Check out all recent Thailand pictures here.
Motorcycling is glamorous. Riding my scooter definitely is not. It has a wimpy tenth of a liter engine that coughs and wheezes to lift me up hill and can barely move itself 45 miles per hour even in a full downhill sprint. But it's still incredibly freeing.
In a car we have our personal space well defined: I'm in this five by ten foot box, you're in your own five by ten foot box. On a scooter that box doesn't exist. At traffic lights all the scooters push to the front of the queue, only a foot or two apart from each other. Here I'm exposed to the world: hearing people's conversations, talking to them as I drive by, feeling and smelling particulate exhaust from the bike in front of me burn itself into my eyes and nostrils. Getting covered in dust, feeling the puff of air from passing cars, and feeling the difference in heat from the sunny and shaded sides of the street.
On a motorbike you can see a friend, say hello to them, and then stop and talk for a while without turning your bike off and without blocking traffic. This doesn't feel much different from the way that the Segway was supposed to change cities: the motorbike is just faster, cheaper, and you look like less of an idiot riding one.
After several months of walking, busing, and taking public transit around Asia the simple ability to get on a bike, kick start start the engine, and move across town without sweating a liter of salt water is incredible. It feels like the childhood dream where I learned to fly. It gives me a fresh understanding of the cities I visit.
Chiang Mai is a gorgeous place, so much that I decided to cut my other plans loose and spend some extra days here. The people in Chiang Mai are among the friendliest I've found and Chiang Mai is the first place I really think I could live. It's the Kyoto of Thailand: temples everywhere, smaller and quieter than it's big brother city, and decidedly more relaxed. A nice hotel room would cost you $900/month and a perfectly adequate hotel might be $300/month — much lower if you can negotiate.
Outside Chiang Mai is nice too. Riding through the mountains it's easy to see why people with attention deficit disorder love to ride motorcycles: it's nearly impossible to think of anything aside from the number of ways that you might be dying in the next few seconds. Dodging gravel pits, loose sand, and potholes feels like a video game with only one life. It's enthralling.
Chiang Mai, Thailand.
What's your most valuable asset? Think on it for a minute.
Most people would probably say that their most valuable asset is the most expensive thing they own: maybe a house or a car. Other people would say it's their family.
I think that our most valuable asset is our attention. This isn't obvious, but it should be: we get paid to apply our attention to problems at work, the religions of the world demand our attention to pray, and our family and loved ones ask for attention from us to feel valued. If we completely lost the ability to hold our attention we would be unproductive and unemployable.
What else demands our attention? A push notification about a friend request interrupts us in the middle of dinner, the apps on our home screen fill with red badge icons to remind us of things we haven't done, friends message us when we're deeply involved in a face to face conversation with someone else, and emails arrive over our lunch break perfectly timed using artificial intelligence to place them at the top of our inbox.
We have at most 24 hours per day of attention, 16 if we sleep regularly, and the computers of the world would like to eat all of that time by distracting us.
I'm not saying that this is evil or even that it's wrong. Our attention being eaten is just a side effect of a metrics and advertising driven world. As internet citizens we have shown each other that we're too cheap to pay money for things. So instead we use them for free and pay with our eyes.
Any large Internet service will have a metrics team and that team will invariably optimize metrics with A/B tests. In a world designed by statistical tests the metrics that are the most reliable and easy to measure are the ones that will be taken more seriously. Services will be optimized for clicks, revenue, and time spent because those metrics are far easier to measure than fuzzy concepts like satisfaction, utility, and happiness. So our time and attention tend to get eaten and our happiness — well — no one really knows what that looks like over time.
In general this is fine — most people like using computers or they would stop. But on the margins this makes us increasingly distracted. It's become hard to even read a book.
What can we do about it? I love using Facebook and Instagram but I know that I'll just log in reguarly anyway. So I've turned off all push notifications, badges, and from push emails on my phone. I also unsubscribe from every marketing email as soon as it comes in — I'm going to go shopping anyway. This isn't a major investment, it's just a little one, but it lets my thoughts follow their own path instead of being interrupted mid-stream by information I'm not ready for.
Each time I preemptively block something from distracting me: a home screen badge, a push notification, or a spammy mailing list, I buy back some of that ability to concentrate for extended periods of time. It feels a lot better: I feel happier by letting my thoughts exist without interruption. It could be worth making the same investment in yourself.
