12 Mistakes You Still Make as a Veteran Traveler

Ok, so you’ve been on the road for a while. You can differentiate between a longan berry, a lychee, and a rambutan in a blind taste test. You can do currency conversions almost without thinking, sew patches on your clothes, and your bargaining skills have actually become quite impressive. Things are pretty-much cake now, yeah?

Well…maybe not. Even the most seasoned travelers get tripped up from time to time. Here’s the dirty dozen we’re willing to admit.

1. Taking Photos in Bad Light

Some of our best photos – images of the bathing ghats in Varanasi, thousands of scooters zipping to work in Taipei, pink skies over New Zealand’s Southern Alps – were taken around the “golden hours” for photography: Sunrise and sunset. Our worst photos are always taken during the middle of the day when the light is harshest. It doesn’t matter how many photos you take; if the light is bad, chances are the pictures will be too.

[ptcPhoto filename=”NZSunset-1.jpg” title=”Sunset” caption=”The boys enjoying some wine at sunset.” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”BurjAlArab-1.jpg” title=”Dubai” caption=”And here’s a photo of the Burj Al Arab in Dubai, taken midday. Pretty big difference.” position=”center”]

We know when to catch great light, but somehow we manage to be doing other things when we could be taking incredible photos. If only there was a camera that dispensed tiny cups of espresso…

2. Planning Too Far Ahead

There’s always the initial research that makes you decide to visit a country in the first place. But doing too much in advance can be a small mistake (in that you’ll forget everything before it actually becomes relevant), or a big one (in that something comes up and you have to cancel plans). Aside from when we had visitors we never booked things more than a month in advance for the entire trip. The one time we did, we had to go home for a family emergency. If you’re a major planner, just make sure everything is refundable!

3. Not Planning Ahead at All

On the flip side of this coin, there are times when a lax approach to planning can bite back. For instance, you have to book months in advance to volunteer at the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai. Another example: One time in Malaysia we tried to get a bus from the east coast to Kuala Lumpur, but it was full. Since we already had a hotel in KL that evening we had to take a completely roundabout way to reach the city that took an extra 6 hours, cost more, and caused a lot of headaches. Did it all work out? Sure. But had we just walked to the station and booked tickets a day in advance, we would have had another day in KL.

4. Not Backing Up Data

I’m really bad about this. We’ve taken something like 20,000 photos over the last couple of years, and to lose any of them would be devastating. But do you think I remember to run a backup when we get to a hotel with good internet? That darn YouTube and its cat videos! I always forget! Thankfully Eric is much better about these things.

In case you’re wondering, the best backup solutions we’ve found are Dropbox for documents and Crashplan for photos. After the Crash of 2013 when Eric’s hard drive got wet, we learned the hard way how important it is to have a reliable resource not only for backing things up, but for “pulling them back down” as well.

5. Not Tackling Bucket List Items Immediately

Those few days when you first arrive to a new city, when you’re still excited and motivated…that’s the time to tackle all the things that brought you there. Too often we leave the major sights for the end and either rush through them or miss them completely.

[ptcPhoto filename=”GrandMosqueDome-1.jpg” title=”” caption=”Muscat’s Grand Mosque is incredible. But we had to rush through it so we could catch a flight.” position=”center”]

6. Not Making Sure the Meter is On

Here’s a rookie mistake. In much of the world taxi drivers don’t like to use their meters, assuming they even have one. In such cases it’s essential you agree on a price before getting into the cab. Every so often we just forget to agree on a price beforehand or check that the taxi driver has turned on the meter. This always results in a heavily inflated fare. It happens to the best of us.

7. Not Taking Time to Rest

A big part of long-term (or short-term) travel is knowing your limits. Nothing’s going to be that much fun if you’re tired and grumpy. I have some photos from days when we should’ve stayed in (and probably gotten separate hotel rooms) and I just remember them as bad days. There will be times when you’re just not feeling it. Don’t feel bad if you need to order in and watch movies…travel is supposed to be enjoyable!

8. Not Documenting Things

A photo, an email home to a friend, a journal, a memento, a blog post – these are all ways to document your experiences, big and small. Try to take note of things you find interesting before they become commonplace or you never see them again. Strangely, we also find that it’s worthwhile to document situations that have gone wrong, since they make for some of the funniest memories. In that moment when you’re completely lost or your meal is inedible you might be really pissed off. But in a few months when you’re telling the story, photos will just add to the hilarity.

[ptcPhoto filename=”PortugalDetail-1.jpg” title=”Details” caption=”Colorful street art in Lisbon: A reminder of that day when we explored the city.” position=”center”]

The combination of all of these things – the good and bad experiences, interactions with people, tastes, smells, costs, tiny details – make up your impressions of a place, and documenting them in some way will help you go back there in your memory any time you want.

