When we decided to embark on our 6-month backpacking trip, nobody could have predicted a global virus was on its way. We had given up great jobs, the perfect apartment, and a city full of friends, to explore our curiosity of the world. Boy were we in for a surprise.
Traveling during the pandemic was unlike any normal backpacking experience or vacation. While abroad we continually tracked news updates to keep ourselves informed. By doing so, we were always a few steps ahead of mandatory quarantines, border closures, and learned to religiously wash our hands and wear a face mask early on. Despite our precautions, Covid-19 caught up to us, and shortened our journey around the globe.
Through our whirlwind trip, we experienced first hand the reaction of the world during the rise of a pandemic. We also learned valuable skills that we’ll utilize on future travels. Here’s how we navigated traveling during Covid-19.
We started our trip in December 2019. It would be the first time we’d be away from our family for the holidays, but it was also the first time we’d get to spend Christmas morning together. Our plan was to backpack for a total of 6 months. We started in Australia and aimed to visit New Zealand, Indonesia, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Japan before returning stateside.
At the start, we were on cloud nine. We knew that we had made the right decision and were easily adjusting to living out of a backpack. News had only briefly broken about a “new virus” and like the rest of the world, we didn’t give it too much thought at first.
After a month of soaking in the Australian sun, we hopped over to New Zealand, eager to see the varied landscape out the back of a campervan. There we were living in our own bubble, hardly bothering with the outside world while trekking all over the North and South Islands.
As January came to a close, we flew to Bali to continue our island adventure. Our trip aligned with Joe’s college best friends who we couldn’t wait to see. Cathay and Sally were headed to Thailand after and expressed concern about not being able to get back to the U.S. While we did brush up on the world’s happenings, we had not seriously contemplated on how this “novel” coronavirus could affect us.
Alex, a medical student who recently took an infectious disease residency, came to Bali prepared with masks. He gave us a stack and advised us to use them throughout the rest of our trip. Thinking that he was a bit alarmist, we packed them away, not knowing just how valuable they would be in just over a month’s time.
We spent three more weeks island hopping around Indonesia, before heading to Singapore. At this point, Singapore was one of the “hot spots,” but with flights already booked we didn’t think twice about our plan.
When we arrived in the island country, we felt that we had hit the jackpot. The city was ours, empty of tourists. We didn’t have to contend with crowds while visiting Gardens by the Bay. Bars were open but hardly busy. And best of all, we never had to wait for some of the most sought-after Michelin-recognized hawker fare cuisine in Singapore.
There was an errieness throughout the modern city, but we felt very safe. Singapore was hit with the SARS outbreak in 2003, and so the government took great care as the novel coronavirus began to spread outside of mainland China. Checkpoints dotted the city and several key attractions were either closed or significantly monitored. We took notice at how determined the city was to halt any spread of the virus while about to board a train. Metro workers stormed aboard the train and thoroughly cleaned every surface, apologizing to us for the delayed service. We quickly shot back, “no, thank you,” recognizing how essential these precautions were.
Our luck lasted us through another care-free month of travel in Thailand starting mid-February. The bustling city of Bangkok operated as usual with drunk tourists rubbing shoulders through Khao San Road, and long lines of families waiting to visit the dazzling temples.
Was the world overreacting? While nearby China was under a strict lock-down, we were continuing on as status quo and leaned into the benefits of reduced crowds and fewer tourist buses. Then news broke of an outbreak in the Lombardy region of Italy, and everything quickly changed.
Our original plan was to visit Laos and Cambodia next, but decided to save these destinations for another time, in the event that this ever-evolving epidemic spread globally. Vietnam, next on our travel list, seemed to have the virus contained at this point. We then hoped come April, conditions would improve in Japan, which had one of the largest clusters of confirmed cases outside of Wuhan. We remained naively optimistic.
We landed in Saigon in the middle of March, spending the first few days with Vic’s extended family in the Mekong Delta. She was excited to meet them, visit where her mother grew up, and gain a better understanding of her Vietnamese heritage. Unfortunately, the country was just starting to see an increase in cases, leading the government to enforce quarantines and deter new visitors. The next day, they announced all major tourist attractions would close until further notice. It was devastating to learn that our top sights – Hoi An, Da nang, Ha Long Bay – were closed to visitors. We read reports of tourists quarantined to abandoned hotels and closed-off hospital wards just for being near confirmed Covid-19 patients, so we took all updates from the government very seriously.
