Just because you’re on the couch doesn’t mean you can’t travel
Use either the map above or the stories below to follow Couchfish as we travel through Southeast Asia on a fantasy trip though the region.
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Squatting like a bling-coated Soyuz on the Chao Phraya’s west bank, Wat Arun basks in late light. Gazing across the river while waiting for a cross-river ferry to get there, through the shimmering humidity and express boat exhaust, it delights me. Up close, the broken ceramics embellishing the surface reflect the clouds and blue sky. Just magnificent.
I think I first became terrified of macaques when I was in Pushkar, India. I was staying in a shack on the roof of a building and woke to hear someone trying to get into my room. My doors had no lock, instead held closed by a chain I had looped through the handles.
If it wasn’t for the macaques (a mammalian version of pigeons), I’d stay another night in Lopburi. Instead, I’m heading to Wat Phra Phutthabat, the “Temple of the Buddha’s Footprint”, then grabbing a train north.
When travellers think of ancient Thai ruins, Ayutthaya and Sukhothai are likely foremost in their minds. Both are outstanding sites worthy of an itinerary, but another merits inclusion: Kamphaeng Phet.
The last few days have been heavy on temples and ruins ... and food. Luckily, Thailand has plenty more to offer. Today I’m breaking out for a slice of nature—to Khlong Lan National Park.
Route 1090 runs south from Mae Sot to the isolated, mostly Karen, town of Umphang. The name “Death Highway” dates back to the 1980s. At that time, opium cultivation—and the security issues that come with it—was common. Opium is still grown in Tak province, but thanks to crop substitution work, has been reduced by some 80%. The days of seeing mountain ridges shimmering with poppy fields are gone.
After yesterday’s weather blow out today it feels great to wake to crystal skies. I’ve a busy day—an early ride to “Thailand’s Niagara Falls”, Kaeng Sopha (map link)—then back to Phitsanulok for a train north.
As mentioned yesterday, Bamboo Hut has the coldest showers on Earth. The night in my A-frame is just as freezing, so my morning coffee, enjoyed while admiring the outlook from the guesthouse, is more than welcome.
Close readers will have noticed I’ve spent more time in Nan than any other province so far on this trip. Why? Because Nan rocks. Not only is the countryside beautiful, but the people are super friendly and the food is great. I’ll be touching on all three of these in today’s final post on the province.
Thirty days goes fast. My Thai visa–free stay runs out today, so I’m heading north into Laos. I’d planned to go to Pakbeng (map link), then take the slow boat to Huay Xai, but my plans are a bit up in the air at this stage. Let’s see how things shake out.
While Udomxai is not a sightseeing hotspot, it does make for a convenient base. Today I’m heading east to an “ecotourism” resort and then onwards to Muang La for a soak.
Lao bus timetables are a bit like Indonesian boat timetables. The hour-age you see on the timetable board (if one exists) is an inexact science. The bus could break down. A landslide could block the road. You might hit a cow. There are no shortage of permutations—believe me.
In a country as mountainous as Laos, the rivers are the true highways. Often faster and more comfortable than the roads, for years they were a terrific way to get around. Then they started damming them—including the Nam Ou.
After the strenuous walking of the previous day, we sleep well. The day had finished off with a meal before we slept in a custom–built wooden house a five-minute walk from the village.
In a case of saving the best to last, I get up early—real early—for a bicycle ride to Ban Siliheuang. While most of yesterday’s villages were all handicrafts, I am here for something dear to me: Noodles.
Big things often start small, and the Gibbon Experience is a great example. Trekking in what was then the Bokeo Nature Reserve in the mid-1990s, Frenchman Jef Reumaux spotted some black–crested gibbons, and snapped some photos of them.
Travelling in Southeast Asia, I’ve gotten used to the sounds of dawn. The sweeping, cocks, dogs, splashing water of a bucket shower. The scooters. Then I wake, 30m high in the canopy of Nam Kan National Park and all I can hear are gibbons. Ok and perhaps my co–travellers snoring.
Anyone who knows me knows I’m not a particularly loud speaker. I’m not a whisperer, but unless I’m really off on a rant (as has been known to happen on occasion), even if you’re at the next table you’ll struggle in your eavesdropping efforts.
I wake in the early hours to an enormous clap of thunder and the heavens open. The rain pours like only monsoon rains can. Impossible to sleep, I drag the sole chair in my room to the window and fling it open. The power is out but no matter, the lightning illuminates plenty enough. The rain so heavy, it’s like a waterfall, it runs off the roof, inches from my hand, quickly flooding the street below.
The previous evening I relax in a small cafe near the Nam Kham and get chatting to a Thai American couple. She’s from San Diego, he from Chumphon in Thailand’s south and it is their first time to Luang Prabang. I invite them to join me for a ride on the wild side—to explore Chompet—and they accept.
On the ride the previous day, Heather, her partner Poon (“not Porn!” he said with a laugh when introduced), and I, got chatting about Lao history. They’re both about my age yet know almost nothing about Laos’ wartime past. I suggest we meet up the next day to visit the UXO Lao Visitor Centre—they accept.
Heather opts for a cooking class at long–running (and excellent) Tamarind. Poon and I meanwhile rent scooters to explore. The plan is to reconnect in the early afternoon. Insert quip here about the best laid plans etc etc.
It is far easier to rise early than sleep in in Luang Prabang and today is no different. I could though, have done with a few less lao–lao the previous day and evening, seeing off Heather and Poon. Ouch.
I’ll be upfront and say the trip mentioned in the title of this story, like a number of boat trips in Laos, is no longer possible. So why write about something that is no longer practical to do? I guess, in part as this is a fantasy itinerary, I write about it because I wish we could all still do it. Who doesn’t like a bit of couch-dreaming?
As with just about everywhere in Laos, in Nong Kiaow (map link) is pays to rise early—even if the water in my shower is like ice. Still shivering, I stroll through the maze of cheap guesthouses and settle in on the deck at Ban Lao Sunset.
Another day, another breakfast on the deck at Ban Lao Sunset in Nong Kiaow. I’ve decided to stay another day and am weighing up my options, when a Canadian couple ask to join me.
