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The highs and lows of backpacking in SE Asia

Picturesque Thai long-boats in the islandsIt was the best of times; it was the most difficult of times. I broadened my mind and belly, saw achingly beautiful landscapes and partied in paradise; I also suffered my share of lows and incredible frustrations.

For almost six months I travelled through Southeast Asia, living out of a backpack and taking each day as it came. I explored Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, experienced Thailand and Singapore, relaxed in Malaysia and even got engaged in Indonesia.

The highs were high but the lows were, well, low. When the time came for me to go back to the West a part of me couldn’t wait to be back in London – but another part wanted to stay in Asia, to continue to explore this crushingly beautiful part of the world.

Although I still have countless tales to tell on Man vs World in the future, I thought I’d briefly sum up for you now the good things and the bad about travel in South East Asia, the great memories and the not-so-great from six months backpacking in a land of extremes.

The highs

The crushingly beautiful island of Nang YuanThe beaches

New Zealand’s beaches are nothing to be sniffed at – but the beaches in Asia are on a whole other level of spectacular. Think golden white sands and crystal-clear oceans as warm as bath water.

Now, Thailand’s beaches are particularly lovely – Koh Tao being my favourite – but every country I visited had world-class beaches, with land-locked Laos being the obvious exception. I stayed in Langkawi in Malaysia for a week because it was so nice, eleven days in Sihanoukville in Cambodia and two weeks in Kuta, Bali, at the end of my travels.

I went snorkelling in Sihanoukville and Koh Tao, Krabi in Thailand, Indonesia’s Gili Islands and Nha Trang in Vietnam. Of these, Koh Tao was easily the best – despite my seeing a turtle in Gili Trawangan.

The price of beer

Cheap but infinitely drinkable, the beer in South East Asia was among the best this traveller has sampled anywhere in the world.

Vietnam served up the cheapest brew – you can get a handle of local beer for as low as 10p in Hoi An – and Malaysia’s was the most expensive, followed by Thailand. Cambodian lager was excellent and very affordable but my favourite beers were Laos’ ubiquitous Beerlao and Indonesia’s Bintang.

It’ll come as no surprise, then, that I bought both Beerlao and Bintang singlets on my travels.

Me with Beerlaos in Utopia, Luang Prabang, LaosLuang Prabang

A town that’s almost impossible to dislike, Luang Prabang is like a ray of sunshine after a week of bad weather – or, in my case, after a week in Hanoi.

Beer seems to taste better in Luang Prabang, the air is sweeter and the people are friendlier. It’s home to the best bar in all of South East Asia and one of the best night markets around. It’s charming, picturesque and peaceful – but there’s still plenty to see and do.

Cambodia

The winner of my recent travel showdown against Vietnam and Laos, Cambodia was everything I hoped it would be and much more.

Cambodia’s beautiful beaches and affordable accommodation are dwarfed only by the country’s fascinating history and the wonder that is Angkor Wat, making it the place I would most recommend to backpackers looking for a mix of culture and history, rest and relaxation, fun and adventure.

The myserious smiles of the Bayon temple in CambodiaGetting engaged

And I’d really be in the dog box if I didn’t say getting engaged in Bali to my long-time travelling companion Nicola was one of the highlights of the trip.

It was a wonderful bookend to our backpacking and flashpacking adventures in Southeast Asia and Europe – and I still can’t believe she said “yes”!

The lows

Me wrestling a giant mud crab in Krabi, ThailandTraveller’s diarrhoea

I never suffered from any food poisoning – but traveller’s diarrhoea (or diarrhea) was an infliction I was forced to live with A LOT.

Stomach cramps and nausea, feverish in one instance and always a seemingly insatiable need to run to the toilet – the less said about my bouts with diarrhoea the better.

Don Det

I hated Laos’ 1000 Islands – but it was in no way anything to do with Don Det or any of the (considerably less than 1,000) other islands. You see, I accidentally broke my computer by kneeling on it – a travel regret if ever there was one.

It’s never a clever thing to do – but it’s even less so when you’re a backpacker on a budget with a fledgling travel blog. Suffice it to say, I was reminded of my stupidity every time I went to write a blog post.

