Days on the road: 305
Number of beds: 13
Countries visited: Vietnam, Russia (16 hrs!), Georgia
Postcards sent: 0
It’s been about two weeks since we left southeast Asia for Europe. Its strange – even though we’ve reached our limit of mangos, rice paddies, and scooters as the main mode of transportation – we miss it. Not that our current destination isn’t fantastic in its own right, it is. But in the last few days we’ve had more than a few occurrences of phrases such as: if we were in country X in southeast Asia…remember when in country Y in southeast Asia…how awesome was this in country Z in southeast Asia?! So in honor of almost six months that we spent on the wonderful sub-continent – visiting Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam – here are the ten best things (to us) about southeast Asia:
These guys personify the awesomeness of southeast Asia – the friendlies, the food, the weather, its all here. This image could have been taken anywhere in the five countries we visited, and so shall remain location-less.
The weather – there are only three seasons: hot, hot, hot. Just kidding. It’s more like warm, hot, and rainy. We’ve thoroughly enjoyed the former two, having spent most of the time between November – May in southeast Asia. I am not gonna lie – it got pretty hot towards the end there. But even when the heat outside is like stepping into a sauna, it is much better than the icky cold. And honestly even at the hottest time of the year there is plenty to do, such as lounge by your hotel pool (which you can totally afford even on a budget, see below!) Hot weather also forces early rising – which I loved, and Sergey not so much. You have a couple of hours after sunrise before sun really starts to burn. And let’s not even talk about how lovely it is to spend January on one of the Thai islands, where the ocean is warm, the breezes are gentle, and the temperature is at an optimal 29C. Though we’ve skipped much of the rainy season, it’s the time of year we would like to go back and experience – we hear that is when the nature is at its absolute most gorgeous, tourist masses recede, and the rain is actual more of a daily ritual rather than a constant presence. In short, southeast Asia is an all year round lovely destination.
The people. Southeast Asia is full of the most giving, friendly, lovely souls we’ve ever met. We are pretty certain that there is no place on earth that can beat Myanmar to the top prize of the nicest people ever. We have been invited into homes to share meals and smiles, eager passersby have stopped us on the street just to chat and welcome us to their country, café owners would insist on feeding us until we could eat no more and then give us gifts! All of this from the people who have so little material wealth. But it is also true that Thai, Lao, Cambodian, and Vietnamese people are not far behind – our experience has been that people in all of these countries are amazingly warm and welcoming. We’ve been fed, toasted to and with, shown around, and just welcomed over and over again everywhere we’ve been. Its completely unreal and really, really amazing.
Approach to life. From self-sufficiency and resourcefulness, to penchant for hanging out, to communal camaraderie – we are really into way of life around this corner of the world. Sure there are differences, from what we’ve seen Vietnamese are as industrious as it gets, Lao prefer the more laidback attitude to work, etc. But by and large every self respecting southeast Asia makes times for relaxing, preferably in a hammock and with friends and family. Siestas are normal. Every village has at least several karaoke machines, and the locals don’t have to be asked twice to step up to the mike. These people aren’t hung up on what they don’t have – everything is reused and recycled. Kids play with sticks, stones, shoes, whatever — and they look absolutely delighted. It was an extremely rare sight to see a child having a temper-tantrum, even at very young ages. Instead children are often helping parents to do their daily business. Groups gather in the evenings outside to chat, play games, dance, exercise. Everyone says hello, because that’s the way of life.
Food. Super fresh; Tasty; Healthy; Exotic; Inexpensive. In our six month stint in the region we’ve tried more delicious and new to us foods than we have living for six years in a foodie-town of Washington D.C. (not that we aren’t excited about the imminent return of our brunches, burgers and craft beers). But the variety of delicious fruits, availability of grilled fish on every corner, and general awesomeness of rolls, salads, and soups is outstanding. We would be remiss not to single out street food as a particular specialty of southeast Asia – so cheap, safe and mind-blowingly tasty. It’s like having a home cooked meal, without the fuss of cooking and cleaning up. It took us months of eating our way around the region before we really started to miss the more familiar flavors. But oh man, I am pretty sure we will be really longing for that delicious grilled fish, the banh my, and tealeaf salad before long. And its going to be pretty difficult to walk into a Thai restaurant back in the States without thinking the entire time, you are asking how much for this tom yum?
Cao lau (pork with greens) is a specialty dish of Hoi An, Vietnam — we were lucky to be treated to this deliciousness by the ladies from the local cloth market. We spent three days in Phnom Penh, Cambodia where we went to the same local breakfast place everyday for the bai sach chrouk (rice and pork) – simple, inexpensive and really really delicious.
