Last Saturday we reflected on the last 100 days which we spent exclusively in South East Asia – Thailand, Malaysia and Cambodia. We came across an interesting observation: while there have been countless ‘Tops’ moments, these last 100 days have had surprisingly few ‘Flops’. Read on for the highs, lows, travel recommendations, fellow online entrepreneurs and bloggers we met and a whole lot of delicious food!
Top travel moments
Playing with elephants at the Elephant Nature Park near Chiang Mai, Thailand
When you get to Thailand, you will immediately be bombarded with options to get up close and personal with elephants – but making the right choice is key. If you visit the Elephant Nature Park near Chiang Mai, you will learn about the terrifying torture that work/tourism elephants undergo, a process called ‘breaking’ the elephants, in order to make them docile enough for work (you can learn more about it and watch a video here, but warning – this is heartbreaking stuff). Essentially, they torture the wild out, and then continue to mistreat and abuse these amazing creatures throughout their 70+ years. Luckily Lek, the tiny owner of the Elephant Nature Park has made it her life’s work to save as many elephants as she can, giving them a second chance at a happy life. No elephant riding here, and no circus tricks either. Instead, along with our friends Shannon and Ana, we washed, fed and just enjoyed seeing the elephants in a safe, happy environment amongst friends.
This is one of those must-see experiences in life. The extreme nature of the self-mutilation, the bright colors, the loud music, thousands of Indians gathering, worshiping, and some taking as many pictures as the tourists is almost more stimulation than simple minds like ours can handle. But when we heard that we were actually going to be in Malaysia during Thaipusam, we made sure to be in Penang to experience it. We opted to avoid the 1 million plus crowd expected in Kuala Lumpur, deciding that the over 200,000 gathered at the second biggest procession in the country would do just fine. This was easily one of the highlights of our entire 700 days on the road thus far.
Hiking in the Cameron Highlands
Malaysia is seriously sweltering, so the prospect of cooler weather in the mountains brought us out to Cameron Highlands. We thought we’d visit the Boh tea plantation (which we did), have tea and scones (which we did) and visit the Mossy Forest, an area of forest completely covered in moss (which we did). But when we set off for a short morning hike, we did not expect to be challenged the way we were. Initially, the hike was a piece of cake, but by the end we found ourselves hiking up and down steep ravines, shocked each time we passed a marker and had only gone one-fifth of a kilometer. Sinking in to muddy pools with our boots, washing off our faces in babbling brook that caused these extremes, exerting ourselves, the challenge of this hike felt great, as did scarfing down the delicious treats at the nearby strawberry farm directly after. These treats included strawberry sundae, strawberry pancakes, spinach and strawberry salad, even deep fried strawberry ice cream.
Meeting so many like-minded travelers, bloggers and expats
There is something in the air here in South East Asia, a specific scent that attracts nomads from around the world. It could be the cheap prices, good food or great internet connection – but it also has something to do with the sense of community over here. In just a few months, we have managed to meet so many inspiring, interesting people IRL (In Real Life) who are all out there living a life like ours. These include:
Keith of Velvet Escape, Mei of Cumi&Ciki, James of Nomadic Notes, Corey of Where’s Waldner, Shannon of A Little Adrift, Christine & Drew of Almost Fearless, Erin & Simon of Neverending Voyage, Raymond of Man on the Lam, Daniel of Canvas of Light, David of MalaysiaAsia, Lauren of Never Ending Footsteps, Dustin the Skinny Backpacker, Jenny, Betsy and Warren of Married with Luggage, Christy and Kali from Technosyncratic, Lash, Shawna and Chais of Full Course Travel, Heather of Ginger Nomads, Dina & Ryan of VagabondQuest, Jodi of Legal Nomads, Dave of What’s Dave Doing, MonicaMcCarthy, Jen of Directionally Challenged, Tom & Lieve, Alex of Hejorama, John the JetSetCitizen, Ian from Where Sidewalks End, and we’re afraid we might be forgetting a few.
Cenang Beach on Langkawi, Malaysia
To be honest, when we decided to fly to South East Asia last year, we thought we would island hop and beach bum our way around South East Asia. But we haven’t been impressed by most of the islands and beaches – until we got to Langkawi. The island’s Cenang Beach was exactly what we were looking for: white, powdery sand, coconut palm trees and crystal clear shallow water. We spent a couple of days in what turned out to be our favorite boutique hotel so far and, although we meant to move on to Koh Lipe in Thailand from there, we ended up enjoying the laid-back vibe here too much and spent eight days sunbathing, swimming, walking up and down the beach and taking in the stunning sunsets every night.
