Where to go?
Most people will already have a fairly good idea of where it is that they plan on going. They have probably also done lots of research and know more about the places they want to go to than I do. But if you’re still in the planning stages and are waffling maybe a few pointers will help. Where I can perhaps offer some insight is on the quality of the national parks, reserves and wildlife in the area.
In general South East Asia:
-Cheap… Typical accommodation will cost you around $3-5/day, street food $1-3/meal, transport about $1/hr.
-Lots of activities… brimming with national parks, surfing, scuba diving, pristine beaches, hangliding, etc…
-English is fairly wide spoken
-Safe! The cultural mindset if very different here than in South America or elsewhere. Although you might not have people returning to you things that you’ve left behind on the bus, they also won’t actively rob you at gunpoint…most of the time. I haven’t met anyone that has ever been hassled here. I walked around Bangkok 3AM with all my gear and besides being solicited by prostitutes every few minutes I didn’t feel at all uncomfortable.
-Rich and diversified culture. Too lengthy to go into any detail here, but one can visit temples, mosques, cultural events, parades, holidays…it was frustrating how many holidays were observed in Malaysia. It actually made it difficult catching transport to get to where you needed to go!
-The food is amazing! Night markets in Brunei are a particularly fond recollection. In Kota Kinabalu they also have a great night market as I’m sure many of the large cities do. These places are ideal to pick up local delicacies, exotic fruits, to try your bargaining skills and to practice the language. Mangosteens, rambutans, mangoes, durian… stuff you’ll never forget.
-This IS the tourist beat. To get off of it you need to get out of your comfort zone. All the big monuments, palaces, etc… are swarming with people. That’s not to say that you won’t still have a great time, but Phuket and Phi Phi are not going to be deserted islands like in the movies. Here the prices will also be trumped up to help lighten your pockets.
I can best speak for Malaysia and Borneo since that’s where I spent the majority of my time. Malaysia sometimes frighten off the cheaper backpackers who don’t think they can afford it. Well it is a little more expensive than the typical Vietnam/Cambodia/Laos/Thailand circuit it is still reasonable, you simply need to find the right spots. In Kuala Lumpur and many parts of the Peninsula you will find the same price ranges as Thailand. Borneo is slightly more expensive, especially the further inland and upriver you go.
Taman Negara national park is beautiful but you will most likely be surrounded by people, especially if you go on a weekend. Malaysians are relatively affluent compared to their neighbours and so many holiday to other parts of the peninsula.
I bussed from Kuala Lumpur to Kota Bahru and worked my way down the Eastern coast which experiences the wet season earlier, so I had to take advantage of the short window of time that I had. Close to Kota Bahru is an island that I found less touristy than the larger Tioman island was Pulau Kecil on the east coast. Scuba diving is just as reasonable here as in Thailand if not more so. You can get 2-3 dives in for about $60. I did my advanced diving course here for about $200. Though these prices have probably gone up since several years ago, they are some of the most economical in the world. They are also the most beautiful! Sipidan is considered one of the top 5 locations in the world! I visited several times, and agree! Pulau Kecil has some lovely reefs, the island has spots that you can find isolation, and there are only a few restaurant/bars on the island. There is also one cheap hostel on the island about $10/night. A friend of mine actually had a motorboatman take him to a tiny island where he lived for a week in total isolation. He hunted fish for his food, lounged on the beach, snorkelled everyday and swam to the nearest island 1km away until he got scared off by a tiger shark. So there are definitely some options to find an amazing one of a kind experience here.
I did visit Tioman island as well where I dived for about 2 weeks. The reefs here show more degradation and you need to get further out to enjoy less spoiled areas. This problem has surely been compounded in recent years by this being a popular tourist destination. There is a lovely hike from ABC beach across the island, though it is about 20km each way. But a chance to see the lovely fauna of the island makes it worthwhile. The hike to monkey beach is not one that is taken very often as most people travel by boat and so you can have the trail entirely to yourself and oftentimes the beach as well. You can still find some cheaper accommodations here as well, though they can appear somewhat rundown.
Endau-Rompin national park was a great find! Off the beaten track, this park really must be visited during the dry season. I heard stories of park officials that had to swim across rivers that had burst their banks. Not to mention muddy roads well-nigh impossible to navigate. Some awesome wildlife though. I spent a month here. Got close to a sun bear, saw black cat in the dead of night, more stick insects, frogs and small insects than you can count. Though come prepared with leech socks…you’ve been warned.
More to come