Another day another boat ride—or so it seems in northern Laos anyways. I grab the morning public boat from Nong Kiaow to Muang Ngoi and it is, for reasons unknown, jammed with locals. Jammed. A couple of hours later I uncurl my body and head to Nicksa’s.
Today and most of tomorrow are going to be travel days as I make my way to Phonsavan and the Plain of Jars. Laos: It may be small, but the going can be slow.
My bus to Phonsavan leaves (in theory) at 8am so I grab a quick khao ji pate and head to the bus station. The trip is around 270 kilometres in total, but will take at least eight hours. As I wrote yesterday, Laos may be small, but the going is slow.
From Muang Ngoi it has taken me the best part of two days to reach Phonsavan. Has it been worth the effort to reach a town best known for being obliterated by US bombing? Yes. Why? The Plain of Jars.
I’ll never forget the first time I visited Tuol Sleng in Phnom Penh. There is just something about its understated presentation that makes it so haunting. So it is with UXO in Laos. The visitor centres are unassuming yet somehow make the reality all the more compelling.
After all the riding yesterday I end up at Cranky T’s. The cafe/bar is Phonsavan’s best nightlife option—or the best karaoke–free one anyway. It attracts what few travellers are in town on any given evening, so is a good spot to meet others.
After our dirt–throwing efforts of the previous evening, the four of us arrange to meet early at the bus station. There’s a nine am departure, but the other’s guesthouse owner said there was an earlier bus, so we meet at 6 am. There isn’t an earlier bus.
After the bus ride yesterday, the four of us start late. The guesthouse we got dropped at from the bus station was not fantastic—running water daytime only is not a feature I often recommend. So walking around and finding somewhere different to stay at midnight in Sam Neua earned us all a sleep–in.
We’re in Ban Son Khoua to embark on an overnight trip into Laos’ largest protected area, the Nam Et–Phou Louey. Encompassing over 400,000 hectares, it straddles three provinces, along with the Nam Et river and Laos’ third tallest peak, Phou Louey.
After filling out our Night Safari wildlife checklist, the four of us jump back onto the bikes and ride off. We need to make fast time as we want to get to Sam Neua, dump our bags and continue on to Vieng Xai.
After the Vieng Xai caves the four of us ride back to Sam Neua to arrange transport to Hanoi. The Namsoi Nameo crossing is notorious for scams and rip offs so we ask around. A bus guy we meet in a restaurant—always a bad sign—is insistent he can do us a through bus.
After the previous two days (or was it two years?) the four of us roll into Hanoi’s central train station in the early hours. People say travelling together can be a test of a relationship and it is clear none of us are marriage material.
Staying in Hanoi’s Old Quarter has always struck me as a bit of a double–edged sword. The area can be great for a wander, and there is plenty of beautiful architecture. It is also though, more often than not, jammed with tourists. This latter aspect reflects onto the food, and I tend to stray further to eat.
Hanoi is no slouch when it comes to museums. I could spend a week in the city, see a different one every day, and still have another week’s worth up my sleeve.
Dotted across the country are totems to Vietnam’s revered leader Ho Chi Minh. Museums deifying the man sit in provincial capitals. Statues of him are in almost every Vietnamese city. Framed pictures of him, everywhere.
After breakfast I go for a walk in the valley—I head in a different direction and it is as pretty as yesterday. I could spend hours doing this but I’m procrastinating—I have work to do.
I linger in Son La—it is a straightforward ride from here to Dien Bien Phu and I’ve been told the road is in good condition. Plus, I’m hoping for the weather to clear. Yes, it is raining. Again.
The weather is moody and cold as I ride out of Muong Lay headed for Sin Ho. The bright blue skies replaced by thick rain clouds and plenty of mist. It is cold and the wind cuts through my many layers effortlessly. At least it isn’t snowing.
I’ve a long day of riding planned for today, so I’m down to the foyer early. The manager who showed me around the previous evening is there and again, he’s on about trying dog. I’ve eaten it before, don’t plan to again, and certainly not for breakfast, yet he continues to suggest it.
Sapa. Sitting on a ridge in the shadow of Fansipan, Vietnam’s tallest peak. I’m sure you’ve seen the photos of the valley and the mountains beyond. Terraced fields, harvest underway, and, decorative lattes with them in the background.
It is fair to say my initial impressions of Sapa are not great. As I mentioned yesterday, the outlook is terrific, but the town is a dump. Yet people I know wax lyrical about it—what am I doing wrong?
Around 100km to the east of Sapa lies Bắc Hà. It is mountain village that over the last few decades has been popularised as a “Sapa–alternative”. Today it has a morning market, so I brave the cold and am on the bike at 5:30 am. At least it isn’t raining.
Arriving so late due to my flat tire, the market at Bắc Hà is a blow out. Riding into town there are minivans everywhere and throngs of people. I know I’m here too late even before I park the bike.
I’m leaving Sapa this morning and it could be hailing stones the size of watermelons, and it wouldn’t stop me bailing. As luck would have it, it is only pouring as I jump on the bike for the ride back over Fansipan’s northern shoulder to Mù Cang Chải.
With more time I could idle in and around Mù Cang Chải—it is that beautiful. The owner at Do Gu Homestay took some of the group on a guided walk yesterday and they rave about it. He offers the same to me. I’m tempted, but I need to get back to Hanoi so settle for a morning wander by myself.
Even if my hotel in Tân Sơn wasn’t a dump, I’d be bailing early. Hanoi is on the horizon and I’m keen to be off the bike. Food, a real shower and a comfortable bed are all that are on my mind as I start the bike up for the final time.
Over the last eighteen days Couchfish has been all about the Dien Bien Phu Loop in northwest Vietnam. This loop was one of the most popular bike trips to do in the country through the 1990’s and 2000’s. More recently it has been eclipsed by the Ha Giang Loop in the country’s far north. It is still well worth doing and I hope you’ve found the last 18 days of travel interesting.
My plans change and I decide to linger in Hanoi for another couple of days. It is an easy decision to make as Hanoi is perfect for lingering, though for my first day of it I’m heading out of town. Where to? To a highlight for many domestic visitors to Hanoi: The Perfume Pagoda.
I woke up at 2am this morning (in real life, not in Couchfish), freaking out. I’d forgotten about my Visa! You’d think after the experience of the worst day of travel ever, I’d have had visa rules front and foremost in my mind. I didn’t.
