A journey to East and South East Asia in 1985

Last modified 24.04.2024 | Published 09.01.19851980's, China, Japan, Malaysia, North, Central and East Asia, Philippines, Singapore, South and Southeast Asia, Taiwan, Thailand, Travelogue

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This was my first backpacking experience. Urged by more experienced friends on the university I decided to take a semester off from my studies. The big question was where to go. This is the introduction to a journey to East and South East Asia in 1985.

This article is part of a diary based travelogue from of a six month journey in 1985 to several countries in East and South East Asia: Japan, Taiwan, China, Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand

Backpacking experience

I had in fact backpacked before, literally speaking, on several walking and skiing trips in the mountains of Norway. As a child I had camped in my neighbouring countries of Sweden and Denmark with my family. As a young man I had been across the North Sea to England a few times on organised school and student trips. The two previous years I went to the Mediterranean with a couple of friends concentrated on partying; girls, beers, sun and beaches.

Although being far from a backpacking journey to very distant countries, all these vacations contributed to preparing me for something more. Furthermore I had for years been interested in and had been studying history and international politics. One of my urging friends was already in his early twenties a seasoned “InterRail’er” in Europe. That did not tempt me, I wanted something completely different. I wanted to go to another continent.

About where to go

The two great backpacking continents for a European were Asia and Latin America. They seemed equally tempting to me. As the other of my urging friends the previous year had travelled to Latin America, I decided to go the other way; to Asia.

Map of the journey through East and Southeast Asia. (This is static. For a dynamic map, head to the original)

I bought a one way ticket to Tokyo, with no return ticket, date or exit point. I had this dream of spending the next six months or more travelling through East and South East Asia eventually ending up in India. Before leaving I had obtained my visa to India from the embassy so I was well prepared. Even though my plan was so little carved in rock, it did not exactly end up like that.

Does it matter?

WYSIWYG – what you see is what you get – is a computer phrase easily travel-paraphrased into “what you want to see, you can see”. To give but two examples: 1) When I got to China and learned that Tibet had just recently opened up to individual travellers, I went there. 2) When I got to the Philippines and learned about an island recently “discovered” by backpackers, I went there; to Boracay

I did not regret my choices at the time, but the wad of traveller’s cheques in my money belt was rapidly wearing thin, so I had to get a troublesome refill from the old country to finance my return flight. 

But it was a fantastic trip nonetheless. I got to see so much, travelling was easy, and I got it into my blood. It is still there.

The photographs

My pictures are imperfect scans from my paper prints. An upcoming project is to scan the pictures from the original negative strips as I have done elsewhere on my blog.

In the digital world of today this little piece of fact is incredible: In six months of travelling I only took about 300 photos. During the journey I did not feel like I was taking few pictures. But as soon as I returned home I regretted all the photo opportunities I missed, the people and places I didn’t take a picture of. The following year, going to the Middle East, I was much more conscious about taking pictures.

The basis of this travelogue

This introductory entry is written at the time of publishing (2011), but the rest of the travelogue from East and South East Asia consists of my diary, letters home and comments in the old photo album (1985). I have made efforts to keep the entries as authentic as possible although I admit being tempted to change, omit or add a word here and a phrase there, or simply add more information about the places visited. There are exceptions for the sake of privacy: I use the initials or first name of people I meet, I do (for the most part) not include photos of people I meet and describe, and I have omitted (private) discussions in the letters home that are not relevant to the travelogue.

A remark on currencies

In my diaries I have always taken notes of my costs, sometimes mentioning them in terms of local currency, at other times in Norwegian kroner (abbreviated NOK). To the international reader I have here included the equivalent cost in United States dollars (USD). I have used a flat rate of 9 kroner to 1 $ to keep it simple.

Before travelling, a letter home

Who hasn’t in their younger days heard questions and maybe objections from their parents when airing thoughts about going to distant countries and places? Well, I have.

On writing this blog I came across the air-mailed letters home to my family. My mother had kept them all these years and I am now including them here, in Italics, as the story unfolds. Amongst those letters I also found one from the autumn before I left. I had revealed my plans to my family, and at least my mother uttered strong objections to them.

