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Author: A Potato in a Rice Field
Wanderlust Travel Blog of the Year ’13
A quick guide to our favourite destinations in our Southeast Asia Travel Blog (we will update as we go along). This list follows our own interests and highlights our own style in travel. We travel independently as a couple, we generally avoid tourist and backpacker trails and we love to get lost in big cities although we do occasionally call in at the beach. We also follow food tourism, local immersion, and unique and authentic cultural experiences. For travel in Southeast Asia we generally use Air Asia for flights and Agoda for hotel bookings. This is the norm with most savvy travellers in these parts.
Thailand was my first port of call for travel in Southeast Asia and having been based there for travel over the years I can say I’ve covered a fair share. When in Thailand I am always pushing away from tourist destinations, and traveller trails which these days, is not so easy. The southern islands would probably be my least likely area to explore but if I do I’d opt for the lesser known destinations. In the Krabi region I’d probably go with Railay or myabe Koh Lanta. Despite it’s popularity I actually quite like Phuket as it is big and it’s easy to escape the crowds. Some of my favourite spots include the colonial influences of the old town area or the quieter beach options in the north of the island (e.g. Mai Khao Beach). Surrounding islands are also worth exploring such as Koh Yao Yai / Noi or Koh Maprao (coconut island). On the opposite side, in the Gulf of Thailand, I would go with Koh Tao (over Phangan and Samui) but I’d push far away from Sairee beach as possible. We of course have many destinations in the South to cover and on our to-do list there is Surin and the Similan islands, or to venture even further south there is Koh Lipe and Tarutao. These destinations are driven more towards diving and while they are becoming more touristy each day they tend to be better preserved than popular backpacker haunts in the region. From the south of Thailand, working up, the beach resort of Hua Hin isn’t overly exciting then closer to Bangkok is Pattaya which is prime sex tourist territory and best to avoid. For similar options near to Bangkok, and within ‘short-break’ distance, there is Koh Samet which is always good for a quick getaway or beach party, or continuing further along is Koh Chang a nice enough island but better used as the jump off point to Koh Kood and others. In mountainous northern regions of Thailand there is Chiang Mai which one day had its charm is now a bit hippy dippy and overrun by settling backpackers. Worth a visit but I would personally opt for further up where Chiang Rai makes a great base to explore the surrounding regions. Having lived in Bangkok for three plus years there is plenty info on our living in Bangkok section, or for a quick visit check our Top 10 Bangkok attractions. My favourite option however and where I now live is well off the beaten track in Isaan any area rich in culture and ceremony and still relatively untouched from outside influences. For more on this check our Isaan Tours website. For fellow food tourists we created guides for Isaan Food (Northeast Thailand), Lanna Food (Northern Thailand) and a Bangkok Street Food and Cheap eat guide which covers the basic foods for most regions.
From Thailand we would travel to Malaysia more than any other destination and I find it hard to get bored of its diversity, not only in landscape, but also in ethnicity and culture. Kuala Lumpur for most will be the starting point and while it is rarely lauded as the most exciting city in Southeast Asia, I do have a soft spot for it and we have put together a simple Kuala Lumpur city guide to make the most of it. For many the main attraction will be the Petronas Twin Towers but I suggest exploring further in culture as the local mosques offer and easy introduction to Islam in the region. The city also reflects the cultures colonial trade routes with a unique mix of Indian, Chinese and local Malay cultures throughout. The same colonial influences will be found prominent on the west coast where maritime paths travelled down past the island of Penang and along the straits of Malacca. For the best example of these mixed cultures I suggest the central Unesco areas of Georgetown (Penang) a great area not only to explore but is famous for its street food and food courts. Check here for our Guide on Eating in Malaysia. Not far from Penang is the island paradise of Langkawi which I would love solely for it’s cheap alcohol as a duty free island. In Malaysia, with Islamic Law, there are high ‘Sin Taxes’ on alcohol and in parts it can be hard to come across. We find this more on the opposite side, on the east coast of the Malay Peninsula where I often find myself on quests to find rum. The west coast is also less multicultural and less visited which makes it better to escape tourism and travellers. On this side the Perhentian islands are a top spot for snorkelling, and down further south on this side is Pulau Tioman which is a less visited island worth considering. If travelling between the two sides of Malaysia I suggest a stopover in the Cameron Highlands a British retreat during colonial times with rippled tea hills and quaint countryside charm. So this covers one half of Malaysia; often known as either West Malaysia or Peninsular Malaysia. Next is the expansive chunk of Borneo which Malaysia inhabits and while not logistically convenient it can easily be reached by low cost carriers. This region is known as East Malaysia and it covers three vast areas of Borneo’s rainforests in Sabah, Sarawak and Labuan. To date I have only covered the Sabah region of Borneo; starting in the capital of Kota Kinabalu, travelling down to see the fireflies in Beaufort, back up then across to the Orangutan Sanctuary in Sepilok and the turtle islands near Sandakan. Destinations are few and far between on Borneo but the eco-tourism is unbeatable. Also in Borneo are Brunei (No. 10 below) which is easy to visit from Beaufort Sabah (driving distance from Kota Kinabalu) and to the south is Indonesian Borneo.
