Backpacking Southeast Asia. Highlights, Lowlights and Best ofs

Posted by on June 15, 2014

Bolaven Plateau Waterfall, LaosTraveling for almost one whole year is a long time and as you can imagine, a lot of things happened. Good and bad, exciting and frightening, exhilarating and touching, a lot of highlights and some lowlights but all of them all so memorable and I wouldn’t want to miss any of them. I often get asked what my favorite country was or the best thing I have done. That of course is very hard to answer because every experience and every encounter was special in its very own way. But there are a few things that stand out a little more than others and those I want to share with you in a short and entertaining way.

Moment of Triumph

Arriving at the summit of Mount Bulusan, an active volcano in the Bicol region of Sorsogon in The Philippines. Hiking for a whole day, having started at 3am in the morning, trekking along steep and muddy paths through fog, rain and cold wind, my travel mates Chris, Dolf finally made it and conquered one of the many volcanoes of The Philippines.

Mt. Bulusan sumit, Sorsogon, Philippines

Windy affair at the summit of Mt. Bulusan.

Base of Mt. Bulusan, Sorsogon, Philippines

Made it! Chris, Dolf and I after having assaulted the summit.

Cheapest Accommodation

An absolute basic bamboo hut in the small Laotian village of Hoybor somewhere close to Muang Ngoi. Really basic but good for a night and our host was super friendly, taking us into the jungle and roasting a still unknown animal in front of us.

Village Ban Hoybor, Muang Ngoi, Laos

Our homestay in Ban Hoybor, a village somewhere near Muang Ngoi, Laos.

Ban Hoybor, Laos

Our host a still unknown animal freshly caught in the jungle

Coldest Moments

Riding my motorbike early mornings on the Mae Hong Song Loop, Northern Thailand. It was so cold, that I used all of the few clothes I had brought on the trip as layers. The result was major body odor after the 6 day loop.
Second was canyoning in Dalat, Vietnam during off-season. Chilly and overcast day being spent in cold pools and waterfalls. Good thing our hotel had a sauna and hot tub to warm up afterwards.

Mae Hong Loop by motorbike

On the Mae Hong Song Loop. Cold mornings but hot during the day.

Dalat Abseiling and Canyoning, Vietnam

Abseiling down a waterfall in Dalat. Cold water but still fun.

Most beautiful women award

Whereas I think all of the Southeast Asian women are utterly beautiful, this award has to go the Philippines. Pinay are not only very pretty but also very intelligent and friendly. Great combination.

Most relaxing moments

Chilling out on Don Dhet on the 4.000 islands in Laos before heading into Cambodia and living the good life at Stormrider Surfcamp in Bali. But the most relaxed time I probably had on remote Biri Island in The Philippines staying at Villa Amor. They name says it all…ice cold beer while watching the sun set over the ocean. I will for ure return to this place.

4000 islands, Don Dhet Laos

Tranquility in Don Dhet, Laos.

Stormrider Surfcamp Bali Canggu

Some relaxed days at Stormrider Surfcamp, Bali

Biri Island

Lazy nights on Biri Island

Nastiest food award

Another one for the Philippines. Eating Balut, a boiled egg with a duck embryo inside of it. And yes, you have to eat all of it. Eating it drunk was still tolerable but doing it sober almost had me vomit. It was quiet entertainment for the local crowd around.

Balut eating in Gubat, Philippines

The faces of Balut Eating. Dolf, I and Chris.

A Balut snack, Philippines

One of the two Balut I ate… so yummy

Best wildlife encounters

Swimming with a whaleshark in Donsol, The Philippines and encountering an elephant in the Cambodian jungle.

Trekking Mondulkiri-Wild Elephant

A big fella in the jungle of Mondulkiri, Cambodia

Hero Award

My guide Palet who took me into the jungle of Mondulkiri, Cambodia and showed me how to live off the forrest. Fishing, catching and preparing frogs, cooking ant soup, collecting vegetables and much more. On top of that, he was a real humble person living a modest life but still being happy and satisfied with everything he had. A true inspiration

Guide in Mondulkiri Trek, Cambodia

My guide Phalet in the Jungle of Mondulkiri

Mondulkiri Jungle Cooking. Ant Soup

Ant Soup for lunch. Didn’t even taste so bad.

Awkward moment award

Hitchhiking with my travel mate Remy in a car full of Thai ladyboys. Turned out to be a funny and very friendly bunch who invited us for beers and coffee during a short break. Hilarious experience after-all.

Thailand Ladyboys

Remy and I with our new friends.

