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Asia Tour 2023: The Highs and Lows

I had not travelled in South East Asia since 1995, just after I had met Yvonne in New Zealand. That year we explored in Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand before moving onto Nepal and India. I have fond memories of our time here.

2023 is our first real unimpeded travel year since the start of the whole Covid thing. Spending almost a whole year in St Vincent and the Grenadines in 2022 was great, but left us with really itchy feet.

With Japan opening up for visitors again in October 2022 , we took this as the sign the world was no longer coming to an end. It was therefore a good time to do some more global exploring.

Our general plan for the year was to spend the winter in SE Asia and the spring and summer in Europe and the United Kingdom.

This was our travel itinerary from the start of January to the middle of April 2023:

Japan: 5 days in Kyoto and Tokyo

Malaysia: 3 weeks in Kuala Lumpur

Cambodia: 2 weeks in Phonm Penh, Angkor Wat (Siem Reap), and a cruise down the Tonli Sap River

Thailand: 4 weeks in Chiang Mai, Chang Rai and Chang Khong

Laos: 2 days to get from Thailand to Luang Prabang via the Mekong and 10 days in Luang Prabang

Vietnam: 2 ½  weeks in Hanoi, Ha Long bay and Cat Ba Island.

Trip Summary

Favorite Country

A tie between Laos and Cambodia because of the wonderful people. I am not sure if it is coincidence but I find primarily Buddhist countries to be more appealing to me.

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Least Favorite Country

Vietnam was too noisy and polluted, has way too many aggressive drivers, is un-walkable, and generally dishonest. Vietnam and I got off to a really rocky start. The online visa application process was a complete and utter f@ck up. The delays meant I showed up at the airport in Laos and had to pay almost 400 USD for an emergency visa to get on the plane. I received my e visa 3 hours after landing in Hanoi (how’s that for a kick in the junk?). Yvonne’s visa came in on time. Thankfully.

I am not alone with my assessment of Vietnam, only 5 percent of tourists return to Vietnam compared to Thailand’s tourist return rate of approximately 50%.

Been there done that is the theme.

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Highlights

The Angkor Wat complex in Cambodia,

the Tokyo to Kyoto Bullet Train,

the Mekong River Cruise from Thailand to Luang Prabang Laos,

Cooking classes in Thailand and Vietnam,

exploring Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

and meeting up in Laos with a Canadian cousin from Canada I had not seen in 16 years.

Items Struck from the Bucket List

  • Riding a Japanese Bullet Train
  • Mekong River Cruise
  • Angkor Wat
  • Ha Long Bay

Lowlights

Getting royally screwed over by an extremely inefficient Vietnam Immigration Department, and the prevalent “rip off the tourist” attitude in that country.

Disappointments

Ha long Bay Vietnam was both a highlight and a disappointment.

The weather did not co-operate, it was  mostly raining and overcast for the entire trip. Not much one can do about that.

We found it disheartening how brutally polluted Ha Long Bay is, the water was filthy – there was no bloody way I would be swimming in that water, or knowingly eat anything that came out of it. Oil slicks were in competition with floating plastic for space on the bays surface. I realize that just being there as a tourist I am contributing to the problem.  This is a traveller’s conundrum.

Despite all of the above,  Ha Long Bay is still a very stunningly beautiful part of the world.

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Best Food

Northern Thailand (Japan gets an honorable mention).

Really enjoyed the food in Northern Thailand. Had some incredible sushi in Japan!

Favourite dish Khao Soi Gai

A rich Northern Thai soup. The stock is a coconut milk curry, flavored with additional aromatics and shrimp paste. The soup combines tender chicken with both boiled and fried egg noodles. The secret ingredient fresh grated ginger.

Messy but really Good!

Things that made me go Hummm.

We participated in some dark tourism this trip, not ghoulish tourism where you pay admission to witness atrocities taking place.

Rather we visited some sites that are historically associated with genocide, incarceration, ethnic cleansing, and war.

Genocide

In Cambodia we visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a former high school used as a security prison by the Khmer Rouge. Between 1975 and 1979 an estimated 20,000 people were imprisoned and tortured here,  it is also known as S21. The exceedingly vast majority of these people were ultimately trucked to the to the Boeung Choeung Ek extermination centre (the Killing Fields), fifteen kilometers from Phnom Penh.

War

In Loas we visited the Unexploded Ordinances (UXO) Museum in Luang Prabang. Laos has the distinction of being the most heavily bombed nation per capita on the planet. During the Vietnam war two million tons of explosive ordnances were dropped on the country, including more than 266 million submunitions from cluster bombs. It is estimated that up to 30% of all these ordnances did not explode. These UXO continue to kill and maim the Laos people, effecting economic development and the ability to cultivate the land.

