lawnmower or how to pay for a new roof. But almost anyone can travel to a crazy, faraway place if you really want to.
“Isn’t it difficult to communicate with people in other countries?”
We are so lucky that we were born in the United States! For many reasons, but for this context the fact that English is the de facto language of the world. Almost everyone we have encountered that is exposed to tourism can speak a little English and some are fluent. I feel embarrassed that I cannot speak any other language, despite several valiant attempts at Espanol.
In some of the smaller towns there are folks that only speak their language, especially older people. This has been frustrating a few times when trying to discuss a complicated subject like SIM cards in phones (more on that later). For major transactions like booking rooms, flights and meals it has been smooth sailing. There are translator apps available, but we have not found one we like so far.
“Aren’t you worried about your personal safety?”
In the 2-1/2 months of travel so far, we have never experienced a moment of anxiety related to any criminal or nefarious activity. Doesn’t mean it is impossible, and we have not spent any time in the larger cities other than Singapore. Almost no one owns a gun except police. We would certainly be cautious about walking around at night in many areas of large cities, such as Jakarta or Kuala Lumpur just as we would Miami or New York. And with all the traveler stories we have heard from others backpacking SE Asia, we haven’t heard of a single theft or problems regarding safety. On the contrary…we have actually heard over and over of locals going above and beyond to help anyone who needs it. I had an earache and the manager of our resort called the clinic to speak to them in Thai to explain what we needed and that we were heading over. Everyone has been amazingly helpful!
In all the smaller towns and villages of Indonesia we felt perfectly safe walking anywhere day or night. This will certainly change in different countries but in general use common sense. There is more crime in the big cities. Keep up to date with current affairs in countries of interest. We will probably not be visiting Iran or Afghanistan anytime soon.
This is a good point to emphasize that most people everywhere are decent, good people that want the same things in life that you and I do. They have been born into different circumstances and are doing their best for themselves and their family. One of our main objectives for traveling is connecting with all these different folks, locals and tourists, and sharing stories and ideas. This is one of the main reasons we like traveling “a la carte” instead of a cruise or pre-packaged tour – getting to really interact with others of varying cultures and socioeconomic status. We became good friends with a family in North Bali who invited us to a major Hindu celebration at their village, and it was amazing. We are now all Facebook Friends!
“How do you know what to pack”
This is going to be different for everyone, but our criteria were to limit ourselves to one small and one large backpack each, in order to avoid checking bags. Susie did a lot of research on different backpacks which was complicated by different restrictions on various airlines. Then comes the real hard part – deciding what to take and what to leave behind! And by the way, this is a never-ending task.
Clothing will be partially dictated by your destination and since ours was the tropics it meant mostly light weight clothing. We hate to be cold, so a few long-sleeved items came along as well. After laying out all the chosen items on my bed it did not take long to realize only about 25% would fit!
So for me: 1 swim trunks, 2 shorts, 4 t-shirts, 1 jeans, 4 short sleeve “dress” shirts, warm vest, long denim shirt, 2 hats, 2 sunglasses, slides, sneakers & socks. Toiletries bag. Tech bag with Surface Pro laptop, mouse, cables, 4-way adaptor, USB charger plug, Kindle & iPhone. And a folder full of various papers & copies like passports, birth certificates, driver’s license, etc.
We had a 5th (large) bag with us at first and ended up leaving it and a few things here and there until our first plane flight, when it was really crunch time! Since then we have continued to shed or substitute items. No more jeans or vest for me. Both ball caps are gone replaced by one large brim mashable hat, down to 2 t-shirts which I rarely wear as cotton is too hot, and I picked up a pair of lightweight “convertible” pants with zip-off legs.
Most places have a connection with a laundry service which we have used a few times. Probably cost about $3 for a “full load”. At one homestay in Bali we saw some women out in back washing clothes (likely ours) in some buckets. Whatever works. Many times at the end of the day I have washed out my shirt and hung out to dry. Most places have some type of dryer rack on the porch.
“How could you possibly afford that?”
This is an area that will vary widely depending on your means and needs. There is a huge difference in planning for financing a four-week vacation vs traveling the rest of your life, so we’ll skip that. We have a suggested monthly budget in mind and know that some months will be over & others under.
Transportation is a major expense, particularly long-haul flights from US to Asia. Once over here, short flights, boat trips and road transport are expenses. Susie is a master at research and planning, and we would most likely be broke already if I was doing it all! There are many online sites and apps to look up flights and fares, so you must do your homework here to get the best price. When ready to book after days of research, be sure to use a different browser or computer because most airlines know you have been looking and will raise your fare.
Our Very General Guidelines for lodging are finding rooms under $50 that have aircon, private bath, hot water, WiFi & breakfast. But we have stayed in places from $20 to $100 depending on circumstances. Most are really nice. And a couple have been outstanding including the one we just left this morning. Susie found a deal for 3 nights at Mali Sunrise Resort on Ko Lipe in Thailand because it is the end of low season. First-class rooms, grounds & service, with gorgeous huge pool and restaurant on the beach. Gigantic room with HD TV, fridge, safe, lovely bath, wood cabinets & desk, & vaulted teak ceiling. Rates triple today and go up even more close to Christmas! We moved to the other side of the island to a smaller but nice room for about $55 per night. We `ALWAYS try to be directly ON the beach.
