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Backwards Glances: Remembering Three Years in Southeast Asia

Backwards Glances: Remembering Three Years in Southeast Asia

June 1st, 2015: The day we arrived in Southeast Asia.

October 1st, 2018: The day we departed from Southeast Asia.

If you’d told me even five years ago that I would spend — not one, but over THREE — years of my life living in Southeast Asia, I would’ve laughed. A lot.

Because the thing is: Asia never really “called” to me.

What calls to me? The mountains. The deserts. Wide open spaces. Big blue skies and endless open space to ride horses (or other large creatures) for miles on end. That’s my “thing.” That’s why places like New Zealand and Egypt hold such incredible appeal for me personally. That’s why we lived in New Zealand for a year and celebrated our 10-year anniversary in Egypt.

Asia was always Jeremy’s “thing.” He wanted to come here and meet the people, taste the food, explore the cultures. Since I was long ago bitten by the travel bug, I came along for the ride. Gladly.

And am I ever glad I did!

In this post, I’m simply going to reminisce about the places we lived, the places we visited, and the awesome people we met along the way.

So buckle up! Here’s a one-blog recap of the past 39 months.

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (June-October 2015)

Our first landing spot in Southeast Asia was the colorful and multicultural city of Kuala Lumpur. While we technically lived in a suburb just outside the city, Petaling Jaya, it’s all part of the greater “KL” area.

What do I remember most from KL? The Petronas Towers, of course. (Still the largest twin structures in the world.) And the seamless blend of Indian, Chinese, and Muslim Malay cultures, all living and working side by side.

KL Malaysia

Also worthy of a mention? Our beautiful apartment at Eve Suite, with a wall of windows that overlooked downtown KL. #bestapartmentever

I could ramble on for days about how delicious and unique the food is in Malaysia, but I’ll have to settle for a few photos of my favorites: dosa (Indian), bak kuh teh (Chinese), and nasi lemak (Malay). You can read more about our favorite Malaysian and Singaporean foods here.

And although we didn’t get to stay in Malaysia as long as we would have liked to, we still got to explore some other parts of the country, including the seaside town of Malacca, the tea plantations in the Cameron Highlands, and the cool tropical rainforests of the Genting Highlands.

If Malaysia was so great, why didn’t we stay longer? There were a number of reasons, but the biggest was the 2015 Haze Crisis, caused by uncontrolled burning in Indonesia and a lack of monsoon rains that summer.

At this point, we had the unexpected opportunity to relocate to Bangkok, Thailand — so we did!

But before we left, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention our one and only visa run we got to do while living in KL. Where to?

None other than exotic India.

Everything You’ve Heard About India… Is True

delhi india

I couldn’t really think of a better way to sum up two weeks in the world’s most crowded, chaotic, and colorful country.

Every stereotype you hear is true. India is a nonstop assault on your senses, particularly your ears and nose. Horns honk 24 hours a day. The crowds in the cities are unlike anything you knew existed. The roadways are a catastrophe of pedestrians, rickshaws, livestock, and trash. Every aroma–from the curries and spices to the pungent scent of cow manure–hits you like a punch in the face.

And yes, poverty is everywhere, out in the open, staring back at you or asking for money as you walk by.

As Jeremy said–and I completely agree–it’s impossible to visit India and remain unchanged. You are not the same person on your departing flight as you were when you arrived.

And yet, if you can get past the initial sensory onslaught, there are so many beautiful things you can experience in India too.

Here’s a little taste of what we saw in our two weeks divided between Chennai, Jodphur, Jaipur, Agra, and New Delhi.

Not long after our visit to India, we found ourselves on our way to Thailand to escape the aforementioned haze. Little did we know our trip to the islands and to Bangkok wasn’t going to be a trip at all–it was a move!

Bangkok: Home Sweet Home

Our first stop was the incredibly beautiful Ko Phi Phi, which remains our favorite island anywhere. I mean…LOOK at this place!

