South East Asia Top Ten
Note: AJ, Alex, and I have currently been in Myanmar for 3 weeks, and at the moment of writing this I am in Mandalay in center of the country. Unfortunately, it has taken me a couple weeks to finish this one up, so I wrote most of it in Thailand a few weeks ago, just something to keep in mind when reading — enjoy!
Friends, family, fellow travelers, and whoever else might be reading — good morning from Chiang Mai, Thailand! Wherever you may be reading from today, I hope you’re feeling great today and living life to the fullest.
Speaking of today, it is another landmark for your 3 favorite travellers, as June 1 officially marks 3 1/2 months abroad for us! It also represents a big step for us, as tonight we will fly to Bangkok, then on to Myanmar, one of the poorest and most underdeveloped countries in the world, and a place which will surely present unique challenges for travelling, and for us as people as well. Our first stop will be at a Buddhist Meditation center in Yangon, where we will be volunteering for our forseeable future in Myanmar (3 weeks). Did I mention it is the peak of Monsoon season too? I have a feeling there will be some interesting updates from AJ, Alex, and myself in these coming weeks, we will do our best to keep you posted!
Although it is exciting to look ahead to what is next when travelling, I think looking back on the past is even more important. Reflecting on what I have done, and thinking back on all the interesting people I have met while travelling always makes me feel grateful, and it humbles me thinking that I have this opportunity. Looking back also helps me realize how travelling has changed me as a person, and how all the good and bad experiences have been instrumental in my personal growth. Sometimes, I even think it is the bad experiences which are the most influential, and most telling. Lastly, thinking back on the wonderful experiences we have all had keeps me staying optimistic, reminding me that there will be similar if not better times ahead. In a word, reflecting on these past months makes me happy, and helps me realize how lucky I am, so thank you to everyone who has contributed to this feeling, I hope I have been able to do the same for you. On that note, today I want to look back on the coolest experiences I have had so far in this awesome region, and hopefully I can give you some guidance on what to do, and where to go in South East Asia as well, so without further ado, I want to share with you my list of the top 10 places to see in South East Asia.
I also wanted to toss in some shout outs to the friends I have made over here, so keep an eye out for those. So far, I have travelled through Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand, so my list will be confined to those places (sorry Malaysia and Laos).
Enjoy, guys, and let me know what you think!
Top 10 places to see in SE Asia:
10. Muay Thai Gym in Bangkok
I’m a lover, not a fighter, but when the opportunity arose to stay in a muay Thai Gym in Bangkok and train as the Thai do, I couldn’t turn down such an experience. Thailand is crazy about Muay Thai, or at least that was the impression I got soon after arriving. While walking around Bangkok it was excessively evident. Outside street side shops small crowds would gather, huddling around a small tv on which a muay Thai fight was televised. Along the bustling streets, posters advertising fights decorated lamp posts, and often found their way into your hands, placed there by young Thais promoting the bouts.
One of our first nights in Bangkok we met a family friend, and a most generous and welcoming host, Geng. After treating us to dinner, he invited us to a Muay Thai bout just down the road — an invitation we eagerly accepted. What could be a better, more authentic Thai experience than going to see a muay Thai fight in Bangkok? So without a second to lose, we hopped in Geng’s car, and sped off to the stadium. After watching the fight that night I had all but made up my mind — I had to try Muay Thai, but how? And where?
In the end, I found my gym, an establishment called Master Toddy’s, in Southeast Bangkok. As I arrived at the gym, slightly apprehensive inside, I tried to compensate by looking as tough as possible on the outside. On my face I wore an angry scowl, like I had just overpaid for some sub par phad Thai, and I tried to assume an air of self confidence, which probably looked ridiculous. I straightened my back, puffed out my chest, and with that, I resolutely walked up to the gate of master toddy’s gym, pulled on the handle, and… Nothing happened. I tried pushing on the gate, again, no luck. “Maybe they were closed today?” I thought, trying to make excuses as to why I couldn’t open the gate. After a minute or so of looking around and waiting, an elderly Thai woman came up to me, smiled, and pulled the gate in, then pushed it forward to open it. As I stared dumbfounded at the locking apparatus on the gate she laughed. Dignity shattered, I walked into the open air muay Thai Gym. In front of me stood hanging heavy boxing bags of all sorts, weights and exercise machines, and racks and shelves containing a menagerie of boxing equipment that was completely foreign to me. Dominating the room was an elevated boxing ring, where at the moment, a tall foreigner was trying in vain to avoid getting repeatedly punched in the face by a small lean Thai fighter.
