When Stacy told me she was embarking on her long-term voyage, I was thrilled for her…and selfishly disappointed I would not see her for what could be a year or more. Now on the other side of a life changing trek across Southeast Asia, Stacy shares how to make a year abroad happen.
1. What led you to take 10 months off and travel? So many people dream of doing this. What gave you that final push to commit to the journey? What was your why?
One day while talking to my friend Ally, we promised each other that within 5 years we would quit our jobs to backpack somewhere far away. I had a travel bug growing up that started to bite harder after a family trip to Paris in high school, volunteer trips to Belize and Nicaragua during college, and a three months’ study abroad program in England.
When the 5 year deadline started to approach, I was in a dead-end job that made me miserable. I dreaded getting up every day. I was depressed. I’d put on weight. I realized I didn’t want to be trapped at that place for a minute longer. Having another person to text pictures of beautiful beaches or temples or city skylines during bad work days really helped. We kept each other motivated as we planned, saved and made life-altering choices.
2. What was your intention for the trip? What had you hoped to get out of it at the onset?
Confidence, peace, a better sense of self, a higher tolerance for spicy food, knowledge, good stories, new friendships, better map-reading skills, strength, joy, patience, and perspective.
3. How did everyone react?
My family had mixed reactions. I remember a conversation with my mom a few months before I left. She was near tears and said when other people congratulated me and told me how excited they were for me, she couldn’t feel that excitement because she was scared for me. I felt awful knowing this decision I was making was causing my mom to lose sleep and be fearful. Logically, I knew I would be fine and her fears were largely unfounded. I couldn’t center my life and decisions based on someone else’s fear. My dad initially was more excited for me, but once I actually left, my parents switched roles. My mom took a very “out of sight, out of mind — as long as you email every chance you get” approach, while my dad was worrying and fretting more.
4. How did you decide what countries to visit? Why Asia?
Initially, we had a long and nebulous list that included Europe, Africa, the U.S., Central America, the moon, etc. until we narrowed down our options to South America or Southeast Asia. They were less expensive areas than some of the others on our list, with great infrastructure to support long-term travel. I had never been there. I felt like my education had glossed over their histories and I had a lot to learn.
Ultimately we chose Southeast Asia, which was a great destination for first-time backpackers. We felt it was a little safer for women travelers (although this is a broad generalization). At one point, we spent an hour yelling all of the delicious foods from these areas at each other as though we could make this huge decision based on the merits of empanadas vs pho or churrasco vs adobo.)
5. What steps did you take in planning your trip? What were your most useful resources?
The best thing we did was talk to other people who had done something similar. Whenever our trip came up in conversation and someone mentioned, “I’ve been to [insert place here],” we would ask for recommendations and advice. By the time we left we had a list with things as broad as a particular city or region and as specific as a curry stand we had to try in Kuala Lumpur that people we trusted recommended.
I also loved learning from the Lonely Planet’s Southeast Asia on a Shoestring, Candice Does the World, Be My Travel Muse, and Nomadic Matt.
6. What sacrifices did you make to save enough money to live abroad for that period of time?
I spent about two years actively budgeting and socking money away. During this time, I lived in a cheap old house in need of major repairs, where I spied roaches at least three separate times. I avoided taking time off work so that my PTO would be paid out to me when I quit. I rarely bought new clothes and I said no to social invitations. I saved money little by little until suddenly it was there, I had a plane ticket, and I was putting in my notice at work!
7. What budget would you recommend for someone wishing to travel for this period of time?
In total my trip cost about $14,000. The biggest pre-trip costs are travel insurance and travel vaccines. I spent $800 on two vaccines! On the trip, our budget was $30/day. Usually, we could get a private room in a guest house, eat well, and take part in some adventures. We definitely left room in the budget for splurges, like a couple nights in a really fancy hotel in Manila, a last-minute flight to an island paradise in Vietnam, and a horseback riding adventure in the Cambodian countryside. Overall though, I was proud that we could stick to our budget.
8. I know you left certain elements of your trip unplanned. Where did you find spontaneity was beneficial and where (if at all) do you wish you had locked down more details?
