By Caitlin and Jed
One of the most well known tourist attractions in SE Asia is its beaches, and for good reason. In Thailand, the choice of which beach or island to visit is surprisingly frustrating, because of the hundreds of possibilities. After endless research, we eventually settled on Koh Lanta, a decent sized island with about a half dozen beaches, including secluded bays in the south and long open beaches in the north. One of the most famous beaches in Thailand (if not the world) is on Koh Phi Phi island, and reachable only by long boat. Maya Bay, where the movie “the Beach” was filmed, may be hard to reach but that does not deter hundreds of people (us included!) from making the journey every day. The view of the green water and surrounding rock formations is quite breathtaking and if you squint and concentrate hard enough you can pretend you are the only one there.
We also had a great stay at the beach in Sihanoukville, Cambodia. In retrospect this is almost solely due to the place we stayed on the quietest part of the beach. The main part of the beach is pretty run down and not super pretty, but we were able to find a nice little hotel, with very few tourists around...and for wicked cheap. If you are ever in the area, definitely stay at Sunset Lounge and enjoy the relaxing days doing nothing but laying on their hammocks and drinking killer margaritas.
One of the best parts about SE Asia is the abundance of extremely cheap massages. There are literally more massage places around than any other type of business. Despite their reputation, the vast majority of these places are completely legitimate businesses. In Chicago, when I was stressed at work, I would get a very cheap massage for about $60. In SE Asia, some of our massages were as cheap as $6, Yes, you can pay a person to rub your muscles for an hour for $6. Needless to say, we got a ton of massages. We were pretty relaxed throughout our six weeks in SE Asia.
Many times during our travels I have wished we were going straight home just so I could load up an extra suitcase with the beautiful arts, crafts, clothing and occasional kitsch that fill some of the most glorious markets in the world; more so than ever in Southeast Asia. Whether it was flower markets, food markets or just another tourist trinket market, we couldn't get enough of them. Luckily, there were many and they were enormous. The Saturday market in Chiang Mai probably encompassed 7 square blocks selling everything from various ready-to-eat insects to hand-carved wooden iPhone cases. All these markets have some percentage of crafts that are probably made in a factory in China, but you see those same fabrics and products so often that you develop an eye for what is unique and likely handmade. And of course, any market experience wouldn't be complete without a friendly haggling over price, which is always expected and a fun way to practice our language skills.
Turn down for Wat??!
The temples of Southeast Asia are really beyond description. From the ancient to the most opulent, they are nearly indescribable. Anyone who plans on spending time in SE Asia needs to have an appreciation for temples and shrines. These make the churches of Europe seem both few in number and modest in decor. Buddha statues are as plentiful as spires. Despite knowing very little about Asian architecture, the variety and beauty of the temples in Cambodia, Laos and Thailand continually awed us even as we grew weary of removing our shoes to enter every single shrine. Whether Hindu or Buddhist, literally every home, business, or property has a small shrine where daily offerings of fruit, rice or money are made. A simple, comforting reminder of the spirituality that permeates the varied cultures of Southeast Asia.
Although most temples we visited were relatively modern creations, the oldest ones we saw in Siem Reap were far and away the most magnificent. Of course we are talking about the temples of Angkor Wat. We spent 3 full days visiting the temples of Angkor Wat and didn't get sick of them. The highlights were the many carved faces of Bayon, the gigantic trees invading Ta Prohm Temple (where "Tomb Raider" was filmed) and of course the massive and most famous temple in the region: Angkor Wat. Oh and we were there the same day as Beyonce and Jay-Z!
Food! Yum, Yum, Yum.
Soups, curries, stir fries, bbq, smoothies! Just a few of the things we couldn't get enough of in the cuisine of Southeast Asia, which has to be among the most nuanced in the world. That's about as descriptive as I can get because we are not foodies, but we do seek out local and delicious food. We were not disappointed here. In an effort to learn (as we stuffed our faces), we took a street food tour in Chiang Mai, Thailand with a local food lover who walked us around the local food markets to introduce us to some things that would be hard for most tourists to spot.
The local food stalls really get fired up at night, when people come out to enjoy the cooler temps and mingle or just grab some chow on the way home from work. Whether it's an area where many food carts gather, or just a solo cook on a corner, each one specializes in one or two dishes. All the ingredients are there ready to go, with the searing hot wok frying them up. After you place your order, there are typically plastic tables and chairs set up. This experience can be intimidating and tricky for a vegetarian. You can't read the signs, so you can only point to ingredients and hope for the best. It almost always ends up delicious. While there is a lot of continuity in these cuisines, there were also many distinctive dishes and ingredients, such as padek, fermented fish paste, that was especially stinky in Laos and rendered an otherwise enjoyable raw papaya salad, inedible. Even in this instance, the colors, smells, and flavors of food in SE Asia kept us excited to try new things. For lots more pictures of some of the local food we tried in SE Asia and during our other travels, be sure to check out or food photos section of the blog!