The curse of tourism – to destroy what it most desires. Inevitable and unstoppable. The Southeast Asia region far from immune to this curse. In fact travel in Southeast Asia probably gets the worst of it. Bangkok the most visited city in the world. Backpackers littering every beach and island. Even off the beaten track is well beaten. The parasitical nature of travellers so prevalent in Southeast Asia that Government’s change laws and close businesses just to rid of them (Vang Vieng, Laos). Thankfully I rarely see the ugly side of tourism and travel in Southeast Asia. As a gastro-tourist my main interest is food drawing me more to big cities and back streets. But then and again curiosity gets the better of me. “Bored? Lets go see ……?” a question which ends in queues, disappointment and more often than not bewilderment. To make the most of these wasted hours I will share them here with the rest of you. As a heads up on what to expect at Tourist Attractions and travel in Southeast Asia. I will update as I go along.
The Beach (Ko Phi-Phi, Thailand)
The worst of both worlds. A notorious backpacker island and tour guide favourite. Together creating the perfect tourist hell. Ko Phi-Phi is found in a remote location between Krabi and Phuket in the Andaman Sea. Completely off the beaten track only slapped on the map by Holywood movie The Beach. The main beach Maya Bay littered with tourists, the pristine waters swarming with boats, wildlife drowned by engines. No surprise everyone looks so glum. “Is this it? I travelled the world for this?” It is the perfect place to question life. It is the bottom of the barrel. On our visit we are forced to swim to the back of the island. Of course this ends with an dSLR camera in the Andaman Sea. A truly depressing day at Ko Phi-Phi Le yet this island still tops many to do list for travel in Southeast Asia.
Tanah Lot (Bali, Indonesia)
Ridiculously touristy as is the South of Bali. This is an area I rarely visit. From the second I set foot from the plane I journey North away from the mass tourist hubs of the South. To me Bali will always be an essential destination for travel in Southeast Asia with culture like no other. At the same time it is necessary to get away from the overcrowded tourist areas. Please don’t do as other travellers; arrive in Bali, turn up at tourist attractions, then leave complaining how touristy it is. It is not hard to Escape Tourism in Bali. Tanah Lot is just one example of where to avoid. We were only here for a Pre-Wedding Photoshoot having arrived from a black sand beach nearby. What we expected was a remote and quiet pilgrimage temple. What we found was tourist hell. Extortionate entrance fees, an entire village built on the lead to the shore for the purpose of selling crap. Hundreds of outlets, souvenir shops, restaurants. Mass produced tourist junk. Billabong, Ralph Lauren outlets. A good 5 minute walk necessary to escape it all. You then arrive at Tanah Lot Temple to swarms of tourists and travellers. I can’t think of a bigger waste of time or money.
Anything with Animals
Before starting this I should point out that I am not a PETA freak. I am just a guy who, in my earlier traveller days, visited a lot of these attractions. I am a guy who now feels guilty for paying entrance fees to fund and maintain them. Don’t do the same as I. After staring into so many hopeless eyes you will likely feel the same. Admittedly at every attraction I arrive excited to meet wild animals. Everytime I leave feeling soulless having found drugged up and miserable beasts. If planning on animal attractions with travel in Southeast Asia stick to ‘eco-tourism’. It is a whole lot better than captivation, barbarity and exploitation. Fact is with travel in Southeast Asia you will find endless opportunities to meet real wildlife. Try Lopburi, Thailand or Borneo jungle…. Every major city will have some authentic eco-tourism experience nearby. The fun is tracking down animals in the wild not walking up and poking half dead animals.
Sands SkyPark (Marina Bay, Singapore)
Okay do not avoid the Skypark but do consider the alternative Ku De Ta which sits on a level above. The Sands SkyPark or Ku De Ta are a must on any Visit to Singapore. The views are easily the best in Southeast Asia and in my opinion are on par with Hong Kong‘s Victoria Peak. Admittedly on my visit to the Skypark I was in for a slight anticlimax. At the time I was clueless. I arrive to the ground floor of the Marina Sands Building and search for the elevator. I find them in the central building and ascend 55 floors only to be quickly shooed away by hotel security. The central towers are for Sands Hotel guests only. The tourist tower is on the outside of the building. Expect queues for tickets (S$20), queues for the lift and the cliched tourist photo ops. All before you reach the views. This is why I suggest Ce La Vi. No queues, same views and only a little extra spending on world class cocktails. Plus their slogan “Lifestyle Less Ordinary” is pretty awesome.
