Author’s Note: I wrote this post back in December 2015. I spotted it in my drafts today when I was thinking about writing a new blog post. Can’t believe I forgot to publish it. Well, here it is. I hope you find it interesting, useful, or inspiring.
I just finished a long trip away from the UK, visiting places all over Asia. It was the longest time I’ve spent away from my family & friends, and I’d hoped that it’d be a learning experience for me. Thankfully, it was. I learned a few tangible skills as well as some general life lessons. So this is a part-bragging, part-advice post.
First off, I spent almost 3 months in South Korea, mostly in the capital city of Seoul. In Seoul there are loads and loads of rent-by-the-hour music practice rooms. You give them a few hundred Won (local currency), they let you use the soundproofed room. Inside there are instruments, usually including a drum kit. Two to three times a week I’d rent one of these for an hour, then go onto YouTube and find a drumming tutorial. I followed Lisa’s tutorials, in order.
Did I actually gain any drumming skill or confidence? Yes! I know this because in Japan, which is the first place I visited, I took part in a jam session and played the drums. I kept the time, but I was embarrassingly boring as a drummer and rarely deviated from a simple beat. But a few months later when I got to Cambodia, I went to another jam night. This one was much more successful, enough that the band wouldn’t allow me to stop playing after the first song even though I was a little embarrassed. It felt a lot better and I was able to mess around with the band more. Still, I have sooooooo much to learn, and I’d really like to be able to play with a band when I get back to the UK.
Before I came to Korea I’d attempted to learn the language before. In 2012 I took a few private lessons with a Korean student living in London. That was helpful, but it wasn’t immersive enough to really stick. Then in early 2015 before I left London, I was listening to a podcast called Talk To Me In Korean. That helped loads, and listening every day and repeating what I heard helped a lot with pronunciation, but it wasn’t conversational enough for me to get good at forming sentences.
So, when I got to Korea I enrolled in a monthly programme at a school called Ganada. At the end I took a test; I got a pretty good score and now I can confidently make my way through most situations that a long-term tourist in Korea will come across. I’m able to have basic conversations about where I’m from and what I do, and now I often take opportunities to practice by striking up conversations with Koreans that I meet. Like with drumming I still have a lot to learn here. I can’t have complex conversations or express opinions further than “I like this” or “I don’t like this” yet, for instance. So hopefully I can continue this in London, too.
Swift (programming language)
While I was in Hong Kong I started re-writing the first iPhone app I ever wrote, StreetScout. It was built about 3 years ago using Objective-C so I started from scratch, this time in Apple’s newest programming language, Swift. It’s a much easier language to write than Objective-C, and far nicer to read too. I haven’t yet come across any of the limitations, so I think I’ll continue to use it in new projects, and hopefully learn some more idiomatic ways of structuring Swift apps in the process.
I already was quite into bouldering, but while in Asia I got a lot into rope climbing. I even took a lesson learning how to lead, but it was washed out by rain before I could do a lead climb on my own without help. Still, I learned a lot and got a lot better at it.
SCUBA Advanced Open Water
Not so much a skill, but more a collection of new diving experiences. I’d already dived before and already had my Open Water certification, but in Ko Lanta, I took an Advanced Open Water course and got that one. I learned a few new techniques and went a lot deeper than before. Definitely worth the time and money.
Sightseeing can get tiring
I kinda already knew about this one, but this trip has really highlighted how true it is, at least for me. I only have so much patience for sightseeing. In Korea I didn’t do much - mostly when my friends from back home were there - but when I started travelling more after that, I started out seeing loads of things like temples, museums, old buildings, stuff like that. But there’s only so many tourist-heavy places one can go before it becomes extremely samey.
Rather than just spending days “resting” by lying in my hotel I tried to just do things I’d normally do. Find somewhere quiet to do some programming or some reading, or do something a bit more mentally engaging like learning to cook some local food. I also tried to scout out places to climb, and occasionally found a cinema. Then at dinner time I’d just go out to a restaurant and then a usually a bar, talk to strangers and, sometimes, find people online (normally through Reddit) to hang out with. And then there’s video production of course – I made a lot of YouTube videos. I just can’t spend two months sightseeing; it’s not for me.
