This is a very different post for me because every other blog I have written reflecting on my travels in a particular country or continent has been produced via a combination of immediate responses furiously scribbled as I travel and then more detailed, informed thoughts right after my time there. They have been in-the-moment and and timely. South East Asia, on the other hand, has manifested itself incredibly differently. As I type this – thoughts that are spilling from the recesses of my mind out through my fingertips and directly out onto this blog page – it is a year since I was in Vietnam. I spent just over 3 months in SEA – Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia and Singapore – first flying into Bangkok, Thailand on 29th May 2016 and then flying out of Singapore on 8th September 2016 (although Singapore often felt worlds away from the rest of South East Asia that I often wouldn’t group it within the same experiences and reflections).
Yet I didn’t write a single reflective note while I was there and I have only now – in July 2017 – started to put together all the thoughts and feelings I have about South East Asia into the written word. Honestly, I think it is because South East Asia stole my heart. I fell in love with it completely and utterly, matching its pace and being totally immersed; there’s little time for the mind when the heart is occupied. And then I left, leaving a part of me there, and spent a lot of my time in Australia, as wonderful as it was, mourning the loss of South East Asia; grieving that was too raw and fresh to be able to write about it without it hurting far too much.
Sound dramatic? It is. It was. When somewhere – or something – captivates you in that way, when it pulls you in and sets you free, it is devastating once that has gone. South East Asia was the first place I travelled alone – a solo female traveller – with the exception of Laos (side note, I wonder if that is why Laos doesn’t stand out as much for me in terms of how it made me feel) so I recognise the significance it holds in that respect; the freedom, challenge, empowerment, independence and sheer euphoria at travelling alone are so many of the things I found wonderful about backpacking and that formed an identity I had spent years searching for. Elements that I would now identify as prerequisites and desires for the life I want to live. So to experience all of those together, for the first time, will always make South East Asia stand out for me. I proved to myself that I could do it, even when I would be sat there actually speaking aloud the words “I can’t do this” as I would be sat on the balcony of a hostel in Vietnam overlooking the busy Hanoi streets, a single tear falling slowly down my cheek. I knew somewhere deep within me, that I could, even when it felt ridiculously hard to, and I did. South East Asia was the first place I realised I was stronger, braver and far more capable than I gave myself credit for. Than anyone gives themselves credit for.
I guess I will always be protective of South East Asia; protective of what it means to me and protective of that being tainted by anyone. I am aware of how subjective any travelling experience is and, therefore, the opinion of any country. People often ask me which has been my favourite country and I find that so hard to answer, subjectively or at all, as your feelings towards a country have only about a third to do with that country itself and the rest is shaped by the people you happen to meet and the experiences you happen to have, which can be down to chance, luck, weather, political situations and so on. So I don’t have a favourite country – or favourite countries – but there are countries that were my favourite to experience. For me at lot of those were in South East Asia, despite having good and bad experiences and a lot of frustrations, all of which are my own and personal to me. As ever, the opinions, thoughts and reflections I present here are just that – mine – and not to be taken as absolutes.
One of the wonderful things about travelling around South East Asia is how relatively easy it is to, well, travel. I didn’t realise at the time until I went to Australia and saw how expensive it was to travel in comparison and then went to South America and saw how difficult and convoluted it was to travel in comparison. That’s not to say it should be easy or cheap to travel around another country – why should they accommodate travellers or adapt their systems for us? We are visiting their country, their culture, and it shouldn’t have to be tailored to make that more accessible for us, not when we profess a desire to want to see a country as it really is. However, I completely took for granted how cheap, easy and (relatively) stress-free it was to travel around South East Asia. I would get frustrated when we would arrive at our destination at 5am instead of 6am as stated – their concept of time is definitely something to be taken loosely – or when I got moved 3 times between different buses as they couldn’t figure out which one I was supposed to be on to get from Hanoi in Vietnam to Danang. But arriving somewhere early is actually far better than late and at least I managed to get a seat on a bus with minimal effort.
There were some issues with the buses and it wasn’t always smooth sailing. In Vietnam, where you mainly get nightbuses from one place to the next due to distance, they drove so fast and beeped their horns so regularly (apparently to notify motorcyclists of their presence but I never did understand the need for such dramatic declarations) that you were surprised to find yourself not in the middle of a traffic accident. It was also on my journey from Dalat to Mui Ne in Vietnam were the bus blew up on the way but the driver still persevered around the winding mountain roads and a group of locals even tried to push-start it once it had clearly failed. In Pai the mist surrounding the mountains was so bad that all we could see was white when we looked out the window but the driver kept going anyway (are you sensing a theme?) And many buses and minivans would collect locals along the way from the sides of the road despite already being at full capacity.
