|A Month in Southeast Asia
I haven’t shared a guest post in a while for a number of reasons, primarily because I am hesitant on who to have featured. But my guest today is someone I know personally, and who I had the pleasure of embarking on my first international teaching adventure with in the summer of 2014. Ben is a 30-year-old primary school teacher from Nottinghamshire, England. He has traveled four continents over the past decade, and he confirms his Britishness through his love for Cricket and cups of tea. Ben embarked on a journey he will never forget during his summer holidays last year. Read on to find out why his trip to Southeast Asia was a special one.
- 10 days in Malaysia
- 12 days in Vietnam
- 5 days in Cambodia
- 4 days in Hong Kong
Kuala Lumpur – Perhentian Islands – Cameron Highlands
After breaking-up for the summer holidays on the Friday, there was some rush to have everything ready for a month away for a Tuesday flight. The preceding days included mad dashes to the shops, the packing and re-packing of bags, quick goodbye visits and even tears. A two-stop flight included Heathrow, Helsinki, Singapore and finally KLIA. Having been to ‘KL’ before, I knew what to expect – a European style maze of concrete that belies its geographical location. The city itself offers a range of potential skyline views and a decent hop-on, hop-off bus service, but it lacks that feel of real Asia that can be so addictive. A highlight was definitely a trip to Opium, a fabulous Malaysian restaurant offering an irresistible beef rendang on its menu. The final hours in KL epitomised the idea of faux-westernism. The nightmare that is the TBS bus terminal finally allowed us a way out and we headed to the idyllic Perhentian Islands.
|Sunset on the Perhentian Islands
The Perhentian Islands offered the perfect place to chill-out after leaving the city. Located on Malaysia’s east coast, the two islands have minimal electricity, internet and rooms, but as long as you find the last one, the other two pale into insignificance. Kecil is the smaller of the two islands, but busier. Of the two main beaches, Coral and Long, Long certainly has the edge.
|Long Beach, Perhentian Islands, Malaysia
Pristine white sand with azure water, that allows you to observe your own toes, offers the perfect place for some R&R, as long as you can cope with limited options for sunbathing. Four days of soaking up the rays prepared us for a change of pace and we headed to the mountainous central region of the diverse country.
|The Cameron Highlands, Malaysia
The Cameron Highlands are situated in the center of Malaysia and offer a stark alternative to the coastal options. The temperatures in August drops from nearly 100F by the coast to a pleasant 75F in the Highlands. The Highlands are famous for British tea plantations and fruit farms – particularly strawberries, where you are invited to pick your own. We stayed in the town of Tanah Rata, which provided an excellent location for the region. Day trips, bars and restaurants are available and the area is a real highlight of the country.
A quick overnight stay back in KL allowed for another Opium rendang, before an early morning flight to Hanoi.
Hanoi – Ha Long Bay – Hue – Hoi An
Hanoi is truly Asia. The sounds, the smells, the sheer volume of both vehicle and human traffic – they’re all overwhelming to the senses. It doesn’t have the sights of Bangkok, or the charm that can be captured by smaller cities in the region, but it has got something.
The things that people search for in southeast Asian cities are all there – the street food, the markets, the temples and the nightlife. It really is a 24-hour city. I didn’t fall in love with Hanoi however. Three days was enough and my fiancee (see later) was glad to get out of there. It was simply too much. The six lanes of traffic, the searing heat reflecting from masses of concrete, the lack of an obvious escape. The Vietnam War museum was interesting and was also a nice change of atmosphere, but do beware of the bias. I very much doubt that it was an American holiday camp.
|Ha Long Bay during the daytime
A four-hour bus journey took us from Hanoi to Ha Long and to an organized boat trip through the infamous bay. These tours are sold everywhere in Hanoi and range in prices depending on the luxury of the boat you choose. We paid for a mid-range (most companies offer 3 to 4 different levels of hospitality) but it wasn’t as amazing as we’d hoped. A 24-hour tour was incredibly rushed. There was little time for relaxing or taking in the outstanding natural views. The trips offer cave visits, sea kayaking, beach stops, cookery classes – the list goes on. I advise working out exactly what you want to get out of a trip to Ha Long before you book. Drinking cocktails at sunset was the highlight and made the whole experience worthwhile, even if we still left a little underwhelmed.
|Ha Long Bay sunset
An overnight sleeper took us from Ha Long to the historic city of Hue – a really pretty city that had pleasant, if not remarkable, night markets and a breath-taking imperial city complex. Allow a good half a day to take the entire imperial city in. The food in Hue was tasty, with a local delicacy of minced pork on lemongrass lollypops, a favourite, which is eaten with a Vietnamese style satay dip.
Our final stop in Vietnam was a very chilled out five days in the central coastal city of Hoi An. There is a lot of accommodation by the coast around fifteen minutes from the city and An Bang beach is particularly popular. It offers a lengthy stretch of golden sand with clear seas. It lacks the obvious beauty of the white sand/azure sea combination, but was a perfect place to relax and sunbathe. Our final day in Hoi An was a day of extreme luck. We just so happened to be there for the monthly lantern festival
, which was a jumble of colour and incense, painted upon the backdrop of picturesque trading houses and traditional dwellings. It is an experience not to be missed.
We only had time for one stop in Cambodia and Siem Reap was an easy choice. The opportunity to visit Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples and complexes was one I couldn’t turn down. Siem Reap has so much more however. Yes it has become a little overrun by tourism in places and the prices are more than you would expect to pay in the region, yet its charm is undeniable. Markets seem to sell the same things, but despite this they compel you to continue browsing. The river is a miserable clay-brown, but is well worth a walk alongside. The main tourist center has been tailored to a western audience, but you still have a desire to turn every corner.
|Ben at Ta Prohm, Siem Reap, Cambodia
The temples are extraordinary as you might expect, the number of visitors is of course astronomical, but the local authorities do make attempts to cap numbers per day, which ensures the beauty is still held. After Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom is the biggest draw for visitors, but I recommend Ta Prohm. Ta Prohm catapults you into adventure as it stirs up memories of the Tomb Raider series, with extravagant roots gripping the temple’s walls in a magical fist. The imagination can lead you to believe you are one ill-judged step away from plummeting through a hidden hatch beneath your feet and into a secret vault. I wasn’t, and I’m still a little bit disappointed about this. Never mind.
|View from Victoria Peak, Hong Kong
The last leg of our summer adventure was another short flight away to the former British overseas territory of Hong Kong. Now, I have never been to China before, so I can’t really make this comparison, but it just doesn’t feel like China. It has a certain ‘Singapore’ quality to it. English street signs, hardly anybody who cannot speak English and of course a very modern and western feel. Those of you who are lucky enough to have lost a month’s salary during a few days in Singapore may now understand what I mean by the comparison. Vast shopping malls contain designer shops such as Prada and Versace, seven-elevens sit on every corner and you are never more than five minutes away from the next air-conditioned bus. Personally, I am thankful for the copious amounts of jewelers Hong Kong is famous for – it’s all about the diamonds – as I came to Hong Kong with the purpose of acquiring a ring. On top of Victoria Peak (named after Britain’s famous monarch herself) and in the presence of the awe-inspiring views of Hong Kong Island and Kowloon beyond it, she said ‘yes’ and as they say, the rest is history. Hong Kong will now forever be special to us, but it could be for any visitor. The parks are clean and ornate, the skyscrapers are imperious and the night skyline is a thing of wonder. In one simple word – go.
Another 20 hours’ worth of traveling completed and we were home, thankful for the opportunity – it was a truly fantastic month.
Thank you, Ben, for your contribution and all the best in your next adventure of the married life!