Langkawi Cable Car (Langkawi, Malaysia)
For travel in Southeast Asia this was the first attraction where I’ve been asked to queue to be put in a queue. I think their way of force feeding express tickets at triple the price. “The queue can take two to three hours”… While “Screw That!” was the appropriate answer the taxi fare getting here was expensive. Thankfully it took only 40 minutes of queueing before we were put in the queue. In the waiting time we fed rabbits and ate at one of the few reasonably priced restaurants. Our queue number announced on the loud speaker. We arrive to the queue and wait for roughly 40 minutes. We squash into a cable car with a local lady and her overexcited kids. Nice views at the top but would have much preferred a day filling my face at Nasi Kandar Tomato.
Petronas Skybridge (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia)
The most contentious of my picks… Ok I’ve never made it to the Petronas Skybridge but already it annoys me. On at least one occasion I had planned to visit but the hassle is too much. The ticketing system (was) just weird. Limited tickets only issued early morning (08.30) on a fist come first served basis. You are then assigned a time later in the day to visit. A process which will waste half a day in Kuala Lumpur. The ticketing for Petronas Towers is changing (slowly) with advance bookings now available and soon online ticketing to be offered. But it is worth it? The new observation deck looks quite impressive at the top but in my opinion views from elsewhere in the city are better. Views which have the actual Petronas Twin Towers in them. KL Tower the tallest viewpoint in the city just one of the other options. This attraction I did do… it was ok. Kuala Lumpur views aren’t overly exciting and fact is you can see the Twin Towers from almost anywhere the city. Go stand in front of them, sip cocktails at the Traders Skybar with the Towers as a backdrop. Unless obsessed with architecture or the Entrapment movie I would give them a miss.
Generic Tour Buses
Because they’re touristy and annoying. While I do like hop-on / hop-off buses in Europe and Western cities the equivalent for travel in Southeast Asia is hard to find. I like hop-on / hop-off as a tourist option for public transport; they still allow you to tour independentally. In Southeast Asia they tend to be planned tours, timed and rushed, oriented to mass tourism and the only benefit is they take the laziness out of independent travel. Transport and attractions are cheap for travel in Southeast Asia so make the most of it. Would you rather whizz through back streets on Tuk-Tuks or be squashed on a bus with hordes of underwhelming tourists. Pushed past tourist junk and places of little independent interest. Pick your own itinerary and travel independentally. It’s not hard. Our most recent disaster was Puerto Princesa, Palawan in the Philippines. Crocodile park, themed rubbish, other stuff we weren’t interested. Oh and mingling at the half-way picnic. Reminded me of school excursions. The only enjoyable part is sitting and watching local life from the window.
Chao Phraya Dinner Cruise (Bangkok, Thailand)
Or at least the cheaper tours. So I tried to make our images look romantic but in reality this was a tedious affair. Before boarding we spend close to an hour registering and waiting at the pier. The cruise begins and does a loop on the Chao Phraya River. It stops at two main attractions; the Rama 8 bridge and Wat Arun (Temple of Dawn). During the cruise we wait in queues for generic buffet food blanded for tourists. Queues not really worth joining. After feeding the music kicks off with renditions of La Bamba and other played out tourist tracks. Mums do the twist, kids skid on their knees, Indian’s do a weird doggy paddle… all disco stereotypes present. A better Bangkok Dinner Cruise would tear out the buffet and tourist resort crap. Keep the cocktails (180 Baht) and the amazing views. Or just charter your own long-tail boat for half the price.
