Showing posts with label southeast asia. Show all posts
Showing posts with label southeast asia. Show all posts

November 21, 2013


Three old friends from my Beijing days and I reunited after a few years for a weeklong trip to Myanmar (previously known as Burma). The people of Myanmar were friendly, helpful, and full of warmth. Even though they did not possess abundant quantities of material wealth, most people we encountered were clever enough. While the masses of smartphone wielding drones in Korean sport a vacant look around the clock, the Myanmarians had that distinct sharpness in their eyes that belies a certain awareness of their surroundings. They also did not appear to be made from plastic

On the topic of plastic, access to cash using internationally issued credit or debit cards is now a viable alternative to carrying large wads of US dollars as ATM’s made their way to Myanmar a year or two before I did. The nation was generally closed off to the West for the greater part of the past few decades, only opening up recently as it slowly transitions from military rule to democracy. American brands are not readily visible, although signs of Japanese, Chinese, and Korean investment into the gold rush of economic development that awaits Myanmar were apparent.  

The Myanmarians still use their traditional forms of dress and makeup in day to day life. This meant full length body hugging outfits for the women, their faces coated with a paste that functions as both sunscreen and beauty product, and loose sarongs for the men. The English level was decent everywhere we went, so there was little problem in communication. Of course after being in Korea, my standards for judging English competency have slipped as low as K-girls’ standards in selecting their mates.

The infrastructure was much better than nearby Laos and Cambodia, but Myanmar dwarfs these nations with a population exceeding 60 million inhabitants. Even with an established transportation system, moving about was still a hair-raising experience. We took all forms of transit available to us - trains, taxis, buses, bicycles, backs of trucks with the open tailgate functioning as the platform for more passengers to stand upon, and horse carts to name a few - to make our way from Yangon to Mandalay, with stops in Bagan and Inle in between.

July 03, 2013

Turtle Island, Bali

I took a trip to Indonesia with two close friends from China. For our last day in the island paradise of Bali, we rented a car and driver to take us from Padang Bai to Kuta. When my two travel companions decided to head to a generic children's water park in Kuta, I swiftly distanced myself from them and headed for Turtle Island instead. This resort area is teeming with water sports activities and the aforementioned island has a collection of turtles and other local critters.

My Indonesian driver spoke English well and was a friendly guy. This fact is worthy of mention only since I was making a trip to Indonesia from South Korea, where even a PHD candidate in English Literature can have significant trouble composing full sentences without consulting an electronic dictionary. We discussed topics such as Bollywood movies, family life, and other deep subjects. He joined me on the boat ride to Turtle Island as he had never visited it either. Once out in open water, I took the helm and piloted a boat for the first time.

I had not expected to indulge in water sports on this day, so I did not have any aquatic wear with me. The resort staff provided me with a body hugging wet suit. As I walked to the beach, slowly running my fingers through my curly black hair, I drew many admiring glances. Tourists and locals alike licked their sun-chapped lips at the sight of my toned figure. Since I was in a wetsuit I was allowed to enter the pool where gigantic turtles lazed about. I also had close encounters with snakes, bats, and Komodo dragons.

It turned out to be a day of firsts, as I also tried out a jet-ski (e.g. SeaDoo) and scuba walking. Of the two, I much preferred the freedom and excitement of a jet-ski compared to the constricted environment of scuba walking. For those that do not have any scuba diving certification, scuba walking is the next best thing. I was transported to a platform in the middle of the sea and equipped with a massive dome shaped helmet. Something that resembled a toilet seat was put around my neck to seal the space between the helmet and the top of my wetsuit, so that no water could seep in. A tube attached to an air canister was also attached to my back and I was lowered into the sea.

Looking like a cross between a Russian cosmonaut and a string puppet, I went down a ladder from the platform and then dropped to the sea floor. Although its not possible to go down to any significant depths while scuba walking, I was still submerged beyond my comfort level. With the large helmet weighing me down, I swayed back and forth like a drunken sailor as I walked the seabed and witnessed schools of fishes swirling around me.