Moment of personal contemplation

During my month in Bali I was thinking a lot about what I was actually doing. I was questioning my journey and myself but then I decided to hit the road again and to travel all across Sulawesi which instantly blew away all of my previous doubts.

Bali Batu Bolong Beach

Stranded in paradise and lost in thought…

Extreme Physical Challenge Award

Hiking through the jungle of Taman Negara, Malaysia all by myself. 8 hours of steep up and down, with about 90% humidity, 30 degrees °C and leeches and mosquitoes bullying me. There were two ways how to get to my overnight shelter but I had unknowingly opted for the much harder one.

Taman Negara National Park, Hiking

Not even half way but exhausted already…

Taman Negara National Park Trek

Finally arrived at my overnight shelter by the river

Worst border crossing

Probably from Laos into Cambodia. Not because I was scammed or anything. It just took too damn long and involved too much waiting time. Paying a few dollars just to leave Laos was also a bit of a letdown.

Easiest border crossing

Going from Singapore to Malaysia on a Sunday. I think the whole affair took less than 5 minutes. Arrive at the border, get out, get stamp, pass and get back into the bus.

Friendliest People

This is a real tough one since I found the people in all of the countries I have visited extremely friendly and welcoming. But I think the Burmese and the Filipinos might have a small edge.

Gubat Hayahay 2013, Philippines

Our new friends in Gubat, Philippines. Thanks again for hosting us.

Amazing generosity award

Being invited for lunch in a rural Vietnamese village, somewhere in the Ha Giang area. This family didn’t have much, just a small hut with an open fireplace inside. But they welcomed us as friends and insisted for us to stay and share their lunch with them. Such a humbling experience.

Invited for lunch with a local family - somewhere in the Northern Vietnamese province of Ha Giang

Invited for lunch with a local family – somewhere in the Northern Vietnamese province of Ha Giang

Most underrated places

I actually found a lot of these places, not touristy but still very likable and interesting. One of them was Tentena in Sulawesi and my last stop in Vietnam, Chau Doc.

Tentena Panorama, Sulawesi

Tranquil Tentena in Sulawesi.

Best diving

Among all the dives I did, diving in Komodo National Park, Indonesia was my favorite. Sharks, schools of fish, crystal clear water and colorful coral. The dive I did at a spot called Castle Rock was probably the best I ever did.

Komodo National Park, Flores

Komodo National Park … a paradise for divers.

Adrenaline Rush award

I am not so much into extreme sports but jumping from a pretty high cliff on the island of Siquijor and canyoning in Dalat, Vietnam are definitely up there.

Siquijor cliff jumping

Jumping off the cliff in Siquijor, still wearing my ankle cast.

Home away from home award

My one month stay in Gubat in the Bicol area of The Philippines. It’s a cosy little town by the ocean, not very touristy and the friends I had made there not only hosted me, but showed me around the area, took me surfing and so much more. I will be grateful forever. Pasalamat!

Gubat, Philippines

Fresh seafood prepared by chef Arvin at Glenda’s cottage

Gubat, Sorsogon

The cottage – home away from home.

Best beaches

Another tough one. Probably Nacpan beach in El Nido, Palawan. A beach we had almost exclusively for ourselves at that time and where we rode our motorbikes along it’s shore. Another one would be Pantai Bira on Sulawesi, Indonesia. The picture perfect beach with white sand, turquoise blue water and coconut trees and also not a lot of people around.

El Nido, Nacpan beach, Philippines

Nacpan Beach, El Nido. All for ourselves.

Pantai Bira, Sulawesi

Picture perfect Pantai Bira on Sulawesi

Best motorbike tour

The three day tour through the remote region of Ha Giang in the far North of Vietnam. Hill Tribes, amazing scenery and windy roads all along the Chinese border. The Thakhek Loop in Laos is up there as well. Rough riding along dusty roads with my mates Dolf and Chris.

Only 56km to go ...

Only 56km to go …

Ha Giang Motorbike Trip-escapology.eu-19

A local bus climbing up the hill somewhere around Ha Giang.

Best motorbike day trip

I did so many and each was a great experience. But the Mekong Discovery Trail was a definite highlight. Because of the friendliness of the people along the way and a rather sketchy river crossing.

Mekong Discovery Trail, Kratie, Cambodia

Traffic on the Mekong Discovery Trail

Worst moments

Almost breaking my ankle during the descent of Mount Bulusan. For a couple of days I was considering flying home. And of course getting my precious camera gear stolen along with some other items in Saigon.

Dirtiest hostel award

Needs to go to a place (can’t even remember the name due to trauma) in Cebu, The Philippines. As we returned from a late dinner in town, we opened the door to our room, switched on the light just to see at least 10 big cockroaches crawling all over and hiding from the light. Needless to say, that we changed to hotel that same night. Gave me shivers even a few days afterwards.

