We spent a lot of time in 2011 in South East Asia. Based out of Bangkok for four months while researching a book and working on stories, we bounced across the region on assignments, around Thailand, along the Mekong, and to Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. It’s since we left, while posting our Asian stories, that we’ve realised how besotted we’ve become with South East Asia. Before we start posting our Australian stories, we thought we’d tell you why. These are the 12 reasons we are smitten with South East Asia.
The people of South East Asia, especially Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, must be the friendliest people on the planet, and the most laidback, easygoing and generous – even when they have nothing. Some travellers complain about scams and being ripped off, but aside from an irritating tuk-tuk driver or twenty, we’ve never had any encounters so bad they’ve put us off a place. It’s not just the locals who are lovely either. The steamy temperatures and relaxed lifestyle do something to the expats too, most of whom perpetually wander about as if they’ve just had a massage. And they seem set to stay forever too, like Mason Florence who has been in Asia 20 years. Bo in Bangkok, Hack in Luang Prabang, Audrey in Saigon, Vibol in Phnom Penh, and Janet in Siem Reap, chefs, fashion designers, artists, musicians, and boutique owners, we loved meeting them all. Especially shopkeeper Boun Vanh of Nyoy Hai who reminded us of the importance of saying hello.
Frenetic and fast-paced, with their gridlocked traffic and millions of motorbikes (most on the footpaths), it’s the chaos, craziness, and colour of cities like Saigon, Phnom Penh and Bangkok that we find so appealing. Life takes place on the pulsating streets, not behind closed doors – people eat, drink, socialize, even snooze (on their motorbikes!) on the streets, making it hard to ignore, and impossible not to get caught up in. It’s invigorating, exhilarating, and intoxicating. Each day you walk out your door, your senses are assaulted. It’s hard not to be stimulated by such places, and that’s what makes them so addictive for writers and photographers.
And when the cities, with their smog, smells and traffic snarls become too much – because they do – what we love is that there are always quiet Zen-like places to retreat to: tranquil parks and luxuriant gardens, peaceful temples, serene spas, and beautiful boutique hotels. Or you can get away from the cities completely – cheap flights (and even cheaper buses and trains) and plenty of low-cost airlines make this a breeze. You can slip away to languid riverside escapes like Luang Prabang, to the enigmatic Mekong to do a cruise, or to sleepy rural towns like Khon Kaen and Chiang Rai, where chic retreats like Supanniga and PhuNaCome are ideal for getting away from it all.
Delicious Food and Drink
Asia is the only part of the world we can travel and never tire of the food. After a week in New York we were looking for a Thai restaurant, in Berlin we ate Vietnamese, Thai and Indian. Yet in South East Asia we can happily eat Thai and Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Lao cuisine every day of the week. From street food snacks to degustation menus at fine diners in Bangkok, Siem Reap, Phnom Penh, and Saigon, the food was nearly always sublime. At worst, it was good. And so you don’t have to miss the food too much when you leave, wherever you look there are cooking courses to do. Terence did them everywhere from Bangkok (at the Mandarin Oriental and with Poo) to Luang Prabang (with Tamarind and on an organic farm). Then there are cool cafes and bars, in Siem Reap, Phnom Penh, Saigon and Bangkok; Vietnamese coffee; Singha beer; and the Asian cocktails made with zingy ingredients like lemongrass and lychee, ginger and galangal. Some of the things we’re really missing: Soul Food restaurant in Bangkok; Isaan chicken and som tam, especially in Khon Kaen; pho and thit bo kho in Saigon; Lao khao soi in Luang Prabang; and mango and sticky rice on Soi 38.
From Klong Toey market in Bangkok to Phousi market in Luang Prabang, the markets across Asia are lively and endless intriguing. We recently visited Melbourne’s markets, and while they were busy and the produce was beautiful, the atmosphere just doesn’t compare to the buzz of Asian markets in Phnom Penh or Saigon, and the sheer variety of produce, herbs and spices on offer. But it’s not only the fresh food markets that are fantastic in South East Asia. Bangkok is home to two of our favourite markets, the retro ‘train market’ Talad Rot Fai, a hip and happening spot beloved by the city’s vintage-loving Thai hipsters, and the sprawling Chatuchak or JJ Markets, with its cowboy bands and fortune tellers, popular with tourists as much as locals.
Rituals and Traditions
Life in South East Asia is a spiritual one with everyday life imbued with countless rituals, ceremonies, festivals, and customs, from making offerings during the early morning alms-giving to local monks in the neighbourhood, made famous in Luang Prabang, to making merit at a mass event attended by 12,600 monks, as people did in Bangkok to commemorate Visakha Bucha Day. Wherever you go, incense is being burned, flowers are being placed, temples are being blessed, wishes are being made, and futures are being foretold. Even if you’re not religious or even slightly spiritual, it’s hard not to be touched in some way.
