The Nature Lover’s South East Asia Itinerary

Where to start? South East Asia is truly stunning, and if you can navigate your way past the droves of other backpackers, there are some unspoilt gems to be found.  We found that going during shoulder season also really helped, with even some parts of Thailand being fairly empty. This is one of our longer itineraries, and involves a lot of travel around islands which can take longer than expected (especially in Philippines and Indonesia!) so I would allow at least six months to cover this off properly – you won’t want to leave any of these places so allow for extra days to daydream and enjoy!

Click on the hyperlinks in the place names to see the full photo journal 

THAILAND

  • Krabi & Railay: Railay was the closest we came to finding the beach you imagine when you think Thailand. A tiny island reached only by longtail boat, Railay West beach is a little slice of heaven. All karsts, clear seas, white sands and incredible sunsets. There are a fair few expensive resorts here, but you can still find cheap backpacker places – just ask the boatmen who drop you off.
  • Ko Lanta: We’ve heard Ko Lanta is a great place to bike around (we were too scared!) as there’s a sea gypsy village on one side of the island that’s apparently great, but we spent a relaxing few days just chilling on the wide peach sand beach and eating in the great (untouristy) restaurants in town and hitting up the Moon Party for fire-spinners and general revelry.

LAOS

  • Luang Prabang: Pretty, French-influenced river-side town of Luang Prabang hosts some wonderful temples; great massages, and the best food you’ll eat in Laos. Try a set menu in a riverside cafe or the buffet stir-fries/bakery goods on the market. Great nearby days out include stunning turquoise Kuang Si Waterfalls where you can trek and swim in the falls; and for a night out you can’t beat the post-curfew bowling lanes!
  • Si Phan Don (Four Thousand Islands): A place to drop hat and chill for a few days, Si Phan Don is a rustic set of islands that have been adopted by hammock-swinging stoners. Watch the Mekong float by for a few days, but make sure you hire a bike to explore all the islands on a day trip, as the views en route (and the little villages) are really cool. There are also little beaches and waterfalls (and beer places) to stop cool off en route!
  • Tad Lo: Adorable sleepy Tad Lo is a popular stop on a famous biking route, and is the epicentre of some really great waterfalls nearby. Give yourself a few days to properly unwind, drink some coffee (this is a coffee growing district!) and go sunbathe/swim at some pretty falls. Town itself is great for a potter around – cute goats and pigs cross the little roads and hang out at the temple as locals wash clothes in the river.

PHILIPPINES

  • Ifugao Rice Terraces: A bit of a trek from Manilla, but totally worth it. Spend a few days touring the towns of the Ifugao Rice Terraces: Banaue is a natural first stop to see the lookout at the top of town, and meet some travel buddies to go onwards to Batad which was our favourite town – a stunning amphitheatre of rice terraces with a tiny village in the middle, a bracing waterfall, and hostels with great views. We also visited Bontoc for a more authentic town, which had a great Hill Tribe museum. Also heard Sagada was great.
  • Coron: Coron arguable offers some of the best nearby beaches, lagoons and snorkelling in the Philippines, and we regret not staying here longer. The island itself is cute but lacks beaches as it’s on a jutting rocky peninsula, but high quality boat trips take you to all the best spots in the vicinity (there are about 5 popular tours – we’d recommend Tour B!). There’s also amazing wreck diving here.
  • El Nido: A must for any Philippines itinerary, El Nido is a tourist hub for overnight boat tours to visit pretty (if crowded) lagoons, beaches and snorkelling spots. We took an unforgettable tour (A+C combined tours) camping overnight on a tiny desert island with unlimited rum and inevitable skinny dipping! The tour stops are really stunning, and town itself has a decent beach – Coron Coron – a short drive from town.
  • Apo Island: What this tiny rocky island lacks in sandy coastline, it more than makes up for in personality and world-class diving. The locals are crazily friendly, and the dive shop guys want to be your best friend. We did our first few dives here post-Open Water and it was a perfect place to take the plunge. You can also snorkel with turtles straight off the bay (they nest here!) and drink rum and catch live music at Mario’s homestay.
  • Bohol: cutesy jungley Bohol is a great place to unwind for a few days, and there’s a few fancy jungle hut lodges on the river to choose from (like Nuts Huts). If you fancy day trips, check out the adorable tarsiers at the local sanctuary, the firefly trees or the weird phenomenon of the ‘Chocolate Hills’! Failing that, just swim in the river and swim in the hammock for a few days and watch the world go by.
  • Siquijor Island: Another favourite from our 1.5 months in the Philippines, Siquijor is a gorgeous island full of adventure. A fantastic place to ride a motorbike (or tuk-tuk) around, you can visit its ancient Belete Tree, ancient Lazi Convent and its adjacent church, stunning Cahugay waterfalls and many little beaches. There’s a super laidback friendly vibe here, with plenty of streetside barbeques and karaoke bars.

