Our Top Five Places in Southeast Asia
This was a hard top five to decide on and we could easily have done a top ten as there are so many great places to visit and beautiful things to see. After some disagreement these are our top five places we have visited whilst being in Southeast Asia for nine months.
1- Hoi An -Vietnam
There is no debating that Hoi An was our favourite place of our whole time in Southeast Asia and we both agree on it. It is a magical place, beautiful and traditional and so accessible to visitors. Everywhere you look is colonial architecture, sleepy rickshaw drivers and riverside living. The harbour is stunning, especially at night and there is so much to see and do for everyone. The food is amazing, the history is interesting, the fine white sand beach is close and the tailor made clothes and lanterns are a shopaholics dream. You can explore, cook, dive, relax, learn and shop to your hearts content no matter what budget you are on. It is want we imagined it to be and more and unlike some other places that are often talked about at home it does not disappoint.
2- Bagan -Myanmar
Bagan is hard to put into words how amazing it is. Even knowing before you go how vast it is doesn't prepare you for the sheer magnitude of the city. As you explore, however you decide to tackle it, everywhere you turn huge desert plains are littered with thousand of temples. Every horizon you look at is a succession of beautiful pointed silhouettes. The best thing however about Bagan is that, yes it is busy, and yes it is touristy but is it so big that no matter how busy the main temple are, as you explore the plains you are completely alone. You can ride for miles and not see another tourist and most of the smaller temples have no visitors. It is just an unimaginable experience which surpassed all of our expectations.
3- Penang - Malaysia
Penang is arguably the best overall island in Southeast Asia. The main town of Georgetown is a culturally rich colonial town, full of old shop houses, street art and quirky shops and guesthouses. It is a beautiful town to spend lazy days wandering through, and is full of things to do and see, little India being our highlight. As well as the town however Penang has it all. It has a clean white sand beach and a stunning national park all within an easy local bus ride from town and the rest can be reached in a day by hiring a motorcycle. To top it off it has some of the best food we have eaten. Street food and tiny local places are everywhere, the kinds of places with no English menu, just point to something that looks yummy the counter
4- Inle Lake - Myanmar
We didn't really know what to expect with Inle Lake but it is one of the most beautiful places we have visited. Touring the lake by boat is obviously a must for any visitor and the fishermen and local houses on the lake are a stunning sight. However the life around the lake is as beautiful and as interesting as the people that live on it. We would urge any visitor to either rent a bike or hire a rickshaw if you are not up to it to explore around the surrounding area of the lake as it is just as wonderful, if not more. The people are friendly and welcoming and the rural landscape is really just spectacular.
5 - Melaka
Melaka was our first destination after Singapore so we may be a little biased but we just loved the little town. It's old colonial shop houses and small cobbled streets have a charm that no where can live up to for us. The street food was delicious and abundant and the tiny local eateries with basic English menus were just great. It is so culturally diverse and Chinatown and Little India were just an explosion of smells, sights and textures that we just never imagined. It made a lasting and romantic impression on us that we will never forget.
Our Top Five Experiences of Southeast Asia
We have done so many amazing things on this trip but these are our highlights.
1- Safari Volunteer - Safari Park and Open Zoo Kanchanaburi, Thailand
This experience is a difficult one for us as it poses so many moral questions and raised so many emotions for us. There is no doubt that it is the best experience of our trip for us both but it was also one of the hardest. We spent a long time there, almost five months and since we only planned on spending five days it is obvious to anyone how much we wanted to stay. We will never disagree that the volunteers working there, including us care a lot about the animal welfare and the ongoing improvement of the condition of the zoo but we struggle with the moral aspects and the morality of interaction with wild animals, especially since we have left. There is a HUGE amount to still be done and a lot of educating about how it is acceptable to treat animals, the obvious thing being Blue a full grown tiger chained to a table. That being said we did some genuine good work to help and to improve the daily lives of the animals there and we truly believe that the manager does want to change. Not only this but we were fully immersed into Thai culture, speaking the language and building some lifelong friendships with the staff and their families. We taught English to the staff and the children for the five months and it was the most rewarding thing we have ever done, seeing the children learn a new language and became good at speaking English because of us. We think it is an unforgettable experience for anyone, even if you just have one week to spare, you can make a difference and do some hard work on your way through Kanchanaburi.