It feels like a lifetime ago that I arrived at Ga Hanoi after the epically bad overland trip from Laos. In fact it has been less than four weeks—time flies when you’re having fun.
A persistent stereotype about Vietnam is that itA persistent stereotype about Vietnam is that it’s hot year round. The quip, “There’s two seasons in Vietnam: hot and hotter” applies only to the south. I’m delighted when beachwear-clad tourists arrive into Hà Nội airport in January. No doubt they spend their first day panic shopping for knock-off North Face gear that is too small and reeks of plastic.
After an incredible trek into Hang Én, the rest of my week in Phong Nha is a whirlwind of cave after cave after cave. Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park joins my list of favourite places in Vietnam, but I’m ready for a change in scenery.
I’m fascinated by remote frontiers and borders. The stranger, the dodgier, the better. This makes me an ideal writer for Travelfish, who love sending me on missions into the hinterland. I’m excited because borderlands are on today’s horizon. First though, battlegrounds.
I was planning on heading south to Huế today, but a last minute change in plans has me retracing Cindy’s steps west. From Đông Hà, I’m going to head back to the border at Lao Bảo, then continue west to Savannakhet on the Mekong River.
Savannakhet has long been one of my favourite towns in Laos. Over the years a number of Travelfish writers have written about there, and felt the same way. Yes it has a charming old town and the riverside is lovely, but there isn’t otherwise all that much to “do”. Perhaps that is why we all love it.
To be honest, it feels like one hundred years since I started the daily entries for Couchfish. This being the one hundredth I thought I’d look back to highlight some of the entries I’m happy with.
I grab a bus first thing south to Pakse, getting into town just in time for lunch. Pakse is the hub of far southern Laos and most travellers find themselves here at one time or another. Luckily it is a pleasant enough spot for a night or two.
After the past few days of few to no travellers, meeting up with the Europeans by the river at Pakse last night is welcome. We linger by the river well past sunset. The beers flow and the food keeps coming as we swap tales—they’re good people and we hit if off. Around 11 pm the ever–patient vendors tell us to go home in the nicest possible way. We straggle off to our different digs across town and arrange to meet the next day at nine.
Mr Vieng kicks us out of bed earlier than any of us expect for a visit to his coffee plantation. He tells us the light is softer in the morning, so our photos will be better, and it won’t be too hot. None of us convinced, his scalding hot coffee helps a little.
We make a lazy start as our destination, Salavan, the provincial capital, is just 30 km up the road. Tad Lo is ideal for lazing and we lounge around the guesthouse foyer and garden as the sun slowly rises.
I wrote yesterday that points of interest in Salavan town are few and far between, though that isn’t true. It does have an excellent morning market and it is there we start the day.
We finish the previous evening at Phanthip Restaurant in Sekong. The food is typical, but they have a load of tourist information on site, including a booklet and a map on the wall. Think “The Beach” style map.
After yesterday’s blow out trying to get a boat upriver to Kalum, we write off the day and just laze around Sekong. Laundry day! There are a couple of falls a little of the south of town but we decide to leave them till, well, today.
After the toin coss, we ride in silence, reaching the edge of Attapeu around dusk. The German guys pull over and, ignoring the French, tell me they’ll find their own hotel. They suggest meeting at the market the next morning. We part ways.
Somewhat bleary–eyed, the French and I gather at a nearby noodle shop for a bowl and coffee. We’ve seen no sign of the Germans, and so while last evening we laughed about just riding off, now reality is sinking in.
The conversation with the bike hire guy is stilted. The French had a story ready but they hadn’t anticipated a situation where the Germans had not returned at all. The bike hire guy isn’t fussed, he still has one of the German’s passports after all, and bids us farewell. We agree to debrief in the morning.
Wat Phu lies ten kilometres southwest of Champasak—a pleasant early morning bicycle ride away. I leave the town behind and ride through the fields, pulling up about thirty minutes later.
For a land–locked nation, Laos is none too shabby when it comes to islands. The best known are Si Phan Don, the so–called 4,000 islands, but there are others. One, Don Daeng, sits straight across the river from Champasak.
When the Lao Cambodia border first opened to foreign tourists, it was done by speedboat. A beautiful trip, it also rivalled the Koh Kong crossing to Thailand for its scams and rip
Leaving my new Polish friends behind, I grab a morning minibus east to Banlung. The capital of Ratanakiri province, this is an area once referred to as “Cambodia’s Wild East.” Logging, much of it illegal, has devastated what was once one of the most forested regions of Cambodia.
After a lazy afternoon at the crater lake, I decide to get a bit more active. Through my guesthouse, I arrange for a moto to take me to Voen Sai, a village on the San River 30 kilometres to the north. The town itself is a good riverside spot, though the main attraction is elsewhere. Before we get going, the staffer at Tree Top Eco-lodge warns that the road is not very good.
After spending eleven hours on goat tracks by motorbike, today I resist the temptation to lay in bed and cry. I am though going to take things easy. A late start then a waterfall.
I grab an early morning van from Sen Monorom, taking me west, back to the Mekong and then north to Kratie. A somewhat charming town, it has long been on the traveller circuit thanks to its dolphins.
As with Don Khong and Don Daeng in Laos, Kratie’s Koh Trong offers the chance for a bit of a rural escape. Some visit on a half–day trip, while others overnight—some staying far longer than planned.
Thanks to the rice wine of the previous evening, today starts slow and sluggish. I limp back across the river to Kratie, grab a seat in a van from the market, and sleep it off on the way to Kompong Cham.
I hope the merit earned throwing temple soil into the Mekong yesterday will play out well today, as I’m out on the water. A river trip south to Cambodia’s largest wooden temple, Wat Maha Leap.
Oedipus is a common theme in Kompong Cham. The other day I had my fortune told by a parakeet at a site involving a tale of son marrying mum, and here again it is the case at Wat Nokor Bachay. I guess they needed Facebook back then.
There’s no Southeast Asian city that has a larger place in my heart than Phnom Penh. Over time it has played home to my highest highs and lowest lows—etched into who I have become. The city punches well above its weight for a place I only lived in for two years, and have visited a dozen or so times beside. But that’s Phnom Penh for you.
