Great Solo Asian Trip Part 1: General Thoughts

This is the first part of my two-part series on my 4-month trip to Asia. In this post, I will talk about my thoughts related to the trip and travel in general; in the second post I will go into detail about my experience learning the languages of all the countries I went to.

During my 4 months of travel, I visited 5 countries: China, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, and Malaysia. Now I will admit that I’m not a very skilled photographer, nor am I able to write succulent descriptions of exotic foods. Rather than bore the reader with a play-by-play itinerary of the whole 4 months, I’ve grouped my thoughts by theme rather than chronological order.

Trip Planning

For the first month of my trip, I travelled around China with my mom and sister. Most of my relatives live there, and it’s obligatory to pay them a visit every 5 years or so. After China, Japan and South Korea were natural countries to visit next, since I’d wanted to go there for a long time but never got the chance to.

20_8_2017_7_9_28_322Above: Me at Yangshuo, Guangxi province, China

That left me another month of travel time, and initially I wasn’t sure where to go. There were a number of places I wanted to go in Southeast Asia, like Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, and Myanmar, but it was July and much of Southeast Asia was in the middle of monsoon season. I figured it would suck to go somewhere and have it rain nonstop for days, so I looked at climatology maps and picked two places that were relatively dry this time of year: Central Vietnam and Malaysia.

Travel and Productivity

During my trip, I spent roughly half my time doing touristy activities and the other half of my time sitting in cafes, working on various projects. One might wonder why you’d want to travel to Vietnam just to code in a cafe — but I found that after visiting tourist attractions every day for a week, I’d start to feel overwhelmed. Travelling is physically tiring, so it was important to pace myself for such a long trip.

I found cafes to be reasonably productive environments. Not only do they have better wifi than my hotel room, they also have nice ambiance and I get to try all sorts of snacks and drinks. Some of the stuff I worked on include:

  • Wrote a few blog posts about math and language learning
  • Some data analysis related to my school’s student enrolment statistics. I got a lot of practice using R in the process.
  • Built some NLP modules for Snaptravel, a friend’s startup
  • Watched some deep learning lectures and set up an AWS GPU instance to play with some deep learning models
  • Spent about 30 minutes a day learning the country’s language

Making Friends

I found that when travelling alone, I’m a lot more likely to talk to random strangers than when I’m travelling with other people — you’re much less approachable if you’re already engaged in an excited conversation with your travelmate. When travelling solo, it’s easy to start talking to the person next to you at a restaurant or on a train.

In all the countries I visited, I found that older people were universally more eager to talk to me than younger people. I imagine that young people are busy with their own problems and generally have better things to do than sit around and chat. One caveat is that older people usually don’t speak English. In Japan, this was a great way to practice my Japanese, but it was a problem in Korea and Vietnam, where I don’t speak the language very well. They still tried to talk to me, but I just didn’t know enough of their language to have a conversation for very long. When I got to Malaysia, where Mandarin is widely spoken, it was nice to be able to talk to the locals again.

Some of my friends like to use apps like Meetup to find events to meet people. I never tried it — it seemed like too much effort to actively make friends when I’m only in a city for a few days. Throughout the trip, I kept in contact with a bunch of relatives in China and friends in North America, so I never really felt lonely.

Cultural Diversity and Food

Asia is a very culturally diverse place, with more or less every country having its own ethnic group and its own language.

At the same time, each individual country is not a very diverse place. With the exception of Malaysia, all the countries I visited each had a very homogeneous society. In Vietnam, everybody not a tourist was Vietnamese. Currently, less than 1 in 1000 residents of Vietnam are foreign-born, compared to about 1 in 5 for Canada. Essentially, if you’re in Da Nang, you can get amazing Pho or Cao Lau, but if you’re craving an authentic Mexican burrito? Tough luck.

Above: Delicious food from around Asia. Don’t ask me what they are, because I don’t remember either.

In Canada, we’re used to attending a lecture taught by an Indian professor, having lunch at a Chinese restaurant, then going to the doctor and see a black physician. Multiculturalism is something we take for granted, but is simply not a thing in most parts of the world.

Vietnam and Malaysia are good countries to eat food. There aren’t that many must-see tourist attractions, so you can relax and enjoy the scenery and the food. It’s nice to be able to order a full meal, complete with appetizers, drinks, and dessert, and still have the bill be less than $10.

Travel and History

Above: North Korea from across the Demilitarized Zone and Hiroshima Atom Bomb Dome

Travel made me develop a greater appreciation for recent history and geopolitics, to understand how these countries became the way they are today. Two of the countries I visited were battlefields of the Cold War, the effects of which are still apparent to this day.

When I went to Hong Kong, I was amazed by the wealth of this tiny island. Despite having a population of just 7 million, it’s rank 6 in the world in number of billionaires. How did this city on the outskirts of China, with no natural resources, become so wealthy? To find out, I started reading about the British Opium Wars, and soon found myself learning about all sorts of interconnected topics like the rise of Chinese Communism and the Cultural Revolution.

Previously, I often found history to be a rather dry topic as presented in textbooks. It’s very different to visit the relevant countries and experience history firsthand.

Wifi: The Good and Bad

For me, wifi is probably the most important feature when booking hotels, as I’m heavily dependent on it for all my work, information, and communication. Unfortunately, there’s no reliable way to determine if a hotel has good wifi before actually going there (there do exist websites that collect speed test results, but their data only covers a small fraction of hotels in a city).

As an experiment, I classified each hotel I stayed in as “decent wifi” or “terrible wifi”. A wifi connection passes the bar for “decent” if I can browse the usual websites without it being noticeably slow, and watch Youtube at 480p without buffering (this requires a connection speed of about 1.0Mbps), otherwise I classify it as “terrible”. Here are my results:

5

So about half of the hotels passed this bar. China had the worst wifi and Japan had the best, but even in countries purported to have amazing internet like South Korea, you can end up with terrible hotel wifi. I suppose I should be glad that all of the places had at least some sort of wifi; this wasn’t the case when I visited China in 2013.

Airbnb has gotten rather deceptive lately. Previously it was a good way to live in a person’s house and get to know the city from the perspective of a local. Now, a large number of listings are hotels, and even properties described as “homestays” are very much commercial ventures; most of the time, I never met my “host”. I found the best way to get an actual host is to look for hosts with only a single listing, but there is no way to filter for that automatically in the app.

Final Thoughts

20_8_2017_7_8_17_662Above: Me at Fushimi Inari Taisha, Kyoto

I’m very grateful to have the opportunity to take 4 months off to travel around Asia. The timing was worked naturally (graduated in April, leaving a 4-month gap before graduate school starts in September), and I had accumulated enough internship savings to afford it.

Now, having had experience with long-term travel, I don’t want to make this my permanent lifestyle. The most obvious issue is money, which I’ll run out of eventually, so I’d need to find some part-time remote work on the side. More crucially, there are certain advantages of staying in one place: it’s easier to build a social network, advance in your career, and find a significant other, all of which are difficult if you’re moving every week.

Although I don’t want to travel permanently, I really enjoyed my 4-month travel adventure. Maybe I’ll do it again someday, in a different part of the world — Europe maybe? We’ll see.

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