In the past eighteen-and-a-half weeks, I’ve traveled through five Southeast Asian countries: Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, and Singapore. However, there are still six more countries in the region that I have yet to visit: Myanmar, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, the Philippines, and East Timor. I recently flew to India, to begin tackling the large subcontinent. However, I will certainly return to Southeast Asia someday to explore new territory, and perhaps revisit some old stomping grounds.
Although the places I visited had a few similarities to each other, I find them to be mostly diverse. It’s amazing just how much of a difference a thousand kilometers can make. Each country has a unique cuisine, vibe, and terrain.
The first four countries I went to are particularly convenient travel destinations, because they are connected by land. You can navigate these areas completely by bus; no need for expensive flights!
Thailand, with its spicy food and developed infrastructure, is the perfect gateway into Southeast Asia. It’s different enough (from the Western world) to warrant a culture shock, but not different enough to scare you. It’s a very easy country to travel in, and is practically made for tourists.
Cambodia can be a bit of a shock to the system, because it is a rather poor, undeveloped country. You get the sense that its citizens are still recovering from the horrific genocide, carried out by the Khmer Rouge regime back in the 1970’s. However, it is still a must-see country, if only for Angkor Wat: its beautiful, ancient temple complex.
Laos seems to get skipped by a lot of travelers, but they don’t know what they’re missing out on! Although its infrastructure is less developed than say, Thailand’s, it is a gorgeous country. It has several must-see cities, delicious food, and a chilled out vibe.
Vietnam has a feel unlike any other. It is crowded, bustling, and full of noise. Like Thailand, it is a very easy country to navigate, and has plenty to offer its tourists. The food, while not particularly spicy, is cheap and tasty.
Before heading to India, I decided to travel to the smallest country in Southeast Asia:
Singapore is one of the most culturally diverse places I have been to. It is a business capital of Asia, and is as affluent and modern as the United States (if not more so). While its highly organized structure may bore some, it does have a fantastic cuisine, with a little something from every country.
Even though I am far from done with Southeast Asia, I feel like I’ve explored a significant chunk it. However, these four months have seriously enlightened me to how big the world is. Even Southeast Asia (a fairly small region of the planet) takes a lot of time to explore. Hell, I haven’t even been to half of its countries!
I seriously think that I’m all the better from having traveled. I begin tackling India with some traveling experience under my belt, and that’s a great thing.
If you’d like to read more in-depth about my thoughts on these various places, check out the Country Guide page.
I really wanted to like Singapore. Despite everyone telling me that it was a boring place, I kept my mind open. Surely, the squeaky clean city-state would prove to be a nice contrast from the other grungy Southeast Asian countries I had visited. I thought Singapore would be a nice vacation: a relaxing haven from the touts, honking motorbikes, and dirty streets. Unfortunately, I am not impressed with Singapore. Instead of singing its praises, I will be quoting from author William Gibson’s article Disneyland with the Death Penalty.
Gibson, well known for his speculative fiction novels, went to Singapore and then wrote the extremely controversial article for Wired magazine. It was so controversial, in fact, that the magazine was banned from the country for a while. In it, he says such things as:
“Singapore is a relentlessly G-rated experience, micromanaged by a state that has the look and feel of a very large corporation.”
I disembarked the airplane, and stepped into Singapore Changi, the most beautiful airport I have ever seen. It had lush carpeting and was really easy to navigate. After getting my passport stamped, I took a bus into the center of the city, in search of my guest house. I guess you could call me “excited.” Upon stepping out into the city’s streets, I received further proof of an insight I had long ago: Airports are not indicative of what a country will be like. Unlike the pretty airport I had just exited, Singapore was kind of ugly.
The country isn’t ugly in the way you’d expect. It is very organized, super clean, and sports citizens from many different cultures. No, the ugliness I’m talking about is its lack of soul. Singapore is so developed that it lacks charisma. The streets tend to all look the same, and the buildings reek of uniformity. The city is “kid-friendly” but in the safest, least personable way possible. Crime is virtually non-existent here, but it’s because of draconian laws. It is illegal to walk around your own house naked, because it’s considered a form of pornography. Importing drugs will result in the death penalty. It’s even forbidden to sell chewing gum, as there are concerns that gum leads to litter. Gibson’s allegation that Singapore is like a giant corporation, seems to be true. Everything here somehow seems skin-deep.