This lesson was actually the one I found most other travellers repeating. In fact, it’s safe to say that over 80% of the travellers I had proper conversations with (i.e., not just “Hey! Oh is this the boat for…” types of conversations) were able to attest to this feeling. When you’re on the road for a long time it seems like most people just have to have days where you just don’t do anything touristy at all.
You don’t just learn about the cultures you’re visiting
I met loads of people from around the world while I was travelling by staying in a variety of different types of accommodation and talking to people in restaurants and bars. I met people from Germany, Austria, Israel, France, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, China, Korea, Canada, the USA, Brazil, Taiwan, Thailand, Russia, Poland, Cambodia, Vietnam, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Argentina, Malaysia, Singapore. Probably more. Once I got talking to some of them I realised how little I knew about their countries. I learned about their hometowns, languages, political situations, and often whether it’s common for them to travel or not; it’s really interesting! Now I have loads of new places that I’d like to visit, and in some of those places, potentially even people to hang out with.
Productive activities are great for my sanity
When I was feeling touristed out, I often turned to creative pursuits. Writing this blog is one of them, but actually more often than not I’d make a video. I really got into video production while I’ve been out here. I haven’t gotten a whole lot better at it but there’s a noticeable improvement. I started recording videos of myself eating local convenience store food. I found the whole convenience store culture in Asia interesting because the types of food you find in these places (which are extremely common in most of the countries I visited) seem totally out of place in a grocery store to me, and it’s not often that you hear people talking about any local food other than those found in markets or restaurants.
Apart from that, I released a new version of each of my iPhone apps, StreetScout and Pub Crawl: London, and continued working on Forkability and Interfake, two of the open-source projects that I maintain.
These have all been great outlets for when I was feeling a bit unproductive. I also did some pay-as-you-go programming support on Codementor and made enough money to pay for a few days in Hong Kong.
Being alone isn’t as fun as I thought
I did go on this trip intending to be on my own a lot of the time, knowing I’d meet people along the way, but thinking that most of the time, I’d enjoy the solitude. I was wrong about one of these things. I did actually meet plenty of people along the way, but the solitude wasn’t as much fun as I thought it’d be. I don’t regret doing this trip largely on my own by any means, and I’m glad that I was able to appreciate this feeling. But sometimes it was a little lonely.
When I did meet people and travel with them, sometimes I was encouraged to do things I might not have done on my own. Sometimes I encouraged others to do things they wouldn’t have done too, and it’s very satisfying when that encouragement is well-placed and they have a great time.
Having said that…
Being alone makes for very easy travel
I love travelling with my friends, but sometimes it’s difficult to acknowledge when people want to do different things with their time in certain places. Being on your own gives you the freedom to decide to do something totally niche and not interesting to others without the fear of hurting somebody’s feelings. It gives you the freedom, also, to work by your own budget (whether you’re on a shoestring or willing to pay for more comfort) and, sometimes, being on your own can encourage you to be more outgoing. But it goes both ways. Sometimes having somebody with me made me more willing to speak to strangers, but sometimes being on my own pushed me to speak to strangers.
For whatever reason, some people also find solo travellers quite “brave”. Others think it’s weird. At many hotels I was asked, “you’re on your own??” Actually, I met quite a few solo travellers.
Fewer places for longer is better than more places for shorter
Obviously this depends on where you go, but I’ve learned that in general, for a long-term trip like this it’s better to stay in one place for at least a few days before moving on. It gives you time to chill out, properly think about your next steps, and get to know an area a little better. It gives you more flexibility, especially in South-east Asia where most of the time you really don’t need to book things well in advance in order to get a place on a bus, train, plane or boat.
Plus, I really like to be able to unpack my suitcase when I arrive somewhere.
