Updated November 30th, 2017.
1. The Two Day Slow Boat on the Mekong River, Laos
- START: Chiang Khong, Thailand
- FINISH: Luang Prabang, Laos
- JOURNEY TIME: Two Days with a one night stopover in Pak Beng Village.
- FUN RATING: 9/10
- TIP: Take guitar lessons in Chiang Mai and learn to play before you get on the boat, it will help you to make life-long friends. Oh and a cushion – or two!
They’ll tell you not to take it. That you will catch malaria, that you will get robbed, that you will fall in the murky depths of the Mekong never to return. For backpackers who choose to take no notice of the sales dudes trying to get you to take their bus over the two day slow boat on the Mekong will breathe a sigh of relief as they realise they made the right decision.
Although cramped wooden seats make for numb bums, the pins and needles are worth it and the slow boat is without doubt one of the most legendary backpacking trips in South East Asia. Leaving Thailand in a small speed boat with the necessary ‘sticker on vest’ you are escorted over to the border town of Huay Xai on the Laos side of the Mekong where your journey on the mighty river begins. Feet dangling over the boat, face in the sun as you float through the Laos wilderness – you’ll feel like you’ve gone back in time. There’s not a 7-11 in sight!
Passing through steep jungle-clad hillsides with bamboo huts clinging precariously to the rocks, you’ll wave at muddy children playing on the banks of the river and again in a remote villages whose only access to the wider world is the river. You might even glimpse an elephant if you keep your eyes out – as locals use them here as they have done for centuries as a working animal. After the first day, you’ll spend the night in the tiny village of Pak Beng where travelers get their first taste of Laos, not to mention Beer Lao!
A night spent getting to know fellow backpackers, hanging out with the laid-back Laotion locals and playing or listening to the acoustic guitar (someone always has one!) in the middle of nowhere is a night you’ll never forget. On the second day on the river as you begin to leave the wilderness behind and get closer to your destination of Luang Prabang, the scenery becomes truly spectacular as the green lowlands are replaced grey limestone cliffs rise from the dense jungle. Arriving in Luang Prabang after you’ve spent two days ambling down the most famous river in South East Asia, seeing the amazing way of life or people along the way, you’ll have learnt to appreciate the beauty of a slower pace of travel.
2. The Epic 27 HOUR Vientiane to Hanoi Bus Ride
- START: Vientiane, Laos
- FINISH: Hanoi, Vietnam (or vice versa)
- JOURNEY: 27 hours
- FUN RATING: 4/10
- TIP: Take plenty of food. The places you stop off at on the way are not the best, unless you’re a big fan of dog!
It’s a tough decision that many a traveller is faced with when taking the popular circular route around South East Asia; whether to bus it from Vientiane to Hanoi or to fly. One route taking a potential 30 hours, but costing just $18, the other taking a cool 40 minutes, accompanied with a soft drink and a packet of peanuts – but, will set you back about $150. You only need glance at a few of the stories in travel blogs on the net to be totally put off taking the bus. “It took 30 uncomfortable hours!” “We were dropped off in the middle of nowhere!” So what to do? After chats with backpackers who’d done the trip in both directions, the consensus is that it’s just one of those journeys that has got to be done. They’ll make T-shirts soon.
Leaving from Vientiane to Hanoi around 7pm in the evening, they’ll tell you that it takes 24 hours, it’s 27 – if you’re lucky. The advice is to get there early to get your seat as the bus is often packed and at times there are not enough seats for everybody. Don’t be one of the unlucky backpackers who end up sitting on a plastic chair down the aisle for the entire journey! And there are not only people, but rice bags too – upon which mounds of luggage are piled, so that getting off the bus includes a hilarious obstacle course for passengers! The last few hours are definitely the hardest as you sit impatiently watching the kilometres at the road side counting down to Hanoi.
Arriving in Hanoi is a wonderful experience as you’ve slowly witnessed the change of pace leaving behind laid-back Laos for the ever lively and intriguing Vietnam. It’s a crazy journey but one that you will definitely laugh at amongst fellow travellers much later when you are in Hanoi sat at a Bia Hoi junction exchanging stories. What story will you have to tell if you took the flight? Call yourself a backpacker! Take a good book, charge your ipod and go for it!
3. Longtail Boat to Railay Beach, Thailand
- START: Ao Nang, Krabi
- FINISH: Railay Beach, Krabi
- JOURNEY TIME: 20 minutes
- FUN RATING: 7/10
- TIP: Ton Sai is a cheaper, more down to earth version of Railay, so consider perching yourself here for a few nights too!
