South East Asia is mad. It’s also very diverse. It can be ugly. It can be challenging. But I love it. Here are my ten favourite things I have encountered whilst travelling around South East Asia. Have a read, and let me know yours.
Thai Minibuses of Doom
If you have ever travelled around Thailand in an economical fashion you have probably sat in one of these. You have also probably clenched your buttocks in fear and held on for dear life. And you have probably scratched your head in confusion as you were dumped at the road side and told to wait in the middle of nowhere for no clear reason.
If you have no idea what I am talking about, it is probably best that you can recognise these vehicles. They tend to look something like this. With varying amounts of chrome accessories.
I have no idea how the whole system of Thai minibuses work. Without doubt they are vital. They are used by backpacker and locals alike and they seem to ply every possible route. There is no evidence of a timetable and they seem to set off once they are full. And when I say full, I mean stuffed to the ceiling with people, bags and whatever goods the locals want to transport.
That’s me below with the ginger facial hair. And those two guys had never met until the point when they realised that they had to share a seat for an uncomfortable few hours. It was a big seat, stretching the width of the minibus. But, in Thailand the back seat is always used for storing rucksacks and boxes of mysterious Thai cargo. The driver excavated that little alcove for them to climb into.
You will find one of these things very easily. Somebody will happily tell you which bus is the one for you, and the owner, who will look and behave like an Automobile Pimp, will happily sell you a ticket.
Some time later, when you depart at the speed of light, you may well think your next stop will be your destination. But not necessarily.
During more than half of my Thai Minibus adventures I have been dropped off in some random dusty location and told to wait along with most of the other equally confused passengers. The parting shot of the driver is to slap a coloured sticker on the clothing of the passengers who are being ejected. Then he will speed off.
Everybody looks at each other and gradually they start to discuss the situation. Eventually somebody goes to ask the only person around, the man selling ice creams, and he says to wait. Because he knows how the system works.
At some point later, another minibus will appear and collect whoever is wearing a particular colour sticker. This minibus may well not really have enough room, which is what happened to the two guys up there.
The minibus drivers are clearly on a bonus of some sort to arrive on time. I once had to counsel a Scottish chap who had sat in the front passenger seat of one of these things. His eyes were unblinkingly glued on the road, aside from frantic glances at the speedometer.
But despite all of this, I have always arrived safely and only a little shaken, dehydrated and hungry. And with hindsight each trip has been enjoyable in it’s own special way.
Oh wow! I already loved Pad Thai, the national dish of Thailand, long before I first set foot in The Land of Smiles. But when I first tucked into a genuine Pad Thai, in 2010 in a dark and dingy Thai alleyway, I knew I had found my perfect food.
Chewy noodles, fish sauce, egg, crunchy crushed nuts, tofu, bean shoots, tamarind, garlic and few other ingredients come together in perfect union with a squeeze of lime. and some meat or prawns. This one here is wrapped in a clever egg omelette net.
It is cheap, incredibly satisfying and available absolutely everywhere in Thailand. Make sure you try it when you get there.
Temples in Cambodia
The Temples of Angkor, the only remaining remnant of a once great empire, is the very reason I first set foot in South East Asia. The awe inspiring photographs of Angkors Wat and Thom had been calling to me for many years.
To stand and behold the behemoth that is Angkor Wat is enough to make you question whether humans have actually moved forward in the past 900 years. Angkor Wat was and still is the largest religious building in the world.
When the French “rediscovered” Angkor in the mid 19th Century the French Explorer Henri Mouhot was taken to say…
“At Ongcor, there are …ruins of such grandeur… that, at the first view, one is filled with profound admiration, and cannot but ask what has become of this powerful race, so civilized, so enlightened, the authors of these gigantic works?”
In fact they were so sure that the Cambodians of the 19th century could not be descended from the builders of this astonishing city that they toyed with the idea that the Egyptians must have been responsible. Which probably prompted a knowing Cambodian farmer to smugly mutter…
“Good work Frenchy!”
