So recently we came to the end of our four months of travelling around Southeast Asia as you may have guessed from the title of this blog. We didn’t do much planning as we wanted to keep most of our options open if we decided we wanted to stay somewhere longer or go somewhere different along the way. Travelling can be so unpredictable and looking back, only having a rough plan was the best thing we could have done! It gave us the freedom to stay longer on islands we fell in love with, gave us an extra day or two exploring a beautiful city and also the chance to follow a recommendation on a place we didn’t plan on going! And of course, it gives you that vital lee-way in case of unplanned situations of which we encountered a few.
Choosing the route – Important things to remember
Although its good to keep the plan completely rough, you do have to bare important things in mind that could really mess your plans up if you don’t account for them before.
We left the UK for Bangkok at the end of June 2017, with a plan of Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand again, Cambodia, and finally Vietnam. Our original plan was to work our way through Thailand then Malaysia then into Indonesia as this made more sense geographically. However, we had to change our plans because we were applying for a 90 day visa for Indonesia which only gives you 6 weeks validity from receiving your visa. Meaning if you don’t use it within 6 weeks of getting it back from the embassy its no longer valid – nightmare! Usually you can get a 30 day visa on arrival but as it was a place neither of us had visited, we wanted to spend a little more time there without a visa run. You can get more info about Indonesian visas on this website. For all other countries (apart form Vietnam as we planned to live there) visas are stress-free and you can get a decent amount of time on arrival into the country, just be aware if you enter Thailand over a land border you only get 15 days.
In most of the countries in SE Asia, its always warmer than the UK in summer regardless of which time of the year however, we were super careful to also plan our route around the seasons. It doesn’t always work out perfect unless you want to be taking flights here, there and everywhere but you can usually sort a route which makes it almost perfect. We found this website super useful for looking at seasons in each country, just click the country and what month you want to go and it’s all there.
Now, I’m not going to go into detail about each place in this route otherwise this blog post will turn into a novel (which it’s already close to!) but I will explain where we went in each country and why it made sense to do this route with buses/trains/planes/boats etc. I should note, we wanted to be as cost saving as we could be so we weren’t afraid of a fair few overnight buses where we could have flown – embrace the budget traveler within you, its all fun!
*LHR > BOM > BKK*
THAILAND (FIRST VISIT) – END OF JUNE
Stop 1: Bangkok
It’s the starting point for almost everybody that travels SE Asia, it breaks you into the madness nicely and you can enjoy your first night of travel jet-lagged and sinking a few buckets on Khao San Road. Plus Thai food is da bomb and the street food here is amazing. If you’re the kind of person that starts to plan their ‘drunk food’ during their night out then you’ll be spoilt for choice on Khao San. It makes sense to start here.
Stop 2: Koh Tao
In a quest to complete my 18m & 30m PADI, Koh Tao was the next stop, the cheapest place in the world to do your PADI and a fun island to explore too. Every 5 metres in the centre of Bangkok is a travel agency where you can book your bus and boat to whichever island you choose to start off in Thailand, it couldn’t be easier (and its cheap!).
Stop 3: Koh Phangan
After 6 days on Koh Tao, we moved onto the all famous full moon party island of Koh Phangan because if its your first time travelling Thailand, a full moon party is a right of passage – you just have to do it! Again, super easy to book a boat between these islands and they run regularly. Little tip: if you have the time, stick around on Koh Phangan for at least 3 days after the full moon party, the prices inflate like crazy for the boats in the days after so waiting an extra day saves a decent amount of dosh.
Stop 4: Koh Samui
Again, another easy boat ride from Koh Phangan. We only stayed two days here, it’s not the backpackers paradise it once was and the beaches have nothing on neighboring islands, although there are some beautiful waterfalls!
Stop 5: Bangkok again!