But I took minivans, buses, night buses and local buses to get from one destination to the next in Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and Malaysia, including ones that crossed borders; Cambodia into Thailand, Thailand into Malaysia, Malaysia into Singapore. Half of them I booked a day in advance whereas the other half I booked the morning of travel, meaning I could make the decision that day if I wanted to move on; the freedom and flexibility this offers as a traveller is completely wonderful, as often you will not know how long you wish to spend somewhere and part of the joy is being able to be spontaneous about your movements. There were so many different bus companies to choose from that you would rarely encounter a problem where you couldn’t book a seat, plus you could find these companies – or tour operators – literally lining the streets in each location you were at; you could walk a minute from your hostel (or even find a tour desk in your hostel) to book transport, so it was quick and easy to do. Moreover, the majority of buses would leave from the centre, or near the centre, of one city and take you to the centre, or near the centre, of the next.
I remember my bus to Danang stopped away from the city and I, stubbornly, walked about half an hour in the heat with my backpack sticking to my body. Another time I opted to take a local bus rather than a “tour” bus from Danang to Hoi An as it was so much cheaper but this also stopped far from the centre, this time my stubborn refusal to pay for a motorbike ride and fear of being scammed leaving me with an hour walk trudging around the hot, humid streets of Hoi An. But they are the only two examples I can think of where my walk from the bus dropping you off to the centre, or my hostel if pre-booked, took longer than 15 minutes. The majority of South East Asia caters for travelling – for backpackers – in how regular, cheap and easy the transport is, plus the cost of a tuk tuk/motorbike/taxi if you are caught short will never break the bank.
As with most developing countries where it is cheap to travel, poverty is an issue and hand-in-hand with that often brings the risk of theft or scams. I try not to generalise or blanket anywhere or anybody – I also travelled to South America and similar things could be said there, plus I lived in London for 5 years where muggings are also commonplace – but I can really only speak of my experience and this was part of my experience of SEA. There are elements of haggling and scamming everywhere in South East Aisa – whether that be for hostel beds (in Laos this happened a lot), for tours, for bus trips or for market goods – but, for me, the place where I felt the most wary of being scammed and the place where I feel it happened the most to me was in Vietnam, in particular Hoi An. I heard the most stories about travellers being charged double what had been agreed at the beginning by motorbike taxis and motorcycle tours, with them not being taken to their final destination until they had been paid what they were now demanding. Personally I couldn’t ever really tell if I was getting a good deal or being taken for a ride or not.
Firstly, Hoi An is known for its tailoring, many visitors having a suit or dress custom-made while they are there as its one of the cheapest places to have something tailored to you. However you are advised to offer around half of the price they ask for, but it gets very confusing and they are very persistent, and you leave not really being sure if you have been scammed or not. I paid £12 to have a bikini custom-made for me, cheap for at home but actually expensive for Hoi An, especially is it pulled away at the seams by the time I reached the end of South East Asia, but I was in a rush and I didn’t haggle as much as I should (or could) have done. I also had an experience where I was on the “better” side of bartering but at the same time still ending up feeling scammed when I booked a tour of the My Son Ruins through my hostel. The Sunrise tour was advertised at 180,000 dong and I managed to haggle it down 160,000, later finding out someone else from my hostel was on the tour and paid the higher price. However you pay more for a Sunrise tour than for a day tour and, after falling in love with sunsets I decided to pay a higher price and wake up at 4am to experience a sunrise over the ruins. But my bus didn’t arrive until 5am and we weren’t on the rad for long before the sun rose – when we queried about the sunrise they quipped that sunrise is too early, to which I questioned why it is called a My Son Sunrise Tour if you don’t experience the sunrise at the ruins. “Because we go early and you avoid all the tourists.” Then call it a My Son Early Tour!
The element of haggling brings about its own issues of being ripped off. Hoi An was particularly hot and the air really still while I was there and as I wandered round the markets I noticed mini wooden fans on every stall for 20,000 dong; you will often come across the same items again and again on these stalls, and literally everywhere was doing them for the same price. Then, on the day I finally decided to purchase one, I wandered over to the first stall I saw, picked one up to buy and was told it was 70,000 dong. I was palpably shocked and said something along the lines of “no way, these are 20,000 everywhere, it is not worth 70,000” and she replied, “ok, fine, 20,000 it is”. They try their luck, hoping you don’t know better or have just arrived and are unaware of the local price of things, which is definitely an issue; every new place you go to you have to first establish the rough going price of things, which varies city to city as well as country to country, and this can take some time, often meaning you are a little bit scammed to begin with, until you figure it out. And don’t get me wrong, bartering is part of the experience and part of the culture and it can be fun, but it can also be exhausting and tiring and frustrating; I even had to barter over a can of coke, for goodness sake. I remember at one point even saying I missed England, where everything was far more expensive but at least you knew everyone was paying that same. I mean, I kind of didn’t miss the prices, I just found being on edge and having to work so hard to purchase anything was getting slightly draining.
