Exactly ten years ago, we were on a month-long backpacking trip in Thailand. While we had both traveled quite a bit, this was the first time either of us traveled as backpackers.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that it was the trip that changed our lives. In this post, we’ll take a little walk down memory lane and reflect on that life-changing experience in Southeast Asia.
Our Previous Travels
Although neither of our families were necessarily big into travel, we both went on some epic trips as youngsters. Rachel went to a land down under when she was just 13 on a trip to Australia and New Zealand. I went with my cello group (nerd!) to Italy and Greece, made my first trip to Mexico with a friend, and even ran away to Amsterdam to see some jam bands in college.
We both did a lot of traveling in our college years to see music, actually. For me, it was usually running around the Midwest seeing Umphrey’s McGee, while Rachel saw a lot of Disco Biscuits and STS9 shows in the Southeast. Other than a trip to Jamaica where I stayed at a resort the whole time partying and seeing music, international travel wasn’t really on the radar.
That all changed when I made the decision to move abroad to teach English in China. I suddenly became fascinated with learning Chinese, trying all the weird things they eat over there and traveling to random places on my own or with a few friends.
Thanks to the Great Recession of 2009, it wasn’t that hard to convince Rachel to give China a chance as well. I moved back there for a second time and brought her with me, and that’s when our international (mis)adventures began.
In that first year in China, we were pretty broke. Before moving there, we were on food stamps and barely making our $200 a month rent in a friend’s attic.
As such, we didn’t travel much that first year. We pretty much just went on “visa run” trips to Hong Kong and Seoul, which were only a few days each. That’s because we had to focus on finding jobs and our own place to live.
What a Difference a Year Makes
We moved to Beijing together in March 2010 with nowhere to live and no jobs. Between the two of us, we barely had a thousand bucks. It wasn’t ideal, but we were happy to be out of Middle Tennessee.
We spent the first few weeks crashing with friends and going to interviews. Rachel got a gig as an English-speaking babysitter for a super-rich family. She then bombed her first demo for a position at a kindergarten but was offered a job anyways.
As for me, I eventually found my old school in a very random coincidence after they moved. I also took on some tutoring jobs on the side, and we both got part-time work recording ourselves reading texts that were riddled with errors. No wonder there’s so much Chinglish in China!
In the fall, a friend recommended me for a job at the university where he was teaching. Just like that, I was making over $30 an hour teaching in a major Chinese university. The program was a bit of a joke, but the money wasn’t!
Just six months after we arrived in Beijing, we moved into our own 3-bedroom apartment in a great area. A good friend also needed a place to live, so we became roommates.
Best of all, we had a long holiday to look forward to. Working at public schools meant we got a month-long vacation during the Chinese New Year. With the frigid, dry, and windy winter fast approaching, we decided to head somewhere tropical.
For Christmas, we got each other some knock-off North Face backpacks and a copy of Lonely Planet Thailand. We booked a flight into Bangkok and one out of Vientiane for a month later.
We were going backpacking in Southeast Asia!
Hopping on the Banana Pancake Trail
If you know us, you know that we like to party (sorry if you don’t). As such, we planned our trip around the Full Moon Party in Thailand and the infamous “In the Tubing” of Vang Vieng, Laos. We jumped right on the Banana Pancake Trail, as the common route for backpackers in Southeast Asia is known.
First up was a few days in Bangkok, where we saw the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, hit the Chatuchak Weekend Market, and drank all the Chang beers with our good friend who lived there.
Next up we headed to the islands. First was a few relaxing days on Koh Tao, the Turtle Island. We rented a motorbike for the first time and nearly crashed it on day one. Our days were filled with hiking, kayaking, and snorkeling, while nights were for street food and street beers.
A night of lunacy followed at the Full Moon Party. We joined 30,000 other revelers on the beach in Koh Pha Ngan for a marathon party of dirty beats and cheap booze. After a recovery day in the hammocks, we hiked to a waterfall for a refreshing swim.
From there, we headed to the other coast.
In between, we stopped for a few days of hiking in Khao Sok National Park. Then it was off to the tiny Koh Phi Phi for a few days of R&R. Well, mostly R&R. We also bought 3-for-2 buckets one night at the Irish bar and got absolutely smashed. Whoops.
