1 December 2017
In our original plan, Nate and I would stay in Germany for a year or so, learn the language, learn about our roots, and do whatever else we wanted in our spare time. However, within a week of my arrival and after realizing just how tricky it might be to get permanent residency, we decided to migrate somewhere warm and cheap to wait out the winter months and our Schengen visa renewal (3 months before we can enter any of the countries shown here). So, after exactly one month in Germany, Nate and I will be saying Auf Weidersehen a la Heidi Klum to Germany.
Now we have a new type of puzzle to solve. We need to live cheaply for 3-4 months, but we also want to see and do as much as possible. Most importantly, we want to do all this while being warm, which makes packing lighter and everything all around more pleasant. Nate and I both want to take full-advantage of our Funemployment (see my previous post on funemployment), so we’re aiming to cram as many cities and countries in as possible. The solution: South East Asia. Between China and Australia lay exotic countries overflowing with beaches, waterfalls, rice fields, and special bonuses like Muay Thai in Thailand and my friends in Indonesia. Here’s the kicker, we can get to and around almost all of them by train. Trains are great on many levels. A) They’re so much cheaper than planes (the most expensive ticket was around $58!), B) You can see the amazing country-side as you travel, and C) You can save on accommodations if you take the occasional over-night train.
With a direction, Nate and I bought one-way tickets from Zurich, Switzerland to Singapore and set aside a week of moderately intense planning to see if we can make this all work.
We have to organize visa requirements, transportation logistics, and housing just to get started. As the only one with some experience in the region, I was put in charge of the first two items. My first stab at planning looked like this:
Having established my credibility with Nate, he was all aboard, and we were full steam ahead (and other punny train expressions). Luckily, after googling “trains in SE Asia”, I eventually found my way to a wonderful site called The Man in Seat Sixty-One, and said man actually knew what he was talking about. The site contains remarkably detailed information about trains in the region, including: recommended routes, time tables, costs, websites for purchasing tickets, visa requirements and procedures when crossing borders, pictures and videos of trains, and testimonials from other people who had taken various routes/trains. The site doesn’t just cover SE Asia, so I highly recommend checking it out if you’re planning a train adventure anywhere. You’ll rail-y love it! (Disclaimer: I stole this line from some website I came across and now can’t remember the URL…but c’mon, that’s too good not to repeat). The site had this convenient, interactive map of the train routes around SE Asia. I like my map better, but I’m partial.
Next step in the planning process was to figure out which routes we wanted to take. We decided to go north from Singapore through Malaysia and Thailand, and then work our way clockwise through Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia. From Cambodia, we will fly to Jakarta and travel around Java and Bali for a few weeks. Then we will fly to New Zealand for some aimless-ish camping and Australia for kangaroo shenanigans before hitching a ride to Amsterdam and back to Germany sometime in late March. That’s 12 countries in 114 days, or roughly 4 months.
Next came the important step of figuring out where we were going to sleep and for how long. Here I utilized Tripadvisor and Lonely Planet to find out the hot spots to check out. Googling 10 best sites in Kuala Lumpur, for example, would usually return a list from both sites with suggestions about must-see attractions and must-experience activities. These were helpful for making a decision about whether or not to stay in a town for a night or two. What I found more helpful, though, was finding personal blog entries with first-hand experiences from people who had traveled in the region. Usually, these contain gems like what can be done for cheap or free in the area and what costs money but is worth every dime. This blogger-on-a-budget, who had done a similar trip, had spectacular tips on cheap hostels and free things to do like free walking tours of Hanoi ran by students in a local hospitality program. I hope I can repay the favor with this blog to some other curious traveler!
The trip is really starting to shape up now. Among the 8 countries between Singapore and Indonesia, we’re going to stay in 21 different cities and pass through a dozen or so more. This includes Phuket, Thailand for Christmas, Bangkok for New Year’s Eve, and Bali for Nate’s birthday.
I did eventually move all of my awesome chicken-scratch notes to a very sophisticated, color-coded spreadsheet.
With our fancy spreadsheet growing, I tagged Nate in to tackle housing. He had already had some successfully Couch Surfing and Hostel staying, so he was more qualified to get us super-cheap, yet not axe-murdery accommodations. We’re doing a mixture of free couch surfing, uber cheap hostels, and still pretty cheap Airbnb’s. Couch surfing in Singapore and Hanoi, for instance, saves us enough money so that we can splurge on a $52/night beach bungalow in Bali. As an added bonus, Couch Surfing hosts are genuinely interested in hosting and showing their guests around their cities, giving us an even more intimate view and probably a much cheaper experience (they can haggle for us!) than your average tourist. The hostels are nearly as cheap, averaging around $5-$8 dollars a night. My 30+ year-old self feels a little weary about having to sleep in bunk beds with way-hipper backpackers, but I can easily rationalize it by the amount of money being saved. Besides, the hostel we’re staying in in Phuket also has a Muay Thai ring built in, so there’s that bonus.
At the end of the week, Nate and I still have some blank cells to fill in on the spreadsheet, but with our departure date looming near (Dec 3!), and internet scarce, we’ll have to figure the rest out as we go. As for our budget, we’ve spent around $2000 a person – roughly $20 a day – on the whole trip so far for transportation, housing, visa costs, and two bike trips we pre-arranged (Phuket, Thailand and Mekong Delta, Vietnam). We still need to add in costs for New Zealand (camper), Australia, and Amsterdam, but we’re hoping to roll in under $3000 per person for the four months. Of course, I’ll be updating the blog with adventures and follies as we chug along on this crazy train. Literally. We’re going to have a LOT of time on trains.