Upon arriving, I was a little intimidated to be honest, but I knew that the best way to counter this feeling was to jump right in, so with that, I dropped my bags off in my room above the gym, and headed down to the ring for a private lesson with a young trainer by the name of Na. The lesson began with 10 minutes of stretching and loosening up, before discussing and slowly attempting some very basic techniques, such as punching, kicking, and grappling. The next 10 minutes were then spent shadowboxing and trying to incorporate some of what I had just learned. After that more working with pads, sparring very lightly with Na, then we finished with me kneeing a heavy bag for 5-10 minutes (ouch!). It may not sound like too much, but that Bangkok heat makes you feel like you’re going 12 rounds with Mike Tyson out there. Despite this, I was out here to prove something (not really), so I hopped into the group session that started after my lesson with Na. After another hour and a half of kicking, punching, and grappling, I could hardly move, but content and happy with my day, I went up to my room, and was asleep by 7. After two more full days of twice a day group sessions and total exhaustion, I felt like I was finally making progress. Unfortunately, I had reached the end of my stay in Bangkok, and had to leave the gym and my dreams of muay Thai stardom unrealized.
Despite the brevity of my stay, I felt like I had gained valuable experience over those past few days. I had looked upon the whole muay Thai Gym experience apprehensively at first –thinking: it looked too intense, I had never done any sort of fighting, these guys are going to kill me, etc. But I realized the underlying apprehension was simply my fear of an unknown, challenging experience. Once I let go of that fear and actually went for it, that is when I think I grew as a person, not because of the actual muay Thai. So take the leap guys! Try something you are afraid of, and if that happens to be Muay Thai in Bangkok, message me and I’ll try to help in any way I can.
What to do:
Take the leap of faith and go to a gym to train and learn about Muay Thai. Become Jason Bourne.
9. Experiencing local markets:
Night markets, sunday markets, saturday markets, clothing markets, food markets… if there is a type of market, SE Asia has it, and it is almost always something to experience. When I first arrived here, I wasn’t sure what all the hype about markets was to be honest. It seemed that every guide book or blog seemed to point to markets as key things to experience, from every megacity, to the smallest village. Now, after months of countless markets, too many fake soccer jerseys, and endless negotiations, I feel like i finally know a decent bit about markets. Although I did just pay $12 for a knock off Myanmar soccer jersey. The hotel receptionist simply laughed when I told him. I’m still a little bothered, but hey it’s a learning experience! Anyways, about these markets…
They are awesome places for a few reasons. First, you can find almost anything there. Whether you are looking for authentic souvenirs, clothes, jewelry or nothing in particular, you are more than likely to walk out of one of these markets with something. If you are like me and are a soccer fan you will be in heaven here with all the kits. Markets are also the best place to find gifts for friends and family back home. Another great aspect of the markets, naturally, is the food. I’m actually getting hungry just writing this, maybe there is a night market I can run to…
Perhaps the best feature of markets is simply the experience you get from going. Upon entering the market your senses become overloaded. There is the smell of fresh fruit and the scent of cooked meals, you look around and see all sorts of strange fruits, the sound of the local language reaches your ears… And this is just the beginning. If you want to jump in and buy something get your game face on and remember those negotiation skills we never learned in the U.S. Also, remember to be good natured about it, it’s just money, it comes and goes and if you get ripped off it’s a lesson learned.