When you’re wedged between Thailand and Vietnam, home to two of Southeast Asia’s finest cuisines, the challenge is real. There are no shortage of stories on street food walks focussed on Thai and Vietnamese fare, Khmer? Not so much. Why not?
Phnom Penh, like Hanoi, Yangon and Bangkok has its fair share of dilapidated quarters. Walk a bit and you may find a weary pagoda, a colonial vestige, or a tumbledown merchants’ warehouse. Peeling plaster, tree roots on the downpipes, window frames swollen from the seasons.
When we were living in Phnom Penh, Sam was the bureau chief at an international wire agency. One day she sent a twenty–something university–educated colleague to Tuol Sleng for a story.
I’m a big fan of trying to doing a single activity a day—at a stretch two—one in the morning and one in the afternoon. This is partly because it gives me more time to linger, but also because helps me deal with the heat.
Over the years I’ve had a few perfect days in Phnom Penh and today I’m pulling these into a single semi–cohesive piece. I wouldn’t recommend attempting to do all this in a day, but, well, Couchfish is a fantasy itinerary!
I wrote yesterday how Phnom Penh’s Olympic Stadium is a reminder of the heady days before the fall. After a run to the coast in a share–taxi, in seaside Kep—most famous for its fresh crab—the reminders are everywhere.
The first time I headed overseas, all the talk at the travel doctor was about malaria. There were daily, weekly and monthly pills to consider, and of course a chunk of dosh. In all my travels I could count on one hand the number of travellers I
Readers may recall a piece I wrote in July about when we offered our daughter as a bribe to an immigration officer. No? You can read it here. At the time we were on our way to Kep for a wedding, and while the wedding was the main reason, close behind was the fresh crab.
As I wrote the other day, Kep, a pimple on Cambodia’s coastline is famous for its crab. The Kep Crab Market is the epicentre of the scene, but good crab is to be had right along the coast.
When the colonialists had their eye on Kep, Bokor, seen with ease from Kep’s coastline likewise had their attention. Modelled on a similar hill station in Da Lat, Vietnam, plans for construction began in 1916.
I’ve always thought of Kampot as a bit of a “Battambang by the sea” kind of a place. It has a similar feel—quiet streets, small town, and plenty of beautiful period buildings. Between Kampot and Battambang I’d struggle to pick a town in Cambodia I like more.
The best thing about Sihanoukville is leaving it and so on the morning boat to Koh Rong I am on. The largest of the cluster of islands out from the grimy port town, Koh Rong boasts the best beaches and a wild unspoilt interior. Or so the prevailing writing suggests.
As I mentioned the other day, Koh Rong is no slouch when it comes to beaches. A couple, notably Police Beach and Long Set are easily reached on foot from Koh Toch, but for the rest, a scooter helps.
In yesterday’s post I wrote about some of Koh Rong’s east coast beaches that are within walking distance of Koh Toch. Today, with the help of a scooter, I explore further afield.
The midday boat from Koh Rong to Koh Rong Samloem is eventful. I’m always one to ride on the highest deck possible in case the boat sinks and I clamour onto the upper deck as we pull out. I’m shortly joined by a half dozen pasted guys.
After my eventful ferry trip from Koh Rong, I walk the entire length of Saracen Bay to get to my hotel. The primary piers on Saracen are at the far ends of the bay, and of course my hotel is at the other end of the beach. On the upside I get a look at the entire beach on my way there.
As I wrote the other day when I visited Military Beach, I prefer quieter, more isolated beaches. Two other such stretches are the aptly named Lazy and Sunset beaches on the Koh Rong Samloem’s west coast.
As readers who’ve been onboard Couchfish since the beginning will know, Southeast Asia is big. In 150 days I’ve covered a bit of Thailand, a significant chunk of Laos, a third of Vietnam and the east bank of Cambodia. There is still plenty of ground to cover.
A morning bus takes me from Hà Tiên to Rạch Giá, both the provincial capital and the most popular spot for boats to the islands. The town itself isn’t rich in sights of interest, but sometimes it is the people you meet that make a place memorable.
Dave, Lauren and I bid Rạch Giá farewell and start riding southeast on Route QL61. The town drops away, and when we turn south onto QL63, we’re back into classic Delta territory.
I’m not one for geographical oddities. I’ve never stood on the equator nor travelled to the N/S/E/W extremity of a country—at least not intentionally. There’s always a first time for everything I guess.
After yesterday’s trip to Vietnam’s southernmost point, we get started late. There is no shortage of riverfront in Cà Mau so I start with a walk along there to stretch my legs, but then we get moving.
It is a straight run northeast to Sóc Trăng, and at only about 50 km away we could linger in Bạc Liêu, but, there is little to linger for. Sóc Trăng on the other hand, has a few linger–worthy spots.
Trà Vinh has a tourist office of sorts. Well it is a travel agent with a few brochures. I wander in to see if I can find some unsung secrets of the province.
When travellers to Vietnam decide to swing by the Mekong Delta, many hit Mỹ Tho, Can Tho or, at a stretch, Châu Đốc. There are a few reasons for this—but two of the big ones are lack of time and super–cheap tours ex–Ho Chi Minh City.
Vietnam’s Mekong Delta is awash in floating markets. Some, like those around Can Tho are well established on the tourist radar, others less so. In the past, tourism was a sideline to the main deal—local traders. With growing urbanisation, proliferation of supermarkets and, better roads, this is changing.
I was planning on heading to Can Tho today, but I forgot how much good eating Vĩnh Long itself has. Best laid plans and all that. I check out of my homestay on An Binh and head back to the mainland for a day of eating and minor sightseeing.
As I wrote the other day, the Mekong Delta’s floating markets are at risk of fading, or should I say floating, away. Tourism could provide a lifeline, or should I say lifering, but how to do it right?
Every man and his dog in Can Tho will sell you a boat tour to Cai Rang floating market. In my experience though, the best way is to do it yourself. The only challenge is getting up early enough.
So where was I? That’s right, finishing up a float through Cai Rang market. This is though, only the first half of a most of the day float—by the end of the day I’ll be sun–kissed and stuffed. Here’s how.