Most disappointing place

This would probably be the Perhentian Islands in Malaysia. Known for the diving, the diving wasn’t even that good (but at least cheap). Apart from that, too much party, too much drinking which usually ended in violence. Luckily I wasn’t affected, but yeah, not a place you need to see I’d say.

Most memorable night

When my travel mate Aris and I hiked up into the Shan Highlands of Myanmar by ourselves. We didn’t know if we would be able to find a place to sleep at all but when we arrived in a small village, the local monks invited us to spend the night in their monastery. They were so friendly and welcoming and Illuminated by candle lights only, the monastery became a magical place.

Myanmar Monastery close to Hsipaw

Our hosts for a memorable night.

Myanmar Monastery close to Hsipaw

Little monks

Best big city award

This one goes to Phnom Penh and Bangkok. Bangkok was sort of a home-base for me. I went there 4 or 5 times and after a while I just knew my way around. Phnom Penh is a bit similar, but much more raw and rugged. I sometimes though it must be like the Bangkok of the past.

Bangkok Night, Royal Palace

The Royal Palace of Bangkok at Night

Phnom Penh, Foreign Correspondents Club at Night

The famous Foreign Correspondents Club at the Phnom Penh Riverfront

Best beer award

San Miguel Pale Pilsen and San Mig Light of The Philippines. I don’t even know if it is the best tasting in Southeast Asia, but the memories connected to it make it my favorite beer. I definitely had more than a few good San Mig moments.

Biri Island, San Miguel Pale Pilsen

The classic sundownder – San Miguel Pale Pilsen. On Biri Island.

Camiguin, san Mig Light

Cheers! Having San MIg Light on Camiguin Island

Strangest ritual

The funeral ceremonies of Tanah Toraja, Sulawesi in Indonesia. In this region everything seem to revolve around death and the life after. The burial ceremonies are huge social events which families save up for years. Once it is time, the ceremonies go on for days, pigs and buffaloes are donated and sacrificed. The practices and the whole concept is so much different from all we are used to here in the West.

Guests of the funeral parading in the courtyard

Guests of the funeral parading in the courtyard

A sacrifice - The next day there were more to come. Not sad that I missed that part.

A sacrifice – The next day there were more to come. Not sad that I missed that part.

Tanah Toraja, Skulls

An old burial site in Tanah Toraja

Best view award

The rice terraces in Batad, The Philippines where we had the best view from our guesthouse built right into the cliff overlooking the terraces.

Batad Rice Terraces in the Philippines

Dolf, Chris and I in the rice terraces of Batad, Philippines

Spirituality award

All of Myanmar. Nowhere else in Southeast Asia religion and spirituality was so ever-present as in Myanmar. Monks are everywhere, every little village has its own monastery and the locals seamlessly integrate religion and worshiping into their daily lives. Fascinating country.

Little Monks with Coca Cola

Little monks somewhere in the Shan Highlands

Yangon, Shwedagon Pagoda at Night

Sacred Site. Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon

Bagan Temple

One of the many temples in Bagan

Best train ride award

The dancing train from Yangon to Hsipaw in Myanmar. Took more than 10 hours but the rumbling train and it’s crossing of the scary looking Gokteik viaduct was definitely an experience.

The Dancing Train to Hsioaw going over the Gokteik Viaduct

The Dancing Train to Hsipaw going over the Gokteik Viaduct

Greatest personal insight

I took a lot of things and insights home from this trip but if it is one thing that I learnt, it is that the simple life is the best life. You don’t need much to be happy or content with the world. It’s the small things, meeting new and interesting people, an adventure, arriving at a place you have never been before and exploring foreign places. A lot of the locals I have met have way less then we do in our societies but at the same time they seem to be happier. That was good to see, eyeopening and made more content and relaxed in a way. Being back home, I always try to remember this and live by it. Although it is not easy at times, it was and is an important lesson.

Come and join the ESCapology tribe

30 Responses to Backpacking Southeast Asia. Highlights, Lowlights and Best ofs

  1. backpackerlee

    Great read. So many highlights from your backpacking forays! Wish I had as much time to travel as you. I recently blogged about Tana Toraja, too, and I agree it’s probably the strangest ritual I have seen as well!

    • Phil D.

      Hi Lee, thanks for stopping by again. When I look at your blog, it seems you have more time to travel than I do. How do you manage to see all of those places, really great. I read you posts about Tannah Toraja as well…really interesting to read your take on it. I also really liked their architecture. So unique and it somehow perfectly fits the landscape …. Cheers, Philipp

      • backpackerlee

        I have been travelling on/off for 3 years now, as well as working and studying. Almost time to change regions, as my next major travelling is to South America!