It seems that the general attitude here is one of hard work and consumerism. The country is less than 300 square miles in size, yet has one of the world’s highest GDPs. Basically; you work really hard, and then buy lots of stuff. Repeat. It feels like an Asian version of the “American Dream,” only more buttoned-down.
I’ll finish with the one positive thing William Gibson says about the country:
“The food in Singapore, particularly the endless variety of street snacks in the hawker centers, is something to write home about.”
Indeed, this is true. Food is the one thing I’ve been impressed with. It’s delicious and plentiful, and is actually quite affordable. Singapore gets a lot of grievance for being expensive (at least, compared to other Southeast Asian countries); however, a full meal can be had for $2-5. Being a very diverse country, the cuisine is multicultural. You can find delicious Chinese, Malay, Indian, and Indonesian dishes here (amongst many others).
Ok, so Singapore was not my cup of tea, but I’m not upset that I came here. Honestly, three days was the perfect amount of time for this city, and it has made me more excited for India. Rickshaws and grime, here I come! I've missed you.
I’d be interested to hear from those of you who have been to Singapore. I understand that plenty of people will disagree with me; I admit that first impressions are not always correct. Did you like the country, hate it, or fall somewhere in between?
In my one month travel through Vietnam, I never expected to visit as many cities as I did. Unlike in, say Laos, there was no one place that I fell in love with: no city that I felt like staying in for more than a few days. As I get ready to go to Singapore tomorrow, I can’t help but marvel that I chose Ho Chi Minh City as my final destination, and am a bit disappointed that I only got to stay here a couple of days. Out of all the cities I visited, Saigon is surely my favorite.
Many people prefer Hanoi, and I totally understand that. Sure, the bustling capital has cooler architecture, fewer people, and feels more like the country’s cultural center. I have continuously praised relaxing, calm destinations, so why would I praise Ho Chi Minh City, the bigger, busier, more heavily populated city?
I can’t put my finger directly on the answer, but I can try. Even though Hanoi has fewer people, it feels more hectic. The streets are winding and overcrowded, and somehow seem smaller. The city is way too insular, and almost gives the impression that you are trapped inside it. Ho Chi Minh City, on the other hand, is a delight. It has bigger streets to match its bigger population, and therefore feels less crowded. Even though it has just as many touts as Hanoi, you tend to feel less suffocated by them. As Saigon is the business capital of the country, people seem busier, friendlier, and (slightly) more honest. To put it simply, Ho Chi Minh City has more leg room than Hanoi. It reminded me a lot of New York City (one of my favorite places in the world), which is probably why I’m biased toward it.
Some may also make an argument for Hoi An, the quiet city known for its many tailors. All I have to say is, Hoi An may have been great a few years ago, but I found it to be pretty average. Sections of the city feel like they were built entirely for tourists. While I did enjoy Hoi An, I found it to be more touristy than I had expected. From what I’ve read, it only recently became the tourist hot spot that it is now. I’d be willing to bet it used to be way more charming. In many ways, the city felt like a sort of second-rate version of Luang Prabang (Laos), another UNESCO World Heritage site.
Everyone has their own favorite(s); mine happened to be Ho Chi Minh City. For those of you who have been to Vietnam, I’d be interested to know what your favorite place(s) were.
Next up: Singapore!
Slovakia has been added to the "Nationalities I've Met" page, bringing the total to 52!
It's a serious problem when people objectify each other. Instead of looking at one's fellow beings as people, we often look at others as objects: ways to get the things we want. One of the most glaring examples of objectification I've seen while traveling, is the relationship between many locals and tourists.
In many countries, it is common practice to overcharge tourists for everything. Sometimes this is done in a glaringly obvious fashion, but other times it is more subtle. Maybe your dinner costs double the price. Or maybe the bus ticket you bought has a few extra dollars tacked onto the price. Perhaps admission to local sites is free to everyone but tourists. The list goes on.
The overcharging of tourists really pisses me off, but not because of the money. Believe me. Coming from the bottom of my thrifty, budget-conscious heart, it is not because of the money! When locals overcharge tourists, they are objectifying those tourists. They see them as wealthy holidaymakers who hold large amounts of those precious dollars. They are obviously here as wealthy "superiors" and have no qualms about being ripped off. Without ever meeting you or talking to you, people assume things about you. Add to that a language barrier, and it becomes very easy to look at someone as just an easy source of money. This is an extremely harmful practice, that makes it hard for cultures to accept one another.