(On the other hand, at times we tend to over-document things, thus missing out on the experience. There’s something to be said for putting the camera down and just taking in the moment.)

9. Being a Bad Judge of Character

In the developing world especially, it takes a little time to assess the locals. Are they just super friendly people who want to talk to you and invite you in for tea? Or are they only being nice because they want you to stay at their guest house/buy their carpets/take you on a tour that, unbeknownst to you, you’ve already begun? Sometimes you take the bait and end up paying someone just to leave you alone, and sometimes you end up brushing off someone who really was just a sweet old man trying to practice his English. It can be difficult to sort these things out on the spot when you’re in a new place.

10. Not Allowing Yourself to Buy or Do Something…

…because it’s not a “Good Deal”. If something looks like fun, go do it. If you’ve fallen in love with a unique piece of artwork or jewelry that will always take you back to that moment, buy it. There will be times that you know you can find a better price if you keep looking, and those of us on a tight budget will normally take on the challenge. But at the end of the day, saving that $5 might not be worth the hassle and time it took to do so – time that you could have spent making memories instead of making deals.

[ptcPhoto filename=”DubaiLanterns-1.jpg” title=”Lanterns” caption=”Having always wanted some of these Turkish-style lanterns, I’ve finally started a collection.” position=”center”]

11. Leaving Things Behind

Oooh, here’s one that drives us completely insane. You go to charge your laptop and find that nope, the power converter’s still plugged into the wall of your hotel room in Hong Kong. You’d just skip on over and pick it up, but there’s that little problem of already being in Taipei.

A running list of all the things we’ve lost in 20 months of traveling includes (but is not limited to): 1 shirt, an ATM card, 2 pack towels, chopsticks, spoons, sunglasses, an awesome pair of Pac-Man earrings, underwear, at least 4 converters, the first aid kit, an iPod, a Kindle, a jacket, a water bottle, Eric’s wallet, Sam’s knitting needles, and a goat hair bracelet.

Some tips to not be so bad at life? Try to avoid early flights, and go through a “pre-checkout check” that includes looking through every drawer and under the bed at least twice. Most everything can be easily replaced on the road, so we just try to roll with it and remind ourselves that when you pack up and move every three days, these things happen.

12. Doing Something Because it’s “The Thing to Do”

This one is pretty hard to avoid. After all, you aren’t going to visit northern India without seeing the Taj Mahal, and few people would go to Jordan without swinging down to Petra for a day or two. Most of these places become tourist traps for a reason, but sometimes you show up and say, “Yep, that’s it. Looks like the photos.” Occasionally, though, the main sights really do live up to the hype – Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon is a good example. You just never know unless you cough up the entry fee and stand in line with a million other tourists. Life is hard, I know.

Ok, what did we miss? Fellow travelers, do you have any confessions to make?

Snapshot Sunday: Burning up in the Arabian Desert

[ptcPhoto filename=”WahibaSS-1.jpg” title=”Desert” caption=”The Wahiba Sands desert – Al Sharqiya Province, Oman ” position=”center”]

Formed by blowing monsoons and winds, the Wahiba Sands is a desert region that stretches out along 5,000 square miles of eastern Oman. They may look barren, but the sands are home to thousands of invertebrate species – along with many Bedouin tribes like the Wahiba, from whom the desert gets its name.

Click here to view a larger, detailed image.

Snapshot Sunday: Marveling at Bagan’s Ancient Temples

[ptcPhoto filename=”BaganSS700.jpg” title=”Bagan” caption=”The Temples at Bagan – Mandalay Region, Burma” position=”center”]

They may not be as well-known as Angkor Wat or the Machu Picchu, but the Temples of Bagan make up one of the world’s best archaeological sites. Built between the 11th and 13th centuries, just over 2,000 of the original 4,000 structures survive today. Very few of them are regularly visited, so you can hire a bike and marvel at their antiquity without a tour group in sight.

Click here to view a larger, detailed image.

The PTC Koh Lanta Green Season Guide – Part One

Welcome to the Thai islands, where you can while away many a day on your choice of 1,400 little charms. Koh Phi Phi is known for scenes from The Beach, Koh Phangan has the Full Moon Party, Koh Tao has diving, and Koh Lanta has…well, a little bit of everything. It’s a good place to go if you can’t decide where to go.

[ptcPhoto filename=”LantaBeachBoat.jpg” title=”Boat” caption=”Beautiful waters off Lanta.” position=”center”]

If you’re after Thailand’s infamous happy shakes and buckets, Lanta might not be your first choice. But if you’re looking for a nice place to get a feel for life on the Thai islands (or if you need to recover from the aforementioned buckets), you could do worse than to spend a week or two here. We spent a month under Lanta’s spell and were really sad to leave.

