The How To sites are full of advice about planning trips, some ingenious, some questionable, some straight from the Ministry of the Bleeding Obvious. I read none of it, though; and I ignored the advice from my friends. I arrived in Bangkok with nothing but a back-of-the-fag-packet list of countries, cities and islands I might want to visit.
My plan – half idealism, half naivety – was to book accommodation a night at a time, then decide each day whether to stay on or to go somewhere else. Where to go would depend where the buses, the boats, or the trains might run, and how long it took to get there. I had plenty of time. I was relaxed.
I stayed in Bangkok for longer than I should while I pondered whether to go north to Chiang Mai, south west to Phuket or south east to Ko Samui, and ended up going nowhere. Then I found out by chance that I needed to get my Vietnam visa in advance and had to stay longer while I made some hurried arrangements. The embassy wanted dates, and I had to guess on the spot how long it would take to get through Thailand and Cambodia, and I was too optimistic by several weeks, and wound up having to cut short the journey round the coast and forget about Chiang Mai. But that worked out okay, because I had time enough left after Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos to see the rest of Thailand.
There were a few times, as well, when I had to move from a guesthouse in which I could have stayed if I had booked two nights in the first place; and times when the trains were all fully booked and I had to wait until the next day, or settle for a long, uncomfortable journey on a bus. But the guesthouses were always clustered together, and there always was a train or a bus I could take without reserving.
The setbacks were small, and I have rarely felt as free as I did then, in the knowledge that I could, at any time, pack my bags, check out and get on a bus to the next town, the next country. I chanced upon amazing places that I had never heard of and would not have picked out of the guidebook if I had spent days going through it with a highlighter pen. It was a lot more fun than working through a detailed itinerary and knowing where I would be every day for the next six months.
It worked all the way through Southeast Asia; but in Australia I had to compromise. I paid several times more than I wanted to pay for the only place I could find in Sydney with vacancies, and trudged round until almost midnight to find a hostel bed in Byron Bay. (I was lucky – a friend spent the night on the beach there.) I was still reluctant to book any more than a night at a time, but now booked it online the day before, at the same time as I booked my bus ticket. I got as far up the East Coast as Hervey Bay, then found that the bus to Airlie Beach left at five in the morning and took fourteen hours to get there. It was a discomfort too far for me, so I backtracked to Brisbane and flew. No worries.
Eventually, though, I ran out of time and never saw Alice Springs or Uluru, nor drove along the Great Ocean Road. Unlike in Southeast Asia, there was no chance to catch up later.
I moved on to New Zealand and got stuck in Auckland, puzzling over where to go next. I had not even come with any scribbled down ideas, this time. When I had eventually mapped out a route, I had no time to spare and could leave nothing to chance and had to book all my buses and hostels upfront.
I have never quite managed to get back to the carefree, spontaneous travel of those months in Southeast Asia. Either I have been too short of time, or the hotels and hostels have been too far apart and booked up too quickly for walk-ins to be at all practical. But I still only book as far ahead as I have to, and try to leave room to plan as I go along.
And I have never had to sleep on the beach, as my friend did in Byron Bay.
© Richard Senior 2015