Still, we had just arrived and weren’t ready to give up. While the main tourist attractions were closed, there were still many beautiful rural cities in Vietnam that we could explore. You should head to “Da Lat, it’s a romantic city,” Vic’s cousin suggested. Learning that it was a manageable 6-hour bus ride north of Saigon, we bought our tickets and started daydreaming about being in the mountainous countryside of Vietnam. Maybe we could make these weeks in Vietnam special in our own way.
Two days later, our bus tickets had been cancelled. To prevent the spread of the virus, the government restricted and reduced travel routes. We were crushed, but took this as a sign. Since we were still in Saigon, there were still plenty of international flights available. Knowing that our backpacking adventure was coming to an earlier close than we’d planned for, we figured we should start routing our way stateside in case things started to escalate quickly.
Where to next? We went back and forth trying to decide between heading home immediately or slowly making our way back to California. Which country has Covid not impacted? Which one could we afford to get to, potentially live in, and also had a well-established public health system in case the worst happened?
We decided Taipei, Taiwan would be our best option. Taiwan is a key hub in the region with direct flights to Hawaii and the west coast. We had also heard great things, and so we packed our bags and headed to the airport.
Landing in Taiwan was a complete 180 from what we experienced in Vietnam. Businesses were still open, people were out and about in masks, and the city had the energy Saigon did not. We took a sigh of relief and optimistically started planning at least a couple of weeks on the island. Taiwan offers beautiful national parks, beaches, delicious food, and vibrant, bustling cities mixing Japanese and Chinese cultural influences.
The next day we learned that Taiwan had increased their border control and anyone arriving would be subject to a 14 day quarantine. We just made it!
We were able to enjoy one full day in Taiwan, before the new reality hit again. Taiwan was closing its borders tomorrow.It felt like the more we tried to plan, the more the universe was telling us to go home. Although flights to the U.S. were still scheduled, we could see routes cancelling in real time.
We panicked. Minutes earlier we had booked flights back to the U.S. in one week. Now with the news, would those flights still be running? Should we change our plans and book the flight for tomorrow? Joe tried to call the US Embassy for guidance, but all lines were busy. We could either risk ignoring a pandemic for another week of backpacking in Taiwan or reschedule our flight to leave the next day. Giving each other a look that said it all, we checked what flights were still available. Turns out our only alternative took off that night – T minus 6 hours to get to the airport!
We ran back to our hotel. In disbelief, in shock, in laughter – we asked each other how did this all happen so fast?! We packed up in haste, stuffed a roll of toilet paper in our backpacks (apparently that was a thing back home…), and decided to take one more walk through Taipei before we had to close out our six-month trip, three months early. Fortunately Joe had a Disney timeshare in Oahu, Hawaii, so we decided to quarantine ourselves there for a couple of weeks and make the best of it before returning to each of our childhood homes.
After seeing images of thousands of Americans trapped in horrendous customs lines, we were anxiously waiting for what would greet us landside in Oahu. To our surprise the airport was nearly empty, and the customs officers only asked if we had felt any Covid symptoms. Our temperatures were never taken, we didn’t have to fill out any paperwork, and no one was wearing masks. Compared to how cautious and thorough the Taiwanese were, this lack of concern made us feel uncertain about how America would respond to this crisis.
Reality had finally sunken in. We had just landed back in the states at the brink of an outbreak that would claim more than a hundred thousand lives in two months.
Looking back on our decision to explode our comfortable Bay Area lives for such a short journey – we have no regrets. Do we wish that we were still on the road? Of course. However, the memories we created within that short period of time feel like we lived years compared to our tired routines. In the end, we were grateful to come home healthy, safe, and have time to reflect on our growth.
This experience has taught us a great deal. It was our first time backpacking, and the more chaotic it became, the more lessons that we learned. We worked together as a team and relied on our instincts when the world didn’t have concrete answers. Each day we adapted our plans to the ever-changing pandemic. We turned cancelled plans into spontaneous opportunities, and packed in each day with experience, not knowing what tomorrow would hold. This passage has given us a new outlook and perspective on travel, and we’ve become closer than ever.
No matter what our next path is, we are confident that our adventure will continue. Covid-19 has changed the world, and like everyone else, we have learned to think differently. We’re still committed to living our fullest lives together, and we know that we’ll be on our next journey soon.