Next came our introduction to bustling Bangkok. Little did we know that it would become our home base for the next three years!

What can I say about Bangkok (BKK)? A lot of the stereotypes are true here, too. There’s a wild side to the city that’s there if that’s what you’re looking for, but overall, it’s a big thriving city of 11 million people.

Megamalls selling Ferraris and Lamborghinis sit a block away from tarp-covered markets selling $1 bowls of curry. The ultramodern Skytrain whisks you through the city high above the 24-hour traffic jams along Sukhumvit Road.

There are millions of motorcycles. Stray dogs everywhere. Floods during the rainy season. Oppressive heat and humidity 365 days a year. Street food on every corner. 

It’s a hot, alluring, glorious mess. They call it “The Big Mango,” Asia’s equivalent to “The Big Apple” of New York City.

There is an energy in Bangkok that exists nowhere else on earth. And it was so awesome to be a part of it!

Because of our required visa runs every few months, we didn’t get to explore as much of Thailand as we would have liked. Aside from multiple trips to Ko Phi Phi, where else did we visit?

Chiang Mai lies in Thailand’s north, a cultural hub and expat haven. We had the privilege of joining our friends for an international convention there in November 2015, as well as volunteering some time at an elephant rescue center!

We also enjoyed visits to the beach town of Hua Hin, the island of Ko Samui in the Gulf of Thailand, and Khao Yai National Park.

Thailand is a huge and incredibly diverse country. It’s also surrounded by a dozen countries that are just as unique in their history, culture, and food.

Our visa runs took us to virtually every country in southeast Asia–even the border we crossed accidentally! It’s hard to pick a favorite because each is beautiful and special in its own way.

Since I’ve already rambled for a while, here’s a quick photo journey through the surrounding countries we were privileged enough to visit.

Cambodia: Dark History, Bright Future

Neighboring Cambodia made the headlines in the 1970s during the horrific Khmer Rouge. I wrote a post describing some of what happened here.

The good news is that the political system and economy have stabilized in recent years, opening the nation to tourists eager to learn more about its rich history.

Highlights of Cambodia definitely include the Temples of Angkor–lost in the jungle for centuries–and the backpacker haven of Siem Reap.

angkor cambodia

 

We loved this area so much, we ended up taking three separate trips to visit–in 2009, 2016, and 2018!

Vietnam: Exploring Hanoi & Sapa

Vietnam was our first taste of Southeast Asia back in 2009, and we loved it then. Shame it took us almost a decade to return, but we’re so glad we did!

Our 2017 visa run to Vietnam included a few days in the lovely capital city of Hanoi. With strong French colonial influences in the architecture and food, Hanoi is nothing but pleasant and enjoyable.

A cool addition to this visa run was a last-minute decision to take the winding road up to Sapa, up in the mountains of northern Vietnam along the border of China.

This gave us the chance to scale the peak of Fansipan, Southeast Asia’s highest mountain at 10,312 feet (3,143m).

After this visit, we contemplated moving to Hanoi and trying our hand at life in Vietnam. It didn’t work out for now, but down the road?

You never know…

Singapore: Foodie Heaven

It’s no secret we’re obsessed with Singapore. I wax poetic about it in this post, so I won’t repeat myself.

Suffice to say, this tiny island nation and our dear friends there will forever hold a piece of our hearts. (And the food–let’s not forget the food!)

Of all the places we’ve visited in Asia, Singapore is #1 on my list of destinations to return to!

Nepal: Face to Face with the Himalayas

For our 9-year anniversary in 2017, we ticked off a serious bucket list item–visiting Nepal.

What started as a visa run gone wrong (the Thai Embassy was shut the entire week we were there) turned into an incredible experience of making new friends and journeying on a 4-day trek along the Annapurna Circuit.

Here’s a quick collection from Kathmandu, Pokhara, and the Poon Hill Trek.

One thing is for sure: Nepal is NOT overrated.

Bali: Indonesia’s Island Paradise

From the highest mountains on Earth to one of the planet’s most famous islands, 2017 was an epic year of visa runs.