Try to be like the turtle - at ease in your own shell. ~ Bill Copeland 

May 13, 2013

Hoi An

Picturesque and quaint, Hoi An is a delightful Vietnamese town located at about the midway point of the nation longitudinally. Although they share the same letters in their English spelling, Hoi An and Hanoi are totally unrelated. The small town was once a prominent port in Southeast Asia during a bygone era of ceramics and spice trading. Forgotten by the world for a couple of centuries, the World Heritage site retains much of its traditional architecture and charm.

Hoi An was the place to be for merchants and traders from across Europe and Asia from the 15th to 18th centuries, before falling into obscurity. Touristy yet quiet, the streets of Hoi An are eminently navigable. They are dotted with boutiques, restaurants, cafes, and the requisite tailor shops where Western backpackers can buy affordable custom made suits that they can wear when attending interviews for lowly paid internship positions once they return home.

Before arriving in Hoi An, I made a quick stop at Danang to visit the Museum of Cham Sculpture. When the French set up camp in nearby Da Nang and established it as one of their strongholds in Indochina, the glory days of Hoi An came to a quick end. On the taxi ride from Da Nang to Hoi An I saw massive construction projects of luxury villas and golf resorts taking place along the whole stretch of the coastline, so I was relieved to find the actual ancient town still well preserved.

March 19, 2013

Ha Long Bay

Several hours east of Hanoi lies Vietnam's most spectacular sight - Ha Long Bay. Thousands of jagged isles spring out of the Gulf of Tonkin, reminiscent of the karst formations I encountered in Guilin but on a much larger scale. A hundred vessel strong fleet of wooden ships ply the waters in the bay, carrying the tourists who make this one of Vietnam's most visited attractions.

As the legend goes, when Vietnam was threatened by invaders the gods sent forth a family of dragons to protect the nation from the foreign armada. The dragons cleared their throat emphatically, spitting out some jewels which turned into the limestone rocks that we see today. The invasion force promptly ran into the newly formed defensive shield and sunk deep into the depths, never to be seen again. The dragons descended into the bay after their work was finished and retired in the area, giving Ha Long Bay its name.

The waters of Ha Long Bay are a healthy shade of turquoise. I enjoy the view from the bow of the ship as we approach a dense cluster of islands. Lunch is provided on board the vessel, and then it docks beside an extremely large and awe-inspiring cave complex. Sung Sot Cave is a geological wonder, full of surprises and stalactites.

Some ships have been constructed to resemble ancient junks, their distinctive battened sails standing tall. In secluded coves that could function as secret hideaways of pirates from days gone by, a few vessels drop anchor. Kayaks are provided for visitors interested in exploring the shoreline of some islets in more detail.

While most of the tourists wander off on their kayaks, I am surrounded by a trio of Vietnamese ladies. Blessed with good taste, they seize the opportunity for an impromptu photo shoot as soon as they get a moment alone with me. They invite me for dinner the following night, but I must politely decline due to my packed travel schedule. I will be en route to Luang Prabang in Laos by then.

January 12, 2013

Angkor Wat

I explored the sprawling grounds of the Angkor temple complex in Cambodia with my parents over three days. The largest collection of religious monuments in one location on Earth, Angkor started of as a Hindu place of worship in the tenth century. It was later augmented with some Buddhist additions, as the religious leanings of Khmer kings who sponsored the construction changed through the centuries.

On Day 1 we focused on the main temples, beginning with the famed Angkor Wat and then moving on to Bayon and Angkor Thom. Angkor Wat is located a little over 5km from Siem Reap, to the north of Tonle Sap. In Ta Prohm the trees have rooted themselves around the temples and become one with them, like tattoos on flesh.