It was by no means our first trip to Thailand – we’d criss-crossed the country on previous trips updating guidebooks – but it was our first time in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, after years of dreaming about travelling there. It wasn’t until this trip, however, that we fully appreciated the diversity of the region’s landscapes, from a car on our road trip through Thailand’s Isaan region, where we took in the bucolic countryside of the Loie Province and the gently undulating hills around Dan Sai, from planes as we flew across the lush, wet rice fields of Vietnam and Cambodia; and from a boat, as we cruised the coffee-coloured waters of the Mekong River. Sigh…
Ancient archaeological sites, glittering temples filled with golden Buddhas, and hilltops dotted with stupas, South East Asia is rich in historical treasures. Cities like Bangkok abound in them, from the Grand Palace to Wat Arun, while Siem Reap is almost surrounded by them, from the spectacular archaeological ruins of Angkor Wat to other equally evocative temples with splendid carvings such as Bayon. But the most rewarding riches from a travellers perspective were the enchanting Khmer temple sanctuaries in Thailand’s Isaan, particularly Prasat Phanom Rung and nearby Prasat Muang Tam, in rice country a two-hour drive southeast of Nakhon Ratchasima, and the Prasat Hin Phimai, slapbang in the centre of Phimai, both virtually devoid of tourists when we visited.
Traditional Arts and Crafts
You see the vibrant arts and crafts of South East Asia in abundance in the markets, especially in Bangkok’s Chatuchak and in Chiang Rai, Phnom Penh and Saigon, from the vibrant bags and clothing of ethnic minority tribes such as the Hmong to the polished traditional lacquer-ware of Vietnam. But there’s nothing quite like visiting the creative source, from the traditional mask-makers of Dan Sai to the silk weavers in Chonnabot and at Ock Pop Tok in Luang Prabang, to really gain an appreciation for what it takes to make such exquisite things. Knowing how many days and weeks it can take, and the skills, patience and hard work required, makes it hard to ever bargain again.
I rarely get excited by clothes these days – it’s all the same, it’s faddish, what’s ‘in’ one season can’t be worn the next. Yet there’s something exciting about fashion in South East Asia. It’s fresh, it’s colourful, it’s elegant, and it’s fun. What I like most is that it’s often inspired from cultures and places from across the globe and across time. While there are gorgeous things being created by locals and expats everywhere, in Siem Reap (such as Eric Raisina), Saigon (Mai Lam) and Phnom Penh (Ambre), Bangkok is where it’s really at. Bangkok is where the most idiosyncratic and adventurous fashion is being made by the likes of Asava, FlyNow, Theatre, Tipayaphong Poosanaphong, Tube Gallery, Greyhound/Playground, 27 Friday/27 Nov, Wonder Anatomie, Palette, It’s Happened to be a Closet, etc. And the best thing about it is that it’s accessible and affordable. If you’re in Bangkok in April, try and get to Bangkok International Fashion Week and you’ll see what I mean. Or just check out the stores in Siam Centre and Siam Paragon next time you’re in town.
Contemporary Art and Design
Art galleries are dotted all over South East Asia’s cities, sometimes in surprising places, such as the café Java in Phnom Penh, which shows continually changing exhibitions, and 1961 on the riverbank in Siem Reap, which began as a musicians retreat and developed into one of the town’s most vibrant art spaces. Then there’s contemporary design, from quirky interior design products to more serious things of beauty being produced at a level of craftsmanship as refined as anything from Scandinavia, such as the fine furniture of Thai designer Jitrin Jintaprecha, whose work caught the international design world’s attention when it showcased at the prestigious 2011 Salone del Mobile in Milan. Makes us want to set up home in Asia.
And, lastly, what’s not to love about the nightlife? After dark is when Asian cities really come alive – and I’m not talking about Kao San Road or ping pong shows. All over South East Asia’s capitals, there are sublime spots to sit on a drink while you watch the sun go down, like The Deck in Saigon, and interesting little bars where you can listen to live music or check out a photography show while sipping a cocktail like Iron Fairies and WTF, respectively, in Bangkok. The variety of live music venues would put many cities to shame, from burger joints where you can see rockabilly bands to dedicated music venues for everything from folk music to heavy metal, and dimly lit jazz spots, everywhere from Phnom Penh to Saigon.
They’re the things we love – and miss – about South East Asia. What about you? Share the love in the Comments below, and feel free to include links if you have similar posts on SEAsia.