VIETNAM

  • Halong Bay: We are including this entry as more of a deterrent than a recommendation! Halong Bay was very disappointing, and we met lots of travellers with the same view. It’s over-polluted, over-touristed, and (on most days!) very misty and grey. Tours constantly under-deliver, and it’s tricky to do independently. Perhaps in great weather it could be ok, but there are far prettier karst bays elsewhere – like any in the Philippines!

THAILAND

  • Ko Pha-Ngan: We hit up Ko Pha-Ngan on our way from Cambodia to Malaysia, and found a quiet, stunning corner in the North West called Haad Salaad. We refrained from the Full Moon party after hearing bad things, but the beaches were really fabulous and we even found a (fairly!) ‘local’ vibe restaurant away from the tourist throngs. A nice place to wile away a spare week.

MALAYSIA

  • Cherating: Chilled surfer town Cherating boasts a wide, pretty beach and plenty of wooden beach hut chalets back from the main road. Unmissable: an incredible, magical tour of the local fireflies that live in trees lining a river. You can take a boat out and learn all about the asynchronous fireflies’ lifestyles from an enthusiastic expert, and watch them light up the blackness. Really spectacular!
  • Pulau Perenthian: although pretty touristy compared to other islands like Rawa, the Perenthians are still undeniably beautiful and there are walks to deserted beaches and fishermens’ villages that make these islands still feel authentic, with largely domestic tourists here. Friendly dragon lizards roam; there are turtles and sharks to see whilst snorkelling; and you may be lucky enough to catch an exciting lightning storm!

INDONESIA

  • Ubud: known as the cultural centre of Bali, Ubud has sold out a little in the last few years, so expect lanes full of boutiques and overpriced cafes, but it still retains some of its original charms. Here you can find hippy warungs, the wonderful Monkey Sanctuary, homestays, overtouristed rice terraces, and great traditional dancing (though we opted to see this in Yogyakarta instead)
  • Gili Trawangan: Gili T is also a little over-touristed these days. A few years ago it was quite raw, full of psychadelic hippies, shrooms and dive shops. Now it’s quite fancy in parts – lots of private villas and spenny seafood restaurants. Snorkelling tours from here around the Gilis are good; you can also cycle around the island and check out late-night dancing with DJs playing on the strip outside Rudy’s.
  • Togean Islands: the closest we came to a slice of true paradise, the Togeans are notoriously hard to reach, but once you get there, prepare for nothing but pure relaxation. Stunning tiny islands of clear turquoise sea and blinding fine sands await, with rustic all-inclusive beach hut ‘resorts’ (tiny islands); great snorkelling and diving; a lagoon full of stingless jellyfish; BBQs on the beach with the freshest fish; and the friendliest locals.
  • Komodo National Park: from its absolutely world-class diving (where else can you see mantas and white tipped sharks in one afternoon?) to its tours of the hideous, terrifying komodo dragons themselves, Komodo is unmissable. We wish we’d spent longer here. Snorkel or dive manta point for close-ups of these majestic beauties, and take the 2-day Komodo tour including Rinca, Komodo and a hike up stunning Padma Island.

BORNEO

  • Sabah: heartbreaking deforestation caused by the palm oil trade is prevalent in Borneo, and much of its wildlife has sadly been destroyed. However, for a chance to see orangutans in the semi-wild, you don’t get much better than the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation centre, where you might encounter them on a trail. There are cool jungle lodges to stay nearby, and plentiful tours (including river tours) but with mixed reviews.
  • Sarawak: Kuching was our favourite town in Borneo, as it most resembles a regular Malaysian town. There’s a lot to love here – good food; day trips to local (and faraway) museums and ‘living museums’; and very relaxed locals. There’s also nearby Bako National Park where you may be lucky enough to see the penis-nosed probiscus monkeys but you will definitely see snorting wild boars and lots of wildlife aside.

Pulau Perenthians, Malaysia

This is the last entry in our Malaysia blog series. To read from the start of our Malaysia travel journal, click here

As the last stop of our 17-month adventure, Perenthian Islands were an emotional, bittersweet ending to the best 1.5 years of our lives. Idyllic and easygoing, the islands are an easy place to wile away the days, and our 10 days here drifted by at a dreamy pace, filled with beautiful clear turquoise sea, soft white sand, jungle trekking, diving, and LOTS of eating.