In Southeast Asia I find there is a mutual dislike for Singapore with backpackers and travellers. As the most expensive destination in the region I understand why, but at the same time, few ever give the time or effort to try and like it. Personally I love Singapore, it is exciting, new vibrant, and as a big city lover there are few which can compare in the region (Bangkok maybe). Away from its shiny and futuristic facade there is also a unique ethnic makeup and diversity in culture, which again is influenced by the trade routes and is similar to that shown in Malaysia. But again, Singapore is expensive so for those travelling on a budget I have put together a Singapore ‘smash and grab’ itinerary to make the most of the stay. Away from the sterile and ‘strait laced’ stereotype my favourite area would be Geylang, also one of the better budget areas with plenty of food, hawker centres and local street bustle. Singapore is also small so regardless of where you stay in the city, a short journey on the MRT and rail networks will find anywhere you wish to visit. For many this will be the Marina Bay area which is central to the futuristic backdrop which hosts a nightly light show. With eating Singapore is hard to beat and it is arguably the best food city in Southeast Asia. I find this hard to argue and some of my favourite Singapore bites are found here. For those starting their Southeast Asia travels in Singapore I suggest travelling up and we recently covered the overland route from Singapore to Bangkok starting at the southernmost point of continental Southeast Asia (Sentosa Island) through Malaysia and up into Thailand.
I feel I am cheating here. In many ways I feel I have not been to Indonesia or at least I have barely scratched the surface. The only destination I have reached in Indonesia is Bali, a unique island which doesn’t really reflect much of the country’s culture found elsewhere. Therefore Indonesia sits top of my to-do list in Southeast Asia and of course we will update when we do. But for now it is Bali which for me is one of the most fascinating destinations on this planet. To see this you must first push away from the overcrowded tourist areas, the grumbling backpackers and travellers. By doing this you’ll find an island rich in culture, mysticism, wildlife and ceremony. However, Bali does continue to get a bad rap mainly due to its popularity. Yes, the beach resorts are beach resorts and the tourist attractions are touristy, and that’s why you avoid them. It’s not hard. My suggestion would be to travel straight, north from the airport to the central areas surrounding the cultural capital of Ubud. This should make a convenient base to explore the island if you manage to pull yourself from the views and canopies. Again, much of my love for Bali is in culture and ceremony and the island hosts fascinating and colourful celebrations yearlong. While I’ve not yet compiled a worthwhile list of Indonesian dishes you’ll find many share similarities to Malay cuisine with nasi (rice) dishes, satay, and beef rendang among the favourites. Bali also has its own celebrated cuisines in roast duck and suckling pig. Having always loved Bali, and given anywhere in Southeast Asia, we chose to celebrate our wedding in Ubud with our pre-wedding photo-shoot taken throughout the island.
My first ever visits to Cambodia were always brief travelling for quick border crossings, in and out, on Thai VISA Runs. For those who have done similar will know the experiences of Cambodia at its borders are little more than depressing and grim, and this of course reflected on my first impressions. When I finally ventured further through the country it was probably on a record breaking itinerary stopping at Siem Reap, Angkor and Phnom Penh all within 24 hours. This was not much better. It always felt like things weren’t right in Cambodia, and this feeling was only reinforced on my most recent to Angkor Wat this year when a young girl, no older than 10, asked me to “boyfriend” her. For many reasons I can’t feel comfortable in Cambodia, it is hard not to share the anguish not only of the past Cambodia, but of its current situation as well. A visit is no doubt eye opening but I can never take away any enjoyment from being there and the underlying social problems is only made worse by the generic backpacker bars which litter the main paths through the country. That being said, Angkor Wat is a fascinating site and it should top the list of any visit to Southeast Asia. Check here for our small circuit, and grand circuit guide to Angkor.
I still owe Vietnam more travel as I know it’s a country I could come to love. Unfortunately with high VISA fees and advance application necessary I am always put off short visits travelling instead to cheaper more convenient borders. So to date I’ve barely made it further than the big cities of Vietnam and the only time I have left the big two was in bussing to and from Halong Bay. My first visit was to Ho Chi Minh (former Saigon) and while I find it to be an exciting and lively city, there is again the underlying horrors of the past apparent through tourism in war, and the scars of ‘agent orange’. This can be unsettling to those who have little interest in these areas. In the end I spent most my time eating near Ben Thanh Market. So I personally prefer Hanoi, a low rise city, with plenty of back street bustle, lakeside charm and some great food to explore. While Vietnam is best known for soups, noodles and noodle soups there is a lot more to explore and while I did attempt a guide Vietnamese Food guide I know I have barely scratched the surface. I do plan to give more time to my next visits to Vietnam and I hope to explore the rural regions of the country away from the constant background blur of motorbikes in the big cities.
