My task was to travel through SE Asia and see some of the world’s most beautiful locations, land and sea, and to do it on a small budget. Armed with just a small pack of gear, a minuscule amount of knowledge for these unfamiliar countries and a one way ticket, I left to pursue a long time dream. The expenses of traveling, whether it is in your native country, or abroad, can put a serious strain on your wallet. Adding the cost of diving or exploring some of these locations can also cut your money significantly further down. I had loosely planned a route starting in Singapore and working north through Malaysia, considering my options according to weather, cost and timing.
Singapore was a great place to start; diving into the lively culture was truly a delight to all the senses, especially for the rich diversity of markets and culinary dishes that appealed to the food enthusiast in me. A few days of exploring the city and near-by areas fueled the excitement to travel on into Malaysia, a little research got me to a bus that would take me to a city in Southern Malaysia. I have heard stories that some of the best diving in the world can be found in parts of Malaysia, but weather and time were factors going against my prospective diving plans.
Forced to stay along the western coast, I made my way from city to city, finding cheap accommodations along the way to help stretch my budget. Hostels and dorms were the cheapest of the options, though they can be rough sleeping conditions and sometimes lacking in security for personal belongings, they offered plenty of opportunity for meeting and exchanging ideas with other travelers who might have a good (or bad) tip. Malaysia was another very diverse culture and an outstanding haven for the formerly mentioned food enthusiast, Penang being a “must do” stop on the list for their fish head curry or countless other amazing dishes. My time in Malaysia was short but appreciated and wanting more, and being deeply curious about the other coast and particularly Borneo, I keep telling myself I will return.
After a short flight from Kuala Lumpur, I had arrived in Southern Thailand to start my month long trip into the north. The Thai visa on arrival is 30 days if coming in by air or 15 days by a land crossing, unless arrangements are premade through officials, so my flight had bought me what I thought would be enough time. Discovering the massive limestone cliffs dotted around the beaches and jetting out from the ocean made Southern Thailand beaches an incredible site.
I settled down in the little town of Krabi, where plenty of diving opportunities presented themselves. Taxi boats are in abundance and o take you to numerous islands and beaches where dives could be organized through tours or finding your own beach site could be a cheaper alternative. Half the adventure and fun is getting to these places, not just diving into them. Don’t be afraid to get off the beaten path and respectfully barter with locals and taxis.
After bouncing around in the dazzling waters off the south west coast, it was time to make way to a group of islands far off the eastern coast, Ko Pha Ngan and Ko Tao to be exact. As expected with any lush paradise tropical islands, the price of accommodation was reflected, but well worth the extra cash. Whale shark diving was on the list of rumors and attractions as well as the plentiful vibrant coral systems found in the Gulf of Thailand. There were no problems finding ways to get wet, be it snorkeling or scuba, windsurfing or wakeboarding. Dive boat charters or even local fishing boats are happy to provide assistance in finding your perfect dive spot or hidden gem of a beach.
Moving on from the islands brought me to Bangkok via a long slow boat ride and even longer bus ride, but an adventure none the less. My journey took me from Bangkok further into the jungles of the mountainous north train being the highly suggested method of travel to these regions, seeing the landscapes of the countryside from the ride are not to be missed. A few weeks in the north had not even dented my curiosity for Thailand; one month was simply not enough time for me. Trading tips with passing travelers had always led me to hostels with good prices and amenities, exploring the night markets more than satisfied my ever growing appetite while staying within a budgets range. Thailand quickly became another “must return to” on my list of travels.
After making some friends and the looming shadow of my soon to be expired Thai visa, an impulse decision was made to fly into Myanmar (Burma). A country that is religiously devout and decorated with massive golden all throughout the land, Myanmar was a place I could have never imagined. Traveling with a partner is a must here for those on a budget as accommodation is expensive and should be split with a partner. I simply would not have enough time or words to express the travel, sites and hardships through Myanmar, a truly special place with incredibly friendly people, a highly recommended travel destination. The mysteries of the islands off the western coast and little information obtained from locals or internet had burned a deep desire to return and explore some of these untouched pristine waters. Travel is restricted in Myanmar for tourist and all destinations are not as easily obtained, further adding fuel to the fire of curiosity.
After a few cities in Myanmar, it was time to fly back into Thailand and happily receive another 30 day visa. All roads lead to Bangkok and that is where I had found myself multiple times and comfortable within the hustle of the massive capital. A small island a few hours south of Bangkok called Ko Samet provided more dive opportunities, where I blissfully wasted away my days with deep blue activities.
It was now time to leave Thailand behind and enter into what I would soon realize to be a particularly captivating and remarkable country, Cambodia. In all, I spent 2 months in Cambodia. Another place that causes me a loss for words, the ancient temples lost to the jungles, wars, history, and unbreakable optimistic people of the country were nothing short of inspirational. Find your way to the south of Cambodia by way of bus, where you can catch the ferry out of the seaport town Sihanoukville to Koh Rong, an untouched untransformed island just off the coast. No real infrastructure, minimal accommodations, and miles of white sand beaches without a single footprint. Local fisherman can provide island hopping services as well as drop offs, and any equipment rental will have to be done back in Sihanoukville. This is another prime example of where getting to the destination is half the adventure.
Nearing the end of my budget and traveling getting the best of me, it was time to move onward to Vietnam then finally home. As mentioned of Thailand, one month was not enough time for Vietnam. This was a country with countless breath taking landscapes, wonders, and most important, culinary delights. The coastal town of Nha Thrang had a strong Russian influence and offered plenty of catering to dive enthusiasts. Staying in alleyway Mom and Pop hotels was abundant and extremely affordable, not to mention the kindness of the welcoming local families. More time was spent trekking in the mountains of Vietnam, I suppose it was time to let me skin dry out some from previous months of living like a marine animal. By now, six months had mysteriously flown by, the time went too fast. I now had to face the reality of flying home; I boarded a flight out of Hanoi, Vietnam bound for America.
I’m sure this type of travel is not ideal for many out there reading this article. Twelve hour minivan rides in an 8 person van that is holding 15 people is not my perfect situation either. Sometimes sleeping in dorms, bamboo huts, or simply in a mosquito net doesn’t leave one feeling completely refreshed, but doing so allowed over 6 months of travel and diving in some of the most beautiful places in the world. A little research, a friendly attitude and some common street sense can have you traveling to exotic places for weeks or even months that one might pay for a week long live aboard dive boat or a handful of resorts. It’s not about getting just to and from the destination, but the in-between, the people along the way, the good and bad mishaps and experiences. I dive for the thrill, the exploration of the unfamiliar, whether it is on land or underwater. Diving is the basis of the big picture for me, the adventure.
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