Olivier and Sven goofing around in Asia

Dream as if you will live forever, live as if you will die today

                                  Preparations...

 Allright, so we made our decision to travel around Asia for a long time... Next question was undoubtedly how to plan such a journey: what formalities need to be taken? Where do we start planning our trip? What to take with quite a few people who have already undertaken a similar trip. Their advice has proven to be indispensable.

In case some of you are wondering what formalities/preparations we needed to take - or are perhaps considering a similar trip -, we are briefly listing our preparation path below...

Travel itinerary

First thing to decide of course is where to go. For us the travel destination was easy to pick: we both wanted to travel around Asia or New-Zealand... and travelling for such a long time we were willing to take the culture shock of Asia as well... and the Himalaya is for both of us one of our highlights anyway.

Based on travel stories, blogs and tips we put a list together of countries we wanted to visit. Then, for every one of those countries we checked what was the best period of the year to visit them - taking into account temperatures, rainfall, monsoon,... Based on this information together with the fact that we would leave for Asia by the end of September, it soon became clear that it would be best to travel counterclockwise around Asia: first the trekking in the Himalaya (best period: October/November), then go South (getting colder up north, ideal period further down south, monsoon is over), then next year travel back up north.

Next, we listed the highlights for every country... including possible events. Put those on a calendar as well and matched these with our preliminary itinerary...

Also very important: for every country we checked - and will do during our travels (!) - the political situation in every one of the countries.

Then we looked up some information about every one of the countries... but everyone we talked to who had already done a similar trip advised us not to plan too much... We do have the advantage of having a lot of time... and our schedule will still change along the way. That's why we decided to plan the first two months... and the rest of the journey is still subject to changes.

Well our advice basically: don't plan too much... we haven't either and it's ok. For the next 2 weeks before we leave, we'll just read upon as many travel blogs as possible, talk to lots of people and list what we want to see.

Documents, formalities, thoughts

Passport pictures

For a lot of formalities beforehand and visa's we need to arrange along the way we'll need lots of passport pictures. So one of our first stops was a photographer to take enough pictures.

(National) Identity card

Both of our id cards were up for renewal as we didn't have an electronic identity card yet. So that's the first thing we arranged at the city hall... after about 2 weeks our new identity card was at our disposal.

Important to note: on the new electronic id card no home address information is visible. To have access to this information you need an electronic card reader... which some authorities don't have yet. That's why it's important to keep copies of the print-out they provide you with at the town hall upon pick-up of your new electronic id card.

Travel passport

Next thing to arrange was our travel passport... also handed out by the city hall. Costed € 78 in total, took about 1,5 weeks. The passport will be valid for 5 years.

 

 

International driver's license

Although chances are that we won't need it, we decided to sign up for an international driver's license anyway. To be applied for at the town hall, costs €16 and takes about one week. We'll need this if we want to drive a motorised vehicle while travelling. Not every country's legislation demands this, and important to note is that wherever we want to drive a motorised vehicle, we have to present our international driver's license at a local police office first. There they will hand over the papers necessary.

Hospitalisation insurance

If something happens, you want to make sure your expenses are covered. First level of insurance needed is a classic hospitalisation insurance. Olivier didn't have a hospitalisation insurance yet, he signed up for one... and it takes 3 months before the insurance goes into effect. Sven did have a hospitalisation insurance at the company he worked for; this insurance was stopped when he quit his job. But signing up for a new hospitalisation insurance it went into effect right away handing over a document that he had been covered by his employer's hospitalisation insurance for the past 4 years.

Travel insurance

One thing's for sure: if anything happens to you while you're abroad, you want to make sure you have the proper insurance to make sure everything is arranged properly, from getting you the medical care you need until covering your expenses.

As we found this very important, we did a lot of research on this issue. We talked to a lot of people who are used to travelling, read up a lot on this subject, and visited a few insurance brokers' offices for inquiries. Important factors in our decision were:

  •  How much it costs, of course;
  • What it covers: does it cover adventurous journeys/sports like we will do, also if you do don't book with a "recognised" agency?
  • Important: does it arrange payback of medical expenses directly or do you have to pay in advance and try to gather the documents necessary to be refunded afterwards?
  • What's the efficiency when you report an issue? Does the agency arrange everything, including an interpreter?