AJ and Alex are more market aficionados than I am so it’s probably better to ask them, but here are a few of my favorite markets anyways:
Da Lat night market, Siem Reap market, downtown Yangon market, Hoi An night market, Saigon night market.
As you can tell I am slightly biased towards the night markets. There is something special about getting some good cheap street food, maybe a little liquid courage for negotiating, then heading out into the crowds and wandering the markets. In the bigger markets there is always a nice crowd about, and the atmosphere is electric.
What to do:
Buy soccer jerseys or gifts and souevenirs, try some fresh exotic foods, give negotiating a shot, enjoy the carnival atmosphere
8. Uluwatu Temple:
When AJ and I landed in Denpasar, Bali on our first day abroad we were in for a slight shock. If you have followed the blog for a while, you might have read our earlier posts where we mentioned our first impressions of Bali, and our surprise that reality (at least in Kuta) was so far from what our preconceived notions were. As we sat in our hotel room on that first day, attempting to minimize our chances of getting ripped off or hit by a motorbike, I’m sure the thought crossed both of our minds: “was this really what Bali was like?”. The answer: yes and no.
Months later, we both reminisced on our time in Bali as one of the best of our whole trip. Despite the initial shock, we eventually got over it, thanks almost entirely to our hotel staff at Hotel Palloma, and the unforgettable group of people we met (Wael, Laguen, Jaimie, Sander, and Sarah, you guys are the best). While thinking back on those days, AJ and I also found the turning point to our time in Bali, it was the day we took scooters to Uluwatu, and discovered a different side of Bali, vastly different from the chaos of Kuta.
Uluwatu is a small section of Bali on the islands southern tip, connected only to the main island by a small thin isthmus (shout out to my 7th grade geography teacher for that one). Once you cross that thin strip of land, the crowded dirty streets of Denpasar are in the rear view mirror (I’m back with the puns people, get ready), and ahead of you is a small concrete road, which winds endlessly through the jungle. This was the Bali AJ and I had expected to find. The drive through this part of the island was amazing, and eventually it took us up to the Uluwatu Temple complex, a Hindu site built high upon coastal cliffs overlooking nothing but blue ocean. The temple was very cool, the view was even better, and watching the monkeys descend upon tourists and grab their belongings was oddly entertaining too.
After the temple, we continued on to a well known surf spot on the western side of Uluwatu, where you can eat at restaurants on the cliff side, and watch surfers carving the endless supply of perfect waves supplied by the Bali surf. After a few hours of spectating, we paid our bill, walked to our bikes, and headed back to our hotel, both feeling reenergized and much more comfortable with Bali. The drive back to Kuta felt far less stressful this time around, and by the time we returned to our hotel, I think we both fancied ourselves Bali locals. The lesson I learned from this day was pretty simple: go for it. I was pretty terrified about renting a scooter and driving it to Uluwatu at first, and much of my thought process warned me against doing it. But once I overcame this fear and got out and did it, all the worry and stress disappeared in an instant, and I was in wonder that I had almost passed up the opportunity. Of course, I’m not saying go out and do anything crazy, but sometimes I think you just have to go for it to get the most out of an experience, and maybe out of life.
What to do: see the beautiful Uluwatu Temple, cruise through the jungle, visit Uluwatu beach and have a drink while watching the surfers, or surf for yourself!
7. Ha Long Bay/Cat Ba Island:
First, a confession: We didn’t actually go to Ha Long bay.
Ha Long Bay, one of the seven natural wonders of the world, is located on the North east coast of Vietnam, about 4 hours east of Hanoi by motorbike. To the South about an hour from Ha Long is Cat Ba island, and it is here where we had predestined ourselves for, instead of Ha Long. Although Cat Ba isn’t Ha Long Bay, it is extremely similar, but cheaper and far less travelled. It is also the place where a group of us managed to get 39 beers for $10… Why isn’t this #1 you might ask?