2- Scuba Diving - Cham Island Hoi An, Vietnam
It is a totally new experience for us both and one that we both thoroughly enjoyed. Breathing underwater for the first time was scary and amazing at the same time and the underwater world is like being on a different planet. Strange neon corals, colourful fish and and a sense of being utterly slow and relaxed yet adrenaline fuelled takes you to another world. We did our PADI Open Water course on Cham Island however the diving all over Southeast Asia is some of the best of the world, especially some of the Thai islands.
3- Cooking Courses
We have done a few cooking courses in Southeast Asia and every one has been great fun. Tamarind in Luang Prabang, Laos was outstanding, fun and professional and in a beautiful setting, however Giovan in Hoi, Vietnam was the opposite but still a highlight. It was fun and relaxed and a private lesson, more like being in someone's home kitchen but equally as worthwhile. Whichever country you visit we would recommend a cooking course. They are an insight into the culture, really fun and something you can take home to remind you of your trip.
4- Bagan by Horse and Cart
We never planned on doing this but after riding the bike so long our bums were too fragile to face another bicycle so we decided to rent a horse and cart. After doing so it was one of our favourite days in the whole nine months. It is like going back in time, the horse trotting through the sand, weaving between hundreds of temples either side. We toured some lesser known temples and were the only tourists in sights. It was a beautifully peaceful and fun experience and one we will never forget.
5- Cycling Inle Lake
This was another perfect day and an unmissable experience. The tiny roads have no-one on them and all you can see are the farmers fields and the mountains, it is stunning. We took a picnic to a lakeside village and sat on one of the piers in the afternoon. Locals walked past us saying hello and we shared our grapes with the local children. On the way back we called at the vineyard and watched the sun go down over a local bottle of wine.... It was picture perfect.
Our Top Five Foods of Southeast Asia
There was much disagreement on our top five foods, so much so that we have two lists as we just could not agree.... We suppose people just have different tastes.
1- Papaya Salad - Thailand
A spicy salad of unripe papaya, tomatoes and green beans. It is fiery and fresh, full of lime, fish sauce and crushed peanuts..... Chelsea mouth is watering just thinking about it.
2- Masaman Thai Curry
A subtle coconut curry filled with meat and potatoes and served with rice. It is rich comfort food, creamy and filling.
3- Bun Cha - Vietnam
Grilled pork patties (sort of like tiny burgers) served in a soup of braised and BBQ'd pork. Served with pickles, rice noodles, salad, crab spring rolls and a plethora of sides, garlic, chillies and more. A hearty and delicious meal.
4- Laab - Laos
A spicy salad of minced buffalo and herbs. Really fiery and fragrant, salted with fish sauce and full of mint and coriander. It is served with salad leaves and sicky rice which you ball us and scoop up the meat with your hands. Mmmmmm
5- Cau Lau - Hoi An, Vietnam
Blanched firm noodles and bean sprouts are eaten in a bowl mixed with herbs and salad leaves to form a warm salad. It is garnished with slices of succulent roast pork and crispy pork skin. Cheap and utterly yummy.
1- Khao Soi - Chang Mai, Thailand
Firm noodles and braised chicken are served in a curried noodle soup and topped with crispy noodles. It is a spicy yellow curry flavour only found in Northern Thailand.
2- Bun Cha - Vietmam
3- Masaman Thai Curry
4- Cau Lao
5- Thai Green Curry
A fragrant Thai curry filled with aniseed flavoured Thai basil, egg plant, green chillies and lemongrass. Normally with braised chicken or pork and served with rice it is a Thai staple and every establishment has their own tasty version.
