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Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam May 8, 2012

9 Reasons South East Asia is Perfect For First Time Travellers

First thing I noticed about Thailand (besides the humidity) was how easy travel became.

Take note that I just arrived from Africa, and by comparison, Thailand (and to lesser degree, its neighbors) felt much more, oh, about a gazillion times much more accommodating to travelers.

Which is why whenever someone asks us, “Where should I go as a first time traveler?” I say – “Thailand” or “South East Asia” then gush about why I ended up falling in love with the region.

It’s Easy to Get Around in South East Asia

In the spirit of making broad generalization – I’d like to say that South East Asia is an easy place to get around. The roads are decent, the border crossings are well documented, and the public transportation options are relatively comfortable and clean.

Although to be honest, after my brother was stuck in a piss-smelling, cramped train compartment in Vietnam for 12 hours – it’s not perfect. But for the most part, they’re…endurable.

But the big reason why it’s easy to get around in SE Asia is because there’s an established infrastructure to ferry backpackers around (see below).

There’s an established backpacker’s trail in South East Asia

This was another thing that came as a pleasant surprise for me. Not the fact that it’s popular with backpackers (I knew that) – but how much I enjoyed what it actually means.

Pham Ngu Lao district in Saigon

Traveling in a region popular with other backpackers mean everything things are as streamlined and as efficient as it can be. Because thousands of others have walked on the trodden path.

Trying to figure out how to get from Phnom Penh to Vietnam? You’re not the only one who want to do it.

The Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos (and to a certain degree, Myanmar) circuit is a well trodden path with few variations. Wherever which way you’re planning to go, most likely others have done it in the past and many others are planning to do so at the same time as you are.

There are many companies who offer transports and there’s plenty of information about the best way to get there (land, river, ocean?), however you want to get there (In a bus, a minivan, a private taxi?), whenever you want to get there (now, next hour, in a few hours?).

Even better, guesthouses in South East Asia can provide you with this information. While in South America and Africa I had to rely more on guidebooks or online. Here, all I had to do was come down to the common area and look at the community board. Oh, the mind boggling options (land, river, ocean? In a bus, a minivan, a private taxi? – you get the gist). All easily arranged through the guesthouse.

South East Asia is cheap, traveling there feels like a vacation

Because your dollar stretches further, the little things that make traveling become so much more than sight seeing – like ducking in for a quick Thai massage, or renting a scooter to drive around an island, or renting a private beach cabin – is affordable.

I had never felt so… rich. I remember thinking to myself, “This is the kind of lifestyle I’ve always wanted to have – but can never afford back in the states.”

Having said that, SE Asia is not as cheap as a lot of people think. This was a sentiment I heard quite a bit from other travelers. I actually found that my daily cost there was about twice as much as South America.

South East Asia people are friendly

Yet another broad generalization. Which I usually hate to make (or hear). But in my limited personal experience, this is true. Especially in Thailand and Myanmar where the locals would get out of their way to help the lost and confused tourists.

Smiles, like humidity and strange looking fruit, was something that come in abundance in South East Asia. Even those who want to rip you off do so with a smile.

Burmese monks

Delicious Food

If you like Asian food (or good food, in general), you’ll find that South East Asia is the place to be.

I can go on and on about the variety of food and how easy it is to find food. For me, like many others, having not only good food, but easily accessible good food regardless of what time it is, is almost important as having good wifi. Almost.

Vegetarian Thai food

When we were traveling South America, food was aplenty, but most of the times it was just ok. It wasn’t bad – but it wasn’t like, “Omg, that trucha frita was to die for!” because fried trout is just… fried trout (in Peru, the food did get better).

In Morocco, I knew there’s more than just tajine, but how come all restaurants only serve tajine? I don’t get it.

Meanwhile, I’d go back to Thailand in a heartbeat just for the food and I know my brother would love to go back to Vietnam for some awesome pho.

(Here Jack would like to add that Tokyo is still his favorite foodie place – and I’d like to add, “Japan doesn’t count. It’s not even in South East Asia.)

Cheap, cheap, cold beer

Yes Asia can be hot and humid. But Asia is also the land of 50 cent draught beer. Brilliant!! Yes, some of them taste like water buffalo’s piss – but here’s my beer recommendation (not all available as draught): Beer Lao (Laos and Thailand), Angkor (Cambodia), Larue (Vietnam), Batavia Lager or Anker (Indonesia).

Wifi Is Everywhere

You won’t have an internet withdrawal syndrome. I think it’s partly because it’s so popular with the younger crowd, the South East Asia gringo trail is well served with wifi. It’s widely available in coffeeshops and honestly, finding a guesthouse that does not have wifi might as well be the more challenging task.

For first time backpackers, this will definitely ease the anxiety of being away in a foreign land. Plus, how else can you brag about your travels other than uploading all of your pictures on Facebook?

English is Widely Spoken in South East Asia

With the exception of Vietnam, we found that we could get by with only knowing English. Which is great, because even though I always strive to learn the basic words in local language, the tonal language and the crazy characters are daunting.