I think it is important to understand at least some of the history of a country we travel in and sometimes that history can be rather grim.

Visiting places with a dark history allows us to be better informed travellers and offers insights into humanity and the evil we are capable of.

After visiting these sites in Cambodia and Laos I have even more respect for the people who currently live there.

House Sitting Gigs

Asia is not exactly known for its abundance of housesitting opportunities however we did get to squeeze a few in.

Kuala Lumpur Malaysia

A 4 day sit in the Bangsar part of Kuala Lumpur. We had 2 dogs to entertain. The house was comfortable in a rather muddy yard. This meant cleaning the dogs feet every time they went out to do their business. It was just a short hop into the city center from the house. We managed to take one day away from the dogs while the maid was in to visit the Batu caves on the other side of town.

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Chiang Mai Thailand

A 3 week sit in the outskirts of Chiang Mai. Looked after 3 cats in a wonderful house with a pool located on a huge lot – almost an estate. We had a daily cleaner and gardener to do the hard work.

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Hanoi Vietnam

A 4 day sit in the West Lake part of Hanoi. We looked after a wonder Cavapoo in a very comfortable villa located in a gated expat community. Our neighbours were professionals and diplomats. There were Maybachs and Bentleys parked on the street. It was a welcome reprieve from the otherwise chaotic City of Hanoi. The bonus is we got an inhouse cooking class from the owner’s private cook, a wonderful Vietnamese lady.

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Where we got lucky

Lady luck shined upon us in several ways this trip.

The January weather in Japan was fantastic. We were prepared for freezing temperatures but experienced beautiful spring like weather instead. The snow arrived after we had left causing travel chaos. Lucky on two counts here.

Luck was with us again when we visited Angkor Wat. We basically had the place to our selves. China’s borders were still closed and tourism was only at 15 to 25% of pre Covid levels.

We also missed the worst of the brutal air quality issues in Chiang Mai (although it was still pretty bad when we were there).  More importantly we  missed the oppressive record-breaking heat wave that started in April. Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam experienced some brutally hot temperatures. Travelling in humid 40 C plus weather is not my idea of a good time.

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What would I do differently

Venture out of the major centers more. This trip saw us in cites for far too much of the time. The times we spent out of the major centers were the best.

Stay away from places that suffer from over tourism, however, there are some things you just have to see.

Spend a little more time researching places to stay, then rent an apartment or Airbnb. Less hotels, less restaurant food.

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What Did I learn

I prefer rural to cites. I do enjoy seeing what the big city has to offer in terms of architecture, food options, transportation. Then it is let me out of here!

I prefer being in places where I can walk feely.

I hate being ripped off just because I am a traveller – talking to you Vietnam.

Staying in hotels and eating in restaurants gets tiring after a while.

Surprises – not what I expected

The staggering levels of pollution.

Because we had travelled in SE Asia 28 years ago we were prepared for Asia to be a bit trashy. What I was not really prepared for was the extent of how polluted SE Asia has become.

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There are very real issues with solid waste generation and subsequent pollution. Some areas are literally a real dump. Single use plastic is endemic, plastic bags are often referred to as Thai Tupperware. Some (but not all) people appear to  have a cavalier attitude to the environment. We constantly saw people dumping garbage in the streets, the rivers, and the ocean. This is a very real problem.

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The air quality was abysmal in places. Northern Thailand, Northern Loas and Vietnam had appalling air quality. My eyes were constantly itchy, my throat was raw, it felt like I was smoking three packs a day.

Noise pollution is also a real issue in places. Hanoi had to the worst. Traffic noise, loud music, horns constantly honking. Why talk when you can shout?

The Sublime

There were moments when everything in the universe was just fine. There were several of these moments while visiting Temples in the Angkor wat complex.

The cool early mornings were amazing, few people, amazing archeological sites and wonderful light. Magic.

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Conclusion

I would come back to any of these destinations – maybe with the exception of Vietnam (been there, done that, paid for the overpriced Tee-shirt). If you have not been to Vietnam – go! I just found traveling there hard work at times. Vietnam and I don’t really get along, just a personality clash I am guessing.

What made this leg our journey especially rewarding was meeting up in person with 5 couples that we have known on line for years. We also had the opportunity to meet up with friends of friends and family along the way.

The internet has cut the number of degrees of separation from 6 to about 2.50.

 

 

About the author: Michael was born under a wanderin’ star. He is an Engineer who became an explorer, a photography bug, and hack traveller writer with the propensity to be snarky. “Retired” in 2012 at the age of 44, he and his wife Yvonne travel and house sit around the globe on a full time basis. Michael’s goal is to share the process of escaping the rat race, exploring the globe, and some of the experiences along the way.

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