When E suggested visiting Southeast Asia this spring, I thought I would have a heart attack. My first answer was that it was out of the question. We have been organizing our trip to South America for a few months, and changing plans just a few weeks before required a complete mental preparation. I have already gotten books about Argentina and Brazil, and in my mind I was exploring Brazilian rainforest and Buenos Aires’s crazy nightlife. Yet, the next day I told him I was for it and that we should buy tickets.
The preparations didn’t take long. We only had a month left between buying the tickets and flying to Bangkok. Since we didn’t really plan all the details before the trip, basically it included organizing the flat rentals, the farewell party and preparing the luggage. And that was our first discussion about the whole plan. While E was insisting we had to take only one carry-on bag each, I was sticking to the idea that carrying a lot of clothes was necessary. After all, looking good on a journey is as much as important as it is back home. Oh, how wrong was I. Carrying so little not only saved us a lot of trouble by moving constantly from place to place, but also quite some money on plane tickets throughout the region.
And the day came, March 9th, and I remember I woke up before going to the airport, and just when I opened the news page on my mobile phone there was a piece on plane number MH370 from Malaysian Airlines declared missing. A hell of a start! It was my first intercontinental flight and I was looking forward to it, but this news worried me bit.
The arrival in Bangkok was fun. The huge Suvarnabhumi Airport made quite an impression and the hassle the border control made with E not having a yellow fever vaccination stamp, only pointed out that we are not talking about a serious place. After few minutes of persuasion they gave him the access stamp, without being vaccinated, even though he comes from a risk area. Argentineans are quite persuasive, after all. Entering the taxi that smelled on humidity woke us up from half sleep and we knew we were in Asia. While we left Europe at the end of winter, the temperature in Bangkok was around 40 degrees. We were full of excitement, yet exhausted from a long flight and extremely hot weather.
Thailand was the most popular destination on our list, so frankly speaking we didn’t have high expectations. Even so, we were surprised by the amount of cultural heritage and magnificent landscape. Bangkok is an extraordinary city that offers literally everything. The ancient ruins of Sukhothai and Ayutthaya show the glory of different ancient kingdoms and cities like Chiang Mai and Lampang give an insight of what traditional Thailand is still like. The biggest surprise though, was the amount of karst type mountains rising form the flat area of South Thailand’s regions of Surat Thani and Krabi and reaching all the way to the islands of Phuket.
Our original plan to go north, after visiting Bangkok, was altered by a friend’s suggestion to visit the island of Samui. And that was one of the biggest fails of the whole journey. The island is overbuilt, the beaches are like elsewhere in Thailand dirty and the main beach area is filled with prostitution, garbage and noise. The parties are intense but not fun, people are too drunk or drugged and the beach is average. After seeing the rest of the country I am quite convinced it is a place to be avoided.
One of the few things we were sure about before starting this journey was that we wanted to visit the ‘Mekong 4’: Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos. It is a relatively easy route and if it includes all the mayor destinations, could be done almost completely by bus or train without ridiculously long travel hours. The original idea was to visit the four countries as mentioned above. But since we like last minute changes, we decided to reverse the last three, visiting Laos directly after our Northern Thailand adventure.
Although culturally and linguistically close to Thailand its everyday life is quite different. It is a country where almost 80% of the population dedicates itself to some form of agriculture. The absence of big cities also means the absence of heavy traffic, noise and pollution. Indeed Laos is about nature, and few beautiful Buddhist architectural treasures.
Since our journey was to last around 5 months, we decided to access Laos from Bangkok flying to the northern city of Udon Thani, and crossing the Friendship Bridge to go to Vientiane by a minibus organized by the airline company. Most citizens of the world need Lao visa, which can be obtained at the border crossing for small amount of money. This is where we made friends with a nice Australian guy, who later turned out to be a drug dealer.
Laos has a peculiar form: it looks like a shooting star, whose large portion of southern part or ‘tail’ is somewhat far from the head, and if you are to make a circular trip around the region, you most likely have to avoid the south. That means visiting the Capital Vientiane, the beautiful karst mountains in Vang Vieng and the mythical city of Luang Prabang.
Arriving in Laos we were surprised by the size of everything. In Bangkok, hotels are tall, temples are big, streets are wide and overcrowded. In Vientiane there are no skyscrapers, temples are modest, and the traffic is light. That makes the atmosphere more relaxed and since it’s not a very touristic country people are friendlier, more hospitable, and generally more interested to chat and exchange experiences. Maybe that’s why even tourists here are very friendly. We were even lucky enough to meet a charming Norwegian couple with whom we continued travelling for almost two months.