It is about 200 km from Can Tho to Ho Chi Minh City, and Lauren, Dave and I decide to blow off M? Tho and hit the big smoke. We ask the hotel manager in Can Tho how long to ride to Saigon.
I first arrived in Ho Chi Minh City by train from the north in 1994. By then, I’d been in Vietnam two months and was well acquainted with large Vietnamese cities. Ho Chi Minh City however, took it to a whole new level.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about “Single Serving Friends,” about people you meet who you hit it off with, but never see again. When you travel for a living, you may encounter this more often than others. The night in Ho Chi Minh City mentioned in that post, fits in well today.
Ho Chi Minh City is a great walking city—even if the pavements are often scooter parking lots. There is more than enough shade, plenty of places to slow down and graze at, and no shortage of alleys to explore. Many of the sights are within walking distance of one another, which adds to the appeal.
I’m seated on a red plastic chair, on the pavement, at 6 am. My small aluminium table has a condiments holder, a strainer and a roll of toilet paper in a pale blue dispenser. Sweat is already beading up on the back of my neck, my forehead, and my arms. I haven’t even started eating yet.
I’m sitting on a red plastic chair in a shopfront travel agent on De Tham in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City’s backpacker district. Out front is a signboard listing all the tours they offer. The prices listed are low. Way low.
There is a weird thing with travel. Some destinations are super popular with a single nationality. Indonesia’s Labuan Bajo with Italians, or Thailand’s Khao Lak with Scandinavians for example. Why is it so? I don’t know.
Phan Rang–Tháp Chàm is two towns in one. Tháp Chàm to the west and Phan Rang to the east—they’re separated by the Phan Rang River. Around seven kilometres further to the east, on the beach front, lies Ninh Chữ. After jumping off the train on the Tháp Chàm side of things, it is to Ninh Chữ I direct my xe–om.
With a coastline so long and rich in coves and beaches, it is understandable that travellers don’t go everywhere. Yet for many, Vietnam’s South Central coast is nothing more than Mũi Né and Nha Trang. There is though, far more.
Some days I need a holiday from a holiday. A day spent loitering around, doing not much. Dropping my fetid clothes off at a laundry, aimless eating, wandering the streets. Perhaps a minor museum or just, staying in bed. You know the drill. Today is such a day.
Large beachside cities like Nha Trang and Da Nang do not have a much real estate in my heart. I’m much more a fan of quieter smaller towns and villages by the sea.
I’m prefacing the following by stating that while everything you’re about to read is true, it happened years ago. I think we were camping somewhere near where Jungle Beach eventually appeared, but I’m not sure.
You’ve no doubt heard Bangkok called the “Venice of the east”, Phnom Penh the “Paris of the east” or Saigon “the pearl of the east”. What about the “City of the Eternal Spring”? It sounds like somewhere where Willy Wonka or Dorothy would live right?
As I mentioned the other day, Đà Lạt is a favourite among honeymooners. The climate is perfect for lovers snuggling in close in the evening—by the fireplace if you have the budget. Come morning, hang that “do not disturb” sign on the door and enjoy a late sleep–in. Perfect.
Every man and his dog in Đà Lạt runs, or can put you in touch with an “Easy Rider” tour. While they’re even more popular in the north of the country, Đà Lạt isn’t far behind.
The northernmost of Vietnam’s Central Highland provinces, many find themselves in Kon Tum on the way elsewhere. Most often, this is on an Easy Rider style trip from Hoi An to Da Lat or something like that. There are however, plenty of reasons to slow down for a day or so.
From Kon Tum, Easy Riders offer two primary routes to the coast—north or east. The northern route is longer and generally finishes in Da Nang or Hội An. The eastern route is shorter and winds up in Quảng Ngãi.
Any guidebook worth its mettle at some stage or another describes Hội An as a “once thriving trade centre”. This is true—Hội An (known as Faifo to foreign traders of the time), was the commercial capital of the Kingdom of Champa. At the time, the Cham people controlled the lucrative spice trade, with routes stretching as far afield as Egypt.
My long suffering Canadian companion and I first met in Portugal. We were both hanging out on the beaches around Lagos, doing nothing productive. He was travelling with another Canadian, me with two Australian women. We all hit it off and travelled to Morocco together.
Everywhere has their dish. Hanoi has chả cá lã vọng, Hue has bún bò, the Delta has bún cá, and the entire country has phở. Hội An on the other hand, clinging to the coast of Quảng Nam province, has two—cao lầu and mì quảng.
Ahh it is great to be back in Laos, if even for a brief time—and even if in Tha Khaek. Of the southern Lao capitals, it it wasn’t for the The Khaek Loop, nobody, well, almost nobody, would get off the bus.
The first day of the Tha Khaek loop typically covers what I covered the other day—the caves and Tha Falang. Once caved out, most continue on to Mahaxai or Nakai. To avoid retreading the same ground, today a tale of a trip to somewhere nearby which wasn’t where we thought it would be.
As I mentioned the other day, the Tha Khaek Loop can be as little as a long day trip by car, but most spend a few days. We go into the details of the stops on Travelfish here, but today I’m all about the main attraction—the cave itself.
The first time I visited Nakhon Phanom, I stopped by the tourist office to see what was what. They seemed surprised to see a foreign tourist—most only visit That Phanom, they told me. I asked after what there was to see and do in Nakhon Phanom. “Nothing,” came the reply.
Around 50 km to the south of Nakhon Phanom lies That Phanom. In many ways it is just another small Thai town on the west bank of the Mekong, but this isn’t just any small town.
Next stop south from That Phanom for most travellers on a Northeast tour is Mukdahan—don’t be shy about shortening it to “Muk”. A provincial capital by the Mekong, Muk punches above its weight on food and below on rooms. Don’t let the digs put you off though—come for the food, and the surrounds.
Yasothon (better known as Yaso) is one of those towns that are never on a traveller’s itinerary, well, except once a year. In Yaso’s case that one time is Bung Fai—the Rocket Festival.
If you’re anything like me, you may have kicked off your overseas travels with a bit of a jaunt through Europe. At every new village, town or city my guidebook (Lets Go, sorry), would stagger towards churches (if anything). Stagger seems the right word going off the ex–Lets Go authors I know. I’m not religious, and there are only so many churches I can take, before I think “God, anything but another church”. Thailand is much the same. Meet “wat fatigue”.
