Some thoughts on South East Asia


So our four months in South East Asia are up. At the end here is a very brief summary of the countries that I’ve visited.
Japan is by far the most impressive country because of its diligence, organization, technology, discipline, tradition and helpfulness towards visitors. Everything works. Malaysia has a higher standard of living than expected but Kuala Lumpur is rather a soulless metropolis and has adopted wholesale the western way of life. Outside KL it’s a different story and there are plenty of cultural activities to see as well as good beaches. The giant China has ugly cities except for Shanghai , high air pollution , clearly an experiment moving people from the country to cities leaving empty tower blocks and farming communities. How long will they be able to sustain their GDP growth with such high borrowing? Hong Kong is exciting , expensive and unique. Macau was interesting to visit with some nice architecture. Myanmar was the least developed country and had much decay of buildings, roads and pavements. Yangon was exciting, Began was a tourist hub with wonderful temples and Mandalay was depressing. Vietnam was a great country to visit but we were surprised at the mass tourism. Home stay was a good experience in Hou An.
The food everywhere was great and cheap with the exception of Japan and Hong Kong. Street food was wonderful and gave us an opportunity to meet people, both locals and travellers. With the exception of Hong Kong we had good clean accommodation normally in the centre of town where everything happened. We never felt threatened safety wise except for Beijing.
The following costs are for two people per day sharing a room with food and internal transport etc; It excludes air fares.
Langkawi Malaysia $70
China $115
Japan $140
Myanmar $56
Vietnam (excludes Halon Bay cruise ) $65

So its next stop San Francisco.

Week 13-14 Vietnam

On our first day in Hanoi I had to sort out some banking problems. The place is frantic, with thousands of motor bikes keeping up an incessant roar. Myanmar was bad but this currency drove me crazy. 1 Rand =1600 dong, 1 US $ = 23000 dong. One draws 10 million dongs from an ATM which is equivalent to $43. We went to the Hanoi Hilton , a prison museum where political prisoners were kept by the French and the Vietnamese kept American air force pilots prisoner including Senator John McCain. Ho Chi Minh mausoleum was closed when we visited as was the War Museum for lunch but we managed to sneak around and look at the shot down aeroplanes and bombs. In the evening the area around the lake was turned into a traffic free zone and the people came out in droves to make the most of it. There was dancing , singing, children’s games, skipping and a nice festival atmosphere.
We went to the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum but it was closed,and then on to the war museum which was also closed for lunch but we managed to get round to see the US shot down planes. In the evening the area around the lake was turned into a traffic free zone and the people came out in their thousands. There was dancing , singing, children’s’ games, skipping and a nice festive atmosphere.
We transferred by bus to Halong Bay for a two night cruise. This is a luxury cruise ship with cabins and good food. But the number of boats and the mass of people is quite off putting. We stopped at a beach and climbed up to a view point but the whole thing was a farce with hundreds of Chinese jostling, shouting and taking selfies.
Woke up next morning to a wild scene ,rain and mist but this seemed somehow to enhance the beauty. Halong Bay is a range of karst limestone mountains rising sheer out of the sea in spectacular fashion. We sailed to a floating fishing village, people living on floating platforms and boats in not much more than subsistence level. We then moved on to a cave. I wonder if there are any unspoiled places in the world to visit which haven’t been ruined by tourism. The number of cruise boats and the frantic building of hotels is frightening.. How will this area cope environmentally in the future.
We transferred to Cat Ba Island by speed boat and did some hiking in the area. We met travellers a bunch of travellers of all ages and nationalities. Cac Bar is a nice place, cheap with good food. There is a rash of developments of hotels, most of them seem to be tall, narrow buildings, like China and others they have no sense of aesthetics unlike the Japanese. But where will all the tourists come from, what experiences are they after?
Our hike across the island was tough, up and down rock faces and Carol took strain and a couple of falls and ended up on the back of a scooter.
Time was up for Cac Bar and we made our way back to Hanoi by bus , ferry and another bus. By now the weather was cold and we hadn’t packed warm clothing so keeping warm became a priority.
I enjoy the Vietnamese people much more than the Burmese. They are open , friendly and happy. How resourceful they are after all their woes. Again we heard the refrain of Government control and corruption. It doesn’t matter what system there is it’s the same story.
Travellers never cease to amaze me, to the Polish couple hitch hiking around South East Asia, to the Americans who grabbed a week off to come to Vietnam when they found a really good flight offer.
I would nt like to drive in Vietnam. On the highway they overtake on the inside or outside nd cruise on the outside. In the city it’s chaos, the motor bikes just do what they want, take to the pavements, run red lights , go down the wrong way down the street.
Hou An is a small town midway down the country with quant and historic houses, but its become a tourist haven with the usual mixture of hotels, restaurants , travel agents , coffee houses and anything connected with taking a dollar off the tourist. Nevertheless we enjoyed the experience cycling into town and later taking a tripdown the coconut plantation in a coracle and mixing with the locxals.In pouring rain we went to the market and bought ingredients and cooked spring rolls and fish. We stayed at a home stay, a very pleasant experience with friendly accommodating hosts, it gave us the opportunity to talk to them and find out some of the challenges of living in Vietnam and its history. Ho Chi Minh City ( Saigon ) is a busy city with horrendous traffic and lots to see and do. Its famously full of scooters and motor bikes and they think nothing of taking to the pavements en masse. Crossing the road is a challenge and needs a cool head and nerves of steel. We bumped into the first South Africans we had seen after 3 months We visited the Reunification Palace, the old Presidential Palace, complete with sumptuous furnishings , banqueting halls, bedrooms, and underground bunkers.
We’ve spent time in prisons ,museums ,Vietcong tunnels and seen horrific images of the war. War is senseless, barbaric and affects the innocent and the politicians who instigate it all get away Scott free.

