By Iona Middleton
I arrived into Bangkok airport hot and sweaty. My discomfort, I’ll admit, was entirely my own fault as I stupidly thought it would be a good idea to wear jeans. I quickly found a bathroom to rectify my humongous mistake and got changed into a pair of shorts. Successfully making my way through immigration and visa services and collecting my bag, I thought to myself ‘this is it, here I go’. I would be travelling through parts of South East Asia for a month in the hopes of either a) Finding Myself, b) Getting a tan, or alternatively, C) Both. As someone who is famously known for only ever being pale or burnt (that’s if she’s lucky), option B and C seemed unlikely, leaving me with option A.
Bangkok, although a huge city, which could keep any explorer busy for weeks, was only a short stop for me. Upon arrival, I checked into my hostel and speedily made my way to Khao San Road, to embrace the infamous Bangkok nightlife.
The next day, with a thumping headache, I visited Wat Pho, a really impressive temple complex, home to the Reclining Buddha and directly south of the Palace. It was here that I decided, although getting spangled is a lot of fun, there was so much more to Asia that I risked missing out on if I was always going to be hungover.
The following morning, I was up early and walking through the streets of Bangkok to the bus station. My next stop was Siem Reap in Cambodia, home to Angkor Wat, one of the world’s largest temple complexes. Naïvely, I thought Angkor Wat could be explored on foot. I was wrong. A tuk-tuk is a necessity. The complex is ginormous, and every temple different; with each temple being funded by a country. This was very cool, as each temple had been inspired in its renovations by its corresponding country.
A top tip if you’re travelling South East Asia would be to try and fly from place to place! Of course, it isn’t always possible due to money, but it is definitely safer and quicker! Catching a tuk-tuk to the airport, I checked in and sped through security, flying to Ho Chi Minh (previously known as Saigon) within half an hour. A very speedy flight in comparison to what would have been nearly sixteen hours on a bus…
My plan was to travel from the South of Vietnam up to the North, stopping in different places along the way. I caught the overnight train from Nha Trang to the middle of Vietnam, where there is a captivating city called Hoi An, also known as the City of Lanterns. The streets come to life at night-time with boats adorned with lanterns, floating peacefully along the river; and the buildings covered with lanterns of all different colours.
In true Vietnamese style, I motorbiked the Hai Van Pass to Hue where I then caught an overnight bus to Hanoi. Riding a motorbike was easier to pick up than I had expected. I reckon I’m pretty nifty on a bike, if I may say so myself.
While in Hanoi I took a day trip to Ha Long Bay (I mean, did you really go to Vietnam if you didn’t go to Ha Long Bay?). I will admit, it was really remarkable. I was lucky enough to go kayaking and it was so peaceful and untouched. However, the real winner for me in Vietnam was Ninh Binh, about a two-hour bus journey from Hanoi Old Town. Ninh Binh is equal to, if not more stunning than its sea sister, Ha Long Bay, but less heavily populated making it one of my favourite places by far!
With only one week left in this marvellous corner of the world, it was time to complete the true ‘gap yaah’ experience. Flying to Chiang Mai, in the North of Thailand, the final week’s adventure would include visiting elephants, a meditation retreat and trying Shroom Shakes in Pai (I am in no way endorsing the use of drugs…but I was doing what was necessary to find myself).
I realised three things that week:
1) Elephants are HUGE. It sounds ridiculous to say out loud, but truly, they were so much bigger than I had expected.
2) It’s a bad idea to go on a meditation retreat if you’re really tired (for example, I fell asleep during our meditation time and woke up to any empty room).
3) Don’t ask for a Shroom Shake, ask for a Happy Drink, otherwise you’ll look like a melon (take it from someone who had to live through that embarrassment).
This trip gave me the opportunity to be independent and self-reliant, and as cheesy as it sounds, really did help me to learn more about myself! The countries I visited were so astonishing, and I was lucky to meet some of the kindest people along the way!