Backpacking around Asia

Backpacking around Asia

Backpacking is traditionally associated with hordes of fresh faced youngsters who, being short of the requisite funds to aspire to the comforts of packaged tours and sterile hotels of the JETSET crowd, set forth for the obscurest destinations with little more than a pack on the back, a bedroll and sleeping bag and a determination to the see the world as it really is.

What then persuaded two jaded hippies approaching forty to hoist packs on their backs and with little more than a wing and a prayer, hit the highways and by-ways of SE Asia in the middle of a Middle East war when feelings about foreigners (in the foreigners' eyes at least) had reached hysterical proportions? The same sort of adventure that this form of travel affords and which generations of younger travellers have known about for years and which for this writer not so many years previously had been a staple diet. My wife-to-be Stella was a 'rookie' at this sort of enterprise, so the trip promised to be interesting.

Our initial destination was Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur to be precise. We did not halt long in this bustling and rapidly developing metropolis, but with packs in place we looked for transport to take us to the historical and former Portuguese colony of Melacca on Malaysia's South West coast. Travel is easy in Malaysia and share taxis are a good way to go if you don't want to wait around for buses. For M$12.50 each (AU$6) and with two other passengers we travelled on a modern freeway out of KL to our destination some 140 km away.

Melacca is regarded as Malaysia's prime historical destination. It is a blend of old and new of East and West. Country and Western music flourishes here and Portuguese is still spoken by descendants of early settlers. Indeed a thriving Portuguese settlement exists with restaurants and cultural displays for the enterprising visitor. Reaching our next port of call, Singapore, was no easy feat: it was the end of the Chinese New Year and all transport was fully booked. Enterprising travellers that we were, we managed to get from town to town by taxi through towns with names such as Muar, Batu Pahat and Johor Bahru where we finally crossed into 'Asia's Switzerland' on foot across the causeway that separates Singapore from Malaysia.

Singapore may be to most people a place to shop for a day or two, but beneath the veneer there lies a city that has its outlook firmly planted in both the East and the West with a lot more to see than the Orchard Road department stores. Sentosa Island, overlooked by many visitors is a cable car's ride away from Singapore's dock area and, while a little gaudy for travellers to the real Asia, it nonetheless gives visitors a taste of what Asia might be one day. This is a city as highly regulated as it is clean that there are fines for failing to flush the toilet in public conveniences, or for chewing gum on the immaculately clean Rapid Mass Transport train system. We did not linger long in Singapore. The 'real' Asia was beckoning.

>From Singapore we took a Malaysian bus to the middle of Malaysia's East coast and settled in at a delightful place called Cherating, so named after the sand crabs that abound and are a local delicacy. Backbacker accommodation is 'kampung style', that is a wooden hut on the beach, beds and mosquito nets and simple but clean bathroom. This is the land of coconut palms and balmy days; of spicy and cheap Malaysian food, of batik and local art and travellers, like ourselves, passing through. A delightful place to spend a week or ten.

Continuing up the East cost we entered the real Malay side of Malaysia. The Malaysia of Muslims, picturesque villages and a lazy laid-back ambience not found on Malaysia's West coast. Here you will see the Malaysia at its postcard best. The Malaysia of kites and tops and turtles. Sadly time was not on our side and we pressed on to Thailand.

Crossing the rather less frequented Malaysia-Thailand border post of Sungai Kolok is an experience in itself. The difference between the two countries is like that of night and day. Roman script gives way to 98% Thai script; the reasonably approachable Malay language is replaced by near-impossible to understand Thai; mosques are supplanted by temples and racy pictures appear in public for the first time on this trip! A taxi trip made at hair-raising speed brought us to the busy commercial centre of Haatyai where we celebrate our safe arrival in Thailand with hot spicy Thai food enlivened by the hottest chilli peppers imaginable called 'phrik kii nuu'.

A tropical island was to be our eventual resting place on this trip and Koh Samui it was to be. Some 18km off the Thai coast in the South China Sea, Koh Samui is a true traveller's haven - a response to the over-frequented alternative beach resort of Phuket. For about $15 per night a weary traveller can have an air-conditioned bungalow, a coconut's throw from the golden beach, a restaurant and pool to hand and meet a constant flow of international travellers. Hiring a car is a splendid way to see all the island and selecting a beach could take a long time since there are so many to choose from. Reachable by air, passenger and car ferry Koh Samui has fortunately not yet succumbed to the over-development that has marred so many of the world's beauty spots, though I fear that it's turn will come too.

Our return to Malaysia took us down the West coast, by bus, van and taxi and finding transport was very easy. Haatyai and Penang were intermediate stops before we headed for the magnificent Cameron Highlands in Malaysia's Perak State. Here in the coolness of the hill station you can enjoy jungle walks and golf; tea plantations and strawberry farms; Devonshire teas and the finest Indian and Chinese cuisine. The steamboat is a Highlands' Chinese speciality in which you cook your own food in a fondue-style cooker on your table. Orang Asli, or Malaysian aboriginal settlements, also abound in the Highlands giving the traveller a rare glimpse into the lifestyle and culture of a relatively unknown people. The sights, sounds and smells of SE Asia are rich in texture and remain with you long after your plane touches down on Australian soil. DIY holidays with backpacks are not for everyone: you have to rely on your own resourcefulness and occasionally ingenuity to get by. Organising buses and taxis independently, finding your own accommodation and food requires more than the usual effort that one is normally prepared to put into a holiday and if you are past the youthful stage during which backpacking is more a necessity rather than a choice, there is less incentive to go out and do it the 'hard' way. However, if you want to travel in an un-packaged manner and to enjoy the sense of independence that such organisation offers, it is the only way to get a feel for the countries and to experience the phenomenon known as Asia.

(c) 1991 Paul Hellander

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