Backpacking by yourself in South Asia
This time we're hosting Benjamin Wyss on our blog series, a CEMS student at the University of St. Gallen. Thank you Benjamin for your story!
Have you ever wondered what would happen if the rules governing your business changes overnight?
On 1st April 2017, the Indian Supreme Court decided to forbid the sale of alcohol within 500 meters of any state and national highway, taking everyone by surprise. The revenue impact on the f&b and hotel industry is undeniably drastic following the new law. As a business owner, what would you do?
Hi, my name is Benjamin!
I am a 25-year-old CEMS and Business Innovation student based in St. Gallen, Switzerland. As many of you out there, I love to travel. However, over the last few years, I have discovered that my style of travelling differs from that of many other students. Before going any further though, I have to state an important disclaimer: I am by no means a travel expert. Some of you might have even travelled more places than I have, with various other experiences. However for those of you who have never travelled solo before, or are considering travelling in South Asia in particular, I hope this article can be of some help. For others with more travel experiences than me, maybe this might be a reflection on some of your travel habits, or otherwise this text might serve as a fun read during this bored quarantine life.
Have you ever seen a picture of a “friend of a friend” on social media and thought “Wow, I need to go there?”
Two years ago, that was exactly what sparked my interest when someone posted a picture of the Pangong Lake (Picture 1). Honestly, I cannot even remember who had posted the picture, but what I do recall is this incredible picture of a beautiful lake with the multi-coloured mountains in the background. I just knew I needed to go there.
Fast forward 2 days, and I was filling in the Visa application form for India (yes, a quick 15 minutes research revealed it was located in India and another 15 minutes research identified the disputed state and area of Jammu Kashmir safe to travel to), and I was done booking my flight for the upcoming summer vacation, with the first hostel in Leh Ladakh booked. It’s that simple!
Tip #1: Follow your gut instinct.
This first tip is something I have been following for several years when travelling and it has yet to prove wrong. I knew I needed to go to this lake – even though at that point I did not even know where it was. The same way, one year later I knew I wanted to see Bangladesh – even though I did not know what people were actually visiting there. I knew I wanted to see Sri Lanka – even though I had no clue what the capital was back then (hey, do not judge me – Swiss Geography classrooms usually have a beautiful view to the outside).
What I am trying to say is that you do not need to read hundreds of travel reviews, research the entire place online nor do you have to talk to dozens of people who have already been there before. Moreover, this whole thing does not need, if possible, to be planned months ahead. The journey from India to Sri Lanka was planned and executed in less than 48 hours, most of which was spent waiting for my Visa. Yes of course, do not be stupid or reckless but that’s where it is important to listen to your inner voice, because that is what stops you from silly decisions.
Tip #2: Book only a maximum of two nights upfront in Hostels
Hostels are the best place to meet other travellers. Just because you travel alone to a foreign country, does not mean you always need to explore the country alone. Other travellers are your best source of tips and advice on what to do, what to avoid, and many times, perfect buddies to spend some days together. And yes, it sounds stereotypical, but you definitely make friendships you will never forget.
If you are a rather shy and introverted person like myself – I recommend two things. First, breakfast is the ideal time to meet new people. It’s not too crowded, people are either waiting or preparing their food, and “early birds” are the only ones actively roaming around. Second, overcome your inner consciousness and approach people. Start simple, ask them about themselves, ask how long they have been in the country, how they like it and so on – people love to tell their stories. And these stories are a good source of inspiration and guidance on what you could possibly do.
Tip #3: Do not be adamant to stick to any plans previously made, be flexible
If you have only booked a few nights, you are flexible to join others (travellers you met at your hostel) on their trip. And do that!
Yes, maybe you might leave that place relatively quickly. But hey good news, you did not know much about the place beforehand anyways, so there would not be much you can miss.
Tip #4: Be curious
Avoid touristic monuments, museums, and fountains you have never heard of before. Obviously, some attractions are a must, like the Taj Mahal in Agra, nonetheless, most of these you can calmly forgo. Instead, go and observe people – look at what locals are doing here, how is it different from home, why are they doing it, etc. Visit locals, you will be approached and/or stared at a dozen times a day anyway, so why not just talk to them? And so what if they do not really understand you? Who cares honestly – that is part of the fun.
A friend of mine (a RSM CEMSie) and I once went to our room cleaner Pallab’s place, with little knowledge about the location and the added obstacle of his limited vocabulary of around 30 English words. He took us 1.5h away from our campus, where his wife and mother had prepared a wonderful curry for us. He bought us plastic knives (a total rarity in India), chips and even tissues (I do not think he had ever used one). He went skinny dipping with me in the Ganges, for which he brought me a towel. All three of us drove on his scooter around his village. We got to know his entire family and moved his dad almost to tears.
This is the type of experience you know is special – it’s only possible by interacting with the locals.
Tip #5: Accept and adapt, rather than changing them.
I know, for many people it is difficult to accept that you have one (or even multiple) room cleaners, a driver, someone who helps you in the kitchen (if you have one), at least one security guard in front of your house, etc in South Asia. In my view though, that is their job and they are proud of it. You do not need to change that, otherwise, you are not accepting their existence in the system.
However, see them as people and not as functions. Learn their names, greet them every day, try to help them (if they let you) and try to make them smile. Nothing connects more than a smile – even if this person did not get your joke. This also holds true for apparently inefficient public transport, etc. Do not try to change that. It is simply not home. Given sufficient time, it is even possible to start enjoying it and seeing it as an experience.
Maybe we might even learn someday that not everything needs to be faster, bigger and more efficient?
Tip #6: Be spontaneous
In Bangladesh, I went to the so-called ship breaking yards. These are places where they take apart cruise ships and supertankers under extremely poor circumstances. Truthfully, it was forbidden to visit them. However, with the help of a scooter driver I met earlier in the day, I was able to get around the entire city and even communicate with locals. They were the ones who helped me to see those ships, bypassing all security walls through certain shortcuts.
The view I was greeted with, was one of the most intense memories I have. Seeing those huge ships (200m long and 50m high) taken apart in flip flops and almost no big machinery. Some people may call that poverty tourism. That’s not true – if you do not care about your next best Insta story but rather your focus is on the people who work and live there. Yes, it may bring you down, but it helps you realize, that all your actions in Europe does have an impact somewhere else. The sense of respect and understanding it teaches you to develop for every individual, regardless of their background, is something unparallel.
Coming back to the situation I described at the start of this article about alcohol prohibition near national highways, look at the kind of unconventional solutions that might emerge. While many pubs, liquor shops, and bars had to shut down their businesses, an unswerving bar owner kept his head up. He instantly started to build a winding maze in front of his bar, adding additional distance to the highway and ultimately managed to successfully bypass the governmental obstacle, although in a highly unorthodox manner.
The purpose of sharing this little story is to highlight most of what I have mentioned above.
The South Asian culture is very different from ours, but there are so many interesting and unique learnings we can stand to gain. South Asia is the home of highly creative and spontaneous people. And if you’re open enough to follow their habits and customs, you will get to know some of the nicest people on earth.
With regards to travelling alone, be different than the mainstream tourist – maybe you might look a little strange, but what you gain from that trip, would be something that you could never forget.
- Benjamin Wyss