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

Top Five Reasons We Love Malaysia

Yes, we went back to Malaysia! We had to get a couple of visas- the infamous Russian visa, as well as one for Myanmar. We were hoping to get the Russian one in Singapore, but no dice (we were too early to be applying.) Then we had hoped to pick up our Myanmar visa in Phnom Penh, but the embassy staff told us it would take fourteen working days. I asked them if there wasn’t anything they could do- we’d already bought our plane ticket! They said perhaps they could get it done in ten working days, but we didn’t have that much time left in Cambodia.

So we phoned up the embassy in Malaysia (God bless Skype) and they told us we could get it in five days, or three if we wanted to pay a little more. We had to rearrange our flights a little bit, and lost about a week in Myanmar, but oh well. Lesson learned. Always call the embassy first.

In the end, we spent an extra two and a half weeks in Malaysia, gathering our visas. But it’s not so bad really. If we have to be stuck somewhere, Malaysia’s not bad. It’s one of our favorite destinations, actually. Here’s why:

  1. (Almost) no language barrier. English is one of the official languages of Malaysia and everyone studies it in school. Moreover, since Malaysia is home to ethnic Chinese and Indians as well as Malays, English is the lingua franca. I met an American guy on the subway whose wife is a lecturer at a Malaysian university, and he told me that all tertiary education is conducted in English. These people are seriously good at English, which makes getting around a breeze. It’s also really easy to meet locals, and have good conversations, unlike, say, Thailand, where it’s hard to chat with anyone who’s not selling you something.
  2. Fabulous beaches.

    It's also a nice place to drink fresh watermelon juice by the water

    The Perhentian Islands have the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen. I haven’t been to the other east coast beaches, but Pulau Redang looks just like the Perhentians. During the filming of the movie South Pacific, what island was used as Bali Hai? That’s right- a Malaysian island, Pulau Tioman. There is also some really fantastic diving and snorkeling. We liked the snorkeling around the Perhentians, but I’ve heard that Borneo (Pulau Sipadan) is even better.

  3. Melting pot of history and culture.Malaysia, due to its strategic location between China and India, has always been a meeting place for different peoples. Nowadays its population is made up of several different groups: the aboriginal inhabitants of Malaysia, the majority ethnic Malays, and ethnic Chinese and Indian groups. During the British colonial period, the authorities encouraged immigration from China and India- that’s why today Malaysia and Singapore have the ethnic makeup they do. One city, Melaka, was actually a colony of Portugal and Holland before it was part of British Malaya. More recently, the Japanese controlled Malaysia for a few years during WWII. It’s almost

    Shophouses line a street; Georgetown, Penang

    like Southeast Asia in a nutshell: it’s a great place to learn about the history of Southeast Asia, visit mosques as well as Hindu and Chinese temples, and see old colonial buildings. It’s also possible, in Malaysian Borneo or in Taman Negara, to visit indigenous settlements.

  4. FANTASTIC food. Piggybacking off of number three… all this diversity makes for amazingly varied food scene. As if three cuisines weren’t enough, many Chinese and Indian residents have been in Malaysia for several generations, so there is now also fusion food: Indian-Malay fusion is known as Mamak style and Chinese-Malay fusion is known as Baba-Nyonya style. Penang is especially famous for its Baba-Nyonya food (and the whole city of Georgetown is a World Heritage site, to boot.) During our ten days in Kuala Lumpur, we usually ate Indian food for breakfast, Malaysian food for lunch, and Chinese food for dinner. YUM…and if you crave something different, KL also has really good international restaurants.

    How about Chinese tonight?

  5. Easy on the wallet. The cost of living in Malaysia is a little higher than some of the Southeast Asian countries (Laos, Myanmar) but it’s a good bit lower than the US, Europe, or East Asia. Yet the standard of living is high-the highest in Southeast Asia, after Singapore.  Even staying in a guesthouse and eating out three times a day, our daily baseline budget was about $15 per person. Of course you can stay in resort or fancy hotel chains, but even these come at a cheaper rate than in Western countries. It’s also one of the most affordable places to get a scuba certification. Whatever your fancy, the important thing to know is that you can live it up without cringing at your bank statement afterwards.