I Backpacked through SE Asia – and Loved it! (Part 1)

Pic courtesy of: https://malaysia-scuba-diving.com/scuba-diving-tioman-island/

Before starting this post I really should add a disclaimer – I did this a little over 20 years ago, but I’m pretty sure most of it still holds true today – okay so I’m not as young as I used to be! 🙂

In mid 1994, I found myself at a loose end – shitty 9-5 job, a romance on the rocks, and not much hope for the future. I DID however, have a little money saved up, and as always, travel was top of my list on how to spend it!

A mate of mine was in Thailand on a break, so I packed it all in and decided to join him for a week before going it alone, letting my head and my feet lead the way.

That was the start of 2 years traveling on the cheap through SE Asia, and even then I didn’t get to all the countries, but the ones I did see, I covered pretty well.

I was in need of a beach!

My mate was in Chiang Mai, so once we parted ways, I headed south to the west coast and ended up on Railay beach near Krabi, and it was AWESOME! White sand, clean, clear water, and blissfully quiet!

Railay Beach panorama. Source: Wikipedia Creative Commons

My MO for the 3 weeks I was there was pretty much; late breakfast at one of the very few restaurants there at the time (remember it’s 1994), then hit the beach from around 11 til 4, back to my bungalow – shower and a cuppa by 5 and sit and watch the daily thunderstorm roll through til 6pm, then back to the beach for a beer or 3 (and maybe a sneaky spliff!) to watch the lightning dance among the clouds out to sea! Brilliant!

I could’ve easily stayed another month, and in fact I did revisit Railay on a later trip, but Visa duties called, so I headed south to Penang, Malaysia – the closest place of interest and also the closest border!

Joss sticks to ward off evil spirits - obviously not working, with your Author in shot!
Joss sticks to ward off evil spirits – obviously not working, with your Author in shot!

Penang was, and still is, a pretty cool town!

20-odd years ago it was a bit sleepier than it is now but it still had a pretty lively backpacker scene, and was the perfect antidote after my idle time on the beach. Not too busy but enough to get me back into traveling mode.

There’s not too much to see along the west coast of Malaysia unless you’re into palm plantations, so after a few days in Penang, I headed straight down to Kuala Lumpur then across to the east coast and Tioman Island for more beaches – I’m thinking you’re starting to see a trend here yes?

Tioman Island in those days was pretty sleepy – just a few bungalow joints scattered mainly along its eastern and southern coastlines, complementing its crystal clear warm waters and relaxed, laid-back hippy vibe.

It’s a great place to lose yourself for a week diving, or just sunning yourself by the beach though! – and it’s definitely on my revisit list!

Lovely Tioman Island. Pic courtesy of: 1dasia
Lovely Tioman Island. Pic courtesy of: 1dasia

Eventually I made my way up the coast to Cherating.

With beaches that seemingly stretch for miles, it’s little wonder that it’s a pretty popular stop on the backpacker trail. These days it has a Club Med and lots of other big hotels and resorts but still looks fairly nice – when I was there the Club Med was just a rumor and we stayed in little A-frame huts and ate communally with our co-travelers at the local restaurant! Ahhh the good ol’ days eh! The huts have gone I think but from a Google search, there are still plenty of backpacking options in and around the area.

It was at Cherating that I would meet my fellow traveling companions, Jimmy and Johnny (Hi guys if you’re reading!), for what would be an epic journey along the Indonesian archipelago, from Aceh in northern Sumatra, to the eastern edges of Flores, which lies a little to the north of Timor.

After a boozy night getting acquainted, the 3 of us headed off the next day to the Perhentian Islands. If you’re reading this and you’ve been, then you’ll know what I mean when I say that these islands are like heaven on a stick – they’re beautiful! Secret squirrel though ok!?

Perhentian islands. Pic courtesy: buburesort

Made up of 2 islands, Besar and Kecil, both are textbook tropical paradises, with blindingly white, sandy beaches fringed by swaying palms and beautiful clear water. Nights are warm tropical sunsets spent on the beach with friends and a few drinks, while days are spent either enjoying the warm waters or the jungley, hilly interiors where you can spot all manner of wildlife (mostly non-threatening I think!), and all with a tranquil, laid-back atmosphere that can be very difficult to tear yourself away from!

One of the nicest beaches to stay is Long beach on Kecil which mainly caters to westerners, while Besar has a couple of resorts and seems to be the place to go for Asian tourists. Both are nice though.

Perhentian reef sharks. Pic courtesy of: Monkey Dives Perhentian

We stayed on Long beach for about 2 weeks, sharing a large bungalow with a shady balcony complete with hammock and overlooking the whole bay. Our showers consisted of a shoulder-height square, wooden cubicle above the water line but still on the beach, where you would pull water up from the well and pour it over yourself – feet in the sand, palm trees and blue skies overhead – Bliss!

There is also a 15-20 minute walk from the back of Long beach that will take you through to the western side of the island, where there is some good diving and snorkeling in between large columns of coral, and with a few reef sharks thrown in for good measure – at least during the times we were there!

I have very fond memories of the Perhentians, and reports from people who have been since say nothing much has changed!

Once we dragged ourselves away from the Perhentian islands, we made the decision to head for Sumatra – this involved heading back to Penang (for me anyway) and then catching a ferry to Medan.*

*This ferry ceased to operate, then started again, then stopped again, so it’s all a bit iffy. Maybe check with these guys if you’re planning to do this!

So it was back to Penang for a couple of days before heading off to the wilds of deepest, darkest Sumatra, which to be honest, at the time I didn’t really know much about, except for strange tales of mysterious Sumatran tigers, huge, elusive wild elephants, and endangered Orangutans! What we found was truly amazing!!

If you’ve read this far then maybe I’ve captured your attention, or at least your imagination! Stay tuned for the next exciting installment coming soon!

Until then – Happy Travels peeps! 🙂


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