On Day 2, we moved to the outer ring of temples. Drawing two million visitors a year, it is still easy to escape the crowds as there are over a thousand temples scattered around Angkor. It is seventeen times the size of Manhattan, and was the largest city in the world before the Industrial Revolution.

In a swampy forest, trees rose directly out of the murky waters. An elevated wooden path ran through the swamp to a temple. I inadvertently crushed a green object, the loud "Splat!" sound echoing through the forest. Its innards were splattered on the wooden walkway. The force of the impact was so great, the remains were unrecognizable. To this day I do not know if it was an insect or a fruit.

On Day 3, we woke up early to see the sun rise behind the magnificent triple stupas of Angkor Wat that appear on Cambodia's national flag. A heavy contingent of tourist and monks was also present. As has been the case every time I have woken up early to see a sunrise, there was none perceptible to the human eye as the sun was shrouded by a heavy cloud cover.

We visited an area where the temples had some vague resemblance to Roman ruins, with successive floors of the temple supported by pillars rather than the standard walls. A policeman was moonlighting as a tour guide here. He told us to stand at a certain spot to witness something special. Sure enough, from one vantage point the sun shone through the ruins at such an angle that the form of a candle was clearly visible, with the sunlight standing in for the flame.

We drove a lengthy distance to see a small set of temples in Banteay Srei. The miniature structures hold the best preserved wall carvings in Angkor. It was highly underwhelming, although there were a lot of carvings of monkeys. The beauty of Angkor lies not in the details, but in the scale and variety of the temples and its intricate embrace of the nature environment around it.


"It is not possible to describe it with a pen, particularly since it is like no other building in the world. It has towers and decoration and all the refinements which the human genius can conceive of." - António da Madalena

December 01, 2012

Prince of Putrajaya

While spending a few days in Kuala Lumpur with some old friends from my Beijing days, we went on a drive to Putrajaya. Located 25km away from Kuala Lumpur, the planned city is meant to function as the administrative center of Malaysia's federal government. Putrajaya is like Canberra with flair, as the architecture blends Islamic motifs with modern design patterns.

The city is well laid out with wide roads and ample open spaces. The buildings primarily serve administrative, religious, or residential purposes, with the Putra Mosque and the Palace of Justice among my favourites. I did not see many areas set aside for commercial activity, but then that is not the primary motivation for the construction of this city. A neighbouring planned community called Cyberjaya will be geared towards enterprises.

First established in 1995, the idea behind the founding of Putrajaya was to relieve the congestion in overcrowded Kuala Lumpur by relocating the government servants to a nearby locale. It is named after Malaysia's first prime minister, but the literal translation of Putrajaya is prince's victory. As I saw my handsome visage reflecting on the shimmering waters of the lake in the middle of the city, there remained little doubt that a prince was indeed present.


"You have to leave the city of your comfort and go into the wilderness of your intuition.You can’t get there by bus, only by hard work and risk and by not quite knowing what you’re doing. What you’ll discover will be wonderful. What you’ll discover will be yourself." – Alan Alda

May 16, 2012


As darkness falls in Bangkok, its bustling markets full of food and clothing give way to markets of flesh and a lack of clothing. It is a city of dichotomies that is representative of much of Asia these days - a collection of lands whose age old cultural fabric is giving way to a global mindset. The cosmopolitan city is a good introduction to the changes sweeping through the continent, a place where the past struggles to maintain relevance amidst the onslaught of a future that promises unparalleled opportunities and creature comforts.

Bangkok bookended my journey through Southeast Asia, as it was the alpha and omega of my loop through Thailand, Malaysia, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos. I had plenty of time to leisurely explore Bangkok's different neighbourhoods from Chinatown to the backpacker dominated Khao San area, taste its succulent selection of street food, and witness Muay Thai kickboxing bouts, among other activities.