Regardless of which option you choose, you are bound to enjoy yourself, and are guaranteed to see some of the most unique landscape in the world. You have plenty of options available to you here as well. You can rent kayaks and paddle out among the giant karst islands, or if you want to relax a bit more you can hire a boat to take you through the bay, or you might opt for the booze cruise. Hell, we even saw people intertubing out there. We also ran into a few guys planning to camp out on the islands. However you find yourself in the bay, once you are there you can spend hours paddling around or lying on the small beaches some islands provide. For the more adventurous you can also try climbing to the top of some of the islands to get an even better view of the bay. I would have done this with Alex and AJ, but it wasn’t meant to be.
After we spotted an island to summit, my two friends gracefully guided their kayaks into shore, and with ease they glided onto the sand and pulled their kayaks onto the beach. “Well that doesn’t look too hard” I thought naively. That was the last thing I remember before a giant wave picked up my kayak, and unceremoniously flipped me onto the beach. Thoroughly soaked, disoriented, and with sand everywhere I thought “hey, that could have been worse”, before the second wave came down upon me. With some struggle, the three of us finally got my kayak up the shore, at which point Alex and AJ hiked up the karst island, while I walked myself through concussion protocol on the beach.
All in all, Cat Ba was an unbelievable experience. Kayaking in the bay looking up with awe at the giant karst islands, you feel like you are in a special place. I found it really cool you can land on any island you want as well, giving you the freedom to spend days out in the bay exploring. The island of Cat Ba was a nice place too, and as a bonus the one hour ferry ride to get you there takes you on a stunning tour through the smaller islands of the bay. Also, most of the island is dominated by a national park that is home to exotic animals of all sorts, so if kayaking for days isn’t your thing there are other options as well (think 39 beers for $10). Safe kayaking, friends.
What to do:
Explore the bay on Kayaks, camp on an island, adventure through Cat Ba national park
As I mentioned above, we have currently been in Myanmar for two weeks. Technically I’m cheating by putting this in the list, since the top 10 was supposed to be for all the countries visited before Myanmar, so you will have to forgive me for that! Ok –volunteering. My first whole week in the spectacular country of Myanmar was spent volunteering and learning about Buddhism at the Tharbawa Meditation center outside of Yangon. For AJ, Alex, Jordan, and myself, this was our first official volunteering of our whole trip, and it made me realize how big of a mistake it was waiting this long.
When you’re travelling, especially through SE Asia, the option to volunteer confronts you at every juncture. Many of the countries here are home to some of the poorest regions in the world, and oftentimes this poverty is staring you straight in the face. For me I noticed this, and always told myself “I’ll volunteer, but later”, or “I wish I could volunteer, but now isn’t a good time”. It’s true that when backpacking you have a limited number of days in a country, loads of things you want to see and do, and usually only a few days in any given location, which can make volunteering difficult if you haven’t incorporated it into your schedule. What makes it easier is planning it out far ahead of time, alotting a few days or weeks to volunteer at a certain place, and sending out a few emails on workaway or a similar website to set something up. It wasn’t until I prepared a month ahead of time, rather than a day or two before, that I found out about Tharbawa, got in contact with the people there, and set up some dates. Ironically, many of the people I met at Tharbawa simply showed up on the spot to volunteer with no prior communication, so you can do that too!
The other thing about volunteering that can be tough is getting the motivation to do it. That might sound bad, but when you’re travelling there are a million other things to do, many of which might sound more appealing. But after volunteering once, it is easy to become addicted. Not only is it immensely rewarding, it is also one of the best ways to see a unique side of a country and culture beyond what many foreigners experience. Additionally, it is a great way to get to know the people of a country, plus all the amazing people who are also volunteering. Lastly, by volunteering you are making a difference and helping others, and that is what is most important.
What to do:
Set up a time to volunteer somewhere for a cause or organization that matches up with your values, you won’t regret it!