Due to a lack of proper connections we had to miss the northernmost part of Laos, by flying to the Vietnamese capital. Although the landscape is beautiful, the roads are still in a bad shape and distances are considerable, so a bus ride to almost anywhere can last for hours.
Now, Vietnam was a different story. Although politically quite similar to its smaller neighbor, in terms of population everything is different. It is a disturbingly overpopulated country. There are several very large cities and two enormous, chaotic conurbations, Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, where even crossing a street can be a challenge. Weather conditions, on the other side, are much more favorable. Whilst most of South East Asia has very hot climate from March to June, northern Vietnam enjoys much milder climate, although often followed by light showers.
Vietnam is a country that has a lot to offer: food that is possibly the best in the region, fascinating ancient cities, beautiful mountains, nice beaches, and of course, Ha Long Bay. Most of the independent travelers, like us, prefer to discover everything on our own, but in Vietnam it is not always possible. If you want to spend a few days in the famous bay, you have to book an organized trip. Most of hotels and travel agents in Hanoi organize it without much hassle, but the organization itself is pretty ridiculous.
All throughout the excursion the host will do anything for you to become ‘best friends’, so if you are introverted, shy, or just prefer to enjoy the landscape in silence, be prepared. Additionally if you like to sleep long, have free time for explore and rest, forget about it. The military organization system makes sure you are ready everyday at 7 AM, waiting in a line to enjoy the beauties of the mass tourism. And I don’t need to mention that waste management is almost inexistent, so you can imagine what the sea looks like. It’s a good thing we were able to more or less ignore all that and just enjoy the fascinating landscape.
Cities like Hanoi, Hue and Hoi An are real architectural gems, that contain some of the finest examples of Asian traditional architecture, while the Ho Chi Minh City (together with Hanoi) has few excellent examples of French colonial architecture. But if you are tired of wondering around the cities and want to see something different, then the beach city of Nha Trang is the right spot. Not only can you get high without much trouble, but you can also watch endless Russian middle class having fun dancing with their own weird music, and tasting Russian food, like they didn’t care getting to know Vietnam at all. The story gets even more bizarre, when you realize that many hotels have signs in Russian indicating that the guests should not steal food, while the English version only suggests you to respect hotel rules.
As soon as you enter Cambodia, you easily notice it’s a different place. People are more relaxed, patient and they are smiling more. That may sound strange considering their sad ‘not so long ago’ past. But that’s how Cambodians are: hospitable, kind and friendly. If I would have to choose my favorite country in the region, Cambodia would definitely be it. It may not have so many incredible placed to visit like Thailand or Vietnam, but those few important ones together with the relaxed mood, common even for the large capital Phnom Penh, are more than enough to put Cambodia on the top of the ‘must visit’ destinations.
Phnom Penh is a good starting point for the rest of the country. It is a relaxed nice city, with a good choice of hotels, restaurants, and finally good places to go out. For us it was a safe refuge from unexpected problems occurred during our visit to Malaysia and Indonesia, so we consider it a special place. Beaches in Sihanoukville area are simply amazing, not overcrowded and pretty clean. And two nearby islands, Koh Rong and Koh Rong Sanloem, I dare saying, possess one the most idyllic beaches in the world.
But the crown jewels of the whole Southeast Asia are the fabulous temples of Angkor Wat near Siem Reap. More than a thousand temples built between 9th and 15th century stretch over an area of 400 square kilometers. Many of them are in a good state and are open to visitors. Apart from that, downtown Siem Reap has nice colonial architecture that hosts the big central marketplace, some fine restaurants and cafes and the best drag show in the region. Visit Cambodia as soon as possible, since it is rapidly becoming a mega tourist destination.
Next countries we visited didn’t impress us that much. Malaysia is undoubtedly the richest country in the region, if we discount Singapore, yet I feel it didn’t invest all that petrol earned money in the right direction. Inequality is everywhere. It is very common to see rich couples entering shiny shopping malls in Kuala Lumpur, with a husband wearing comfortable summer clothes, while the wife is covered so profoundly that you can’t even see her eyes. They would often buy golden jewelry, eat in a fast food restaurant, but you can’t say they are doing much exercise. Indeed the city is not built for walking or biking. Luxury tall skyscrapers stand next to run down buildings that can easily be seen from the roof of Malaysia’s tallest building: Petronas Towers. It seems that huge capital investments in the country, made people lose touch with hospitability; everything is kind of formal and heartless. Malacca is a bit different, since it is far smaller, but it still doesn’t possess the relaxing atmosphere of Thailand or Cambodia.