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We stayed at Maya’s – a chilled collection of bungalows on the beach, run by friendly hippy Zani, and we split our time between a beach-front bungalow and, when that was booked, a room in the main building of the hostel. It was a really great place, with Zani generously offering up coconuts and papayas to all the guests (or whatever else he was growing!), as well as perks like free coffee, a big communal area with hammocks and an all-round sunny relaxed disposition.

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We allowed several days to drift by as we swung in hammocks, read books on our porch, took regular dips into the clear warm sea, and walked 10 minutes up the beach to our favourite restaurant, Ewan’s, where we’d gorge on delicious curry noodle soups, fresh fruits, calamari and chips (amongst other indulgences!). We slowed ourselves down, truly appreciating every hour, drinking in the beauty of the surroundings, and enjoying our beach-front location, free to run into the sea just moments from our hut.

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After a few days of relaxation, we got a bit more active and did a couple of dives for a bargain £13 each – including our first wreck dive! The first site, Temple, was hyped as the best site in the area, but we weren’t all that impressed, aside from seeing some moray eels and triggerfish, it was pretty murky and the coral was almost entirely dead! We felt grateful for our recent diving in Indonesia and the Philippines as we’d seen so many better sites!

The second site however, was pretty impressive. Sugar Wreck is a sugar cargo boat from the ’90s, so it’s largely intact which makes it a cool wreck to dive – you can see almost everything, from the propeller on the back to the walkway rails, to the windows. There was some cool marinelife calling the wreck its home, like a family of lionfish living on the propeller at the back, and a pufferfish inside one of the windows!

Technically we weren’t allowed to penetrate the wreck (as we only have Open Water, not Advanced certificates) but Sam and I ended up being the last divers down (our breathing had greatly improved over our 20 dives) so the divemaster sneakily allowed us to swim inside at the most open end of the wreck, which was pretty thrilling! We took it in turns swimming through gaps, to make sure we didn’t knock our air. From this point onwards I’ve been a bit obsessed with finding another wreck to dive. It was also pretty emotional as I knew it was to be our last wreck, so towards the end I was feeling pretty sad about it all and trying to take every last detail of every last fish into my memory!

We also spent an active afternoon trekking around the island, on a jungle path that goes all around its circumference. Between Maya’s, on Coral Bay, we walked through dense jungle teaming with big monitor lizards, through almost deserted beaches with attached campsites, or small bungalow resorts, to the ‘Fisherman’s Village’ – the closest to a normal town you can find on the smaller of the Perenthian Islands, Perenthian Kecil. The village was fun, and we stopped for some lunch and kopi, watching local kids and families playing on the little beach there, and got our fill of food at more regular prices than back on touristy Coral Bay.

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The walk was boiling hot and sweaty, so on the way back, despite not having my bikini, we went for a swim in the sea at several of the deserted beaches. It was great being on some less busy beaches as Coral Bay was a bit congested with boats, and we liked it so much we went back to one of the beaches – Rainforest Beach – for a Robinson Crusoe-like last day on the islands, and had the beach to ourselves!

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Another day we took a half-day snorkelling tour, which was ok but not brilliant. We stopped to see turtles but there were so many boats the poor turtles were getting completely harassed by tourists, who had unfortunately not been educated about any ground-rules for snorkelling, like not putting your fins on the coral and remaining a respectable distance from the wildlife!

We went to some nice sites and saw some cool fish, but the coral had been seriously broken by fins which was sad, and I ended up losing my shit a bit with a tour guide who was encouring a group of kids to actively stand on the coral. Not cool! On our last stop we saw some black-tip sharks swimming around not too far below us which was nice, but the current was really strong so it made for big waves and a slightly stressful snorkel. The next day we actually saw some baby black-tip sharks swimming just in Coral Bay to the West side, which was pretty exciting! One of our mates reported seeing one bigger than him, but I was too scared to go and see for myself.

Whilst we had some amazing sunny days in Perenthians, we also had some crazy tropical storms which were pretty thrilling! On some nights, the storm almost ripped off the corrugated iron hut roofs at Maya’s, and it totally destroyed all the tents where people were camping! One night the flooding was so bad we had to bag up all our stuff, unplug the electricals and prop our bed up against the wall so it didn’t get saturated! The drama and tropical vibe of the storms was pretty exciting, and we ended up just walking out in it without shoes, to get to Ewan’s for dinner! It felt amazing being out with the big fork lightning and nothing to hold us back from just running around in it!

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After an amazing relaxing week, we managed to tear ourselves away from the islands just in time for one last night in KL before embarking on the journey home. Apprehensive, excited, sad, thrilled, scared and joyous in equal measure, we started on the (surprisingly short!) 16 hour flight home, where we’d rejoin our friends and family in our ‘normal lives’ in London…!

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