Now that the most incredible 6 months of my life has unfortunately come to an end. I thought I would write a final post for the trip summarising my thoughts, feeling, recommendations, regrets and love regarding this truly astonishing part of the world. I’ve chosen to break the post down into various categories meaning you can read the lot or focus on a part you are particularly interested in. I hope I’m able after spending the last 6 months in this part of the world to put down in words an accurate representation of the area and capture how grateful I am for having had such an amazing time.
I guess it is ultimately the people of an area that provide you with the greatest impression of a location and I must say the people of South East Asia (SEA) are probably the most kind and friendly I’ve ever met. Whether in the very rural parts of northern Vietnam or the hustling megacities of Bangkok, Singapore and Manila the people were always so friendly and helpful. I think the news and social media often portrays only bad aspects of people and the very worst of humanity. But in my whole 6-month period I don’t think I can count a time where I encountered a horrible person. 99% of the human population and those of SEA are kind, loving humans just like you and me, who are willing to help you and just want to go about their normal daily lives. Everywhere I went, locals, walking by in the street would say “hello, where are you from” and strike up a conversation. Taxi drivers would always be interested to hear your stories and restaurant and hostel staff were always so accommodating. Even people who appeared to have so little, in the way of material possession and money were often so happy and grateful with what they had. Children played with anything and were so resourceful. I saw kids in the Philippines building kites out of plastic rubbish and flying them within a slum but, yet they still had a smile on their face. I saw elderly people in Vietnam working away in the heat carrying masses of weight on their back but would still offer you a smile. I saw miners in Indonesia working in appalling conditions at ridiculous hours but still greeted you in the same friendly tone you would expect if passing them on the street. To be honest it really made me think of all the people back home and times in my life when I have complained and been miserable over the most nonchalant things. I realised that we, in the western world often don’t understand how lucky and great we have it. People with nothing can be so happy and friendly, yet those rushing round in the city, are unable to make eye contact and hold a smile with someone let alone sit and strike up a conversation with someone on the tube. The people of SEA really are the cornerstone of the continent. Across the 8 countries I visited, there was such diversity among its people, regarding religion, language and race yet the same non-discriminating fact remained. They were all so so lovely!
Travelling is also great not just for the locals you meet but the fellow travellers on the backpacking path. Although travelling as a group of 4 for much of the time, we still managed to meet so many other fellow travellers. The main nationalities tended to be from the UK, Germany, Canada and Scandinavia but as with the locals, the travelling community in this part of the world was equally amazing. Everyone was so friendly, happy and inviting. It’s was so easy to strike up a conversation with anyone at the pool, bar or mountain top viewpoint. The backpacking community really looked out for one another with people offering suggestions and tips if they had already trodden the path you were about to take. Additionally, you would cross paths with people multiple times, bumping into familiar faces at the night market or hostel dormitory. This isn’t to say everyone is following the same route and it’s very touristy (I mean it can be) but it just seems to be that likeminded individuals do like-minded things and therefore you’ll likely see a few friendly and familiar faces while backpacking. Thank you to all the amazing fellow travellers I met while on this wonderful adventure. Friends for life have certainly been made!
I must admit I was a little apprehensive regarding what culinary experience I was going to be treated to while in SEA but overall the food was amazing! I’ve never really eaten food from this part of the world before so was curious to try some of its delights. I’m now even more curious to try and cook some of them for myself. Don’t get me wrong I had my fair share of bad meals and one bout of very bad food poisoning. But overall the food was amazing. Combining great taste and flavour with ridiculously cheap prices, certainly a winning combination. I also found its imperative to eat where the locals eat, more often than not, the food will be utterly delicious and the price dam insane (really really cheap). At first, it can seem daunting, stumbling into a shack or hut to get some food with all eyes on this strange foreigner in their restaurant but your bravery shall certainly be rewarded. In addition to this, I also found that when craving some home comforts, which you ultimately will, the western food offered is never as good as back home and never really what you are hoping for. It is often vastly more expensive compared to the local food, comes in a smaller portion and doesn’t taste as good. You can certainly scope out a good western meal, I ate my fair share, mainly pizza cooked in a pizza oven. But most of the time I ate where the locals did, and my stomach and bank balance are grateful for it. Your staple food will certainly be rice and noodles combined in an astonishing variety of ways, I found chicken and pork normally to be a safe bet, but the beef was a little hit and miss. Also, be prepared for spicy. Most dishes have a little kick which is often pleasant and adds to the taste, you do certainly get used to it, but normally you are asked “Spicy?” so you can indicate your preference. 9/10 it’s very tasty and not too hot however every now and then you do get your head blown off and you dread the following morning on the toilet. For me personally, I really enjoyed the hawker stalls in Singapore, the curries and dishes in northern Thailand were amazing. Laos offered excellent baguettes. Vietnam too was food heaven, with delicious Pho (my new favourite dish) and excellent Banh Mi (once again baguettes). Philippines supplied exceptional seafood, with mouth-watering feasts some of the best I’ve ever eaten, rustled up on the back of a little boat in the middle of the ocean. While the food in Indonesia was great and offered such verity and heat with its spicy geprek dishes. I think you really miss a large aspect of a countries culture if you don’t experiment a little in trying their food (yes, I even ate bugs and fried scorpions) but your stomach also misses out on amazing food if you stick to home comforts. Like I said I’m very much looking forward to trying to add some SEA inspired dished to my cooking repertoire, but I also ultimately know it will never live up to the little food shakes and halls I ate in during my 6-month banquet around SEA.