Intramuros (Manila, Philippines)
The first time I’ve ever sworn at a tour tout. You can read all about it here on my “F**k Off Pedro” post. In short tour – touts at Intramuros are complete dicks. Standing in front of photos, not allowing you to read signs, chasing you down back streets. After driving into the back of me on a Pedalo the only option left was to join one of their tours. And of course he scammed us. We didn’t even see Intramuros. After the first attraction on the tour we ask to be dropped off at the main road. We then got as far away as possible. This goes the same for all of Manila. Unbelievably scammy and tourist unfriendly compared to other travel in Southeast Asia. I arrived hoping to find a different side to Manila but wasn’t given the chance. Easily my least favourite city in Southeast Asia. Easily. I still can’t believe how bad it was.
Singapore Slings (Downtown, Singapore)
In a city where everyone is a foodie the best drink they can muster is the Singapore Sling? Singapore Slings are horrible and my guess is Singaporean’s are ashamed of them. More of a bad cliche than a drink. Please do not waste time and money at the Raffles Long Bar. Embarrassing. Of course I haven’t been myself but I know US$20 is better spent elsewhere. I personally went for a cheaper option. Singapore Sling at Clarke Quay. Matching garish with garish to create an ugly blend of horribleness. In for a penny in for a pound. I did this at the Riverside Hooters. Probably listening to Gangnam Style.
11 thoughts on “The Curse of Travel in Southeast Asia”
Well, the first three I agree with you.
But the rest is not so obvious to me, that they all should be missed.
In Manila I just went to see things on my own, which is no problem at all and actually enjoyed it. Intramuros was nice and quiet. I probably have to add, that I’m well trained in ignoring touts. 🙂
I liked the skybridge in KL. I just had 3 hours sleep that night and got up in the morning to get the ticket. Worth it!
Sirocco: Since Hangover 2 it has gotten worse, but still ok. Come late and just stay for an hour. It also seems to be a must for Chinese tourists, because Chinese always want to be at the number one of everything and Sirocco is the highest open air rooftop bar & restaurant.
Great Feedback Charles. Had similar comment on Facebook re Petronas. I might actually give this a go when the online ticketing starts working. Observation deck interesting me. It is no longer free unfortunately (80RM). Intramuros a friend of mine had no problem once passing them. Backpacker. Think it is the couples they prey on (myself and Fanfan). Using the girlfriend as leverage. Even down backstreets they kept finding us and chasing us down… ****s still can’t believe how bad they were.
Yeah the touts really are pesky. They even hound locals like me. The best way is to ignore them and just go exploring on your own. Intramuros is very peaceful once you get rid of them. I reccommend finding your way to Fort Santiago, then head over to San Agustin Church, and Bahay Tsinoy. Watch the sunset down Manila bay to end the end. The pollution makes for wonderful sunsets. Cheers~
Cheers Herbkins. Will try that next time. Last time we ended at Fort Santiago. Well we started at San Agustin Church, and just skipped the rest hoping things would be better at the other side of the road at Fort Santiago. Touts tried to force sell me hats despite me telling them ‘I hate hats, I would never ever wear a hat ever’. In the end we didn’t go into Fort Santiago. We scarpered back to the main road and got a taxi far from the area. Of course the taxi tried to scam us 😉 Would really love to visit these places one day. Just not so enjoyable without control on the touts.
I have to agree that phi phi is overcrowded and expensive. Choose any other Thai island. Manila is just rubbish, the worst city I have visited. I still think Bangkok is the best city though. Just avoid khao san road area for obvious reasons. A crowded Bali is still awesome
I went to Manila hoping to prove that it wasn’t rubbish. Failed completely. In the Phi-Phi area (Krabi) I would always go for Railay (east) to avoid the crowds. Yes with Bangkok and again yes with Bali. We think very alike 🙂
If you want to visit the Philippines, DONT stay in Manila.. Cebu City or Davao City is a better option. If you want some beaches, go to El Nido or Coron. Philippine beaches are not crowded (except for Boracay) but are equally beautiful with those Thai beaches…
Good call. I hear a lot of good about Cebu and Elnido. We were in Palawan before; chose it over Boracay for same reasons.
I stumbled upon your blog and I find your travel posts very interesting. I am saddened about your experience in Manila. I must admit some may tend to rip off tourists but of course there is a good side! I have some posts about my country here: http://mynameisjillyace.blogspot.com/search/label/philippines
Planning to go to bangkok this year! Would love to use your reviews about the city 🙂