Singapore is quite similar. One would expect to find modern values in a city/country so economically powerful, but that’s not the case. Modern architecture is spectacular, and the colonial architecture completely restored, streets are clean and public transport works well. Yet the city is kind of soulless and empty, and human rights are almost inexistent.
Indonesia is not very different either. You don’t get to see the quantity of burkas like in Malaysia, people seem to be friendlier and seems like a more traditional and authentic Asian country. But overcharges on alcohol, extensive fines for any kind of drug use and blocking of many websites make you think twice. Jakarta is quite a difficult city, full of contrasts. Northern part is filled with slums, while the southern one is dominated by fancy office towers, expensive hotels and huge shopping malls. There are very few architectural landmarks and even the best ones (the old town) are completely neglected. The weather and the pollution are unbearable.
Yogyakarta in the east of Java is a different case. Several preserved palaces in the old town, nice cafes and restaurants, and cool new graffiti are some of the reasons to visit this authentic city. Apart from that, few of the best Buddhist and Hindu monuments in the region are found just kilometers away.
The biggest problem of Indonesia is its overpopulation. If you want to see nature it can take you hours before the built area cease its way to open fields, and dense forests. And that is the biggest shame for most of Indonesia. Buildings are everywhere and nature is not easily reachable.
The typical example is beautiful Bali, where it can take hours before leaving the urban area and entering exciting landscapes dotted with numerous temples. Each house in Bali has its own temple, which is not a simple clay model like in Buddhist countries, but a real temple, with specific local architecture. In spite all that, you can’t relax in a place where tourists constantly get poisoned by alcohol mixed with methanol, or hit by motorbikes, whose drivers don’t not care much for human life. Glamour and poverty mix so bad in Bali, that even the most insensitive cannot ignore it. A luxuriant hotel stands next to the open sewage, with incredibly strong smell, and the workers that built it are without proper equipment, looking like they haven’t eaten for a long time.
Indonesia was the turning point of our journey. During the whole period I was working through my laptop, so having a good connection was essential. That was the reason why we decided to escape Indonesia and skip the Philippines, as numerous sources pointed out that over there power shortages are quite common. So after some thinking we decided to go back to our dearest Cambodia for a week off. It was then when we agreed that E would visit Burma once again. For me it was like a dream come true!
The first isolated country that I had visited in years, so preparations were necessary in order to prevent all possible problems. But much of what we read on the internet wasn’t the case anymore. Supposedly there were no ATMs, internet connection was sparse, and everything was incredibly cheap. It turned out to be quite the opposite: prices of hotels skyrocketed in past years, especially in Yangon, ATMs were all around, and even the exchange offices now offered a good rate. The only minor problem was relatively bad internet connection, but luckily I took two weeks off.
Yangon is a spectacular place. People still wear traditional sarong, men are chewing betel and then spit on the street, buses are very old and conductors are inviting people to come in from the open door. At night there are no street lights, and some streets are so empty that children are playing football on them. Architecture is a blast, Golden Pagodas blend together with beautiful residential green areas and elegant British colonial buildings that are falling apart. It is probably the most beautiful city in the region, and surely the most authentic.
Bagan further north, an impressive group of more than thousand temples in a plain, is shockingly omitted from Unesco‘s World Heritage list. We are talking about the same NGO that is spending 80 000 USD a month in office rental in downtown Yangon. With its beauty and size it can match the Angkor ruins in northern Cambodia, but its lack of tourism is a sign you have to go, NOW. To complete the whole picture we found a beautiful palace hotel in the middle of the forest, just next to the monuments for a decent price. Visiting the temples on a regular and electric bike was a memorable experience.
The last place on our list was the city of Mandalay, a theme for the famous poem written by the British writer Rudyard Kipling, who himself never visited it. Thanks to the construction boom fueled by Chinese capital, it is rapidly losing its identity, but few old beautiful temples and the nearby old capitals are well worth visiting. Just before getting there, an incident between the Muslim and Buddhist communities occurred, so the authorities decided to introduce the curfew. The places were closed at 7PM, and nobody was allowed to leave their place after 9PM. That was the last thing we needed after all we’ve been through on our five month adventure.
South East Asia is a superb destination, people are nice and hospitable, moving around is easy, there are a lot of architectural treasures and beautiful landscapes and the food is delicious. Travelling for five months is not an easy task, but being surrounded by people so friendly and helpful it all becomes much easier. I enjoyed it so much that I had to open this travel page. I hope it will inspire you to visit this amazing region, and I am sure each of you will find something interesting about it.