Another ferry and overnight bus back up to Bangkok. The reason we did these so much is because all-in-all it costs around £18 per person, its miles cheaper than a flight and it saves a night of accommodation as you are on the bus! And they really aren’t that bad, they have toilets but they stop often enough, and if you make sure you tire yourself out the day before you’ll sleep soundly.
*BKK > CGK*
JAVA, INDONESIA – MID JULY
Stop 1: Jakarta
A lot of blogs said miss out this crazy, busy city but there is a lot of charm in being one of a few westerners in a huge Javanese city. It’s the side to Indonesia people often don’t see, where very few people speak English and where the street food is traditional and delicious. Bali is a world away from Java, that’s why we wanted to begin our journey here. We stayed two nights and got on our way!
Stop 2: Semarang
This was actually a mistake coming to this city, we found a hotel, we stayed one night and got away the next day, just shows everyone makes mistakes when you can’t speak a word of Indonesian!
Stop 3: Borobudur
Just go, the biggest buddhist temple in the whole of SE Asia, its amazing and the town is lovely too. Magalang is the station you travel to from Semerang/Jakarta, then form Magalang you go to Borobudur. Don’t worry about this part too much like I did. When you first arrive in Java it seems like you are the only people travelling for the amount of westerners you see on these routes. However, there’s a certain beauty in this, when you step off any bus in any location you have locals shouting locations at you and when you hear the one you want, you follow them! Easy!
Stop 4: Dieng Plateau
Here we saw the most beautiful sunrise we’ve ever seen after a 2 hour hike in the pitch black, however do your own research to make sure you want to spare the time. It’s high up in the mountains and will take a full day to reach (Magalang being your centre station again). Such a fun journey nevertheless, 5 or 6 buses I think it took us, 2 of these being school buses where we were packed in like sardines with 25 10-year olds! You’re thrown off one bus and shepherded onto the next, you have no idea where you’re going and literally have to put all your faith in the man saying ‘Dieng Dieng’ and beckoning you to follow him! This place is almost worth it just for the journey. We stayed less than 24 hours before hopping on a bus back down the mountain.
Stop 5: Yogakarta
Pronounced ‘Jogja’, this fun, vibrant city was our first glimpse of ‘touristy’ Indonesia but even so we still felt like one of the few there. We stayed 4 days here, 2 of those were recovering from our 6 buses and 8 hour journey back from Dieng Plateau, all good fun! Temples and markets galore – not to mention, Prambanan, the largest Hindu temple in Indonesia, it is simply jaw-dropping. We took a bus here from the city and spent a day here.
Stop 6: Mount Bromo
From Yogyakarta we booked a train to Surabaya, then from Surabaya we got a bus to Probbolinggo. We began the journey from Yogya during the early hours and arrived in Probbolinggo around 11am, then waited there until 3pm until the minibus was full enough to take us up to Cemero Lawang, the little town at the foot of Bromo. Unless you want to stay a night in Probbolinggo, I recommend getting there in the morning. We stayed one night at the foot of Bromo, getting up in the early hours to hike to the viewpoint to see the sunrise then hike up the crater for the best view of Bromo. We jumped back on the minibus at 10am to Probbolinggo, short and sweet but all you need!
Stop 7: Surabaya
We opted to spoil ourselves and fly to Bali from Surabaya – flights were only £20 so seemed crazy not to. So we stayed one night here before flying to Bali the next day – not much to see in this city but food is cheap and it’s very Indonesian.
*SUB > DPS*
BALI, INDONESIA – END OF JULY
Stop 8: Canggu
After being ripped for the taxi fare from the airport (Bali has no public transport and the taxis are run by mafia in South Bali and Ubud so travel can be expensive), we arrived in the hipster and fun Canggu and stayed for 2 nights. Rent a scooter, eat some ‘instagrammable’ food and explore!
