10 Questions I’ve Been Asked About My Asian Sabbatical

My boyfriend Ian and I spent just under six months gallivanting around Asia, visiting Thailand, Vietnam, Japan, Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore and Cambodia. It was a whirlwind of new experiences, sights, sounds, tastes and sensations and although none of us are travelling at the moment, I want to continue to share anecdotes and memories to provide some escapism and inspiration for future travel destinations. During our trip, we were asked a lot of questions – some again and again – and in this post, I answer 10 commonly asked questions.

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(1) 6 months of 1-on-1 with only your partner and no other friends to lean on. How did you survive?

I’m not going to lie – it was challenging at times! My boyfriend and I have been together for over seven years but backpacking as a couple is a totally different ballgame. We went from spending a chunk of our day apart (seeing colleagues and friends) to spending almost every waking moment together. We went from renting a whole apartment (with enough rooms where we could have some peace and quiet) to sharing hotel rooms, private rooms in hostels and double beds in mixed dormitories. Close quarters indeed. The thing that I struggled with the most was decision fatigue. I didn’t realise how few joint decisions we made in a typical day (usually just “What should we have for dinner?” or “What should we watch on Netflix?”). Suddenly we had to make constant decisions which affected the other person, such as where to stay, what to eat, where to eat, where to travel to next, how to get there, how much to spend, what to see, what to skip, how to manage our budget and so on. Imagine having those discussions every day for six months. It was exhausting!

So how did we survive?

  • Doing some things by yourself. We spent the majority of our time together, but did a few things separately, such as going for walks and doing work-outs. Ian had already been to several of the cities we visited so I did some sightseeing without him to places he’d already been.
  • Talking about money before setting off. It’s not as fun as planning what to eat or where to go sightseeing but discussing your finances is essential, whether you’re travelling with a partner, friend or family member. We’re both low-maintenance, budget travellers but he’s more frugal than I am, so some compromises had to be made.
  • Giving each other space. Hard to do when you’re sharing a small hostel room or tiny wooden hut, but thank God for porches and balconies! We recharged our batteries in comfortable silence whilst we worked on separate activities; blogging, video editing, reading and drawing (he’s an excellent artist!).
  • Checking in with friends and family back home: not just sending emails and WhatsApp messages but also having phone calls and video chats.
  • Patience.
  • Meeting new people. We didn’t do a tremendous amount of socializing, as we were staying in private hostel rooms and hotel rooms most of the time, but we met some lovely people on day trips and organized tours. We were also lucky enough to meet up with friends in Taipei, Tokyo, Bangkok and southern Vietnam – it was so great to see their familiar faces!
  • Apologizing when you realise you were being short-tempered (often brought on by hunger and tiredness). The sooner, the better. There’s no point holding a grudge when you’re on a six-month trip together.
  • Even more patience. You really can’t have enough!

Some couples who travel together make it look like an idyllic, blissful experience but we’ve definitely had arguments and disagreements along the way. Still, if we can get through six months of intense travel AND a worldwide pandemic, I believe we can get through anything!

(2) What are some things you wish you’d known or done before your trip?

There is probably enough to fill a whole blog post! The first thing that comes to mind: I wish I had planned better. Our sabbatical was approved ten months before we flew to our first destination. We spent those months watching YouTube videos about where to go sightseeing or what specific food to try in each city and town we wanted to visit. So much of that research was a waste of time.

  1. You can download suggested itineraries shortly before you arrive somewhere, which outline lots of the main attractions and sights.
  2. Just wandering around food courts and markets will reveal dozens of appetizing dishes to try… and you can easily find lists of which local specialities to try.
  3. You pick up so much invaluable knowledge from people you meet while travelling – Airbnb hosts, reception staff and fellow backpackers – that a lot of the places you’ll visit and fall in love with won’t be on your radar at the start of the trip. Many of my favourite places we visited I had never even heard of and we only learned about them through word-of-mouth.

