SE Asia

SE Asia Trip, 2017-2018

Inle Lake / Pindaya, Myanmar

Unfortunately we both seem to have got some sort of food poisoning in Mandalay, and were pretty sick by the time we got to Inle lake, so the first few days were spent mostly in bed. Thank goodness for Cipro, which our doctor recommended bring along, but in fact is very easy to get here. After taking Cipro for 3 days we were feeling good again.

Inle is very picturesque, the villages around the lake that are all built on the water are really interesting, and the market the rotates between 5 lakeside villages is really good. You can hire a boat for a full day to take you around the lake for about $15.

Unfortunately February is the month they burn the fields after harvest (mostly sugar cane and corn), so the air is thick with smoke, which you’ll see in many of the photos. We were told that December and January is the best time to visit.

Photos from Inle Lake are here.

Then on to Pindaya, a small town about 1.5 hours away, and famous for its Buddha Cave, which was very interesting, but the spider was pretty silly. Check out the photos.

We stayed in a nice hotel that was completely empty the first night besides us. The hotel staff was super helpful and friendly, and they even had free mountain bikes and free laundry service. Hotels in Myanmar are a bit nicer than other places in SE Asia. Small guest houses are less common, and medium size hotels (20-30 rooms) are the norm. They are a step up from similarly priced (around $25/night) places in Thailand or Cambodia: e.g.: each bed has 2-3 pillows, and there is central hot water rather than tiny on-demand units. However the wifi is pretty awful in Myanmar compared to most other places in SE Asia.

I also went to the nearby town of Kalaw for a 1 day bicycle trek (31 miles, 4100ft of hill climbing), which was good to help me get back in shape after being sick. Kalaw also has a pretty cool Buddha cave, but not as good as Pindaya.

Photos from Pindaya are here and Kalaw here.

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Mandalay, Myanmar (Burma)

We finally made it to Myanmar. Minnesota may have 10,000 lakes, but Myanmar must have well over 100,000 pagodas. We started our month in Myanmar with 3 days in Mandalay. The weather in February is perfect. High 80, low 60, and low humidity. It feels really nice to not be sweaty for a change.

After reading that Myanmar was selected as a top travel destination in 2016, I expected way more tourists, especially since we are here what is supposed to be the high season. But we hear that tourism is down about 50% this year, mostly due to bad press over the Rohingya troubles.

I first visited Myanmar in May, 1987, back when it was still called Burma. It was, by far, the most broken country I had never seen. There was basically no manufacturing, and no imported goods. Tourists could only visit 4 cities then on a 1 week visa. There were almost no cars, only bicycles and some really sad buses. I was very curious to see how things have changed. And it has changed a lot!

There are many new roads, new airports, new hotels/restaurants, and you can now buy most everything. There are some peculiarities tho, such as they drive on right, using mostly cars with steering wheel on the right too. In Mandalay there are surprisingly few taxis, so its a bit tricky getting around town. You pretty much need to just hire a driver for the day (only about $35 for a full day).

We did an excellent street food tour (which might have made us sick), and went to most of the major pagodas in the area. My favorite Burmese food so far is Mohinga, a fish-based noodle soup. Overall I like the food, but it can often be too greasy and/or salty. The combination of smoke, haze and pollution made visibility bad, but the sites were still impressive. A surprising number of the temples are quite new, or recently rebuilt.

I went on a Burmese history kick, and read a bunch of historical fiction to try to better understand this country, whose history is both fascinating and fucked up. I particularly enjoyed “Twilight over Burma”, “The Glass Palace”, and “The Trouser People”. I also watched several episodes of the show ‘101 East‘ that focused on Myanmar.

We stayed in the house of a young couple who both got scholarships to universities in Virginia, and returned to Myanmar to work in Dad’s businesses (a water bottling company and a noodle restaurant). They were very interesting to chat with about Myanmar’s history and politics.

Mandalay photos are here.

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Koh Rong, Cambodia

Our final week in Cambodia was spent on Koh Rong, a 3 hr boat ride from Sihanoukville. We stayed in a small bungalow on the far side of the island at Lonely Beach, a very quiet beach resort with 40-50 guests and no electricity (solar LED lights only).