    • Phil D.

      Traveling on/off for three years sounds very sweet, I have to say. What do you work right now. I am about to get back into the advertising business. Talking about South America, that is definitely way up on my list as well. Must be so nice and diverse over there. Before going, I’d like to learn Spanish though. Heard there are really cheap places in Guatemala… Where are you based at the moment? Cheers my friend, Philipp

  2. samokan

    WOW .. amazing post.

    • Phil D.

      Hey Samo, long time no see. Thanks for liking the post. How have you been? How is life in Japan?

  3. anggetravels

    So nice to find out that most of your highlights are here in the Philippines (i think you should give balut another chance haha), and some in Burma (i think the Burmese are one of the nicest and warmest people I’ve ever met). I’m going back to Hanoi for a work trip soon, might explore Ha Giang after. thanks to your post and photos. 🙂

    • Phil D.

      Hi Ange, I don’t know about the Balut …. it is really different for us Europeans. Hey, at least I gave it a try…twice that is. Yeah, the Burmese are super friendly and some of the nicest people I have met. I think what the Filipinos no.1 was the fact, that people spoke good English which enabled me to have a proper conversation every once in a while and get to know people better. That can make a huge difference. What kind of work do you have to do in Vietnam then? Sounds interesting… If you need any tips about Ha Giang, let me know. Cheers, Philipp

  4. Monnette

    It seems you didn’t take the “off-the-beaten-path”… you and your mates blazed your own trail.

    • Phil D.

      Hi Monnette, first of all welcome and thanks for stopping by. Blazing our own trail is nicely put, I couldn’t have said it better. Yeah, that’s what we tried at least. Of course, you can’t avoid the touristy areas and sometimes you don’t even want since the offer things, you also want to experience. But generally off the beaten path seems way more worthwhile and enjoyable for me. I remember traveling all the way from Bicol, to Samar and then crossing Leyte. I think we didn’t see any other tourists for a couple of weeks. That was nice… the locals we met were so friendly. Where are you from Monnette? Cheers, Philipp

  5. bobby

    nice visual post, and highlight of many of nice place to see and do around SEA….my only concern was got other nice beer than san miguel 🙂

    thanks Dude

    • Phil D.

      Hi Bobby, thanks for stopping by. SEA is a nice to get lost …. seems like you have been to quiet a few great places. That’s awesome. What beer is your favorite? Cheers, Philipp

      • bobby

        hey Phil, my pleasure, i go around a bit but im far then over like you…humm Beerlao is great, Leo, Chang….Angkor not bad got some good vietnamese as well . I can wait to taste them all 🙂 lol
        heheh im more around home for now got 2 kids we wait a bit they grow up to go play around SEA with them

        Cheers Bob

  6. Phil D.

    I understand, having two kids is probably a whole different kind of adventure and at least as challenging as a trip across Asia, hehe. Good luck with it. I am also at home right now, reminiscing about my time in Asia and thinking about future destinations. But even at home there is always a way to find these small escape and live the ESCapology … That’s what I will try and that’s what I also wanna give more focus on the blog.
    Beerlao was nice, Leo and Angkor as well …. I didn’t really dig Chang. I thought the quality was pretty poor and it usually gave me a headache the day after. When in Thailand I usually had the good ol Singha…. OK Bob, thanks again for stopping by and getting in touch…. Have a good weekend, Philipp

  7. Mario Saldaña

    Just discovered your blog through FB today and I was glued to all the articles. Never mind the World Cup. I just had to finish all your posts, which by the way were more exciting to read than watch TV. Very well written. Kudos to your adventurous and courageous spirit!
    I love back-packing myself living like the locals in every country I visit. Unlike you though, three weeks were all I could devote for my travels twice a year. Like you, on the other hand, I stay in one place long and take my sweet time to be able to savor and enjoy their culture. I too made many good friends from my trips. Looking forward to more entries. Who knows? I may bump into you in one of my future journeys. I just got back from Colombia two months ago. Colombians are just as friendly as Filipinos. I am planning to go to either Turkey or Guatemala next. Keep writing man! You’re as great a traveler as you are a writer.