What I should have spent months researching was the logistics. How to get from A to B. Which countries have good public transport systems and which ones are so cumbersome and disjointed they make you want to pull your hair out. Which cities have night bus and night train options (a great way to save money on accommodation whilst travelling!). Which cash machines will rip you off everytime you withdraw cash (on top of paying bank fees). Where to get discounted tickets to tourist attractions (e.g. Klook!) and which accommodation sites give you ‘cash back’ every time you book through them (e.g. Agoda and Priceline).

I should have spent more time researching our direction of travel. I’m not even going to tell you how bizarre some of our routes were. We could have saved a lot of time and money researching the practical side of travelling more and spending less time drooling over whatever Mark Wiens was eating! Most laughably, we made our most foolish decisions in Thailand, after we had already been on the road for five months(!). We were so flummoxed and indecisive about which islands we wanted to visit in which order, we delayed our return to southern Thailand and spontaneously travelled back to George Town, Malaysia (my favourite city from the whole trip!). Five nights later, we had rested, gotten over ourselves and finally made some fairly-simple decisions about which islands to visit first.

(3) Do you think you packed too little, too much or just right?

I think I did a really good job considering it was my first time backpacking. It was really tough deciding what made the cut, as I only had around 12kg with me (a 40 litre backpack and a smaller day backpack). I’ve shared my packing list here and as you can see, it was very restrictive. I definitely should have brought more suntan lotion with me – it’s very expensive in Asian supermarkets and pharmacies. There are some things I wish I had made room for, but I’m not sure what I would have sacrificed in their place. For example, it would have been nice to have more ‘pretty’ clothes as I saw so many other female travellers floating around in beautiful dresses. I did pack some dresses but most of them weren’t suitable for temples (you need to cover your knees and shoulders) and I found myself comparing my clothes with other women’s. However – reality check! – they were probably on a one or two-week holiday and I was constantly packing and repacking my bags, moving from place to place. Functionality won against femininity; comfort trumped chicness.

(4) How did you choose where to visit?

It wasn’t an easy decision – Asia is an enormous continent full of wonderful places to visit and we simply couldn’t see them all, without blowing our budget or experiencing major travel burnout. Before setting off, we made three lists: ‘places we definitely want to visit‘, ‘maybe‘ and ‘not too fussed/not on this trip‘. We visited seven out of the eight places on our ‘definitely’ list (only Laos didn’t make the cut – let me know if you want to hear why!). We ummmed and ahhhed about a couple of places on the maybe list (e.g. Borneo and Indonesia) but ultimately decided we would rather spend more time in fewer places.

We wanted a variety of landscapes and scenery; city, countryside, rainforest, mountains, islands, beaches, small villages and medium-sized towns. As we don’t drive or ride motorbikes, everywhere had to be accessible by bus, coach, ferry, plane or train. We really liked the countries we chose and want to revisit them. Even after eight weeks in Vietnam, there’s still so much of the country we want to see. We barely scratched the surface of Taiwan, we can’t wait to return to Japan and I want to live in Malaysia one day, I loved it that much!

(5) Did you use any particular app for budgeting?

We used the TravelSpend app; it’s great because you can easily categorize your expenses (e.g. accommodation, transport, restaurants, sightseeing, shopping, laundry and shopping etc). Ian dutifully tracked almost every single purchase throughout the six months. He kept an eye on our spending and biggest expenses.  He inputted the specific dates we were in each country and TravelSpend calculated us our daily and total spends in each place. I’ve collated a lot of the information into these travel breakdowns.

(6) Did either of you try to do work along the way?

When we were saving and budgeting for our trip, we did it with the intention that neither of us would be working. We knew Ian couldn’t work remotely for his company and I was on the fence about doing online teaching while we were travelling. Within a few weeks of exploring, sightseeing and stuffing my face with delicious local specialities, I decided not to work while we were there. We really wanted to immerse ourselves in the experience, because who knows when we will next be able to take six months off from our normal lives? Plus we knew we’d be moving around a lot and might encounter some incredibly unreliable internet (which definitely happened!).