Lonely Beach Resort was a really interesting place to stay. One of the owners, Danny from Strasbourg, has lived in SE Asia for over 20 years, and first travelled around SE Asia in the late 80s, same as me. We both lamented how it was better then (in some ways). The other interesting thing was they had around 8 ‘workaway‘ volunteers working there, helping with the restaurant, bar, and garden. They were all in their 20’s, and really fun/interesting to talk to. There was also a English couple who spent 5 years in a VW Van traveling around Central and South America. They had lots of really great stories that made me want to spend some time in South America.

We did quite a bit of snorkeling, which was not as good as places like Hawaii or Belize, but still pretty good. Besides the usual coral reef creatures, we got to see giant clams (6-15 inches) and giant sea worms called “Bobbit worms” that were 2-3 ft long and about 1/2 inch around!

Besides snorkeling, we mostly laid around and read. One day we walked about 1 hr across the island to a small fishing village and did a cooking class with Mr Hun, which we recommend if you find yourself at Lonely Beach.

On our way on to Myanmar we spent a night at Sihanoukville, an odd town with a odd history. Currently there is lots of construction, lots of Chinese casinos, and lots of expats. It seems to be changing very fast, and locals seem concerned.

A small collection of photos are here.

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Kampot and Kep, Cambodia

Kampot and Kep are small towns on the coast in Cambodia. Of all the places we’ve visited so far in SE Asia, the expat (and sexpat) presence here is by far the most noticeable. Kampot is full of English speaking expats, and Kep is full of French speaking expats. Most of the guests houses and restaurants seem to be foreign owned, and we met a lot of interesting/odd expats hanging out in the Kampot bars/restaurants. But I guess you’d have to be a bit odd to move to a place like Cambodia.

A highlight of the week was lunch at the Kep crab market! We used this video to learn how it works. First you pick out your crabs, then you pay $1 to get it steamed (or fried), and then buy some rice, some garlic chili sauce, some beers, and dig in! The crabs are really good! Similar to Chesapeake Blue crabs, but sweeter. Or maybe just fresher.

Kampot is famous for its pepper, and visiting a pepper farm is something everyone must do while here. We also did kayaking, hiking, and exploring the countryside by scooter. We did a lot of relaxing too.

See the photos here.

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Riverboat to Phenom Penh

We always wanted to try a riverboat tour, so when we found that G Adventures offered a small riverboat option from Siem Reap to Phenom Penh, we decided to give it a try. The boat only had 14 2-person cabins, so it was a reasonable number of people to coordinate. The group was an interesting mix of mostly Aussie’s, Brits, and Canadians, but also 2 Norwegian’s, 2 Kenyan’s , and 1 German. We only did 3 nights on the boat, but everyone else was going on to Ho Chin Min city, and doing 6 nights total.

This boat tour confirmed that I am really not a ‘tour’ person. The daily activities included too much shopping time, and to me any shopping time is too much shopping time. I had never heard of G Adventures before, but several on the boat had done previous tours with them, and they offer some very interesting tour options. Unfortunately the ones the appeal to me most are often their “18 to 30 something” tours. Maybe I should get a fake ID that makes me 39 again?

The boat tour included a number of interesting stops, including a floating village, a brick factory, pottery making, palm sugar making, and more. See the photos in the link below. It also included a chat with a couple survivors of Khmer Rouge prisons, and a visit to one of the killing fields. See this documentary if you want to know more about the Khmer Rouge, which is responsible for the 3rd worst genocide in modern history.

In Phenom Penh we did the Vespa Adventures “Nightlife Adventure” tour, which was a blast, and helped me forget about the killing fields.

Overall we liked Phenom Penh a lot. Lots of friendly helpful people, great food, and good nightlife. Unfortunately the air pollution bothered us both enough that 2.5 days was our limit there. In PP we stayed in a great AirBNB near the royal palace. It was a great local experience, as the apartment was at the end of a hallway where everyone on that floor of the building did their cooking in the hallway. Everyone was super friendly, and the food always looked and smelled really good. Unfortunately we did not get invited to dinner. 🙁

Link to Photos.

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Siem Reap, Cambodia

I’ve been wanting to visit Cambodia ever since I was in Thailand in 1987, but could not go on to Cambodia, as it was closed to western travelers at that time. That and the Dead Kennedys song.

Cambodia is by far poorest country we have visited this trip, and in fact the 2nd poorest country I’ve ever been to, even worse than Bangladesh for GDP per capita. That means more trash, more smoke-belching trucks and scooters, more bad roads, and so on. Its also the drier and dustier than other places, at least this time of the year. But the people are super friendly, and the food is great.

