I want to travel – by myself, without a tourist agency, but where to go?
So you finally have some extra money and time and you don´t want to spend it on things. You want something different, you want to see, explore, feel and learn. Yes, you want to travel, independently. You want to get up when you want to, you want to take as many selfies in front of the Eiffel Tower as you want to and not be constantly forced to do everything as the group does.
We grew up in a generation where travelling meant spending a week (if you were lucky two) of the summer holidays at the Croatian seaside. As we grew older our horizons widened, world got more and more open. We started travelling and haven´t stopped since. Are you also one of those who would like to go somewhere new, but don´t really know which country you should choose?
Here is our list of top 7 countries (from our own experience) for first timers (virgins) of independent travelling. We decided based on 6 criteria: safety, prices, food, outdoor activities, transport and shopping.
Probably the most popular choice with first timers and we like to refer to it as the backpacking kindergarten :). Ok, it´s very easy to travel, but why is it sooo popular?? Is it because of the food? Low prices? Beaches? The fact that it is exotic for us Europeans? Because of its culture? The answer was yes, 5 times. 🙂
Facts that speak in favour of Thailand:
- Safety; Thailand is still very safe for tourists (as long as you stick to common sense). We have been to Thailand 5 times and we have never felt threatened in any way (knock on wood :)).
- Prices; For “Farangs” (foreigners in Thai) Thailand is very affordable. Backpacking tourism is is mixing with more boutique and high end tourism. But there is still something for everyone.
- Food; If we had to point out one thing, it would be the food. Thai cuisine is full of flavours (Tom Yams, Pad Thais, Curries), but sometimes the spiciness requires a bit of getting used to.
- Outdoor activities; whether you are a beach bum or an adrenaline junkie, Thailand has something for everyone. Its beaches are world famous. Maybe a small hint: the western side of the peninsula has nicer (whiter sand, clearer water) beaches, but the weather in the Gulf of Thailand tends to be more stable. The country is also famous for its amazing jungle treks, especially in the north.
- Transport; It is very easy to get around in Thailand, but means of transport vary in quality and safety. Privately owned companies tend to fill up the vans and buses to the max. And in our experience they also drive faster and more dangerously. Public transport runs smoothly, so use it. Airasia offers a lot of flights for reasonable prices, as long as you know when you want to go somewhere. Trains are very good and comfortable. Especially popular are overnight trains to Chiang Mai and to the Laos border.
- Shopping: Thailand is a shopping mecca – from wholesale shopping centres, to more high end brands, Bangkok has it all. A tip from Simona: you have to plan 1 day at the end of your trip in BKK for shopping!
This is the place where all of the most poisonous creatures live. 🙂 And a country/continent far away with lots to offer.
- Safety; no issue of whatsoever. Australia lives by the motto: “No worries.” :). But beware of all the poisonous creepy-crawlies.
- Prices; the reason why Australia is not on top of the list. All the other factors would have made Australia number 1 (ok, except food – there we´re still struggling between Thai and Japanese food), but we are not gonna lie, it is expensive (but so worth it :)).
- Food; very similar to Europe, but because it is a country of immigrants you can get almost anything here. But, again – the downside are the prices. Try finding accommodation where you can cook.
- Outdoor activities; being such a big place, Australia offers pretty much everything. But things not to miss: snorkelling or diving on Great Barrier Reef and surfing.
- Transport; because of its size, flying is an excellent option. Renting/buying a car is also very popular, but we were there immediately after New Year’s so the prices were just too high. We only used the bus once (for a move between cities) and were disappointed. Crowded, not enough leg room… (we were spoiled by South America’s sleeping buses).
- Shopping: All the cool surf brands are from Australia and there are also outlets 😉 Have fun and don´t spend too much.
Japan provided without a doubt the most authentic experience. Diverse, good food and friendly people make it an ideal candidate for a first-timer.
- Safety; we didn’t even think about it once, so we are safe to say that you don´t have to worry about that. Japan is a country full of respect and politeness so don´t worry.
- Prices; you have to know that Japan is not like Southeast Asia, the prices are a bit higher, but not as high as for example in Australia. We were still able to get a decent meal for around 10€ which you sometimes can´t in Europe.
- Food; you always remember that one thing about a country and in Japan for us (beside the amazing trains), it was food. From sushi, tempuras, noodles, to the deadly fugu, Japan is a real treat for the taste buds. Being accustomed to Asian food (especially lots of rice) helps.
- Outdoor activities; Japan is a country with seasons so activities vary during the year. From skiing in winter to exploring excellent beaches of Okinawa, Japan has a lot to offer. We were there in time of the cherry blossoms (sakura) and this is the time when everything and everybody awakens. People stay outside in parks, have picnics in parks and just hang out. We were told the Japanese are most open during Sakura. We don´t know how it is in other seasons, but we sure felt welcome.
- Transport; Have we mentioned trains already? Japan is famous for its superfast and reliable train service. They did not disappoint. The shinkansens (bullet trains) reach speeds of over 300km/h and this takes you from one place to another smoothly, quickly and right on time. It is true: the Japanese trains are never late. 🙂
- Shopping; here the biggest challenge was to buy something (that would fit) – the Japanese girls are smaller and thinner and they also have a bit of a different taste. Good thing: they have very good second hand shops with – stay calm – original designer bags.
Many would think that we are joking, but Cuba (hopefully still does) gives you an unprecedented experience. Rum, dance, beaches, socialism, all of them add to the charm that is Cuba.
- Safety; Cuba is one of the safest places we have ever been to. But again, please do use common sense, so do not parade with a super expensive camera or jewellery in the middle of the night in Havana Vieja. 🙂
- Prices; are very reasonable. Their currency is CUC (convertible peso which is equivalent to the US$). Dollars were not really popular at the time of our visit, but because of the latest thaw in USA-Cuba relations this might have changed.
