We've just returned from a one month holiday backpacking in Asia with our two daughters aged 9 and 11. Although initially apprehensive about the trip, it went so well and smoothly - all my worries disappeared as we travelled. The kids coped so well and thoroughly enjoyed the trip - seeing everything as an adventure and exciting rather than daunting or worrying.
Both Euan and I went backpacking in Asia, Europe, Australasia and the Americas around 20 years ago. We wanted to be able to share the experience of backpacking with our kids, but waited until they were old enough to be able to remember the trip and also to make it physically easier for us with them old enough to carry their own packs, and generally be quite independent rather than dependent travellers.
So did we really 'backpack'? What is backpacking anyway? Well wikipedia defines it as:
" a form of low-cost, independent international travel. It includes the use of a backpack that is easily carried for long distances or long periods of time; the use of public transport; inexpensive lodging such as youth hostels; a longer duration of the trip when compared with conventional vacations; and an interest in meeting the locals as well as seeing the sights. It is typically associated with young adults who generally have fewer obligations and thus more time to travel. "
We did travel on a budget with backpacks as our luggage, used some public transport, stayed in cheaper guesthouses, backpacker and budget hotels and it was longer than our average one or two week family holiday. We met plenty of locals and tried to speak bits and pieces of the languages of each country.
So yes, I'd say we were backpacking on this trip, but we also found that backpacking has changed somewhat since we travelled 20 years ago with the internet making things so much more open and able to be organised and booked in advance!
Organising the trip
Backpacking in the past for us was getting a flight to the destination we were starting in, then going from there. Nothing much was organised in advance at all. However, I wasn't comfortable being this carefree with the kids, especially since we only had 4 weeks and planned to visit 5 countries.
We spent a lot of time researching our trip using the internet, in particular trip advisor for recommendations and advice from other travellers who had been to the places we wanted to visit.
With a bit of internet research we found that if we booked our internal flights between countries well in advance, it would cost us the same as overnight bus or train journeys and would get us to our destination in just one or two hours instead of several. For comfort with kids, and saving time on a limited backpacking trip, we did this - booking flights with Air Asia, Vietnam Airlines and Silk Air. We booked everything online several months in advance and only had a couple of minor time schedule changes. We could check our flight details using my smart phone and also check-in that way too. So easy and low cost too, with each flight only costing about $40 each!
Smart Phone Backpackers
Twenty years ago we travelled with no mobile phones, and emails were only just starting to spring up, and even if you had one and swapped addresses with other travellers, you had to find an internet cafe to actually send and receive messages. A travel agent shop was where you went to book flights, buses or other international transport and accommodation. There was no convenient way to check out all the accommodation options before arrival - or how much the airport taxi or tuk tuk should cost. Now, every backpacker seems to have a smart phone or tablet, and uses them to phone or message ahead to book accommodation, flights etc.
We had most of our accomodation booked before the trip, largely via Booking.com. For those nights we hadn't booked in advance, (for family rooms) we actually still found it cheaper to book via booking.com rather than direct with the hotels! We did ask at the hotels and they matched the booking.com prices, but it showed us again just how backpacking has changed in the last 20 years!
As a family of four we wanted to all be in the same room together. Family rooms are more expensive than simple dorm beds for four people and not so common, but we still found plenty of options.
(This was our homestay guesthouse in Hoi An, Vietnam)
We stayed in small hotels, guesthouses and also one place where we had a dorm room to ourselves - 3 bunk beds which made the kids happy as they got a top bunk each! Every new place we stayed was exciting for the kids. Checking out our room each time was fun - seeing what beds we had, what the bathroom was like - in one place we had no hot water, just cold; another the shower was directly over the toilet so everything in the bathroom got soaked!
and in Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand there is a separate bin for your toilet paper as their sewage system can't cope with paper in the water!
All of these things could have been a problem or discomfort but instead were just different and exciting to the girls. It was more likely us who noticed the lack of the everyday comforts we are used to.
(tuk tuk in Kratie, Cambodia)
As I mentioned earlier, we had internal flights booked in advance so didn't have much transport to organise when we were actually in Asia other than daily tuk tuk rides or taxis to the airports.
We did however have one side trip in Cambodia that we organised when we arrived in the country. We wanted to travel from Siem Reap - the main tourist destination where the famous Angkor Wat temple is to Kratie where we hoped to see the extremely rare and critically endangered Irawaddy dolphins.
Kratie was an 8 hour bus ride from Kratie. The trip was easy enough to organise - we were advised to take the mini van rather than the bus as it was 5 hours quicker and was 'like a private transfer' as fewer people meant not so many stops. $50 for 4 of us for an 8 hour journey was quite a reasonable price too!