Angkor Wat has been on my bucket list for a very long time, and did not disappoint. It was annoyingly crowded, but no where near as bad as Machu Pichu. We learned that the town of Angkor Thom, the center of the Khmer empire in 1200AD, was the largest city in the world at the time, with over 1 million people. Somehow my public school education never got around to teaching about the Khmer. Did yours? We spent our evenings watching YouTube documentaries on the Khmer and Cambodia to fill in the gaps in our history studies.

We recommend a scooter tour as a great way to see the temples, as there are some great scooter trails that keep you away from the tour buses. Our tour route was great, but the guide could have been better.

We did a great cooking class, and a fun street food tour that included really delicious stuffed grilled frog (see photo below) and yummy fried bugs. In the photos you’ll also find shots from a silk factory, a crocodile farm, a water blessing, and more.

One of the highlights of our time in Siem Reap was 2 nights in a homestay a few miles outside of town. The family was super nice, and the food fantastic. A friend who is a chef in a 5-star hotel in town came by to cook one night! Our favorite dish was topped with raw duck blood. Based on the reviews online, we expected to be roughing it at this guesthouse, but it turned out they got electricity and western toilets just a couple months before we arrived. Highly recommended!

All the locals we’ve talked to seem worried about the future of Cambodia. Several said the country is going the wrong direction, and feel there is no hope to correct it. Many said the current government is selling out to the Chinese or Vietnamese, who keep all the money for themselves. Not like the optimistic vibe we got in Vietnam at all.

I did a 2 night trip to Battambang while Christine stayed back in Siem Reap for a ‘water blessing’ (see photo). Battambang was much less touristy, and really cheap (3-star hotel room for $12), but skipable. I also saw a couple of very depressing killing fields memorials, and I suspect that the one we’ll see in Phenom Penh next week will be even more intense.

I had a hard time picking the best photos to share, there were so many.

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Melaka / Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Our next stop was Melaka, which was OK, but not great. We were there at Christmas, and went to the Portuguese area to check out their holiday lights, which they take pretty seriously, but nothing like some places in the states.

Good parts about Melaka:

  • Excellent hawker food. We tried most of the savory items in that article. Favorites where #4, #6, and #11.
  • Very nice boat tour, and nice just hanging out along the river
  • We saw a fun band on Christmas from Australia/Greece, based in Berlin, called ‘The Zap Show‘.

Not-so-good parts:

  • Horrible traffic (it was peak season, but taxi drivers said its always bad)
  • Really annoying bicycle rickshaws blaring bad music really loud (photo below)
  • A huge number of mediocre museums. They really need to update some of these. There was an exhibit on international body modifications (feet binding, lip plates, etc.) that was quite interesting tho.

Overall Melaka is worth stoping for a couple days maybe if you are nearby, but skip-able.

Collection of photos is here.

After Melaka we went to Kuala Lumpur (locals just call it KL) for New Years Eve. Since this was the first modern international city we’ve been in since Osaka, we decided to branch out from local food, and went out for an amazing sushi dinner one night, and a nice Peruvian dinner another night. The sushi at Hanaya was the best I’ve had outside of Tokyo, and our ‘chef’s choice’ included some unusual items such as Yakogai, Akagai, and Shirako, and some favorites such as Aji and Otoro.

We went to watch the NYE fireworks in the park next to the twin towers. The fireworks were only 10 minutes long, and not particularly impressive, but the atmosphere in the park was great.

KL has the largest bird park in the world, which was really cool (see photos), and some excellent museums. There is some really nice modern architecture in KL too.

We stayed in a great, but odd, AirBNB ($57/night). We had 2 bedroom, 2 bathroom apartment on the 16th floor with great views and a fantastic huge swimming pool in a former Ramada Inn, that was currently being used for corporate short term rentals. All the parts of the hotel that used to be restaurants, bars, meeting rooms, etc were boarded up, and the place had a bit of a post-apocalyptic feeling, but the inside of the room was super nice.

Collection of KL photos is here. KL is definitely worth a few days if you are in the vicinity.

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Penang / Cameron Highlands, Malaysia

Malaysia was quite a change after after Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand. Pretty much everyone speaks English, and no more Tuk Tuks. Also, everywhere we went was packed with tourists, but not western tourists. Tourists in Malaysia (at least in December) are mostly from other parts of Malaysia or Singapore.