P.S. I'm guilty of advertising too. My last headline was jokingly clickbait. I don't charge for this site, and only a handful of people have bought my prints, so instead I link to products on Amazon hoping that you'll buy them and offset some of my production cost. Invariably this biases me to write about things that can earn money with affiliate links. I don't like it, I try to avoid it, but I know that it's true.
Just as an experiment here's a subscribe button. I doubt anyone will directly pay for this content, but if you do I'll take all the money and apply it to future budget travel, camera gear, website hosting costs, and coffee to keep me writing and making things you find interesting.
Chiang Mai, Thailand.
I've spent the last three months ultralight backpacking around Asia. My plan is to be gone for a lot longer than three months, but I've already learned valuable lessons from the road.
Foreign countries are complicated, and you're going to look like an idiot the first time you do something. You're going to make mistakes. But the sooner you look like an idiot and make mistakes the sooner you'll learn not to do them again.
Let me share some with you some of the mistakes I've made.
- Don't tell people you're traveling alone. If a taxi driver asks you why you're going somewhere it's easiest to say "I'm meeting friends."
- Always look at the menu before ordering.
- Be skeptical of anyone who approaches you in public and wants to be friendly. At best this cost me $1 to buy a guy beer after he gave me a free tour of Bangkok, at worst it cost me $50 in tea in Beijing. A friend of mine bought a girl a beer in Budapest and a bartender with a gun demanded $200.
- Never accept a taxi that is offered to you. Flag one down. If you're at an airport generally you should pay a metered rate inside before getting into a taxi and they will give you a ticket. A taxi at the airport will often cost more than a hotel room, it's a good time to make friends with other tourists and split a cab into town.
- Never put your bag in the trunk of a taxi. Drivers will often try to extort you for extra money using your bag as collateral.
- Be nice to security and cops. They can make your life hard. If they give you trouble ask them if you can "pay the fine here" — it's a good code to let a cop know you're willing to bribe them without being specific enough to get you into trouble.
- If a man with a gun asks for a bribe you should probably pay him, but it doesn't hurt to negotiate.
- If you see cops, slow down a little bit but don't make eye contact. Make it clear that you won't resist stopping but don't give them an opportunity to stop you without a good reason.
- Your passport is worth about $10,000 on the black market. Treat it like it's the most expensive thing in your bag.
- Don't be afraid of street food, but bring strong antibiotics and Imodium. You can't macho yourself through food poisoning.
- Squat toilets aren't that bad, but make sure you can actually get into the right position first. Many American's can't and it's worth practicing squatting before show time.
- If you need to buy something Google Image search is a great way to show someone exactly what you want and get them to point you in the right direction.
- Don't be afraid to buy things and later give them away. If your clothes are dirty and a cheap shirt costs $3, buy one and give it to someone when you're done doing laundry.
- A lot of tickets are fully refundable. It's free money if you ask.
- But don't buy or bring a fancy lighter anywhere. That thing will get stolen by security in a heart beat. Same story for scissors.
- If you plan to ride a motorcycle learn to brake first and practice braking hard from every speed you'll ride at. Smaller bikes can go much faster than they can stop and stopping distance doubles for every 10mph you increase in speed.
- Let the clutch out gently on all manual transmission vehicles.
- Keep a real flashlight in your pocket. The one I carry can be had for $26 on Amazon. Why? Flashlights prevent accidents at night, they help you find stuff in your bag, and they are surprisingly good for self defense. You're not planning on getting attacked, and the flashlight isn't a great weapon, but in a pinch it can blind someone, scare them away, or be pushed into their sternum to move them away from you 1.
- About your bag: get a bag with a light colored interior. The only company I know that does this is Tom Bihn. It's so much easier to find a small pen against a lime green interior than inside a black cavern.
- While you're at it: get a small bag. Mine is only 18 liters and it's smaller than what I carried to grade school. Don't aim for something that fits in the overhead bin, aim for something that slides under the seat in front of you. Smaller is better in so many ways that it's hard to count.
- Separate your things into what you need all the time, what you need in your hotel, and stuff you rarely need. Put each of these into clear loksaks (high quality plastic bags) or stuff sacks (Tom Bihn makes great stuff sacks). Bags inside bags is much easier than everything mixing around together. When you get to your hotel leave those second two bags in the room and go wander around the city.