Buddhist culture and heritage. Seeing the beautiful temples, exquisite palaces, spirit houses at every abode – it gets to be familiar, but never tiring. All the glitter and the gold are just as majestic on the umpteenth time stepping over the threshold of a house of worship, as seeing the grand palace for the first time. The graceful traditional dancers, bending like willows are fascinating to watch – just like the men and women who start their day by making offerings to the spirits for good luck. The monks going about their day in crimson or orange flowing robes, and the lay people who pay discreet homage to them. One of the most delightful experiences we’ve had was in Vietnam – on our second day in the country we were wondering around Hatien and stopped by a neat looking temple. A monk approached us asking if we wanted to do a tea ceremony, proceeded to treat us to refreshments, sing us Buddhist songs, show us around. I must confess, having heard plenty about scams in Vietnam I was cautious about that we would be charged for the cultural experience. (Gah, I hate preconceived notions!) No, instead he asked us to take some pictures of him making merriment and send them to him. We exchanged email addresses and walked away happily fulfilled.
Value. Where else in the world can you get a three star hotel room equipped and furnished up to western standards, with an infinity pool, breakfast buffet, free bikes, and in awesome location for $20?! The value in southeast Asia is just incredible. Draft beers for 20 cents in Vietnam; whole grilled fish for two for $2 in Myanmar; a train ride across the country for $1.25 in Thailand, a bungalow in a magical garden for $8 in Laos; a new dress for $3 in Cambodia. The list can go on and on. Sure you can get by on a tight budget even in western Europe, but where else can you live like royalty for $50 per day, and be absolutely comfortable on just $35? Nowhere, that’s where. And you know what’s cool – the longer you spend in the region, the better the value – therefore it just keeps getting better and better.
Travel logistics. Easy peasy – maybe with a bit of exception for Myanmar, which requires a visa application and still restricts areas of the country accessible to tourists. But even there, the process of getting a visa is nothing compared to say, India. Elsewhere in the region, we’ve criss-crossed borders with no advance notice and no problem, been able to get to every nook and cranny of every country just by hoping on a bus, train or a boat. Yes the roads are not always the best, and the vehicles might not be new so they might breakdown. But – there is always someone traveling where you need to go. And, you will always get to where you need to go if you just have a bit of patience. A special shout out to Laos and Vietnam where we explored by motorcycle, which might have been our single best decision ever (aside from going on this trip).
No rules. You know how in the US you have to sign away your life every time you enter an amusement park? A permission is required for everything, you can get sued over nothing, and for every turn that you make there is a rule. Not so here. There is variation for sure, do not try to ride your motorbike in Vietnam without a helmet, and for the love of god no funny grass smoking in Laos. Every country has its own quirks when it comes to rules, but by and large you are a free bird. If you take a cooking class, no one will ask you to sign a paper stating that if you chop off your finger its not the instructor’s fault. Because that’s just silly. Of course there is a flipside to the fact that we haven’t seen a single traffic policeman in Laos, but if you use your common sense, you’ll do great.
We visited a number of caves on our trip — two of the most amazing being the Kong Lor cave in Laos – 7 km deep with a river that renders it inaccessible without a boat, and Paradise Cave in Vietnam – 34 km of pure unexplored magic (past the first 1.5 km). At no point did we have to notify anyone where we were going, sign any release forms, or in general feel like we were middle-school scouts on a field trip. You know what I mean.
Safety. We both agree that we have never felt as safe anywhere else in the world as in southeast Asia. Ok, maybe also in Japan and South Korea. It’s surprising for example in country like Laos – it has been abused (US bombing campaign) and used (Laos’ neighbors are practicing illegal logging on a massive scale), it’s people don’t have much in terms of material wealth (average income is just around $200 per month), and there is plenty of alcohol that everyone imbibes (BeerLao!) Yet the people are gentle and helpful and inclusive of each other and foreigners alike. We’ve walked plenty of streets after dark, in small towns and large(r) ones, but never once even had a thought – let alone a real fear – of being robbed or mugged. To say that the same situation (after dark wandering on a quiet street) is not a concern in either of our homelands (Russia and the US) is to say nothing at all. I would also like to single out Cambodia here because some visitors have reported being less fortunate on a security front – we haven’t had any problems. In fact we felt as safe in Cambodia as we did in Laos, Thailand, Vietnam and Myanmar.
Massage. This is a my personal favorite, perhaps being a number one reason I would come back to Thailand in heartbeat. Vietnam was the only place I didn’t go for the relaxation treatments, only pedicures. Here’s the short and sweet on other countries. Myanmar wasn’t the best, and also overpriced by comparison to others. Cambodia offers both its own version and Thai, the latter is better. Lao massage is a combination of Cambodian and Thai – most excellent after Lao sauna. Thailand wins the competition by far. $8 massages on the beach watching the sunset, $5 (!) real massage in a real nice spa in Chiang Mai. $3 foot and body massages in the temples around Chiang Mai — can life get any better?! Just incredible. Take me back now.