The best offer for us was - by far (!) - Ethias. For € 505 we are covered for one whole year... if something happens we just call Ethias' HQ and they will arrange everything - make sure we get into safety, get the proper medical care and medications, and will arrange the expenses directly on the spot... so that we don't have to pay anything up-front. Also, their general conditions were the least dubious of any of the insurance companies we visited... there are only a few conditions which are not covered in the insurance and they are listed explicitely. Adventurous travel is covered, booked either with or without a recognised agency.

Also, this formula was even cheaper than a similar formula at other agencies - which didn't cover as much or have a "bad" reputation among travellers.

 Authorisations

While we're away, our parents need to have the proper authorisations in case anything needs to be followed up on.

We arranged the proper authorisations at:

  • The bank: our parents have the authorisations necessary to consult our bank account and make payments when necessary. We ordered an additional bank card for our account which enables them to do Netbanking. Important is to activate the new card when collecting it at the bank;
  • The post office: when packages arrive, they have to be able to collect them for us. This costs € 35 for a period of 3 years;

Bank / credit card renewals

Don't take any risks... if you can avoid them, do so. The magnetic strip on both of our bank cards was damaged, so we ordered new bank cards. Also, Sven's VISA card was to expire in December 2008... so he had it renewed prematurely.

We inquired at the bank office: if you're abroad and your bank card gives up on you, then you can call the bank office and they will send a new bank card to your address of residence... but still that's something we want to avoid :)

Both quitting jobs... travel around... how about the official stuff/employment status?

We inquired at our health insurance fund, seems that nothing needs to be done for this prior to our trip. Within 2 years it will be clear that we didn't have an official income for the period of our travels and we will be contacted to see what needs to be arranged then.

So for this, no action needs to be taken.

Money, financial stuff

As you have to watch out for pick-pockets in Asia, don't carry a lot of money on you. You can find ATM's everywhere, where you can use your regular bank card (Maestro) to collect money. This will cost you € 2,5 + 2% of the amount collected in non-euro currency (Dexia fares). You can use your VISA/Mastercard credit card as well, but they will charge you € 5 for this.

Do take the VISA/Mastercard though... you can use it everywhere, and whatever you pay with it is covered by a seperate insurance (inquire at your bank office).

Travelling around Asia, it's important to take US dollars we heard. Arranging a visum often costs US$ 30 = EUR 30... and knowing that the euro has a stronger position than the dollar, you sure understand why it's smarter to pay in US currency :)

Traveller cheques, to take them or not, we don't know... some people advise to take them because they're insured, in case they get stolen.... most travellers advise not to take them though. We yet have to decide upon that...

Flight ticket 

Everyone we talked to who has decided doing a trip like ours feels about it the same way: you only feel confident and free of doubts as soon as you've booked your - one-way in our case - ticket to your first destination. So we did book, far enough in advance (April 2008).

Take your time to work out the cheapest flights/shedules and use flight planning websites like dohop.com and skyscanner.net. It took us a few hours... but eventually we got the cheapest flight available to Delhi and the hour scheme is perfect: leaving Brussels at 7.30, arriving one hour later at London Heathrow... one hour transit, perfect to have dinner... then boarding for Delhi, flying during the night (hopefully being able to catch some sleep to minimise jet-lag) and arriving in Delhi at 10am local time :)

Visum

Visums are quite easy to arrange in Asia so we heard. In some countries you can even arrange your visum upon arrival.

Because we didn't want to take any risks, we decided to arrange our visum for India in advance. Between 9 and 11.30am we needed to be at the embassy of India in Brussels... filling out a paper beforehand - attaching 2 passport pictures, then applying for the visum and paying € 50. The next day, the visum could be collected (although this didn't go without a hassle - ask Olivier). A hand-out about the procedure can be found at the website of the website of the embassy of India.

