On my way to Australia I travelled through South East Asia. On a tight timeframe and an even tighter budget, I’d planned an itinerary in advance. Would I experience the best of these countries during my fleeting visit? Or would I rush from temple to beach, not seeing much at all?
Luckily, this section of the globe is given to cheap, whistle-stop exploration. However you don’t lose the essence of travel: that perfect mixture of adrenaline and relaxation that comes from being thrown into vastly different cultures from our own.
Week 1: Bangkok – Siem Reap – Kampot
After two days exploring Bangkok’s temples by river taxi, I took the local’s train from Hualampong Station to Cambodia’s border. The crossing has several scam outfits operating, but a less fraught taxi drive took me to The Garden Hostel, a budget base for visiting Angkor Wat.
I hired a tuk-tuk to meander through the massive temple complexes of Angkor from dawn till dusk. Siem Reap buzzes at night, albeit with a westernized feel. However, a twelve-hour bus to Kampot on the south coast took me off-piste, to Rabbit Island and through peaceful farmland.
Week 2: Kampot – Phnom Penh – Ho Chi Minh City – Dalat
Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, is a few hours away from Kampot. Prep yourself well, especially if travelling alone because the city hits you at full force. At the S21 prison camp (now a museum) I learnt about the horrors of the Khmer Rouge Regime. Although a sobering capital because of its all-to-recent history, Phnom Penh was a necessary education and a thought-provoking part of my journey.
I crossed the border into Ho Chi Minh City. Museums once again showed graphic and sometimes understandably one-sided versions of recent history. This made reaching the mountain town of Dalat a relief. I spent a day hiking Vietnam’s second tallest mountain and lunched above the clouds.
Week 3: Dalat – Nha Trang – Hoi An – Hue
From Dalat a picturesque journey dropped towards the coast at Nha Trang. I recharged my batteries there and guiltily admit to lounging on the beach and generally not doing much.
With its ancient architecture, great brunches and markets galore, Hoi An was a personal favourite. Do a cookery course, get a suit tailored and hire a bike to see its best bits! My second night bus in 4 days took me to Hue, where I spent an afternoon in The Forbidden City.
Week 4: Hanoi – Halong Bay – Luang Prabang
Further north I reached Hanoi, a bustling city with more character than its southern counterpart. I stayed in the old town that made walking to the museums, street markets and rooftop bars easy. I also enjoyed a more authentic tipple at a Bia Hoi where the locals gather.
I bought a cheap ‘package’ ticket for an overnight visit to the famous Halong Bay and spent two nights on a Junk, dining on seafood salads. The limestone casts and views from Monkey Island were exceptional, but I also visited beautiful caverns and kayaked at sunset.
Week 5: Vang Vieng –Luang Prabang – Chiang Mai
I shirked the 20-hour bus ride across the northern border and left Vietnam by plane on Christmas morning, landing in the tranquil and postcard-perfect town of Luang Prabang. Following two long bus trips, an incident with some gerbils and a somewhat uncultured New Year’s Eve in Vang Vieng, I was excited about hopping onto the Mekong for a two day journey to the Thai border.
This slow up-river jaunt was fantastic. Conveniently, it also transported me to the Thai border, and onwards to the town of Chiang Mai. My time there was deliciously hedonistic. I had full body massages, visited an elephant camp and bathed in waterfalls. Chiang Mai’s peace and love rubbed off on me and I moved on, rejuvenated.
Week 6: Chiang Mai – Bangkok – Krabi
My adventures brought me full circle. Back in Bangkok, dazed and confused by the ground I’d covered in such a short time; I sat by the river and paused. My second and final budget flight of the trip took me to Krabi, where I spent a wonderful few days discovering the underwater world. Completing my PADI course made marauding amid some of the world’s most photographed beaches feel a little less like a guilty pleasure…just!
Week 7: Krabi – Langkawi – Penang – Cameron Highlands
Crossing a sea border onto Langkawi Island, I spent a day buzzing around on a moped, before heading to Penang where I indulged in one of the best curries I’ve ever tasted. After that, my scenery changed dramatically as I wound my way into the tea plantations of the Cameron Highlands. Hiking, eating and drinking here are a pleasant experience and the perfect warm up for a few more days of eating in Malaysia’s capital.
Week 8: Kuala Lumpur – Melaka – Singapore
In Kuala Lumpur I frequented tasty hawker stalls and had afternoon tea at the top of the Menara Tower, where you get a show-stopping view of the slightly more famous Petronas Towers. I also visited the sacred Baku caves, where colourful shrines and statues lined up for my attention and mischievous monkeys bounced through pilgrims and tourists alike.
After a rainy day in pretty Melaka, Singapore was the final port of call on this virgin expedition. After weeks of alien smells, noisy engines and crazy traffic, I’d reached a country where gum is illegal and residents get fined for not washing their cars weekly. The city was modern, shiny and not unlike The Truman Show.
In comfortable surroundings, I reminisced on my two-month journey. I’d dipped my toes in several seas, rivers and lakes, seen rich history hold its own amid a push for modernity and been constantly bewildered by South East Asia’s concoction of cultures.
Most importantly, I learnt that working to a finite itinerary doesn’t limit us to tourism. In fact, it can give us the motivation to see, experience and absorb much more from a journey, however limited our time and budget.