If you read travel blogs or follow them on social media, you’d think that travel is all unicorns and rainbows. Traveling is just one long string of beautiful sunsets, fruity cocktails, and Insta-worthy photos of exotic cuisine. What’s not often shown is the dark side – the long delays, petty theft, food poisoning, and other joys that inevitably come with travel. To shine some light on this, we’d like to present a few of our epic travel fails.
1. Sleeping in a KTV
Over our first holiday weekend in Beijing, we heard about a camping music festival taking place somewhere out in the sticks. There was another festival going on right in the city, but it was only during the day in a local park. We were hoping for more of an adventure and to get out of the concrete jungle. Armed with a few tents and sleeping bags, with basically no idea of how to get out there, we headed to the train station. As it was a holiday and we were hungover, my buddy and I decided it would be a good idea to start slamming beers. The two hours we had to wait for the next train provided us ample time to do just that, and we even added some Chinese baijiu (aka rocket fuel) to the mix.
Arriving in Baoding, we thought there would be a bus to the festival near the station. There wasn’t. We jumped on a city bus, then got off when it became clear that it wasn’t going to get us anywhere near we wanted to go. Next up was a taxi driver, who ensured us he could understand the directions. After a while, he ashamedly admitted he couldn’t read. Naturally, we needed a few more beers. We were in the next cab for over an hour, until he finally gave up and dropped us off at a random restaurant. The owner – a middle-aged woman in a pantsuit – was beyond excited at the prospect of three foreign customers. We sat down to a meal, cracked more beers, and posed for funny photos with the kids.
Ready to give up on the festival for the night, she tried to help us get a hotel. None of us had our passports, though, which meant nobody would check us in. The fact that I accidentally smashed a beer bottle on a lobby floor probably didn’t help, either. Petey and I were hammered by this point, and Rachel was ready to cry in the streets of Nowheresville, China. Just when it seemed as if our only choices were to cab it back to Beijing or pitch a tent in a parking lot, Rachel remembered a story I had told about falling asleep in a KTV (karaoke bar), which meant they have couches.
We got a cab to the nearest one, rented a room for an hour, and Petey and I promptly passed out. When the woman came to tell us the time was up, I sprung off the couch, bounced around like a boxer getting ready for a fight, and dropped my pants. Rachel burst into tears while Petey burst into laughter. She finally agreed to let us just stay the night and helped us get a ride to the festival the next day. Even though we eventually made it, this definitely constitutes an epic travel fail.
2. In the Tubing Without Tubes
For backpackers on the Banana Pancake Trail in SE Asia, there are a few essential stops for partying – the Full Moon Party on Ko Pha Ngan and the “in the tubing” phenomenon in Vang Vieng, Laos. Upon our arrival late at night, a duo of zombie-like bros schooled us on the tubing. A bit of foreshadowing here – we probably shouldn’t have listened to them.
The next day, we caught a tuk-tuk down to the river. The driver was confused by our request to go down to the start of the tubing, but he took us anyways. Once we got down to the river, it became clear – there was nobody down there and no tubes in sight. The only sign of life was a guy cleaning up and getting ready at one of the bars. Not ready to admit defeat, we ordered up a few Beer Laos and baguettes.
Once the party finally started kicking an hour or so later, we were offered free shots of Lao Lao. It was a deep burn. I mean it really stung the nostrils. Even this old boozehound was barely able to keep it down. Poor little Rachel was not so fortunate. She spent the rest of the afternoon exorcising her demons, swearing never to touch Lao Lao again. Without tubes, we simply walked along the river and swam from side to side. Needless to say, it was an epic fail. Not willing to go down in flames, we extended our stay for another day, got tubes, and actually went tubing.
