“Could you please tell me,” asked a kind reader, “How do you choose which places to visit? Do you have it all planned in advance? Do your plans change?”
Here is the multi-part answer, adorned in the background with photos from lovely Luang Prabang, Laos’s Kouang Si Waterfall, and the bear sanctuary nearby.
A. For the overall year of travel, I bought the following Round-the-World Ticket through STA Travel Agency, based on places that interested me and were cheap and warm, and places in which I have friends:
Boston (August 12, 2009) -> San Francisco -> Tokyo, Japan -> (bus to Osaka) -> Osaka, Japan -> Bangkok, Thailand (gap of 2.5 months with no tickets) -> Dubai, United Arab Emirates -> Istanbul, Turkey -> (gap of four months with no tickets) -> Madrid, Spain -> Boston (March 30, 2010)
Dear STA Travel dealt gracefully with my whiny emails requesting flight changes based on my ever-changing whims and situations, and, for a cost of merely $23, rerouted the second half of my Round the World ticket to this:
Bangkok, Thailand -> Rome, Italy -> (three months with no tickets and absolutely a million amazing possibilities for destinations, so give your input if you have it!) -> Madrid, Spain -> Boston (March 30, 2010).
Based on this experience, my current Round the World Ticket advice for potential travelers is as follows:
b) Buy some legs in advance, but leave large parts un-ticketed, because (for example) I’ve been able to happily travel through Southeast Asia for months using just local buses, and because…
c) Your wishes and circumstances will change as the months go on, and thus so will your destination desires.
B. Regarding how to choose destinations on a smaller, day by day level, I planned almost nothing beforehand for these four months in Southeast Asia. That said, once I got here, the path was essentially laid out for me already thanks to the following elements:
You realize when you land in a city (especially in a well-traveled region like Southeast Asia) that the tourist trail is already established, thanks to the local tourist infrastructure (ex: air conditioned bus routes offered), through guidebook recommendations, through what other tourists are doing, and through what makes logical and geographical sense.
For example, most tourists arrive in Vietnam either in Hanoi (the top) or Saigon (the bottom). You then proceed to make your way either up or down the country, always stopping at major tourist delight cities (ex: Nha Trang or Hoi An), and optionally stopping at more minor tourist delight cities (ex: Dalat, Hue). Vietnam even has a government-subsidized “Open Tour” bus where you can hop on and off at each of the famous destinations.
Many folks do choose to visit areas outside of the tourist trail ones, but you realize when you hit the ground which towns have easy tourist facilities and sights, and which ones you will have to work harder for.
In short: you will know where is best for you to go.
2. Your interests help dictate your next destination.
You will rapidly learn, through a guidebook flip and a chat with other tourists going the opposite direction, which towns hold elements of particular interest or disinterest to you.
Are you in Cambodia and you have a love of beaches? Almost surely you will choose to go down to the shores at Sihanoukville. Are you in Thailand and like mountain trekking and/or holistic health? You will probably find yourself in Chiang Mai.
That said, you may not think you like a certain type of attraction (ex: ancient temples), but some sites, like the world’s biggest religious structure at Angkor Wat, Cambodia, are far too famous and awe-inspiring to pass up.
3. Backtracking is annoying!
You will become familiar with the area’s maps and bus/train/plane/taxi/boat options, and will usually opt for routes that minimize backtracking. For example, I would be interested in seeing Laos’s “Four Thousand Islands” region, but to get there I would have to backtrack through Vientiane for twelve hours, then take another twenty-something hour bus East, which is in the opposite direction of my desired Thai destination. Therefore, I shall skip that section of Laos for now.
Again, in the case of truly exceptional tourist attractions (in my case, Halong Bay, Vietnam), you may agree to live with some backtrack action.
4. What are your new friends doing? Or, conversely, what are your enemies not doing?
What other travelers you like or dislike are doing is a major factor in calculating your own route. Oh, the times I have seen lovesick folks chasing their lady or man friends across countries! Oh, the times we have all seen other folks flee a love gone wrong!
Since so much of travel and life happiness is about the people around you, company is a distinct force in shaping plans.
5. What destination and transportation method gives you the lowest cost, while keeping you sane and interested?
a) The 20 hour winding mountain bus for $14
b) The either amazing or utterly hellish (depending on who you ask) two day river boat, with an overnight in a random island town, followed by a six hour bus ride, for $35.
c) The one hour flight for $150.
Weighing cost and horrid fascination, I will likely go with option “b”– the mysterious river boat. The plane just seems too much hassle, fear, and money. Which option would you choose?
I wrote this article partly to answer the reader mail, but partly because I wish someone had said all this to me before I left.
But, for absolutely sure, when you are actually out on the trail, you WILL know the answers that are right for you.