You’re likely to only really get two seasons in SEA, dry and hot and wet and hot! So be prepared for heat and humidity. The larger cities really were quite oppressive in the middle of the day, but even coastal areas sometimes offered little in the way of respite other than the lure of the sea. You do though to a certain degree get used to the heat. That was until I got to Indonesia. With this being the last stop on the trip I was certainly acclimatised to the warmth. But Indonesia just seemed to me to be on another level completely, being farm more humid. I’m now scared to go somewhere that isn’t warm. Additionally, we didn’t seem to get wet too often either. I’m no expert on when the rainy seasons and stuff are in this part of the world and they also differ from region to region in the vast expanse of land, but I can only count a handful of time we got soaked. Be prepared though, when it does rain, it pours. I’m not sure if we got lucky or just picked the right time to go to places but I’m pretty sure I went months without seeing a drop of rain. Due to this I was able to get quite the suntan, plus was only burnt once or twice due to my sensible application of sun cream. The heat did make it difficult to sleep at night occasionally and sometimes air-conditioning in a dormitory was a must. Other times you could make do with fans. The AC presented its own problem though. Being outside in the blistering heat then sleeping in a cold AC room meant I did pick up a cold here and there due to the dramatic differences in temperature. There was one exception to the amazing weather we received though and that was in northern Vietnam when it was more wet and cold. While completing the Ha Giang motorbike loop we had temperatures of around 10 degrees (I know hardly cold but compared to 30 it was freezing) at night time in our homestay guesthouses, we would sleep fully clothed to avoid waking up shivering. But other than 2 weeks while in the north of Vietnam the weather was great and even here we still got lucky with our weather in Ha Long Bay and on our motorbike tour. I’d say in general we got lucky with the weather, having clear days when in search of a viewpoint and sunny days when heading out on a boat tour. Therefore, I can’t have any complaints in the climate department of the trip.
I’m pretty sure I took almost every possible mode of transport at some time or other during the trip. Plane, bus, train, ferry, taxi, minivan, scooter, motorbike, tuk tuks, tricycles, 4×4 jeeps and cable cars. If it was able to get you from point A to B we used it. Travel days were often ones I least looked forward to especially if on the move for a considerable amount of time. Although I did enjoy looking out the window of our transportation at the vast variety of scenery and landscapes that we passed that made travelling a little more bearable. This is often the part of long term backpacking that people don’t see. It isn’t the glamorous part that provides you with pictures to plaster all over social media for the world to see. But it is very much a vital part of travelling that enables you to reach all these wonderful destinations. Some days I travelled for up to 24 hours, like the time we went from Koh Samui to Bangkok, first a ferry ride, then bus trip lasting taking a total of 18-20 hours. The bus was full and a nightmare to get any sleep. Or the time we had to wait 7 hours in a café across from the train station in Da Nang, before then boarding an overnight train for 10 hours where I slept on the floor of the train. Even shorter trips can be hellish, in Indonesia I visited Mt Bromo in the back of a cramped 4×4 jeep that bounced all over the place for 3 hours to reach the spot to view the sunrise. Quite simply the true travelling part of travelling can be awful. Bus’s and trains are often cramped and hot. More often than not you wait around for just as long a time as you do on the move itself at bus station, airports and ferry ports. Patience can easily be worn thin and attempting journeys when hungover or ill is really the stuff of nightmares, such as when I had a 17-hour voyage consisting of a ferry ride and two bus journeys with the very real possibility I might poo myself due to a serious case of food poisoning (thankfully I didn’t). Not all modes of transportation were bad, I really enjoyed driving the scooter and motorbikes which offered you so much freedom, plus the local taxis such as tuk tuks and tricycles offered unique modes of transport and were often very very cheap. I also can’t write an excerpt on transport without mentioning the crazy traffic of the region too, the big cities are just rammed full of beeping cars and scooters. There appear to be no rules and yet things still seem to somehow work. Be prepared though to wait in traffic for a long time and risking your life when attempting to cross roads in major cities. Overall though the journeys could really get you down if you let them. You must retain a certain sense of humour when things go wrong and just remember that the destination shall make it all worthwhile. As once you’ve arrived the journey is soon forgotten. In a heartbeat, I would happily endure all the long journeys again, as without them I wouldn’t have been able to witness and experience all the amazing things that I did. These certainly outweighed the journeys a million times over.
