Face of Bayon at Angkor Wat

Why Southeast Asia Is the Perfect First Adventure for Globetrotters

Many moons ago in the history of travel (we’re talking the 16-1800s here), the moneyed young gentry of Europe, particularly England, would embark on a journey to absorb the very best the continent had to offer in art, history, culture and refined living. This tradition would go on to be known as the Grand Tour, a rite of passage and an educational opportunity for young men (and sometimes women, though this was not an age known for its gender equality) of a certain social standing. The typical itinerary would begin in London and end in Rome, taking in the Netherlands, France, Switzerland and the classic sights of Italy along the way.

Today, the Grand Tour lives on – albeit in a much more frugal form – as legions of young backpackers descend on hostels across the continent. And we love Europe! Really, we do. Every Globetrotter should consider at least one European ‘grand tour’ during their lifetime. But the Internet age has given exposure to many other parts of the world, some of which offer experiences unlike anything the intrepid Globetrotter can find at home.

Enter the tempting tiger that is Southeast Asia.

For the first-time Globetrotter wanting a grand tour like no other, here are a few reasons why Southeast Asia is the perfect first trip.

A day in Bangkok costs a quarter of a day in Paris

Fresh out of school, the modern young Globetrotter is bursting with cash, ready to splurge on that first trip, right?

Hmm. We thought not… which shouldn’t stop anyone from Globetrotting!

The cities of Asia offer just as much history and culture as many of their European counterparts, usually at a fraction of the cost. In fact, many all-inclusive trips through Indo-China can be had for little more than $100 a day, which also includes having the security of a tour leader in case anything goes wrong.

Globetrotters willing to rough it a little and tuck into street food can drive their costs much, much lower, but this can also come at the cost of comforts like air conditioning – or as I discovered in Battambang, Cambodia, windows. All part of the adventure? Few destinations around the world can beat Southeast Asia for maximum adventure at a minimal cost.

Traditional Thai steak roasted pork
Traditional Thai steak roasted pork

Astonishing diversity of cultures and cuisine

Cross the border from one country to the next for a completely different look at Asian life. From exotic Thailand, to resilient Cambodia, to bustling Vietnam – not to mention a freshly awakening Myanmar (previously Burma) – crossing a border here means entering a different world, with its own unique pace, culture, cuisine, art, history and religion.

Explore Asia in miniature as you weave your way through the neighbourhoods of Singapore. Spend a few days quietly contemplating life among the monks in Laos. Or hold your nose and tuck into a durian – the king of fruits – known for its delicious range of uses in local cuisine, and its… ‘memorable’ odour.

Sights, sights and more sights

Even taken alone, the majestic temples of Angkor or the towering limestone formations of Halong Bay would justify your trip. Now factor in the historic ruins of Ayutthaya or Sukhothai in Thailand, the temples of Prambanan and Borobudur in Indonesia, delightful Hoi An or Luang Prabang, to say nothing of national parks such as Ulung Kulon, Tubbataha Reefs, along with Komodo Island – home to the famous “dragons.” These are just a few attractions pulled from the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Borobudur Temple at sunrise Yogyakarta Java Indonesia
Borobudur Temple at sunrise. Yogyakarta Java Indonesia

It’s like nothing you can experience at home

Those wanting to get out of their comfort zone will find the rhythms of Southeast Asia irresistible. From frantic cities to serene floating villages, the communities within all of these countries reveal a style of living a world away from the West. While Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok are modern cities powering the region’s economy, be ready for culture shock, particularly in the rural areas of Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar, where you may witness jarring poverty and extremely under-developed living conditions.

While they’re now safe to visit, some of these countries are still recovering from decades of war, and understanding them means understanding that recent history. Roam the War Remnants Museum of Ho Chi Minh City for a very different perspective on “The American War” before crossing the street amid a sea of moving motorbikes to bargain up a storm in Ben Thanh Market. In any case, you’ll probably learn to live plastic-free, since many parts of the region rely solely on cash.

You can lend a helping hand

A female of the orangutan with a cub
A female of the orangutan with a cub

Voluntourism can be one of the most richly immersive and rewarding ways to travel. A wide range of conservation programs allow volunteers to help monitor and take care of wildlife such as elephants in Thailand or orangutans in Borneo. Perhaps help renovate a school or community hall in Cambodia. Can’t leave the city behind? Teaching English is a great opportunity to get to know the locals in Bangkok.

Do, however, closely scrutinize your trip provider and activities before you go. The last ten years have seen a dramatic rise in “orphanage tourism” in Cambodia, and an alarming number of non-orphaned children have been placed in care to meet the ‘demands’ of well-meaning visitors. Solidly research any organization you plan to work with and decide for yourself whether you wish to work with an orphanage directly, remembering that they are not tourist attractions. Should you wish, there are plenty of other ways to help the legitimate non-government agencies that assist them.

When to go

When Bangkok locals describe their three seasons as hot, hotter, and rainy, they’re only half joking.

In Indo-China (Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar), the “hot” season, from November to February, is usually the time to go. While you’ll certainly be surrounded by fellow visitors, you at least won’t be forced inside by stifling heat or heavy rain. In the northern half of the peninsula, including Chiang Mai, Hanoi, and Laos, you can also comfortably visit during the “hotter” season from March to May. The “rainy” season runs June to September and combines heat with frequent downpours. Photographers however, will relish the opportunity to capture high contrast images of Angkor and Bagan at their most splendid. Seasons in the Philippines follow a similar pattern to southern Indo-China.

In Malaysia and Singapore, count on a warm, damp climate year round with no discernable wet or dry season, while in Indonesia, in the southern hemisphere, the drier months are between May and October.

Playing with the elephants in Chiang Mai Thailand
Playing with the elephants in Chiang Mai Thailand

ASIA by Goway offers almost 300 trips throughout the continent, including classic itineraries, chic city stopovers, trekking opportunities, beach escapes and more. To start building your perfect Southeast Asia Grand Tour, visit www.goway.com.

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Christian Baines
Christian Baines

Globetrotting Contributing Editor -
Christian’s first globetrotting adventure saw him get lost exploring the streets of Saigon. Following his nose to Asia’s best coffee, two lifelong addictions were born. A freelance writer and novelist, Christian’s travels have since taken him around his native Australia, Asia, Europe, and much of North America. His favourite trips have been through Japan, Spain, and Brazil, though with a love of off-beat, artsy cities, he’ll seize any opportunity to return to Paris, New York, or Berlin.

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