Stop 9: Seminyak
Wanting to see what the high life was all about we stayed one night in Seminyak, we took a short taxi from Canggu to Seminyak. Be warned that you cannot use apps like Uber, Grab or Bluebird in certain towns in Bali. Your taxi will literally be chased away if you have ordered it via an app. The prices are higher here but you can have a nice drink in a beach club and soak up the ‘holiday Bali’.
Stop 10: Nusa Lembongan
In Seminyak, we booked a boat from Sanur to Nusa Lembongan, you can also turn up at the port a couple hours before and get a ticket. Seminyak to Sanur is about an hour taxi ride (you can use Grab in Seminyak, hurray!). Nusa Lembongan is connected to Nusa Ceningan, a smaller island by a lovely yellow bridge, hire a scooter here (don’t expect to be given a helmet – no one wears one and there are no police) and explore these little islands, they are lovely. Not to mention, this is one of the places you can snorkel or dive with the Manta Rays! This was one of my favourite places, an example of the ‘Bali’ people expect to see on Bali but don’t, you have to come here! We stayed 3 nights, but could have easily stayed longer!
Stop 11: Ubud
We left Nusa Lembongan and got a boat back to Sanur, and from Sanur we secretly got a Grab taxi to Ubud. Another place run by mafia you have to be really careful when getting taxis via apps, we heard stories of Grab drivers having their cars smashed up, not cool. But if you can, it really helps avoid the crazy fees other transfers will charge you. Ubud, aka Monkey Mayhem, was very wet, but an awesome place to explore, shop (the markets are incredible) and eat. We hired a scooter and explored the rice fields and the waterfalls all around, we stayed for 6 days in total! Ubud is usually always wet, as they say – no rain, no rice!
Stop 12: Amed
From Ubud, we scouted out the cheapest transfer to Amed on Bali’s east coast. Amed is known for being at the foot of the mighty Mount Agung and its black sand beaches. We stayed 2 nights as we wanted to dive the USAT Liberty Wreck, which if you are a diver you should totally do!
Stop 13: Gili T
We booked a transfer to Padang Bai port and a ferry from there to Gili T through our hostel. Booking things like this was so easy in Bali (even if public transports doesn’t exist), you don’t ever have to feel lost if you don’t have something booked. Chance are, everywhere you are travelling, people have done the exact same route thousands of times before so its easy to get from one place to the next. Gili T was probably my favourite place in all our travels (the diving was also amazing), we ended up staying 8 days instead of our originally planned 3 – why it’s always good to keep plans open, people!
Stop 14: Sengiggi
Sadly, we couldn’t stay forever on Gili T and got a boat, which we booked through the several little travel shops on Gili T, to Lombok, which included a transfer to our hotel once on the island. We stayed 2 nights in Sengiggi, once again hired a scooter to explore and lounge on the beaches!
Stop 15: Kuta Lombok
We arranged a transfer by minibus to Kuta Lombok, and stayed here for 4 days. We hired a scooter and explored the beaches all around. Lombok was so precious to us, as it’s still so untouched. Yes, they are trying to build roads and hotels in order to be ready for mass tourism but if you get a chance to see it before all that, it still feels local and untouched. Plus, we couldn’t believe how beautiful the beaches all were within a 10 minutes ride of each other around this coast. Definitely one to do!
Stop 16: Kuta (Bali)
From one Kuta to another. We booked a minibus/ferry combo ticket to take us back to Bali. We stayed 1 night in Kuta Bali before hopping on a plane to Flores! We could have done this journey by boat from Lombok, it takes 4 days by boat, however we decided against it when we heard the horrific stories of boat engines failing and boats sinking (we also had these stories confirmed when we met people who had made this journey) – so we took the advice and booked flights instead, do your research and decide, for us the chance to see one of the seven natural wonders of the world was a no-brainer and we didn’t want to get lost at sea on the way.
