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  • Belle Brett

Traveling in Asia on the Cheap before the High-Tech Age

As a child, I loved maps and fantasized about that time when I could explore the world. Perhaps because I was born in another country, emigrating to the USA from England with my family when I was a toddler, the desire to visit other lands was in my DNA.

My chance finally came right after college when I took off not only on a six-week European sojourn, but also on a cross-country USA car trip between graduation and the date that my charter plane flew to Europe. But my ultimate journey occurred in the mid-1970s when I planned a year-long trip by myself across Asia, hoping to work for a while near the Great Barrier Reef. I was anxious to explore exotic lands I’d seen only in National Geographic as well as to complete a circuit of the globe.

Creating the Big Plan. London, where I had family, was my starting point for my Asian odyssey. I had a thick packet of American Express travelers’ checks, some clothes (but no good walking shoes), a large aluminum-framed backpack (hardly ergonomic), a down “mummy” sleeping bag (no zips) acquired for earlier trips, and a few guidebooks.

I booked a three-month overland camping trip from London to Nepal (via Turkey, the Great Salt Desert of Iran, Afghanistan, the Khyber Pass to Pakistan, and India) after comparing the glossy brochures I’d picked up at a local travel agency catering to young people. I went with cheap and basic. Bouncing along in a made-over Bedford fire truck, I and my fifteen travel companions, including the driver and his girlfriend assistant, would mostly free-camp (camping outside of official campgrounds) and cook our own food, purchasing fresh items along the way to supplement the dried and canned goods we had with us, and interacting with the locals.

From Nepal on, I was on my own. Prior to leaving London, I’d blocked out where I wanted to go and made plane reservations, all in person, for the longer legs of the trip. Mostly, I intended to use trains and buses. My booked flights took me only as far as New Zealand, but after several months in Southeast Asia, my plans for Australia and New Zealand fell through when a typhoon wiped out the airport in Darwin, my target landing spot in Australia. Undeterred, I found an open-ended bargain pass on major airlines from Bangkok to Los Angeles, allowing stops of any length in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea, Japan (Osaka and Tokyo), and Honolulu. I took advantage of each location for the remaining five months I had.

Sleeping around, Getting around. I almost never made an advance reservation for lodging. It was just too difficult. In Kathmandu, I found my way to a student hostel listed in one of several guidebooks, the bibles of travel. If a place was full, I would go to the next one on my list. The main criteria were expense and location. Student hostels, which didn’t require you to be a student, were more informal and ramshackle than youth hostels, with fewer rules, and I preferred them. Like youth hostels, accommodations were generally multi-bedded rooms; sometimes there were no beds, just floor space for sleeping bags, and bathrooms and kitchens shared by the hoards. I recall that for four months bathing was strictly cold-water. One of my rare single rooms was a tiny, windowless cell with a dirt floor and a cot in Kuta Beach, Bali. Other times, I paired up with fellow or sister travelers I’d just met at a train station or on a bus to find an available room. Perhaps I was foolhardy, but I put my trust in those strangers, assuming that we were all in the same boat.

Early on, I discovered that word-of-mouth was one of the best sources of information on where to go, how to get there, where to stay, and what to do. After all, travelers moved in both directions. I kept a notebook of people I met and their suggestions along with my own journal so that I could perform the same task for others. I even drew small maps of towns with the best places to eat and sleep.

Although it wasn’t difficult to meet other young travelers, I found I enjoyed wandering around cities by myself, guidebook and paper maps in hand, plus any additional information I might have picked up in a tourist office. In the evenings, I sought out company for dinner, often others staying at the same hostel.

Staying in Touch? Not Much. Communications with home were strictly by mail. I wrote letters home every 10 days (alternating between my parents and my sister, with the idea that they would share these.) Of course, I glossed over the scary and questionable situations I found myself in, like the creeping, itchy rash on my right foot and the motorcycle accident in Bali. I sent these letters about every ten days. Friends generally received postcards. Prior to leaving home, I’d left an approximate itinerary along with the addresses of the American Express offices in the cities I planned to visit. When I arrived at a destination with one of these American Express offices, I would wait in a long line with others like me, and with luck, I would receive one or more letters from family and friends. Sometimes, letters wouldn’t arrive in time, and it might be a few weeks before I heard from anyone.

Making Memories. I enjoyed photography and had a 35 mm camera and slide film. Because of the great expense of developing film, I took pictures sparingly. When I had an opportunity, I had some of the film processed. I carried these boxes of slides with me in my backpack, hoping not to lose them. (I didn’t!) But other than holding the slides up to the light, I didn’t get to see the results of my efforts until I landed back in the USA. In Japan, with my illicit earnings as a bar hostess, I treated myself to an up-to-date Olympus SLR camera. In addition to documenting my trip with a journal and collecting various brochures, I kept a daily journal, focusing on what I saw, what I ate, and whom I met. Most of the names mean nothing to me now. The journal trailed off somewhere in Japan after I started working, but I still have the letters I wrote home.