Other regular 30-day tourist visums can be arranged quite easily on the spot, although can take some time to get. Most of the times, just apply for the visum necessary at the embassy of the country you would like to visit next. Follow the procedure outlined there, make sure to have photocopies of your identity card and passport as well as a few passport pictures. Usually your visum will be ready  in a period ranging from one day to 2 weeks... so you can collect it afterwards.

Important: in some countries, you are asked for a return ticket... they want to make sure you won't stay in the country. However, as we're travelling around, we don't have a return ticket. To cover this situation, we had a proof of solvency document made up in English at the bank office, signed by the bank owner. That document can be shown to the embassy to prove that we have enough money on our bank accounts. We'll take quite a few copies of these documents as well.

Vaccinations

Going to Asia, you need to pay special attention to your health. There's a few diseases it's advised to get vaccinations for.

Vaccinactions should be started at least 6 months prior to the trip. We had vaccinations for: Polio, Hepatitis A+B, Tetanus, diphteria, Japanese Encefalitis, typhoid fever, meningitis caused by meningococci ACWY.

If you consider a similar trip, please read the information provided at the Institute of Tropical Medicine in Antwerp. Make an appointment and go there to get the proper information and injections. We did.

Inquire about medication against malaria and make your own decision whether or not to take it. I'm not going to get into detail, more on this issue you can read on the ITG website. According to us, important is:

  • To try taking the medication about 2-3 weeks before your strip starts... most importantly to see whether you experience side effects or not. Especially Lariam (which you only have to take once a week) has a lot of side effects so we heard... some people don't experience anything, others have to stop taking it because they become depressed or even psychotic. It's important to know how your body reacts to the medication before you start travelling - perhaps not being able to recognise the side effects when your body is exposed to higher temperatures and different food than it is used to at home;
  • Whether you take the medication or not, use a strong DEET-based insect repellent as even the medication doesn't provide a 100% guarantee;
  • As soon as you feel ill and the symptoms possibly match with these of malaria, consult a doctor and get the proper care;
     

 We will probably try the medicine in advance and take some on our journey and only actually take the medication in high malaria risk areas (check the maps at the ITG site) or rural areas where medical treatment is not readily available.

The ITG will provide you with a yellow vaccination card. Make sure any vaccinations you receive are mentioned along with the date(s) applied... and take it with you along your journey.

Being gone for a long time... what else to arrange?

Depending on the situation you're in there's several things you need to arrange: make sure bills are being covered, if you have an own house make sure someone looks after it while you're away (or have someone rent it), make sure someone over here is aware of your travels and looks after your administrative stuff and mail. Our parents will take care of all this, which we're very thankful for.

Mobile phones

Based on information provided by other travellers, we'll probably take a 3-band mobile phone, mainly to be able to place outbound calls in case of emergency. Occasional calls to family and friends will probably be much cheaper from a phone/internet shop.

That means that our regular mobile phones will be switched off during our trip. Also, we will travel around rural areas where mobile phone coverage is very limited to non-existent. It's important to make friends and family aware of that.

Luggage: what to take, what not?

We still have to decide upon that... but some advice others gave us is:

  • Take as less as possible as you'll have to carry every kilogram;
  • Buy proper equipment: a good tent, proper walking/climbing boots, a good back-pack (you have to carry it all the time!!), thermic underwear, light-weight, water-proof clothing. Buy it here and not in Asia, you need equipment of a good quality;
  • Other stuff you'll be able to buy in Asia even cheaper (even insect repellent (buy a basic portion over here, buy the rest in Asia when you need it) and a mosquito net), so don't drag it along;
  • Make many copies of your identity and travel documents, carry them in multiple places along with copies of your insurance documents (which you'll need in case of emergency). If you're not travelling alone, exchange copies of these documents... so that in case someone's luggage gets stolen administrative formalities won't be too much of a hassle;
  • Expensive photo/video equipment: well.. you don't want to be in the Himalayas without proper equipment, but be aware that a lot of equipment gets stolen in Asia. Look after it carefully and hide it when possible;

How to prepare physically? What to prepare for?

This is for everyone to decide for themselves. Personally, we decided to get some extra physical exercises (jogging, push-ups, set-ups, walking trips) in order to be fit to start our journey. Do whatever you can to prepare your body for the trip you'll undertake, we're sure that this will minimise the risks... and will enable you to detect more readily whenever something's seriously wrong (e.g. altitude disease).