This I had almost forgotten all about, but I would like to include large parts of my letter. I believe the content brings out several arguments why one should be doing this – travel the world. Good reading and good travelling!


Oslo 27. October 1984,

Dear mother!

Thank you for the letter. It was nice of you to send a letter to talk about this, but it is sad that I do not get the support I feel is natural. I must therefore settle a few things with you that a telephone conversation neither gives time nor opportunity to.

First I would like to say that the dinner was exquisite, as always. Second (…).

Let me return to my “dream” as you call it. Well OK, it is a dream – but to the highest degree a realisable dream. It is in a practical sense actually very easy to go and buy a ticket to Tokyo, and then go for it. I do however not intend to just “go for it” as I have been doing quite a bit of planning: As much as possible from the armchair and as much as wanted. There has to be some room for improvisation and surprises and even change of plans along the way. That is exactly the point about such an adventurous trip: The challenge, the inspiration and the exploration both in a physical sense and with regard to my intellect.

You are saying that I must “learn to renounce on dreams that cannot be realised”. In my opinion it is a matter of priorities: This tempting journey as opposed to taking a final exam when I’m 25 or 25.5 years old. What is a half year of my life against what I am going to experience on this trip?


One semester postponement of my master study is actually nothing. What does it matter if I start in January or in August?

Besides, my work this autumn is not affected by my plans for next year. And when it comes to this matter of being tired of school, I haven’t said directly that I am. I mean that a half year away from my studies will prepare me for a new and fresh start, but to say that I’m tired now would be wrong. I still enjoy studying, both my subject and university.

In addition I have money to go. I will neither get more nor less loans if I wait half a year. Unfortunately it will get worse if I travel after I finish my master, as the payback time on my loan then commence. It will therefore be difficult to go later. And perhaps in two years’ time there will be other things that hold me back, who knows?

No, I mean that now is the best time to go if I shall go at all. The bachelor’s degree is a natural break point before starting on the last two-three years.

Of course you are right that (my friend) R has encouraged and influenced me when it comes to this, but that is all fine in my opinion: No one else has shared my interests when I have expressed them. He has showed me that it’s not a big deal to cross half the globe, if only you have the guts. For if you resign in the starting blocks you never get anywhere in life. To postpone and renounce on your dreams – as you have always claimed – is in my opinion only frustrating especially when the opportunities and realities are as present as they are to me in this case.

In fact I do not see any heavy arguments against my trip. The only thing that can come in the way is my own laziness and apathy. And that is no easy stuff.


Then on to some more practical matters.

1. Any job abroad after the studies is very unlikely. And nothing to bet on.

2. The Foreign Ministry has no travel scholarships. Maybe some private organisations have, but I don’t know.

3. I’m not complicating and messing things up, as you say. It is you who make a mountain out of a molehill. Moving my stuff home (before travelling) is no big problem. And it will be less expensive.

4. I’m not tied for January. Yet. I must probably buy the ticket in the beginning of December and that is no more than a month away. And only two months till my possible departure.

5. Equipment I need: Father’s old backpack without the frame for easier stowage; sleeping bag; one (two) pair of trousers; a couple of shirts; light sweater or jacket; some underwear; shorts; hiking boots (recommended by many); a few practical things. This is just about all I will need – it’s about making it as light as possible you know. Tip for Christmas present: Flat bag of cloth or similar to keep my passport (10×15 cm) and traveller’s cheques. It will be kept under my trousers on the back (for matters of safety).

6. Presumed route of travelling is: (find your map!): Norway, Japan, Hong Kong with a fast trip into China; Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, Burma, Bangladesh, Nepal, India and home. I will maybe fly to Rome and visit sister and take the train home from there. It shouldn’t be so expensive, I guess. But we will see. By then we are in May and I might be bored by travelling.

7. If I don’t go to the East it will in any case be the USA! Some friends are planning a month from east to west by car next summer, and it is tempting.


But now it’s enough. I think I will make myself a pizza. Later I and R are going to a cinema and perhaps to Club7 later on.

