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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!

 

A Journey Through Cambodia: Past and Present

A Journey Through Cambodia: Past and Present

When I first visited Cambodia back in 2009, it was my first taste of traveling in a third world country. But a lot has happened in Cambodia–for the better–in the past nine years.

To understand the Cambodia of today, it’s important to know the Cambodia of the past. It’s a small country by Asian standards, with a population of 15 million. It’s bordered by Thailand to the west, Laos to the north, and Vietnam to the east.

Due to its unfortunate location, during the Vietnam War the US military dropped tons of unused artillery on this poor country of farmers and laborers. In the same decade, Cambodia also became the only country in modern history to commit genocide against its own people.

In 1975, as the Vietnam War was drawing to a close, a Communist revolutionary named Pol Pot seized control of Cambodia and instituted what would become known as the Khmer Rouge. Over the next four years, the soldiers of the Khmer Rouge captured, tortured, and executed an estimated 2-3 million of its own people, targeting educated men and women or anyone else who could potentially be a spy. Mass graves known as “killing fields” are littered around the country in a gruesome reminder of the not so distant past.

As if that wasn’t tragic enough, during the decades of upheaval from the 1970s to the 1990s, different factions planted millions of landmines throughout the country. Cambodia now has the largest population of amputees anywhere in the world, and every day, landmines continue to maim and kill innocent men, women, and children.

The good news in all of this is that, after a few decades of relative peace, Cambodia’s war wounds are finally beginning to heal. Although it’s still classified as a third world nation, there have been some radical changes in recent years. China, Korea, and other wealthy nations have begun investing in Cambodia, bringing new business and jobs into the cities. The capital of Phnom Penh, which seven years ago was little more than dirt roads and rusty tuk-tuks, is now full of high-rise offices, luxury hotels, and shiny new BMWs.

I was amazed at the difference in so short a period of time.

Ready to explore the country beyond its bustling capital, we took a comfortable overnight bus ride from Phnom Penh six hours north to the smaller city of Siem Reap. You may not be familiar with the name of the city, but you’ve undoubtedly heard of what everyone comes here to see: the temples of Angkor. They are to this day the most beautiful, fascinating, and impressive historical sites I have ever seen.

What’s even more amazing is that this ancient temple complex was buried in the jungle for the better part of a millennium, virtually unknown to the outside world until French explorer Henri Mouhot “rediscovered” it back in 1860. His impression?

“One of these temples–a rival to that of Solomon and erected by some ancient Michelangelo–might take an honorable place beside our most beautiful buildings. It is grander than anything left to us by Greece or Rome.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Even though excavation and restoration work went on for most of the 20th century, the decades of war and civil strife made the site inaccessible to foreign tourists. Today, though, all are welcome to Cambodia to visit the incomparable temples of Angkor.

Angkor Wat is the one you hear about the most, and rightly so. It is the single largest religious structure in the world, a 12th-century Hindu masterpiece crowned with five lotus-shaped spires rising 200 feet off the ground. Located in an isolated region, surrounded by impenetrable jungle and an enormous moat, it’s easy to see why it got “lost” for centuries.

Although all those years of neglect and war took their toll on the building, it stayed remarkably intact. Even now, extensive restoration efforts are taking place on Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples.

Angkor, however, is much more than just one temple. It was, in fact, the thriving capital city of the ancient Khmer Kingdom, which flourished during the 11th-13th centuries and controlled much of what is now Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar.

Satellite imagery suggests Angkor may have been the largest pre-industrial city in the world, covering an area of nearly 400 square miles. Now it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the impressive ruins attract over 2 million starry-eyed visitors every year.

Our day of touring began at the unfortunate hour of 4am, when our friendly tuk-tuk driver Dewan picked us up at our hotel so we could be at Angkor Wat to see the sunrise.

Was it worth it? For sure.

After that (and a much-needed breakfast) came the temple of Bayon, covered with hundreds of giant stone faces of the 13th-century Buddhist King Jayavarman VII.

The highlight, though, was the temple of Ta Phrom, which remains virtually untouched from its “lost in the jungle” state. Enormous trees have overtaken the temple, breaking down walls, wrapping around doorways, and stretching for the sky. If you’ve ever wanted to feel like Indiana Jones or Lara Croft, this is the place!

The town of Siem Reap hasn’t changed much since 2009. It’s still a cozy little backpacker’s paradise, with cheap guesthouses and even cheaper food and drinks. Pub Street is very much alive and well, with massage parlors on every corner, and there’s even a new Cineplex where you can see the latest 3D movies for an astounding $4.

English is widely spoken, too, and everyone will readily bend over backward to accommodate you. Just arrived at 5am on the overnight bus? No worries, ma’am, we’ll get a room ready for you. Don’t have your own 3D glasses for the movie? You can borrow a pair, free of charge. Want to use our luxury swimming pool? We’ll waive the entrance fee if you buy a ($1) beer or cocktail. Massage in our day spa? Here’s a 20% discount, just because we feel like it.

If your experience is anything like mine, you’ll leave Siem Reap feeling like nothing less than a rock star.

In fact, every time I visit, I’m amazed and humbled by the friendly, smiling people and the beautiful sights in this materially poor but culturally rich country. Despite its turbulent past, I can’t help but feel that the future of Cambodia is looking brighter and brighter.