Before going up north, we visited the ancient city of Ayutthaya to explore the ruins. Then we took the overnight train up to Chiang Mai for a whole new adventure.
After a few days of checking out the markets and temples in the city, we embarked on a 3-day jungle trek. We slept in huts and jumped into waterfalls, all with the help of our trusty guide Book (as in Jungle Book).
On the way out of Thailand, we dropped by the stunning White Temple. It remains one of the most incredible sights we’ve seen in our decade of travel together.
We then took the slow boat (it’s not just a clever name) to Luang Prabang, Laos. Although we only had a few days in this historical town, we made a promise to return one day and we eventually did.
The trip ended with a float down the Nam Song River as we had our first experience “in the tubing.” There were rope swings, ziplines, and even a “death slide.”
Bars had locals reel you in with a water bottle on a string, at which point they proceeded to feed you free shots of whiskey. There were “Happy Shakes” and “Bob Marley” specials at every place.
It was, in a word, ridiculous.
Hungover and exhausted, we dragged our sorry asses straight to the airport in Vientiane for the long trip back to the frozen tundra of Beijing.
A Life-Changing Trip
Our trip around Thailand and Laos was such a whirlwind that we didn’t really have time to process it. After getting back to Beijing, we began to reflect on the adventure.
Sure, we made all the mistakes (go read that post for a good laugh), but we still had the time of our lives. That sense of adventure and freedom was so thrilling.
Cruising around on a scooter, hiking random trails, perusing night markets, and planning the day’s next move filled us with so much excitement.
It was definitely tough settling back into “real life” back in the Chinese capital. Those harsh, smoggy winter days in Beijing had us dreaming of Thai beaches on a daily basis.
While on that trip, I was actually working on a big video project for a language company. It was then and there that I realized the potential for making money on my computer.
That trip also made us realize that to truly enjoy your travels, you need a lot of time. We thought a month would be enough, but we ended up rushing through Laos and barely seeing anything.
Back in Beijing, we started to dream of long-term travel and location independence. A trip to Bali in 2012 really set those wheels in motion.
We worked our asses off and saved over $25,000 to take off on a gap year and started this little blog around the same time.
A decade later, we’re still going strong. We’re more digital nomads than backpackers these days, as we’ve swapped cheap hostels for nice Airbnbs. We now teach English online, I do freelance writing, and this little blog that could actually makes us some decent money.
We may not be rich or have many worldly possessions, but we have something that we value above all else – freedom.
The freedom to travel when we want, for as long as we want. The freedom to take time off without asking for it. And the freedom to focus on projects that inspire us.
Looking back on that trip to Thailand and Laos a decade ago, it’s clear that it really was a game-changer for us. It’s been ten years, yet it still seems like it was just yesterday. We can remember the details of that trip so clearly because it had such a huge impact on us. It’s something we’ll be talking about until we’re old and gray. Well, I’m basically already there, but you know what I mean…
While it’s definitely not a great time for travel planning at the moment, I encourage everyone reading this to not give up on their travel dreams. There are so many reasons to put off long-term travel, but our advice is to go for it the second you have the chance.
You can always buy more things and make more money. There’s no guarantee that you’ll be able to enjoy long-term travel in your golden years. At least not the kind where you sleep in hostels, pile into tuk-tuks, chow down on random street food, and dance the night away at ridiculous beach parties…
Just a fair word of warning – long-term travel may change your life. It may totally alter your perspective and lead you to quit your job, sell your stuff, and hit the road.
Then again it might not. You may find that you much prefer going on “vacation” once a year. The thing is until you try it, you’ll never know.
Looking back on our first backpacking trip ten years ago, we’re so happy we just went for it. That trip led us to seek out life on our terms and we wouldn’t have it any other way.
If you’re looking for some more inspiration for planning your own dream trip to Thailand, check out our post about One Month in Thailand. We’ve also got one about teaching English in Thailand if you’d like to try working there.
If you’re more visual, then dive into our 3-part video series about spending a month in this amazing country: