Travelling in South East Asia? These are special places you need to see

I’m now seven months into my first solo travelling adventure. At twenty eight I’m a little older than the majority of backpackers here, but I truly believe that travel is fantastic at any age. I started my journey in Australia and New Zealand, but for now I just want to share some of my top experiences from exploring South East Asia. Enjoy.

Bali

Funny story. On my first day whilst looking for an ATM, I quickly made friends with the surfer/musician community of Kuta beach. They were kind enough to inform me I had arrived the evening before Nyepi – the Balinese New Year silence festival.

The festival begins with an exciting parade of Ogoh-Ogohs (demon statues), then everyone pretends to be dead for twenty-four hours to ward away evil spirits – no lights, no sound, no television, no leaving your hotel. I had turned up with no local currency, and the banks did not reopen until 2pm the day after Nyepi, leaving me without funds for forty four hours. Anyway, if you plan on going to Bali, these are wonderful things to do:

Blessing at Tanah Lot (“Land and Sea”)

I visited this Balinese sea temple at sunset and received a blessing at the Holy Spring. Just as I was walking back towards the shore the winds picked up and sent waves crashed over the rocks. In the spray I saw a single white bird. According to Balinese superstition, white herons are reincarnated good spirits. I’m not sure what it was I saw, but this was a breathtaking moment that I will not forget.

Yoga Barn in Ubud

Yoga Barn was my little oasis of calm. I did attend several yoga classes (including one attempt at ‘level 1/2 intermediate’ during which I quickly discovered I am definitely a beginner);  I also tried Tibetan sound healing, practiced meditation and ate delicious vegan food in the cafe. This place was pure bliss.

Diving in Nusa Lembongan

I did my Open Water diving certification here. The island is idillic, whether or not you choose to dive. I recommend Mushroom Bar in the evenings. If you go here, please do not litter – it is such a beautiful island and the beach is much nicer without plastic bottles.

Vietnam

I’ve already done a blog on Vietnam, so I’ll just go straight into the highlights reel. I’ve only picked a few places here, but I could have added many more.

Trekking in Sapa

Nothing quite compares to the rice paddies, mountain views and peaceful villages of Sapa. This trek really felt like an escape from my normal life: no wifi, buffalo roaming the fields and locals dressed in brightly coloured traditional Vietnamese dress.

Street Food, Culture and Coffee in Hanoi

The street food tours in Vietnam are second to none. Whatever you do, do not eat anything all day. You will have the chance to try over seven dishes including fresh herb spring rolls, crispy fried onion rice pancakes, and spicy noodles. There is plenty to see in Hanoi if you like culture – I personally loved the women’s museum, where among other things I learned about the history of the Vietnam war, marriage traditions, fashion and rice production. In all honesty, one of my favourite things to do in Hanoi was just to sit by Hoam Kiem Lake with a coffee ( you will be in for a treat if you try Vietnamese egg coffee or their iced milk coffees).

Animals Asia Foundation Bear Rescue in Tam Dao National Park

Unfortunately Moon Bears (Asian Black) are in high demand in China for “traditional medicine”. Some people believe the bile from their gall bladders has healing properties, but this is not true. In fact, due to the extremely cruel methods of extraction in bear bile farms, much of the bile is carcinogenic.

I was lucky enough to visit the Animals Asia Foundation Moon Bear sanctuary in Vietnam. The bears here have been rescued from the industry and will be cared for for the rest of their lives. Please support this charity if you can by adopting an Animals Asia Foundation rescued bear or buying their merchandise.

Spectacular views in Halong Bay

On an overnight trip to Halong Bay I was able to go kayaking, take in the awe-inspiring views of the floating islands and spend the night partying on a boat with my fellow backpackers.

Swept away by Hoi An

I fell in love with Hoi An. It is like Venice in Asia. What’s not to like? You can have stunning dresses made in a day for peanuts, you can relax on the beach or explore the stunning old town with its lanterns, delightful restaurants and quaint fairytale streets.

Cu Chi Tunnels and Floating Markets

If you do the floating markets, go early as it is more authentic and busy. Look out for bananas or mattresses on the boats as this is a signal that a bride or groom is available for marriage prospects! The tunnels are definitely worth a visit, just be prepared for the heat.

Exploring Ho Chi Minh City

The skyscraper rooftop bars often feature live music and there is no better way to see Saigon by night. The city also has some particularly good vegetarian restaurants (also delicious for you carnivores out there). I loved Hum! Vegetarian.