With sea spray on your face as you approach via longtail from Ao Nang, the first time you lay eyes on the staggeringly gorgeous Railay Beach is surely one that you will never forget. It’s picture postcard Thailand – towering limestone cliffs, golden sandy beaches and deep turquoise seas.
Although you’d be forgiven for thinking that Railay is part of an island, it is in fact part of the spectacular Phra Nang peninsular and is cut of from the mainland by jungle covered jagged peaks. There are no roads to Railay and no accessible tracks through the dense jungle. The only way to reach the shore is via the colourful and distinctively Thai long-tail boats which serve as water taxis for backpackers to and from Railay to Ao Nang, Ton Sai and Krabi Town.
The area is rock-climbing heaven and no doubt you’ll be sharing your long-tail with travelers who have come here for that sole reason. Look closely at the sea cliffs as you pass by and you may be able to spot a daring ‘deep water soloist’ working their way up the limestone only to leap 30 metres into the ocean below. As your boat comes into shore and you wade through warm translucent water to finally step foot on Railay Beach – you’re already relaxed. The sounds of motorbikes, buses cars have completely drifted away and have suddenly been replaced by cool Reggae beats. Get ready for adventurous days and chilled-out nights in this traveller’s paradise.
4. The Easy Riders of Vietnam
- START: Dalat, Vietnam
- FINISH: Nha Trang, Vietnam
- JOURNEY TIME: 2 days
- FUN RATING: 10/10
- TIP: Don’t worry about where to find an easy rider – they will find you!
Shades, black leather jackets and two wheels… no it’s not the Vietnamese reincarnation of the T-Birds. They go by the name of the Easy Riders and this group of cool dudes are ready to take you on a journey to see the ‘real Vietnam’ as they so adamantly insist. Sounds cliche? Once on the road with the wind in your hair as you leave the tourist traps behind you’ll begin to see what they mean. Backpack firmly strapped to the back of the bike it’s just you, your driver and Vietnam. Roads open up to reveal the beautiful scenery of rice paddies, cashew nut trees, mountain backdrops and cool fresh air of the central highlands – an area once dubbed the ‘Alps of Vietnam’ by the French.
Although you can hop on an Easy Rider pretty much anywhere from Hoi An going South or vice versa – one of the best journeys has to be from Dalat to Nha Trang. Here the countryside is at it’s most beautiful, rolling mountains interspersed with cascading waterfalls and dotted with ethnic minority villages. Stopping off at various points along the way to visit tea and coffee plantations, silk worm farms, traditional Vietnamese markets (not for vegetarians) and rice wine distillations you’ll see local Vietnamese people hard at their day to day work and glimpse a way of life that many backpackers fail to see. As your driver swerves to miss a wayward chicken clucking it’s way across the road, you’ll spot pot bellied pigs with their huge stomachs scraping along the dusty roads and water buffalo ploughing the fields. Every kilometre is a photo opportunity.
One of the best things about the trip is getting to know your driver, stories are bound to come out after a few rice whiskeys around the fire later that evening and you can find out about real Vietnamese life. At roughly $75 per person from Dalat to Nha Trang, the Easy Riders aren’t the cheapest transport available for backpackers but the experience is definitely worth it. The real Vietnam? There’s only one way to find out!
5. 10 baht Tuk Tuks, Bangkok, Thailand
- START: Khao San Road, Bangkok
- FINISH: Khao San Road, Bangkok
- JOURNEY TIME: Half day
- FUN RATING: 5/10
- TIP: Avoid rush hour 5.30pm – 7pm and take a scarf to avoid breathing in too much pollution The fumes can be pretty bad when you’re sat in traffic.
An iconic image of Thailand, the tuk tuk – so called because of the sound of it’s chugging engine – is the mode of transport that is very often a backpacker’s first introduction to Asia. As a wide-eyed rookie on your first day in Thailand, you’ll have been easy prey for the tuk-tuk drivers lining the streets of Bangkok’s most famous tourist street, Khao San Road. “Tuk tuk, tuk tuk, tuk tuk, sir, madame, you want tuk tuk? I take you see Temple, Emerald Buddha, Grand Palace… only 10 baht, 10 baht for you sir!” You work it out in your jet-lagged, yet to acclimatise brain – wow that’s like 20p! Why not at that price!?
What the Tuk tuk driver failed to mention is that although the trip will include the famous sights it just may include a few gem shops, travel agents and tailors as well! “Just looking” the driver will say and it’s true, you won’t be forced to buy anything, although you will definitely wonder how the hell you ended up wandering around a jewelry store pretending you’re interested in the latest costume piece. Trust me you’ll laugh about it later.