- Food; probably the cheapest lobster we have had so far. Because of the embargo, Cuba lacks the “imported” stuff, but there is still plenty to choose from. Our favourite: sopa de frijoles (bean soup :)). Here we also have to mention the best mojitos, cuba libres and rum. Our favourites being: Santiago de Cuba and of course the World famous Havana Club.
We know cigars are not food, but no visit to Cuba would be perfect without trying Monte Christo (Che´s favourite) and the Cohibas (Fidel´s favourite). 🙂
- Outdoor activities; Cuba´s location makes it perfect for lying on the beach. The northern shore tends to have nicer beaches, but also the Cocos around Isla de la Juventud have spectacular white sand beaches. Very popular activities are horseback riding (especially in Vinales area) and swimming in cenotes.
- Transport; at the time of our visit buses were a good option. Reliable, safe and not too expensive. We also used domestic flying (if anyone needs advice on booking a domestic flight, feel free to contact us) and it worked well. Renting a car is also a popular option.
- Shopping: remember embargo? But you can find nice hand made things.
Bali is also called the Island of the Gods. We don´t know why, but we can say the gods chose well. 🙂
- Safety; no destination is 100% safe, but normal awareness should be enough for Bali. We never felt unsafe in any way, but just a small warning: the southern and western shores are known for their infamous rip currents, so beware.
- Prices; Bali is a tourist mecca and that means that it attracts all kinds of tourists, high-end and budget. That makes it perfect, because one day you could live on street food with minimum costs and the next day you can splurge in SPAs and high-end restaurants or hotels. And we did just that. We had the cheapest and also the most expensive meal on our 10 months RTW here.
- Food; prior to our visit everyone told us: “Oh you are gonna love the food.” and we took it with a pinch of salt. But Bali didn´t disappoint. Being a tropical island it offers a huge variety of tastes. Our favourites being: mie goreng and everything that had tempeh in it. 🙂 We almost became vegetarians there.
- Outdoor activities; people come for different reasons: surfing, beach, hiking and numerous other things. But the best thing about Bali is that you don´t have to rush from one place to another to have an excellent time. From the inland dense jungle with stunning hotels to the relaxed beach vibes, Bali lives up to its reputation.
- Transport; probably the main downside. The island suffers from over crowdedness (if that is a word) and the roads couldn´t keep up with tourist development. Short distances do take a lot of time, but you don´t come to Bali to rush things, right? Very popular option: hiring a taxi driver and seeing different places. We didn´t use public transport so we are not able to comment on that. Renting a motorbike went smoothly, just beware: left-side driving. The locals take care of tourists on bikes so you should be OK.
- Shopping: because Bali is so touristy, you can buy everything – from cheap Chinese stuff, local boutique designers, to expensive brands (for instance the surf brands are more expensive than in Australia).
Probably not a place you would expect to find on a list for first timers, but yet here it stands. 🙂 Here we felt the safest in the entire South America. Especially the Caribbean coast reminded us of Cuba.
- Safety; probably the biggest issue when it comes to Colombia. The dodgy times of Pablo Escobar are over, at least that´s how we felt (even in infamous Medellin). Even the locals were a lot more casual about danger than for example in Peru, Bolivia or Ecuador (or they just have a different perception).
- Prices; to keep it short, Colombia is cheap. They have a bit of problems with inflation, but you are not going to live there, so in the short term not a huge problem.
- Food; in our experience food in South America gets better towards the north. You can look forward to excellent ceviche and all the other seafood.
Colombia is also the home of probably the best McDonald´s alternative, Presto. 🙂
- Outdoor activities; plentiful. From surfing, hiking, exploring the Amazon, Colombia has it all. It is probably the most diverse country in South America so the things you can do are endless. For excellent beaches head to the Caribbean area near Cartagena or fly to San Andres.
- Transport; we used only buses because for some reason we couldn´t buy tickets for Viva Colombia online (the closest thing to Ryanair in South America). The buses were safe and reliable, but not as comfortable as for example the “cama buses” (sleeping buses) in Peru or Argentina.
- Shopping: street sellers have lovely handmade jewellery. There are air-conditioned shopping centres (when you will be in Cartagena, you´ll understand why I pointed out aircon), but all in all you do not come to Colombia for shopping.
You could call it: travelling for dummies (like the books). Malaysia is tropical, exotic, diverse and because of its history, so familiar. It´s a mixture of Asia and Europe.
- Safety; no major issues here. There are still recommendations to avoid the Thai border, eastern side of Borneo has strict security measures, but other than that nothing worth mentioning.
- Prices; we weren´t really sure what to expect, but Malaysia is very budget friendly. Basic necessities (food, drinks) are cheap, quite similar to Thailand.
- Food; the best way to describe Malaysian food with one word would be: fusion. Chinese, Indian and English influences are seen and felt everywhere including in food. From curries, dahls, Peking ducks and tea, you sure won´t be hungry. Malay cuisine provides a soft transition from the European palate to the more exotic South-east Asian.
- Outdoor activities; If you are into jungle trekking head to the Malaysian part of Borneo, if you are into hiking go to Mount Kinabalu and if you prefer the underwater world, Malaysia is one the best there is.
- Transport; very good and cheap domestic flying to get from Borneo to the mainland or the other way around. Good bus connections on the mainland especially to and from Kuala Lumpur.
- Shopping: the big cities have many shopping centres – Kuala Lumpur is pretty cool with shopping centres being connected via skywalk. Here, almost like Bangkok, you can find lots of nice stuff – there are small boutiques, stores with cheap Chinese stuff and of course all the expensive and inexpensive big brands (from H&M and Forever 21 to Gucci, Boss, Escada …)