Language is more important than I thought
While it’s not hard to get by speaking only English in all the places I visited, I felt seriously limited by my lack of proficiency in the local languages.
I always try to get “Hello” and “Thank you” down, because at least it feels polite. But sometimes I felt like I was missing out on important experiences from not being able to speak the local language. First of all, it’s much easier to get ripped off. You can’t argue logic with a taxi driver in English, because either they don’t understand or they pretend not to.
Secondly, more often than not you’ll end up in foreigner-friendly places. It’s not too hard to go off the beaten track, but it can be extremely daunting. I was lucky in a couple of situations to meet locals who offered to show me around, but a lot of the time I felt like I was just doing what all the other tourists were doing. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, but it meanas you’re missing out on a lot!
Finally by not speaking the language it can be difficult to get to know the local culture. Let’s say you’re a Canadian who comes to the UK to get to know the British psyche. Maybe you’re in Sheffield. If you wanna get to know Sheffielders, you could go to a bar and strike up a conversation with a local. Or go to a coffee shop and talk to the barista. Or speak to shopkeepers, or if you’re brave enough, strangers on the street.
But as an English-speaking person in Cambodia I can only understand people so much. If I want to know their feelings about politics or religion, or what they like to do in their free time, and general worldviews, it’s very difficult and I have to rely on limited accounts from either locals people who speak English, or translations.
Being able to speak a bit of Korean was a huge bonus. Being able to speak a bit of French helped a lot too, since I met a lot of French people in South-East Asia. Most of them spoke pretty good English, but not all of them. Plus, it was nice to be able to practice.
But it didn’t feel like enough. I’d like to learn more, but of course there’s only so much one can do.
When it comes to sleep, I’m an old man
Most of the time I avoided dorm rooms. I’m 27; I feel like I should be able to do these things, but I struggled a couple of times in dorms. Some people were loud snorers, many people were extremely inconsiderate about others, and sometimes bunk beds can be very unstable.
I’m a light sleeper. But I also like hostels for the opportunities they provide to meet people. So, sometimes I’d look for hostels with private rooms. Still good value, still with common areas and sociable people, but easier to get a good night’s sleep.
Trust people, but keep your wits about you
Most people aren’t out to get you. It’s easy to let horror stories from peoples’ holidays give you the impression that everybody you meet is looking to make some money from you, but most people are just kind souls who are happy to help out a traveller in need.
I have my own horror stories, but I also have stories of great and unexpected generosity. Make sure you know where your passport, wallet and phone are at all times, and keep them as close to you as possible, and everything should be OK.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do your research before getting somewhere, though. For things like border crossings and certain famous sights, find out what the costs and procedures are beforehand and everything will be a little easier.
Don’t forget to be grateful, and be creative in your gratitude
In times of high stress, when there’s no common language it can be easy to forget to thank people for doing things - especially when their way of talking to you doesn’t seem particularly enthralling. But it doesn’t hurt to thank people, and if you can’t find the words, a bow will usually do just fine in Asia. Maybe put your hands together, too, in some countries.
When you’re looking for friends, Reddit is your friend
If you’re staying somewhere for a long time, it’s a good idea to go onto the local subreddit (e.g. /r/hongkong) and suggest a meetup. Be open-minded, you may meet some really interesting people!
It’s not necessarily a once-in-a-lifetime experience
A big trip like this doesn’t have to be a one-time-only thing. I liked to think of it as a taster. Finding out what places I liked and wanted to return to again. Most of them I’m certainly going to come back to. Others didn’t excite me all that much. But I didn’t worry too much about spending every single moment doing something Thai or Cambodian or Vietnamese. There’s no point forcing it when you’re not in the mood or don’t really have time to properly appreciate something, because it doesn’t have to be the last time you visit! This was my attitude, anyway, and I realise that not everybody can or wants to travel as much as I do.
Plus, there’s still so many countries left to see all over the world.
This article was read & critiqued by Eddie. Thanks Eddie!
Heckle me on Twitter @basicallydan.