Traveling to Asia is one of the most life-changing experiences that exists in travel. Anthony Bourdain described it this way:
"I remember the moment I first realized I've been living my whole life in black and white. It was like discovering a color I never knew existed before. A whole new crayon box full of colors, that was it for me. From then on, there was no putting the pieces back together. No going home. Things were different now. Asia had ruined me for my old life."
I guess that's what I love about it as well - everything is so DIFFERENT, which opens up my eyes to all of these incredible. brand-new experiences every time I visit.
However, visiting Asia does require a certain amount of additional preparation. Many Asian countries require visas for U.S. citizens, which is a step that might be completely foreign to U.S. travelers. You often need vaccines, many of which you might need to get months in advance. You're also generally in for a 14+ hour flight, depending on where you're leaving from and where you're headed, as well as how many stops it will take to get you there. That sort of flight is a very different beast from a 5-hour flight across the U.S., or even a 7-hour flight to Europe, and requires a different sort of preparation. And that's not to mention that you're generally deposited in a country filled with food, culture and languages that might be completely different from anything you've ever experienced.
All of those things make me adore traveling in Asia, but they can also be a bit overwhelming if you've never traveled there before and you're trying to navigate, say, the Indian visa website (which is worth its own separate blog post because it is INSANE, I'm not going to lie).
To me, the discomforts, both external (heat, monsoons, unfamiliar foods and customs) and internal (jet lag, culture shock, and preconceived notions), make for absolutely intriguing stories upon your return, but they can be less than pleasant when you're there. That's why I do everything that I can to prepare (that's me, the list-maker/planner!) for everything that I can have within my control. With that in mind, here are some of the steps that I took to prepare for my trip to India ... for the most part, they're applicable to just about any trip to an unfamiliar country.
- Research visa and vaccination requirements for your destination. As soon as I had booked my flight, my next step was to research the visa and vaccination requirements for India. I read that the online visa application is confusing (it is), so I knew that when it was time to sit down to fill it out, I needed to set aside some time. I also knew that there were a number of forums and other resources for filling out my application in the best possible way. (Side note: They'll ask you your religion, which struck me as completely bizarre, among many, many other intrusive questions.) As for vaccinations, I was lucky in that I had gotten the vaccinations I needed before I went to Peru, so I'm good. And I'm never taking malaria meds again, so that's not on my list.
- Get some general understanding of the culture. To be honest, before I was invited on this trip by one of my favorite suppliers in Asia (shout out to Eastbound!), my knowledge of India was largely limited to my experiences in Little India while I lived in Singapore, Indian restaurants here in North Carolina, and the Taj Mahal ... I knew about the Taj Mahal! So the first thing I started to do was read blogs from people who recently traveled to India to get a feel for the culture and the people and what to expect. I have also read a few books set in India to get a feel for the atmosphere and grab some nuggets of what to expect. Of course, I'd be lying if I said I thought I knew exactly what to expect every minute (and how boring would that be?) but I am not walking into this new country completely blind.
- Prep for the flight. Long-haul flights are not for the weak-minded. They require stamina, strategy and self-control. It's like starting your trip with a trial by fire. (Have I mentioned lately that I'm not the biggest fan of air travel??) Upgrade to the highest class you can possibly afford because you're going to wish you'd sold your kidney for that lie-flat seat about 10 hours into your trip. Pack only essentials in your personal item bag because you want to maximize the legroom that you have, but be sure to make them COMFORT related - lip balm and hand cream to combat the dry air, a blanket or large scarf because it will be freezing, dorky neck pillow will help you sleep on the plane if that's your bag, download 10x more media than you think you'll need. I've been on a plane where the entertainment system didn't work and nothing on my tablet or phone was interesting to me and I was relegated to staring straight ahead for most of the flight. NEVER AGAIN is all I'll say about that. There are so many other ways to prep for these flights, but I'll leave those for later!
- Make a jet lag plan. There are plenty of sites that will give you an idea of how to adjust by a few time zones ahead of your trip (Jet Lag Rooster for one, or the app TimeShifter), and it can make a HUGE difference in the speed with which you adjust to your destination time zone. Most of them aren't that practical (I can't wake up at 11 p.m. and go to sleep at 1 p.m. to get on India time while I'm in North Carolina, while also trying to work and spend time with my family. But I HAVE been getting up really early and going to bed early, hoping to adjust slightly. The general rule of thumb is that you go to bed early and go to sleep early if you're flying eastward and get up and go to sleep later than normal if you're flying westward in order to help you adjust a few time zones before you leave. I'm also taking melatonin now, at the times that it will be getting dark when I'm in India, and I'm going to try to sleep as little as possible on the flight, since I'll be landing at 9:30 p.m. India time and I'll really need to be ready for sleep shortly after I arrive. I'll let you know how all of that preparation goes when I get there!
- Pretend like you leave two days before you actually do. This is a tip that I actually got from the venerable Rick Steves. He suggests packing and completely preparing for your trip as though you were leaving two days before you do. That means no last-minute scrambling to throw everything in the suitcase, no last-minute realization that you don't have several things that you need, and an overall calmer and more relaxing two days before the trip. That means you can get enough sleep and start your trip well-rested and calm, rather than frazzled and off-kilter.
So, what about you? How do you plan for your longest trips? Any suggestions for me as I head out to India? After I get back, I've only got 10 days before I head back to go to Myanmar and Cambodia, and I'm incredibly excited, but I know all of these concerns are going to blindside me in triplicate before October is over!
If you'd like to stay up-to-date on my travels and get some tips and insights that I share in India, Myanmar, and Cambodia, be sure to follow me on social media AND be sure to keep an eye on this blog. I'll be posting some comprehensive wrap-ups of my trips once I'm back!
Wish me luck!