24 April 2014

Grant is a 30-something career breaker who quit his day job in order to travel the world. Here are some highlights and lowlights from his time in South-East Asia.

After 4 months’ backpacking in South America and New Zealand, we landed in Bangkok, and took the popular backpacker circuit through Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.

For those of you thinking of taking this trip yourself, here’s a little round up of what was – for me – the best and worst of the four months I spent here.

Top Experiences

1. Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Angkor Wat

I’m not the first person to leave SE Asia thinking Angkor Wat is one of the best things I’ve ever seen and I certainly won’t be the last.

Angkor is, quite simply, beautiful. No matter how templed-out you might feel after Thailand or Laos, it will amaze you.

You need to allow at least two full days to explore Angkor, but handily you can buy a three-day pass and then have some time for the outlying temples as well (including the one held together by 3-metre thick vines, that was featured in Tomb Raider).

2. Similan Islands, Thailand


Thailand has a wealth of beaches and islands, so it's hard to pick a favourite, but we did! The Similans are a couple of hours by speedboat from Khao Lak on the Andaman coast. This was where I finally fell in love with snorkelling after several near-drowning panic attacks (I’m not a strong swimmer). They also have world-class diving, but as you can see from the picture, it's pretty beautiful even if you don't go underwater.

3. Vietnamese Food


A big part of my life revolves around food… and I have no shame in that! It was the primary reason I came to Vietnam the first time back in 2007.

From the fusion sandwiches of bánh mì, to fish cooked in pots; meltingly soft caramelised pork, wholesome noodles or the best savoury pancakes – bánh xeo – that you will probably ever taste… Vietnam can't be beaten when it comes to food, much of which should cost an awful lot more than a couple of quid!

We even took a cookery course in Hoi An, and created 10 traditional Vietnamese dishes which were delicious, if I do say so myself!


4) Kuang Si Falls, Laos


Laos has the magical combination of good food, great accommodation, beautiful landscapes and lovely people. One place stood out however: Kuangsi Falls (near the northern Laos town of Luang Prabang).

I've seen a lot of waterfalls in South-East Asia, but this one really stood out. Beautiful turquoise water pours majestically into a wooded valley, before dropping again into a multitude of shallow pools. It’s a breathtaking scene.

The Not So Good Experiences

1) Scams

Enter Cambodia overland (or leaving it for that matter) and you will have to pay a bribe. It’s never a lot and to be honest in my experience it’s not worth worrying about.

What you should worry about is the other scams – getting overcharged, shortchanged, and finding the hotel you’ve booked in Siem Reap doesn't actually exist (that wasn’t my favourite moment).

However, Vietnam is worse. The level of scams we encountered in Vietnam in just our first week was sufficient for me to write an entire blog post about it. It got better the farther south we went but in all my years of travelling I have never had to be so on my guard. It’s exhausting!


2) Cambodian Food


This is a controversial opinion, but I don't think Cambodian food is very good. I had a couple  of amok dishes which most people rave about, that were sloppy fishy gravies full of bones (am I selling this well?). The other famed dish is lok lak – fried beef in a peppery sauce. The sauce is nice but the beef is often tougher than your average flip flop.


3) Wildlife


We did see wildlife in South-East Asia. We just didn’t see a lot. Which meant that trekking trips tended to be a little disappointing,

Thailand offered the best pickings: we saw an impressive number of bats (and I’m talking millions), deer, snakes, hornbills and the ubiquitous macaques.

In Cambodia we saw more bats and macaques but little else; in Laos we saw bears (in a sanctuary), and numerous butterflies, but that was all.

As for Vietnam, well yes, plenty of beautiful langurs but most of them were in conservation centres. I chose not to go to the elephant centres or tiger temples.


4) Hell is other people


Thailand in high season is a bit of a nightmare. We were there over Christmas and New Year so it was expensive as well as crowded.

The same is true of Vietnam at Tet (Vietnamese New Year) and throughout the whole of South-East Asia during Chinese New Year, which we spent at Angkor Wat.

Tourism overcrowding is a double edged sword in this region. On the plus side, the touristy aspect means that it’s easy to travel around, but the downside is that it’s incredibly difficult to get off the beaten track.

So that's it!
My four months in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam has come to an end and I'm now off to the Philippines for the next part of my adventure!


This is an edited version of a post that originally appeared on Grant's blog. You can read the full version (with more photos) here.