5. Kaweah Ijen
Kaweah ijen is a volcano located on the eastern tip of Java, which is only a short ferry ride from the western point of Bali. It draws a good number of visitors, as there is a sulfur mine in the crater where you can see a large blue flame of sulfur gas at night. The crater is also home to a crater lake, the most acidic crater lake in the world Wikipedia tells me. Since you can only see the blue flame at night, you must hike 1 1/2 hours up the mountain, then about 45 minutes down into the crater, all in the middle of night.
When AJ and I decided we were going to do this, we were still in Legian, southern Bali. This meant we would have a 5 hour mini bus ride to the west coast of Bali, a 1 hour ferry ride to Java, taxi to the city of Banyuwangi, then we would have to hire someone in the middle of the night to take us another hour to the base of Ijen. We hoped to get to the base around 2 AM to begin our hike. Also joining us on our adventures was Sander, our Dutch buddy and an experienced traveller who we had met at our hotel. We departed our hotel around 5 PM, and dug in for a crazy ride, as you can only have on the lawless roads of Indonesia. We made it to Banyuwangi in good time, around midnight, and to our surprise and delight, we found someone who would drive us to the base of Ijen at 1 AM. With an hour to kill, we took a nap in the hotel lobby. We were woken up by the receptionist around 1, and he hurried us out into the dark and quiet night where a Soviet era jeep sat idling at the curb. With no introduction or instruction, Sander, AJ and I crammed into the middle section, and took stock of our surroundings. We had two people behind us, and our driver and one more person in the front seat, but before I could observe more, we were off. Maybe it was the Cold War era car, but to me, it felt like we were on our way to some clandestine rendezvous in the middle of the jungle, on a top secret mission, without a minute to lose. The roads were completely empty, and we sped through the lighted streets of Banyuwangi, then through the outskirts, which slowly transformed into the rough jungle roads of the bush. Houses were replaced by dense jungle on either side, and as the road turned to one lane, we began to climb higher and higher. The only sound was the incessant roar of the car engine, which our driver mercilessly pushed to its limits, our only respite was the occasional momentary change in gears. Inside the car we were all silent. It was 1:30 AM, but everyone was wide awake, and no one said a word. I like to think we were all preparing ourselves for what was almost certainly a meeting with a top KGB official in deep cover, or an Indonesian rebel leader hiding out in the country side waiting on our secret intel to move. It turned out we actually were going to the base of Ijen, and by about 2:30 AM, we arrived. Upon our arrival, we were given a guide who was an ex sulfur miner, and who distributed gas masks to combat the sulfur fumes in the crater. The hike up the mountain wasn’t too tough, and it gave us a nice chance to meet the other people who we drove in with: a young German couple and a Spaniard who was travelling solo. After making it to the rim of the crater, we began the steep, rocky decline down to the sulfur mine. The mind blowing part of this was that as we were struggling down the trail, sulfur miners were climbing up from the mine, and they weren’t just climbing up, they were hiking out of the crater with a wooden stick over their shoulders and a basket on each side, which in total contained 70 kilos of sulfur. 70 kilos! That’s 154 pounds. For this work they get paid $5-$8 per day. After seeing the sulfur flame and watching the sun come up we hiked down the mountain, and promptly fell asleep for the whole ride back to Legian, Bali. Anyways, this was a memorable experience, and definitely one I reccomend if you are feeling adventurous.
What to do:
Make the journey a day trip from Bali over to Java and experience the blue flame for yourself! The ferry we took from Bali to Java sunk 2 weeks later, so if that puts you off try and find another way to the city of Banyuwangi.
