10 reasons to go backpacking in Southeast Asia
Ask most people who’ve been bitten by the travel bug the age-old question, “Where to next?” and they’ll probably have a confident reply ready. Unless they haven’t sealed the deal and booked the ticket quite yet, in which case the answer could be an extensive bucket list – one which, like a daily to-do list, keeps chopping and changing as our priorities shift through the evolving cycle of this funny old thing we call life.
Yet as much as we all love to discover somewhere new, there are times when destinations can feel very much like people. Some seem like a great idea at the time and then you realise the appeal was only skin deep. Some may not have struck you as anything special from a distance and then they blow you away when you get to know them. And then there are the others that stick with you – you just keep on coming back for more.
Well, that’s how I feel about South East Asia. Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia, Borneo, Singapore… I just can’t get enough. And I know I’m not alone out there – hands up all who just can’t seem to quit Asia?
With the Philippines lined up as my next Asian box to tick, I got to thinking about just what it is that makes this part of the world so darn magical for travellers – here are the top 10 things I love about South East Asia…
1. The beaches
The beaches of South East Asia are what backpacker dreams are made of. Once you’ve sunk your feet into those powder-soft, pure white shores and watched the sky meet the sea in fifty shades of blue, you’ll be caught hook, line and sinker. Whether it’s a beach bustling with humanity as hawkers sell their wares and gather to watch the sunset or a deserted beach where you can play out your Girl Friday fantasies – South East Asia’s got the whole spectrum. Hiring a scooter to seek out the hidden beaches of an Indonesian or Thai island is one of my favourite things to do.
2. The natural beauty
Lush rainforest; cascading waterfalls; azure skies; turquoise seas – could the landscape be any more exotic? There are breath-taking experiences for all tastes out here thanks to the power of good, old Mother Nature. Whether you’re looking to trek through the jungles and conquer volcanoes; raft the white-knuckle rides of the rapids; swim in a fresh-water pool beneath a thundering waterfall; or crack open a coconut for a little taste of paradise – South East Asia serves it up on a plate. And the best bit? All that glorious sunshine.
3. The food
Speaking of plates… Asian food is one of the things I love the most about this part of the world. No need to splurge your hard-earned dollar in a swanky restaurant, some of the best meals I have ever encountered have been in simple, roadside eateries for prices, quite literally, cheaper than chips. Rice, noodles, soups, curries, stir-fries, fruit shakes – try out an Asian night market such as the wonderful Thong Sala night market at Koh Pha Ngan and you’ll morph into Oliver Twist, clutching your empty bowl and calling for more.
4. The ease of travel
When backpacking South East Asia, you can have as much fun on the journey as at the destination. As long as you pack a sense of humour and an ability to accept the fact that things will rarely run on time. If you don’t have a strict time schedule to adhere to, sometimes it is more fun to take that epic bus ride from Bali to Yogyakarta with the locals crammed in beside you; or that scenic train trip from Bangkok to the Cambodian borderline. For a couple of dollars it’s a great way to get to see parts of the country and culture you might not have a chance to. And if you are in a rush, there are several low-cost airlines that make zipping from A to B a pleasure rather than a chore.
5. The people
The warm and friendly hospitality of the people out in South East Asia is legendary. I’m not saying every single person that lives there is immediately amazing just because they’re Asian (here’s looking at YOU Bangkok tuk-tuk driver who tried to rip us off with the old ‘the Grand Palace is closed let’s go to my mate’s tailor shop scam’ – do I LOOK like someone who’s on the look-out for a well-fitting, cheap suit?) but the vast majority of people I have met on my travels have been good-natured, easy-going and lots of fun. And let’s be honest, that must require a lot of good-will because travellers can be annoying! Whether we’re being too loud or swarming all over their best beaches or complaining over something that is just normal for the country (i.e. no hot water in a budget room on some remote island), the lovely I have met have come across as patient and kind. Hats off to South East Asian peeps!
6. The price
When you first arrive in South East Asia and you’re in that adjustment stage where you are constantly currency-converting to make sure you’re not getting totally ripped off, you cannot believe how cheap everything is. “It’s only TWO POUNDS!” you exclaim with glee as you sit down to a fancy feast. “In England this would cost five times as much!” you cry as you browse the markets.
Take care not to blow your budget in those heady, first few weeks when you feel like you’re a millionaire, making it rain and declaring, “The milky bars are on me!” You will come back down to Earth, realise you now have to string out the rest of your cash to take care of basic life essentials and settle firmly into the mindset of the country’s currency. But there’s no doubt about it, you get a whole lot of bang for your buck in South East Asia.
7. The shopping
To market, to market! Shopping in South East Asia can be tons of fun and offers something for everyone. From the high-class boutiques and funky markets of Singapore to the vintage, quirky shopping of Bangkok via the meticulously hand-crafted souvenirs of Ubud – you’ll have the opportunity to shop your socks off. Another reason to pack as little as possible, leaving lots of baggage room for bringing home all manner of prizes and treasures.
8. The sea
Some people believe we get our energy from nature and everyone has a particular environment that speaks to them and nourishes the soul. Some people get that from the mountains, others from forests. I am at my happiest when near moving water and the crashing oceans and gently lapping seas of South East Asia are simply the best. Frolic in the waves of Indonesia with a surf-board or boogie-board; kayak the calm, sheltered bays of the Thai islands; or make like The Little Mermaid and get under the sea to try your hand at the world-class diving and snorkelling this part of the world offers.
9. The temples
For those that like to get their culture on, chasing the temples of South East Asia will keep you preoccupied for weeks with their sheer scale and variety.
Check out the cheeky, long-tailed macaques in the Sacred Monkey Forest of Ubud; the awesome, jungle ruins of Angkor Wat; the cliff-side sunset spot of Uluwatu; the celestial top level of Borobudur… There’s something about all that hazy, incense-infused air and the gentle sounds of prayer that create a tranquil and mystical ambience, far removed from boring old reality.
Fact one: No genre of music goes so well with a tropical destination as reggae. Fact two: There are lots of reggae bands and reggae bars in South East Asia. Particularly in Indonesia! This is the ideal soundtrack to watching the sunset over an ice-cold beer – believe!
So, here’s to one beautiful part of the world! Asia ‘til I die! Is there a part of the world that you just can’t get out of your head?
All pics by Alex Saint. This article originally appeared on travelettes.net.