Our Pros and Cons of Visiting Southeast Asia
Cons of Southeast Asia
1- The hassle and conning you get in tourist places
Almost every tourist destination has its share of people trying to con you. On the street, outside and inside attractions, at bus stations and in shops. Just be aware, don't let it ruin your experience and don't let it tar your your impression of Southeast Asian people. Some places have more hard core hassles that's others. In Vietnam for example sunglasses salesmen will literally chase and follow you for a sale even if you show them you are already wearing sunglasses on you face.
There is no denying that the whole region has a major problem with litter and with the eduction that surrounds littering and the environment. A lot of natural wonders and beautiful beaches have the obligatory piles of litter and the streets are more often that not always lined with it.
Try to embrace the crazy traffic as a defining feature of Southeast Asia rather than a negative. All towns and cities in the region have mental traffic, monoxide pumping buses, motorbikes piled high with everything you can possibly imagine, from livestock to mattresses and tuk-tuks zooming in and out of them all creating clouds of smoke and dust. Crossing the roads can be an experience, especially in Vietnam but just go for it.
4- The Treatment of Animals
Now we are not just saying this because we worked at the Safari Park for so long where obvious animal welfare issues needed to be tackled daily but all across the region there is a lack of education and a willingness to treat animals badly. No matter what country we have been to we have seen it. Birds locked in tiny cages, squirrels chained to men's pockets and hundreds of abandoned street dogs and cats. We have seen markets full of animals for sale, puppies, hedgehogs, fish, birds, rodents and kittens crammed into tiny glass boxes. We have seen children beating a puppy for fun and adults stood watching and laughing. The street dogs seem to be the most gentle and loving kinds in our opinion which is why we find it hard to look at.
Obviously this is avoidable by wearing long sleeves and trousers or wearing repellant and not really an issue but we couldn't think of a fifth so here it is. The mozzies are relentless and in some places so big it hurts when then bite. Be aware of malaria and dengue and protect yourself.
Pros of Southeast Asia
1- Natural Beauty
There are some truly beautiful natural wonders to see in the region and no matter which country you visit there will be some amazing sights. The paddy fields, mountains, and countryside is lovely to cycle through and the beaches and islands are stunning. Even under the sea scuba or snorkelling is often a beautiful sight and the sunsets are the best we have ever seen.
The food in every country in the region is exceptional and different and no matter where you go you will be in for a culinary delight. It is packed full of bold flavours and we have found the best food is on the street or in tiny local eateries with no menus. Just go in, sit down and often they will just bring you a plate of whatever they specialise in. To top it all off the food is cheap. What more could anyone want.
Southeast Asia is undoubtably affordable for any budget. You can find places to stay for next to nothing especially if you don't mind dorm rooms. We even saw a few places that were free if you took a handful of flyers to hand out. Even for decent rooms like we have normally gone for you can stay for as little as two or three pounds a night. Our room budget is maximum £10 for ninety nine percent of our trip we have stayed well under that. The food is cheap and if you catch local transport it is often pennies.
For anyone interested in local culture, architecture and history Southeast Asia will not disappoint. Every place we have been is teaming with history. There are enough temples to satisfy anyone and colonial towns, and historical sights are aplenty.
Before leaving for our trip we were extremely nervous about the general prospect of travelling through a region we had never even been close to. How will we find somewhere to sleep without booking ahead? How will we possibly know what bus to catch? How can we order from a menu in another language? All these worries were for nothing. Traveling and living in the region is easy. There have been millions before us and will be millions after and even if you don't have the faintest idea there is always a kind local willing to help. Even in Myanmar, a relatively new country with regards to tourism all the amenities you may ever want as a traveller are already there.
Southeast Asia is an amazing destination and when we look back we feel incredibly lucky to have seen and done some of the things we have over the past nine months. It is a destination suitable for all. It doesn't matter what budget you are on or your circumstances. We have friends travelling alone, friends travelling with children and have seen people traveling here for years and people who do it all in six weeks.
It was weird to leave after it has been our home for so long but now we are ready for our next leg.... South Asia, Sri Lanka and hopefully South India.