The summer of 2017 took us to Bali, one of Indonesia’s 17,000+ islands. (Ironically, it was right before its volcano erupted!) Luckily our trip was smooth sailing, letting us rent a car and travel around the island.

Its iconic rice fields, black sand beaches, backpacker towns, and ancient temples did not disappoint! We even got to try some authentic kopi luwak at a coffee plantation.

Ujung Water Palace.

amed beach bali

water temple bedugul bali lake

giant fruit bat bali

ubud horse riding bali

bali

bali road trip

bali

I don’t know if we’ll ever return to Bali, but I’m grateful for the opportunity to see it once!

Japan

By the summer of 2018, we knew we’d be returning (at least temporarily) to the US. The one Asian destination that had eluded us–up to that point–was Japan.

We couldn’t leave Asia without seeing Jeremy’s dream destination in person. And so, despite the super typhoon that rocked the nation only three days before our departure (and forced us to change our entire itinerary), we still got to enjoy a week in Tokyo and the Mount Fuji area.

Oh, and if you go to Japan, don’t miss Fuji-Q Highland. Biggest and baddest roller coasters on Earth.

‘Nuff said!

It’s the People, Not the Place

As incredible as the sights in Asia are, what truly made our time there special were the friends we made along the way.

I could include hundreds–if not thousands–of photos of the faces that became so dear to us. In conclusion, I’ll only post a few.

What else can I say? Korp khun ka, Southeast Asia.

Thanks for the amazing memories!

 

How NOT to Cross the Thailand-Myanmar Border

How NOT to Cross the Thailand-Myanmar Border

Remember the time we illegally crossed the Thailand-Myanmar border…TWICE?

Oh, wait. That was today.

Since there’s already plenty of (boring) advice floating around about how to make visa runs from Bangkok to a neighboring country, let me share with you a humorous story of how NOT to do it.

kanchanaburi river kwai bridge thailand

Why visa runs?

Any foreigner who’s spent any time in Thailand knows the aggravation of visa runs. Truthfully, they’re the bane of our existence. While having a built-in vacation every 2-3 months SOUNDS wonderful, the reality is that they can be very expensive or stressful – or both.

But alas, it’s the price you pay to live in “paradise.” Every 60-90 days, you dutifully jump out of the country to get a fresh stamp in your passport and come back in for your next go-round. I don’t make the rules, I just follow them!

At least, I usually do, when I know about them. You see, Thai immigration laws change about as often as Taylor Swift’s boyfriends. Every other month, it seems like there’s some new rule or regulation to follow (translation = new way to get money from foreigners).

When we went to file our 30-day extensions yesterday (the only way to turn a 60-day stay into a 90-day stay), we were informed that because we hadn’t “registered” our address via our landlord, we would have to pay fines before we could get our extensions.

Like, several hundred DOLLARS in fines.

I love Thailand and everything, but I wasn’t too keen on paying through the nose just to get another 28 days in the country (since we already have our real visa run booked in late June). So we had three options: 1) Pay the fines, 2) Hop a quick flight to Malaysia, or 3), Drive out to the Myanmar border and do a land crossing.

Judging by the title of this post, you can probably guess we went with Option #3. Sounds easy enough, right? Hop in a car, drive out to the border, get a few stamps in the passport, and we’re good to go.

Not so fast, amigos. Not so fast.

Journey to Kanchanaburi

The day began innocently enough. Our South African friend Dee jumped at the opportunity to get out of Bangkok for the day and graciously offered to drive us the 120 or so miles to the border.

So we hop in his car around 6:30 am and begin the 4-hour drive out the Myanmar border, through lots of lush green farmland, palm trees, and banana trees. As we neared the border, the terrain grew increasingly hilly, with dramatic green karst cliffs pushing out of the earth.

Around 10:30, we begin nearing a series of checkpoints leading up to the Thailand-Myanmar border at Ban Phu Nam Ron. Security is lax at best – in one town, the soldiers were joining in with a passing street parade – so it was smooth sailing all the way until we lost reception on our cell phones.

