Southeast Asia: Three Favorite Things

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I wouldn’t say that we’ve been *everywhere* in Southeast Asia, but over four separate visits, totaling five months spent in the region, we’ve seen and done a lot. At this point, we’ve been to nearly every Southeast Asian country (we’re only missing Brunei and East Timor.) So what did we like the best?

Three Favorite Cities

  1. Luang Prabang (Laos)
  2. Chiang Mai (Thailand)
  3. Yogyakarta (Indonesia)

Each of these cities has a laid-back, fun-loving atmosphere, and days spent here flew by. We tend towards the smaller cities; Bangkok and Jakarta are not among our favorites (though we love Kuala Lumpur and would choose that as number four.)

The Luang Prabang main drag

Three Favorite Places for Neat Architecture

  1. Bali (Indonesia)
  2. Singapore
  3. Yangon (Myanmar)

Balinese traditional architecture is a blend of different styles, and it is like nothing else in the world. I particularly admired the Hindu temples on Bali, but ordinary courtyard houses were also beautiful. Both Singapore and Yangon have some fabulous old British colonial buildings, as well as Hindu, Buddhist, Chinese, and (in Singapore) Malay-style architecture. The different neighborhoods were fascinating to walk around.

An old British building overlooking People's Park in Yangon

Ruins of the historical center of Sukhothai, the old capital of Thailand

Three Favorite Attractions

  1. Angkor Wat (Cambodia)
  2. Bagan (Myanmar)
  3. The old city of Sukhothai (Thailand)

Hmmm… these all turned out to be sites of ancient ruins. I guess you can tell where our interests lie?

Three Favorite Experiences

  1. Snorkeling in the Perhentian Islands (Malaysia)  The most fish I have ever seen in one place… plus turtles and sharks.
  2. Watching a water-puppet show (Hanoi, Vietnam)  So what if it’s touristy? It’s a really cool show.
  3. Touching a tiger (Chiang Mai, Thailand)  Do I have to explain the appeal of this one?

    Awww!

Three Favorite Foods

  1. Pad thai (Thailand)
  2. Adobo (Philippines)
  3. Banh mi (Vietnam; similar ones in Laos)

We tried making adobo when we got home... it was good, but not as good as on Boracay Island

Pad thai may be an obvious choice, but we never ever got tired of eating it. In the Philippines, each adobo we tried was better than the last. I don’t know how they do it. I asked one waitress about her restaurant’s version; she just shrugged and said “It’s Filipino food.” Which explains… nothing.

Runner-up: Roti canai (Malaysia and Singapore), which we ate for breakfast nearly every day in those countries.

Three Favorite Drinks

  1. Teh tarik (Malaysia, Singapore)
  2. Local coffee, sweetened with condensed milk (Vietnam, Laos)
  3. Watermelon shakes (anywhere there are backpackers)

Teh tarik… how can I explain teh tarik? It tastes like plain ol’ black tea with sugar and lots of milk (think Japanese milk tea) but the process of making it is special. Before serving, it is poured back and forth between two glasses several times, which makes the top nice and frothy, and in my opinion, makes the drink creamier.

Breakfast of champions: roti canai and teh tarik

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Bagan: The Should-Be World Heritage Site

Imagine an area the size of Arlington County, Virginia. Now imagine that instead of houses, schools, and paved roads, that area is filled with four thousand temples, big and small, connected by dirt roads. Most are about a thousand years old, dating back to when the area was the capital of an ancient kingdom. There are some tourists, and a few locals, but ten or twenty temples get most of the visitors, leaving most of the others empty except for their Buddha statues and artwork inside. Now you are starting to get an idea of what Bagan is like.

Bagan plain at sunset

The area was somewhat mysteriously abandoned in the 13th century- historians generally agree that it had something to do with the marauding Mongol Empire, but exactly what happened is not known. The temples fell into disrepair, and were further damaged by an earthquake in 1975, but most have now been restored. Although the Pyu kingdom in Myanmar was a contemporary of the kingdom of Angkor, and both practiced Hinduism and Buddhism, the temples are completely different. The temples of Angkor are big- Angkor Wat is gigantic- and are distinguished by their fine sculptures and bas-relief carvings. Many are made of sandstone. The temples of Bagan, on the other hand, tend to be small, and are made of red brick.

Small Bagan temple with an impressive sikhara (corncob-like topper)

Inside they are typically bare, except for a Buddha statue at the center and perhaps some fresco paintings on the walls. While some temples of Angkor are Hindu, others Buddhist; the temples of Bagan are overwhelmingly Buddhist.

Temple ceiling

A few of the more recent ones are large and have lots of statues, but it’s really only a few compared to the number of small ones.