Many tourists are equally as guilty of this objectification (if not more so). Many people come to a country, enjoy the relatively low cost of living, and go see a few sites. However, they never attempt to interact with local people or soak in the culture. They stay in "holiday mode" throughout the entire trip, and leave the country having gained nothing out of the experience. Unfortunately, I've met too many backpackers who only interact with other backpackers. When a local person tries to talk to them, they automatically assume the person is trying to rip them off, and ignore them. While this may be an ok assumption to make about a street tout, it comes off very offensive when you ignore a fellow human. Why on Earth are you going to another country to not talk to the local people and experience the culture? No wonder so many shop owners act as if tourists are exploitative no-goodniks!
The truth is, we need to start treating each other better. Part of travel is learning to respect different cultures, which is true for both tourists and those who cater to tourists. In a generation as globalized as ours, we should strive to exchange new ideas and concepts, not take others for granted.
I would never call myself a heavy drinker, but I would call myself a revealer of universal truths. The fact is, anyone who has every gone out to a bar before, knows about the drunk munchies. You know, it’s that insatiable craving for food you get at the end of the night. Most of the time, it will be so late that only a few establishments are still open. In the United States (at least on the East Coast), this limits your choices to pizza and french fries, among a few other greasy delicacies. I've recently had an epiphany; Banh mi in Vietnam is the perfect drunk munchies food.
Technically, Banh mi (which is usually spelled as the accented “Bánh mì”) just means “bread” in Vietnamese. However, it has also become the ubiquitous term for the fast-food sandwiches served on street corners. Basically, a street vendor takes a baguette and stuffs it with vegetables, and then either adds a fried egg or meat.
So why is Banh mi the perfect drunk munchies food? Why am I so enamored with this Vietnamese specialty? Here are five reasons:
It usually costs no more than 75 cents to buy a Banh mi sandwich from a street vendor, and remember those fifteen cent beers I told you about? An entire night of drinking, plus a sandwich (or two) at the end of the night, will still cost you less than a single beer at a bar in the United States. It’s cheap and I’m cheap, so there you go.
It’s Got Carbs
When you’re more than a bit tipsy, you want something you can really sink your teeth into. There’s nothing more satisfying than eating a baguette with your friends on your way back to the hostel.
It’s Also Healthy
Banh mi is waaay healthier than pizza and french fries. It’s not particularly greasy, and is stuffed full of vegetables and egg. Obviously, nothing can compare to the taste of pizza; however, you can easily have two or three Bahn mi and not feel regretfully bloated the next morning.
It’s Fast Food
Banh mi vendors can prepare a sandwich faster than most pizzerias can reheat a slice of pizza. When you’re craving a quick bite, the last thing you want to do is wait. Within a few seconds of ordering your meal, it’s ready.
Banh mi is kind of hard mess up. In your pseudo-buzzed state, you’ll usually end up ordering a second or third sandwich, just because it tastes so darn good! Forget about it just being a drunk munchies food; I often eat Banh mi for breakfast.
So there you have it: five stellar reasons why Banh mi is the perfect drunk munchies food. Stay hungry, my friends.
Instead of making these retrospective posts entirely about money, I figured I'd first share some thoughts on where I have been, and where I'm going.
It's the end of yet another month of traveling. Wow, four months. That's like...a third of a year, or a whole semester of university. Sure, in the long run four months is nothing. However, for me they have been some of the most exhilarating, mind-opening, and character-building months of my life. I've backpacked extensively through four countries, made quite a few friends, and have eaten foods I would never have imagined existed. I'm currently in Hoi An, Vietnam, a charming city full of tourists, tailors, and 14-cent beers. Today, I picked up a custom tailored shirt and pair of pants, then drank three delicious cups of tea in an outdoor restaurant.
My journey is far from over. In roughly a week, I'll be flying to Singapore for three days, and then to India. India and its surrounding countries will be the next "leg" of my trip; the subcontinent will certainly be a big change from Southeast Asia. Although I don't really know what to expect, I feel way more assured than I did four months ago!
Anyhow, no month retrospective would be complete without a spending breakdown. Budgeting is what allows me to travel longer, and I like to to give you (the reader) a general idea of how expensive certain countries are. This past month was spent in Laos and Vietnam, though mostly in the latter country. I've decided to consolidate the categories, so food and water are now lumped together as food and drink. Additionally, toiletries will be included in the miscellaneous category.
