I can hardly believe that two months have already passed since I kicked off my year of adventure and started traveling abroad. Unplugged from the Silicon Valley bubble, untethered from my comfortable urban lifestyle in SF, I feel like I’m more fully expressing my personal values of freedom, adventure, relationships, curiosity, and courage today than I was at the end of 2018. I have moved closer to a lifestyle that brings me joy.
This post is going to be about the pursuit that has significantly shaped me as person over the last couple months: independent travel. Below I will cover what it is, how it has shaped me, and why I believe that many American millennials (like me) would benefit from it.
What is independent travel?
Simply put, it is “travel in which you organize things yourself, rather than using a company who will arrange flights, hotels etc” (MacMillan Dictionary).
Taken to the extreme, it could mean finding the cheapest possible accommodation (aka a dingy mattress on the dirty floor of a hut), forgoing all Western comforts like hot showers, solo-ing it and eating only rice and/or pasta everyday. Because you’re proud to be a hardcore backpacker that can survive on a $5/day shoe-string budget. Hell your reputation depends on it.
Nothing wrong with this approach, but if I had to venture to guess, this probably does not describe you. Instead you probably previously traveled using well-trodden (and safe) Airbnb/hotels + guided tours and now you’re just looking for something different. Befriending locals. Discovering attractions normally hidden to tourists. Getting a taste of what it’s really like to live in the community you’re traveling through. Feeling yourself grow as an individual.
I understand because this latter paragraph described me to a T a few months ago. I dearly wanted the benefits that independent travel had to offer:
- Slower pace of travel. The longest vacation I could afford during my full-time job at Dropbox was three weeks. I am a little ashamed to say that I would cram as many countries and cities as possible into those three weeks like a good little American millennial because how else does one vacation? Plus, more diverse content for the Insta feed right? Now I realize that I was actually limiting myself to only the tip of the iceberg in terms of my experience. It’s when I have stayed somewhere for longer than a week that I could cultivate a real community and move past the TripAdvisor top 10’s to discover the region’s hidden beauty. That’s when I felt like I was creating more meaningful memories and loving my stay.
- More real connections. When my best friend and I visited Mexico City last year and serendipitously made new friends at Mama Rumba salsa club, I was hooked. This was not some packaged tour experience where a ‘local’ takes you around town but just a chance encounter between a couple of clueless but excitable Asian-American gringos (who didn’t speak Spanish) and a couple of open-minded, friendly Mexican chicas. I hesitate to even compare the two experiences because they’re not the same ballpark at all, but I wanted to illustrate how striking out on your own when traveling opens you up to more possibility for meeting likeminded travelers and local residents.
- Greater flexibility. If there’s anything that motorcycling across Vietnam has taught me, it’s that things rarely go according to plan. Running out of gas, motorcycle breaking down, running out of cash, needing to find a doctor/pharmacy last minute. Unexpected good happens too: falling in love with a new city and extending our stay, meeting an incredible host family that makes us feel loved, following our curiosity to a part of Vietnam off the beaten path. Guided tours build in predictability but they also lock you into a pre-determined schedule. If I’m being honest, the most fun I have had in Vietnam (and Myanmar, Singapore, Bali etc.) is when I veer off of the schedule into unknown territory. Give yourself flexibility to make the most of your travel experience.
- More inexpensive. Everyone always asks me how am I able to afford a whole year of travel. I haven’t spent more than $2,000 per month by staying in hostels (combination of private rooms and mixed dorms), eating local foods for most meals, and taking primarily buses/motorcycles for transportation. And yet I’m still living comfortably. I have hot showers, cold AC and clean, cozy beds in most hostels I stay in. I still feel nourished and energized after eating the local diet, including street food. Sleeper buses are inexpensive ways to go from city to city and it’s also easy to rent a scooter/motorcycle across SE Asia. If I continue to spend at my current rate, I may even have a sizable sum left over in my budget by the end of 2019 that I can allocate towards my transition back to the US, more travel, or starting personal/business projects.
Does independent travel have to be solo travel?
Not at all! In my case, I decided to travel solo. However, traveling with a friend or SO is still independent travel if you’re both taking ownership of organizing your trip and approaching it with “independent” values: slowing down, getting to know the local community, leaving plans more open-ended, and living cheaply and simply.
How has independent travel shaped me?
While I still have a lot more traveling to do in 2019, I feel a significant change in my views on how I want to travel and live since the start of the year:
Prioritizing people over experiences in my travel
When I first started traveling in January, I was an organizer of experiences. I would schedule activity-by-activity, which were the building blocks of my day. One of my goals was to engage in more novel experiences (surf lessons, motorcycle journey, etc). Over the last few weeks, I noticed myself shifting to organize my schedule by the people I wanted to spend time with instead of the activity I wanted to do. Reason being, I rarely have a bad time when I spend it with people I like no matter — no matter what we’re doing. In fact all my most memorable experiences have happened with friends, travelers, hosts and locals I met on the road:
- Surfing with my surf instructor in Canggu and getting to know his community
- Nights out and outdoors day trips with my likeminded nomad crew in Ubud
- Serendipitous encounters with locals farmers, artists, shopkeepers and workers everywhere
- Chasing sunrises and sunsets on the tops of temples with backpacker friends in Bagan
- Salsa class and exploring fun attractions with hostel friends in Singapore
- Driving the motorcycle through stunning landscapes in rural Vietnam with my travel buddy
- Homestays with the most kind, heartwarming families in Vietnam
People are the main reason why I travel now. Everything else is gravy.