We had a general route and timeline sketched out. We had a couple flights and hostels booked before we left the US. Everything else from that point on was made up along the way! It was liberating suddenly to not have any idea where I was going to be from day to day. I loved waking up in a new place and knowing that if I liked it there, I could stay a few days, and if I didn’t, I could hightail it to the next stop. There were places that hypnotized us and trapped us for way longer than we’d intended, like Kuala Lumpur, Siem Reap, the Four Thousand Islands, and Koh Lanta. In some cases the only thing that got us out of a favorite spot and on to the next was running out of cash when the whole town didn’t have a working ATM.
The only time that our spontaneous attitudes backfired was during holidays. We were in the Philippines, which doesn’t grant Lunar New Year as a holiday but China and Vietnam do. Tourists from those countries poured into the Philippines, prices skyrocketed and hotels were completely booked. That was a tough week scrambling to reroute our plans.
9. Where do you want to revisit?
Almost everywhere, but especially Indonesia and the Philippines. Even after a month in each I feel like I barely saw any of the islands and each island has such a unique feel and history. I could travel there for years and never experience it all.
10. What was your top experience abroad?
Playing with elephants at a sanctuary in Tangkahan, Sumatra, Indonesia. It was important to me to only support experiences that were good for the animals and the locals. The conservation program, operated entirely by locals, cares for the elephants and protects the surrounding jungle from poachers and illegal logging. The mahouts were funny, knowledgeable, and great singers — we learned this when they treated us to a private, impromptu concert on the patio of our guesthouse one night!
11. What advice do you have for women who would love to take an adventure like this but feel like the logistics are impossible?
There are a lot of ways to travel, and not a single one is the “right” way. Figure out what would make you the most comfortable, and then give yourself time to make it happen.
12. What advice do you have for women who might feel trepidatious to take on long term travel?
Before my trip, I was anxious about quitting my job, missing my friends, having financial freedom to do everything I wanted, getting scammed or robbed, travel logistics, and language barriers. I had fears of varying intensity during the entire process. I knew that I couldn’t let fear make my decisions and rule my life. This was tough, since I’ve always struggled with anxiety, so it’s not like I just ignored my fears and backpacked off into the sunset. I just put my anxiety in a little box and tossed that in my backpack to come with me. What I’d say to women who want to make this happen is that fear is okay, being nervous is normal, but it doesn’t mean you can’t do it. Don’t think, “well, that person was able to do that because she’s braver than me, I could never do that,” because it’s not true.
13. Did you ever feel unsafe? What measures did you take to ensure your safety beforehand and on the road?
There were some scary moments in vehicles that definitely lacked proper safety restraints and times when I felt that drivers were taking hairpin turns too fast, but those were the only moments I felt unsafe. There were a few instances of catcalling, but less instances than when I am in San Diego. I was never threatened. I felt extremely secure and safe in every country.
It helped that I was traveling with another person. There were some nights that we walked back to our guesthouse pretty late, which I would have been nervous to do that alone.
There were some common-sense pre-trip steps, like making copies of my important documents (I left one set of copies with my parents and kept the other set tucked away in my backpack) and registering with the State Department to receive email notifications of any security threats or alerts. It’s about exercising common sense, paying attention to news, keeping cash in different places, not flaunting valuables, and not leaving drinks unattended.
14. What did you pack that you didn’t need? Is there anything you hadn’t anticipated needing?
I should have taken fewer clothes. Tshirts and tank tops were the best souvenirs and were useful during the trip. I could have only brought one or two shirts and supplemented as I went. Ally brought a headlamp, but I didn’t. I figured I would just use the flashlight on my phone, but her headlamp was vastly superior and we used it way more than I thought we would. Overall anything we needed was available, but it is nice to have some familiar things from home.
15. What did you learn about yourself?
It’s possible for me to consistently get out of bed at the first alarm. I don’t like to eat beef uterus. I do like to eat crickets. I love being active. I won’t ever be good at reading maps. I’m bad at negotiating with tuktuk drivers. I’m not as lazy as I thought. I love caves despite mild claustrophobia. I’m happiest in the sun. I’m physically capable of a lot more than I thought! Being brave is a choice not a trait.
16. What made you decide to come back? How did you know it was time?
Finances. I watched my savings dwindle until I budgeted out how long I could keep going and still afford a plane ticket home. Once I got home and the excitement of home wore off a little (i.e. after I ate a burrito and drank a San Diego IPA), I just wanted to be back on the road. I wish I’d kept going for a few more weeks at least. I’ll save that wanderlust up until it spills over and I do this all over again!