  8. Mario S.

    Just discovered your blog through FB today and I was glued to all the articles. Never mind the World Cup. I just had to finish all your posts, which by the way were more exciting to read than watch TV. Very well written. Kudos to your adventurous and courageous spirit!
    I love back-packing myself living like the locals in every country I visit. Unlike you though, three weeks are all I could devote for my travels twice a year. Like you, on the other hand, I stay in one place long and take my sweet time to be able to savor and enjoy the culture. I too make many good friends from my trips. Looking forward to more entries. Who knows? I may bump into you in one of my future journeys.
    I just got back from Colombia two months ago. Colombians are just as friendly as Filipinos. I am planning to go to either Turkey or Guatemala next. Keep writing man! You’re as great a traveler as you are a writer.

  9. Mario Saldaña

    Just discovered your blog through FB today and I was glued to all the articles. Never mind the World Cup. I just had to finish all your posts, which by the way, were more exciting to read than watch TV. Very well written. Kudos to your adventurous and courageous spirit!
    I love back-packing myself and I try to live like the locals in every country I visit. Unlike you though, three weeks are all I can devote for my travels twice a year. Like you, on the other hand, I stay in one place long and take my sweet time to be able to savor and enjoy the culture. I too make many good friends from my trips. Looking forward to more entries. Who knows? I may bump into you in one of my future journeys.
    I just got back from Colombia two months ago. Colombians are just as friendly as Filipinos. I am planning to go to either Turkey or Guatemala next. Keep writing man! You’re as great a traveler as you are a writer.

  10. Meryl

    Accepting the “most beautiful women award” in behalf of all the Pinays haha. Don’t worry about the balut, it’s really an acquired taste (I never had the stomach for it either!). If you ever find yourself in the Philippines again, you should try climbing Mt. Pulag. The views will be breathtaking.

  11. johnny b good

    Your pictures are stunning and I’m jealous that you get to go on this beautiful and inspiring journey. I suppose it’s better to do it when you are young-haha. Continued safe travels and I look forward to following.

  12. Janette

    Best beers award…nice one! Haha!!!
    Cheers to good & not so good memories of SE Asia

  13. Corz

    Hey, Phil. First, I enjoyed reading your experience. I almost felt jealous (touring Southeast Asia in 3 mos), lol but at the same time, I felt pride and joy knowing that you did like best my country, Philippines. 🙂 While reading your roundup and awards, I was smiling and nodding when you talk about my home. Impressive experience, indeed. The best part is the takeaway—simple life is the best life; having less is what makes life happier.

  14. meggy

    thank you for this wonderful review. proud to be pinay and was inspired even more to travel, live, love and surf. I just came back from Baler where i did my 1st surfing experience and it was amazing. if you do comeback try adding Baler and LaUnion in your list as they are famous among surfers because of the beautiful waves and laid back atmosphere. Keep rockin! Mabuhay ka! 🙂

  15. Cherry

    I ran across your blog this morning and it melted my heart . Its such refreshing to read how much you like my country (Pilipinas), and seeing those wonderful photos– wow! … I can only agree with what you wrote ” The simple life is the best life” .
    Thank you for writing this.

  16. Pepe Samson

    I must agree with the Best Beer award. Too many new brands sprouting out, but it’s still good ol’ San Mig Pale Pilsen I’m craving for. Enjoyed reading your posts so much!

    • Phil D.

      Thanks Pepe, I appreciate your feedback. Nothing beats a good ol San Mig Pale Pilsen, right? Cheers to that!

  17. Maricor Padilla Arroyo

    You have seen more of our country than most Filipinos have and I admire you for that. I too love to travel and going to Europe in 2 months. I love your blog and your pictures are amazing! Keep travelling and keep us posted Phillipp!

    • Phil D.

      Hi Maricor, thanks for stopping by and your positive feedback. Let me know if you need some tips for your Euro Trip if it pushes through. Always glad to help. Best regards ….

  18. dines jansen

    Wow, that was quite a list!!! I could just imagine the difficulty, and yet entertainment you had in making this list! The homestay in Laos was similar to our old house in the PI, simple and very basic and when it rained we had to put small pails on the floor for the leakages. How high was that cliff in Siquijor? Have you also tried bunjee jumping and zipline? Do you also have loneliest moment or moments of homesickness??? You have some of the rarest and unusual experience PipZ, with the ant soup and the balut !!! Hans has eaten that once and everytime I kid him about it, I receive a clap in my head!!! You’re like a modern version of Robinson Crusoe . But I noticed everywhere you went, people were friendly. it was also the manner you mingle with the locals; you just reap what you sow.
    Lastly, I couldnt help but smiling over your complimentary words for Pinays, Salamat

    • Phil D.

      Hi Dines, to answer your question, I didn’t do bungee or ziplining. It never really appeard to me I have to say… I am also more into natural adventures if you would wanna say so. The cliff diving for example, that was cool. I reckon the highest jump must have been about 10 meters or so. Not really sure but it was quite a rush.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *