South-East Asia; overrun tourist circuit or well-deserved item on the bucket list? Booking a one-way flight to Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital, with two friends and a guidebook in hand, I soon realised how easily people can become infected with the ‘travel bug’.
Gili Trawangan, Indonesia
This tiny sedate island (6 square miles) two hours off the coast of Bali is truly paradise, with white beaches leading to azure water, don’t be surprised if you get stuck here longer than you initially planned. There are no motor vehicles on Gili T, which is refreshing after the relative clamour of Bali. Spend the day swimming with turtles, watch vibrant equatorial sunsets and spend the night partying on the beach or listening to live music.
Top tip: Get scuba certified! Gili T has some incredible dive sites, including the opportunity to see both sharks and manta rays.
If the mere thought of doing nothing on a beach for a week makes you feel restless, try Lombok, the home of Gunung Rinjani, the second highest volcano in Indonesia rising to 3,726m above sea level. Get here by taking the car ferry from Padangbai on Bali, then a bus to the small village of Senaru. Different climbing options and routes are available, but a decent level of fitness is required for all.
Rise before dawn to reach the crater rim by mid-afternoon, whilst being guaranteed to see long-tailed macaques that approach at every rest stop on the challenging hike. A descent can then be made into the crater, taking the opportunity to bathe in the hot volcanic springs before leaving to watch the sunset from the crater rim.
With temperatures in single figures at night-time, ensure that the agency you book through has a good reputation (reading a review or two is well worth it). A second day of rising before dawn is a must, as the view of the sun rising over Lombok and the Pacific from 2,605m is breath taking.
Koh Tonsay, Cambodia
Often described as Thailand before the masses hit, Cambodia’s south coast boasts all the beauty without the crowds. In the south-eastern province of Kep, close to the Vietnamese border, Koh Tonsay did not disappoint.
Life trickles by at a casual pace here, but this can be a blessing after the hustle and bustle of Siem Reap or Phnom Penh to the north. No electricity after 10pm, no showers, a squat toilet all suggest that this place is one to miss, but you may soon fall in love with the serenity of it all. £2.50 a night for a bungalow, 50p for a beer, and the priceless experience of phosphorescent plankton that illuminate the water at night should make this tranquil corner of rural Cambodia a definite stop on any trip to South-East Asia.
South-East Asia’s most well-known success story, Singapore can be the perfect start or end to a trip of SE Asia, gradually immersing you in Asian culture or returning you to some of the home comforts you may have started to miss.
Get caught up in the distinctive smells and tastes of old Chinatown, or take a stroll to the Quay via the financial district to marvel at the Gardens by the Bay, a monument to Singapore’s rapid development since its independence fifty years ago. The eco-domes here, teeming with a variety of plant life, are worth a visit, giving you a refreshing respite from the thick, humid, Asian air. Revisit the Gardens at 9pm to catch the incredible light show, a necessity on any trip to Singapore.
Top tip: Get dressed up and enjoy a drink at the top of the world-famous Marina Bay Sands, with hard-to-beat panoramic skyline views away from the frantic daily life of Singapore.
Hai Van Pass, Vietnam
Between the towns of Hoi An and Hue in Vietnam is a world-class coastal road known as the Hai Van Pass. Made popular by Top Gear’s Vietnam special, we decided to follow their tracks and drive the 140km ourselves on mopeds.
The battered Honda Wave I’m presented with does little to allay any anxiety I may be feeling, but with a pat on the back and some encouraging Vietnamese words, we set off. Keeping in mind the main advice we were given back at our hostel, “the bigger your vehicle, the more right of way you have”, we stay well out of the way, but soon realise that with little traffic, making our tiny bikes scream round hairpin bends is really what this road was made for. Give yourself all day for this trip, savouring every hair-raising corner and the freedom of seeing the spectacular scenery from two wheels.
Luang Prabang, Laos
In the heart of Laos, encircled by mountains and set on the junction of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers, Luang Prabang is a relic to French colonial architecture juxtaposed with golden temple roofs. The day here starts before the sun rises as monks from the thirty-two temples in town embark on one of the most sacred Lao traditions, the daily morning alms procession.
After enjoying a delicious breakfast with fresh coffee in one of the numerous French cafes (Saffron being a personal favourite), grab a tuk-tuk to the Kuang-Si Falls, costing around 50,000 kip (£4) for a round trip. Entry is 20,000 kip, giving you access to a sun bear sanctuary before you go on to swim in the sapphire pools. Return to spend the evening at candle-lit Utopia, an outside bar with a distinctly stress-free vibe, full of low-set tables, floor mattresses and shisha.
With the town having an alcohol curfew of 11pm, everyone makes their way via a fleet of eager tuk-tuks to the local bowling alley – another one of Lao’s little anomalies – the only place to find a way round the rule.