Sunday, April 15, 2012

Southeast Asia in a Nutshell

The senior woman in a small community along the Mekong River in Laos

This post is very long, but during our time in Southeast Asia we recorded a lot of our thoughts and wanted to capture them in one general "In a Nutshell" post.  The first bit is about Southeast Asia in general.  After the jump we divide it out by country.

Sara and David's Top Picks (they turned out to be the same):

Luang Prabang, Laos
Hoi An, Vietnam
Angkor Wat, Cambodia
Slow Boat in Laos

In general:  We loved Southeast Asia!  Great people, beautiful countries, and fabulous food!  Very easy to get around.  English was spoken almost everywhere, even in coutnries where we expected that we might have trouble.  There is virtually no language barrier.

Food: Fantastic!  Taking cooking classes was an excellent way to learn more about the food, the Hoi An Foodie Tour was great, and our home dinners were really memorable.  Eating the local food was absolutely the way to go for us and truly turned out to be one of the highlights of our visit!  We had no stomach problems even though we ate plenty of clean-looking street food in addition to hawker stalls and restaurants.  Trip Advisor often pointed us in the right direction of great places to eat.

Money:  For the most part things were very inexpensive.  However, we were reminded by a tour guide that the restaurants are created for tourists (especially in some of the smaller areas) and so it isn't always as cheap as you might expect.  But, in our opinion, still a great deal.  Especially after New Zealand and Australia!

People: The people were great in Southeast Asia - friendly, helpful, and very welcoming for the most part.

Accommodation:  We stayed mainly at hotels in Southeast Asia.  The majority of these were booked through G Adventures and were comfortable, clean, and well-located, which is how we judge a good hotel.  There seem to be places thrughout Souteast Asia to fit any budget and any preference.  From hostels to homestays to five-star hotels (except in the small towns).  Something for everyone!    

Shopping/Bargaining: There is great shopping to be done and good deals to be had.  In most places bargaining is acceptable and even expected, especially in local markets.  We purchased very few things that we didn't bargain for.  The haggling became a bit of a game sometimes and we just had fun with it!

Internet: Everywhere and fast enough for chats on Skype (which is important for us)!  We had wi-fi in our hotels in most places we stayed, but anywhere that we didn't have internet we could find it very close by.

Laundry:  Very easy to get done for a reasonable price.   Often offered at the places we stayed, but we typically tried to find a shop close by, which was usually half the price.  Either way, for a bag full of clothes it was usually only $3 or $4.

G Adventures/Group Tours:  There were really good things about taking a group tour in Southeast Asia and other things that weren't as good.  The good outweighed the bad, so we'd definitely do it again.  We saw so many things without having to do all of the planning, which would have been very difficult  and time-consuming while traveling in other countries.  We also traveled with fun and interesting people and made friends that we hope to stay in touch with in the future.  The downside of the group tour that we were less able to get lost, explore, and just discover things on our own.  That is a highlight of travel in our eyes, so we certainly missed that for the month.


Impressions: We had the chance to see a lot of different parts of Thailand from Bangkok to the northern Thai towns of Chiang Mai and Chiang Khong, and finally the island of Koh Samui in the south.  Chiang Mai was a favorite spot in Thailand, but they all had something special that we are glad that we got to experience.

Food:  Thai food is a favorite at home, so we went into Thailand with high expectations.  The food surpassed our expectations.  Sara's favortie was green curry; she could order it night after night and never get tired of it.  Each curry used a different combination of local vegetables and spices, so each was very unique.  In general, we found Thailand to have the best food in Southeast Asia.

:  The Thai bhat.  $1 = 30 bhat.

Internet:  Easy to find either at the hotel or nearby.  Very cheap.

Nightlife:  Bangkok is known for its nightlife.  We were sure to go out with some friends from our travels for a real Bangkok experience, but may not need to go back!

Religion: Thailand is a majority Buddhist country.  There were some Christian churches, but we saw very few other religions.  There are beautiful Buddhist temples all over the country.  Our first day in Bangkok we saw five or so, but as the trip cointuned through Southeast Asia we got a bit "templed-out."  Most of the time we would just pick one or maybe two temples in a city to see along with everything else that it offered.

Royalty:  The people here love their King and Queen.  The King has been in power for over 65 years -- the longest-serving head of state in the world!  He and his wife seem to have the country on the right track with a prosperous, growing economy.

Transportation:  The overnight train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai was great.  We also took a private bus to get to Chiang Khong.  The windy roads aren't great and people drive really fast, especially our driver.  They pass at will, even around turns and over hills, and seem to spend as much time on the wrong side of the road as they do on the right side (which is actually the left side).  :)


Impressions:  The most untouched by tourism of any country that we visited in Southeast Asia.  Beautiful, but marred by the haze of the slash-and-burn farming.