Thatbyinnyu Pahto, one of the busiest temples for tourists, worshippers, and vendors

Actually, most of the small ones don’t have names, only numbers.

One stupa leans, maybe due to the '75 earthquake? The temple number is visible on the lower right

Due to sold-out buses, we could only spend about three days in the area, but I was glad I got to visit it at all. It’s a beautiful place and deserves to be as famous as Angkor Wat.

Introducing Myanmar

“This is Burma, and it is quite unlike any other land you know about.” -Rudyard Kipling

There are no 7-11s here. Most people, both men and women, wear skirt-like longyi instead of trousers. Cheroots (a kind of Indian mini-cigar) are more popular than cigarettes. Women paint their faces with light yellow-colored makeup, emphasizing their cheeks with big round circles. People still chew betel nuts and spit on the street, the spray the color of blood. It is indeed unlike any other land I know about.

Downtown Yangon with Sule Pagoda in the distance

Myanmar was not on our original itinerary, but a Canadian man we met in Indonesia recommended it wholeheartedly. He had visited a few years ago with his daughter and loved it. As if to seal the deal, he mentioned that AirAsia, a popular budget airline, flies to Yangon. I had thought that flights might cost about $200 round-trip from Bangkok- not too bad, but a little pricey for Southeast Asia- but on AirAsia, they are as low as $50 round trip.

Why did we have to fly, anyway? It’s right next to Thailand, isn’t it? Yes, but the border area is unstable. There is on-and-off internal fighting in Myanmar, between the government and ethnic minority rebels, in the eastern part of the country, near the border with Thailand. There are also certain places where overland travel is off-limits to foreigners, as decreed by the government. So while there are a few border crossings, most of them are only open for day-trippers (used mainly by merchants selling goods on either side of the border, or foreigners renewing their Thai visas) and the few that are open, might as well not be, because foreigners can only get so far before reaching an “off-limits” zone and having to hop on a plane. The main areas of interest to visitors are primarily in the center of the country, and these areas are very far from the fighting and any accompanying nastiness. So the best bet, as of now anyway, is to enter by air.

In the past, the leader of the Burmese pro-democracy party, Aung San Suu Kyi, has encouraged a total tourism boycott. This was in response to the government’s “Visit Myanmar Year” project in 1996, in which forced labor was used to construct roads and airstrips to ready the country for what it hoped would be an influx of visitors. (Less than 200,000 came.) And that’s just one episode. Every day, human rights abuses are rampant, people lack basic freedoms such as free speech, and next year marks 50 years under military rule. Nothing appears to be changing, despite recent “elections.” Yet Aung San Suu Kyi has changed her position. The reason is, she says, because she’s realized that foreign tourists can be a boon to Myanmar, if they avoid government-owned hotels, transport, and restaurants in favor of privately-owned businesses. Myanmar has one of the lowest per capita GDPs in the world, and they desperately need the money that tourism can bring. While every business must pay federal taxes, an independent tourist can make sure 85-90% of their spending goes in the pockets of ordinary people. Based on our experience, this is really not hard to do. Private businesses make up the bulk of businesses in Myanmar, especially at the budget end of the spectrum.

The other benefit tourism can bring is awareness. The Burmese we met were always keen to ask about foreign countries and likewise encouraged us to tell our friends and families about Myanmar. Several people told me “come back next year” and “bring your mother, father, sister, brother.” If there was ever a citizenry that should not be judged by its government, it is the Burmese. In contrast to the government’s secrecy, the people we met were very open and talkative. They are hopeful that they will see real democracy soon, and anxious for support of the international community. They watch the news- everyone we met was very interested in politics- and one man wanted to talk to me about what was happening in Libya. He was heartened by the decision to implement the no-fly zone, and he suggested to me (in total seriousness) that perhaps the US could invade Myanmar next, to help the people overthrow the military junta.

One of my friends told me that Myanmar is very high on his list of  “places to never go.” I understand the sentiment, because it seems like it would be a difficult place to travel, that it might be dangerous for a capitalist devil Westerner, or that it would just be too sad to visit a country where the people lack so much. However, I told him to reconsider his list. Myanmar is full of surprises. It’s safe, easygoing, and we encountered no problems with government officials.  Everything we ate was delicious. The temples are incredible and the ruins of Bagan rival Angkor Wat. Best of all are the Burmese people. They are poor, but the most generous I’ve ever met. We, who have comparatively huge bank accounts, were given gifts and treated to several meals, with no expectation of reciprocation. Whenever we were lost, people went out of their way to help us find the right bus or even walk us to where we wanted to go. It’s a fantastic place to visit and I would encourage anyone to go. And bring your mother, father, sister, brother.

Me in front of Htilominlo, one of the temples of Bagan