Pro tip: Read accommodation reviews carefully. Find the hostels known for having an active community and homestays known for having a welcoming host family.
Engaging in the local language, customs and culture
For my Bali trip, I started off with learning terima kasih or thank you in Indonesian. Then trying my surf instructor and friend’s favorite street foods including babi guling , a whole pig roast. Then attending his temple’s dance performance. Then reading House of Bali by Colin Mcphee, a Canadian composer who lived in Bali in the 1930’s to study the music of its gamelans or traditional ensembles, to shed more light on what I had experienced so far on the island. I lived in Bali for one whole month, but felt as if I had only just begun to demystify its vibrant culture for myself. And yet I’m so glad I made the effort because even the little progress I made helped me feel more connected to what I had experienced.
A few years ago on a vacation to Japan, I was on the subway in Tokyo with one of my good friends. He put in headphones and warned me, “I’m going to try to knock out one chapter of this audiobook.” It was a Japanese History lecture series. Since that trip, I have tried to read at least one book that either takes place in or is about the country I am visiting. Recently I read Lee Kuan Yew’s autobiography for Singapore, Letters From Burma by Aung San Suu Kyi for Myanmar, Catfish and Mandala by Andrew Pham for Vietnam. These books helped me grasp historical and cultural context I would have missed otherwise, making it just a tad easier to connect the dots as I travel through these countries.
Pro tip: Read a book — fiction or non-fiction, whichever gets you more excited — about the place you are traveling to. Visit the landmarks the book describes. Learn basic phrases in the local language that you can start using immediately.
Treating travel as a full-time vocation
At the start of my travels, I wanted to do everything. Engage in novel experiences. Work on side projects. Make some passive income. I realized that I was overstretching myself, which a good friend had warned me about before I left SF (sometimes your friends know you better than you know yourself). Traveling itself is already very demanding mentally and physically, especially independent travel. Trying to start a side-business at the same time sapped my time and energy, so much that I felt like I was sacrificing the quality of my travel experiences. So I tabled this pursuit. Maybe later this year I will feel the itch to pick up entrepreneurial projects again, but for now I want to give travel my full attention.
Pro tip: Digital nomadism is in fashion, but consider how much time you really have to dedicate to your side-projects. Do you really want to be stuck trying to take a business call when your new friends have invited you on a day trip to explore some waterfalls? (this may or may not have happened to me)
Taking care of my health & wellness on the road
To be honest, my original health & wellness goal of building muscle has been challenging to pursue while traveling. Gyms dot basically every town/city that I have traveled to, but the bigger issue is time. Every day revolves around traveling, exploring, and socializing. Even when I physically stayed put in Ubud for two weeks, I couldn’t hit the gym more than twice without sacrificing time I wanted to spend trekking in the outdoors or grabbing a meal with a new friend. The latter options always won out.
Nutrition has been another challenge. I have tried to keep my target macros at approximately 40% carbs, 30% protein, 30% fat but cut myself enough slack to try local foods — one of the things I enjoy most when traveling. Fortunately I have kept myself at relatively the same weight and body composition over the last couple months, maybe losing a bit of muscle. What has helped me:
- eating at vegetarian restaurants to get my veggie fill (believe it or not, I have struggled to find green veggies in most restaurants during my SE Asia travels)
- packing protein-based snacks such as soybeans and nuts
- sticking to whole foods whenever possible
- avoiding sugar like the plague (somehow you find it sneaked into everything in SE Asia, especially beverages including coffee, tea, and soft drinks)
I still aim to experiment with various tactics for building muscle while traveling because it’s a fun challenge for myself. This pursuit will also get easier once my Vietnam motorcycle journey ends and I kick off my next Asia leg where I plan to live in a city in Taiwan, China, and Japan respectively for several weeks at a time.
Pro tips: Eat at vegetarian restaurants, pack protein-based snacks, stick to whole foods, reduce sugar consumption
Taking the road less traveled
Yes, independent travel does take more work than guided travel. And no, chances are that most of your friends will not be doing it. But do you really want to travel the same way that everyone else does to get the same cookie-cutter experience? (and Insta pic ;))
Over the last couple months, I have started planning less, feeling more curious about the travelers and locals I meet, and caring less about having frills in accommodations. My happiness and confidence have also flourished. Perhaps the absence of work, its competitive environment and grinding daily routine can explain my glowing spirit. But I really believe that independent travel has fed my soul.
The thrill of making lasting connections from serendipitous encounters where I put myself out there. Feeling 100% trust in myself after seeing myself find a way out of all kinds of debacles. Regaining faith in humanity by meeting kind, generous people everywhere I go — the ones with the least to give oftentimes being the ones with the biggest hearts. These are just some of the recent moments that have propelled my shift in perspective and personal growth.
My genuine hope is for everyone to experience the joy and learning that I have discovered during my year of adventure so far. Independent travel is a good place to start.