Highlights of our Travels Round South East Asia

13 Jul

This trip has paved the way to so many amazing experiences and so, in truly original fashion, I have decided to put together a ‘Top 12’ list of the highlights of our travels round South East Asia.

1. Bangkok

City that never sleeps!

City that never sleeps!

First stop, Bangkok! It all seemed quite surreal until we arrived here. We had booked our tickets a few months in advance, arranged accommodation for arriving, read all about it in our Lonely Planet guide and done lots of fantasizing… but no amount of day dreaming or research could have prepared us for the overwhelming, full on assault of buzzing Bangkok. Arriving off the plane, you step outside into the wall of sauna-like heat and instantly, you are surrounded by overeager taxi drivers, on the hunt for ‘fresh meat’. Our glaring white skin and squeaky clean backpacks gave us away at the first hurdle. Remembering the advice read online about touts and scams, we managed to fight off the hordes and head to the official rank to book a car there.

It took us a few days, weeks even, to get in to this ‘Asia mindset’ of always being on your guard. It sounds awful but do not trust the kindness of strangers, not in Bangkok. Be aware of your personal belongings and if a smiling man approaches you in the street with any sightseeing advice, run the other way. It’s probably a scam. We learned this the hard way.

Warts and all, an infectious energy permeates this lively city. There is almost too much going on to take it all in. The streets positively pulsate with people. Walking around it is impossible to escape the cry of ‘ping pong show, *pop pop*’ and the strange allure of exotic looking lady boys. The mayhem is non-stop with cheap beer on tap, stray animals roaming the streets, a constant threat of being run over by passing tuk tuks, countless stalls selling scorpions on sticks and street food vendors on every corner. It’s mind blowing.

Our first tuk tuk journey

Our first tuk tuk journey

From the moment you arrive, until the moment you leave, there is an ongoing battle between the city and your senses. In fact, for the first couple of days, John had to walk around with something covering his nose, for fear of being sick. The smell of drains and damp mixed with a million different types of food, animals and body odours is overpowering at best, plain disgusting at worst. I was in love.

Khao San Road is the inevitable starting point for visitors to Bangkok. The backpacker district of the city, it is aptly described as ‘a decompression chamber between East and West’ by Richard, the adventuring protagonist of Alex Garland’s ‘The Beach’. While still completely alien and exciting to us, the large number of tourists and pubs blaring familiar Western music prevents you from completely losing your footing in this strange environment. It’s where you learn to wave away the touts, brave the street food you’ve been warned against and inhale tropical air for the first time.

Khao San Road by day

Khao San Road by day

As a city, Bangkok has everything: great shopping, spectacular temples, 24/7 nightlife, all the karaoke you could ever want (and more…), an abundance of delicious food and a beautiful river. (As John was soon to find out, I am obsessed with locating the river in every place we travel to. I find it comforting, almost like we have found the central point of our location. It’s like the beating pulse of any city.) Skyscrapers, shanty towns and traditional pagodas all line the same horizon, illustrating the many faces of Bangkok perfectly.

royal palace

It was the perfect way to begin our travels in Asia and a city that I’ll never forget.

2. Hoi An

Lanterns of Hoi An

Lanterns of Hoi An

Approximately half way down the Vietnamese coast, Hoi An is a quaint old town with an appealing charm that gets under your skin, making it hard to ever leave. We had only planned on staying there for two days but ended up being there for almost a week. The combination of colourful lanterns lining most streets and incredible local food played a huge part in this. Recognized as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, the old town remains relatively untouched by the war and exudes historical appeal.

hoi an st

Hoi An is famous for its tailors. There are approximately 500 tailors here, making the industry impossible to escape whilst in town. You will find row upon row of shops all offering an affordable made-to-measure service, with next day pick-up. I had two pairs of sandals made here and after handpicking the exact leather I wanted and having my feet measured, I came back the next day to find two perfect pairs of shoes waiting for me.