Northeastern Thailand is famous for its food. As heavy on meat as it is often in spice, it is a handy antidote for those looking to break out of the tourist standards. Depending on where you are in the region, influences from the neighbours can also come into play.
A hop skip and a jump to the east of Ubon Ratchathani lies Khong Chiam. The small town lies on the north bank of the Moon River, at its confluence with the Mekong. Across the Mekong, lies Laos and, visibility allowing, the Bolaven Plateau.
Attracted by galaxy–wide rumours of giant river fish named after cats, some 3,000 years ago, aliens landed north of Khong Chiam. While no physical evidence of their spacecraft remain, their visit was recorded on the cliffs of Pha Taem.
It is early morning and I’m sitting by the garden at Pirom’s House chatting to the owner. I need to pop over to Cambodia to get another thirty days for Thailand and we’re chatting about which border to use.
Leaving behind the stark reminders of a gruesome chapter of Cambodian history, I strike west. My target is Banteay Chhmar—another of Jayavarman VII’s creations and also the site of a long running Community Based Tourism Scheme. First though, I need to get there.
On the roads of today, it is a straight run from Banteay Chhmar to Siem Reap in a share taxi. The centre—arguably Cambodia’s best–known was the epicentre of a million and one stories about overtourism—until Covid anyway. Today, it is a ghost town and many hotels, restaurants and other tourist facing businesses have shuttered. Just a short ride from town, Southeast Asia’s most famous set of ruins stand, utterly devoid of visitors. 2019 feels like one thousand years ago.
As I wrote the other day, when it comes to Angkor, much of the emphasis is on getting as much laterite for your buck as possible. This isn’t the only way though. With more time and a willingness to wander, it is possible to get an alternative and more memorable take.
We’re sitting around in the laid back restaurant at Two Dragon’s Guesthouse. It is early evening and we’re tossing back a few cold beers with owner Gordon talking about heading to Beng Mealea.
Just to the west of Siem Reap and Angkor lies the Tonle Sap—the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia. Through a quirk of river currents, in wet season when the Mekong is at full tilt, the flow reverses up the Tonle River, filling the lake. This reverse flow traditionally would see the Tonle Sap expand from around 2,500 km2 to 16,000 km2. This inflow brings with it nutrients and tonnes of fish.
The fastest way to travel between Siem Reap and Battambang is by share taxi. The run takes you halfway to the Thai frontier, then you turn south at Sisophon to reach Battambang. That may be the fastest way, but the funnest way (depending on your idea of fun), is by boat.
A fun town to get to, Battambang itself is an attractive town to wander, but it is the surrounds which delivers the goods. There are hill top temples, killing fields, ancient monuments and, of course, the Bamboo Train.
I left off yesterday’s story standing on Sa Kaeo train station dodging beer cans, but today I’m skipping the train and heading north. The closest town of any size to Poipet is Aranyaprathet and four hours by bus from there deposits me in Nang Rong. Yes, back in the Northeast.
Anyone who knows me knows I am not an organised traveller. While I plan my trips semi–carefully, when it comes to packing, I’m not all there. I leave it till the last minute and near always forget something.
Leaving Khorat’s mayhem behind me I roll into Khon Kaen in the evening. As where I wanted to stay is full, I settle for an almost no–name place near the train station. There’s nothing wrong with it, but nothing much right either—no shortage of places like this.
Sitting in the garden at Mutmee Guesthouse I got talking to a North American, Sanchez*. I’d left Laos the previous day and had been hanging around Nong Khai since. Sanchez had been in Laos for a few years, running a restaurant and bar in Vang Vieng.
Given its location, and being home to the closest airport to Nong Khai, I’ve been through Udon Thani my fair share of times. Thankfully not always in hotels quite as odd as yesterday’s.
Before Laos re–opened to recreational travel in the early 1990s, Nong Khai was about as close as you could get. Much of the south bank of the Mekong lacked the massive promenade of today and instead was a shifting natural affair. Tall grasses and the few trees still hanging on covered the tumbledown bank. Wooden platforms floated on the mud–brown water, reached by precarious wooden stairs and slippery trails. Nestled against a long, slow, east–west bend in the Mekong, Nong Khai was one chilled out place.
I know I was writing the other day that Nong Khai is the kind of place that lends itself to hanging out for days, but ... I’m blowing out of town for a trip along the Mekong.
It is around a 90 km ride from Sangkhom to Chiang Khan, almost the entirety of which is right by the river. This is the Northeast’s last hump before the Mekong winds north back into Laos’ embrace.
Wherever possible I prefer to travel long distances by rail. It is more comfortable, you can get up and walk around, and, most importantly, it is safer than the bus. If there is no rail option, then I’ll take the bus, but I avoid night buses unless they’re unavoidable.
As I wrote the other day, I met a group of Thai campers who invited me out for a night on the town. Their goal? To show me the “real Bangkok”. The one bit of input I was allowed, was selecting our rendezvous.
Phetchaburi sits a couple of hours south of Bangkok by train. A compact town bisected by a north–south running river and about a dozen kilometres from the coast, the vibe is sleepy.
Yes, I’m back! After a longer than expected hiatus I am back in front of the keyboard. I’d planned to re–start yesterday, but still wasn’t quite up to it, and it felt better to restart with a free post for all readers. So while this is a part of the paid–for itinerary series, I hope it appeals to all. My heartfelt thanks for the kind comments over the preceding month—much appreciated.
Prachuap Khiri Khan lies around 150 km south of Phetchaburi, a straight run down on the train line. Along the way it passes by two better known tourist towns, Hua Hin and Cha–am, to my mind both are forgettable in their own way. The former is an inexplicable attraction for both European and Thai tourists, the latter for domestic students.
The story goes that some “hundreds” of years ago a Chinese trading junk was shipwrecked north of Prachuap Khiri Khan. The coast was a treacherous mass of peaks, wild waves smashing against their base. The 300 surviving seafarers, no doubt annoyed at each other over their navigating folly, sought refuge on separate peaks.