Laos always failed to excite me for a number of reasons. First, it felt too close to home with many similarities in culture to the Isaan region of Thailand. E.g. Buddhism and rice fields. Secondly, it follows a notorious backpacker route through the Indochina loop, which ruined the appeal of the more picturesque destinations of the country; such as Vang Vieng and even Luang Prabang. So to date I’ve not really travelled north and I’ve failed to get past the capital city of Vientiane which actually surprised me. While it doesn’t quite share the same backdrop and charm of northern Laos, it does have a unique riverside vibe on the banks of the Mekhong River, and the river promenade area is surprising young and vibrant. The main contrast I find between Laos and neighbouring Thailand would probably be in the French influences, and to my surprise there is some great French food to be found in Laos. Moving further south I have spent some time in the small town of Savannakhet, which I guess is worth a night or two but it is far from wowing. Further south again and I really liked Pakse, possibly due to the view from where I stayed but the town itself was relatively intriguing. Again, a day would do or use it as a base for travel to the nearby 4000 islands. The food in Laos brings the best of both sides sharing a mix of Vietnamese and Thai (Isaan and Lanna) from their neghbours although they are probably both done better on the opposite sides of the border. If I do ever return it will more than likely be for laziness and French food and maybe to push further North now the backpacker trails are slowly moving elsewhere.
I honestly did try hard to enjoy the Philippines… but I failed to do so. I feel there were a number of reasons for this. First off we started out in the city of Angeles which is little more than a nest of sex pests. We then travelled direct to Manila which to date is the only city where I’ve been forced to tell a tout to **** off. Then these ugly experiences continued to follow us throughout the days and while we did quite like Palawan and Puerto Princesa, it again didn’t really wow us. Much of the love for the Philippines is in the beaches, and this comes from more adventurous travellers, which we really are not. What we travel for is street life, food and culture and for me the Philippines felt more like a South American country than Asia. It certainly lacked that Asian charm which we love in other parts of Southeast Asia and this maybe due to the familiarity in Christian culture and fluency in american English. Also, the underlying dangers are a little unnerving with every street side Starbucks and Jollibees fronted by armed guards. While I do feel I owe the Philippines another chance; I don’t think it will be for a while with Indonesia and Vietnam higher in my travel priorities. If I do go back? Maybe Cebu. In short while the Philippines is unique in itself – it wasn’t unique to my personal interests. On the plus side Filipino food proved surprisingly delicious and their beer selection could be the best in Southeast Asia.
Following the mass hysteria of backpackers as Myanmar ‘opened its doors’ it looks now to have calmed and travel is now a lot less stressful. The tourism infrastructure is better capable with ATMs everywhere, easy online hotel bookings, and many other conveniences. While traveller’s expectations were for McDonalds and Krusty Klown Burgers to pop up overnight, this is far from going to happen. However, Myanmar is slowly changing and I feel this will come first in the friendliness and intrigue of locals where the sight of travellers and tourists have now become everyday. So now is always better than tomorrow for the local charm but for other attractions there is no hurry. In destinations I actually preferred Mandalay over Yangon out of the two entry cities and while the Yangon is more beautiful in lakes and Pagodas I felt the travel and excursions surrounding Mandalay (Innwa etc.) made it the better city to visit. Mandalay is also better situated for travel to Bagan – a must when in Myanmar. The temples of Bagan are one of the most intriguing and fascinating sites in all of Southeast Asia and a day trip out to Mount Popa is also comes high up on the list. There still remains a lot to uncover and explore in Myanmar which makes it great for the more adventurous of travellers. However this also means the tourist infrastructure is generally non-existent outside of the main tourist routes. Accommodation costs are also expensive compared to neighbouring countries. For those adventurous in eating we have put together a Myanmar food guide (it’s not as bad as people make out).
Brunei is likely to be the least visited of Southeast Asia destination and this is due to its tiny size and far flung location. Found on the vast island of Borneo, Brunei can only be accessed by direct flight, or via the neighbouring borders of Malaysian Borneo. I won’t say it is worth travelling to alone, unless on a stopover, but it is definitely worth the visit when exploring nearby Borneo. I find there are three faces to Brunei; the opulence in wealth of an oil rich nation, the humble beginnings of traditional water villages, and of course the Borneo rainforests which make up most of it. On our visit we were fortunate to cover all three which can be done in a short space of time. The main attractions of Bandar Seri Begawan (or BSB for short) can easily be covered in a day and this includes the traditional water villages. Then there are the rainforest treks which are also worth considering (although better can be found in other parts). On our visit we tour the primary rainforests of Ulu Temburong National Park and while day trips are available to the main canopy walk, I do suggest spending a further night or two with the main resort at Ulu Ulu Resort. These tours will covers the early morning canopy walk, with other optional rainforest treks and other jungly activities. Also Brunei is quite expensive for travel when compared to surrounding Malaysia and Borneo and the currency comes closer and is interchangeable to the Singapore dollar. The iconic, beach side, hotel stay would be at the famous Empire Hotel.