*DPS > LBJ*
FLORES, INDONESIA – MID AUGUST
Stop 17: Labuan Bajo AKA Komodo National Park
We decided we couldn’t come to Indonesia as divers and not dive in the Komodo National Park and I can’t wait to go back and do it all over again. It is renowned as one of the most challenging places to dive in the world due to currents, but the currents bring the most amazing marine life! Even if you aren’t a diver, this was the most amazing experience for snorkelling also. If you can, do a liveaboard, its completely worth the money. We stayed here 7 nights then flew back to Bali.
Stop 18: Kuta (Bali)
We decided to spend our last 2 nights in Kuta to see what it was all about. It gets a terrible name in the backpacking scene for being the Indonesian Benidorm/Magaluf. However, the accommodation is the cheapest in Bali and the shopping on the other hand – awesome. Any knock-off item you could think of, there would be a street stall selling it. We almost bought a new wardrobe, it was all so cheap – completely worth a night there just for that, and the beach isn’t bad either!
*DPS > SIN*
SINGAPORE – END OF AUGUST
We stayed in Singapore for 2 nights. We were extremely lucky to have friends of a family friend live here who completely took us weary backpackers under their wing and welcomed us into their beautiful, glamorous expat lifestyle for two days. Save up the money and see Singapore properly, I will do a separate post for it soon! Keep your nicest clothes clean because your backpacker rags won’t do in this sparkly city!
MALAYSIA – START OF SEPTEMBER
Stop 1: Kuala Lumpur
We booked a bus from Singapore to KL, the 4 hour journey we expected was 8 hours in the end so don’t take any times the buses give you too seriously. We met one of Glen’s friends in KL so stayed 5 days in total in two different parts of the city. KL was fun, diverse and full of different cultures. Normally, I’d say a two day stay is enough to see everything. For our second hotel, we treated ourselves to a rooftop pool as this city is HOT.
Stop 2: Malacca
Usually, if you were going from Singapore you should go to Malacca first as its 2 hours south of KL. But as we were meeting a friend in KL, we went after with a plan of staying two nights which actually one ended up being one night. It’s the kind of place you can do in a day trip from KL if you like, it’s got a certain charm but we didn’t like how commercialised it seemed and a little tacky so not our cup of tea. If you do go, our highlights were the whole watermelon juice, the graffiti and the architecture!
Stop 3: Mersing
From Malacca, we booked a bus through this website (this is a great website for booking buses, trains and ferries throughout Asia!) and travelled through the day to Mersing, where we stayed one night and caught a ferry for Tioman the next morning. Be warned, get to the ferry port early, it takes about an hour to check in for the morning ferry! Mersing is a tiny town with a few restaurants and the only reason travelers are there is to catch the ferry to Tioman.
Stop 4: Tioman Island (Pulau Tioman)
Tioman was a strange one, you only reach other parts of the island by boat and it’s half way between a deserted island and a backpackers must-go, it just hasn’t quite got there yet. We hired push bikes and rode up and down our stretch (we stayed on ABC) but it was very quiet and the beaches weren’t great. We had plans to dive elsewhere in Malaysia so chose not to dive but we heard the reefs were nice!
Stop 5: Perhentian Islands (Pulau Perhentian Kecil – ‘Small Island’)
After getting the ferry back to Mersing, we hung around all day then hopped on an overnight bus to Kota Bharu (this place also has an airport if you want to fly from KL). Arriving at 5am in Kota Bharu, we were shepherded onto another bus to Kuala Besut where we waited a couple of hours for the first ferry at 8.30am to the Perhentian Islands. We stayed on the backpacker island on long beach and it was great – no wifi, no bikes, no cars. A place to relax on the amazing beaches and in the crystal waters and you HAVE to dive here, the diving was great fun! And for a small island, the party scene was pretty exciting too. We stayed for five days which could have easily been longer!