Accommodation - $135.45. Average of $4.52 per day. Like the other countries I've been to, Vietnam has very affordable hostels and hotels.
Food and Drink - $251.27. Average of $8.38 per day, or $2.79 per meal. Although I spent a lot on food this month, Vietnam has very affordable food. I simply ended up eating out at nice restaurants more frequently than I did in previous months. In most Vietnamese cities, you can get a tasty Banh mi (sandwich) or Pho (noodle soup) for $0.75-$2.
Alcohol - $27.62. If you're willing to drink the local brew, you can get a cup of beer in Vietnam for as cheap as $0.14-$0.25.
Transport - $107.97. Transport in Vietnam was pretty much the same as in the rest of Southeast Asia.
Miscellaneous - $56.19. Includes things such as clothing, toiletries, laundry, ATM fees, etc.
Total amount spent - $578.49. Average of $19.28 per day. I spent more than I did last month, but mostly because I ate more expensive food. Laos, and especially Vietnam, are very affordable countries to travel in. You can easily spend much less or much more.
Once more, thank you to Simon and Erin, the creators of Trail Wallet. Their app continues to be my #1 budgeting tool. If you feel so inclined, check out their journey at neverendingvoyage.com.
I arrived today in Da Nang, Vietnam like I would in any Asian city: tired, sore, and hungry. I found a hotel, had a quick meal, and then took a well-deserved nap. I woke up in time for dinner, and went a-hunting for a place to eat. Within a few minutes, SUCCESS! I found an outdoor restaurant full of Vietnamese patrons, and proceeded to walk in.
The first thing that happened, was everyone stared at me like I was a zoo animal. I’ve been traveling in Southeast Asia now for nearly four months, and believe me, I’m used to it. I smiled and chose a table. The waitress immediately came over to me and asked if I wanted a beer, and I replied “yes.” She then proceeded to bring over a huge bucket of ice, and another bucket full of beer bottles. All eyes in the restaurant were on me.
The food menu was completely in Vietnamese, so I ordered two random items, which I figured were small appetizers. The waitress took my order, filled my cup with ice and beer, and walked off. Sure, everyone was still staring at me, but I didn’t care. I sat back, took a refreshing sip of Beer Huda, and waited for my dinner.
Somehow, the two small appetizers ended up being a gigantic table full of food. I was served French fries with two different dips, two bowls of soup, and some strange vegetable that I couldn’t identify. Every five minutes, the waitress would come over to my table, to top off my cup with more ice and more beer. It was almost as if she was trying to make sure I drank the entire bucket full of beer. Thank Heaven the restaurant closed before I could finish more than two!
I can think of two possible explanations for this behavior. First, perhaps it’s totally normal in Vietnam for the waiter to drop an ice cube into your cup every five minutes. However, I’ve been in this country for two and a half weeks, and have never experienced this before. The other (more plausible explanation) is that the restaurant wanted to make a good impression on me, as I was the only foreigner there.
Half the time I get ripped off; the other half of the time I’m treated like royalty. In Vietnam you can never know which will happen. Either way, I had a filling and entertaining night, so what the hey!
Did your bus strand you in the middle of nowhere? Have you still no idea where you’ll be tomorrow, a week from now, or next year? Good. This is why you hit the road: to let go of your highly organized and regulated way of life. In the truest sense of the word, you’re going on an adventure. You’re throwing all your expectations out the window, and learning the power of improvisation. It’s not going to be what you thought it would be, and that’s the best part about it. There are no real rules, only decisions and compromises.
Itineraries are cute, but they can ruin your travel. It doesn’t matter if you plan on spending three days in each city, or three weeks. The fact is, if you end up loving a place, stay there longer! If you ending up hating a place, get out fast! Learning to improvise is one of the most important things you can do while traveling. It makes the trip more fun, and gives you leeway to do the things you want to do. Sure, you came to “see everything,” but why leave a place if you’re having a good time? You can always stay in the country for an extra month, or come back some other time. Travel at a pace that feels comfortable for you. Don’t rush through a city, just so you can say you’ve “been all over the country.” Conversely, don’t feel obligated to remain in a city you don’t feel comfortable in.
Everybody has cities they were dying to see, but ended up being disappointed by. It’s ok. Whether it’s Paris, Bangkok, New York, or Cairo, there is nothing wrong with admitting that you didn’t like a city. Every traveler goes through this at some point. Instead of despairing over your long-lost dreams about a place, try finding a new city to fall in love with. I myself was disappointed by most of Cambodia, a country I had long anticipated. However, I ended up being won over by Laos, a place I was skeptical about for a while.