At first glance, Kampot doesn’t look like much – especially if you arrive during midday when everyone is taking refuge from the heat. The wide dusty streets are strewn with building material, as everything in this town seems to be under construction. But after a while, this little French colonial city set on the Kampot river really grew on us. The people are so friendly and laid-back, and as soon as the sun starts to set, everyone comes out to play volleyball, cycle and walk along the riverfront. There are tours to see the salt fields and the pepper farms (Kampot pepper is apparently world-famous), and an old Hindu shrine in a cave nearby. All the construction, you soon realize, is due to growth – hotels, shops and a big new tourist market are set to be finished shortly. Go there soon, we say, as this is the kind of city you know is going to feel entirely different in a few years’ time.
Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
We fell instantly in love with Georgetown, the main town on the island of Penang in the Andaman Sea. The colonial town is a fascinating mix of Chinese, Indian and Malaysian culture and is filled with Hindu temples, Chinese Buddhist temples and mosques alike. Despite the merciless heat, we explored different parts of this bustling city every day, admiring the charming crumbling architecture and discovering new foods on the many hawker food stands, although we must admit that our stomachs were dedicated to Little India, where we had some of the best Indian meals we have ever had!
We were lucky enough to only have gone to one place that we didn’t really like. On the way from the Cameron Highlands to Penang, we made a stop in Ipoh, won over by the description in the Lonely Planet which reads: A town with an elegant lay-out and design…Chock-full of faded tropical mansions and a few green lungs…showcasing elegant colonial architecture and the magnificent train station known locally as the Taj Mahal.
Sounds great, right? Well…we were underwhelmed on arrival and increasingly disappointed the more we asked locals what there was to see and their reply was usually, ‘We have a nice mall,’ (which wasn’t very nice at all). After 700 days we’re pretty good at nosing out interesting aspects of almost every place we visit. We can say this: Ipoh seems an easy, nice place to live for families but, as plenty of Malaysians confirmed for us after our visit there, for tourists, Ipoh is no more than quick rest stop on the way to Penang.
Budget airlines in South East Asia
As we wrote in the 700 days Reflections post, traveling overland still feels like the most authentic way we travel, but budget airlines – AirAsia, Firefly and others – make air travel here in S.E.A. such an attractive option by shaving hours off your travel time for prices that still lie comfortably within your budget.
Buses still connect the dots between cities most effectively, trains cover longer distances comfortably but best of all, short and long distance flights are available at incredibly cheap fares. In the last one hundred days, we have taken four flights, three of which were domestic (departure and arrival in the same country). One flight connected us from the Malaysian island of Penang to the neighboring island of Langkawi. Booked less than 24 hours beforehand, the flight cost just a few dollars more than the ferry, but was only 25 minutes rather than four hours of bouncing up and down in the ocean. For $50 we flew internationally between Malaysia and Thailand, and we have booked our flights to India across an ocean for under $100 each as well.
On our first stay in Bangkok we made the mistake of staying far away from the Skytrain, which meant we relied on tuktuks and taxis – which are often involved in scams. The Skytrain is clean and new, efficient, cheap at $0.50 a ride, and not only helps you avoid scams, but also the crippling Bangkok traffic jams. When you fly to Bangkok, the Skytrain is the fastest and most air-conditioned way into the city as well!
Banana leaf meal in Little India, Kuala Lumpur
We both have been huge fans of Indian food for many years, and we are not sure how we didn’t know about Banana Leaf Rice until this past January when our friend James took us out for one in Brickfields (Little India) in Kuala Lumpur. They are a Southern Indian specialty and are an assortment of vegetables, rice, curry and poppadum served on a big banana leaf. The Indians eat these traditionally with their hands, but while our friend Corey along with James didn’t blink twice and tucked in, we both still used a fork…
Vegetarian Chinese buffets in Malaysia
Neither of us loves Chinese food, but on a friend’s recommendation we tried out a veggie buffet at a Chinese temple in Kuala Lumpur and we were hooked! Knowing that everything was meat free, we piled our plates high with veggies, mushrooms, salads, rice and a selection of seitan, tempeh and tofu. The owner of Campbell House recommended a similar vegetarian Chinese buffet around the corner, and for around $1.50 each we stuffed ourselves silly with healthy, delicious food. Our only regret is that we didn’t try this earlier!
Okay, we wouldn’t recommend a trip to Ipoh, but our stay there was still far from being considered a bad travel moment. To be honest, we haven’t had any bad travel days in the last 100 days.
Top travel mishaps
No travel mishaps either! We have thought long and hard, but we couldn’t come up with anything that we could state under ‘mishap’. Of course we picked the wrong hotel here and there, ate a few unexciting meals, but overall, the last 100 days went surprisingly smoothly.
Maybe we’re getting the hang of this after all!
If you made it all the way down here, you might be interested in our previous Tops and Flops as well:
Our Tops and Flops of 600 days of travel: United States, Thailand, Laos
Our Tops and Flops of 500 days of travel: Portugal, Canada, USA
Our Tops and Flops of 400 days of travel: Panama, Germany, Italy, Spain
Our Tops and Flops of 300 days of travel: Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica
Our Tops and Flops of 200 days of travel: Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and El Salvador
Our Tops and Flops of 100 days of travel: Las Vegas, California, Arizona, Mexico