South East Asia
It seems that South East Asia is the new Euro-trip for millenials nowadays. It is an exotic location with beautiful beaches, and I can't leave out the fact that everything is insanely cheap there. As a millenial myself, the most appealing thing about South East Asia was the ability to bring myself into a foreign country and see the contrast to how we live in Canada. I brought back a humbled mindset after spending 3 weeks in countries where drinking tap water or ice can pose a serious health concern, and the children are used by their parents to pan-handle or to work on the farm, rather than attending school.
Here is my experience in Vietnam, Cambodia, (Malaysia), and Thailand with my best friend, boyfriend, and his friend from October 28, 2015 - November 18, 2015. This will be a long one because I wanted to add as much detail as possible and some tips in between to refer to if you are planning your own experience in South East Asia.
After a 28h flight, my best friend and I finally landed in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam and met up with my boyfriend, AJ and his friend, Pat at the airport. The bottle of Melatonin I bought made the world of a difference with the drastic time change, and was able to sleep for a good amount of the flight. (Tip 1: Melatonin is the natural hormone your body produces to communicate to your brain that it is time to sleep. As someone who prefers not to take sleeping pills, Melatonin does not make you drowsy and pass out, but it helps you fall asleep on places like planes that make it difficult to. You can buy a bottle from most drug stores.)
Not even minutes after landing, we encountered our first scammer (which was something we expected). The cab driver attempted to charge us $25USD for a ride that we knew should only have cost us $5-$10, so we haggled him down the whole drive over to $5USD. (Tip 2: Most countries will take USD, so having some USD cash will be helpful for the beginning of your trip until you're able to get a bearing on the foreign currencies, and every country has a different currency, so try to spend all of your foreign cash in that country before you depart to the next. Vietnam carries their currency in Dong) (Tip 3: Don't ever pay what the locals are offering up front. Get a handle on bargaining by cutting their offer at least in half and work your way up until you're set on sticking to a price you're willing to pay, depending on what you're trying to haggle.)
Vietnam is full of motobikes that have no regard for traffic lights or rules. People in here don't follow road laws, but rather have learned to drive with the flow of traffic. Which means that you have to be careful when crossing streets, as there aren't designated cross walks, so put your frogger game skills into play and walk confidently through the "holes" in traffic. That being said, it's highly recommended to leave the driving to the locals, there are tons of accidents caused by tourists attempting to rent a motorbike and driving, but are not accustomed to the way roads work there. Not to mention, medical care is something you wouldn't want to have to seek in a foreign place like this.
Beers are insanely cheap (around $0.75USD per bottle), and can be bought at convenience stores - as a matter of fact, water is more expensive than beer, but don't be fooled. It can be really hot there, so keeping hydrated is important, as beer can be dehydrating. One thing we learned is that the alcohol there isn't as tightly regulated, so one day you can drink a beer, feel buzzed and the next day, you pick up the same one but don't feel even feel the slightest bit of fun. I never had an issue buying alcohol, so I couldn't tell you what the drinking age is there.
After a night in a hostel (I apologize, I completely forgot the name of this first one), we explored the inner city. Telephone wires are so cluttered on the poles, it seems as if the poles can collapse at any minute. We came across a local market place called the Binh Tay Market (to my best memory recall) where you can find cheap sunglasses, clothing, food etc.
It was time to separate from my boyfriend and his friend who stayed in Vietnam and made their way Hanoi, while my best friend, Christina and I made our way to Cambodia. We set off on a local bus that takes you right to Phnom Penh, Cambodia (about a 6 hour ride) (Tip 4: If you know you will be travelling elsewhere, may sure to look into buses/trains/boats that are available at least a day in advance. Some only run in the wee hours of the morning or every few days). We met an interesting Californian man that has been travelling for 2 years on our bus (Tip 5: Meet as many other travellers as you can! They can often give you advice and guidance to places you may be heading to, and it's always a nice feeling to meet someone that speaks your native tongue as well as getting to generally know someone.) Christina and I didn't have too much planned for our first day in Phnom Penh so we followed Matt to his hostel in our first tuk tuk ride to drop off our bags, and we visited the Khmer Rouge killing fields, naturally on Halloween day. We also tried our first hand at cow intestine and whole frog at a local night market near our the bus stop for our next leg of the trip! This was one of the highlights of Phnom Penh, despite being a very lack lustre city that was extremely dusty and run down.
After our day with Matt, we carried on, on our journey to Siem Reap. We took an overnight bus, called the Giant Ibis. (Tip 6: Be careful when taking overnight buses/boats/trains as we have heard that these buses can sometimes be set up to stop at a location as a 'pit stop' in the middle of the night to have the under carriage raided by local people. It's best to choose a well known company and/or keep your bags on you at all times instead of stowing them away).