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3. Almost Getting Rabies
Hiking the Tiger Leaping Trail in Yunnan had always been high on our travel bucket list in China. Unfortunately, we had to cut our trip short there in 2011 due to our new jobs. So we were super excited to finally get the chance to do it when we decided to move there. As we both speak Chinese fairly well, we were confident in our ability to handle the trail on our own. However, due to landslides, the signs had been wiped out and never replaced, making the trail head hard to find.
Before too long, we found ourselves wandering into someone’s yard. As we rounded the corner of their property, their handful of little dogs began yipping at us. Thinking nothing would happen, Rachel walked towards the house to find someone to ask directions. As she did, one of the little mutts ran up and bit her on the leg. Finally, a confused granny appeared and held the pack of dogs back while she attended to her wounds. She pointed us in the right direction and we continued on, after some tears, of course. High up in the hills, there wasn’t much we could do but go on our way.
Once we reached a rest stop, we were fortunate enough to bump into some fellow travelers who had some first-aid materials to bandage it up. There was also a nice Yunnan granny selling “smokey smokey” along with her fruit and candy. That was great, but it didn’t take away the legitimate fear of rabies. It’s a big problem in this part of China, with the government even going so far as to kill off dogs without proper tags. When we finally arrived in the town of Shangri-la, she had to visit a clinic and start a round of three shots. Thankfully she didn’t get rabies. Regardless, it still goes down as one of our travel fails.
4. Dead Fish Suitcases
After living in Bali for nine months, the Darmasiswa program I was enrolled in was finished. As per usual, we decided to go on tour for the summer and booked the long trip back to the US. It isn’t exactly easy to get from Bali to ‘Merica, so we ended up with one flight to Kuala Lumpur, and then another to Chicago via Shanghai. It was going to suck, but we were certain that we gave enough time in between flights to not deal with any issues. At the airport, we had some drinks and a toast to an awesome year on the Island of the Gods. The AirAsia flight to KL was smooth sailing, giving us a few hours in the Malaysian capital before our next flight. Unfortunately for us, that flight was with China Eastern.
With our departure set for 2 AM, we planned on sleeping through the flight and waking up in Shanghai. Due to past experiences with Chinese airlines, we knew the potential was there for disaster. When we boarded the flight on time, it seemed as if luck was on our side. I promptly passed out in my chair, figuring I’d have a nice sleep on the long flight. About an hour later, and we were still on the runway. A voice came over the PA system and alerted us that the flight had been delayed… until 8 AM. Everyone was forced off the plane and given a food voucher. At this ungodly hour, we were left eating lukewarm, crusty Burger King chicken nuggets. We then pushed two chairs together and tried to sleep while vacuum cleaners whizzed around us.
Naturally, we ended up missing our connecting flight to Chicago. Rather than change us to another airline or offer any compensation, the incredibly rude China Eastern staff gave us boarding passes for a flight the next day and told us to sit around and wait for a shuttle to take us to what we were sure would be a shithole hotel. We were trying to maintain our calm until we went and got our bags. Both of our backpacks reeked of dead fish.
Rachel’s Chinese arguing abilities got us about $50 in cash. We used it to pay for dumplings, Budweisers, coffee the next morning, and a huge can of air freshener. It wasn’t enough compensation to have to smell that smell all night, though. We finally made it to Chicago but were then painfully jet-lagged working at Summer Camp music festival. We’re happy to report that our bags no longer smell of dead fish, but this still counts as one big fat fail.
5. Getting Trapped in Chinese Tour Groups
By this point, you probably aren’t surprised to see China making yet another appearance on this list. It isn’t the easiest place to travel in, that’s for sure. If you’ve ever seen Chinese people travel, you’re probably familiar with the Chinese tour group. They’re huge, pushy, oblivious, rude, and they all wear matching hats and follow a megaphone-wielding tour guide. I’m convinced that hell on earth is just taking part in a Chinese tour group. I hate them so much I’m shaking just writing this. I can’t even stand the sight of them, let alone joining one. Sadly, we’ve gotten stuck in a Chinese tour group on more than one occasion.