We were here during Durian season, and the smell of durian is everywhere. Durian is now trendy, and there are people selling it out of the back of their trucks everywhere. I don’t mind the smell, but a lot of people don’t like it.

We stayed in a huge AirBNB in George Town on Penang Island. 3 bedrooms, 2 bathroom and a huge herb garden for $27/night. It was in a quiet neighborhood a 10 min ($1.50) Uber ride from everything.

There are a number of good museums in George Town such as Pinang Peranakan Mansion, and some great hiking in the nearby National Park. I did an excellent (and easy) bike tour on the back side of the island with great guides. And then there is the crazy WonderFood museum (photo below).

George Town is known throughout Malaysia as a food lovers dream, and locals are very proud of their food. People come just to eat at the ‘hawker stalls’ (photo below). Most everything is $1.50 to $2. Overall I think I prefer Thai food, but I like the greater diversity of food options in Malaysia. But be prepared for much higher prices for alcohol in Malaysia, as it is heavily taxed. For example, cans of Tiger beer in a supermarket are $2 each.

Here are a selection of our photos from Penang.

Next we took a bus to the Cameron Highlands. This area is full of tea plantations, vegetable farms, and more recently, strawberry farms. Cameron is the second place on our travels where it got even a little bit chilly at night (60 degrees F), the first being Sapa, Vietnam.

I did a fantastic guided hike with Jason, who works out of Father’s Guesthouse. Jason grew up in the Cameron Highlands, got a law degree in London, and speaks with a perfect BBC accent. He worked as a lawyer for the environment in Malaysia for 6 years, and then quit to be a tour guide instead. Much less frustrating. We learned a lot about jungle plants, and talked about environmentalism, politics, religion, and philosophy along the way. Be sure to take a tour with him if you find yourself there.

I also saw some incredible wood carvings at the Mah Meri Art Gallery. Check them out.

Here is a selection of photos from Cameron Highlands.

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Foody Travel, or how to get the most out of local cuisine

For us, one of the main reasons to travel is to try new, interesting foods. Our goal is to try all the popular foods in every city we visit, and have been surprised just how much foods can vary between towns that are only a 3-4 hr drive from each other.

Doing this well requires doing some research on what’s out there, and what its called. We start by doing some background reading and YouTube viewing. Antony Bourdain shows (Parts Unknown and No Reservations) and “Migrationology” (videos and articles) are good sources. For Japan, “Trails to Tsukiji” is super interesting. But just searching for “street food CityName” in YouTube and Google often brings up some useful/interesting videos or articles. Use the YouTube download option to watch these videos on the bus to your next destination.

Its easy to get overwhelmed with the number of options for foods you’ve never even heard of. We recommend making a list of the things you particularly want to try, and checking them off as you go.

Next we try to find a street food / market tour. Many towns have street food tours these days, and some include a market tour, which is even better.

Some of our favorite tours so far were:

The website is also a good source for food tours.

Some sample useful food pages include:

Many ask: “Isn’t it risky eating street food. Won’t I get sick?” In 4 months of traveling, we’ve only got mild cases of food poisoning twice each. I don’t think its all that much more risky than eating in restaurants. If you are worried, avoid raw vegetables/herbs and shellfish. And what’s life without a bit of risk!

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Khao Sok National Park, Thailand

We spent a great, relaxing week at Khao Sok National Park. There are a cluster of resorts and restaurants near the park entrance, and all the resorts will book various activities. The main reason to go to Khao Sok is to do a overnight trip to Cheow Lan Lake (a reservoir) and stay in a bungalow on the water. Two day / one night trip including all meals, transport, guides, and bungalow was 2500 Baht/person. Our bungalow had a private bath, a fan, and generator power from 6pm till midnight. Not all tours included bungalows with a private bath, so be sure to ask.

We also visited the “Monkey Temple” (Wat Tham Phanthura) , which is a great place to watch monkey play. I did a ‘night safari’ guided hike thru the jungle, and got to see a bunch of cool spiders, lizards, and frogs.

We stayed at the Morning Mist Resort, and recommend it. They let us leave all our stuff in our room for free while we did the overnight trip to the lake. The best food in town was at Pawn’s Restaurant.

Some of our best photos of our entire trip so far are from our trip to the lake. The rest of our Khao Sok photos are here. We spent a lot more time in Khao Sok than necessary, but highly recommend the lake trip.

Our final night in Thailand was in Surat Thani, so we could experience the food at the fantastic night market (photos).

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