Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Ten Things Not To Miss In South East Asia

Throughout the past decade South East Asia has firmly established itself as the Mecca of the travelling community. Not all parts of this throbbing sub-continent are for everyone. The popular parts are busy and littered with Europeans, Australians and Americans - from the beaches of Thailand to the river banks of Laos – everyone is here to snatch their piece of adventure.

I love the region for its mad parties and unique ethos on letting your hair down but I think it's more than that which has people going back again and again. Yes it's cheap, and yes the opportunities to be explicit with your behaviour are ample but, the landscapes are often breathless, the locals welcoming, the experiences unforgettable and the food is simple but delicious – don’t be surprised to find yourself routing through the spice cupboard at home in a frail attempt to recreate the perfect Pad Thai!

Whether you’re an eco-traveller or an adrenaline junky, a City dweller or a naturist at heart, the countries of South East Asia will find a place to inspire you. A budget of £500 a month will keep you well entertained across the region and having been to all but two (Burma and East Timor) of its 11 countries, I’m giving a rundown of ten things not to be missed in South East Asia......

#10 – Go tribal in the rainforest, Northern Thailand.

Wading through jungle and rivers
Although you find yourself in the middle of thick jungle, riding elephants through rivers and rafting rapids on clumps of bamboo, Chiang Mai and northern Thailand is not off the beaten track. Its hard to find anywhere in Thailand that is. But....what you do get is an experience that you will tell time and time again once back on home soil. The land is thick and in places a machete leads the way. It's hot and humid but the hard work will feel like play time, sweating like mad and fighting off the leeches - your wooden floor and moldy blanket warmly provided by the tribe you stay overnight with, will be greatly received. You get an authentic taste of rural Thailand and get so caught up in the adventure of it all you will wonder why you aren't staying longer. NB - Look out for the Karen Tribe and their offerings of opium after dinner, its their way of life!

Passing the rice fields
#9 – Rent a motorbike, Yogyakarta, Indonesia.

It has to be done at some point on a trip to South East Asia. I didn't come across many places better than Yogya to rent a bike, pack a bag and just drive. The City itself is Indonesia's culture capital and has a lot going for it. The markets, architecture, history and layout help create a really relaxed atmosphere where it is easy to let the days go by as you become familiar with the ease of life. Once out on the roads things can get hectic - 10 bikes a breast and lorries coming from both directions on the busy roads, lonesome views of volcanoes and sacred temples on the quiet ones. Combine the free spirited ride into the countryside with a visit to temples like Borobudur (the largest Buddhist temple on the sub-continent) and Prambanan (a Hindu temple complete with an open air theater for evening performances) and you will realise why I ended up staying 2 days longer than expected and still long to return.
Yogya - easy place to find presents for the family
Sat on the walls of Borobudur

#8 – Food for thought, Kota Kinabalu food market, Borneo.

It should be a sin to eat in chain restaurants or burger bars in SE Asia. The food across the region is tremendous - fresh, cheap, tasty and in some cases, surprising. Submerging yourself within the local markets to satisfy your appetite is not a difficult charge. Street vendors appear almost everywhere selling things from noodles to dog. For me, the biggest and best of all comes on Borneo and the fish market that dominates the waterfront of Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah, Malaysian Borneo. It is as though the underwater world has been transported to land - barbecued, sauteed, grilled or fried, then served up with an array of accompaniments to travellers, locals, men, women and children! The best bit is the chance to see the catch being carried from the holds on the boats, to the women who wash them, the men who cook them and then to you...who eat them.