You can never know what you will love until you go there. So get off at a town you’ve never heard of, and explore this great big world!
Due to a combination of bad weather and laziness, I ended up skipping Ha Long Bay and heading south, to the small city I talk about in this post. I know what you're thinking: "How could he skip a beautiful, UNESCO World Heritage site?" Well folks, I'm sure I'll come back to Vietnam again. There's nothing stopping me from seeing it some other time.
I like small cities. I've noticed that they tend to be friendlier, cheaper, and easier to navigate than big cities. While I had a good time in Hanoi, it was kind of a relief to leave. Prices were expensive, touts were everywhere, and the risk of getting run over by a motorbike was high. Right now, I'm writing from a hotel room in Ninh Bin, a small city in northern Vietnam. While it's only a two hour drive from Hanoi, the differences are striking: My room (a private for $5 per night) and dinner (noodle dish + smoothie for $3) cost half of what It would have cost me in Hanoi, and I'm half as likely to be run over by a vehicle. It's amazing what contrast 100 kilometers makes!
The problem with big cities lies in supply and demand. For example, Hanoi has way more motorbike drivers than tourists, hence the constant bouts of motorbike touts. Property also tends to be more desirable/expensive in capital cities, so shops and restaurants must charge higher prices to support themselves. Don't get me wrong, big cities do have a lot to offer in terms of variety. Want to eat street food one day, but fine dine the next? Or stay in a hostel dorm one night, but a 5-star hotel the next? Bingo. Some of my favorite cities are metropolises (New York, Bangkok, etc). However, for a relaxing experience, you usually can't beat the quieter, lesser frequented outskirts.
Another factor is privacy. In big cities, I tend to stay in shared dorms because it's cheaper, and there are more travelers to meet. However, once I get to a quiet place, I like to stay in private rooms. They are cheap, and offer a much needed retreat from the cacophonies and excesses of the city.
After a week and a half of running around to get my Indian visa (SUCCESS!!!), drinking 25 cent beers, and wandering aimlessly through the streets of Vietnam's capital city, it's nice to finally chill out. No more noise, no more exhaust fumes, and no more bed bugs. Oh yes, bed bugs. Did I mention the hostels in Hanoi were full of them? After three and a half months of furtively avoiding them, BAM! Although I still haven't actually seen any bugs, my bite-ridden torso tells the ugly truth. Here's to never seeing those itchy bastards again!
There's a stereotype that exists in the United States, that really pisses me off. It's that Asian people (particularly those from East Asia) suck at driving. Having traveled nearly four months now through Southeast Asia, I have to dispel that myth. It couldn't be further from the truth!
If you visit capital cities such as Bangkok, Thailand; Phnom Penh, Cambodia; and Hanoi, Vietnam, the first thing you'll notice is how cluttered the traffic is. (I haven't been to Ho Chi Minh City yet, but I hear it's WAY worse). It's a swerving mess of tuk-tuks, motorbikes, and other contraptions which I don't know the names of. Traffic laws are almost non-existent. For example, I've seen motorcycles drive in opposite directions, on the same side of the road. I have NEVER seen anyone get pulled over for speeding, and doubt I ever will. The traffic gets so dense in Vietnam, that motorbikes and people often "walk" together in the streets, swerving in and out of each other without a second thought. This transportation nightmare is mostly due to overpopulation and poor road infrastructure. To put things simply, you have to be a damn good driver to navigate heavily populated Asian cities. Many Americans, even those who are pretty good drivers, would fail at moving around by road here.
I couldn't tell you exactly where the stereotype originated from, but I will hazard a guess. Some Asian Americans who came from places with chaotic traffic, had trouble adapting to the strict, orderly roads in the West. Therefore, a gross exaggeration was born, positing that Asian people don't know how to drive properly.
In reality, it takes great driving skill to cruise Southeast Asian roads. Busting stereotypes while traveling has become a hobby of mine, and I'm glad to rip this offensive idea to shreds. Next time someone makes a comment about Asians being "bad drivers," tell them they should try driving in Vietnam!
My name is Yonah Paley. I quit my job in the United States to travel. I also write movies and do photography. As I backpack across the world, I share stories, philosophy, and travel tips.