The Boring Side of Backpacking: Killing Time, Being Productive, and Relaxing for a Second

The day after I left my hostel job, I used some points on a hotel and absolutely crashed. I had plans to go to a Firefly Park with friends, but I was overwhelmed and retreated. The moment my head hit the (four!) pillows (luxury!), I realized that I was completely, utterly exhausted. I could barely move. I didn’t leave the building for the next 24 hours…I extended my stay another night because I needed to get my energy back and make a game plan. My flight to Australia wasn’t until the 12th of October…and it was the 23rd of September. I had originally booked a trip to Bali, but fears of Mt. Agung’s possible eruption kept me in Malaysia. (The alert level for the airport was one step away from completely shutting down, and I had a cat to sit. Honestly, if I didn’t have obligations in Australia, I might have risked getting stuck in the world of the Yoga Barn.) I had a very limited budget, a weak source of freelancing income, over two weeks before my flight to Australia, and no plan…so I had to kill some time.

I hadn’t explored Malaysia, but again, I didn’t have a very large budget. Before I arrived in Kuala Lumpur, I didn’t know how much there was to see and do in Malaysia (I’m working on a guide in a bit…stay tuned). Beaches, cities, jungles…what to do? Where to go? If I wanted to visit every place on a backpacker’s list, I would have been moving around every two days.

This was a weird limbo-land of my trip. I wasn’t working anymore. I was about to start working full-time. I was alone. I didn’t have a plan. After working for a month straight at the hostel and on my blog, I was burnt out and had run myself down with ~doing stuff.~ There is a big pressure on backpackers to be productive, take all the tours, see all the sights, have every experience that we can take hold of. We’re all so lucky to be in this position, so we have to take advantage of it, right? What’s the point of sitting in your dorm all day or going to bed when you only have X amount of days in [insert country here]? Go out! Be wild! Have that adventure! See that thing!

I told myself I wasn’t going to succumb to this pressure the way that I normally do. By no means am I a lazy person, but a lot of my insane productivity is fueled by guilt. If I don’t leave the house or clock in to work (blogging, freelancing, or otherwise) or see something noteworthy, I feel like a failure. I get itchy. Weekends back home when I worked a 9-5 were killer. To save up for my trip, and feel like a productive human, I worked between 60-70 hours a week for at least a year. I got a full-time remote job so I could be flexible working another job. Am I a sociopath?

Maybe, but back to my story. I was backpacking and had time to kill. So I told myself that I would just wing it. My European backpacking plan had been pretty much fleshed out months before I arrived. I knew where I would be staying, how long I was staying for, and when I would have to catch the next plane. Luckily, winging it in Malaysia was more accessible than if I had tried in Europe; if I missed a bus, I was only losing out on $10 or so. Transportation was rarely that cheap in Europe. This time around, I told myself I would only book one night of accommodation at a time, one way bus tickets at a time, and make decisions in the moment.

Here’s what happened. I spent three days in George Town, a whopping five days in the Cameron Highlands (no more than two is typically recommended,) two nights in George Town (again), two nights in Langkawi, and three nights in George Town (again) before heading to Kuala Lumpur and flying to Brisbane in the late evening. The back and forth is more glamorous on Instagram, considering how Instagrammable George Town is. But I spent my time in George Town with three different groups of friends, most of whom I met by seeing them in a hostel and forcing myself on their dinner plans. I kept going back to George Town because I genuinely loved and enjoyed George Town. I had a wonderful time with the people I met in the Cameron Highlands. Even when I was doing freelance gigs in a coffee shop, I enjoyed myself more than I had at any point on my trip. I didn’t see Taman Negara, but I’ve never felt more refreshed after a rough couple of weeks. I didn’t get to see Bali, but my budget is happier for that, and when I do visit, there will be no possible eruptions.

This is just a casual update but a reminder that traveling, especially long-term backpacking or nomad stints, doesn’t need a minute-by-minute itinerary or even a fleshed-out plan. Going to the same coffee shop four times in two weeks isn’t the most wild and crazy aspect of backpacking, but I’ve enjoyed every meal and iced coffee here as I write and work and move forward on this journey. It’s okay to relax a bit, and figure it out tomorrow.

taken from a hammock in Langkawi

Tips for Killing Time While Backpacking

Waiting for a visa? Waiting for cash to go through? Backpacking is about killing time. So if you find yourself stuck, and need to stick to your budget, follow these tips:

Stick to Somewhere You Know – When you know the area, you know where to find the cheap hostels and the best street food. Hopping from place to place means you have to try new hostels and new places to eat, which can turn out really well, but can also eat at your budget. If you want to head somewhere new, take the recommendations of backpackers around you. I had two hostel suggestions in my head when I went to the Cameron Highlands. When the first one was booked, I walked a few minutes down to the second – and ended up staying for five days. (Seriously, shout out to Map Travelodge. Two pillows, pod beds, the nicest staff who let me put on Modern Baseball and my Spotify playlists in the evenings, free drinking water…I loved it.)

Couchsurfing! – Get to know the locals for a more authentic experience. If you already have a place to stay, you can hit up Couchsurfing meetups or message hosts in the area to grab a drink. If you don’t have a place to stay, you can hit up Couchsurfing for a free place to stay! I’ve written about Couchsurfing before. I Couchsurfed in Europe, I’ve been hesitant to do so in Southeast Asia, but it’s an overall great resource for more ~~authentic and ~~organic travel. Couchsurfing always provides good stories and new experiences…for free.

Day Trips Will Save Your Life – I never like to waste a day doing “nothing”, but I also don’t like to waste a day traveling to a new place that I’m not going to spend too much time in. Find a tour agency around town, grab a day trip tour and boom, your itinerary is set. My day trip to Chiang Rai was a blog post-worthy experience, and I was able to be home in time for bed (although I think I went out in Chiang Mai that night…)

Grab a Book – A very underrated quality of backpackers: we love to read. A lot. You can always grab good book recommendations from backpackers and most hostels have a free book exchange. Books and backpacks go well together; both take you to new worlds and fill your brain up with knowledge bits. A day reading is not a day wasted, in my opinion; I know a lot of backpackers who head to a beach or a park for the day just to read and enjoy their surroundings.

This Is Your Trip – Don’t feel too pressured to fly too far or add 1,000 things to your itinerary. If you’ve been going and going, you need a break to fill up your cup and recharge. This is your trip and your life, so do what you want to do. If that means spending a day away from your crew or hiding in a park with a book before your second nap, go for it. No one’s judging.

How Do You Like to Kill Time While Backpacking? Let Me Know in the Comments!