I’ve touched upon Tuk Tuks and motorbike taxis but this definitely deserves a mention of its own as it is such a big part of the culture of South East Asia. You literally cannot walk down a single street without having “Tuk Tuk?”, “You need Tuk Tuk?”, “Pretty lady want a Tuk Tuk?” barked at you in succession. Sometimes you will pass 4 or 5 Tuk Tuk drivers in a row whom ask you the exact same question for you to give the exact same answer each time, sometimes the SAME one person will ask you 4 or 5 times, changing it from a simple “Tuk Tuk?” to “Where are you going?”, to “I can take you Tuk Tuk to airport?” even after you said no to the first question. If I said no to taking a tuk tuk at all, why would I suddenly need one to the airport?? Replace the word Tuk Tuk with Taxi or Motorbike, and you pretty much cover one third of the conversation you engage in during your time in South East Asia. When you’re hot, tired and just want to get to your destination, having someone come up in your face and repeat the same sentence at you over and over could be tiring, but at other times it would also make me laugh at how ridiculous it could be. If I wanted a tuk tuk, don’t you think I would just ask for one?? But then I would remind myself that my culture and my way isn’t their culture or their way – and I am, after all, in their country – and pull myself out of my privilege to recognise that it was their way of making a living.
In fact, I think this is something we should always be aware of when travelling to another country; we are in their space, in their world, in their culture. Who are we to impose our ways of living onto them? It can be hard at times – and of course there is a place for observations and opinions and personal preferences, which I hope I express here without judgement or condemnation – but we also have to remember that we are a visitor in their country and we don’t necessarily do everything better or right (blimey, far from it!) For me it’s about recognising our differences and reflecting on those while being respectful. I had some of my most wonderful experiences when crossing cultural barriers with locals, this being one of my favourite things about travelling to other countries altogether. When I was picked up in a taxi from my hostel in Hanoi to be taken to my bus leaving for Sapa and the Vietnamese taxi driver began singing along to Hotel California despite not speaking any conversational English, slapping my leg enthusiastically as he threw himself into the lyrics; when I rode a moped to a waterfall in Kampot and a man from a nearby Khmer family having a picnic came up to me to ask (via gesture) if he could have a photo with me, which caused shrieks of delight and laughter from his family members as I happily obliged and threw my arm round him for a picture before sitting with his entire family with a huge smile on my face and warmth in my belly.
Or when I hitchhiked in the Cameron Highlands, Malaysia, to the Jungle Trek, jumping in a huge car with a Malaysian family and not being able to communicate at all with one another in the same language but their kindness breaking any barrier; when I was asked to stop and speak with a group of Vietnamese students in Ho Chi Minh city whom wanted to practice their English, asking me about the Royal Family, about where I love to travel, about the religion in England, and them teaching me popular Vietnamese songs.
Or when I spent an entire day – from 4:30am – with my Tuk Tuk driver all around Angkor Wat in Siem Reap that, even though we barely spoke to one another we had shared so much in that one day, I felt sad to say goodbye and asked for a selfie, to which he happily obliged; when I had a sore throat during my Homestay in Sapa and the woman running the Homestay – Mamasa – offered to give me a “home remedy” which I jumped at the chance for and involved her plucking at the skin on my neck, leaving me with bruises on my neck and a story that will last me a lifetime.
The food. Oh my goodness, the food. How can I not yet have mentioned the food?? Food, as with culture, is one of the big reasons I love to travel. I love food – I have always loved food – and I have never been a “fussy” eater. I literally will try anything and I will always be up for trying the local dish, even if it is something that may not usually appeal to me. South East Asia was not as wildly adventurous in terms of food when it comes to China (dog, lamb testicle, grilled worms, roasted scorpion) or to South America (Guinea Pig, Alpaca, Lllama, Sheep’s head), probably Barbecued Rat along the Mekong River in Vietnam being the most adventurous I had, but the food was fresh, cheap, well portioned, and made using the most simple yet tasty ingredients. One of the things I loved most about travelling around South East Asia was how cheap and easy it was to eat out, wandering the streets, beaches or mountains all day to then realise you are hungry and be able to decide to eat, there and then. Taking a pew on a small, colourful, plastic chair on the pavement, you would be able to devour a meal made in 5 minutes while being surrounded by locals. It was the ultimate in dining like a local and so wonderfully easy and tasty.