South East Asia is Safe (with regular precautions)

Because South East Asia is so popular with backpackers, and because there’s a big disparity between our purchasing power and that of the locals – the region is also rife with scams. Some of them are pretty creative ones, like the fake embassy on Thailand – Cambodia border, to the “the temple is closed, come with me on a shopping spree” in Bangkok.

Fortunately, most scams are harmless. And regardless of how you feel about bribes, know that in most situations, a little bribe can go a long way in smoothing them out.

There will be some unexpected things that don’t go as planned.
But in a way, that story would be much more interesting than “We went to see this tourist site and everything went very well according to plan.” If you and I ever meet in person, ask me about Ethiopia. Or Vietnam. Boy, do I have stories to tell you.

A yellow house in Hoi An, Vietnam

I never planned to go traveling in South East Asia. The opportunity just presented itself and I took it with the, “Well, might as well” attitude. But I surprised myself by how much I enjoyed my time there and I think it was mostly because how accommodating everything was.

So yes, I have no reservation in recommending first time travelers to go backpacking South East Asia. Or even seasoned travelers. It’s easy enough, but with a dash of challenges thrown in to make it exciting. I personally can’t wait to take Jack to Thailand. I know he’d love it there.

Do you agree? Where do you think first time backpackers should go?

Cambodia, Phnom Penh February 27, 2012

Accidental Balut

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Since we were moving so fast on our South East Asia trip, my brother and I never really have the time to learn what the local dishes are called. But we do love street food.

Faced with an intelligible menu (or worse – no menu), what to do?

Eating on the streets of Phnom Penh

Dinner between Street 258 and 266, Phnom Penh

A popular street food scene in Phnom Penh is fried ‘stuff-on-a-skewer’. In the evening, students and workers alike order these by the basketful and eat them sitting on little stools by little tables on the sidewalk. The ‘stuff’ can be anything: meatballs, imitation crab, sausage, tofu, etc. They’re all bite-sized. You point to what you want, and they’ll fry it on the spot.

Perfect! No menu needed and let the finger do the talking!

I sent out my brother (or more like his finger) to choose. When our plate arrived, there was something a little off about the meatballs on it.

‘What’s that?’

‘I don’t know’ – my brother shrugged after taking a closer look. ‘I don’t think I ordered that’.

Balut in Cambodia

I got my head close and poked around with my chopstick trying to figure out the stuffing inside. Certain features became clear. Rather unfortunately. Features that resembled too much like… Oh geez! That was when I noticed there are some wet, black feathers stuck in my chopstick.


Now in an alternate universe, I’d squeal with delight, stuff the thing in my mouth, and say things like

‘Oh boy’ – crunch, crunch – ‘I’ve always wanted to eat a balut, a fertilized chicken egg with a fully-formed chicken embryo inside. What a local delicacy! What a treat!’

In this universe, that would never happen.

I’d jump off planes and bridges – but when it comes to adventurous eating, I’m a big chicken (no pun intended). I especially have a thing about eating whole animals… well, whole. No oysters or soft-shell crabs for me. Definitely no chick embryos that already have feathers on them.

So, in this universe, the only squealing I did was to ask my brother to get the balut pieces off the plate. And oh – can I get another pair of chopsticks, please?

There are certain things that still don’t sound good enough to eat – even deep fried.

So, if you’re in Phnom Penh – join the locals on their evening stuff-on-a-stick venture (the stretch in front of Pencil Supermarket between Street 258 and 266 seems to be popular) – just keep an eye out for these baluts. Of course, what you do after you spot them is up to you.

So I wonder – is ‘balut’ vegetarian?

Cambodia, Siem Reap February 7, 2012

Kampong Phluk – A Cambodian floating village

Siem Reap, Cambodia

After having seen the main temples of Angkor, we decided to find out what else Siem Reap has to offer besides temples.

Kampong Phloek, about 1 hr tuk-tuk ride away from Siem Reap, is often described as a floating village. And it sort of does float in metaphorical sense, but not in a way one would presumably think.

The houses of this kampong (kampong means ‘village’) are built on stilts as 2-story high. On rainy season when the water level is high, the stilts are covered in water giving the impression that the houses are floating.

On dry season, when we went, the stilts are exposed. Which, we think, makes it even look more impressive. The houses seemed to soar way high over our heads.

Kampong Phluk, Cambodia

I always feel a little awkward during these ‘voyeuristic’ type of excursions. But I can see the appeal as well: It’s fascinating seeing other people do the same things we’d do ourselves back home: doing laundry, dishes, etc but in a completely different setting – in this case, a watery setting.

Instead of a car, each house had a wooden boat parked in front. Instead of a garden, they’d have floating potted plants. Doing laundry and dishes, and taking a shower involved climbing down a rickety set of ladders (or done on a canoe!).

Cambodia Floating Village

And of course you get to see things you don’t normally see back home either, like pigs raised on a floating platform.

Floating pig pen, Kampong Phluk, Cambodia

Floating pig pen, Kampong Phluk, Cambodia

A woman in Kampong Phluk, Cambodia

For $20 a person, you can probably see a floating village for a lot cheaper somewhere else in Asia. But if you’re templed out in Angkor and looking for a breezy way to spend half a day – Kampong Phluk is worth the 1.5 hr spine-pumping trip.