The food here is some of the best in Vietnam. Hoi An specializes in a few unique dishes that can’t be found anywhere else, including the delicious ‘White Rose’ (shrimp dumplings) and ‘Cao Lau’ (regional pork dish with secret noodle recipe). From the bustling Central Market Hall where street vendors ply their wares, to the high end Western standard restaurants, it is all equally delicious and definitely not to be missed.

Street food in Hoi An

Street food in Hoi An

3. War Remnants Museum, Saigon

war museum

The War Remnants Museum is an essential for any itinerary when visiting Saigon. It is a stark reminder of the effect that the Vietnam War had, and still has, on the country. Saigon is an international city full of bright lights, shopping malls and 24 hour parties, making it easy to arrive as a tourist and forget the adversities that its people have faced. A trip to this museum will remind you of these hardships, in no uncertain terms, and will leave the images imprinted in your mind. I was moved to tears viewing the aftermath of Agent Orange exhibition. There are still people affected by horrendous disfigurement and deformity to this day, due to the poisonous toxins relentlessly unleashed on the region during the war.

Originally named “Museum of American War Crimes”, the museum is, admittedly, a very one-sided account of atrocities committed during the war. It is, however, a necessary sight for any self-respecting tourist.

4. Elephant Trek and overnight jungle stay, Chiang Mai

Friend for life

Friend for life

Thailand and elephant trek are almost synonymous with one another. They go together like Little Bo Peep and her sheep. Despite this, I was somewhat dubious about it. I had read a lot of reports stating that the elephants were often mistreated and even sometimes drugged to keep them working for longer.

However, after shunning any doubts we decided to sign ourselves up and it turned out to be a memorable experience that I would definitely recommend. Our trek took place in the Mae Taeng Valley, about an hour north of Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand. The elephants were amazing and all had different personalities and characteristics. They seemed well looked after and you could sense the close bond that the staff had with them. After spending some time with the elephants and feeding them bamboo shoots, we set off on our trek. It hadn’t even crossed my mind that this could be a scary experience but it turned in to a fairly bumpy ride! We ended up with the black sheep of the family – a mischievous male elephant who repeatedly stumbled off into the bushes to snack on leaves and other greens. Although we did have to hold on for dear life, it was reassuring that the rider was happy to let him do this, laughing explaining to us that he was always hungry.

Making it back to the elephant camp in one piece, our group was then sent off with ‘Lan’, our guide for the next two days. After lunch in a hill tribe village, we trekked on foot through the jungle to our camp for the night, stopping off to look at various plants, insects and waterfalls along the way.

me and john jungle

Our sleeping quarters were… more ‘basic’ than I had expected. I don’t really know what standard I was expecting in the depths of the jungle with nothing surrounding us for miles. (What?! No electricity?!) Consisting of a bamboo roof and a bamboo platform raised off of the jungle floor, it provided shelter for the evening, if nothing else. There was certainly no protection from insects and other wildlife. One thing the trip taught me is that I am definitely not ‘at one with nature’…

Lan had warned that the temperatures drop during the night but it had been around 30 degrees during the day so we didn’t really take his advice seriously. Huge mistake. It was absolutely freezing during the night. Our campfire only kept us warm for so long and despite sinking quite a few Tiger beers, we still felt the cold. It was like being back camping in Scotland!

chiang mai view

Despite the cold, we had a brilliant night with an amazing Thai Massaman curry cooked by Lan, a campfire, beers on tap and a group of interesting people from every corner of the world to hang out with. I spent the majority of the night with one eye open and it definitely wasn’t the best night’s sleep I’ve ever had but the waterfalls, mountains and wildlife in the jungle made it all worthwhile.

5. Sailing down the Mekong River, Si Phan Don, Laos

si phan don

‘Si Phan Don’ translates to 4000 islands in English and while this may be a slight exaggeration, this description conjures up an appropriate image of this lazy and winding section of the Mekong river. The area is made up of a few larger islands and the surrounding river is strewn with hundreds of smaller ‘islands’ and mounds of land. The effect of this is simply stunning.

We stayed on one of the three largest islands, Don Det. The motto of the island is to ‘do nothing’ and with its relaxed atmosphere, plentiful hammock spots and unusual tolerance of marijuana, it is widely known as being a stoner’s paradise.

While here, we decided to use our time effectively and so chartered a boat with a local fisherman, on a mission to spot some Irrawaddy dolphins. These pink dolphins are unique to the surrounding area and Si Phan Don is locally hailed as the best place to sight them from. From the section of the river that we stopped at, we were within touching distance of land belonging to Laos, Thailand and Cambodia, which was pretty amazing to see. We did manage to spot some dolphins in the distance but in the end it was the combination of the sunset, our drunken local sailor, the idyllic scenery and lap of the river against the boat that resulted in one of the most memorable experiences of our trip.

1622

6. Full Moon Party sunrise, Koh Phangan

me and john

After hearing the news that a young British guy had been shot at the December 2012 full moon party on Koh Phangan, we were undecided as to whether we should go. After reading Alex Garland’s ‘The Beach’, I was feeling disillusioned by something that has spiraled in popularity over the last 20 years, leaving a bad taste in a lot of travellers mouths and putting it in to the “used to be great but we ruined it” category. It was, however, something I had always wanted to do. It’s no secret, I love a good rave. I really do. And where better to do it than on the beach of a tropical Thai island.

Legend has it that it all began in 1987 with a small group of backpackers and hippies having a party on Haad Rin beach, Koh Phangan. They enjoyed it so much that it became an annual event. Growing in popularity it became more and more frequent until it was happening every month. Word began to spread and enterprising Thais took advantage of the hype, bringing more and more people, eventually starting to sell tickets for the event. Many people complained that this ruined the essence of what began as a gathering of like-minded people, simply seeking to have a party.

Buckets

Buckets

Despite the commercialization of the event, it completely lived up to my expectations. Exceeded them even. The atmosphere was electric. The whole island comes alive for the full moon party. A whole beach of people united in their mission to have the best night of their lives. The white sand is lined with vendors selling buckets of alcohol, helium balloons for a quick legal high, fire shows, face painters and children selling glow sticks and trinkets. From the ‘pre-drinks’ at the bungalows we were staying at, to our trip up ‘Mushroom Mountain’ the whole night was one of the best I’ve ever had.

We stayed until around 10am the next morning, leaving as the crowds began to disperse. Watching the sunrise that morning, I am positive I was not alone in the wave of euphoria washing over me.

Loving life

Loving life

7. COPE Centre, Vientiane, Laos

uxo

Did you know that Laos PDR is the most bombed country throughout history, in the world, per capita? Me neither. I really had no idea. Which is why I am so glad that we took the time to visit the COPE Center in Vientiane (Laos Capital).

In between 1964 and 2008, 50,000 Laos people were killed or seriously injured as a result of unexploded ordnance (UXO). UXOs are ‘explosive weapons that failed to detonate when they were fired, dropped, launched or projected, and still pose a risk of exploding’. 25% of villages in Laos are still affected to this day by UXO and it results in over 300 casualties per year. COPE Centre is a charity that provides provincial rehabilitation centres providing access to both prosthetic devices and rehabilitation services, including physiotherapy and peadiatric services to people with disabilities. It truly is a fantastic charity and a worthy cause.

Whilst in Laos, we saw many beggars on the street with missing limbs, or even worse, no limbs at all. The centre really opened my eyes to the harrowing truth behind these deformities. If you are visiting Laos, please take the time to stop by the centre, show your respects and make a donation. It’s a really worthwhile cause.

8. Angkor Wat, Siem Reap, Cambodia

Sometimes described as the ‘Eighth Wonder of the World’, it would be very unwise to travel to Cambodia and not visit the temples of Angkor. We did actually meet a few different young ‘uns on their ‘gap year’ that had got so drunk the night before, they had missed their one chance to visit. More fool them.

Angkor Wat sunrise

Angkor Wat sunrise

The largest religious complex in the world, it is an awe inspiring sight. The whole area stretches out over 400km squared and includes the famous temples of Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and the Bayon Temple. The location where Tomb Raider was filmed, it felt strangely familiar but seeing the constructions on screen doesn’t come close to the magnificent real life presence that the temples hold. Artistically and architecturally stunning, the complex is huge. One day is enough to see the most famous temples if you go by car or tuk tuk but you could spend a full seven days and still not have ticked everything off of the list. The temple walls are coated with intricate Khmer carvings and it would be easy to spend a day alone taking these in.

me and john angkor wat

We decided to rise early so to see the sun rising over the temple of Angkor Wat and while I am never one to endorse an early morning, it was worth the bleary eyes. I can’t quite decide if the huge amount of tourists with the same idea as us added or detracted from the experience. While it is never desirable that any sight feels over crowded with tourists, there was something strangely exciting about waiting in the dark with hundreds of strangers. Apart from the whirring and clicking of photographers setting up their cameras, everyone was silent and waiting in anticipation. As the light began to carve out the silhouette of Angkor Wat, you could feel the appreciation from the crowd building. The iconic profile of Angkor set against a pink and purple morning sky was a sight to soothe even the sleepiest early-morning eyes.

9. Halong Bay, Vietnam

halong rock

Halong Bay is magnificent. The sight of karst limestone rocks jutting out of jewel green water is a natural wonder that I will never forget. However, a word of advice: go and visit the bay before tourism destroys it. There is no denying that it was hard to ignore the piles of rubbish floating in the water at certain points. There is no system to cope with the ever increasing stream of tourist boats and I fear that, if nothing is done soon, we may ruin one of Earth’s natural wonders.

Handspan Indochina Travel run an annual Clean Up program where tourists are taken out in kayaks to collect as much of the litter and debris floating in the water as possible. It is positive that people have started to recognize that something needs to be done but it is apparent that this annual trip is not even scratching the surface of the problem. As a UNESCO world heritage site, I am surprised at the lack of efforts to clear the bay and sincerely hope something is done soon.

me halong

Despite this, kayaking through the karst rocks, being within spitting distance of hundreds of monkeys in their natural environment and visiting the aptly titled ‘amazing cave’ made Halong Bay a definite highlight of our trip. The whole area has a certain ethereal quality to it, particularly in the spring time as the misty air adds an element of mystery and wonder to the scenery. We stayed overnight on a Junk boat where we watched the sun set before being given a cooking class and a wonderful Vietnamese feast. All in all, a brilliant experience.

10. Kuala Lumpur

Petronas Twin Towers - view from the Sky Bar

Petronas Twin Towers – view from the Sky Bar

My favourite things about Kuala Lumpur? Easy. Topshop and ‘Ladies Night.’

I am well aware that this is a shallow and uncultured answer but my week long trip to Kuala Lumpur mainly served in quenching my thirst for shopping and free cocktails. It was just what I needed. Alongside the famous Petronas Twin Towers, the main features of the city are basically centred around the shopping, which is of an international standard. There are shops to suit everyone and selling everything. They range all the way from Louis Vuitton to local vendors in market halls. After weeks without any serious retail therapy, I was weak at the knees when I spotted my beloved Topshop. This might sound ridiculous but sometimes when you are travelling, all you need to put you back on track is a small taste of home.

Before visiting KL, I was unfamiliar with the concept of ‘Ladies Night’. By the time I left, it is fair to say that I was somewhat overfamiliar with it. Ladies Night is basically a night where all ladies drink for free, all night. They can be found in different bars on every night of the week around the city and there is no scrimping with the drinks. The bar staff seem only too happy to top up your drink relentlessly (which did actually lead me to question their motives… but by that point, I was too drunk to care!)