Taking the reins of a tuk-tuk
#7 – By Day and by Night, Bangkok, Thailand.
I wasn't going to put Bangkok on this list, mainly because the stereotypical views of Thailand's capital are not at all far from reality, hence you can probably already imagine what it is like. But, it simply cannot be beaten for nightlife and is packed with daytime sights to keep the culture vultures happy. OK so it isn't for everyone but Khoa san road is the backpacking hub and can be utterly mental at times. The alcohol is cheap and free flowing, there is always some American looking worse for wear because he can't handle his drink and yes, every other person is trying to sell you tickets to a ping pong show or get you to pay for the pleasures of an overly obvious transexual. Hey, its why you either love or hate Bangkok. it is what it is and the best way to enjoy it is to embrace it. 
Bangkok drinking
You can party until the markets begin setting up for business, or get to bed and make an assualt on the tuk-tuk madness that will show you some of the most impressive Bhuddist statues and temples around. Bangkok is a City of two faces and if you don't go, you won't not what all the fuss, good and bad, is all about. 

                #6 – Take in the history, Cambodia & Vietnam.

Part of a temple of 10,000 skulls in Cambodia

Both countries have beautiful beaches, vibrant party areas and beautiful scenery but I think what stuck with me most about Cambodia and Vietnam, was the remnants of their history that are on display. It would of been easy to mention Halong Bay or Angkor Wat - both are stunning and more than worth a visit. The effects of what has happened to these neighboring countries is still startlingly obvious in day to day life. Disfigured men, women and children are an unfortunate reminder of the terrors they have gone through to be where they are now as sustainable tourist destinations.

Crawling through the Cu-Chi  tunnels

Pol Pot's reign of terror in Cambodia, and the Vietnam war which ended in 1975, have left their mark. Pol Pot was estimated to of killed 21% of the Cambodian population during his 3 years in charge of Cambodia - a staggering figure that is chillingly remembered in the killing fields just outside of the capital Phnom Penh. The Cu-Chi tunnels of Southern Vietnam offer an amazing insight into the way of life many natives lived just 40 years ago - spending days underground in order to out whit the enemy and stay alive. Regardless of being sad and uncomfortable in parts, I was happy to take time to learn about and appreciate why and how both countries are truly remarkable for reasons that go beyond natural beauty and adrenaline fueled antics.

#5 – Perhentian Islands, Peninsula Malaysia.

Pulau Perhentian has a unique ability which is very hard to grasp.  Whilst remaining a regular hit in mainstream travel circles it still posseses a aura of serenity and certianly packs plenty of natural beauty into the bargain. There are plenty of beaches, some aimed towards honeymooners, others towards alcohol thirsty party adicts. Canvassing them all - if you can't relax on the Perhentian islands there is something seriously wrong with you. The islands are drenched in an easy going atmosphere, renting a boat to explore the clear blue waters surrounding you is as easy as stepping out of your front door at home.

Dice with sharks, swim with turtles, anchor up and soak up the sun or simply cruise to the next white sand beach, the slow pace of the day can be matched in the evening with candle lit beach bbq's or stepped up a couple of levels to demonstrate the party side of the islands personality. The local tipple is 'Monkey Juice' - mix it with sprite, slam it on the table, let it fizz up and throw it down the hatch - its impossible to just have one! The Perhentians are a shining example of tranquility and liveliness dwelling in harmony.

#4 – Borocay, Philippines.

I could of chosen half a dozen places from the Philippines, the entire country is a delight to travel. Take away the rather industriel and faceless capital Manila and there are few negatives to niggle at.

 Borocay is an island just over one hours flight from Manila and interest in the charismatic beach spot has built quickly. For the Philippines, Borocay is a popular backpacking destination but the real beauty in its appeal is that you are mostly socialising with Filipino's on holiday letting their hair dow and having a heck of a lot of fun. An abundance of watersports line one side of the island whereas the opposite coast is littered with beaches for soaking up the sun, sitting under swaying palm trees and catching up on midday naps.
The lifestyle ethos of the island's visitors and inhabitants run parrallel to each other. Sip 'Borocay rum' in the early evening, digging your bare feet into the sand from the comfort of a hammock. Later, head to Kasbah for some upbeat acoustic jamming before struggling to beat the moon to bed after a stint in one of the lively bars at the top end of White Beach.
Borocay would be reason enough to visit the Philippines. Far less trampled than Thailand and perhaps more beautiful, Borocay is at the more developed end of the scale in a country which, to me, paints a picture of what its more travelled South East Asian neighbours were like before the hoards flocked in.