In retrospect, that should have been our first clue.

Crossing the border at Ban Phu Nam Ron

Driving along past several makeshift security posts (translation = bored Thai policemen playing on their cell phones while traffic goes by), we reached a point where a pickup truck was stopped in the middle of the road. After waiting for several minutes, the cars behind us started to go around the truck and keep going.

Deciding to follow suit, we also pulled around the parked (and empty, we discovered) pickup truck and continued on our way. A moment later we hit a slightly more official-looking roadblock. Dee waits in the car (since he’s not making the crossing) while Jeremy and I get out to ask the officers in the bamboo hut about exit formalities.

As you can imagine, not much English is spoken, and our Thai is definitely not advanced enough to be asking questions about immigration. The officers looked at our passports and then waved us onward, so onward we went. The same thing happened at the next checkpoint down the road, and the next, where the road suddenly turned from smooth pavement to bumpy red clay.

Faithfully we stop at every checkpoint and show our passports, and every time we’re waved further onward. At last, we spot a dilapidated building with the word “IMMIGRATION” written on a wooden sign. We’d made it!

So Dee parks the car and waits while Jeremy and I head inside to get our exit stamps out of Thailand. The immigration “office” is basically a dusty wooden shed with a makeshift desk, two bored-looking officers, and four sleeping dogs. With smiles on our faces (this has been the easiest visa run EVER!), we hand over our passports to officer #1.

“Exit stamp?” he asks.

Our smiles fade. “We get stamp here,” we reply.

The language barrier limits understanding for both parties. “Thailand stamp?” he tries again.

Jeremy and I are thoroughly confused at this point. “We get stamp here?” we repeat, but this time it’s a question.

Officer #2 comes in at this point, and they spend the next 10 minutes pouring through our passports for exit stamps that don’t exist. It’s at this point we finally realize:

We have crossed into Myanmar…ILLEGALLY.

We are almost THREE MILES into Myanmar…ILLEGALLY.

(Let me stress that Myanmar is not like Thailand. Until about 10 years ago, it was a socialist country completely cut off from the outside world. The Burmese experienced decades of oppression and harsh rule under a military regime. Even now, Myanmar is light years behind the rest of Asia).

And we’ve just unwittingly entered it…ILLEGALLY.

This is a big enough problem for Jeremy and I, as American citizens. But for our South African friend Dee (whose passport hasn’t been checked once during this whole process), it presents a whole new problem.

South Africans are NOT eligible for visas on arrival in Myanmar like Americans are. So not only is Dee illegally across the border, but he’s not even ALLOWED to receive a visa to be there!

There and Back Again

Fortunately, the immigration officers were in a fabulous mood today. Rather than throwing us all in Burmese prison, he returned our passports and instructed us to drive back to Thailand to get our exit stamps. (And then return to Myanmar.)

And at which of the 27 checkpoints were we supposed to do this? That part, of course, got lost in translation.

So we began the bumpy journey back through all those lovely checkpoints, half laughing at and half terrified by our current predicament. Jeremy and I hop out again at – checkpoint #3, maybe? – and use Google translate to try to get our point across.

Again, communication is limited. But we manage to understand that we need to keep going until we reach (something?) that looks like an official building.

So back we go, until the dirt road turns to pavement again. We pass through another checkpoint before we FINALLY see a little blue building with a thatched roof that says “IMMIGRATION” on it. To our surprise, there’s now a queue of cars leading up to the building, and the road is now blocked by a gigantic red and white striped gate.

Where the heck was THAT when we drove through earlier?

So yes…we had unknowingly driven right past the border patrol, right past the immigration office, and almost three miles into another country. AND NOBODY NOTICED.

Crossing Ban Phu Nam Ron Border – Take Two!

Now that Dee (and his car) were safely back on Thai soil, he wisely decided to park and let us sort ourselves out. Jeremy and I walk over to the immigration office and fill out the appropriate paperwork before we’re herded onto a “shuttle” (translation = pickup truck) to take us across the border.