Thailand’s southeast coast is long, slow and varied. There’s salt plains in the north, giving way to bay after bay, the sand changing from a deep grey to an off–gold. There’s mangroves, swamps and estuaries. Jungle nestles white sand crescents that see more crab claws than human tootsies. Craggy limestone headlands break it all up. A fishing village here, a provincial capital there. The millpond Gulf waters lap all the way down, like a Thai massage, rubbing rather than bashing the coast.
As I wrote the other day a large part of the appeal of Ban Krut is that it is quiet and, aside from laying on the beach, there is little to do. That isn’t to say there is nothing to do.
While I’d like to think I blew out of Ban Krut on account of the English trio, to be honest as a work trip, the clock is ticking. As a travel writing friend once said, travel guide writers see everything and experience nothing. Closer to the truth than you might think. On a travel writer’s watch, somewhere like Ban Krut earns about four hours. That I give it two nights, is well, ummm, indefensible, but hey I’m the boss and I can do what I want!
After sending the annoying Brits to a tourism sinkhole, I move guesthouses and keep a low profile. Business is slow, but there’s enough spots I figure I won’t see them again—plus I’m leaving the mainland, albeit briefly.
Over the last week or so I’ve written of a few of the spots which dot the coastline between Bangkok and Chumphon. I’ve touched on Phetchaburi, Prachuap Khiri Khan, Khao Sam Roi Yot, Ban Krut and Bang Saphan.
I’ve written before about Ko Tao, how it has changed over the years and its less admirable traits—of which it has a few. Before Lomprayah grabbed much of the market, a gaggle of smaller operations ran to Turtle Island. Of these, the slow boat was the most memorable, mostly for the wrong reasons. Shall we start there?
As I mentioned yesterday, Ko Tao is far from my favourite island in Thailand. Across the water to the south though, does sit one of my favourites—Ko Pha Ngan—and it isn’t just mine. What is it about the island?
Some people see a mountain and have to climb it. I’ve some of that in me, but give me an island and that is something I must walk around. Few islands are higher up on the circumnavigate by foot rankings than one of my favourite Thai islands, Ko Pha Ngan.
Who hasn’t been there? You’re relaxing in a hammock under a couple of palms out front of your bamboo and thatch beachside hut. It is late afternoon, with a light sea breeze and the sun is getting ready to set. Someone just brought you an iced Chang beer and a plate of noname.
When we lived in Phnom Penh, we had a friend who had spent time on Ko Samui in the 1970s. I mentioned her in an old Couchfish piece on people harking back to the good ole days. I wrote:
If you’ve seen The Beach, you’ll know the scene where the three leads leap off a cliff, over a waterfall, and into a lagoon. To pull this off in real life would be a challenge though as, in real life, the cliff and the lagoon are not in the same place. No idea what I’m talking about? Here is an extract of the relevant part from the movie.
After yesterday’s travel plus laze around day, today I plan to earn my keep. While I wrote that most of the sights around Khanom and Sichon are excuses for distractions, that isn’t to say they’re not worth the effort. They are.
Leaving the coast behind, it is about an hour and a half in a van to the South’s second largest city, Nakhon Si Thammarat. Parallel north–south roads lay out the town, with the train station near the centre and temples all over. Nakhon (as it is known) is both a transport hub and a historic centre.
I mentioned the other day that Nakhon Si Thammarat isn’t only a provincial capital but a historical one as well. With a spare day, you can walk the lay of the land from bottom to top and make your way through the history of the town.
Nakhon Si Thammarat sits at the terminus of a spur on the southern Thailand railway, with only the occasional train south to Phattalung. Given I only have a short jaunt south planned, I grab a minibus for the trip.
You’ll find a decent wet market in any fair–sized Thai town and the best time to visit is invariably early in the morning. Phattalung has a great market, and early riser that I am, it is the perfect spot to start the day.
Heading south from Phattalung, the obvious next stop is Hat Yai, the transport hub of the far south. A sprawling city—the largest in southern Thailand—Hat Yai is far from close to my heart, so I skip it and head to Songkhla.
Travelling alone, it doesn’t take long for me to get chatting with fellow passengers—even if my Thai is terrible. So I feel like I’ve struck gold when the middle-aged Thai man sitting opposite me speaks excellent English.
Travel writing is often a flurry of buzzwords. They come and go like the seasons, more often than not losing all their meaning in the process. “Travel like a local” hit the scene a few years ago, but I’ve always felt it missed the mark.
A side-benefit of yesterday’s lost day is I’ve got myself a driver for today. As reliable as he is short, he’s waiting out front at the appointed time for the drive south to Betong.
Betong lives up to its name come the morning. A wet and chilled mist envelops the city as I jump into the Mercedes for the run back to Yala. We’re running by the side of the reservoir, by the time the sun burns through.
So how does one fill a day in the least-visited province in Thailand? As I’ve often written, anywhere is worth a night, and Pattani is no exception—hell, I’m spending two here—but what to do?
Back many years ago, just after the dinosaurs had a rather bad day, I co-wrote a couple of guidebooks. The first was to Vietnam, published in 1995, and the second, published in 1997, covered Thailand.
As difficult as it can be to pry myself from the back deck of the Narathiwat Hotel, I manage it. The province isn’t in short supply of things to do and see, but today I’m hitting a simple one—a waterfall.
Sitting on the back deck of the Narathiwat Hotel, the waters of the Bang Nara River flow by. Its northern mouth sits just a few kilometres north of town, where it empties out by Narathat Beach.
As I wrote yesterday, the time has come to head south to Malaysia. First though, I’m going to jumble up two experiences from the province I’ve had on two separate trips. Then, and only then, will I skip over the border, with a third experience. Dizzy yet? Try writing it!
Somewhere I once wrote getting on an international flight is like changing planets. You walk past the barrier to immigration and where you were is left behind. A few hours—or days—later, you walk past another immigration barrier and you’re in a new country.
KB Backpacker’s Lodge has a dorm or two, but they also have private rooms. I’m so over dorms it isn’t funny, so when I checked in, I went with a private, despite me being the only guest. My room opens onto the common room and kitchen and I’m surprised to stumble out in the morning and see another guest.
If you read my previous piece on the Perhentians, you might have thought I wasn’t all that taken with the islands. I did finish though by saying “tomorrow will be better,” and you know what, it will be.
I am a beach person, but I am also a walking person. I can laze on the beach with the best of them, but I’m also one to climb over the headland. You know, to see if there is another beach, a better beach, out of sight.