It’s safe to say the hygiene and sanitation of SEA is a fair way from that back in the UK. I had expected this and to be honest maybe even expected worse than what I found. But at the end of the day, it all added to the experience and provides stories to tell. Firstly, be prepared to use the famous “bum gun” basically a bidet type feature located next to many toilets. At first, many westerns will often complain and say that they are never using the bum gun after going to the toilet, but those who do try it come to love it. I am certainly going to miss this lavatory feature in Australia and have vowed that one day I shall install one in my own home. Word of advice though, always check the water pressure on the bum gun before use, otherwise, you might be in for a surprise. As well as the bum gun there was also the squatty toilet, as the name suggests a porcelain hole in the ground which you squat over to do your business. As a guy being faced with one of these when needing a wee wasn’t any trouble yet when a wee wasn’t required it could be a bit tricky. Once again after a few uses, you develop a bit of a knack to using them. But I certainly won’t be rushing to install one of these at home anytime soon. Luckily though the use of squat toilets was few and far between. Most places either simply had normal toilets or offered you the choice of both. It was only in truly rural places when you had no choice but to use the squat toilet. Another tip always carry some wet wipes and hand sanitiser in your day bag. You never know if the toilet is out of paper or soap and the wet wipes and hand sanitiser saved me on countless occasions. With hot weather comes hot people and unfortunately, that can lead to some horrible BO when on the local buses and things so plenty of deodorant is needed. Unfortunately, it seems some locals aren’t so clued up on this though. Certainly, the local hygiene didn’t live up to standards of that back at home and sharing hostel bathrooms and stuff can be a little grimy at times. But overall the experience really wasn’t as bad as I’m sure it could have been. It certainly didn’t put a dent in my enjoyment while away and like I said its all part of it. It all added to the unique experience and I guess just makes you grateful for home comforts when you do have them.
As well as the amazing people that contribute to this part of the world the stunning landscape and environments that you witness are astonishing. The continent has it all, mountains, beaches, rainforests, river valleys, dry planes, the lot and all offer their own unique elements. I’m sure people have seen from my photos that most of them are of the stunning views provided by the landscapes where I was travelling. As well as all these amazing places I witnessed so many incredible sunsets and sunrises. These I really really enjoyed and there was something just so satisfying and spiritual sitting watching the sun rise or fall, with a beer in hand over a breath-taking scene in front of you. It really connects you to nature and just pushes all your trouble and worries away (not that I had any) for a few precious moments of time. As well as the stunning sunsets I saw stunning landscapes I never thought were possible. The beaches and crystal-clear waters of the Philippines were insane, the dramatic mountain setting of northern Vietnam and exploring this via motorbike shall stay with me forever, as will the limestone cliffs of Ha Long Bay. Volcanic laden Indonesia offered magnificent views after lung busting hikes which were all 100 % worth the effort. It wasn’t however just the environment above land that I was able to enjoy. I’m so glad I began scuba diving and was able to explore the underwater world as I’d never before. Witnessing vivid coral reefs in Koh Tao, and the diversity of aquatic life in the Philippines and Indonesia was otherworldly. As well as the natural environment I guess here I shall include the man-made environment slightly too, I explored so many quaint or magnificent temples like the complex at Angkor Wat or Borobudur Temple. The city of Singapore with its architectural delights was equally as remarkable as the natural mountains, although I certainly enjoyed the natural wonders more. Finally, there was the wildlife, monkeys on the beach, roadside and mountain tops, the elephants of Chiang Mai, and most astonishing to me all the marine life such as sharks, manta rays and turtles that I saw while diving. Like the people, the environment/landscapes of this part of the world combined in a wonderful way to provide truly amazing experiences. Unfortunately, though it wasn’t all good, too many time the human impact on an area was all too apparent. Mainly in the form of plastic waste. I saw it everywhere and often in very large quantities, on roadsides, mountain tops, in rivers, on beaches and even on the sea floor. The generation of plastic waste and its negative impact on these beautiful environments was sadly far too obvious to see. Luckily things seem to be changing in the world regarding this issue and people seem to want to do more. I hope that the people of SEA are equally as engaged in wanting to reduce and clean up their impact on the environment.
I hope that gives you a very brief review of my time in SEA and my thoughts and feelings towards certain aspects of the trip. Try as I might to get these down into words it was very hard to do, and I truly feel there’s no way I could convey everything across to you in words. You really must come to this part of the world and experience it for yourself. I had the most amazing 6 months of my life and I really couldn’t have wished for any more from the trip itself before it started. It was incredible. I visited 8 counties (9 if you include the illegal 2 seconds in China) over the course of 178 days which according to my polar steps map included 66 locations along the way. I undertook things I’d never done before and learnt new skills too. I met people who have become friends for life and learnt many things about myself as well. Thank you to everyone, locals and travellers alike who made the trip so amazing. A special thanks to my 3 main travel companions Fred, Con and Ollie it was a pleasure to share this unique experience with you all and you certainly added to the experience. I hope one day I return to parts of SEA or explore the places I didn’t get to see. I’m sure when I return I shall once again be blown away!