Uh, it’s January 30th? 2014?!?!?! It feels like it was just the New Year a couple days ago! Maybe that’s because it’s the Lunar New Year tomorrow. Or maybe it’s because I’ve completely lost all sense of time and reality.
It has been a crazy month. We entered Thailand on December 30th, Malaysia on January 6th, spent two days in Singapore (January 19th and 20th), and then spent one day in all three of those countries, reversing our route. We are now back in Thailand. For a large portion of that time, we were joined by Cara, a friend we’d made a few weeks before in Cat Ba island. But she eventually got tired of our snarkiness…
and went back home to the States, and we’re back down to two. Here’s a more in-depth summary of the last month.
thailand, take one
We didn’t know what to do for New Year’s Eve. Our Vietnamese visa was set to expire on December 29th, and on Christmas day, we still didn’t know where we’d be exiting to. We had friends in both Thailand and Cambodia, but we were in southern Vietnam so overland to Cambodia was the most logical route. But, despite being trained as engineers, we aren’t always the most logical people, and we decided instead to stalk Cara in Thailand. Her #1 choice was to spend New Year’s Eve on Koh Phi Phi (KPP), one of Thailand’s famed party islands. So, on Dec 26th, we booked tickets to Bangkok for the 29th.
Fact: It’s really, really hard to find accommodation on a popular tourist destination for New Year’s Eve. Like I said, we’re not the most logical people. With both Cara and Matt searching for places to stay (remember: I’m only on this trip as dead weight), we weren’t coming up with any options that wouldn’t break the bank. A ferry operator to KPP even told Cara that we wouldn’t find anything and gave her information on the ferry back to Krabi on the mainland because he knew we weren’t going to find anything!
We took the ferry to KPP anyways, hoping that we would be able to ferret out somewhere to crash. It was looking bleak, and all the signs were pointing to us having to go back to Krabi and have a lame New Year’s Eve. Fortunately, Matt is an internet magician and somehow found an awesome experience for us: sleeping on the beach where they filmed the movie “The Beach”! We spent NYE swimming with bio-luminescent plankton and setting off “bombs” (aka firecrackers) with only the other 50ish people on our boat. Not a bad way to start the New Year!
Regrettably, once we returned to KPP proper (the main island is Koh Phi Phi Don), we realized that it was horribly overrun with bros. I’m talking about ex-frat boys still attempting to re-live their glory days. Not exactly our scene. I’ve never seen so many overly tanned and roided out dudes in tanks in my life. I actually saw a pack of 5 or 6 guys rocking the exact same Red Bull tank (don’t worry, I have two myself) walking through the streets. Seriously, bros? At least buy different ones!
After two nights in KPP, we couldn’t wait to get out and hopped on a ferry further south to Koh Lanta which we hoped would be much more chill and less bro-like. And it was. Because we were surrounded by little toddlers and their parents and strollers. Great.
It was also in Koh Lanta that we realized that Phu Quoc in Vietnam had spoiled us. There, we were on a pristine white sand beach with only a few other chill backpackers, and we spent several days there loving life. So, really, the southern Thai islands didn’t stand a chance. I never knew this was possible, but even Matt, a beach-lover, had grown tired of all the beach time. Also, after having spent a month simply surviving and roughing it in Vietnam, being surrounded by tourists was overwhelming and disorienting.
After two days in Koh Lanta, Cara raised an interesting prospect. We’re so close to Malaysia… why not go check it out? All of us had to exit and re-enter Thailand at some point for visa purposes anyways. And it couldn’t be any worse than hanging around with bros and strollers. So, we headed even further south, stopped and stayed at a “guest house” that was filled with the undead in Hat Yai, and then crossed into…
Matt and I didn’t really have any intention of visiting Malaysia on this trip, but thanks to our lack of a plan, when the opportunity arose, we took it. I didn’t really know what to expect; I know one person of Malaysian heritage, and I’ve eaten at a Malay place back in Denver. That was the extent of my “knowledge.”
It has turned out to be one of my favorite places that we’ve been to! My very first impression of Malaysia is how modern it is compared to the rest of Southeast Asia. My second impression was how friendly the locals are. And my third impression was of how amazing the food is.
We arrived in George Town on the island of Penang. It’s a cute little artsy town, and we ended up staying 6 nights because of how much we loved it. We explored a bit more around Penang and found it to have a healthy mix of new (20+ stories apartment buildings and many high-tech companies like Intel, Seagate, Agilent, etc.) and not-as-new (mosques and churches that go back to the late1800s).