4. Visit an Indonesian Carnival
I know what you’re thinking: “an Indonesian Carnival? it’s official, Taylor has lost it. He’s probably joining the circus to become a clown”. But one moment friends! Hear me out on this one. It all happened one day returning to JogJakarta (central Java, Indonesia) from a day at the beach. We had been driving looking for food for a while with no luck, when one of the most memorable experiences of our trip fell right into our lap. The sun was just setting over the horizon, and our stomachs were growling as we passed what looked to be some food stalls on our left. The three of us are fiends for street food, so after a quick conference we turned our bikes around and into the parking lot. It was at this point we noticed that these stalls were part of a carnival, and we even spotted some antique carnival rides tucked back into the small park. First, we grabbed as much carnival food as possible. Donuts, sweets, cake, it didn’t matter what it was, we ate it all. Then, with full stomachs (mistake #1) we contemplated the death machines — I mean, carnival rides that lay in front of us. To our right, we had a ferris wheel, which looked suspiciously like it had been designed by Mr. Ferris himself in the 19th century. To our left, we had a swinging ship, powered by what could have only been a motorcycle engine. AJ and I looked at each other, ate our final donut hole, then climbed inside the ferris wheel compartment like giddy 12 year olds. This joy would be short-lived. By the end, we were nervously laughing and trying to get the operators attention to stop the ride. We must have been in that cage flying around at full speed for 7-10 minutes. But did we learn our lesson? Of course not. Next, all three of us approached the decrepit swinging ship. Jack Sparrow himself would have balked at getting on such a vessel, but we jumped on anyways. We should have known something was wrong when a crowd of locals came over to watch what was about to ensue. As soon as we sat down on the wooden benches, the operator pull started the motorcycle engine, and the boat started to slowly coast back and forth. I looked around for a seat belt and realized: “this is Indonesia! What seat belt?”. Slightly nervous, I reassured myself, thinking: “these swinging ships don’t go too high anyways”. I have never been more wrong in my life, folks. At one point, we were at such an angle that I remember my whole body lifting off the seat with my legs dangling in mid air, and I was only still connected to the bench as I had wrapped my arms around the back. AJ, Alex, and I didn’t stop screaming the whole time, and the operator (standing at the bow of the ship) was laughing the entire time. It was the most fun I’ve ever had on a ride. Disneyland will forever be synonymous with disappointment after this trip on the high seas. Besides our near death experiences on carnival rides, we also ate some delicious street food, and among the sound of laughter and carnival music, I found myself in pure bliss. It was probably the adrenaline.
What to do:
Enjoy the carnival atmosphere and cheap food. Go on a few rides if you dare!
3. Lombok, Indonesia
Ah Lombok, it was the best of times and the worst of times. If you are snapchat friends with AJ, Alex, or myself, you probably got two types of snaps from us while we were on Lombok: pictures of the beautiful landscape and beaches, and then pictures or videos of Alex and I with horrific sunburns all over our body. I think Lombok is the closest thing I can imagine to what standing on the sun feels like. Thankfully, our homestay owner Kedi upon seeing our condition cut fresh leaves of aloe vera off his own aloe plant, and rubbed the inside of the leaves on Alex and my sunburns. I could go on about his gentle hands, and the cool sensation of the aloe, but that would probably be weird, so instead I will use this anecdote to segway into talking about the overwhelming kindness of the Sasak people of Lombok. Seriously, the warmth of the locals we met here, especially those running our homestay was what set Lombok apart for me and was why we ended up spending 10 days there. Kedi, and the others at the homestay made you feel like part of a family, and when it’s your second week away from home in Indonesia that is massive.
But why should you go to Lombok?
One of Lombok’s main draws is the surfing. In fact, many of the travellers we met came exclusively for the surfing, and we even met a Norwegian guy who was spending his whole summer on Lombok doing nothing but surfing. Although I surfed very little, it was a cool experience hiring a local boat to take us off shore to the break, and trying to catch some waves with the locals. One word of advice: Don’t forget the sun screen!
Another reason to visit is the festivals. We got lucky enough to visit Lombok just as the Nyale festival and stick fighting festivals kicked off. The Nyale festival saw thousands of people come to a beach near Kuta in Lombok during the middle of the night to witness the once a year catching of the fluorescent Nyale worm. I believe AJ and I have both written in depth posts on this, so I won’t go into detail about it here, but it is a top moment from the trip so far witnessing that spectacle. Then you have the stick fighting festival, another wild Sasak festival which is just what it sounds like. Being able to witness both these festivals and shows of Sasak culture definitely had an impact on me, and made me feel a closer connection to the island, and to the people living there. It was something unforgettable which I hope some of you guys will try to see yourself!
