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The Gap Year Blog

36 Days in South East Asia

9 Sep 2019 13:40 PM
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Picture the scene. It's 11am, on 6th of July 2017, at Gatwick Airport, and I am ready to board a flight to Bangkok. This is the beginning of my journey to South-East Asia, a journey where I would learn a huge amount about the different ways people are living all over the world. 

Thailand (Day 1-2)

Thailand, population 67 million, is the 20th most populous country in the world. With crazily crowded cities and beautiful beaches, you really get to experience life in all its contrasting forms.

Bangkok is the most visited city with 16 million international arrivals this year. Buddhism is the country’s main religion and is practiced by ninety-five percent of the population. During my time in Bangkok, I spent most of my time trying to adjust to the time zone and lifestyle, as well as getting use to the humid heat with highs of 35 degrees. One of the highlights of Bangkok is the pure excellence of the Thai cuisine, with fresh street food costing as little as 1 dollar. A visit to Khao San Road isn’t a must- but if you want to see a real tourist trap, this is the place for you, with clubs and bars lining up parallel to the street.

Cambodia 

Siem Riep (Days 3-5) 

We started Cambodia in Sian Reap, home to Angkor Wat, one of the seven wonders of the world! The temples were constructed in the early 12th century and have become one of the foremost religious pilgrimage sites in the world today- people travel from all over the world to visit. These temples are the largest religious monument in the world- the fantastic architecture stretches over 154 square miles. It’s not cheap though-a single day pass to this world heritage site costs $37 a day

After a long day at the temples- you need to visit Pub Street, one of the best social spaces to visit in Cambodia. If you happen to be there for a big event, like New Years in April, it is frankly one of the best places to be in the world. The energy between the locals and travellers is fantastic – there’s a big water festival, with water bombs, flour and water pistols in the street. The clubs and pubs are all competing for an audience making the situation surreal. This means that you finish the night covered in sticky flour and drinking $1 beer.

Sihanoukville (Days 6-8)

Sihanoukville is on the south west of Cambodia on the coast and is known for beautiful beaches such as the Otres Beach and the Kbal Chhay Waterfall. While in Sihanoukville we used this time to relax and enjoy the scenery around us, even trying to get a tan! 

Phnom Penh (9-10)

We only spent a day in Phnom Penh where we learnt about the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot visiting both the killing fields and the Prison S21. During this time, we learnt about Cambodia’s history and about all the tragic events that had happened to the country. Even though this was a very emotional day learning about the crimes of the Khmer Rouge, it is a must do when visiting Cambodia to understand a little more about their history.

Vietnam

From Phnom Penh we moved to Ho Chi Minh City (also called Saigon). During this journey we had to cross the border between Cambodia and Vietnam. This can be confusing- it’s worth paying someone to sort your passports out. and meant that we the didn’t have to move. We did this with the bus company we went with (cost us about $20); arranging it with a random person at the border means there is a high chance of getting scammed!

Ho Chi Minh City (Days 11-13)

On our first day in Vietnam we visited the Cu Chi Tunnels- an amazing complex of underground tunnels used by the Vietnamese during the Vietnam war. The tunnels consist of 200km of tunnel connected with one another in an intricate cobweb formation. These tunnels were dug with rudimentary tools and the openings were camouflaged so well that no enemy could find them. While at the tunnels we crawled through some and tried steamed tapioca root, one of the staple foods of military life, as well as setting off some AK47 rounds.

Dalat (Day 14) 

After our time in Ho Chi Minh City, we made our way to Dalat where we began a motorcycle tour. We rode on the back of motorcycles and drunk in the beauty of this region, full of natural wonders from lakes to waterfalls, lush green forests to floral gardens. We then took a further break at the Truc Lam meditation centre and saw the beautiful Paradise Lake, Elephant waterfall and Linh An Pagoda.

Between Dalat and Nha Trang we decided to pay to ride between the two places on the back of the bikes. This made the journey surreal- climbing between the mountains and just taking in all the amazing views and scenery.

Nha Trang (Days 15-17)

Nah Trang is known as the Riviera of the South China Sea and offers a six kilometre stretch of beautiful coastlines. It had white sandy beaches, clear waters and an abundance of marine life supported by reefs, not to mention the 19 untouched islets. While in Nha Trang, we went around the Ba Ho Waterfall and spent time relaxing on the beaches. The incredible sunsets are a definite highlight.

Hoi An (Days 18-19)

Once in Hoi An we had a day to relax and explore after the night bus- we picked up some bikes before heading out on a day tour to Cam Kim island. We crossed the Thu Bon river and saw the locals heading to school and the central market and then stopped in the Kim Bong carpentry village and took a look at the fishing boat builders on the riverbank. There are several families in the area famous for generations of boat-making and carpentry, responsible for building Hoi An's beautiful wooden houses for Chinese and Japanese traders that make the town such a charming destination today.

Hue (Days 20-22)

From the Hue Royal Palace to the Imperial City and the Tomb of Minh Mang, Hue is a city with a huge amount of history. If you like history and architecture- Hue is a fantastic place to soak up some culture. There is also an amazing abandoned water park, definitely worth a visit for the Instagram. Watch out for the 40-degree heat if you are cycling!

Hanoi (Days 23-25)

After all the excitement, Hanoi is a great place to relax and get a massage, notable for its very busy streets and shopping opportunities. We only spent a day in Hanoi before transferring to Ha Long Bay where we set out on a 3-day boat cruise. 

Ha Long Bay (Days 26-28)

The boat cruise begun with a 3.5-hour bus ride through rural Vietnam, before boarding the ‘Party Cruise’ enroute to the calm waters and stunning scenery of Ha Long Bay. The islets are interestingly named after different animals and objects: Duck Islet, Swan Islet, Fighting Cocks Islet, Incense Burner Islet and even Stone Dog Islet!

Wanting to get off the beaten track, we went on a 2-hour kayaking trip to discover Ha Long Bay's Frog Pond and then the rest of the afternoon was ours to enjoy, jumping off the boat into emerald waters and trying out the "water trampoline”. Dinner is served at 7- eat your fill- because the next item on the agenda is partying with a live DJ until the sun comes up. We woke up on the second day to gentle waves and cheerful seabirds singing their morning songs as the sun rose over the horizon. We had breakfast while enjoying the breath-taking scenery of a Ha Long Bay morning, before watching a Vietnamese cooking demonstration and arriving back at the pier.

We then took 27 hours to get a night-bus from Hanoi to Luang Prabang. It was awful. This was one of the worst decisions of my whole trip. A flight to Laos costs around around $100- don’t try and save money and get a bus- it isn’t worth it!

Laos

Luang Prabang (Days 29-32)

We spent a few relaxing days here- exploring the wonderful Luang Prabang Night Market which was fantastic for any gift buying needs. Luang Prabang is also home to one of the most beautiful waterfalls in the world, the Kuang Si Falls, which makes it worth the visit alone (it’s really that great).

Chang Mai (Days 33-36)

At the close of my visit to South-East Asia, I visited Chang Mai in North Thailand- certainly a lot greener than Bangkok! During my stay, I participated in both a cooking course and an elephant conservation camp, which I researched thoroughly in advance- you have to be careful that the elephants are treated fairly, and riding is a big no! In a good elephant camp, the elephants are free to roam around as they please. Meanwhile, I learnt to cook three different types of curries and Thailand’s national dish, Pad Thai. This was a great way to explore the Thai culture while learning something valuable.

Would I recommend South-East Asia? Yes, yes and yes.


By Tom Balchin 

Frontier runs terrestrial & marine conservationcommunityteaching and adventure projects in over 50 countries - join us and explore the world!