#3 – F1 Grand Prix, Singapore.

Singapore has class, style and sophistication. Its jaw dropping skyline offers an insight into the excitement the city holds. Add to this the most glamorous and expensive sport on the planet - 24 cars reaching speeds of over 150mph on roads that are far more accustomed to cyclists and camera baring tourists than machinery that is at the spearhead of advanced and intuitive eingineering.
The view at sunset from the roof of The Sands
Taking in the after race party

If the cars themselves aren't up your street, the atmosphere and entertainment is enough to keep even the most diluted of petrol heads suitably breathless. International artists take to the main 'Padang' stage all weekend, the streets are littered with entertaining dancers and technological show offs.. Sip an iconic Singapore Sling (£18!) as you marvel in the history and calonial feel of the Raffles Hotel and as night draws in head to Clark Quay for your fix of the modern social life.
The Ferrari passes past a lit up City Hall

High rises and bright lights dominate down town Singapore. Reach for the sky in the Singapore Flyer
The Sands Hotel - Lit up on race night
or go further afield where you can find on of the Worlds most creditable zoo as well as a branch of the ever popular Universal Studios. Getting tired yet? Save energy for the abundance of street food the City has on offer, from chow mein to peking duck, you won't want your first taste to be the last - just as with Singapore itself.

#2 – Find your deserted paradise, Caramoan Peninsula, Philippines.

Bags only on this bridge!
 The Caramoan Peninsula is why you are visiting South East Asia. A stunning resemblance to the stereotypical look of some castaway islands, it isn't difficult to find your very own. Take in your surroundings whilst eating lunch from a banana leaf, worrying only about the heat of the sun, until it sinks carmfully below the horizon. Accommodation in the area is limited but it doesnt come as a suprise as the journey there is an arduous one. At one point you're asked to vacate your vehicle in the interest of maintaining a rather rickety old bridge.

Still the 'modern' way of farming
In a way though the hard access and limited facilities is exactly why the Caramoan Peninsula is such a gem. Getting there takes patience but the rewards are beautiful and the sense of exploration - a real feeling that you are discovering the roots of a country - are very self satisfying.

 The serenity and picturesque qualities the Caramoan has is backed by the filming of the television series 'Survivor' within the region. The Swedish, Indian and American versions of the show will all of been filmed here by the close of 2012. That gives you an idea of the calibre of landscape the area boasts.

The day of my University graduation I had borrowed a kayak from a local and rowed with 2 friends to a couple of nearby islands - about 2 miles and a 45 minute activity. Although it was a small regret not to be back home getting the mantlepiece worthy picture, I will never forget where I was, how I got there, what I was feeling and why I could not of been in a better place.

Our ship, our beach.
#1 - Climb inside a volcano, Mount Bromo, Indonesia.

Mount Bromo is found in eastern Java, Indonesia and is possible to visit from Bali during a 2 day trip. However, a lot of people travel to Indonesia for the soul reason of seeing this mystical sight. Superlatives are rightly overused and the experience of such a close up encounter with one of the World's most active volcano's its spectacular, inspiring and unbeatable.

Sunset at Bromo is a memorable experience

Temperatures are cold at Bromo and accomodation is either expensive or very (very!) basic. Try to arrive late afternoon, this will give you time to cross the 'Sea of sands' which leads to Bromo. From a distance you will be able to see the prehostoric looking image of a volcano pumping sulphurous gas's into the atmosphere - this is Bromo.

Pick your mode of transport - feet, motorbike, 4x4 or horseback. Once at the foot of Bromo you begin to imagine the scenes at the summit. In the evening the landscape combines with the setting sun to create spine tingling picture opportunities, images that evoke thoughts of happiness, reflection, completion and pride. It is a truly special atmosphere.