Getting There

Few boats reach Lanta in the green (off) season, so to get there you’ll have to go overland. We came in from Langkawi, Malaysia and had to take a ferry from Langkawi to Satun, Thailand (the point of entry for immigration), and then take a minibus from there to Lanta with a short stop in Trang for lunch. They even dropped us off at our hotel. We paid 111 ringgit each (1113 baht/$35 USD) for this trip, and it was well organized and air-conditioned the whole way. In the high season there’s a ferry that goes from Langkawi to Koh Lipe, and you could probably island-hop up to Lanta from there.

[ptcPhoto filename=”LantaShop.jpg” title=”Gotta get some oats” caption=”Travel agent and ‘oat shop’ (??) on Lanta” position=”center”]

Leaving Lanta, it costs 400 baht to reach Ao Nang (450 to Rai Leh Beach, 300 to the Krabi airport), and a trip to Koh Ngai was also 400 baht on long tail boats. Overall it’s really easy to get from place to place – just walk into any travel agency and they’ll arrange transport that includes pickup from your hotel. (It doesn’t hurt to politely ask for discounts, especially if you’re booking multiple trips. The worst they can say is no!)

The Basics

With 30,000 people and an area of 130 square miles, Lanta isn’t what we would consider a small island. The population there is diverse, with a mix of Buddhists, Thai-Chinese, Moken (sea gypsies), and Muslims. Due to the island’s close proximity to Malaysia, the majority of its residents follow Islam.

[ptcPhoto filename=”LantaMarket.jpg” title=”Muslimahs” caption=”Muslimahs selling their wares at Lanta’s day market.” position=”center”]

While you could check in to your hotel and stay in one area the whole time, you’d be missing out if you didn’t explore the rest of the island. To do this, it really is necessary to rent a scooter. We paid 120 baht ($4) a day for long-term (3 week) rental, although the going rate for a daily rental is around 200 baht. Again, ask for a discount and you might get better prices – our second rental cost 500 baht for 3 days.

[ptcPhoto filename=”LantaScooter.jpg” title=”Scoopy” caption=”I failed to get a photo of our matching pink helmets.” position=”center”]

Fuel costs 40 baht for 750ml, or 50 for a liter. “Filling stations” are everywhere – just look for the little stands with whisky bottles filled with gasoline. There’s one main road that spans the whole length of Lanta and goes across to the Old Town, so it would be hard to get lost. Even so, we joked that the island is navigable by the many 7/11s that dot the road.

[ptcPhoto filename=”LantaGasoline.jpg” title=”Fuel” caption=”Lanta gas station.” position=”center”]

Note: Don’t ride a scooter without a helmet! It’s amazing to me how many travelers take this risk in a place with no head trauma center.

In terms of internet, staying connected on Lanta shouldn’t be a problem – nearly every restaurant and hotel has Wi-Fi. It was mostly really fast, although that could be attributed to having relatively few people on the networks.

How it’s Different in Green Season

Generally the Thai islands are a little quieter between May and October, which is known as the green season (so-called because “rainy season” sounds too ominous). Many hotels and restaurants close down this time of year for restorations or to take their own little vacay away from the tourists. There are great deals to be had on the hotels that stay open – more on that later.

[ptcPhoto filename=”LantaLizard.jpg” title=”Lizard” caption=”A green fence lizard outside our apartment.” position=”center”]

As you might have guessed, Lanta sees some rain this time of year. The good news is that most days it only lasts for an hour or two, but the bad news is that it’s really unpredictable and you could endure downpour for your entire trip. Since we stayed for a whole month we didn’t mind holing up on rainy days. Except when the power went out…which it did, now that I think of it, just about every time it rained. Ah, well, bring a good book.

[ptcPhoto filename=”LantaStorm.jpg” title=”Stormy” caption=”A moody green season sky.” position=”center”]

Things to Do

Get in the Water

Lanta offers a good number of beaches whose quality varies in terms of sand and swimmability (which is a word now, btw). During green season the resorts aren’t so meticulous about cleaning up, so beaches like Phra Ae (Long Beach) and Klong Nin had a lot of trash on them. Nothing like going for a swim and instead finding broken beer bottles, old toothbrushes and about eight hundred estranged flip-flops.

[ptcPhoto filename=”LantaDirtyBeach.jpg” title=”Rubbish” caption=”We have a sneaking suspicion a lot of it washes in from the party islands.” position=”center”]

It’s not all bad though; try Kantiang Bay down on the south of the island. It’s sheltered, clean, and great for year-round swimming. If you take the road south from Old Town until it ends, there are also some swimming spots on the east side of the island.