As we stepped off from our overnight bus in Siem Reap, we were instantly bombarded by tuk tuk drivers to take a ride with them. Despite being a little overwhelmed, we held our ground and was able to negotiate with a man name Saru for $30USD to drive us around for the next couple of days. We got dropped off at your pre-booked hostel called the Mad Monkey Hostel where there was a pool! After dropping our bags off, we spent the day with Saru, getting to know him and his recommendations on the area. He told us his story on why he ended up as a tuk tuk driver, despite having aspirations to become a tour guide, which is a highly sought after occupation there. Unfortunately, he was unable to make up enough money to get a travel guide license despite spending a couple years at a Buddhist temple learning English. He doesn't make very much money as a tuk tuk driver, but he said that even the 'wealthy' businessmen and women only make about $300/mo. It was really interesting hearing about the way of life in Cambodia.
After lunch, we got him to drive us ~45 mins to the Tonle Sap floating village where we paid $20USD to hire a boat through the village. Our local guides have spent their entire lives on these floating markets, and we stopped at a crocodile farm where we tried our first crocodile with some Angkor beer. We enjoyed our beer over teaching the locals the ever popular game of beer pong.
Christina and I woke up at 4AM to catch the Angkor Wat sunrise which was totally worth it. By the early morning, the temple became very busy. We visiting Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, Bayon and Ta Prohm. This is where my food poisoning kicked in a full gear - in the dead of 38 degree heat, with very limited bathroom availability. (Tip 7: DON'T OVERLOOK THE USE OF ICE IN DRINKS! I made the mistake of really enjoying the avocado/coconut smoothies, to a borderline addiction level, in Phnom Penh not realizing that their ice cubes are not to be messed with just like their tap water. Their ice cubes come off of a big block delivered by an open truck, sawed off and rested on the ground until the cart operator chisels away at it with a rusty chisel and hammer). (Tip 8: Although there may be normal toilets available in some places like hostels, you may come across some toilets that are simply a hole in the ground or designed for women that wear long religious outfits, additionally, always carry a roll of toilet paper when in public!).
We spent the next day exploring the rest of Siem Reap and the evening exploring the famous Pub Street which was pretty touristy, but still very lively. We also booked our flight to Bali, where we were going to meet up with my boyfriend and his friend through Air Asia for what I remember to be ~$250USD.
We arrived at the Cambodian airport on our way to Bali. Made it to Malaysia on our lay over when we were informed that a volcano in Bali had erupted a couple days before we were set to arrive and the ash clouds have completely closed the airport in Bali. We spent that night sleeping on the airport floor, waiting to hear about the updates, and finally decided to stay at the local hotel by the airport for the second and third night. We met a German girl, named Clarissa and made the best of our 3rd day in Malaysia by taking a train to the Batu Caves. We were later informed that the airport would be closed for another week, so we decided to buy a flight to Phuket, Thailand. (Tip 9: We had a terrible experience with Air Asia, as they didn't compensate us for any of the time or money lost due to the closing of the Bali Airport. We wouldn't recommend that you fly with them)
We finally got out of Malaysia to Phuket, Thailand to meet up with the boys at Fin Hostel. The rooms there were pretty decent, and the area was pretty nice, however, this hostel had bed bugs (Tip 10: Always do a close inspection of the mattress before sleeping in it. Even places that seem really nice can have bed bugs. We even spent a night at a hostel that were said to have opened a couple days prior, and saw they were already infested with bed bugs. I always travel with a towel or one of the airplane blankets to lay down on the bed and/or pillow before sleeping on it). We spent the day exploring the area and beach. We also met two English guys from the UK, James and Jack which we later explore the Big Buddha near by. We spent that evening shopping and the whole evening body surfing at Kata Beach, which was a ton of fun, however, the Kata area is very touristy.
James, Jack, Christina, and the boys decided to make the trek to the Big Buddha. All of the locals laughed at us when we asked which way to walk up to the Big Buddha. We all laughed back because we are all relatively fit, but if you factor in the 35 degree weather, the hike was indeed harder than we thought. This one was actually worth paying a tuk tuk driver to take us to. (Tip 11: In any place of worship, or temples, they require everybody to cover their shoulders and legs. They will make you rent a sarong if you're not covered, so if you don't want to spend the money or wear a sweaty sarong that other people have been wearing all day, bring your own!).
Christina, the boys and I decided to continue along our journey and head to the Similan Islands (Khao Lak) by taxi. Jack and James recommended the K2 hostel which was the one that opened a couple days prior to our arrival but found the beds were infested with bed bugs, so we demanded to be put in the private rooms for the night. We were excited to see this beautiful marine reserve and booked our snorkel trip with IQ dive.
We definitely didn't want to stay another night at K2, so we found another hostel about a 25 minute walk called the Monkey Dive hostel. We got a night for 350Baht. This was the coolest hostel we had stayed in the whole trip. A very modern feel, clean rooms. There is also an amazing local convenience store that also operates as a food stop called Ann's Restaurant, recommended by one of the locals. We basically ate there for every meal that we could. We were also recommended by the locals to go to a places called the White Sand Beach so we rented a motorbike for relatively inexpensive (around $15USD. The roads are much more tame than Vietnam, and may even recommend renting a motorbike to explore this area, as most things are in a driving distance) and visited the beach there.