- Pack your clothes toward the bottom of your bag. This serves three purposes: first, heavier stuff on top of your bag will compress your clothes down and make them take up less space. Second, heavier weight in your pack toward the top will make the bag feel lighter because the center of gravity is closer to your center of gravity. Third, heavier things are generally more expensive than clothes. The clothes will provide padding when you drop it.
- To make most bags lockable: thread key-rings through the zippers on your bag, then pull the zippers together and put a combination lock through the key rings. It's not perfect, but it's much better than nothing. I even lock my bag when I walk around sketchy towns late at night.
- Don't carry any bigger than travel sized toiletries. Unless you're going really far off the grid you can get all the soap, toothpaste, and deodorant you want at any local convenience store. Travel sized toiletries last me a month if I'm careful. It's also really not that bad to go one or more days without any of these things if you run out.
- If you do run out of something, ask at the hotel. Chances are they have it and they'll give it to you for free. This applies to soap, tampons, shampoo, toothpaste, razors, toothbrushes and combs.
- Put all of your pills and prescriptions in one bottle, then write down the numbers on the pill and what the pill is into a note on your phone. Worst case you can Google the numbers on a pill at any time and find out what it is. I then transfer my daily prescriptions into a film canister and keep it in the top compartment of my bag where I'll see it every day and remember to take them. While you're at it — take pictures of the original bottles and prescriptions just in case anyone in customs asks — but they have never asked me.
- Bring napkins with you, they'll also work as toilet paper in a pinch. A surprising number of restaurants think one napkin will get you through dinner, and a surprising number of restrooms don't have toilet paper.
- A bit of gaffers tape and string is always handy. Black tape does a fantastic job making expensive electronics look cheap or broken, and string is useful as a clothesline or emergency shoelaces.
- Cut your toothbrush in half. Apply that logic everywhere else in your bag and you're probably still packing too much.
Where to stay
- Hotels are often cheaper than hostels, even in Japan. Shop around. I stay in hostels to be social but not generally to save money.
- In China it really helps to have a local book your rooms. Hotels for tourists in China have entirely different processes than hotels for locals because tourists must register their lodging with the police. The thing is, no one actually cares, and you can save a lot of money staying in local hotels.
- Be careful about booking rooms online. You'll often overpay and the pictures always lie. Unless there's a major holiday in town you can just wander around, look at rooms, and negotiate on prices for cash payment to get a better deal. I show them the Agoda price, tell them I know they'll only get a percentage of that amount, and ask them to split the difference with me. You can also generally pay one day at a time and avoid having to ask for a refund if you check out early.
- Only book a room online if the pictures look fantastic. If they can't even dress the place up to look nice in photos it's going to be really bad looking in person.
- Hotels have the best public restrooms by far. They also have no idea that you aren't staying there. Walk in like you own the place.
- If you don't eat or drink something tell people "it makes me very sick" and pretend you're allergic. They'll think you're weird, but they won't be offended.
- People in China don't seem to say "thank you." I got criticized for saying "thank you" too much by a local friend. The Chinese culture might feel abrasive because it lacks so much of the formality we're used to in the West.
- People like to stare. It's not a big deal. Smile at them.
What to wear
- Buy as many things as you can made of wool. It refuses to smell bad, it can hold half it's weight in water before it feels wet, and it can be washed with shampoo (it's just hair... which is kind of gross to think about).
- Other than that I buy the lightest things I can, often they're expensive. See my whole packing list for suggestions.
Things you don't need
- Anything you think you only might need. Good chance you don't need it. I've cut my bag almost in half from what I originally carried.
- More than two of any article of clothing.
- More than a few of any pill you aren't taking regularly already. Over the counter and prescription drugs are stronger and cheaper in Asia than in the US.
- A clothesline. I just hang my clothes over the bathroom door or the shower curtain rod.
- A travel sleeping sheet. Online reviews mean that bed bugs will end a business overnight. I talked to a guy who has traveled off and on for the last 10 years and he threw his sleeping sheet away 5 years ago. It may be worth keeping a silk one though since they're incredibly comfortable. It's also nice to have a silk sheet when sleeping on damp boats or trains that don't provide sheets.
- Shorts. In most cultures it's disrespectful to wear shorts if you aren't at the beach. If you are at the beach you can just wear a swimsuit as shorts.
Get out there and have fun. If you are street smart the world is a fascinating and safe place. In three months I haven't had a single thing stolen and have met tons of fantastic people.