Along the way my favourites would have to be Pad See Ew and Pad Thai in Thailand (I could literally eat these all the time); a Khmer Curry (my favourite being an aubergine one I had in Battambang, but everywhere the rice was sticky and tasty with the most delicious, flavoured curry I have ever had) and Amok Fish in Cambodia; fresh spring rolls made at my Vietnamese Homestays in Sapa and the Mekong Delta;
Khao Soi in Chiang Mai and in Laos (although the food in Laos was heavily French-influenced with a lot of baguettes); Street Food Markets; Mee Goreng in Malaysia and pretty much any Hawker food in Singapore, but mainly the Malaysian-influenced food for me or the infamous dishes at Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice & Noodle. I am actually salivating talking about the food and looking back at pictures. Food, food, food.
Coffee shops and cafes were also much more prevalent than I expected, mainly in the cities of Vietnam (Hanoi and Hoi An in particular), Cambodia (Siem Reap especially, but also Battambang and Kampot) and Laos. Oh, and the fresh, icy fruit shakes you could get pretty much anywhere in SEA for around £1 became my staple, and favourite, breakfast item.
Interestingly I also fell a bit in love with the hostels. They were basic – sometimes rustic – and cosy, offering all the amenities you would need and more often that note came equipped with an individual power socket, and individual light and even, at times, a curtain to pull across your bed; these little things became luxuries for me and would be the absolute dream in terms of a hostel bed. They weren’t fancy or over-the-top, nor were they over-priced, but they often had a homely feel, especially the more independent ones ran by locals (NB, I generally avoid party hostels; I love a good drinking session and I have visited party hostels as a night out but I wouldn’t choose to stay in one. I don’t like to have it forced on me, I like to be able to get some sleep when I want to, and a lot of the time they are run by backpackers who also just want to party so the experience you have is usually far poorer and not at all cultural). In most of these there would be a common area where you would meet fellow travellers and end up hanging out, doing tours together or going for dinner. At DeNative Guesthouse in the Cameron Highlands, Malaysia, the bungalow-style thatched buildings were quaint and cosy, and the fire pit with tree-trunk seating had fellow travellers drinking around it at night before blasting out some karaoke on the Guesthouse system.
Another example would be Mr Peace Backpacker’s House in Dalat, where the owner was eccentric to say the least – giving hugs on arrival – but where we would have hostel dinners together and a load of the travellers staying there played card drinking games on the terrace and went out to the local jaunts (100 Roofs Cafe and BeePub) together. There was more of a sense of community in these hostels, and they made up a good chunk of the backpacking experience in South East Asia.
One of my favourite hostels – The Hangover Hostel in Koh Phi Phi – was a one-room, 10 bed hostel with two bathrooms off the main room where the “common area” was the patio out front. All 10 of us staying there spent the evenings drinking whiskey and eating nuts on the patio with the hostel owner, and all of us went out together for a night out of Muay Thai, food and bars on the beach in Koh Phi Phi.
Safety. As a solo female traveller, most of the time I felt safe backpacking around South East Asia; I can only think of one time where I felt unsafe or at risk, at a backpacker party hostel in Ho Chi Minh City, and I made the decision to leave at 5am, in floods of tears, to find another place to sleep and thus removing myself from the situation. But other than that I am struggling to come up with a time that I felt unsafe or at risk; maybe I have romanticised South East Asia and put a mental block or any negative feeling, but I honestly didn’t feel more at danger being a female or being on my own. Sure, things felt more stressful or emotional if they went wrong, but the locals were so friendly and the areas so widely backpacked that you will usually find someone – fellow traveller or local – who is wiling to help you. Don’t get me wrong, all sorts of terrible things can happen – and have happened – with backpackers, but also all sorts of terrible things can happen wherever you are, whoever you are and whatever you are doing. Some of it is down to common sense and you develop a safety gauge and learn how to trust that; it doesn’t matter if you maybe think you overreacted or were irrational later, if you feel unsafe then you remove yourself from that situation.
I have managed to talk on and on about South East Asia without really mentioning the things you do there, which seems insane but maybe justifies the point I made earlier about so much of your encounter of a country being about who you meet and the individual experiences you have as opposed to tangible things about that country itself. But it would be a huge omittance on my part to not mention the wonderful array of landscape, activities, travel, culture and architecture that is South East Asia.