The reality of the bus ride was, we were crammed into a small minivan which did make lots of stops to collect and drop off various passengers and parcels. There were people crammed in every available space - even on the roof! It was a cramped, hot and uncomfortable ride - but a true backpacker experience! We were the only locals on the bus - bought deep fried tarantula to taste at one of the stops and saw plenty of the Cambodian countryside, houses and roads. And yes, it was worth the 8 hour journey there and back again two days later as we saw lots of the dolphins, a small non-touristy out of the way town and experienced a little more of Cambodia than tourists generally do! Again I think the kids coped with the bus ride and whole side trip brilliantly, taking everything in their stride and soaking up all the new experiences.
Food and drinks
(Bun Cha in Hanoi, Vietnam)
Our girls are generally very good with food. They will try new things and both eat well. This trip was no exception.
(Fish wrapped in banana leave, Hoi An, Vietnam)
They loved eating in the small local noodle houses and cafes, tasting local foods and unusual delicacies like snake and of course as I mentioned earlier tarantula!
(Tarantulas, bugs and quails? - tasty snacks for our bus journey to Kratie, Cambodia)
Our youngest took a liking to Vietnamese coffee and we even bought special mini coffee percolators from the market there which she's now using at home.
We were all very careful with the water on our travels. We only drank bottled water and didn't have ice in our drinks. Over one month of travel only our eldest daughter was sick - just once, then the next morning was absolutely fine. Euan was also sick but only for one day. Not bad for a month of travel, 5 different countries and every day new foods and drinks!
Before we travelled with did get some recommended vaccinations and stocked up a small medical kit to take with us. We didn't end up needing it really at all! My biggest worry was malaria. We were going to be in 'risk' areas but chose not to take anti-malaria tablets due to the side effects most people seem to experience when taking them.
Nowhere we were visiting was a high risk area or anywhere where there had been any recent outbreaks. We used plenty of insect repellent, wore long sleeves and trousers a lot of the time, but actually saw very few mozzies and never got bitten. Travelling with our kids made me more concerned about things like this than I would otherwise have been travelling independently. However, I'm happy with the precautions we took and our girls were aware of the risks and were really good about remembering to mozzie spray before we went out, cleaning their teeth with bottled water and refusing ice in their drinks. They just accepted the 'rules' of wherever we were.
Perhaps living in Cairns, Australia, where there are often Dengue outbreaks (another serious mosquito borne disease), has accustomed us to dealing with this risk every day and we understand that the risk, as with many travel illnesses and sicknesses, is very low and highly preventable.
We waited until our kids were this age (9 and 11) to take on a backpacking trip - wanting them to remember it, but also for it to be physically easier for us. With two girls, I remember holidays when they were younger in Thailand and Bali where I had to accompany them everywhere including of course several times a day to the toilet. I know this is par for the course with young kids, but it seemed all the more tiring on holiday!
I realised how far we've come when on our first night in Thailand we were at a small local restaurant and our youngest daughter needed the toilet, so off she went to find it herself. Later when I went, I found the toilet was out the back of the restaurant, down an alleyway and past a few more buildings on the right! Our daughter hadn't mentioned this - just accepted it as the way it was!
Seeing how much our girls have grown up and become more independent on this trip has also made me happier about letting them out and about with friends back home. They are more capable than I had realised or accepted.
Kids make the best backpackers
Overall I don't know why I was at all concerned about taking our kids on this trip. Kids love freedom and exploration and are the first to spot something that grabs their attention and ask to see it, go there or try it out. Although our transport and accommodation was largely pre-booked, our daily outings and explorations weren't. We walked endlessly, exploring streets, markets, shops, temples and beaches; we ate in different places for every meal and met the locals as we tried out our newly learned phrases in Vietnamese, Cambodian or Thai.
Our girls have grown in confidence and maturity over the course of the month long holiday.
We have watched them learn about different ways of life, and embrace new cultures.
(Hoi An, Vietnam)
Our girls are quite shy but after several weeks of international travel and speaking to new people in different languages, coming back to Australia and doing the same in English seems a lot less daunting for them now.
I would highly recommend this kind of trip to families. The internet has changed 'backpacking' hugely over the past 20 years, opening up the experiences to be shared even more than before. We had wifi in every tiny little place we visited and used it lots - not least to be able to share our adventures with friends back home via Facebook and emails.
If you enjoyed backpacking when you were younger then remember you can still travel and see countries like this with kids. Moving from place to place and experiencing cultures and different ways of life, sights, sounds, tastes and smells.
Our kids loved every minute of it and we'd do it all again in a heartbeat!