One year for the May Day holiday, we traveled to the coastal city of Dalian. Upon our arrival, we were informed by the hotel we had reserved that they didn’t have any record of our booking. Being stuck in a popular destination during a major Chinese holiday without accommodation is not somewhere you want to be. Eventually, we were convinced to take a room at a hotel near the train station. They offered us a discounted rate – which was still more than we wanted to pay – in exchange for us joining their tour. The pictures seemed alright, and they promised me there would be no forced shopping trips or tourist traps with extra fees. Of course, they lied about everything.
The tour was beyond garbage. At the first stop, we were told we had to get off the bus because it was a “sensitive place.” For half an hour, we just sat around in a parking lot. Next up was a stop by the water full of tourist traps that cost extra. A bottle of whiskey was purchased to help ease the pain, but no drink is strong enough to counter the misery that a Chinese tour group induces.
Later on, we went to a snake museum – which actually turned out to be a knock-off of the real snake museum. That’s how ridiculous China is. Someone actually opened a rip off version of a stupid tourist trap, just to con even more people out of their RMB. We also went to a wildlife park, where the gullible suckers on our bus were convinced that the bears liked to drink Coke. They paid an inflated price to toss bottles to the “Cola Bear,” who naturally ignored them. The tour ended with me cursing our guide out in Chinese – “F**k your ancestors to the 18th generation!” – and leaving the bus to wander off on our own. Another day, another travel fail in China.
Check out my video – “How to Survive a Chinese Tour Group”
6. Getting Robbed on the Way to the Jungle
Traveling is always a learning experience, and you’re bound to make mistakes along the way. On our first trip to Thailand, we made a big one. En route from Ko Pha Ngan to Ko Phi Phi, we decided to make a pitstop at Khao Sok National Park for some hiking. We didn’t do any research – just booked a bus ticket and thought we’d figure it out there. We ended up staying at a place called Jungle Huts, which definitely ranks up there with the worst we’ve ever experienced. These things didn’t even deserve to be called huts. Our bed seemed to merely be a sheet over jagged springs, the mosquito net was full of holes, and we saw the staff encouraging a toddler to smoke a cigarette. And I thought I’d seen bad parenting in Detroit.
We can deal with crappy accommodations and uncomfortable situations, but things were made even worse when Rachel opened her bag to discover her lock had been picked and her cash had been stolen. We should have known not to keep any valuables out of sight, but sadly we had to learn the hard way. To top it all off, we would later learn that Khao Sok is home to a beautiful lake with floating bungalows. Had we not gotten robbed and booked a place that didn’t even deserve half a star, we could have afforded to stay there. How do you say “epic fail” in Thai?
7. Almost Dying in Laos
At the end of our stay in Laos, we were in the beautiful, remote town of Nong Khiaw. It being Chinese New Year, popular Luang Prabang was overwhelming, leading us to choose this more off the beaten path destination. A few days of cycling, hiking, and swimming in the river were the perfect way to end three weeks in Laos. The only problem was how we were going to make our way to the Thai border. A local “travel agent” ensured us that he could get us a ticket all the way there. First up, we would take a mini-van to a bus station about an hour away. The big bus headed from Luang Prabang to Thailand would then pick us up there and bring us all the way to the border. Another lesson learned – if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
The short story is that we were convinced our driver was going to fall asleep and drive off the side of a mountain, plunging us all to our deaths. Thanks to our witty ways, we managed to avoid death and lived to see another day. You’ll have to stay tuned for our next post to learn exactly how we saved ourselves and a van full of 15 Laotians.
There ya go, folks. Next time you see a picture of Rachel in a bikini on the beach drinking a mango margarita, just remember that she’s also had to endure me dropping my pants in a KTV, getting robbed in Thailand, having a backpack smell like dead fish, and joining a Chinese tour group. And that’s something I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.
What was your most epic travel fail? We’d love to hear it!