Me getting as close as I dare
After scrambling to the top you'll understand the power of the natural beast you're climbing all over. The smell, the noise and the smoke coming from inside the crater is admirable as you tiptoe round the rim. Views are extraterrestriel at points and having the crater to yourself emphasis' its incredible aura.

Come 4am you will more than likely be boarding a 4x4 to scale a 20 minute journey where, after a rather steep hike, much larger numbers of people wait for the World to wake up and reveal Bromo as the centrepiece of natural beauty at sunrise.

Mt Bromo just after sunrise - still smoking

Over and out. Please leave a comment.


Sunday, 8 April 2012

An Update: A way into Journalism: Big plans.

OK so I haven't been the most religious of posters in the last few months but everything has been a bit up and down and A LOT has changed, been planned and put into action.

Having flirted with the prospect of moving to London - locking myself in the lions den and fighting for scraps to survive - I've made a few decisions that will see me live day to day life in a rather different place......Taiwan!

Part of my decision not to push for a move to the English capital was financial. The appeal of internships on £100 a week just isn't a realistic possibility if you have to up sticks and move from Yorkshire. I'm not lucky enough to have a bundle of savings or inherently wealthy parents to fall back on. Nevertheless my experiences in London, the people I have met and the work I have had published, have no doubt helped me to the decisions I have made.

In May I will be travelling again, only this time I will also be working. I have my first paid travel journalism job with a company called Gap Daemon (http://www.gapdaemon.com/). Having had contact with them before and them knowing about my enthusiasm for both travel and writing I contacted them to ask about the possibility of contributing to their publication whilst away in Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. Putting a smile on my face, they said yes and are keen to take articles and updates from me as I roam through parts of South America. The specifics for larger articles hasn't been set but I am hoping to write around the subject of having fun on a PROPER shoestring budget. The thrills, spills, parties and landscapes you can get yourself too without having to go over what you think is already a miniscule budget for backpacking. Corner cutting is easy if you know the benefits of it at the end of the day so watch this space......

Obvisouly South America is a short term thing but the start of something really good regarding the journalism side things. It is a continent I have wanted to travel to for years and always the one most backpackers seem to be aiming for when you meet them elsewhere - I will be keeping my blog in the know with updates, pictures, videos and features.

Landing back in the UK on July 20th, I'm giving myself less than three weeks turnaround time before I jump the UK ship once more and set sail for Taiwan. Unfortunately I'm not going solely for journalism reasons but thankfully I've been accepted into a company that has positions to teach English as a foreign language to Taiwanese children. I've got some experience in teaching from my time in Africa but other than that I have a degree in Journalism, a thirst for travel, a pretty out going personality and a burning ambition to live and work outside of the UK.

Being a teacher will not mean I lose sight of becoming a journalist. I will still be writing regularly for papers back home in my local area and hopefully more and more oportunities will emerge from my work with Gap Daemon.

Taiwan is a growing country and before too long I can easily imagine it becoming the 'in' place for people to visit. It is well situated for making access to places like Japan, Hong Kong, China, Philippines, Thailand etc cheap and easy. The job opportunities for native speaking English people are ridiculous. Job hunting was not too difficult and once a Skype interview and a few applications had been nailed, a confirmation of acceptance e-mail quickly followed. There seems to be a strong will in Taiwan for English to be taught to children by educated, western adults.

For anyone reading who is interested, I applied with a company called Hess and you can find all you need to know on their website (http://www.hess.com.tw/). The money is good, the lifestyle is high and the expereinces with be rewarding and unique. It wont quite be travelling as such but working and living abroad, especially Asia, has been something I have wanted to do for a while and with opportunities to write for various publications whilst away in these weird and wonderful places, I'm already getting closer to legitimately being able to call myself a Travel Journalist!


***Keep checking back for my '10 places to see in 2012', which is coming soon.