Phrases:  Sabaidee = hello; Khawp Jai = thank you

People:  Very kind, very gracious, and very quiet.

:  A very Buddhist and very reverent country.  Luang Prabang was the most religious city that we visited in Laos, but a very strong Buddhist spirituality was evident throughout the country.

:  Other than in Vang Vieng (a partying mecca for college-age kids), it always seemed most appropriate to wear something covering both knees and shoulders for women.  It was very hot, so lightweight clothing was a must!

Money: The Lao kip.  $1 = 8,000 kip.  A typical trip to the ATM, withdrawing $100, meant withdrawing about 1,000,000 kip.  It was easy to be millionaires in Laos!

Internet:  Most of our hotels had wi-fi.  Every town we went to had it available somewhere, whether an Internet cafe or a restaurant.

Transportation:  We traveled around the country mostly using a slow boat on the Mekong River and private buses.  We took one flight when leaving Vientianne.  The slow boat was fantastic.  The driving was difficult because the roads were so terrible.  We were told that the Japanese had given money to Laos to improve their roads.  The government pocketed half of the money and used the other half to build the roads to a thickness half of what they needed to be.  As a result, today much of the driving is five seconds of pavement followed by five seconds of dirt road.  We expect this to change (at least along the major highway) as tourism increases. In the cities we traveled mostly by tuk-tuk or songthaew.

Food:  Delicious and inexpensive.  The Lao curries and other foods are not quite as spicy as Thai food.  Some specialties were lab (not the dog -- a minced, spiced meat dish), fish in banana leaves, Luang Prabang sausage, and lao-lao (a strong rice whiskey).  Watch out for the menus offering fruit drinks, pancakes, and other food "with something special" (meaning cannabis or opium products).

:  Invisible to tourists.  We never saw a police presence although we heard from someone who used to live in Laos that there is a presence just behind the scenes that is fairly corrupt.

To do:  Between the Mekong River, the gorgeous mountains, and the fantastic cities there is something for everyone!

One day when we're back:  We heard from a few travelers about the Gibbon (a type of monkey) Experience in Laos.  It seems to be sleeping in tree houses that you zip line to and from and being surrounded by Gibbons.  Sounds pretty neat!


Impressions: One of the most surprising countries (in a good way) that we have visited.  It was absolutely gorgeous and very developed in parts, which we weren't expecting.   

Money: Vietnamese dong.  $1 = 20,000 dong.  Things were very inexpensive.

North vs. South: The North seemed to cling to communist beliefs and still worships Ho Chi Minh as a god.  The South was more capitalistic and prosperous with huge skyscrapers and fancy stores.  Most of the locals called their city Saigon and not Ho Chi Minh, the name given after the North took control in 1975.

Scenery:  So much more beautiful than we ever expected.  From the amazing coastal vistas to the lush rice paddies, it was just spectacular.  Hanoi and the northern part of the country can be rainy and bleak in the winter, but the South was wonderful during that time of year.  Not quite as hot as it is in the summer and great weather overall.

People:  Very nice and not as agressive as the people in Thailand or Cambodia when it came to trying to sell things.  The locals that we met seemed happy overall.  They were proud of their country and confident in the country's growth, specifically in exports.  The locals we spoke with look forward to the country's increased prosperity in the future.

: We rode on private buses, an overnight train, and took one airline flight from Hoi An (Da Nang International Airport) to Saigon.  The roads were some of the best we have seen in Southeast Asia.  On the drives we passed spectacular landscapes and coastal vistas along with  lush rice paddies.  The driving is still much slower than in the U.S., but a huge improvement over Laos.  We took a public bus fom Saigon to Phnom Penh, Cambodia.  The bus was nice and the staff helped with the border crossing, so it was a good experience.  The overnight train in first class was a nice, comfortable experience as well.

Food:  Unexpectedly excellent.  Our favorites were in Hoi An and Saigon, but that was partly because our foodie tour in Hoi An taught us about the different foods, so we knew what to order and felt more comfortable eating some of the fabulous street food. We mentioned a lot of our favorites in the foodie post, but we would be remiss not to mention Vietnamese coffee - strong coffee with evaporated milk.  It was often served on ice because it was so hot.  Delicious!

Climate: Very cool and wet in the North, very hot and dry in the South.  When we were there in late February/early March, Hanoi felt like Atlanta in the winter and Saigon felt like Sylvania in August.

Clothing:  The dress is much more casual and less conservative.  There isn't a need to wear clothing that covers your knees like in Laos.  Lightweight clothing is still a must in the South.

