After a trip to South East Asia, most travellers will be asked what their favourite place was. There is not, by any means, an easy answer. Each country in the region has its striking features. Thailand has majestic, mountaintop temples. Laos is a cultural feast, as well as a gastronomic one. Vietnam is a country steeped in history that presents itself with strange bird caging superstitions and Franco-Vietnamese architecture. However it is Cambodia that could arguably be seen as the region’s highlight.
There is omnipotence in the sense of community there, especially in Phnom Penh. Kids meander around budding couples on bikes and blades. Young families are out anticipating their babies’ first steps, while their grandparents observe from the side-lines. It is enough to simply sit and let the hum of the city dance with your thoughts and play with your emotions, under the tormented sky and relentless waters that wait on orders to attack.
Sitting on the boardwalk, watching the lightening lick the tops of the skyline may not perhaps be an event you set out to experience, but once undergone you’ll wonder how much poorer you would have been without it.
Following a trip to South East Asia one may come home feeling liberated. Order is a necessary nuisance, one we exaggerate in the West. In Vietnam the traffic regulations are a little looser than at home. Imagine six lanes, a hundred cars, and three desperate tourists hugging the zebra crossing, blindly trusting the judgements of the speedy drivers. Or strolling down a path in rush-hour traffic to find it suddenly upgraded to a moped lane. Put plainly, those of a nervous disposition may find the Vietnamese trafficking laws more than alarming.
Travelling with a friend through the region is always advisable, particularly when it comes to those 30 hour bus rides. You may find yourself coming up with obscurely themed games, but anything to pass the time helps. Distraction from the plummeting death you feel certain to face, due to the bus driver’s disregard for speed limits is also another plus to travelling in pairs.
As much as it is great to find original places to see on these well trodden trails, don’t be ignorant to the milestones you must experience. Do an overnight trek in Thailand. Go see Halong Bay in Vietnam and check out The War Remnants Museum. The Killing Fields in Cambodia are breathtakingly humbling, not to mention inspiring. Angkor National Park, home to a couple dozen of the world’s oldest temples, is, without reservation, unmissable. One must simply stand in awe of the temple’s crumbling towers that leak legend from every fissure, with statues stripped of gold after years of totalitarian rule and colonisation. The walls can be found adorned with ancient Hindu imagery, overlooking the more recent Buddhist statues that bare the bullet holes of the country’s modern conflict.
After five weeks of trail-blazing even the most experienced traveller is bound to be culturally spent and physically exhausted. However, the promise of the Full Moon Party should manage to remove your lethargy and give you the push to embark on the mass migration down south. On the way you might want to make a visit to the setting of the film, The Beach, although it is not anything particularly extraordinary. Long Beach on Koh Phi Phi, on the other hand, is much more worthwhile. Ivory sands, cool blue seas, palm trees; exactly like the pictures in the brochure.
It can be easy to confine yourselves to the company of fellow tourists on your travels, but one of the most rewarding things about your time abroad can be the locals you meet. The small villages of South East Asia provide the perfect opportunity to gain an insight into a different culture and way of life. Share a drink with the locals in the town of Phi Phi, and watch them clear shoulders like we would cans.
Remember that an extensive trip, such as one around South East Asia, will bring with it certain inevitabilities: you will more than likely get sunburnt, the chances are you’ll leave some clothes behind, you may lose a camera along the way, and laser cards can often be casually donated to the streets. Don’t let the mistakes you make occupy too much of your time and don’t forget that everything is part of the experience.
Sometimes venturing far off the beaten track can be overrated. Just because a path’s been walked before, doesn’t mean there’s nothing to explore. What makes us individuals is not what we do but our own individual perspectives.
Sitting at the steps in Hanoi at five o’clock in the morning and watching the women behead the chickens and prepare their fruit stalls for the day, or seeing a father, tentatively helping his baby daughter navigate her spindly steps with her wooden walker, is akin to watching the city unfold from the inside out. South East Asia awards any willing traveller with the opportunity not just to visit the countries but to learn the history, meet the people, and listen to the often life-changing stories.
Money is fleeting but memories make you the person you are. South East Asia is worthy of a visit for simply too many reasons to list.