Susie is a Master at this and uses a variety of sites for room search, like booking.com and agoda.com. She has found that many places will give a better price online than in person, even when you ask them directly. Go figure.
This is just the opposite of what I have found for transport and activities. I looked up “fast boat” service from Bali to Nusa Penida – about a 30-mile trip. The online sites quoted about $80 each for auto transport to the port and the boat ride. Our homestay host arranged it for just over half that much! Several other experiences yielded similar results – booking though your host usually was much cheaper than reserving online.
People got to eat! Yes – most folks like to eat every day – maybe even multiple times a day! None of the places we have stayed so far have had kitchens, but they are available. Since we have not stayed in one place more than a week so far it seems like too much to accumulate groceries. Most have a small fridge and coffee pot – one had a hot plate. So eating out is the rule. We try to find places to stay with an included breakfast, have a light snack during the day and then find some place for dinner.
Just like at home the prices for meals out varies widely and can quickly double or triple if you add alcohol. Throughout Indonesia there are many places serving typical local dishes of rice or noodles for $3 to $5, and fish or shrimp for a bit more. Fancier dishes can be more and fancier restos can be much more. Many western dishes are available including burgers, pizza ($10) & pasta. Coffee and soft drinks from $1 to $2. Roadside stands sell chicken satay for $1. We can get a good full, cooked dinner in a restaurant anywhere from $5/2 people to $15/2 people. That is our usual.
Cocktails were expensive – around $10 to $12 for call drinks. Bintang, the local beer was cheap. Even liquor in the stores was expensive. A “fifth” of Bacardi was $85! Susie was always on the hunt for a decent bottle of Chardonnay under $20. (Update – liquor is cheap in Malaysia!)
The other major expense on holiday is the various activities and attractions around different areas. If we just sat and read beside the pool all day, we could save a ton of money. Except then would probably just spend it on Pina Coladas. Think about what you would like to see and do once you have arrived.
This usually means another mode of transport to go hither and yon to visit temples, landmarks, waterfalls, beaches and so on. Many people rent motor scooters and scoot themselves around. Around $5 to $10 per day. For some reason we have been forbidden to do this by our daughter, even though we got some one day on Nusa Lembongan and had a great time.
There are various means of transport in different places. Taxis, small vans & trucks called “Bemos” in some places, horse drawn carriages in the Gilis and sidecars on scooters here on Ko Lipe. We hired a private driver/car for several days on Nusa Penida who took us all over the island and waited while we looked at beaches & waterfalls. About $35 per day. Malaysia uses GRAB (their UBER) and it is quick and efficient!
Most attractions have a small fee. Even the most popular “public” beaches on Nusa Penida charged a fee to get in the parking lot. Maybe $1. One major exception I heard was some of the most popular large mountains were charging a lot – about $500 per person to hike up Mt Kinabalu on Borneo!
Susie is connected to many, many travel Face Book sites. She spends time reading and connecting to other travelers through these various sites. Some are backpacker sites and some are retiree traveling sites, but all help to enrich where to go and what to do. And people are soooo kind and friendly, always ready to help and make suggestions.
It is difficult for me to imagine how folks managed to travel the world 100 years ago without cell phones and the Internet. Maybe anyone wealthy enough to travel abroad could use a telegraph? Luckily there are many free and inexpensive ways to research trips, book rooms and flights and stay in touch with friends back home.
Finding free WiFi is the biggest money saver, is a requirement for almost all of our lodging, and has not been a problem at all throughout SE Asia. Many cafes and stores also offer free WiFi, and some may have much faster download speeds than your room. Just the ticket if you can’t wait to download the new Downton Abbey movie.
Once you’re hooked up there is a plethora of free apps for ride hailing, room & flight booking, expense accounting, etc. Some of our favorites are Grab, Gojek, Skyscanner, Momondo & TrailWallet. Maps.me is a great app for finding your way around and works without an Internet connection if you have downloaded the local map already.
GlobeConvert is very handy for calculating currency conversions and is always current if you are connected. We both love to read and the era of carrying along an extra bag of books is over for us. Our Florida library cards are still active so we use Libby, Hoopla & Overdrive to borrow eBooks that we can read on our Kindles or iPhones.
When we need to check on our kids, we typically use Facetime – a free audio and/or video app for iPhone to iPhone. Other free services are Skype, WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger. What’s App is free and how they communicate here.
Sometimes a regular voice only phone call is required, or a text from “The Bank Back In The States” to verify you are really using an ATM in Timbuktu. We signed up for a plan from T-Mobile that allows 30 texts or phone calls for $3/month – mainly to preserve our US phone numbers – and receive those confirmation texts. Then we buy a local SIM card to enable communication when out of WiFi range. This gets a little confusing as it seems that data, voice & text are all sold separately, and determining how much of each is needed for x days with a clerk whose English is better than our Malay – but not much! We probably have spent $10/month per phone on SIM cards.
I have talked about several other financial topics on my previous blog post “Money Matters” that have some helpful info relating to ATMs and changing money.
Get your passport sorted and walk yourself onto the plane. Just do it!