Cash as King. General credit cards, similar to today’s Mastercard and Visa, were not widely used or accepted. Although I’d scored the coveted American Express card in my final year of teaching, it was of little use in the predominantly cash cultures of the countries I visited. The way to go was travelers’ checks. These came in a variety of denominations and were only usable once counter-signed and cashed at designated foreign currency exchange places. Occasional merchants accepted them. When traveling outside of large cities, planning was paramount so as not to be caught short-handed with no local currency. Of course, options for making money were available for the enterprising. In Hong Kong, I met one young man who made porn movies to pay his expenses. Running low on funds, in Japan I worked for several months as a bar hostess in a Tokyo suburb.

What's Toilet in Thai? I remember places on my journey where oral communication was limited, especially in small towns or places like Thailand, where the Roman alphabet wasn’t used. In each new country, I always tried to learn a few key words and phrases that I found in the back of my guidebooks. Pointing, miming, or drawing pictures got me far. As a bar hostess, I enjoyed piecing together conversations with customers by combining my meager vocabulary (no grammar) with their grade-school English.

Rashes, Bugs, and the Medicine Lady. Prior to traveling, health was one of my major worries and not without reason. I’d heard horror stories of burst appendices and hepatitis. I’d had a round of shots and took malaria pills, but I feared that on a long trip, I might face injury or illness with no guarantee of access to good care. In addition to the bruises from the motorcycle accident and the creeping, itchy rash, I sprained an ankle, suffered stomach bugs with diarrhea, endured two bouts of flu, and put up with bites that festered in the high humidity. That year I probably had more health issues than in a comparable six-year period back in the USA. Generally, I came through these problems. Often, by word of mouth again, I found that the locals had the best solutions. An elderly Chinese healer in Singapore applied a miracle poultice on my ankle sprain. An antibiotic powder from a pharmacy in Iran proved far superior to creams and ointments in clearing up the infected bites.

Near the end of my time in Japan, I experienced a mysterious abdominal pain, and late one evening, I had an “incident” that felt like an emergency. I threw on a skimpy dress and asked a neighbor to help me find a cab to go to the hospital. Confronted with this young foreign woman who must have looked like a hooker, the staff asked me to return the next day. I’m sure I started crying. Eventually, a doctor saw me, and discovering that French was our common language, he explained what was wrong (nothing life-threatening, though requiring follow-up), drew me a picture, and gave me antibiotics.

Sometimes Safe,Sometimes Sorry. As a woman traveling by myself I had to keep my wits about me as any woman today would need to do. I always kept my passport and money close to my body. At night I sought the company of others if I could. But I had some close calls. In a seaside town in Thailand, where I knew no one, I was sexually harassed by the chief of police. Fortunately, the door lock on my hotel room held. Once, in an already remote place, a cab driver took me off the beaten track until I protested loudly and persistently.

Considering overall conditions, I decided not to travel to some countries, like Vietnam and Laos, that I perceived as still dangerous so close to the end of the war there. Whether the world was a safer place then is debatable. The trouble spots have changed. But because of the ever-present news stream, do we now see threats as more pervasive than they actually are? Overall, a traveler is still much more likely to be involved in an automobile accident than to be attacked by a terrorist.


I don’t pretend that I had the ultimate travel adventure, but I am grateful that I was able to see a small corner of the world when I did, managing on a tight budget and leaving a certain amount to chance. Some people say that my trip took courage. At the time, I didn’t feel brave. It was what many of my contemporaries did. Decades earlier, that kind of free-wheeling travel without a set focus and without a companion would have been less possible for women. Today, although easier, it is less affordable and perhaps less acceptable in our goal-oriented society.

Those early travel experiences helped me to build confidence to approach new opportunities, strengthen my problem-solving abilities, deal with uncertainty, and evaluate and take appropriate risks. Most importantly, I came to appreciate both the commonalities and differences of humanity. Even with all our technological connectedness, I believe that travel still offers that kind of potential for personal growth.

Exploring the world is still a priority for me and my husband, who had his own share of travel escapades as a young adult. Although we prefer our creature comforts now and almost always make our reservations in advance (hooray for Airbnb), we still value the freedom of being able to decide what we want to do each day. Of course, we appreciate the convenience and information that technology provides us as we plan our next journey. We may have fond memories of our past modes of travel, but we are happy to embrace the present.

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