We’re crammed into the truck with 3 young women and the surly old driver. It doesn’t take us long to realize that everyone on both sides of the border has heard our story by now.

At every checkpoint along the way, the soldiers all laugh and wave at us, like we’re visiting celebrities. Our fellow passengers are snickering with the driver and *secretly* taking photos of us (as if we wouldn’t notice). Once we receive our much-awaited Myanmar entry and exit stamps, even we’re starting to laugh.

We’re about to make our 4th trip across the border in under an hour…and only the 2nd legal crossing!

At last, we arrive back at the Thai immigration office, where we’re stamped in for another 60 days (in this case, 28 days, since we’re already booked to go to Bali at the end of June). And then we do what any relieved persons would do in this instance – celebrate with cold, frothy, heavenly cups of Thai iced tea.

After all, you know what they say: Any day you DON’T end up in Burmese prison is a good day!

Visiting the Bridge on the River Kwai

Astonishingly, it’s not even NOON. We’ve driven 4 hours from Bangkok and crossed the border a record 4 times…before noon.

Dang, we’re good.

Dee has been loyally waiting for us in the small parking lot near the immigration office. Famished and relieved, we backtrack an hour to the city of Kanchanaburi. After a quick lunch on the river, we set off to tour the famous Bridge on the River Kwai.

In case you missed the old movie with Alec Guinness, this bridge was built during World War II and is part of what’s known as “The Death Railway.” An estimated 9,000 laborers lost their lives constructing the railway line that ran between Thailand and Myanmar (then Burma).

After our visit to Kanchanaburi, we headed for Bangkok and arrived home around 6 pm – twelve hours after we left! Not only did we get an incredible story out of the ordeal, but the entire day cost us around $50. (Considering the fines and extensions would’ve cost us $230, I’d say we made out pretty well!)

In conclusion, dear friends, now you know how NOT to do a visa run across the Thailand-Myanmar border.

Please note: This travel tale is meant to entertain, and also shed some light on the realities of living abroad. I am in NO WAY suggesting that you ever attempt to cross this border (or any other border) illegally. The truth is that we are all very, VERY fortunate that there were no repercussions for our blunder!

Spectacular Ko Phi Phi: The Jewel of the Andaman Sea

Spectacular Ko Phi Phi: The Jewel of the Andaman Sea

The brilliant sunlight warms your skin as you make your way to the bow of the ferry. You inhale a deep breath of salty sea air and sigh, gazing out at the crystal clear waters of the Andaman Sea and the tiny green islands on the horizon. You pause along the railing and take a sip of sweet, creamy Thai iced tea – probably your third one of the day – and think again how lucky you are to be here.

Today you’re on your way to Ko Phi Phi, one of the most beautiful (and easily accessible) islands on earth.

I recently had the privilege of visiting this gem of an island with my husband and a group of friends. We caught the ferry from nearby Phuket, Phi Phi’s bigger and better-known neighbor, and spent three glorious days exploring the beaches, bays, hills, and forests that make this island the ultimate tropical paradise.

Why Ko Phi Phi is So Amazing

Can you imagine snorkeling through waters as clear as glass and as warm as bathwater? Can you envision a narrow isthmus of land surrounded by spectacular twin lagoons – one a deep blue color and the other turquoise-green? Can you see the soaring green cliffs rising dramatically from the sea and stretching into the cloudless sky? Can you picture yourself climbing up one of those cliffs – which we nicknamed “The Cliff of Insanity” – on nothing but a tattered bit of netting, with sharp rocks and pounding surf below you?

We did it! And I’m eager to share our incredible story with you.

Travelicious.world recently published my first paid travel article about our amazing adventures on Ko Phi Phi. If you’re planning your own trip to beautiful southern Thailand – or if you just want to do a little armchair traveling – I encourage you to check it out!

Click here to read more about Ko Phi Phi!