*You may be wondering where the Cameron Highlands were in this itinerary, but we chose not to go. Glen had visited Malaysia on previous travels and I had read up a lot about them. It was not somewhere Glen wanted to go again and I trusted his opinion when he said I wouldn’t be missing out on much. Yes, they may be beautiful but when you are restricted by organised tours and the likes, it kind of takes the beauty out of it. Missing these out gave us the opportunity to stay longer in the Perhentians*
Stop 6: Georgetown, Penang
After getting the afternoon ferry back from Perhentian Kecil, we hung around and got an overnight bus from Kuala Besut to Georgetown in Penang, on Malaysia’s north-west coast. The bus takes you to the main bus station on Penang, then you catch a local bus to Georgetown. We enjoyed a full day and a half here which we felt was enough but you could easily stay longer if you wanted to explore more.
*PEN > LGK*
Stop 7: Langkawi Island (Pulau Langkawi)
We actually decided to fly from Penang to Langkawi. I know it sounds like I am going back on my earlier statement about taking other transport over flights, however I had read that the ferry crossing from Penang to Langkawi is particularly awful between September and October due to rough seas – so much so that many blogs I read advised against going by boat at all during this time so we decided to book the cheap flight. This was a decision we made when we first entered Malaysia when we decided we needed to fly into Thailand in order to get another 30 day visa as entering by land would only give us 15 days which was not enough for what we wanted to do. So we booked 4 flights through Air Asia, Penang to Langkawi, Langkawi to Penang, Penang to KL and KL to Phuket which came to £135 each including 20kg luggage – not so bad for all that travel. We stayed two days on Langkawi, hired a bike to explore and rode to the top of the highest mountain, Raya, and enjoyed the views.
*LGK > PEN … PEN > KUL … KUL > HKT*
Thailand (second visit) – mid september
Stop 1: Phuket
We flew into Phuket and booked a minibus from the airport. Phuket is also run by taxi mafia so you’ll struggle to get a cheap taxi from the airport and the minivans fail to budge much on price so it’s a cost you have to swallow. We stayed 2 nights in Phuket as we met some friends from home. Phuket itself is not much of a backpackers place but the massages are cheap and the nightlife is fun! Hire yet another scooter and explore the different beaches – tip if you’re on a budget, a scooter really helps to ride a little out of the touristy part to find some cheap eats!
Stop 2: Koh Phi Phi
In Phuket, like most places in Thailand you’re spoilt for choice when it comes to travel agents to book your onward journey. Check 3-4 places, find the best price, we booked one with a transfer from our hostel to the ferry (this is pretty standard). We stayed on Phi Phi for 4 days, it’s a small island with no cars, a great nightlife, loads of places to eat, nice beaches and fun boat trips – just be aware of the jellyfish! We were victim to the first sign of wet season here as west Thailand was coming to the end of the wet season and it couldn’t be avoided but between rain showers we had beautiful, hot sunshine!
Stop 3: Koh Lanta
Another island, we booked our ferry through our hostel on Phi Phi, again easy peasy. We arranged a pick-up through our hotel on Lanta so we were picked up from the port when we arrived. We hired a scooter on Koh Lanta which is generally needed, it’s a much bigger island than Phi Phi so it’s nice to get a bike to explore the fisherman’s village, the national park, the waterfalls and other beaches. We planned two nights here but stayed four!
Stop 4: Bangkok
We booked a transfer back to Bangkok through our hostel which began at midday and we arrived in Bangkok early the next day, a ferry and two buses for around £25 each. We stayed in Bangkok a night to refresh and the next day we got a minibus to Ayutthaya, 2 hours north of Bangkok.
Stop 5: Ayutthaya
As it had been a while since we’d been ‘templed out’, we wanted to go to Ayutthaya to explore the original Ancient City of Thailand. Ayutthaya is a small town with a huge temple complex spread throughout it, I found this bicycle route which you can download to your phone and use offline. Most hostels will offer bike hire, head out early and spend the day exploring the sights!
