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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!

 

My Love Affair With Singapore (And Its Food)

My Love Affair With Singapore (And Its Food)

Allow me to warn you in advance that I may start waxing poetic during this blog. After a 6 year absence, I’ve just spent 3 days in one of my favorite countries, and the love affair with Singapore has started up all over again. So please forgive me if I start overusing such words as love, awesome, beautiful, spectacular, delicious, perfect, and incredible.

Because, well…Singapore just naturally IS all of those things.

downtown singapore

It can’t help itself. We’re talking about an independent country that is actually just a big city on a tiny island at the southern tip of Malaysia. Does 5.5 million people on an island that’s only 276 square miles (half the size of LA or NYC) sound like total and utter chaos to you? If it were anywhere else, it probably would be.

But not Singapore. Singapore is an incredible (overused adjective #1) blend of very different cultures – Chinese, Indian, Malay, and British – that has somehow produced the cleanest, quietest, safest, and most orderly city on the planet. Sound boring or dull? It’s just the opposite. The effortless blend of so many cultures, the unique and impressive feats of architecture, the vibrant colors of perfectly manicured lawns, gardens, and tropical trees, and a mouth-watering array of the freshest, spiciest, most flavorful dishes you’ve ever tasted…

singapore

Hey! Put that suitcase down. You can buy your plane ticket and pack your bags AFTER you finish reading this, thank you very much. Besides, I haven’t even told you one of the best parts. Guess what the official language of Singapore is?

Yep. It’s English. Not the broken-sorta-kinda-maybe-a-little English you get in Malaysia or India, but straight up, first language, fluent (British) English. So forget the language barrier, because there is NONE. That makes navigating this little island-city-paradise a total breeze!

Anyway, where was I? Oh yes. Saying how awesome (overused adjective #37) this place is.

The historic Raffles Hotel
The historic Raffles Hotel

Singapore Food Crawl 101

We touched down in Singapore on Friday after a smooth 2-hour flight from Bangkok. Our friend SherMay was there to greet us and escort us to lunch – because, after all, the official pastime of Singapore is EATING. You think Americans eat a lot? Ha! We got nothin’ on the Singaporeans. They eat a minimum of 5 meals a day, not to mention all the snacks in-between. They wander from hawker center to hawker center like devotees making pilgrimages to holy sites, because let’s face it…in Singapore, food IS the national religion.

So we sit down in a blissfully air conditioned restaurant and jump right into the good stuff. SherMay orders a very traditional Singaporean starter called ota, basically a spicy fish “cake” made out of chopped up mackerel and lots of chili. Entrees arrive in the form of char kway teow (thick rice noodles with shrimp, clams, egg, sprouts, scallions, and chili, wok fried until slightly charred) and assam laksa (a spicy, sour fish soup with rice vermicelli). Dessert is cendol, a colorful blend of shaved ice, grass jelly, red beans, assorted fruit, and a generous, heavenly dollop of gula melaka (sweet palm sugar). We waddle out of the restaurant in food-induced comas, stuffed to the gills but already eagerly anticipating our next meals.

Char Kway Teow
Char Kway Teow

By the way, we haven’t even left the AIRPORT yet.

When we do at last venture to the outside world, we’re greeted with a blast of humidity and warm (but not TOO hot) tropical air. At only 2 degrees north of the equator, Singapore is the epitome of endless summer. Currently they’re moving into their rainiest season, which made for some killer thunderstorms and cooler temperatures (translation = 85 instead of 95).

singapore rain tree

We drive down a gorgeous tree-lined (rain trees, I later learned) road that looks like it belongs in a Disney theme park. Seriously, not a single blade of grass was out of place. To our left was a narrow strip of beach and dozens of enormous cargo ships and, off on the horizon, the Indonesian island of Batam. A short drive took us to our Airbnb accommodation for the weekend, where we dumped our bags and proceeded to head almost immediately to dinner.

Because, you know, it had been about 2 hours since we last ate. That’s like 2 days in Singapore time!

Singapore Strait
Singapore Strait

So SherMay and her husband Fred take us to a nearby Chinese restaurant, assuring us that it was more “Singaporean Chinese” than “China Chinese.” This is no small point; the Singaporeans take great pride in their unique and delicious food, as they should!

Over a pot of freshly brewed chrysanthemum tea, we savor course after course of Singaporean specialties – BBQ-honey fried pork, cereal shrimp (as the name suggests, it is shrimp rolled in crushed breakfast cereal and deep fried to a perfect crisp), olive fried rice (had to try that one), ginger-glazed grouper, and broccoli sautéed with fresh lump crab meat.

singapore dinner

Dessert was a warm yam paste topped with cashews and sweetened condensed milk – think an Asian version of sweet potato casserole, and you’re on the right track.

The verdict? AMAZING. (Overused adjective #62).

After a night in our Airbnb under neon pink Minion sheets (hey, it’s budget accommodation, okay?) we awaken to a truly awesome thunderstorm. Fred is kind enough to dash over to our building with an umbrella before we journey down the street for breakfast in a VERY local hawker center (translation = I haven’t been stared at that much since India). In case the term is unfamiliar, hawker centers are simply a collection of street food vendors that have been moved into one big area (like an outdoor cafeteria) so that they can be monitored for quality and food safety. Works for me – less walking, better food!

sinagpore

So Fred takes us on the grand culinary tour of Lot 16 Hawker Center, from Singaporean to Indian to Chinese to Muslim Malay. Some of it, like nasi lemak, we know very well from our time in Malaysia. Other dishes, like fried carrot cake, are totally new to us.

Wait a second, did you say…FRIED CARROT CAKE?