Week 11-12 Myanmar

We transferred to Myanmar by Air Asia via Bangkok . People watching in the airport was entertaining. There was a group of 50 women who must be on the ugly, noisy women’s day out. Also I was fascinated by how locals can sit cross legged for hours . The joys of budget airlines, jammed into a seat designed for a Japanese dwarf, paying more for a bag than the actual ticket itself , surly flight attendants and paying for a blanket .I’m sure that Charles and Camilla don’t have to put up with these indignities. But there’s no doubt budget airlines have changed the face of flying forever, now middle class Asians including the Chinese are able to fly at will.
Our first impressions of Yangon were that it is more sophisticated than we expected, the cars are all right hand drive but they drive on the right, men and women wear sarongs, women wear ochre on their faces, there are lots of run down beautiful colonial buildings, barefoot monks walking the streets, people eating at street cafes, poor living quarters but a vibrant community where anything is available.
In the evening we visited the Shwedagon Pagoda which is an enormous complex with a central gold leafed dome. As the evening drew on the pagoda glowed from the lights and we squatted with the crowd and took it all in. It was quite a moving experience, people buy flowers and offer them and pray . It seems to me that this is a common theme for all religions to remain humble.
We had dinner on 19th street , a noisy active crowded area but well organised and delicious food.. Yangon is a kaleidoscope of people , smells ,colour ,people selling everything, men using old typewriters, crowded internet cafes . But everything is run down, the pavements are a nightmare to traverse with holes , open drains , polluted rivers ,litter and everything is run down including the railway station and the trains.
We took a 10hour leisurely bus ride to Bagan through lush countryside. This town has become a tourist haven and is the usual mixture of souvenir shops, hotels, restaurants, scooter and bike hire, travel agents , convenience stores with no prices and with a taste of rip off and greed., but its brought much needed income to the country.
We took a tour with a horse and cart at a slow clip clop pace and visited 5 temples but by lunch time we were wilting in the heat. This is on the lines of Ankor Wat with hundreds of temples scattered around the countryside. The next day we hired bicycles and rode around following a map and visited the more remote temples a bit off the beaten track. This was really nice as often we were the only guys on the road.. Many of the temples have frescoes and an inner four sided corridor with a Buddha on each side. Most date from the 12th century. We climbed up the steep steps of a temple and perched precariously on a ledge with a good view around. Climbing down was quite scary, I went down backwards, like descending a ladder.
We took the ferry from Began to Mandalay, a 10 hour trip along the Irrawaddy River. We saw dawn break , hot air balloons flying over Began and had breakfast and lunch on deck and passed through a lovely approach to Mandalay with temples on the hills.
Mandalay has little to commend it, roaring traffic and pollution, thoroughly dangerous pavements and people who see you as a money target, . We walked a long way to Mandalay Palace, paid a lot of money for a run down ,unkempt shabby palace in the middle of an army camp. The city redeemed itself a little after we visited three more temples .The following day we hired a taxi for half a dayand visited more temples, went up Mandalay hill and a gold leaf plant before tottering along the pavements home. This is the least attractive city we have visited.

Week 9-11 Malaysia


We spent a week in Kuala Lumpur , mainly chilling out and in my case getting a new pair of spectacles, eating and watching the torrential rain storms flooding the river on the golf course. We visited Batu Caves , a Hindu shrine achieved by climbing up a long flight of stairs to the cave. The shrine itself is more like a building site but the cave was very impressive.

Then we took an interminable train ride in a vibrating freezing cold train ride to Langkawi past thousands of palm trees. We took a taxi and ferry ride to our hotel which was right on the beach. The situation is rather idyllic , a long sandy beach, palm trees , hot humid weather ; a dreamy location. We spent the day lounging about bemoaning the fact that we don’t have Japanese service anymore.

KL is a mixed area , Malaysian, Indian and Chinese but Langkawi is predominantly Moslem and it’s sad to see the women dressed as unattractively as possible and their shy , off hand and rather abrupt manner of serving in the shops.

The attitude towards alcohol is quite puzzling. In KL one can buy anywhere , in Langkawi alcohol is available in some shops and restaurants but very expensive. In some restaurants they will allow you to take in alcohol. Then we discovered a duty free shop where foreigners , by showing passports ,can buy alcohol at greatly reduced prices. Locals can also buy but must show their I D cards but are rationed to for example 72 beers a month. Duty free shops are only available in Langkawi and things like coffee and biscuits are much cheaper.

I took a boat trip to three islands, one attractive inland lake and the feeding of eagles. Cenang comes alive at night, lots of restaurants, shops and everything busy, busy. We’ve enjoyed eating at the local places, good food and much cheaper. But Malaysia is a big contrast to Japan, the people are easy going, sometimes the service is done without a smile and nothing is finished off properly.

We took another freezing cold ferry ride to Penang in a rather dilapidated ferry. It got a bit rough out to sea and one of the passengers put his life jacket on because he thought his last day had come.

During the afternoon and night it threw it down and the next morning we awoke to a flooded hotel lobby and a city awash. This was the first time that the city had flooded in 15 years. Penang city is a fascinating place, a mixture of Buddhist , Chinese and Indian culture with old rundown chop houses ,restaurants ,temples, all looking poorly maintained but with a unique attraction. Some properties have been done up and are quite up market .Street eating is the order of the day with great food and a chance to meet other travellers.

By absolute luck Prince Charles and Camilla were visiting a puppet theatre next door to our hotel. They arrived in splendour and Carol shook Camilla’s hand and welcomed her to Penang.