Stop 6: Kanchanaburi & Erawan Waterfalls
This transfer seemed a bit difficult to organise at first due to so little people having written about this route. It was actually super easy, we headed down to the same place we got dropped off the previous day in Ayutthaya and said we needed to go to Kanchanaburi, we were put on a minibus which changed at Suphanburi. It took about 3-4 hours and should cost no more than 100 baht each. We stayed in Kanchanburi town and hired a scooter through our hostel and spent one day at the bridge over the river Kwai and exploring museums then the second day we got up early and drove the 60km to Erawan waterfalls where we spent the day climbing to the top and taking dips in the beautiful blue pools, you can get a bus here but the drive was so much more fun!
Stop 7: Chiang Mai
We booked an overnight bus through 12goAsia from Kanchanaburi to Chiang Mai. We stayed in Chiang Mai for four days before going to volunteer for a week at a elephant and dog sanctuary out of the city – read more about the best things do in Chiang Mai in my blog post here!
Stop 8: Bangkok
We got another overnight bus back to Bangkok after spending a week playing with the lovely doggies. It was our anniversary so we splashed out on a nice hotel as a present to ourselves, then Glen completely out did himself by surprising me with dinner on the 52nd floor of the Lebua State Tower – blog on this to follow! After two nights in Bangkok, we booked a bus to Siem Reap (6 hours).
Cambodia – mid october
Stop 1: Siem Reap
Leaving Bangkok early in the morning meant we got through border control fairly swiftly (make sure you have $35 dollars in cash each for your visa), and arrived in Siem Reap at midday. We stayed here 4 days, giving ourselves the freedom to see all of the mighty temples at a nice pace spread out over 3 days – if you want to do this, get yourself a tuk tuk driver you like and agree a price as well as where you want to go each day. You can do the temples in a swift day tour but make sure you give yourself enough time here to have a mad one on Pub Street and a day to recover! We booked a bus online to Phnom Penh through 12go but this can be done anywhere.
Stop 2: Phnom Penh
We stayed in Phnom Penh for 2 days, again one day we agreed a price with a tuk tuk driver (they will try and poach your business every time you step outside – it can get annoying but can you blame them?) and spent the day seeing the Genoside Museum (S21) and the killing fields. Make sure you take a walk along the river at dusk to see all the locals out in force going about their evening activities – good fun!
Stop 3: Sihanokville
We took a bus through the day to Sihanokville and arrived in the evening. We stayed on Otres beach away from the go-go bars and dirty beaches of the main town for 2 days, then booked a transfer and a ferry through our hostel to Koh Rong (the small island off the coast).
Stop 4: Koh Rong
Not to be confused with Koh Rong Samloem (the bigger, more holiday resort type island), Koh Rong is a backpackers Island which still retains a huge local presence. The beaches are stunning and the water is the clearest, we stayed here for four days soaking up the sun before heading to our final stop. We booked a bus through the ferry office on the island, which would take us from Sihanokville, overnight to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Be warned, Cambodia can be very unorganised. Our entire journey took us 1 ferry, 2 tuk tuks, 1 motorbike, 2 buses, 1 taxi and 24 hours of travelling – including being sat outside the bus office in Phnom Penh with 8 other backpackers from 1am to 6am! All fun and games.
Vietnam – start of november
Final stop: HCMC
And then we arrived in our home for the next 6 months!
There you have it, a four month itinerary of SE Asia, obviously you would want to include Vietnam so if you’re limited on time, cut your time down in other places and perhaps use this rough guide to decide which places you think you will really want to go to. We have both travelled Vietnam before on separate trips many years ago and we 100% recommend that you include it in your SE Asia travels, give it two weeks at least!
Hope you’ve enjoyed reading and stay tuned because there will be plenty more blogs coming and I promise the rest won’t be half as long as this one! If you’re a photo freak like me, head over to our Instagram pages and follow us – we are forever posting more and more pictures from our travels in Asia and daily life in Vietnam!