Yes, I did, although let me add that it’s not the frosting-covered carrot cake you’re picturing from home. Singaporean fried carrot cake is, in fact, a delectable blend of white carrots (or white radish) and rice flour, pounded into a neat cake-like texture, then wok-fried to a slight char with egg, scallions, and plenty of hot chili.

Singaporean fried carrot cake
Singaporean fried carrot cake

Sound delicious? IT IS. So much, in fact, that I nearly cried when I couldn’t find it for lunch yesterday.

After breakfast, we bid farewell to Fred and took the train downtown to play tourists for the day. The sights were all wonderfully familiar to us – the jaw-dropping skyline of the business district, the water spewing out of the mouth of the Merlion fountain, the flying “ship” atop Marina Bay Sands Hotel, the colorful, quirky eateries at Clarke Quay, and the nostalgia of the century-old Raffles Hotel, where writers like Ernest Hemingway used to frequent.

Singapore Harbor and Marina Sands Hotel
Singapore Harbor and Marina Bay Sands Hotel

"Cloud Nine" Contemporary Art
“Cloud Nine” Contemporary Art

Singapore River
Singapore River

Clarke Quay
Clarke Quay

Traveler's palms in the courtyard of Raffles Hotel
Traveler’s palms in the courtyard of Raffles Hotel

(Fun fact: Ever heard of a cocktail called the Singapore Sling? It was invented by a bartender at the Raffles in 1915, back when men hung out at the bar and drank in droves but it was still socially unacceptable for women to consume alcohol in public. The bartender invented a delicious concoction of gin, cherry brandy, Cointreau, fruit juices, and grenadine for the ladies to drink, and because of its bright pink color, everyone just assumed the girls were drinking juice. BRILLIANT.)

Anyway, strolling through the tree-lined streets of Singapore was like visiting an old friend. We were struck all over again by how clean and quiet and orderly it is. There’s no graffiti, no honking horns, no litter, nothing to spoil the perfection of its appearance. With so little land area to work with, the city is almost entirely vertical, with glittering high-rise hotels and office buildings as far as the eye can see. Down below, you can still catch a glimpse of the Singapore of old – a tucked-away Chinese restaurant with bright red lanterns dangling at the entrance, or a long row of joined townhouses with slanted rooves and brightly painted shutters.

singapore

singapore

St. Andrew's Cathedral
St. Andrew’s Cathedral

It doesn’t matter where you look or which street you turn down. There’s no perfect city on earth, but if there WAS one, it would be Singapore.

We wandered the city streets for hours – snapping pictures, enjoying the views, and grabbing $1 cups of sweet yam and red bean ice cream from a street vendor (because we hadn’t already eaten 4 times that day).

singapore

Dinner was at a new upscale hawker center called Glutton’s Bay – appropriate, since Singapore turns you into a glutton as soon as you arrive. Jeremy got a gargantuan portion of Peking duck fried rice (pausing here to allow you to wipe the drool from your screen) while I sampled one of Singapore’s most famous dishes…chili crabs! We’re talking massive Sri Lankan crabs swimming in a pool of tomato-based “gravy” loaded with chili and other delectable spices. Fiery hot, slightly sweet, perfectly savory…in a word, DELICIOUS (overused adjective #88).

gluttons-bay-hawker-center-singapore

chili crabs singapore

In case you haven’t noticed yet, we like the food in Singapore. A LOT. Why there isn’t a Singaporean restaurant on every corner in every city around the globe, I’ll never know. The world is seriously missing out!!

singapore

Yesterday we hung out with SherMay and Fred and (you guessed it) ate more food. For breakfast I tried wheat toast with kaya spread (a locally made coconut jam). Then we wandered through a local grocery store for a while before we found a goldmine of imported New Zealand-made Cadbury chocolate, including our two favorite flavors – Mint Bubbly, and Hokey Pokey (crispy butterscotch bits in milk chocolate). We bought embarrassingly large bars for ourselves and will be eating Cadbury for weeks (okay, maybe a few days) to come.

Last night included (shockingly) more culinary exploration. Because of Jeremy’s gluten allergy, we’ve never wandered into any of those steamed bun/dumpling places that are all over Asia. Last night I grabbed a few steamed BBQ pork buns and OH MY…where have they been all my life??

singapore pork bun

I washed them down with a Malaysian dish of nasi lemak – fragrant pandan rice cooked in coconut milk, topped with fried chicken, fried eggs, peanuts, and a red hot sambal sauce. Taste bud heaven.

Jeremy snagged a dish we’ve been wanting to try for a long time now – black chicken soup! No, it’s not black soup; the CHICKEN is black. The breed is a Chinese silky, and if you look it up, you will see that the chicken’s feathers and skin are naturally ALL BLACK. The Chinese traditionally use it in a “healthy” soup filled with lots of yummy vegetables and herbs.

black chicken soup singapore

Verdict? Insanely good. (And yes…black chicken tastes like chicken!)

To sum it all up: We love, love, LOVE Singapore, and it’s always sad when we have to leave. If money were no object, we’d be living there in a heartbeat and I’d need a wheelchair to roll my morbidly obese body from hawker center to hawker center. (Seriously, how do the locals stay so thin? All they do is eat!)

Anyway, I’m rambling. I tend to do that. And if I haven’t convinced you by now that Singapore is an awesome place, then I have failed as a writer. I should just quit and stick to what I’m good at.

Which is…ummmmm…eating?

Seriously, though, Singapore rocks, and it belongs at the top of the list of any trip through Southeast Asia. It may not be as cheap as its neighbors to the north, but trust me, guys…it’s worth it. Factor a weekend into your budget and go for it. You will most definitely NOT be disappointed.

singapore