The interesting yet harrowing museums of the War Remnants in Ho Chi Minh City, Women at Work in Luang Prabang, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, Hao Lo Prison in Hanoi, Cope Visitor Centre in Vientiane, Landmine Museum in Siem Reap.
The energy and character of local markets, food markets, floating markets and crab markets; the colour in the form of painted houses and street graffiti.
The crazy city roads and of Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Chiang Mai where it is less dangerous to just close your eyes, go for it and don’t hesitate rather than attempt to weave the insane traffic; the borders you can cross from one country to the next by road or by boat along the Mekong River (Thailand into Laos, Vietnam into Cambodia).
The moped rides you can take along the winding Hai Van Pass of Vietnam, the vast island of Koh Phangan, the terrifying grid system and dual carriageways of Chiang Mai, the steep and wide Bokor Mountain in Kampot and the moped-friendly roads in Pai; the scenic cycling routes of Hoi An, Kampot, Luang Prabang, Singapore and Malacca.
The marvellous use of bamboo in the form of bamboo rafting across the rivers of Pai, bamboo canoeing along the rivers and canals of the Mekong Delta and the crazy yet exhilarating Bamboo Train in Battambang.
The numerous temples, statues, celebrations and commitment to religion that you cannot avoid or help being moved by.
The Half Moon, Full Moon and beach parties in Thailand; Reggae Muay Thai bar in Koh Phi Phi, 100 Roofs Café in Dalat for a maze-style Hide and Seek session, Monkey Bar in Koh Lanta for karaoke, Sakura Bar in Laos for post-tubing drinks, Raffles Bar in Singapore for the classic Sling, Amsterdam Bar in Koh Phangan for the weed and the sunsets.
The surprising, spectacular mountains in Danang and Kampot; the varying caves you can wander around in or crawl through in Halong Bay, Kuala Lumpur and Kampot; The natural canyons of Pai and Chiang Mai in Thailand, the Sand Dunes of Mui Ne in Vietnam, the harrowing Killing Fields of Phnom Penh in Cambodia, the resourceful Cu Chi Tunnels in Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, the impressive and mighty Angkor Wat ruins in Siem Reap in Cambodia.
The stunning ocean, rivers and lakes with Xuan Huong Lake in Dalat, Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi, Secret Lake in Kampot, Nam Khan River in Luang Prabang, Pai River, Thu Bồn River in Hoi An, Kampot River, Nam Song River in Vang Vieng, Penang River, Hàn River in Danang, the Malacca River, Siem Reap River, Chao Phraya River and its connecting canals in Bangkok.
Cultural activities including elephant feeding and bathing in Chiang Mai; Meditation with Monks in Vientiane (Laos); helping kids with their English in Luang Prabang; Cooking Classes in Hoi An; visiting the Rice Fields in Laos and the Pepper Plantation in Cambodia.
The gorgeous beaches, waterfalls and islands of Halong Bay, Koh Phi Phi, Kuang Si Waterfall, Koh Phangan, the Mekong Delta, Koh Lanta, Koh Tonsay, Maya Bay Koh Rong Samloem, Perhentian Islands and Koh Chang.
The incredible landscape, jungles and treks in the Cameron Highlands, Sapa and Penang.
Kayaking in Vang Vieng and Halong Bay, Scuba Diving in Koh Tao, Snorkelling in Perhentian Islands, Tubing down the Nam Song river in Vang Vieng and Canyoning the waterfalls of Thac Datlana in Dalat.
The surprising things you fall in love with including the rustic, simple bamboo bridges of Laos compared with the tacky, over-the-top bridges in Vietnam and the large, impressive bridges in the cities of Thailand.
The unsurprising yet still remarkable things you fall in love with including the spectacular sunsets at Pre Rup in Angkor Wat, the viewing point in Koh Phi Phi, Mount Phu Si in Luang Prabang, the lookout in the Pai Canyon, from a boat along the river in Kampot and at the Amsterdam Bar in Koh Phangan.
During my time in South East Asia I caught severe sunstroke and had to go to hospital for blood tests and medication in Thailand, had a snake draped round my neck in Vietnam, got up close with monkeys in Thailand and in Cambodia, bruised my back during a Wipe Out water park activity in Thailand, had a 2 year relationship end and had my sister come to join me in the Thai Islands for 10 days. And I fell in love; with the people, the place, the culture. There is so much to do, so much to see, so much to experience; it is vast and beautiful and enriching.
The 3 months I spent there were the most challenging, enlightening, rewarding, exciting, petrifying and enriching experience of my entire life. I left my heart in South East Asia; where did you leave yours?