Travel In Southeast Asia and discover wonders you never knew existed
To fellow Malaysians, the word “travel” may very likely conjure up romantic images of canals in Venice, and the white-washed glow of a Grecian summer. Truth be told, some of us are guilty in neglecting to remember that to travel is essentially to make a journey, irrespective of the distance separating us from our destination.
Mr. Frost once very wisely wrote: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I, I took the one less travelled by, and that has made all the difference.”
Perhaps in our haste to reach distant magical lands, we forget the magic under our very own noses, where a weekend getaway is all it takes. In the spirit of travel and wise American poets, we have shortlisted several gems within a stone’s throw, to sate your wanderlust.
Nature Lovers & Romantic Getaways
The best time to pack up for a getaway to tourist hotspots like Bali and Phuket would be off-peak March onwards, hindering any worries of tourist congestion. Immerse yourself in the best of Mother Nature on thousand-count sheets because luxury villas and boutique retreats would be available at their lowest rates at this time of the year. It is easy to imagine a romantic walk along quiet beaches with soft, warm sand after a private breakfast for two.
For nature buffs, the Philippines consists of more than 7,000 islands, ranging from paradise islands to towering volcanoes. Dip your toes into crystal waters, or snorkel and kayak amidst cinema-worthy limestone cliffs in El Nido. So abundant are the hot and cold springs, caves, waterfalls and literally blue lagoons that private, secluded spots are no longer the stuff of fantasy. The terrain is also perfect for rock-climbing.
The great white shark calls this archipelago home, as do the Philippine Tarsier, a mini-monkey which can sit on your palm comfortably. If the stars align, one may just be lucky enough to glimpse the glorious Philippines eagle soaring across the skies, or the pilandok (Balabac mouse-deer) of mythical folk-stories.
Sitting precariously on the volatile Ring of Fire, the Philippines is home to Mt. Pinatubo, a stunning specimen of a live volcano. Scaling it will reward you with a deceptively innocent view of a glass-surfaced lake, which is the resulting crater from the 1991 eruption, the second largest to have occurred last century.
Culture & History
Be Indiana Jones for a day on Camiguin, an island in the Philippines, uncovering glimmers of the past. Stories of Mt. Vulcan’s eruption two hundred years ago, which sunk the old Spanish settlement of Catarman lend an air of romance to the tiny island through an underwater cemetery and old church ruins.
Contrary to popular believe, the city of Angkor makes up more than just Angkor Wat. An ancient monument of a great civilization flourishing from the 9th to 15th centuries, the ruins of Angkor is the largest pre-industrial city in the world. Having been mostly shrouded by a dense forest since its downfall towards the end, it is now a majestic well-preserved archaeological site with easy access by just flying directly to Siem Reap. The site receives over a million visitors each year but the slow-down in travel this month makes the perfect time to admire magnificent feats of men without throngs of tourists.
Apart from the magnificent Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm is an atmospheric wonder, with hundred-year-old trees growing out of the ruins, while the curious Bayon Temple has hundreds of colossal stone faces looking out in all directions. To avoid throngs of tourists at Phnom Bakheng, Pre Rup is an alternative spot for sunset-watching.
An overlooked historical wonder nestled in the heart of Burmese ancient city of Bagan is the Bagan Archaeological Zone, widely seen by many to be equal to its more famous counterpart, Angkor Wat. Religious monuments aside, the availability of hot air balloon flights across Bagan also makes it one of the most spectacular views in Myanmar. Apart from the destination, the journey offers an adventure of its own as well. Fly from Kuala Lumpur to Yangon, and take an express sleeper train from Yangon to Mandalay and then Mandalay to Bagan. The countryside view, dotted by small villages, and the cool Northern breeze through open windows would have you believe that you were a character in a Somerset Maugham novel.
Any self-respecting foodie will agree that one has not travelled Southeast Asia well until one has developed a tolerance for street-food from all levels of cleanliness, spiciness and the number of legs the delicacy you are about to eat has. If you prefer to explore on foot, you can mostly escape soaking monsoon rains, since the first quarter of the year is mostly dry.
Here are some of the most quintessential delicacies, best enjoyed freshly off a hot grill or from a large soup pot, and of course, on a rickety plastic table or standing by a food-stand.
Enjoy Vietnam’s obsession with noodles with a steaming bowl of pho, flat rice noodles in flavourful oxtail or marrow bone broth. The noodle obsession is also predominant in Laos and Thailand, where tom yum, rice noodles in a sour lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves and galangal broth is rumoured to have healing properties. Spiciness varies, depending on region, and the South may veer towards tongue-scalding for those untrained to the rituals of spice. Some of the best street-food sources can be found at Nang Loeng in Bangkok, or Vạn Kiếp Street in Ho Chih Minh City.
While Cambodia’s savoury offerings may not make you sweat as much as her neighbours’, you may want to try chek arng, meaning grilled bananas. If you are brave of heart, take your pick between Khmer fried spiders, or balut, a hard-boiled fertilized duck-egg, popular in the Philippines.
Café Hunters & Trendy Hipsters
For those of whom caffeine pumps in their veins in the place of blood, Southeast Asia thrives on a newly sophisticated café culture at places like Medan or Pondok Indah Mall in Jakarta or all over island-nation Singapore. While Starbucks looms ubiquitous, smaller establishments – mostly start-ups – offer quaint experiences, where one can drink in locally-grown coffee and culture.
Pavement cafés are no longer solely a French experience, having migrated across the Mediterranean Sea and Indian Ocean to sprout along the streets of Old Saigon. While you sit on a patio with a classic Vietnamese drip coffee known as ca phe sua da (meaning “coffee, milk, ice”), in French-inspired café, L’Usine, it is easy to imagine a time when the city was under the influence of le français.
Northern Thailand is the birthplace of trendy Thai artisan coffee, Doi Chaang, and grows some of the best Arabica beans available. Talad Rod Fai (Train Night Market), attracts hipsters and café hunters alike, with a fantastic treasure trove of vintage collectables and coffee stands or cafés. In Bangkok, it is not unusual to find a café sitting comfortably within the premises of a cosmetic counter.
For coffee-lovers and all hipsters out there, the best way to learn a culture is through the way locals drink their coffee, the taste of locally-grown beans, and the murmur of a vintage flea market.
After all, travel is a state of mind. One need not cross the Atlantic to immerse oneself in some place new. Just cross a few borders where whole new worlds wait to be explored.
If you have recently stepped off the plateau of work-life into your blissful years of retirement, travel is likely the only thing you can invest hard-earned money in which will unfailingly yield returns. For the young and the restless, it will be an education you cannot earn by sitting in a classroom.
Malaysia Airlines offers daily direct flights to major cities in Southeast Asia.
Book now at malaysiaairlines.com to enjoy great deals.