Also - not less important - we went for a dental check-up. If a tooth needs to be pulled, you'll rather want it be done here than somewhere in Asia where they don't have the proper equipment to do it :). Also, if you have any diseases or disorders, make sure you have everything arranged and under control before you leave.

As we want to do a few adventurous hikes, we wanted to know what to prepare for. Take your time to inquire, so we did. Also, we ordered the Lonely Planet's "Healthy Travel Asia and India" guide and read it... that will give you some basic knowledge about any medical issues you might experience and what actions to take.

Talk to your GP about the trip you're about to do... and ask him to compose a first-aid kit with any  medications you might need. The above mentioned Healthy Travel guide contains lists of medications to take.

Take time to say goodbye properly

As you'll be away for a long time, make sure to take out the time necessary to say goodbye properly to friends and family who are dear to you.

We decided to invite all of our friends and family on a goodbye party... But realising that this party will be very crowded and busy, we'll take out time beforehand to meet with some of our closest friends and family. We feel that this is really important...  

Make copies

It's very important to make enough copies of all identity, travel, health and insurance documents. Store them at seperate locations, just in case your luggage gets stolen.

We also handed out copies to our parents and stored digital copies on the private section of our website. This way, whatever happens, we can access them.
 

Very important: the psychological part...

Not to be underestimated for sure. So you want to sail away and explore the world? Great... but that means that you'll be away from friends and family, luxury and certainties you're so used to.... as you're entering a totally different society.

We read upon it... and that's one of the things that intrigues us most: what will this trip do to us. If you're on the edge of making a similar decision, keep this in mind:

  • Whatever doubts you have, you won't get rid of them until you step on that plane. Whatever thinking you do, you will never know what it will be like or how you will react until you actually do it. So be rational and play things on the safe side but don't overreact, don't think too much and be prepared to give up some certainties;
  • Be aware that it's not easy to find a good travel companion... people react differently under extreme conditions, not everyone can cope with the pressure a trip like this involves;
  • Will you miss family and friends? I'm sure we will... but outweigh what you gain in return... if you want to do this, you can either do it or keep postponing it for the rest of your life and end up never doing it and regretting it... or do it, sometimes going through hard times, but coming back with a richer life experience afterwards. And still... one year passes by quickly, right?
  • From personal experience: it's very hard to take the step to give up your certainties and current job... kind of fearing what people might think. On this part, we were very surprised as family, friends ánd both of our employers were very understanding and supporting... actually everyone is in the end, something we wouldn't have dared to hope when we first decided to do this trip :)

 

One book focussing on psychological and practical sides of travelling is Tyron Van Hee's "De 10 geboden van de wereldreiziger".

 

 

 

 

 

 

UPDATE Sep 28, 2009:

We got back from our trip. Reading this page again, I realise that we had prepared well for our trip. Some things turned out to be different than expected though and some things became clear. You can find some examples below.

 If you have any other questions, feel free to contact me at: sven.delmeiren@gmail.com !


- Don't take traveller cheques as you can't exchange them everywhere;

- Take a credit card and make sure you opt for VISA. Mastercard isn't accepted everywhere;

- Keep in mind to carry enough cash with you at all times. Many foreign air companies do not accept international credit cards or fail to process them; instead you have to go to the office and pay cash (no use in complaining to, done that, tried that... paid cash in the end :))

- Try to take as much cash with you as possible, preferrably US$. US dollars are accepted in many Asian countries and you can exchange them when you need to. It's generally cheaper than withdrawing money all the time, because when you withdraw then you pay a commission per transaction... And the amount of money you can withdraw within one transaction is limited... So you end up doing multiple transactions anyway which costs a lot... If I were to do this trip again I would take lots of US$ but keep it in different locations in my luggage

- As for laundry: don't worry about it. Almost every guesthouse has laundry service available and it's generally quite cheap. Just don't take white clothes as they don't wash with hot water...  Do take some laundry soap to wash out small spots yourself or do laundry in remote regions;

- Antimalarials: I decided not to take any pills... and glad I didn't;

- Once you get there and if you plan to do jungle treks, take insecticide and spray it on your boots - it keeps leeches away;

- If you plan on climbing above 3500m, take Diamox (medication against altitude sickness). If you have problems sleeping (being short breathed), take half a Diamox before going to sleep. Don't climb too fast though, allow your body to adjust to the altitude!