Cambodia

The Killing Fields in Phnom Penh

It’s a gruelling day, especially if you go to the prison too, but it has to be done. You really do a disservice to Cambodians if you ignore the horrific and worryingly recent genocide they endured. I recommend reading “First they killed my father” before you visit.

River Dolphins in Kratie

Take a boat and see if you can spot the elusive, rare Irrawaddy River dolphin in the Mekong River.

Chi Phat Eco Village and The Wildlife Alliance Rescue Centre

Chi Phat is a little bit hard to get to, but worth the effort. This is definitely off the beaten track and the village now runs a wide variety of eco tourism activities – from treks to cooking or stargazing. They can also book your visit to the Wildlife Alliance Release Station in Koh Kong (I have written a piece on this if you are interested).

Angkor Wat and Pub Street in Siem Reap

It almost goes without saying that if you visit Cambodia you will end up in Siem Reap. For good reason. The sunrise visit to Angkor Wat will take your breath away (despite the tourist hoards!). My favourite temple was the one they used to film Tomb Raider, mainly because I spent the morning pretending to be Lara Croft. After a hot and sticky day at the temples, the bars of Pub Street are waiting…

Laos

Hot air balloons and tubing in Vang Vieng

I’m actually scared of heights, so this was a brave one for me. However, it is so cheap in Laos it would be rude not to go up in a balloon. The tubing is still going, despite the tourist deaths. Now they only open a few bars at a time, but it is still an enjoyable day on the river.

Enjoying the relaxing vibes in Luang Prabang

I loved L’estranger and Utopia in Luang Prabang. The best thing to do is just wonder round and take in the relaxed atmosphere. That said, I did get up at 4.30am to find the monks for the alms giving one morning. I’m proud of myself for that.

Also if you can, find a Laos cow!

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Myanmar

Shwedagon Paya in Yangon

I was so lucky that I found a wonderful guide called Niam when I arrived. He talked to me for hours about the temple, Buddhism and local traditions so I really connected with this place. You can also go to Vista bar in the evening which serves cocktails and shisha with a view of the golden temple all lit up.

Three day hike from Kalaw to Inle Lake

Seventy kilometres of mountain trekking was, to a slightly exercise-adverse person, a bit of a challenge. It was absolutely worth it though. You could see for miles from the mountain tops and the village homestays were thoroughly enjoyable. Our guides cooked local dishes for us and we all shared stories in the evening. One word of warning – the only bathroom facilities are buckets outside  and squat toilets, so you might want to bring wet wipes and hand sanitiser. I didn’t stay long in Inle Lake (which I regret), but I heard good things about the winery and boat tours.

Temples everywhere in Bagan

You go to Bagan for the temples. It is Myanmar’s answer to Angkor Wat. The best way to explore is to grab a bike and spend a day zipping round town. It is best to go now, as Myanmar is getting stricter about access inside the temples.

The jade markets, the world’s biggest book and Mandalay Hill

I made some friends at the hostel and we hired three motorbike drivers to show us around for the day. We started with a visit to the jade markets: Burmese jade is extremely valuable in China and you can get a fantastic deal on a good piece. Look for jade that is a strong, consistent green colour but is translucent when you hold it up to the light. Later we visited a local monastery and saw the world’s largest book (729 stone tablets at the Kuthodaw Pagoda). I also tried a Burmese tea leaf salad which was delicious: think spices, flavour and nuts, not wet lettuce and cucumber.

Thailand

Elephant Nature Park

Absolutely no elephant riding. The elephants here are rescued from illegal logging, elephant riding, landmine locating and tourism selfies in big cities. You can feed, touch and bathe the elephants under the supervision of their mahout, but remember their welfare comes first.

Jazz Co-op, Cabaret and Night Markets in Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai has a reputation as being a bit boring, but there are certainly some great places to visit. I loved the Jazz club, Ram bar (billed as straight-friendly cabaret) and the night markets. The food here is also excellent.

Hippie mountain vibes in Pai

Pai is perfect for me. It is a mountain retreat town that is very much stuck in the flower power 70s era: think tie die, spiritual vibes, yoga, hot springs, caves, vegan restaurants and people “chilling out” with a joint or a ukulele.  It is forbidden to be high maintenance here. Just relax and enjoy the mountain views. Note: everyone walks here so make sure you know your way home at night.

Diving again in Koh Tao

Koh Tao has a bad reputation at the moment as a “death island”. Now I’m not going to open that can of worms, all I’ll say is this place is paradise. If you like diving, you’ll love Koh Tao. It is also relatively cheap to dive here.

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