Later as you whizz around Bangkok, weaving in and out of the chaotic traffic, off main roads and down back alleys – you’ll experience a side of Bangkok that’s a million miles away from Khao San Road. One minute passing by glitzy shopping malls, the next crossing over canals and waterways lined with old Thai wooden houses. Everywhere you look there is life. Offerings of Orangeade and sticky rice being made being made at golden spirit houses, markets, street vendors, businessmen in suits going to work, kids coming home from school, street cleaners sweeping the streets covered head to toe in clothing so as not to darken their skin from the intense sun. And then there’s the street food. Wafts of exotic smells drifting up from the steaming pots and pans of the street vendors, pad thai, noodle soup, fried chicken, kebabs, spicy som tam. It’s a city of contrasts and surely one of the most vibrant and buzzing in the world,. There is no place quite like Bangkok, or Krung Thep, as it’s known in Thai – the City of Angels.
6. Crazy Chicken Buses in Indonesia
- START: Banda Aceh, North Sumatra
- FINISH: Bandar Lampung, Sumatra
- JOURNEY TIME: Unpredictable!
- FUN RATING: 2/10
- TIP: Girls – ask the driver to make a toilet stop at your peril. Bathrooms may consist of dirty bucket in the middle of field with an old farmer and the rest of the bus watching you at your business.
The woman next to you is chewing betel nut, there’s a chicken on someone’s lap on the other seat and every time the bus drives over a pothole your head wacks hard against the ceiling. These are just some of the joys of Indonesian public bus travel – dubbed ‘chicken-buses’ by many. You may wonder why they are called chicken buses? Is it because many of the passengers seem to be carrying an unusual amount of chickens squashed into wire cages or is it due to the fact that every time you pass another vehicle you are immediately engaged in a game of ‘chicken’ as daredevil drivers seem set to steer each other off the road. Who knows? Stopping seemingly in the middle of nowhere to pick up even more passengers on a bus that’s already bursting to the seams, people are are forced to stand precariously in the gaping doorway of the bus one foot on one foot off. Locals jump on to sell eggs? Pancakes? What – more chickens? We’ve got enough thanks!
As you sit wide-eyed in disbelief, the other locals seem perfectly at ease and much more interested in the novelty stranger on the bus i.e. YOU! Two giggling girls on the front seat turn around every five minutes to wave and take a photo of you with their mobile phones. But incase you were thinking of trying to engage in any sort of conversation with your new co-passengers, there’s the Indonesian Techno-pop to contend with, blasting from speakers at a deafening volume. It’s either that or back to back greatest hits of The Scorpions – ever so popular band in Sumatra.
While all this may sound like absolute torture – it’s one of those cultural experiences that you just can’t miss. Peering out of the window on your long journey you’ll get to see the diversity of the beautiful Sumatran countryside; dense steamy jungle, tropical vegetation, gushing rivers and lush green rice fields leading up to volcanoes that pierce the landscape on the horizon. You’ll pass busy markets that look like they are out of the 19th century, locals playing cards in doorways, kids sat on the tops of buses going to school, cows, buffalo and yes more chickens! A living museum and a real off the beaten track adventure – there is nothing quite like Indonesian bus travel.
7. Local Banca Fishing Boats in The Philippines
- START: One pristine beach
- FINISH: After another
- FUN RATING: 9/10
- TIP: If you are hiring a banca for the day – make sure you agree on a price with the boat driver beforehand and that it covers the cost of the boat not per person!
In comparison to the shores of Thailand, the Philippines is a country that seems cut off from the popular backpacker trail in South East Asia – but one seems to know why. With over 7,000 islands (7,107 to be precise) which enclose pristine white beaches, virgin rainforest and some of the best diving sites in the world – it’s a tropical paradise that you better put on your backpacker ‘places to go list’ soon!
As an archipelago, life and travel naturally takes place on the water and upon landing in the Philippines it won’t be long before you are setting foot on one of the traditional outrigger fishing boats, also know as ‘bancas.’ Coming in all shapes, sizes and colours, the bancas are the taxis of the Philippine Seas that will take you island-hopping around the beautiful islands of Palawan, Puerto Galera, El Nido and beyond. If you’re feeling more adventurous – getting away from the tourist beach isn’t hard to do and there are thousands of islands that are literally untouched when it comes to tourism. Hiring a banca and slicing through unchartered waters to visit deserted tropical beaches you’ll feel like a true sea-faring adventurer. You’ll also catch a glimpse of a local way of life in the fishing villages that has gone unchanged for centuries.
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