I’d never heard the term “gap year” until I was well past college, and it blew my mind. An entire year to travel before starting university! I remember when I was sixteen and said something to my mom about delaying college to travel and nearly ended up in the hospital from the lasers shooting from her eyes. Anyway, up until this year, I’d never traveled more than a few weeks at a time. So if you aren’t flush with vacation time or are lacking confidence in your budget, you can still pack in a lot in just a little time, keeping in mind that there will be more flights and less time enjoying the sights on slower transportation, and a few sleepless nights spent trying to distract yourself from mountain-top hairpin curves.
Flying into Bangkok from the West is probably the easiest and cheapest option, so let’s start there. While tons of fun, BKK only needs two or three days of your time and liver; don’t get suckered into another night on Khao San Road! Then hop on a plane and get down to your island of choice. I’m not a water sports person, so my main criterion for a beach is that it’s clean. Most beaches here are, and you can flag down a masseuse to give you a massage on your towel. What more could you ask for? Take another two days to relax on the cheap.
To round out the week, get on the train to travel south. If you’re on Krabi or Phuket, take the bus to Hat Yai and then the train to Penang. I like to spend a day or half a day in Penang, then take the train to Kuala Lumpur for another day or half a day, and then finally arrive in Singapore. The trains are very safe and budget-friendly, and the best way to see the scenery. Singapore only requires a day of your time, and then it’s on to Indonesia.
Indonesia is massive and while special, I’d recommend only going to Yogyakarta and Bali and then moving on due to time constraints. Yogyakarta has everything you need: Gudeg (meat stew), shopping, ruins and the Water Castle. Two days should be enough, and then prepare for a rough night either on the bus or train to get to the ferry to Bali. The journey will take around 16 hours, and will most definitely be uncomfortable and overcrowded. But then you’re in Bali, land of yoga retreats and Elizabeth Gilbert’s love, so it’s pretty easy to recover. Spend one day on the beach and the next on a tour of the Monkey Forest, Kintamani Volcano or any other sights that interest you.
Spend the rest of the week in the Philippines; again, where depends on what you like. However, I like to stay somewhat near Manila since you have to pay an airport fee for every one you pass through in PH, and also, the country’s pretty far-flung and I don’t want to take any longer domestic flights than I have to. My suggestion is Mt. Pinatubo, about a 2 ½ hour drive from Manila. You can take a jeepney (a terrifyingly fun jeep-meets-truck, most likely spray-painted and blaring music) up to the crater as well as get buried in the crater. It’s great for your skin! An even closer option is serene Taal Lake, home to the world’s smallest active volcano. It’s an easy trek, and even though it’s 65km from Manila, it feels worlds away.
Vietnam seems to be a hate-it-or-love-it place. There’s not a lot of English, the war is not something just in textbooks, and you will definitely get ripped off at least twice. I love Vietnam! Since we’re on a time limit I would just suggest going to Hanoi for four to five days with a day spent biking in the countryside. Expect long days in order to cram in all the museums, parks, culture and food possible. From there, take the overnight bus into Luang Prabang, which goes best with a Valium. You will probably arrive after dawn and the monks walking through the streets collecting donations, but it’s worth a walk around the old colonial buildings and loads of temples before catching another bus to Vientiane. Since there’s not much to do in any part of Laos, the bus and the hairpin turns will fill your quota for beautiful landscapes and the answer to all your relatives’ “Are you safe?” inquiries. Again, not much to do in Vientiane, but you can probably hitch a ride around someone’s motorbike for a quick tour.
Here is where I admit I hated Cambodia. I was sick as a dog when I was there, but through my haze it seemed to all be older Western dudes looking to get laid and a lot of garbage in the streets. I know I sound like a philistine, but if I were doing my trip again, I would’ve skipped Cambodia and gone straight to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. It’s easy to hire a driver for the day to go up into the hills and Queen’s botanical gardens, or just spend the day at an elephant rehab. If you aren’t templed out, Chiang Mai will make you so; counter that with a well-earned visit to the night market. And finally, spend the last few days in Yangon, Myanmar biking as much as possible and visiting Sule and Shwedagon pagodas – I promise they will offset temple fatigue. Between the golden pagodas and deep sense of culture, Yangon will put the perfect sepia touch on your trip.
What’s your ideal itinerary for Southeast Asia?