Every year another round of final-year results arrive and another year’s worth of students decide to take a year off before hitting university—many of them aiming for a stint in Southeast Asia.
You’d be mad not to be fitting in a sojourn in the region as a part of your journey, so here’s some advice to get the most out of your time here—and perhaps find somewhere you’d not heard of before.
Don’t miss Phnom Penh... or the islands.
Some find it difficult to look past Angkor Wat when it comes to Cambodia, but the capital Phnom Penh and the stunning islands off the south coast are both must-sees. Give each at least three days and don’t be surprised when you end up doubling your time—especially on the islands.
Highlight: Sunset cruise in Phnom Penh, slow days on the beach on Koh Rong.
Lowpoint: The "cocaine" in Phnom Penh is often heroin—you’re in Cambodia, not Cuzco. Watch out for snatch and grab robberies and stay in control.
Party in the Gilis, but get off Trawangan.
The Gilis are just about the least Indonesian destination in Indonesia, but they’re popular for a reason. They’re beautiful, moderately affordable and the snorkelling is great. Just remember that there thousands of other islands in Indonesia. Allow an extra week to get off Trawangan, the main island of the three Gilis, and explore more of Lombok—or somewhere else.
Lowpoint: The drugs freely available on Gili T are illegal. Indonesia enforces harsh penalties for both drug use and trafficking—don’t take anything off the island with you. Watch out for fake liquor that can literally blind or even kill you.
Go to Vang Vieng but also go to Konglor cave.
We’re not going to tell you not to go to (the less debauched than it once was) party town Vang Vieng, but while you’re in Laos, don’t miss the lovely Tha Khaek loop.
Highlight: Boating through Konglor cave
Lowlight: Stay in control in Vang Vieng.
Eat everywhere, but eat on the street
The Malaysian capital is much more than you may expect and the backpacker quarter is slowly lifting its game. Be sure to visit Batu Caves, but further afield, don’t miss Georgetown on Penang—give it four days and allow for putting on a few extra kilos, as the food is close to the best in the world. Want to dive? Hit the Perhentians. Love wildlife? Head straight to Sabah State on Borneo.
Highlight: Street food in both cities.
Lowlight: Booze is expensive. Bring duty free.
Book beds in advance, and eat in hawker centres.
People get put off Singapore because of the cost, but plenty of things to do are free, including loads of museums, and there are even a bunch of small islands to explore—we’re big fans of Pulau Ubin. Stay longer than a night, but book your accommodation in advance—the best hostels in Singapore fill up fast. And learn to use the bus system—your wallet will thank you.
Highlight: Hawker food.
Lowlight: This can be an expensive town. Booze is pricey. The best accommodation fills fast.
Check out the Full Moon Party then bail for a west coast island.
Like Vang Vieng, experiencing the Full Moon Party on Ko Pha Ngan is a bit of a rite of passage for you and 10,000 other lunatics. But don’t plan on spending your entire detox on Ko Pha Ngan—instead head over to the Andaman west coast of southern Thailand.
Highlight: Snorkelling on Thailand’s west coast.
Lowlight: Watch out for theft, druggings and random attacks by drunken idiots at the FMP. Don’t assume the person trying to sell you acid isn’t a police officer. Where possible, avoid bus travel at night (due to theft and accidents)—train travel is preferable.
Double your time in Hanoi and get licensed
Over and over again, people complain that they ran out of time in Hanoi. There is a shedload of things to do, the street food is fabulous and the booze super cheap. Double however long you’ve allowed there. If you’re planning on travelling by motorbike, get a motorbike license in your home country and read your travel insurance policy very, very carefully.
Highlight: A day spent in a series of Hanoi cafes just watching life go by. Ha Long Bay is also okay.
Lowlight: Scams in heavily touristed areas can become tiresome fast. Snatch and grab theft is a growing problem in the south, as is the Filipino cards scam. Stay in control. Don’t ride your motorbike when drunk—duh.
Grow a brain, get insured
If you can’t afford to travel without adequate insurance coverage, you can’t afford to travel. It’s that simple. We recommend World Nomads, which isn’t the cheapest of policies, but they are who we use ourselves, every single time we travel. The travel insurance market is extremely price competitive—shop around but if you’re shopping primarily on price, read the policies very carefully and watch out for exclusions and limited payouts.
Highlight: Never needing to use your travel insurance.
Lowlight: Finding out that your medical coverage excluded activities in Southeast Asia (see point 54,876 in 2-point text on page 453 of your policy).
Shop around but be sure to call Stuart
If you’re going to travel around the world, not surprisingly a round-the-world ticket can be a sound investment—not always though. Look at your route planning, see what works with low-cost carriers, but be wary of their never-ending surcharges. Saving $10 by spending 14 hours waiting for your next flight isn’t always the most intelligent way to save money. Consider getting a RTW ticket that takes you to a hub (say Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok or Singapore) and then do all your regional flights with an LCC like AirAsia, Jetstar or Tiger. When researching your RTW, call Stuart at RTW Flights—he knows his stuff. Really.
Highlight: All this planning is loads of fun. Finding out that saving yourself $300 on flights just got you an extra 10 days in Thailand.
Lowlight: Scummy add-ons that all the airlines carry on with.
Hello, goodbye and thank you.
You’re on a year-long trip going to perhaps a dozen or more countries. We don’t expect you to gain fluency in the language of every country you travel in, but anyone can learn the very basics: hello, goodbye, thank you. Try it with a smile and the locals will laugh with you, not at you.
Highlight: Having even a rudimentary interaction with a local that doesn’t involve saying, "Can I have two beers please?"
Lowlight: Travelling the entire year without learning a single word of local language.
Less is more.
If you’re travelling every other day, you’ll need a holiday at the end of your holiday. Look at your itinerary, and cut it in half. You need AT LEAST three weeks to have an enjoyable top to tail trip of Vietnam. You cannot "do" Southeast Asia in a month. Plus, with a slower itinerary, you’ve got some play up your sleeve should you want to reorganise.
Highlight: Realising you have a week up your sleeve so you can stay that extra four days in the hammock.
Lowlight: Spending your entire trip on the move. Seeing everything and experiencing nothing.
If you fall off your motorbike you’ll find that the road is just as hard here as it is in your home country. Wear a helmet. Dress sensibly. Don’t ride drunk. Other random tips: Don’t get trashed and walk home alone in the early hours of the morning carrying a $2,000 camera on your shoulder. Don’t flaunt your wealth. Stay in control. Never hit a police officer. You’re not special and you’re not entitled to special privileges like smoking weed in a cafe in Singapore.
Highlight: Staying alive.
Some pointers for volunteering.
Volunteering is growing in popularity. Consider why you want to volunteer. What are you trying to achieve? Who are you trying to help? If you’re not willing to pay to volunteer, think about why not. Research the various organisations carefully—many of them are scams. Never volunteer to work in an orphanage—children are not there for tourists. What skills do you actually have that will be helpful? Research, research, research and choose carefully. It’s not about you.
Highlights: Contributing in a meaningful manner that benefits the recipients.
Lowlights: Find out that the $3,000 you paid to dig holes in a paddock in the middle of nowhere deprived a local of a job and bought the organiser’s son a MacBook Pro.
You’ll learn loads and have a blast doing it
You’ve learnt loads in the last decade or so of education. Travel is the next step and can be a fabulous experience, but you need to earn it. To get the most out of your trip, make the effort to learn about the people, countries and cultures you’re experiencing. Take what you learn and treasure it.
Planning well is an integral part of getting the most out of your trip. Be it picking the right backpack, the right vaccinations or the right country, the simple decisions are often the most important.