We’re about halfway through the Asian portion of our trip. So far we’ve visited Singapore (briefly), Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and are currently in northern Vietnam. Only the rest of Vietnam, Malaysia, and Japan to go! Time seems to be flying by, but we’re loving every minute of it. We thought we’d put together a quick list of observations – our highlights of Southeast Asia so far. Some things we’ve absolutely loved. Other things…less so. Luckily, the positives have completely overshadowed the negatives. It’s all part of the experience, right?
What We’ve Loved About Southeast Asia
The food in Southeast Asia is fantastic. From coconut curries to spicy papaya salad to khao soi in Thailand, to crunchy fish spring rolls to banh mi to pho in Vietnam, this is not a good trip for losing weight! Granted, this isn’t exactly a revelation to us, but we (aka Trevor) will definitely be cooking a lot more Asian dishes when we get back to Canada. Our Thai cooking class in Chiang Mai was one of the highlights, where Trevor made what has been the best plate of pad thai we’ve had this trip.
The beaches of Thailand. We avoided the better known areas around Phuket and Krabi, and loved our time in Khao Lak and the islands of Koh Mak and Koh Chang. Nothing makes us quite as sure we did the right thing leaving our careers, as sitting on a beach, looking out over the ocean as the sun sets.
Traveling around Southeast Asia is easier than we expected. Accommodations are at a good standard, transportation isn’t as difficult as we thought it might be, and many locals speak at least a little English. This trip has been a smoother experience than we expected, even though we were a bit worried about the practical challenges of this trip, especially more rustic places like Laos and Cambodia.
Getting away from the tourist hordes. As tourists, it’s inevitable we’ll go to many touristy places. Often they’re popular for a reason. But get a little bit off the tourist trail, and watch the crowds die away and the prices drop. Just a few hours on a bus or a connection from a bus to a train seems to be enough to scare away the biggest crowds.
Temples, Temples, and More Temples. Exploring predominantly Buddhist countries has been an interesting cultural experience. Too bad there aren’t more signs in English explaining exactly what we’re looking at, but they’re impressive nonetheless. However, even we’ll admit, it’s possible to eventually get “templed out”.
Sweetened, condensed milk is an entirely underappreciated ingredient in North America. Here it’s used in fruit smoothies, coffee, as a sauce on pancakes… the list goes on. In fact, regular milk is labeled as having “no sugar” as the sweetened stuff seems to be more common in many places. We’ll definitely be buying some of this stuff when we get back to Canada.
Egg coffee is amazing. This is a drink native to Hanoi, but is something we instantly fell in love with. First, some sweetened, condensed milk (see above) is whisked together with an egg yolk and a tablespoon of coffee until it is thick and foamy. The egg mixture is then poured over a mug of hot, strong espresso. It’s like eggnog and coffee together, and is amazing even if you’re not a coffee fan. You can also get egg chocolate (sounds awesome) and egg beer (sounds not so awesome). The original, and best, is at Cafe Giang.
Bring on the daily cheap Thai massages! A real Thai massage is dry, done fully clothed, and includes just as much stretching as massaging. And for $8-10/hr, they were awesome. We’ve also had our share of cheap and rigorous half-hour foot massages – ahh, such bliss after a long day of walking. Although, Trevor keeps cracking his toes now which grosses Christine out.
Friendly locals. Everywhere we’ve gone, the locals have been friendly. We’ve heard stories of travelers being taken advantage of, overcharged, scammed, laughed at, and even robbed. None of that has happened to us (that we know of). Especially when we try to use our (very limited) local vocabulary, locals in each country have been very friendly, welcoming, and helpful.
A fresh fruit shake a day will keep the doctor away? We have both become addicted to the always-available fresh mango and banana smoothies, usually for about US$1 each. The fruit in Southeast Asia is ridiculously ripe and flavorful. We will definitely be eating more mangoes when we return to Canada. Oh yeah, and the dried fruit here has been a revelation. Who knew dried fruit could be so juicy and yummy? Our faves are mangoes (way better than home), kiwi, strawberries, and cantaloupe (so surprisingly good!).
Tuk tuks are an easy, fun, and affordable way of getting around! The wind in your hair, the sun on your face, as your driver zips in and out of traffic. Fun ride or rolling deathtrap? Either way, it’s the easiest way to get around. Not sure they’ll catch on in North America or Europe though.
And Things We Could Live Without
Ignorant travelers. Why so many Western backpackers insist on visiting temples wearing short shorts and/or a skimpy tank top is beyond us. Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia are all quite conservative cultures, and there are numerous signs at the temples stating what the appropriate dress code is. Yes, it is hot outside, we get it, but can you not wear a t-shirt to cover your shoulders for even a few hours? Or refrain from walking around town with your shirt off guys? A bit of cultural sensitivity would go a long way!
Haggling. This is a necessity when buying anything in a public market (or pretty much everywhere in Vietnam) but can be an unnecessary frustration. From a capitalist economic point of view, it makes sense – perfect price discrimination between consumers should be a good thing. If one person is willing to pay $10 for a banana, then why shouldn’t the vendor sell it to them for that much? Unfortunately, this makes many purchases that much more inconvenient than they need be, and you’re always left with the feeling that you’re getting ripped off no matter what you paid. It’s also just annoying having no idea what prices are as you browse.
Overly aggressive salespeople. If we’re looking over a menu in front of a restaurant or walking by a shop, having the salesperson/waiter accost us and try to drag us in will make us less likely to eat/shop there, not more likely. We have found sales tactics to be much more aggressive in Cambodia and Vietnam compared to Thailand and Laos.
Wet bathrooms. At some point, someone thought it would be funny if every time you took a shower, everything else in the bathroom would get completely soaked. Or maybe they were just too cheap to buy a shower curtain. Unfortunately, this ‘trend’ caught on in Southeast Asia. For those who have never tried one, a wet bathroom is where there is a shower head on the wall, a drain somewhere in the floor, and nothing at all to contain the water. So everything in the bathroom gets soaked.
Price inflation. Don’t get us wrong, traveling around Southeast Asia is not “expensive” by Western standards. We can often get comfortable private rooms with ensuite bathrooms, breakfast, and air conditioning for under US$40/night. But there has been significant price inflation for everything in recent years, from accommodations to food to tourist attractions, most notably at the temples near Siem Reap. In many cases, Southeast Asia is not much less expensive than (or on par with) touring parts of Eastern Europe as we did last year. Some price inflation has to be expected. Unfortunately, the higher prices don’t seem to be getting reinvested in improved infrastructure or improving the lives of the locals. Instead, it seems to just fund more corruption.
That’s it for now. We’re enjoying our time in this part of the world even more than we thought we would. We already know we need to come back to Thailand and we don’t feel we’ll have enough time in Vietnam. Maybe we’ll be back next year!
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