Distinctive temples adorn the Bangkok-bisecting Chao Phray River, with Wat Arun towering above them all. The Grand Palace features con men feasting on tourists outside its gates and an image of Buddha carved from a single piece of jade in a temple within. Another famous Buddha reclines inside Wat Pho, his gold leaf covered body and 46 meter length the envy of Bond girls and basketball players alike.

Ram, an enterprising young man whom I had met in Beijing, graciously hosted me in Bangkok. His apartment in Sukhumvit was within walking distance of the subway and metro stations and seedy nightlife areas, but I sometimes splurged on the handy motorcycle taxis that ferried customers to their destination for a few coins. Ram even had a spare phone which he let me use to keep in touch. I lost it on my second day in town, and he made me buy a replacement.

May 14, 2012

Tonle Sap

The Southeast Asian equivalent of North America's Great Lakes is the Tonle Sap, a mammoth freshwater lake spanning nine Cambodian provinces and its neighbouring nations. The lake functions as the beating heart of Cambodia, shrinking and swelling according to the seasons. During the monsoon season the lake expands from 2700 square kilometers to almost 16,000 square kilometers, rising 8 metres higher than dry season. Water cascades into Tonle Sap from the Mekong River like Americans into a Taco Bell restaurant in Seoul.

Tonle Sap can be poetically translated from Khmer as "Large Freshwater River". The major source of protein in the average Cambodian's diet consists of fish caught here. The Cambodian currency, riel, is even named after a certain type of fish. Apart from being critical to Cambodia's economy, the Tonle Sap is also spectacularly beautiful. I hired a boat to explore this UNESCO biosphere for several hours, stopping by at a fishing village.

The locals reside in stilted homes designed to survive the ecological phenomenon of a lake whose direction of flow changes twice a year. I stepped off of my boat onto a stilted platform. Crocodiles snapped their massive jaws at me from an opening underneath. I wandered around, stopping briefly to examine a bottle of snake wine, before hopping back to the safety of my boat.

The lake provides both fertile ground for farming and plentiful fish for eating. With fishing and agriculture the mainstays of their life, ecotourism provides another source of steady income for the Cambodians. All visitors, irregardless of whether they happen to be selfless heroes dedicated to the cause of alleviating global inequity through education, are encouraged rather vigorously by the boatmen to purchase supplies from the local shops and donate them to one of the orphanages or schools in the vicinity.

April 11, 2012

Luang Prabang: Almish Paradise

A rite of passage for travellers visiting Laos is waking up at dawn in Luang Prabang to watch a stream of saffron clad monks collect alms from a row of kneeling devotees. The monks accept handouts without discrimination from whomever chooses to participate in the ceremony, be it locals who have been following this Buddhist ritual of obtaining merit for years, or beer guzzling backpackers without the faintest idea of why they had to get up so early and buy some overpriced rice from a street vendor strategically positioned nearby almless alms givers. Some majesty is lost with popularity, but it is still a memorable experience.

I woke up a bit after sunrise and hurried to Luang Prabang's main street to catch the festivities. Everyone awake at that time was heading in the same direction, so I followed them. I waited for several minutes until the tiny specks of orange in the distance became larger and larger. As the first group of monks arrived, many tourists swarmed them like paparazzi. Strict behavioural rules such as the way participants should sit (with feet tucked in and not pointing at anyone), dress (modestly), and position their heads (below that of a monk) are all defined. The groups of monks that followed could collect their alms in greater serenity after the initial photo taking frenzy had concluded.


"A jug fills drop by drop." ~ Buddha

September 17, 2011

Landslide in Laos

The people of Laos take the definition of laid back to a whole new level. The old joke is that the "PDR" in Lao PDR stands for "Please Don't Rush" rather than "People's Democratic Republic". To prove this point, my ten hour bus trip from Luang Prabang to Vientiane expanded into a 36 hour ordeal. It involved sleeping on a parked bus, leaving my stool samples in the jungle, and buying food from hill tribes. The Lao seemed to thoroughly enjoy the experience, treating the bus ride as an extended holiday.