P.S. I'm sorry if this sounds excessively prescriptive, but "you should ..." is much easier to write than "what worked for me is ..." over and over.
I learned this in a handgun safety class. The instructor strongly suggested that everyone carry a flashlight instead of a gun. ↩
Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Think you're already traveling light? You can probably travel even lighter. Three months into long term travel I've realized that I really don't need as much as I first thought. Setting off from a developed country it was easy to think that I would be constantly bored and without clean clothes, water, or a comfortable place to sleep. It turns out that I need very little every day, almost everything can be bought on the road, and carrying less is always more pleasant than lugging something I don't need.
The contents of my bag.
Recently I've redone my packing list to fit into an 18 liter day pack. Most travelers that I've seen at the airport are forced to check a 40-60 liter backpack. My first pack was 26 liters and fit comfortably into an overhead bin, my new 18 liter pack slides under the seat in front of me in economy class.
The fact is, most people traveling Southeast Asia could go far lighter. I'm carrying a Macbook Pro and a full frame camera kit for producing this website. I'm also carrying full winter gear: a down jacket, thick socks, long underwear, hoodie, and a wool cap. If you cut all of this from your pack, just carried an iPhone as your camera and computer, and only wore minimalist sandals you could probably travel with 10 liters.
Most of this shockingly small pack is based around dual use items. I'm still surprised at how small it is. I no longer carry shorts, I just wear my swimsuit. I no longer carry a sleeping mask, I just use my wool buff pulled down over my eyes. For a while I carried a Canon S120, which is a fantastic camera, but the last time I went to use it had sat idle for so long that the battery was dead. I found a good deal on a used iPhone and just use that as both my phone and point and shoot camera now.
My backpack is an 18 liter Boreas Larkin. When I first saw it in Bangkok I was actually considering buying a larger pack so that I could carry a full sized tripod, but the Larkin was so comfortable that I decided I could just cut a few more things from my gear list and carry everything with this1. Now I can use my travel pack as a day pack around town, wearing it all day with no fatigue. I don't even think twice about going out for an afternoon without the bag — there is no reason not to carry it.
The packed bag, next to my shoes for comparison. All in it weighs roughly 6 kilos.
The Boreas Larkin works great as an every day around town pack. I keep my stuff organized into what I need all the time, what I need in my hotel, and long term storage of things I rarely need (emergency medications, passport photos, tape, etc). When I arrive in a hotel I leave the clothes, long term storage bag, and the toiletries in the room and head out to explore with a 5-6 pound pack containing my laptop, camera, rain jacket, and kindle. Having my laptop always with me is kind of awesome because any excuse to sit down and relax for a while on the road is also a chance to get some writing or work done.
Below is my revised packing list.
- Shirts Two Applatch v-neck wool shirts. These are my favorite wool shirts I've found. The cut fits me well, the v-neck is a little more stylish than a crew neck, and the front pocket is useful. I have light blue and gray colors. They do discolor a bit in the armpits and I haven't figured out if this is deodorant or the dye coming out.
- Hat A wool buff. The most useful travel item I own. I use this as a sleeping mask, a sweat band in hot weather, and a hat or scarf in cold weather.
- Shoes Merrell leather barefoot shoes. These aren't exactly stylish, but they're good enough to wear to dinner in a pinch. The shoelaces that come with them break quickly so you may as well replace them before hitting the road.
- Sandals Ultralight running sandals, my model has been discontinued but these look even better with more grip. I almost never wear these and I'd throw them out if they weren't useful in a pinch when my other shoes are soaked. Check out Tynan's review as well.
- Pants Rohan Stronghold Trousers. Decent looking pants, strong as hell — they didn't rip when I crashed a motorcycle in them — and they have secured zippers in the front right pocket and back right pocket. The front left pocket has a key chain ring built in where I clip my flashlight.
- Swimsuit/shorts: Patagonia Men's Light and Variable Board Shorts. Not much to say about these except they are light and very thin. The only have one tiny pocket in the back but since I always have my backpack with me this isn't a big deal. I wear them both for swimming and as shorts on extremely hot days.
- Two pairs of socks: thick icebreaker socks and thin smartwool socks.
- Underwear:Two pairs of Icebreaker Anatomica Boxers. They are comfortable and dry quickly. Since they're made of wool they barely smell at all even after being washed in the sink for weeks. The ExOfficio boxers are great for daily wear but will start to smell very bad after washing them for a few weeks in the sink.
