Not only is Australia overflowing the places to explore and adventures to be had, but we are also conveniently located near some other awesome places in the world that you may not have had the opportunity to visit yet. When I say “near”, it will still take you 7 hours to get to Indonesia, but it’s a relative term because Asia is a long haul from the US and Australia is not actually near anything…
Some of this post will be linked out to other posts I’ve written about my travels in Asia and the Pacific, but I thought it would still be helpful to put everything into a single spot and summarise some of the most popular trips to take from Australia: SE Asia, Bali, and NZ. I also wanted to pass on some international travel advice for people who haven’t visited Asia before—it’s a unique place.
The ubiquitous Southeast Asia trip
Asia travel definitely takes a back seat to European trips in the US, but for Australians, Asia is so much closer and so much cheaper than anywhere else. It’s the first big backpacking trip most Australians take and you’ll meet almost exclusively Aussie travellers while you’re there.
But it’s so popular for a reason! You can travel SE Asia most times of the year, but the most popular time is during Australian summer (Dec, Jan, Feb). Forget 20€ dinners in restaurants and shitty hostels, think $1 street phad thai and $8 for private hotel rooms.
My trip through SE Asia lasted 2.5 months, but I know people who have done both far shorter and far longer trips, just add or subtract destinations. I flew (via Singapore) to Ho Chi Minh in southern Vietnam, and worked my way north using cheap buses, stopping in Mui Ne, Nha Trang, and Hanoi. I positively loved Vietnam, especially the food and the people. From Hanoi, I bused into Laos and visited Vientiane and Luang Prabang, taking a several day trek out to some more remote villages and natural sites, including an elephant sanctuary where we bathed elephants. I travelled south to Phnom Penh in Cambodia, and also spent time exploring temples in Siem Reap, before flying to Bangkok. All of this travel lasted a little over a month, and then I spent the next month island-hopping down both the east and west coasts of Thailand. I can highly recommend spending a week on Koh Tao getting (very inexpensively) dive certified. We went to a Full Moon Party on Koh Phangan, which I would skip, and then headed west to explore Koh Phi Phi,crazy
Phuket, and Koh Lanta, the undisputed highlight of the entire trip.
Don’t you dare leave SE Asia without:
- Visiting Wonder of the World, Angkor Wat
- Hiring a motorbike
- Staying in a bungalow on the beach
- Watching a ping-pong show
- Getting a million cheap massages
- Drinking a lot of Tiger beer
- Crawling through the Cu Chi Tunnels
- Crying at the Killing Fields in Cambodia
- Getting your dive certification on Koh Tao
Some practical tips for travelling Asia:
- For US citizens, you will not need a pre-organised visa in any of these countries. However, you may have to pay for a visa at the airport, but it’s only a matter of paying and leaving, no lengthy application process.
- Pull cash out of an ATM and use this, there won’t be many opportunities for using card. Don’t get cash before you go, it’s an awful exchange rate.
- Under-pack and buy stuff when you arrive. It’s impossible not to come back with two dozen new purchases because it is so cheap, and you’ll quickly run out of room in your bag. Just you wait. But also, no one looks fashionable or clean, this isn’t Europe. Cute is wearing muddy converse, elephant pants, and a Tiger Beer t shirt over your swim top. There will definitely be knock-off Ray Bans involved.
- Don’t be surprised if you go many days without wifi, or if the advertised wifi is not actually functional. This is a great opportunity to disconnect and enjoy where you are.
- Get a Kindle, load several dozen books on it, and read at every opportunity. There are a lot of long bus trips (36 hours, anyone?), you’ll definitely be spending many days in a hammock not moving, you won’t have consistent power to keep phones or tablets charged, forget about carrying around 10 books in your backpack, and there often isn’t light on a bus anyway. Enter: Kindle.
- Don’t book too much beforehand. Unlike Europe, most of SE Asia is not on the internet. You get bus tickets by showing up at the station on the day (perhaps the day before, if you’re really organised) or by going to a travel office in whatever city you’re in. You get hotels by just walking down the street and entering one. The only part of my entire trip that was booked prior to my arrival was my dive course on Koh Tao.
- If you are one of those people who likes travel insurance (I never use it, but each to their own), make sure you read fine print and get something that will cover riding a motorbike, diving, hiking, whatever it is that you plan to do. I have heard so many bad stories of people paying for insurance, crashing a bike, and having their claim denied because it wasn’t covered by their policy. “Risky activities” usually cost more to insure.