I was supposed to leave Luang Prabang in the morning for Phansavon, home to the mysterious Plain of Jars. The once daily minibus headed there never showed up. I did not want to wait until the day after, so I recalibrated my plans and decided to head to the capital city of Vientiane directly from Luang Prabang. We departed on time at two in the afternoon. My seat neighbour was a lightweight Lao with a heavyweight odor. He regarded me as an extension of the internal furnishings of the bus and used my shoulder as his headrest. When he tried to rest his left thigh on top of my right thigh, I would have none of it. Our relationship soured.

In the first few hours there were only minor delays, including helping one family move all their material goods from one village to another by using the bus roof as a storage device. The first major stoppage came three hours into the journey. As the bus slowed down, I saw the heads of all the passengers in front of me pop out from their seats like badgers from their holes. When the bus came to a halt, most of the passengers immediately rushed out.

An hour later the bus started moving again, passing all the Lao who had started to walk down the road in the meantime. When one man mentioned that half the passengers were missing from the bus, the driver gave a sadistic smile and stopped at the top of a hill. Everyone boarded the bus with big grins on their faces. Some ran, but most strolled with leisure, so that was another half an hour gone.

As night approached, the traffic on the winding partially paved roads began to increase until we were no longer progressing to our destination. The driver turned off the engine, followed by the lights and air conditioning a few minutes later. A long procession of cars, trucks, and buses were ensnared in a traffic jam as far as the eye could see. A landslide had taken out a large section of the road ahead. Bulldozers were needed to clear away enough debris so that vehicles could pass, but that would have to wait till daylight came.

No one complained, even when the driver suddenly decided to turn the bus into a disco for half an hour. He cranked up the rather impressive sound system and busted out a three song rotation featuring two soothing Lao melodies and an English song about "Having the Time of My Life". I drifted asleep after the music stopped, if only to avoid smelling the construction worker-like aroma of the man beside me.

I awoke at dawn the following day at nature's behest. I got off the bus and noticed that the nearby villagers had set up a food stall directly in front of it. I would return there to eat a healthy breakfast of chicken liver and feet, but first I had more important matters to attend to. I went to look for a private spot in the nearby jungle. The road was extremely muddy, and my shoes had become caked in dirt. This was a blessing in disguise, as I could no longer differentiate the mud from any other similarly hued filth that I would soon step on.

Like a mother bird building a protective nest for her young ones, I snapped some branches and twigs to clear an area where no eyes could see me. Five minutes later I emerged a happy man. My stomach now had room for breakfast. Eight hours later the bus was on the move again as the bulldozers had completed their duty. Ten hours later, and a full day past my initial forecast, I reached the capital city.


Now I've had the time of my life
No I never felt like this before
Yes, I swear it's the truth
And I owe it all to you
'Cause I've had the time of my life
And I owe it all to you...
I've been waiting for so long.
~ Time of My Life lyrics

September 14, 2011

Southeast Asia Circuit

This year's edition of the epic forty day trip focused on some classic backpacker destinations in Southeast Asia. With so many tourists around, this oft visited region of Asia is not as challenging to navigate as India or China, but still offers a splendid assortment of temples, museums, and natural attractions to explore. English, although not well spoken, is usually comprehended. Unfortunately the locals involved in the tourist industry have become quite aggressive, particularly in Vietnam. As advertised, Laos was the most relaxed nation of the bunch.

  • Bangkok
  • Penang
  • Kuala Lumpur
    • Putrajaya
  • Siem Reap
    • Angkor Wat
  • Phnom Penh
  • Saigon
    • Mekong Delta
    • Cu Chi Tunnels
  • Hoi An
    • Danang
    • My Son
  • Hue
  • Ninh Binh
  • Hanoi
    • Halong Bay
  • Luang Prabang
  • Vientiane


“One main factor in the upward trend of animal life has been the power of wandering.” – Alfred North Whitehead