Going to Kampong Phluk? Get there early!

I began to wonder why this attractive village didn’t seem to get any visitors. The only other boats we saw in the village were those carrying the villagers. But the answer came soon enough.

On the way back we passed boat after boat carrying tourists. Non stop. We left Siem Reap at 7 in the morning which made us one of the first boats to pass through and we were taking the lack of crowd for granted.

I’m so glad we got there early.

How to get to Kampung Phluk: Any guesthouse in Siem Reap can arrange a visit there for $20 a person (cheaper with a bigger group). It will be just your group. You can get there indepedently by renting a tuk-tuk yourself, and as long as the driver knows where Kampung Phluk is, he can help you with entrance tickets and getting a boat. The boat and the tuk-tuk alone will cost around $35 per visit – regardless of the # of people.
Cambodia, Siem Reap February 6, 2012

Angkor Wat and Friends – Hot, Hotter, and Beautiful

Siem Reap, Cambodia

Even at 7 am, you could already tell it was going to be another hot day in Siem Reap. The crowded but pretty affair of sunset over Angkor Wat was finally over. We were admiring the bas-relief on the walls inside the massive complex of Angkor Wat.

There was barely a breeze and the humidity was choking. The hallways were stuffy with dead air and people were hurrying through them to the open air courtyards found within Angkor Wat itself.

Angkor Wat at sunrise

We were thinking, ‘Can’t wait to get outside and find some Thai iced tea!’

Oh, wait!

We kept forgetting that we weren’t in Thailand anymore. Crazy to think that around this time yesterday we were just leaving Bangkok on the way to Thailand – Cambodia border.

Siem Reap, the gateway town to Angkor temples, seems to be built solely to cater to tourists. The dusty streets are lined with hotels, guesthouses, travel agencies, and restaurants offering 50 cent draft beer. Siem Reap is small enough that tuk-tuks and bikes provide the only means for visitors to get around.

Siem Reap around the Old Market

Siem Reap around the Old Market

Around 5 pm the streets around the Old Market were swamped with foreigners, red faced from a day out in the temples. They come on bicycles, on foot, filling the streets in huge numbers. I’ve never seen so many foreigners in such a small area before often it seems that we easily outnumber the locals.

But for such a touristy town, most of the Cambodians we met were friendly and helpful even if they barely speak any English. They patiently tried to understand what we try to say (in mimes or drawings) and laughed good-humoredly at our attempt at bargaining (or in some cases, our attempt at drawing).

I asked our tuk-tuk driver how he manages to be so friendly having to deal with tourists constantly for a living.

‘Yes!’ – he nodded his head vigorously with a big grin on his face. It’s an unsolved mystery.

The Angkor Temples

Angkor Wat might be the biggest, but Bayon gets the award for the freakiest. Bayon temple, just down the street from Angkor Wat, is famous for its many eerie and massive stone faces carved onto the many towers that jut upwards from the temple.

If we were there on our own, I think it would’ve been a little freaky being followed by these faces where ever you walk.

Bayon Temple at Angkor, Cambodia

Bayon Temple at Angkor, Cambodia

But we were far from being the only the ones there that day. Bayon was simply overrun with visitors. Each step meant getting in the way of somebody else. Everyone was sweating because of the heat and every touch left a sweaty palm print behind.

The crowd at Bayon temple, Cambodia

The crowd at Bayon temple, Cambodia

We admitted defeat after Bayon and retreated to our hotel to wait out the worst of the day’s heat. This turned out to be the best decision we’d made. On the way back to the hotel, we passed the other temples on the circuit and each one’s parking lot was jammed packed with tour buses and tuk-tuks.

It was madness!

In the late afternoon, we set out to see Ta Phrohm – or the ‘Tomb Raider’ temple as the little kids selling postcard like to remind us.

Ta Phrohm quickly became our favorite. Late in the afternoon when most of the crowdes were gone and the weather was more bearable, Ta Phrohm was just simply the most atmospheric of all the three we saw.

Ta Phrohm has all of these giant trees whose roots are slowly but surely overtaking the crumbling ruins. Trees live here. There’s moss on the rock walls and jungle around the complex. I can see why they filmed ‘Tomb Raider’ here.

The place just feels eerie and old.

Whatever the means, avoiding the crowd at Angkor temples is worth the effort (either by coming in late in the afternoon, or doing the circuit the opposite way). It is definitely the way to fully enjoy these amazing structures.

Ta Phrohm, Siem Reap, Cambodia

Ta Phrohm, Cambodia

Children selling souvenirs in Ta Phrohm

Children selling souvenirs in Ta Phrohm

Angkor temples are beautiful but we’re glad we only got a one day pass to the Park. At the end of the a sight seeing day, we were pretty templed out even though we barely scratched the surface of what Siem Reap has to offer.

The thing to do after a hot day of temple sight seeing? Join the throng of travelers on the streets around the Old Market to hunt for 50 cent beer and fruit shakes! A delicious way to end the day.

Cambodian beer, Siem Reap, Cambodia