The main reason we loved it was all of the amazing food we ate. Penang is known as the food capital of Malaysia, and it certainly did not disappoint. Malaysian cuisine is a mix of three major ethnic groups: Chinese, Indian, and Thai. And we consumed vast amounts of milk tea ices here (like Thai iced teas but better).
After George Town, we headed to the Cameron Highlands which is known for its massive tea plantations. We stayed at a not-yet-opened hostel, Westwood Highland, and hitchiked around the surrounding areas to see tea plantations and the like. It was a very scenic area filled with warm and friendly locals willing to give anyone a ride!
From the Cameron Highlands, we headed to Ipoh, also known for its food. Matt took the train to nearby city Kampar to play ultimate, and Cara and I drank our faces off for free at some bar we came across. I also won a bottle of Skyy vodka in a raffle I’d forgotten I’d entered. I refused to go accept the bottle for a while because I thought someone else had entered me. Whoops.
From Ipoh, we went to the capital city, Kuala Lumpur (KL) which is a massive, modern metropolis. There seemed to be gigantic malls everywhere. We checked out the Petronas Towers and some of the sights near the City Centre but were overall not impressed. The highlight and main reason we went to KL was to watch the Hindu festival and pilgrimage, Thaipusam, which featured a lot of extreme body-piercings. After KL, we headed to Melaka for a night. It is an old Dutch colony, and we managed to catch yet another night market (we seem to time it so that we see every city’s night market).
Since we now found ourselves at the southern end of Malaysia and had a few days to kill before our flight from KL to Bangkok, why not go check out….
Unlike Malaysia, I actually knew a little bit about Singapore. But what I’d heard wasn’t very thrilling. Everyone I know who has been there describes it as “just another big city” that is “super clean.” And with a lot of rules (the customs form for entry explicitly states in bold red letters: DEATH FOR DRUG TRAFFICKERS). I was able to confirm all of those observations.
Singapore is so vastly different than the rest of Southeast Asia that it’s almost worth seeing just to witness the contrast. The city is uber-clean and uber-modern (the most modern city I’ve been to besides Dubai), has great public transportation, excellent food (very similar to Malaysian) and a very polite and friendly populace. The biggest downside is that all of those things are reflected in the high cost of living; the exchange rate was 1.25 Singaporean dollars to 1 USD.
We crossed overland into Singapore and headed straight into the city. We found ourselves a hostel on Pagoda Street in the heart of Chinatown, and we had to fight through crowds of locals doing last-minute shopping for Chinese New Year to get in and out of it.
We met up with a couple of local ultimate players who took us to amazing food, but I agree that Singapore isn’t the most exciting place to be unless you’re really into big cities.
Singapore is notable, though, because of its culture. From the locals, we learned some interesting facts:
- There are two casinos on the island, both recently built. They are free to enter for foreigners, but locals who go are charged S$150! The government apparently doesn’t want its population to succumb to moral decay, but it’s perfectly alright, even encouraged, for visitors to partake. It seems as though much of the city is built for tourists and not the locals.
- Cars cost upwards of S$100,000! Even a simple Honda will cost exorbitantly more than it would in the US. Due to very limited space and too many cars already on the road, taxes and fees are imposed on all car purchases to discourage people from owning personal vehicles. There are still plenty of luxury cars racing from one stoplight to the next, though.
- Some of the Singaporeans we talked to expressed an interesting sentiment: they are so used to the safety of their little bubble that they find it very intimidating to travel elsewhere.
- Like Japanese people, Singaporeans hold themselves to a very high personal standard and are known for being very disciplined. At the Southeast Asian ultimate tournaments, it is unheard of to have local Japanese teams attend (but ex-pat teams will attend), and Singaporeans are known for not attending any of the tournament parties.
Not being big into cities, two days in Singapore was plenty for us. We took the first bus back to Kuala Lumpur and then hopped on a flight to Bangkok that evening. My friend from home, Thiti, picked us up and took us to his parents’ house in Bangkok where we stayed for several days. Cara flew back to China, where her journey had begun 4 months earlier, and eventually all the way home to Delaware or wherever she’s from. Matt and I have wandered to northern Thailand: Chiang Mai, Pai, and currently, Mae Hong Son. We will probably hang out in this area for a little while longer before the Bangkok hat tournament (Feb 8-9) and then exit the country.