All the best, and hugs from me.

The chapters in this series

  1. The introduction to this journey to East and South East Asia
  2. Tokyo: the departure and first days in a distant land
  3. Kyoto: A look into a splendid past and harmonious places to rest
  4. Hiroshima: A terrible past
  5. Hitchhiking on Shikoku and a long sea journey from Kobe
  6. Okinawa: Mild winds, cherry blossoms and a WW2 history
  7. Taiwan: A snake market, immense treasures and an oversized hotel in the capital of Taipei
  8. The beautiful scenery inland on this Chinese island state separated from the mainland
  9. Hong Kong, a wonderful city state at a time it was still a Crown colony
  10. Southern China: From Hong Kong to Guangzhou and Guilin
  11. Sichuan: Hot food, exciting street life and a stone forest in Kunming. New Year’s celebrations and pop music in Chengdu. And a drastic change of plans.
  12. 11 days on top of the world, in Tibet, few months after its opening up for individual travellers. This post contains the first two days and a letter home.
  13. The story from my days in Tibet here continues with the bulk of the stay
  14. The way out of Tibet, into the forbidden city of Golmud and onwards
  15. Xian: Terracotta soldiers and a long way to go in hospitality
  16. Beijing: The imperial city complete with ducks, opera, acrobats and the Forbidden City
  17. The story from Beijing continues with a letter home, and the Summer Palace
  18. Shanghai and the slow boat to Hong Kong
  19. Back in Hong Kong
  20. The casinos and back streets of Macau
  21. Hong Kong for the last time
  22. The Philippines, Manila: Lesson learned, follow the rumours
  23. Boracay: The first week in a paradise not yet lost
  24. My last days on Boracay Island, a letter home and an epitaph
  25. Island hopping in the central Philippines: Western and Central Visayas islands of Panay and Negros
  26. Island hopping in the central Philippines: Eastern Visayas islands of Cebu, Leyte, Samar and back to Manila on Luzon Island
  27. Manila and the first part of the northern Philippines
  28. Small villages, wonderful scenery and magnificent rice terraces in the northern Philippines
  29. Singapore: The rapidly modernising city-state
  30. Malaysia: A stopover en route north
  31. Underneath the palms of Koh Samui, Thailand
  32. Bangkok: Where the bars are temples but the pearls ain’t free
  33. Northern Thailand: Amid temples, travellers and hill tribes of The Golden Triangle
  34. Northern Thailand: A view to the forbidden countries of Burma and Laos
  35. Last days in Bangkok, a cloudy island stay and the end of a long journey

All letters in this series

The more than 30 blog entries from this trip make up far more than a hundred A4-pages of pure text. That is a book. And a lot. My letters are included in those entries chronologically. If you like you can instead browse only the letters to get the same resume of the trip as my family got during my six months of travelling.

The letters contain fewer facts than the diaries of course, but also some new pieces of information not included in the diaries. They also have some additional background information about the places visited, about travelling and my general impressions while being on the road.

The letters are found in these entries:

  1. Hiroshima: A terrible past
  2. Hong Kong, a wonderful city state at a time it was still a Crown colony
  3. 11 days on top of the world, in Tibet, few months after its opening up for individual travellers. This post contains the first two days and a letter home.
  4. The way out of Tibet, into the forbidden city of Golmud and onwards
  5. The story from Beijing continues with a letter home, and the Summer Palace
  6. Hong Kong for the last time
  7. My last days on Boracay Island, a letter home and an epitaph
  8. Manila and the first part of the northern Philippines
  9. Malaysia: A stopover en route north
  10. Northern Thailand: Amid temples, travellers and hill tribes of The Golden Triangle

My guidebooks

Here are the guidebooks I used, and liked. For China I had to buy a new one.

The On-Your-Own Guide to Asia. This was the guidebook I used the most
The On-Your-Own Guide to Asia. This was the guidebook I used the most
China off the beaten track. This guidebook was one of the first made for individual travellers.
China off the beaten track. This guidebook was one of the first made for individual travellers.

My travelogue starts with Tokyo.