Extreme weather clothes
- Icebreaker Leggings as a layer to go under my pants on cold days.
- Down Jacket: My favorite was the MontBell Ex Light, only 5.6 ounces with no pockets or hood. It's super warm and when layered with my hoody and rain jacket I'll be comfortable down to freezing tempertures. The Patagonia Ultralight Down Hoody is also very good but way bigger and almost twice as heavy (9.6oz) . Credit to Tynan's blog.
- Rain Jacket: The Outdoor Research Helium 2. It's only 6.4oz, folds down very small into its own pocket, and does an excellent job keeping me dry. It's much smaller packed down than any other rain jacket I've owned. Credit to Tynan's blog.
- Hoodie: The NAU M2 Hoody is the best hoodie I found. It's fashionable, light, and I've worn it for weeks without any smell at all. Credit goes again to Tynan's blog. I also tried the Icebreaker Quantum but found that it was too thick and duplicated warmth I can get from the down jacket.
Computer and camera stuff
- An 13 inch Retina Macbook Pro. I had an Air before, but the screen was too low quality for editing photos. All my photos need to be re-edited after seeing them on the bigger screen. It's a bit faster than the Air was, and the included SD port is really nice for pulling images from my camera. Overall it adds more than a pound to my bag.
- A 16 gig black iPhone 5s. This double as a handheld camera and as a phone. For $450 used in Thailand I'm glad to have this with me and sold my old phone and camera to more than cover the purchase price.
- A Leica M9 and 50mm F2 lens, just read my full review. But I don't carry the full 1 meter charging cable, I just use a figure 8 right angle adapter which is way smaller and lighter.
- A travel charger that adapts to all countries and includes two USB ports. (Mine is an identical product but from a different brand). I tried two other travel adapters before settling on this one. It's the best.
- Mini Tripod
- Mini USB 3 cable for use with my external hard drive and kindle.
- Kindle paperwhite 1G. The battery lasts forever and it's nice to have this around for distraction-free reading.
- Backup hard drive with a disaster recovery plan.
- A Tom Bihn money belt that works as an actual belt. I keep some cash and important notes in there. It could also easily fit a micro SD card if you wanted to keep data safe, but Dropbox is much more secure.
- Awesome small flashlight. I keep this clipped to the left pocket keyring of my pants at all times. I lasted me for three months of regular use on a single AAA battery and was waterproof enough for swimming through caves in Vietnam. A small and bright flashlight is one of the best self defense items you can carry: it keeps your path well lit and a model like this lets you push quickly on the back to make a flash of bright light and blind an attacker. I've never had to use the light this way but it was recommended in a self defense class.
- Persol folding sunglasses.
- Travel sleeping sheet. I have only used this a handful of times but I hear they are very useful in India so I'm keeping it for now. One tip is that a silk sleeping sheet is almost always more comfortable than the sheets in a hotel, so this is a really comfortable way to sleep even if you aren't worried about bed bugs.
- Collapsible Vapur Element water bottle. Most of the time I'll have to drink bottled water so there's no point in having a bulky aluminum or solid plastic bottle.
- Collapsible cup for coffee. It's easy to get hot water everywhere, it's hard to get coffee everywhere, so I carry this and some instant coffee (Starbucks Via is the best, but it's expensive).
- Carbon fiber money clip. This gets a lot of compliments and is useful for holding all sizes of bills. After four months it hasn't lost it's spring and still hold a single bill or 50 bills equally well.
- An external phone battery. My old Macbook Air laptop couldn't charge my phone while sleeping, but this new Macbook Pro is able to do it. So I may give away this external battery soon.
There are a few really tiny things not worth itemizing: earplugs, headphones, antibiotics, my lock and chain for securing my bag and a flashing light to go on the back of the bag — but basically that's it. Living with so little is kind of awesome.
As I travel I repack my bag every day and am forced to think about what's in it and what can be discarded. My friend Steve Davis calls this my "packing kaizen". When the contents of my bag got smaller I realized there was no reason to keep my laptop in a dedicated sleeve, this meant that I could bring my laptop with me everywhere, which in turn means I probably don't need my dedicated power bank to charge my phone, and that in turn means I probably don't need a dedicated USB wall charger. Over time these refinements build on each other and keep making my gear list smaller.
Other Recent Posts
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- or just head to the Index of Everything