Religion:  The Communist government formerly allows religious freedom but there are restrictions.  Beautiful temples and churches could be spotted all over the country, but in general, the country felt less religious than others in Southeast Asia.

To Do:  We loved all of the places we went.  From cruising in Halong Bay to excellent cities and quaint towns, there is so much to do!


Impressions:  There was a lot more visible poverty in Cambodia than in any other country in Southeast Asia.  Only a decade or so has passed since the complete fall of the Khmer Rouge, and it was easy to see that this is a country and people who have suffered for a very long time and are just beginning the rebuilding process.  The vast difference between the rich and poor was also very easy to see.  The rich, mostly government officials, had Range Rovers or Lexus vehicles, while the large poor population struggles to get by.  There didn't appear to be much of a middle class.

Food:  Amok (a curry) and lok lak (meat with egg) are specialties.  In general, the food was very good, but it did not have as much flavor in as the food in Vietnam or Thailand.

Money:  Although the riel is the local currency, the U.S. dollar is the de facto currency.  Change under $1 came in the local riel which was $1 = 4,000 riel.  Credit cards were taken almost nowhere, so we only used cash.  For us, it was nice to use the dollar again after a few months of foreign currency!

:  It was very interesting talking to some locals about the government.  They wouldn't talk about poliics at all in public, but in a private space would answer questions and give their opinions.  The people trying to sell things to tourists were the most agressive we experienced in Southeast Asia, likely a result of the high poverty rates.

:  We got the impression that many people aren't satisfied with the government.  They spoke about rampant corruption during elections and said that everyone already knows who will win the elections in 2013.

Religion:  Buddhism is the main religion, but it does not seem to pervade the culture quite as much as Laos.

To doAngkor Wat was absolutely amazing and our favorite part of Cambodia!  It was larger than we expected.  We had two and a half days, but three our four would be great.

One day when we're back
:  We'd like to visit some parts of Cambodia other than Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.  While it would be hard to imagine a trip to Cambodia that doesn't include these two, it would be nice to get a bit off the tourist path to experience more of the country.  We heard Battambang is nice!

Transportation:  We took private buses throughout Cambodia.  The roads were okay, but flying is inexpensive and seems to be the better way to go.  We spent two of our long car rides wishing that we had flown!

:  The landscape on the drive from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap was very flat - a surprise to David who was expecting it to be more mountainous.  We were in Cambodia during the dry season, and it certainly lived up to the name.  It was very dry and dusty!

Clothing:  Lightweight was essential!  As soon as we arrived in Phnom Penh, Sara went to the market in search of more lightweight pants and shirts that were cool and would keep the sun off.  She wore them every day while in Cambodia.  At the temples, like Angkor Wat, it is best to wear something covering your knees and elbows.  While you can get into many of the temples wearing anything, all of the active temples (and the upper levels of Angkor Wat) can only be entered if knees and shoulders are covered.

Temperature:  It was hot!  The highs were around 100 most days.  The mornings before 11 am were very nice, and then it was nice again close to 5 pm.  We learned to plan our days around the heat as much as we could.  April is said to be even hotter, so we are happy not to be there now!


Impressions:  Kuala Lumpur was a great city, and we needed more time to do it justice.  We had just one full day and it just wasn't enough.  Having days in Penang was perfect.  We loved staying in Georgetown and enjoyed being able to walk everywhere.

Food:  The Malaysian food was excellent.  We took a second cooking class and learned to cook pork rolls, a Malaysian curry, and some delicious chili pastes. 

Money: The Malaysian Ringgit.  $1 = 3 ringgit.

:  Kuala Lumpur is a very diverse city with people from all around Asia and the rest of the world.  In Penang, we were surpised to see that there are very large ethnic Chinese and Indian groups.  We learned at our cooking class that it is taboo to marry outside of your own ethnicity, but that it is happening more and more.

Religion: Islam is the state religion in Malaysia, but the country has a secular constitution.  Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christianity are prevalent as well.  The mosques, temples, and churches were beautiful.

Transportation:  In Malaysia, we flew from Kuala Lumpur to Penang and back which was the way to go given our limited time in the country.  We heard that the trains and buses were good too.  In Kuala Lumpur we got around by taxis, walking, and a hop-on, hop-off bus around the city.  The hop-on, hop-off may work well for some people, but for us it felt like we spent too much time riding and not enough time seeing.  In Penang we got around easily by walking, tuk-tuk, and cyclo.

One day when we're back
: Seeing lots of pictures of Malacca on postcards and in travel agency windows piqued our interest in the former British Straights Settlement. 

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