Another SE Asia classic: Bali, Indonesia
I only went to Bali for the first time last year, but it has all of the same delightful qualities of mainland Asia. You ride motorbikes through unbelievable messes of traffic with no apparent road rules, you eat chicken skewers off the side of the road for a few cents, you explore empty beaches, and you run into half the population of Australia.
I have a bone to pick with Bali, though. The “popular” beaches pale in comparison to Australian beaches, so it begs the question: why fly 6 hours to hang out with Aussies on a crappy beach? Well, don’t.
Take the opportunity to explore beyond the shitty tourist beaches. They are dirty, overcrowded, and over-priced (by Indonesian standards), but there are amazing places to be seen! Hire a motorbike and make your own way around the island, see places that aren’t full of other Australians and I guarantee it’ll be a better time.
I wrote a post with heaps of more specific Bali information, like where to stay & how to get around.
And now for a horse of a different colour: New Zealand
Our delightful little neighbour to the southeast. Unlike Asia, it is not cheap, it is not crowded, and it is not hot. Like, ever. But it is so, so amazing. New Zealand can really only be explored via car (or, I suppose, tour bus, but ew). Your best bet is to hire a campervan and use your vehicle as accommodation, but another option is to just hire a car and camp in your tent or in mountain huts, which is what we did. We spent 5 weeks in NZ, and easily could have spent twice as long—don’t be fooled by the tiny size, it is chockablock with stuff to do.
Flights to NZ go on great specials, and are often in the $300 range for return tickets. If you’re skiing or boarding, go in winter (game-changing tip, I know), but otherwise go in summer, because it’s still plenty cool in the mountains. (My first day in NZ I was so cold, I was wearing every piece of clothing I owned and it was the middle of summer.)
Now, I know maybe everyone’s idea of a good trip may not be hiking, but that’s what NZ is best for, so it would be unfair to visit and not do some “tramping”. There is an official list of 9 Great Walks that are all a few days long, scattered over both islands, and very simple for even inexperienced hikers.
There is no free camping, so ALL hikes will have mountain huts or campgrounds you can book and pay to stay in. We’re talking hundreds and hundreds of huts spread across the two islands. Unlike Asia, this will require a good deal of advanced planning. We managed to last-minute book campgrounds for one hike, but all the others were booked months and months in advance because they fill up that quickly.
Of the Great Walks, we did the Routeburn Track and the Abel Tasman Coastal Track, which is actually 2 days of kayaking and 2 days of walking. I can’t recommend either of these hikes highly enough, but we also enjoyed our Avalanche Peak & Crow Hut Hike, our Lake Tekapo Hike, and my #1 favourite goes to Mueller Hut.
We visited both islands, but greatly preferred the South Island, so if you only have time for one…
We took the InterIslander ferry between islands so we could bring our car, and thought it was surprisingly scenic and fun. The North Island has both Auckland and Wellington, the capital, which we really enjoyed. It is more volcanic, so that’s where you’ll find hot water beaches, hot springs, craters, volcanos, and lots of stinky places like Rotarua (that lovely sulphur smell of rotten egg farts).
The South Island is a lot more alpine, so there are better winter snow activities, more dramatic hiking scenery, and, who knows why, all the adrenalin activities that NZ is known for. Home of the first bungy jump, Queenstown is your base for all things terrifying. We survived the “World’s Largest Swing” (the Nevis Swing) that is, in actuality, a lot more like falling than the word “swing” would suggest. For some reason, we also tandem bungy’d off the “World’s First Bungy” site at Kawarau Bridge. I still look back on this and wonder how I did it, because I have a major issue with falling (not heights, just falling, and you can’t call that irrational because falling often leads to bad things, i.e. death).
Don’t you dare leave NZ without:
- Hiking at least one of the Great Walks
- Bungy jumping
- Visiting the Marlborough or Hawkes Bay wine regions for some vino
- Seeing the Gatorade-coloured glacier water at Huka Falls
- Trying a Fergburger in Queenstown
- Photographing stunning views of Mt. Cook
- Hanging out at the beach in Wellington
- Spotting the seals at Ohau Point Seal Colony in Kaikoura