KL is a beautiful city with lots going on. As well as the shopping and drinking, we visited the Batu Caves, checked out the city’s museums, took a trip to ‘Little India’ and admired the Petronas Twin Towers’ from the famous Sky Bar. The food is amazing with Malaysian, Chinese and Indian cuisine available on every street. However, Topshop and the free cocktails were a definite highlight. A taste of the high life was just what I needed before I returned to Hanoi to begin working as a teacher.

Little India

Little India


11. Night Train,Thailand

After a very dubious night bus adventure upon first arriving in Thailand, we decided that taking the train was the only option for our trip down South to Surat Thani. From here, we were heading off to go island hopping and we wanted to arrive well rested – or as well rested as you can ever be when backpacking round Thailand.

train

The train itself was surprisingly clean and John and I had a set of bunk beds to share. In the evening, the train is essentially a social gathering with a ‘bar’ serving lukewarm beer and overpriced Pringles. It’s a lot of fun and we met other travellers to share a few beers with…

The train track was fairly bumpy but we both slept fairly well and actually found the swaying of the carriage to be quite soothing, rocking us off to sleep like a couple of babies. We were woken at around 6am for breakfast; even though we weren’t due to arrive until 10am. Not a fan of an early start, this would usually go down very badly with me. However, the sun had risen and the scenery passing by outside was spectacular at points. We passed by shanty towns, mountains, fields of palm trees and some karst rock scenery.

The safety standards on the train are fairly relaxed and passengers are able to open the carriage doors to watch the world go by. We sat for an hour or so, just taking in the countryside as it sped past us. It was amazing. It’s difficult to describe the feeling but the combination of the early morning sun, tropical air, swaying palm trees and rumble of the train tracks all created a beautiful moment and at that point, I felt like we were ‘real travellers’ on our own exciting adventure.

Taking in the scenery

Taking in the scenery

12. Motorbike trip to Mai Chau, North Vietnam

Motorbiking through the rugged mountains of Northwest Vietnam is now one of my all-time favourite experiences, not just from this trip alone. The scenery up here is absolutely breathtaking and the views stretch out for miles. Coupled with passing through several indigenous Vietnamese villages, it makes for an amazing journey. Taking over four hours on motorbike from Hanoi, it did leave us with rather sore bums but it was completely worth it.

Mai Chau scenery

Mai Chau scenery

Mai Chau itself is an amazing location. You can stay in a traditional stilt house, complete with bedding and mosquito net, for less than 2 pounds a night. The signature dish in the village is tasty barbequed pork skewers and rice, available absolutely everywhere.

MC

The views from the valley are some of the most amazing I’ve ever experienced first-hand. The village is nestled between several imposing mountains and surrounded by emerald green rice paddies. The grass is the greenest I have ever seen. It is an idyllic, rural setting where it almost feels as though time stands still.

We went with a group of new friends and two nights of drinking local rice wine, corn whisky and countless beers led to some very good times – and a lot of very bad singing.

maichau

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5 Responses to “Highlights of our Travels Round South East Asia”

  1. katmphotography June 10, 2013 at 6:25 pm #

    you have made my feet itch with desire to travel again… thank you for sharing. a truly magical read. xo

    • siobhanambersmith June 11, 2013 at 8:15 am #

      Thank you for the lovely comment!
      This is the first time I have been on such a long trip and can totally see why people get the travelling bug! It’s addictive!
      Thanks again, Siobhan x

      • katmphotography June 14, 2013 at 4:06 pm #

        oh yes! i’m planning a trip to India for next year.

  2. imkah June 19, 2013 at 8:39 am #

    Your KL summary is great! I’ll be stealing this idea for my blog :). I am going to the shops in KL right NOW but first, sustenance at Nandos. How I have missed these ‘home comforts’!

    • siobhanambersmith June 19, 2013 at 5:25 pm #

      Thank you for commenting! Jealous of you going shopping in KL – there is everything you could possibly want to shop for! Hope you enjoyed the Nandos!

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