Around the World in 440 Days - Part 3 - South East Asia

Matt Hills on 24 February 2018
In the summer of 2007, with thirteen years at Trailfinders under my belt, I decided it was time to move on and explore new opportunities. Rather than find another job immediately, I followed the slightly less sensible but vastly more appealing idea of going travelling. I hadn’t done the traditional ‘gap year’ thing, so while I’d had plenty of exotic holidays over the past 13 years, I hadn’t been away for an extended period. This was my chance.

Part 1 covered an amazing two months through Africa, Part 2 covered a jaunt through India and Sri Lanka. Now I headed for the glittering lights (and horrendous traffic) of Bangkok. I was travelling on my own by now, but it’s not the sort of country when you’re on your own for long. There are so many other people doing similar things, whether it’s a couple of weeks holiday, a month of back-packing, or a full-on round-the-world extravaganza, you always find someone to share experiences with.

Bangkok is an amazing city, a heady mix of temples and bars, culture both old and very modern, quiet havens and noisy night-life, whatever you want really! I spent a few fun-filled days around the Khao San Road, a feisty mix of cheap bars, snazzy restaurants, awesome street food and general carnage that is something of a rite of passage for back-packers, before burning out and heading south for the famous trio of islands in the Gulf of Thailand.

Ko Tao was first, the smallest and least developed of the three (though this was 10 years ago, I’m sure by now it’s well and truly caught up). I was staying at a dive centre, to further my diving education with the Advanced Open Water course. It’s not everyone’s thing, but the diving in Thailand is some of the best in the world. There’s a huge variety, anything from simple beach dives, to more exciting and challenging deep and wreck dives. The sea-life is incredible, everything from tiny sea-horses and scary moray eels, to beautiful manta rays and the occasional shark. Talking of which, there was an elusive whale shark in the area, but wherever I went, it was elsewhere.

Dive course completed, it was on to Ko Pha Ngan, home of the infamous all-night full moon parties. Not much to report, other than being slightly electrocuted by a drinks’ stand, and doing a lot of really bad dancing. We also went to an evening of Thai boxing which is hugely popular if you’re brave enough. Tey even allow tourists to take on the locals. I’m pretty sure your travel insurance won’t cover that, be warned!

Finally, to the most famous of them all, Ko Samui, a haven of back-packer resorts, lush hotels, beautiful beaches, great food, and a very relaxed vibe. It’s a great choice for a beach holiday, there’s something for everyone, whatever your budget.

Skipping forward a couple of months (there are only so many different ways of describing all of Thailand’s beautiful beaches!), I found myself heading east out of Bangkok to the Cambodian border at Poipet. Not one for the faint-hearted, the town is a striking advert for flying this leg of any journey. A typical border town, not much to see except. Avoid! Despite this less-than-ideal introduction to Cambodia, things quickly looked up. I arrived in Siem Reap, the gateway to Angkor Wat – the largest religious monument in the world. It’s spread out over 400 acres, and well worth two full days of exploring. Try to get away from the crowds – I found a path heading off into the jungle, went for a bit of an explore, and found a temple that clearly hadn’t been visited for weeks if not months. I needed a stick to clear the cobwebs as I wandered around, felt a bit like Indiana Jones! It was quiet, peaceful, beautiful, largely ruined, but to have it to oneself felt special.

Camodia was ravaged by the Pol Pot regime in the late 70’s, when between two and three million civilians were murdered or starved/worked to death by the Khmer Rouge (roughly a quarter of the population). There are many memorials in and around the capital, Phnom Penh, the most (in)famous being the torture camp S-21, and the Killing Fields. Shocking places to visit, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t.

North to Laos. It’s a country I knew little about, still very much off the beaten track, and if time is short you should definitely fly in – my journey took several days, and multiple uncomfortable buses. I came via the Mekong and was lucky enough to see the virtually extinct Irrawaddy fresh-water dolphins. Beautiful animals, another victim of an ever-shrinking habitat. I ended up in Vang Vieng, another must-stop place on the back-packer experience. The main attraction was tubing down the Mekong, via an endless succession of bars serving cheap spirits. It’s an awesome day out, floating from bar to bar in the peaceful sunshine. Sadly, too many people over-did the booze (and the freely available drugs), and over the years there have been so many deaths that alcohol is now completely banned. Still a beautiful day out though! The whole country is incredibly laid-back, friendly, quiet, and stunningly beautiful. Hire a bike, explore the countryside, enjoy the old colonial architecture, and just chill out.

Eventually, much later, I headed south to Indonesia. I was running out of time (and here, space), so I’ll be brief. I caught a boat from the southern Thai island of Penang, to Medan in northern Sumatra. I’d run out of empty pages in my passport, but $20 smoothed my way through immigration. Indonesia is a country full of schoolkids wanting to learn English – it seemed I couldn’t go anywhere without being accompanied by a gaggle of kids asking me questions and practicing their language skills. I also squeezed in the ascent of a couple of semi-dormant volcanoes, did a little surfing, and revelled in being properly off the beaten track.

Believe it or not, that all took about six months! It’s been heavily edited. It’s a beautiful and diverse part of the world, perfect for beach holidays, active adventurers, families and back-packers alike. Some other time I’ll tell you about the delights of exotic Borneo, the bright lights of Singapore, and the incredible Philippines. But for now, that’ll have to do. Happy travels!