[ptcPhoto filename=”LantaCrabs.jpg” title=”Crabby” caption=”That’s also where I found these happy scuttling crabs.” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”LantaKantiang.jpg” title=”Kantiang” caption=”Kantiang Bay is just perfect – warm water, small waves, beach bars close by.” position=”center”]

Lanta’s also a good place to jump off on a 4-island snorkeling tour. These normally go to four of the Trang islands: Koh Muk, Maa, Chuek, Ngai, Rok, and Kradan. As a side note, we really wanted to go to Koh Rok and Kradan because they look amazing, but Rok is closed in low season, and Kradan is just really hard to reach from Lanta. Next time, I suppose.

Explore Old Town

You’ll find Old Town on the southeast side of the island. There are some nice shops there that sell locally made batik products and other crafts, as well as some restaurants. It’s worth the drive over to see the other side of the Lanta and the island’s original port and commercial center. Near Old Town you can also find the sea gypsy village and their stilt-built houses.

[ptcPhoto filename=”LantaOldTown.jpg” title=”Old Town” caption=”An afternoon in Old Town.” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”LantaCat.jpg” title=”Chillax” caption=”It’s so hot. I’m just going to rreeealllaaaxxx (AKA gratuitous cat photo).” position=”center”]

Other Activities

Most of Lanta’s southern tip is swathed in a national park that offers some short treks. There are also some caves and a waterfall, although somehow we never found the time to visit them.

[ptcPhoto filename=”LantaLeaf.jpg” title=”Giant” caption=”A giant leaf in the tropical forest.” position=”center”]

If you’re interested in Muay Thai (Thai kickboxing), you can learn about it at the island’s gym and Muay Thai center. We got gym memberships for a few weeks and actually did some exercise while we were there!

[ptcPhoto filename=”LantaGym.jpg” title=”Gym” caption=”Lanta’s fitness center.” position=”center”]

Spend Time with Local Animals

Some of the island’s attractions include elephant treks, snake shows, and even a “Monkey School”. By all accounts, none of them seem to treat their animals very well. Please don’t support these companies with your patronage. A better way to get close to local animals is to visit Lanta Animal Welfare. It might not be as exotic, but unlike the monkeys, snakes and elephants, the cats and dogs there really do benefit from tourism on the island. During low season they need extra help with walking dogs in the afternoons. We volunteered at LAW most days we were on Lanta and loved it (full report coming soon!).
[ptcPhoto filename=”LantaCatStare.jpg” title=”Kitty” caption=”Just about pouncing time…” position=”center”]

Stay tuned. Part Two will have tips on where to eat and sleep!

Plotting the Course Home

Most every traveler will, at some point or another, have to face the crippling melancholy that comes with the realization this can’t go on forever. For me this came just recently when Eric admitted that he’s been burnt out and wanting to go home for some time now. “But what about Africa?!”, I’d lament. “What about moving to Korea, and seeing Macchu Pichu, Galapagos and Moscow! We didn’t get to bathe elephants. How did we spend over a year in Asia and not bathe elephants? No, no. Not so fast. It’s not time yet. It can’t be ooooovveerrrr.”

They say that denial is the first stage of grief.

The truth is, traveling for longer than a year or two might be overkill. After a while it can start to take a toll on you, your relationship with your travel partner, and your relationships with people back home. After a while, all your memories start to run together and you can’t recall whether it was in Malaysia or in Thailand where that lizard jumped on your face during dinner, or out of the hundred beaches you’ve been to, which one had the softest sand. Like anything, travel becomes routine and you start to take it for granted. And in a way, doesn’t that kind of defeat the purpose?

So I guess Eric’s not so far off after all. I’ve been feeling it too. It’s just that the going home part seems so mundane. I’ve always equated going home with getting a job (shudder) and growing up (vomit).

Let’s skip over the ugly “anger” stage. Enter bargaining, the third stage of grief.

I’ve had a few lessons on how bargaining works around the world. The trick is for the seller to ask some insanely inflated price, and for the buyer to incrementally work it down to something reasonable. We had a few rounds of back and forth before agreeing that we will go home…soon. “It makes sense to stop in the Middle East on the way home from Asia, right? What kind of a world traveler goes home without seeing the pyramids? This is my sticking point. Pyramids, or no dice.” Turns out this guy is pretty reasonable, so despite going the wrong way around the world (again), he agrees to seven more countries along the way. He also agrees that unless we’re starving, we’ll only take jobs that allow us to travel 2-3 months out of the year.

For the next two months our pace will be more akin to the Shinkansen train than our normal ambling along ancient, rickety tracks. Maybe it’ll help me blow right past the “depression” stage.

On to acceptance. All of our travel goals can still be achieved…just not on the same schedule we’d anticipated. I keep telling myself it’s not a death knell. I keep remembering all the people and things back home that I’ve missed over the last eighteen months. At home there’s organic food, knitting classes, Wash Park, my volunteering position, and a great group of friends to share it all with. It is not, it turns out, the end of the world.

It’s an opportunity to go back to our favorite place in the world.

So, Denver readers, see you in October!