Lastly, if you don’t want to surf and aren’t in Lombok during festival time, you can always take a scooter around and witness the stunning beauty of Lombok. If you have a more specific aim in mind, you can drive to the massive Mt. Rinjani for a hike, venture to the pink beach, or just cruise along the deserted roads through the jungle to find your own paradise. Whatever you do, you are guaranteed to love Lombok.
What to do: surf, relax, nyale festival, scooter around the island. It’s also only $11 to fly from Bali!
2. M’pei Bay, Koh Rong Samloen, Cambodia
AJ and I have both written blog posts on Koh Rong Samloen, and it is no coincidence my friends. This is a special place. Being on this island makes you feel like a Robinson Crusoe, or a boy from Lord of the flies. This is even more true if you visit the M’pei Bay region of the island, which is small and set apart from the main inhabited area of the island. Here, you can rent bungalows on the beach, which can be very romantic, especially when it’s just you and one of your best mates, as with the case with AJ and I. On a serious note though, this is a magical place. AJ and I also had some company, as we met a solo traveller from Amsterdam by the name of Lisa who spent a few days kicking it with us on Samloen.
The island of Samloen itself is already a bit off the beaten path you could say, with many tourists opting to go to the bigger island of Koh Rong which lies to the North. If you choose to visit Samloen, and then go one step further to M’pei Bay which is a secondary settlement of Samloen, you are further detaching yourself, and entering a place that very few people go. Here, there is nothing but a small fishing village composed of friendly locals, and a small nascent colony of beach hostels and bungalows attached to it. WiFi is non existent except for one or two of these hostels on a small beachfront, and running water and electricity are not guaranteed. That being said, it was extremely comfortable, and I never found myself wanting for anything. You have everything you need already: the calm blue ocean, the uninhabited jungle, the hot Cambodian sun to warm you. More tangibly, you will have comfortable lodging on the beach, a couple small local restaurants which serve you massive cheap helpings of Masaman curry, and a few local stores for basic goods, and if I may, $2 bottles of quality Cambodian whisky. Yes, this was a good place.
The most redeeming quality of M’pei Bay (besides $2 whisky) is it’s untouched nature. Even the hostels and bungalows, the most “modern” buildings in the area were exactly what you would expect on a small, almost forgotten, tropical island. The former were simply small well built one to two story wooden buildings, and the latter were basically cozy wooden shacks built on stilts, with a front porch containing a table, two benches, and the obligatory hammock. To travel around the settlement, you simply walk on the beach, or barefoot on sand roads which warm your feet, and which make up the 2 or 3 thouroughfares of the village. The fishing town itself is built on the beach, and is composed of a long wooden pier, and one wide sand avenue, shaded by the trees that stretch over it, and lined haphazardly on both sides by shops and houses. If you walked for 100 meters in any given direction from town, there is a good chance you will either end up in the jungle somewhere, or in the ocean, and this was a beautiful thing — it makes you feel as if you have the whole island to yourself. In addition, you could go anywhere on this island, and do almost whatever you liked! There was complete freedom. We walked for miles along the empty beach to nowhere, swam to a deserted island, did nothing but drink and sit in hammock for a day, why not? The days move by slow, and after spending a short time on the island, you will find this slow pace of life has given your mind a new calmness as well.
It is a beautiful thing when time is of complete irrelevance, and there are few places we can go these days where this is truly the case. Samloen is one of these places. You wake up in the morning with nothing to do, nowhere to be, unsure of the date and time, in a word, without a worry. What could be better?
What to do: Whatever you want! Explore the island, stay off WiFi, snorkel, lay in a hammock, get to know the locals and the few travellers on the island.