- Whatever you take, make sure you keep in mind that there is a small chance you will lose it or it will get stolen. Keep your valuables safe at any time though, in your hand luggage and keep it close to you. Don't be paranoid, yet be aware;

- If you decide to camp out, try to find a remote spot where nobody can see you - or notify the local police where you are. Keep your valuables with you in your sleeping bag and - you never know - put a small knife next to you;

- Don't take too much clothing, really. Anything you want is a lot cheaper there!

- If you're hesitating about taking a laptop or not, I'd advise you to do it. I was doubting before I left but was really glad I took it;

- Take earplugs, you'll probably need them somewhere :)

- If you rent a motorbike, check the brakes and the condition of the tires. Also check if the engine keeps running before you decide on renting it. And check whether the seat lid closes;

- Make backups of your pictures!

- If you want to book a flight, don't just check one air company but several ones. Use a flight planner like DoHop.

- Don't forget to take a universal tradel adapter;

- If you want to send stuff home, do it from a destination with reliable postal services (check in advance), make sure not to include any forbidden items (customs opens up the packages) and wrap the items carefully. It's quite expensive though;

- If you camp out in remote areas, take a mosquito net (or rather, buy one there!);

- don't take a lot of mosquito repellent with you, it's cheaper there :)

- Don't plan too much... because plans will change anyway!

- International driver's license: well actually you need it but nobody ever asks you for it. I don't have a driving license that entitles me to drive a motorbike though I rented motorbikes around Asia all the time. When the police stops you, pretend just to speak English. In 90% of the cases they'll let you pass and check the locals -- they don't want to "lose face" and admit or show they don't speak English. And if it goes wrong, just pay the police officer off :)

- Mobile phone: take a simple phone with you, you don't need tri-band or anything. Get a local sim card in every country which you can easily recharge;

- If you have any specific personal medication, be sure to take enough... as it might be hard to get it abroad;

- Prepare... for a LOT of hassle. You're not in Europe anymore where everything is efficient :)

- If you plan on doing a motorbike trip, buy a poncho. It doesn't rain often but if it does then you're soaked in no time. Also, take an umbrella with you at all times if you go to the city centre;

- If you book into hotel rooms, ask for the price in advance, try to bargain the price down, and ask to see the room first. Check for: cleanliness, smell, power supplies, the bed (no bed bugs?), no cockroaches/mice?, the bathroom - check if there's water. Also check if the doors and windows can be properly locked. Never leave valuables in your hostel (the staff has a key!);

- Don't trust anyone and always go for a second opinion. People would rather send you in the wrong direction than admitting that they don't know the way...

- Inquire about the culture, customs and traditions. In some countries that's very important;

- Take books to read and an MP3 player, because you'll have a lot of time to kill;

- Don't forget a hat and sun screen, factor 30+. Also take vitamin E based aftersun, a hat, sunglasses;

- If you're travelling together as a couple, be aware that in some countries (India, Indonesia,...) some hotel owners don't allow a man and a woman to stay in the same room when they're not married. Don't bother discussing with them, just get a ring and tell them you're married (and think "mind your own damn business"), problem solved :)

- Always take 2 batteries for your camera and keep them fully charged ; in some hostels in remote regions you don't have power supplies or electricity at all;

- Never go too close to stray dogs or monkeys;

- If you visit traditional villages, inquire on habits and customs. Usually it's expected that you ask permission to enter first and bring a gift;

- In your luggage, put every can of liquids in a seperate plastic bag. If it opens up, it won't ruin the rest of your luggage. Very important :)

- Take a couple of pens - you'll probably lose or forget some - and paper;

- Take playing cards!

- Take a lot of empty plastic bags, elastics, paperclips, some small rope;