Guide: Kickstart your journey to South East Asia
“It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.”
― Ernest Hemingway
Do you long to go somewhere exotic, exciting and different in the next 6 months? I’m guessing you appreciate Denmark for what it provides in comfort, safety and the-good-old Danish pastry. Still you are feeling a little tired of the dark, rainy days, the black and white patterns of fashion and the routine hangouts at the local bodega? Well, I’m not a doctor, but I would prescribe you a dosis of travelling and exploration: This guide can get you started…
I was travelling in Australia, New Zealand and South East Asia just around two months ago – and I’m already dreaming of going back! Not only do I wish to see and feel the places again, but more so to relive that travelling experience! There is something profoundly refreshing about travelling the unknown corners of the world. What it takes from your savings account, it more than gives back in new perspectives and impressions of the world. Heck, it might even give you some new skills and experiences to spice up that job application you’re sweating over at the moment! No matter what you are after, it is sure to give you life long memories! So what are you waiting for – ready, set, GO!
A travel guide for an eager traveler:
Now, before you throw yourself out on that trans-Siberian railway to get “far-far away”, I have listed a few tips and tricks that might come in handy. The first part is intended as general travel advice based on my experiences from backpacking those two months. The second part is some of my best tips for travelling the South East Asia region. Exactly how your trip is gonna look you will have to decide yourself, but here are some steps on the way:
Decide to go!
Alright, it’s not ground-breaking advice, but this one is really imperative! Some people might prefer to do some research and look at the options, while weighting whether to go or not. My advice: Make up your mind and decide to go as early as possible. This is actually the hardest part. After this, you are sure to find exactly what you need, want and have to do – and you’ll find the motivation to get it done. When you know you are actually going you will work harder to make it work!
Decide how you go!
Do you have to convince your friend or partner to join in? Is this the time to go around the world, leave pets and house behind and set out in a hot-air balloon alá Jules Verne? How you travel is probably the second most important consideration! Do you want to see every corner of a deserted temple in the jungle, do you want to go hiking in the mountains, do you just want to lie at the beach or do you want to do all of the above in a week? This must form the basis for your decision of how you go and how you travel! If you want most flexibility and allow for spontaneity as you go you can easily find travelling means that allow for this.
There are many important considerations when deciding how you go travelling and where, but these are some of the things you need to discuss with yourself and (your travelling mates) before you go. This list can hopefully get you started:
How independent as a person are you? Do you like to explore and making discoveries on your own, or do you need someone by your side? This will have big implications for what kind of trip you are looking at and give you some important planning starting points. Independence usually translates to flexibility, but it also means a lot more uncertainty and changing plans.
Are you inspired by Indiana Jones to find those uncharted temples in the middle of no-where or do you prefer to traverse well charted paths to other treasures – like beaches and cocktails? Do you want to meet all new people or would you rather stick to those already in your pack? Your level of curiosity is very important when planning the kind of trip your seeking.
Can you manage without internet for a few days? Is a hot shower necessary every morning? Living standards vary greatly from place to place and comfort usually come at a price. Having a private toilet every night will require you to dish out more money– a very important consideration for planning your budget!
- Level of thrill vs. level of chill
Although the very well planned trip might be able to include a little bit of everything, you usually have to prioritize. If you want to drink beer by the beach you can’t always go climb temples the day after. It all depends on what kind of trip you are looking for and what geographical and social locations you visit.
Find the best time to go
This is a tough nut to crack. Again, it depends on your preferences, your personal time-schedule and what you want for your trip. Some general considerations for budgeting and planning purposes are important: In all tourist-prone attractions of the world there are high, low and shoulder seasons. These vary by region, of course. In South East Asia the high season is generally in December, January and February – in the northern areas a little later. It will generally be more expensive to live, eat and party during high season, and ho(s)tels might have to be booked in advance. It is considerably cheaper in the low season (when you thought it just couldn’t get any cheaper).
The weather is also a major factor to consider. In the tropical areas of Asia there are only two seasons: Wet and Dry season. The wet season coincide with the low-season. This is the period from late May until late October at latest. In general July is the month with most rain. In January you will almost not experience a drop at all. Now, again this depends on what kind of trip you want: If you want to go hiking and do outdoor sports the hottest months from March and towards the summer are not ideal. If you want to avoid the biggest crowds, try to avoid January. From what I heard, the best time to visit most areas of South East Asia is late November or February.
Get a guidebook to stake your path
A guidebook is always a smart investment before a longer trip. The authors have traveled a lot in the region and worked out what places to visit, what things cost and where you can find help. I found guidebooks most useful when planning my trips. Not only can they tell you interesting information about the country you are going to, but it will have lists of top areas or attractions to see – so that you get a taste of what’s on offer. There are many good books out there, but here are some of my favourite:
- Lonely Planet: High quality guides written in a prosaic manner giving very general advice and inspiration for travel destinations, though mainly the most popular ones
- Rough guide: Also high quality advice, though less focus on the reading experience and more in-depth on the smaller attractions
- Travelfish.com: excellent attraction guides focused on South East Asia. There are many more online guides out there, mostly for free
Know what to bring
One of the worst mistakes when gearing up to for your trip to South East Asia is to pack too much. It is a known advice to travel light, but this is really gonna make your life easier. Especially as a backpacker with your whole closet on your shoulders, it will be important to consider exactly what you NEED. And what you really need is actually not that much. When it comes to clothing, display all you think you need to bring and then divide that by half. After that, it all depends on what kind of trip you are doing, but generally a passport, a wallet, some medicine and a phone will get you through it.
And how to pack
Now that you thrown those high-heel shoes and the Playstation out of the bag, knowing HOW to pack will save you a lot of trouble as well. Generally a quality backpack with a lot of pockets is a good investment. Once you have that, there are a few tricks. Buy smaller bags you can stuff different items in. For instance one for underwear, one for electronics and one for shirts. This will seriously help you find your stuff after a few bumpy rides and it won’t all look like a giant, wrinkly snowball when you arrive.
BEFORE YOU GO:
Some general advice
- Bring a camera to capture the moments – and a large SD-card
- Write a diary to reflect over all you have seen – there will be lots to write!
- Consider going in the the wet season – this can actually be a great time to travel in as rain usually only comes at night time (unless your plans involve camping…) and you will easily escape the crowds
- Buses are generally very accessible and cheap throughout SE Asia, especially in Vietnam
- Travel by night– if you can sleep in crowded sleeper buses that is
- Always bring some cash with you, and some snack for longer journeys – you never know the next time you will find an ATM
- Of course South East Asia is a region too big to cover in a few weeks. Your first trip will often just be a small taste and may well call for a swift return when the wallet allows. Take notes while you are out, what you want to see next time!
Some gems of South East Asia:
- Laos and Cambodia (except Siem Reap region) are generally the least touristy countries in the region with plenty to see for the curious explorer. Myanmar also has very low levels of tourism (yet!) as they just opened their borders to foreigners
- Follow the Mekong river from North to South starting in Laos, ending in Southern Vietnam – this is a great way to see some stunning nature and busy village life
- Book in at a Homestay in Cambodia, Vietnam or Laos to truly experience the local life and learn about tribal people rural areas
- Go for a cultural activity in Bangkok or Chiang Mai: Learn to cook, practice meditation or do a language course. Much is on offer!
- Vietnam’s central highlands are best explored on a motorcycle – preferable with someone driving you. Easy Rides are a great way to see this beautiful area!