(7) Is there anything you planned for which wasn’t necessary?

I think our parents expected us to have a lot of accidents as they equipped us with a mini first-aid kit, complete with gauze bandages and a full sewing kit. Luckily we didn’t have any nasty scrapes and cuts, just occasional bouts of food poisoning… oh and I fell over and broke my elbow! On our last day in Vietnam, I tripped over on a metal bridge (which had twisted bits of metal sticking out of it) and slammed down hard on my wrist and side. I thought it was just a sprain and as we had a flight booked for Cambodia that afternoon, I popped some painkillers, fashioned a makeshift sling out of a sarong and got on the plane. My arms and legs came out in horrible, dark bruises – they looked awful! – and I couldn’t use my left arm at all. I’m right-handed but it’s incredible how much you use your ‘other’ hand – I couldn’t dress myself, tie shoe laces or open bottled water. I found out eight days later it was a hairline fracture, which has fortunately healed very well.

(8) Were you scared of getting sick from eating street food or unclean water?

We started our trip in Hanoi where we rented a spacious apartment for a month (using it as a base to do various overnight trips). During that time, we figured we might as well expose ourselves to local bacteria sooner rather than later. If we did get dodgy stomaches in Hanoi, at least we weren’t moving around constantly and weren’t sharing facilities with anyone else. So we threw caution to the wind, enjoying juices with ice cubes in them and munching on raw vegetables, fruit and fresh salads. We still used our reusable water bottles with in-built filters and avoided anything that looked undercooked or had been sitting on the grill for a while. Ironically, we did get food poisoning…. later on in Thailand and Malaysia. Turns out you can’t strategically plan when you will and won’t get sick!

(9) Did you prefer planning ahead or being spontaneous – and why?

I’m a very organized, Type A personality, so the thought of only booking return flights and somewhere to stay for the first few weeks of a six-month stretch made me very nervous. What if we couldn’t find somewhere to stay and had to sleep on the streets? Turns out there’s always somewhere to sleep, even in the tiniest of towns. Travelling in such a fluid, flexible way took some adjustment but I’m so glad we chose to do it that way. We could be very responsive to how we were feeling in that moment. We rested when we needed to rest. We stayed put when we found somewhere we really liked. We moved on when we fancied a change.

In the future, I’d like to reach a happy medium between being spontaneous and a planner. Booking inbound and outbound flights and transfers offers peace of mind and usually helps you secure the best deal. Having somewhere to travel to directly from the airport or train station means you don’t need to worry about finding Wi-Fi or buying a SIM card to book somewhere. Having chunks of time in your itinerary to do whatever you want (or nothing at all!) makes room for impromptu, unplanned adventures.

(10) Would you recommend a sabbatical?

YES! I think everyone should seize the opportunity to take time away from their daily routine to explore this wonderful world of ours, reflect on their current situation and evaluate what changes they might want to make. By ‘seize the opportunity‘, you must be prepared to ask for it! My boyfriend didn’t know his company offered sabbaticals until he raised the topic with them. The minute we heard it was an option, we requested six months to make the most of the opportunity.

However, six months might be too long for you, especially if you aren’t working during that time. Time goes so slowly when you don’t have a job or any domestic responsibilities. It worked well for us because we wanted to travel slowly and intentionally, but I know other travellers who would visit 10 or 20 countries within a six-month timeframe. It would be really easy to blow your budget that way, so you may want to consider remote working opportunities if you’re travelling for months on end. In the future, I’d love to take several three-month sabbaticals to Central America, South America and back to Asia. Three months is still a more-than-decent amount of time to see a lot of fantastic places and it wouldn’t require as much upheaval as our trip: giving away all of my classes, giving up our apartment and storing a lot of things with family and friends – thanks guys!

I hope this Q&A has been interesting and useful. If you have any more questions, please leave them in the comments section.

Ciao for now

The Curious Sparrow

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