I replaced my broken netbook with a brand new one in Bangkok three weeks later. It’s a miracle we still managed to stay under budget – no thanks to me and my stupid knee.

Me on the night train to Chiang MaiSleeper buses and trains

Travel in South East Asia is easy, sure, but so is changing a flat tyre on your car: it’s a pain in the ass but you will get you where you want to go – eventually.

Sleeper buses are the worst. I’m a tad too tall for most buses in Asia anyway – especially as the person in front will always recline their seat even if they’re half your height – so sleeper buses are a bit of a nightmare. Unfortunately, they’re often unavoidable unless you want to fork out the cash for a train.

Now, sleeper trains are a heck of a lot better – but they’re not perfect either. Often they won’t turn the lights out, which is worse in the top bunk. The bottom bunk is usually slightly more expensive but it’s worth it.

Taxis

When they’re not blatantly trying to rip you off, South East Asian taxi drivers are honking at you in the hopes that you’ll flag them down.

Even in Malaysia, where it’s against the law for a taxi driver to not use the meter (it even says it on the driver’s door) they’ll try to negotiate a price – a grossly inflated one at that. Vietnamese taxi drivers are definitely the worst, followed by the ones in the Thai islands, but catching taxis anywhere in SE Asia is a pain in the ass.

And surely it’s not that great for business? I’d rather walk for an hour or two than let them rip me off, even when the center of town is an awful long way from the bus stop where you’ve just been dropped – which is nearly always the case.

Nicola celebrates the good weather in Sanur, IndonesiaSo there you have it: the good, the bad and the annoying about travelling around South East Asia.

I had a fantastic six months backpacking in this part of the world so I hope the highs outweigh the lows here – they certainly do in my mind. I honestly could have listed every place I visited in the highs column for one reason or 20.

While you’re here, you may as well check out the best places to visit in Thailand and the best places to visit in Vietnam. Happy travels!

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  1. Olivia - young on the road

    Hilarious article! Do you have any tips for avoiding the diarrhea?

    1. Don’t drink the water – and don’t even brush your teeth with it, like I stupidly did for a couple of weeks (I thought I was spitting it all out!). They say you should avoid ice, too, but it’s too hot to have drinks with no ice in them. Having admitted to all these indiscretions, I never had any stomach trouble!

  2. RoadTripWorms

    I’m surprised Singapore beer is not the most expensive to you. They tax alcohol and tobacco horrendously! If it makes you feel any better, being a local I’m also fed up with Hanoi’s taxi drivers. It’s a bad experience everytime I need a ride.

    1. You’re right – it is quite expensive in Singapore, too! Taxi drivers are the worst. It’s interesting to hear they’re as dishonest to locals as they are to tourists. Always good to hear from another perspective!

  3. Jeremy @ travelFREAK

    STOKED. It will be a few months until I make it to SE Asia but boy, am I excited! And congrats on your engagement! Now you’ve gotta find somewhere even better to honeymoon!

    1. I wish I could do it all again! Well, maybe not wreck my computer… At this stage we’re thinking a road-trip around the States for our honeymoon! Cheers mate.

  4. John Cain

    I actually look forward to sleeper trains. Most routes are feel like its a mobile hostel with all the other backpackers on them and tight bunk bed system – not to mention the impossibly cheap price. However, sleeper buses are almost universally bad.

    1. Haha, I like being in bed on a sleeper train – it’s like being in a little fort!

  5. Micki

    It’s been a while since I’ve been in Southeast Asia, and it’s nice to see not much has changed. I’ve never made it to Luang Prabang, but your description made me want to check it out – sounds like a great place.

    1. Luang Prabang is brilliant – especially straight after somewhere intense like Hanoi in our case!

  6. Hayley

    I feel the same way about so much of Asia, particularly the fact that Bali is on my ‘dream getaway wedding’ list. Great spot to propose! And I fell in love with Luang Prabang the first moment I stepped off the boat. Keep up the posts, I’m really enjoying them :)

    1. Haha, the problem now is I might have set the bar too high for myself – if we’re getting engaged in Bali where on earth are we going to honeymoon?!

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