Angkor Wat is the biggest single temple at Angkor, but for me it is in fact not the best. For starters it is intact, having actually remained in use over the centuries. I prefer my temples to be crumbled. But Angkor has many other temples, many of which were lost to the jungle for many centuries. Some retain this mysterious lost atmosphere, and for me there is not much I like more than clambering over the moss covered ruins of the temples Ta Prohm and Beng Mealea. Or gazing in wonder at the amazing detail of Banteay Samre.
It takes time to tour these astounding monuments Not least because the daytime heat in Cambodia is very draining. I would recommend 3 days if you are visiting. And prepare to be blown away.
Talking of the heat, nothing pleases me more when I am hot and tired than a cold, refreshing Mango Lassi.
Vietnamese Tourist Tax
Any well travelled person will agree that extracting lots of money from tourist is a trade that crosses all international borders. I’ve been ripped off and guilt tripped in most countries, but the worst and in turn most entertaining is Vietnam.
In the defence of Vietnam, when I visited I was pretty naive. But they knew it and tried to milk me dry. Just to be clear, you can find a list of some of the Vietnamese scams here.
Having read that I came off lightly actually . But I still paid for a first class train ticket and ended up in a really nasty bunk. And I paid for a wonderful tour from Ho Chi Minh City to Cambodia and got not much in return. And every single shop, which is a lot as every house seems to be a shop in Vietnam, does not show prices. You can almost see the shopkeeper’s eyes brighten as they think about what price they can get away with,
But I still loved Vietnam. I would go back, though a quick Google search suggests many don’t.
The Horn of Corn
“The what?” I hear you ask. Well, that is in fact the name I gave to a tasty Thai snack because I can’t read the packaging. They look like this.
These crunchy corn snacks have seen me through many a tiring journey. They are so bloody morish that I have to eat a whole bag, and they only seem to come in big bags. Even better, I discovered that the Thai shop close to my home town in the UK imports them! Woohooooo!
The people of South East Asia really do know how to smile. They don’t smile all the time of course. That would be weird, and probably annoying. But they just seem to have a happy outlook on life. Even these kids who live in the middle of nowhere in Cambodia at a brick kiln.
Dodgy Counterfeit Gear
It’s everywhere in South East Asia. Most notably, at least as far as I can tell, in Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. And the shopkeeper will swear blind that the $5 pair of Oakley Sunglasses (negotiated down to 3$ of course) are completely genuine.
The whole situation left me in a bit of a quandary. If I was planning on bringing a load back to flog on eBay I would be a crook. But I just wanted a cheap rucksack, and the “North Face” offering seemed to tick all the boxes.
And the “Ray Bans” were only cheap but they did a job. I’m not so sure about the “Tag Heur” watch though – it can’t always be 6.30!
Yep. Those three wheeled things that are nothing but a novelty in the west – they seem to stitch the very fabric of the rest of the world together. I’ve ridden them in Asia, South America and I even saw one in Morocco.
They come in many guises, from the slow relaxing variant in Cambodia to the crazy, mental version that tears up the streets of Bangkok.
They are most famous in Thailand I would say. Putting the terrible traffic congestion aside, a Tuk Tuk is a very quick way to get around Bangkok. The drivers can weave them in and out of traffic with great skill, and seem to take great delight in extracting screams and whoops of joy from their passengers.
The drivers also like to drive a hard bargain. They could teach the Vietnamese a thing or two, but I always seem to reach an agreeable price. Oh, and don’t forgot to tell them you are not interested in their brother’s suit store or their friend’s shop.
I’ve saved the very best until last. South East Asia has lots of incredible beaches. Some of my most relaxing times have been spent on Ko Lanta in Thailand and on the Perhentian Islands in Malaysia.
But finding a good beach that suits your requirements is not easy. I like a quiet sandy beach with good swimming, low key infrastructure and plenty of Mango Lassis.
That up there is a great little beach on Ko Lanta in Thailand. Note the clean sand, calm waters, forest back drop, and of course the dodgy North Face bag. And when I was dropped off by boat at this beach on the Perhantian Islands in Malaysia I knew I had found my kind of beach.
So, what about you?
This is my top ten, but you most certainly will disagree. So what do you love about South East Asia? Add a comment, or a Tweet, or even a Facebook comment and let me know.