Full Moon Party, Ko Phangan, Thailand
Just kidding 😛
1. Motorbiking the Ho Chi Minh Trail/Phong Nha National park, Vietnam
From the beginning of our motorcycle ride from Ho Chi Minh to Hanoi, we had heard rumors and stories of the Ho Chi Minh Trail and Phong Nha. Of 250+ kilometers of empty roads through the remote Vietnamese jungle, and beauty unparalleled in all of Vietnam, if not the world. We were told you might not see another person for the whole day of driving, and to bring extra gas, because if you run out it could just be you out there in this remote, enchanting jungle.
At this point in our trip we had been about 2 weeks on our bikes, heading up the coastline of Vietnam. near the city of Hue we had cut inland, searching for the small town of Khe Sanh and the start of the fabled Ho Chi Minh trail, which would take us into the heart of the Vietnamese wilderness near the border of Laos.
Upon arriving in Khe Sanh, we found our lodgings for the night, made a new friend who would join us for the trip (shout out Martina), and after a few drinks for good luck, we all got some sleep before the big day.
The next morning we woke up near sunrise to give ourselves plenty of time for the 250k journey ahead of us. Since there would be nowhere to get food and gas during the drive, we each loaded our bags with banh mi for lunch, filled up empty liter water bottles full of gas as reserve tanks, and without looking back, the four of us took off into the unknown. The beginning of the drive was enjoyable, as we took in the mountainous landscape, and leaned into the turns on the winding, curving roads through the countryside. After about 50k of high desert landscape, we started to reach the real thing. dense green jungle surrounded us on all sides, stretching up to the sky, and sometimes forming a complete canopy, even blocking out the sky. At other times we were driving along the mountainside, curving in and out, up and down, carving our way along the granite hillside overgrown with thick jungle. If you looked down into the valleys all you could see was green everywhere, with clouds covering the top of the hillsides, and fog creeping up from the depths of the valley. For hours we didn’t see a single person on the road, and only occassionally we would see a small grouping of houses near the side of the road. The only other bikers we saw the whole day were two guys who passed by us in tailored suit vests they must have bought Hoi An. You have to respect the audacity. Back to the road, we climbed and climbed, pushing our bikes to the top of massive hills, then letting them go as we dropped back into another valley. We did this all day it seemed, but the beautiful landscape of karst pillars and unspoilt jungle never got old.
At times driving on that small line of cement through the never ending jungle, amid giant mountains of karst towering on each side, I felt very small. But being on my Honda Win, lost in the middle of that Vietnamse jungle with Alex, AJ, and Martina was one of the happiest moments of my life. This right here was life. This was truly an adventure. I vividly remember times at this point of the ride speeding along, screaming at the top of my lungs, simply letting everything go.
I could probably go on for hours about this, so I’m going to cut myself off there for both of our sakes, and mention a few other things about Phong-Nha.
After our long drive on the Ho Chi Minh trail, we arrived on the door step of Phong-Nha national park at a small outpost town by the name of Cuo Lac, along the Song Con river. The town isn’t much, but it gives you a good jumping off point to drive a 50k loop through the national park and more pristine roads and stunning scenery. It also gives you quick access to one of the parks biggest attractions, paradise cave, the largest dry cave in the world. If you are in Phong Nha I reccomend paying it a visit. The site is well taken care of and the cave is deserving of its title. I believe the largest cave in the world is here too, but it will cost you a sum of around $3,000 US to tour through that monster. But you don’t need to see that cave to enjoy Phong Nha and the ride on the magical Ho Chi Minh Highway. Just grab a few banh mi, an extra bottle of gas, and revel in the freedom of the open road.
What to do:
Take a motorcycle through the Ho Chi Minh trail and Phong Nha national park, see paradise cave.
Well there you have it! Top ten in my opinion. It is hard to do it justice with words, and there are hundreds of other thing which could be put on this list, but you will have to come to South East Asia and find those yourself! Thank you for reading, friends. I hope everyone is doing well out there in the world wherever you are.
Until next time,