Today was the day of our snorkel trip with IQ dive. We saw a couple turtles and lots of cool fish, including clownfish! We also met our instructor, Dean Tanner, which we became quite close with and he came back to play cards and have a few drinks with us back at the hostel (Tip 12: Cards are a great way to spend time while having a few drinks, however, make sure you bring your own deck, or if you are to buy one, ask discretely at a convenience store, as it is actually illegal to sell and purchase cards in Thailand with the prominence of gambling problems among the locals).
A Canadian local we met at Ann's restaurant the night before recommended a local spot called Small Sandy Beach. We motorbiked there to find that there is a park fee. Being cheap, we decided to find an alternate route to the beach by hopping into a relatively secret entrance way a little west of the park entrance. It seemed to be an area of worship, with shrines and decoration. We continued towards the coast and thought that it couldn't be too far and we could just walk along the edge until we find the beach. After 2 hours of hiking through rocks and terrain, we finally made it. Definitely not worth the strenuous hike, but worth the adventure.
We then decided to take a 15min water taxi to Koh Nang Yuan to relax. The water taxis aren't quite as negotiable here (~5-10USD). This is yet another beautiful island near by.
Later that evening, we met up with Dean again at a beach he recommended called Memories Beach about a 20 minute motor ride away from our hostel (Monkey Dive). This is a beautiful long stretch of beach with a restaurant right on the edge to have some drinks and play cards.
Moving on again, we booked an overnight boat trip to Koh Tao from Surat Thani for ~10USD I believe. If you arrive too early, there are a ton of food carts near by to try some exotic food. This was probably the sketchiest mode of transportation available, but I don't believe that we had any other option. The boat was very small, with sleeping arrangements on the floor level of the boat divided by yoga mats for sleeping on. Christina got up in the middle of the night with sea sickness, and a couple of times I woke to look out to what seemed like a scene from Deadliest Catch. Nonetheless, we made it alive in Koh Tao.
After arriving to Koh Tao, we found a popular hostel called CK hostel by foot. This was very much a party hostel with games and day trips around the island. We went to one of their organized beer pong parties on the beach where we met a couple of other Canadians, Chad and Matt and had a great time drinking and meeting people.
After a night of partying, we decided to tag along on their day excursion to go rock jumping and have a few drinks and do some more relaxing on the beach.
It was that time again that Christina and I had to separate from the boys to head home. They spent an extra week there. We took an overnight train and ferried during the day. It felt like we were in a harry potter movie with the overnight train (~15USD), which was an interesting experience. When we finally made it to Bangkok, the 35+ degree weather seemed to be magnified in the city. We explored Bangkok for the majority of the day before catching our long flight back home.
What I packed in my 20L backpack:
- Lightweight, athletic wear (ie. flowy tank tops and stretchy capris pants, and sweat absorbing shorts)
- Sports bras, and one regular bra
- Rain jacket
- Flip flops
- Pair of low top converse
- DSLR (Canon t3i) with kit lens and a zoom lens with an extra battery
- A box of large ziplock bags (these will come in handy with dirty underwear and socks, and protecting your electronics)
- Outlet coverter
- Baseball cap
- One beach towel, and a face towel
- 4 weeks worth of socks/underwear
- Sunscreen (SPF 50) and normal toiletries like face wash and cream (Recommended to buy the Sierra Dawn Campsuds bottle from MEC that is kind of an all purpose, natural soap for body, and clothing)
- Airy long sleeve shirt
- Photo copies of ID, passports, etc (you can even take a picture of them on your phone and ipad incase you lose something)
- Ipad mini to watch movies and communicate to people on
- Ear plugs for when you're on the plane and in shared dorms in hostels
- Pad/combination lock to protect your belongings in the hostel
- Small backpack designed for camelbak bladder to easily store and drink water
- Small side purse
- Snacks and ear buds for the plane rides
Tips you may not think about:
- Don't pack jeans - they won't dry very well in the humid heat
- Bring your own tampons (they don't sell them there) and any topical lotions (they all/mostly contain bleaching agents)
- Buy the big water bottles to save on money
- Keep your money in a variety of places in your bag so if you encounter a bad situation, you are prepared just to give a small amount of money up
- Before going through airport customs, do a dig through your backpack to make sure no one planted any unaccepted items on your bag
- May be a misnomer, but never go anywhere alone. As a woman in a foreign place, it will give you greater peace of mind to go places with another person
So that sums up my experience in South East Asia. Overall, my experience was an eye opening, beautiful adventure. One of the best feelings on this trip was realizing how a little bit of common sense and general life skills can easily get you need to go and safely in a completely unfamiliar environment. Trust your instincts, but also take the time to enjoy your time there because the beauty there will make any road blocks or stress worth while.
If you have any additional questions or tips you'd like to know about, feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.