Quite a few years ago I was in West Bali, hanging out at a riverside getaway near the beach, doing not much. Rather than laying in the hammock though, as one does I was sorting photos on my laptop.
A quick hop across the narrow straight brings me to Perhentian Besar. As the name suggests, this is the bigger of the two (besar means big) and by area is far less developed than Kecil. The entire east coast is wild jungle tumbling down to rocks and the sea, totally bereft of sand. Beautiful beaches dot the other three coasts—or used to.
You may recall the other day I mentioned that someone had recommended I check out Empire on Teluk Dalam. It turned out to not be great advice, but it takes a few bits of bad advice to ignore all something someone has told me. This is lucky. Another tip they gave me was for Kuala Terengganu (KT among friends).
When you’re staying in a bamboo and wooden shack elevated above mangroves, a mosquito net is worth a lot. Most of the rooms, at Awi’s, including mine, sit over the mangroves. The mosquito nets are not worth much.
None of Peninsular Malaysia’s east coast cities have an overwhelming array of sights. There’s often a museum or three, friendly people and plenty of great food, but none are tourist hubs.
The next stop down the peninsular is Kuantan, a straightforward bus ride south. Like Kuala Terengganu, it is a riverside state capital with its roots in fishing and trade. For those coming across from Kuala Lumpur, or from Taman Negara, it is their first stop on the coast.
As I mentioned the other day, this isn’t my first time to Kuantan, and each time I revisit a town, I like to take a peak elsewhere. In Kuantan’s case, I head south to take a peek at Pekan.
I decide to push the crazed English guy from my mind with a morning swim. Not in the Kuantan River mind you, but a swim in the sea. Then I plan to get an afternoon bus inland, leaving the ocean behind.
While less than pleased to be finding myself in Kuala Lumpur by accident, I hit gold, well more like copper, with a seat on a train straight back out again. The scheduled arrival time is 04:28, which while not ideal, is better than a night for no reason in KL. The train will be late anyway, I tell myself.
The meeting point for the two-day trek into Taman Negara is one of the floating raft houses on the river. It is early enough in the morning that the sun is but a dull ball behind the mist, and the morning air is cold and wet. I know the coolness won’t last though, so it doesn’t bother me as I stroll down towards the river’s bank.
The superlatives come naturally to Taman Negara. It is the biggest national park in peninsular Malaysia. It is one of the oldest deciduous rainforests on earth (over 130 million years old if you’re wondering). It is home to the tallest peak on the peninsula. Big and old and tall, but more than anything, it makes me feel tiny.
Allow me to begin with two pieces of advice. First, if you’re sleeping on the floor of a cave with a million bats overhead, don’t sleep with your mouth open. Second, stay calm when you wake at 3 am with a centipede the size of a cricket bat in your sleeping bag.
My plans to get back to the east coast are simple. I’ll take a boat back out (rather than a hellish minibus) and then bus onwards from there back to Kuantan and then south to Malaysia’s “prime surf-spot” Cherating. First though, to eat.
I saw out yesterday at a sleepy beach bar on Cherating’s prime stretch of sand. As with the place in general, the bar is rustic, half falling down, inhabiting that zone somewhere between rustic charm and rusty nails. The crowd (I’m being generous here) are a mix of locals and regulars. Deep tans, faded board shorts, hair that needs a scrub. They’re gregarious though and we chat late into the evening over a few too many beers
Singapore is different things to different people, but I reckon over time, it has been plenty of different places just to me. I’ve loved it and loathed it, and below are five moments from around two decades of popping in for a look-see now and then.
Travelfish, as much as possible, works on an anonymous basis. We don’t identify ourselves, make appointments, or ask for discounts or freebies. Instead, we follow a “secret shopper” style approach.
Not surprisingly, the nation’s primary airport, Changi, features prominently. Yes, if you encounter the question at pub trivia night, Singapore has at least five airports—Changi, Seletar, Sudong, Paya Lebar and Tengah—six if you count Sembawang, though that is apparently for helicopters only.
In the basement of Peninsula Plaza, there’s a gaggle of Burmese restaurants. Catering for the most part to Burmese domestic workers, they welcome tourists as well. And so it is, three weeks into my unplanned month-long stay in Singapore, I find myself there for lunch.
Some time ago, a frog, elephant and pig had their feet up, somewhere along the northeast coast of modern-day Singapore. They fancied a swim across the water to Johor and, for a bit of fun made a bet of it. Anyone who didn’t make it to the far side would turn to stone.
This morning, I was trying to figure out how many different hotels and hostels I’ve stayed at in Singapore. Of all the Southeast Asian capitals it is the one I’ve bounced in and out of the most and I came up with around 40. At least those are the ones I remember—or are worth remembering.
I’ve written before about my love of Singapore’s footpaths—the best in the region I’d say. Yes, a low bar to clear perhaps, but praise where due I reckon. The thing is, it isn’t just those footpaths that are great for walking—the whole city is, particularly if you like a bit of green with your wandering.
Singapore is one of those places where everyone—regardless of if they’ve been there—has advice on what you should eat. I’ve taken plenty of this advice, and much of it has been great. That said, I think the best single piece of advice is “if the place is busy, they must be doing something right.” With that in mind, here are some random bowls (and more) I’ve enjoyed in the city.
When people talk about Singapore they often mention how green the city is. Driving in from Changi, under the enormous trees that line the expressway, it is undeniably beautiful. It isn’t only the meet and greet either—many of the thoroughfares across the city retain an impressive amount of greenery. It feels fitting for a tropical country I guess. “Singapore the green city”—they should try that.
A handful of years before the 19th century rolled into the 20th a boy was born in the village of Furong in China’s Fujian Province. His father was part teacher, tailor and hairdresser, and the boy reared cattle between classes to help out. When he was ten years old, father and son packed up for the long journey by sea to Singapore.
I’m going to start this one off with a note to readers. This is a very old story, from one of my first trips backpacking in Southeast Asia. I’m not sure, but the year was 1994 or 1995. While I remember the broad strokes of this tale, the spoken words are not, in any way, verbatim. The scam though, I’ll never forget.
Fast-forwarding on a decade or so from yesterday’s entry, I have a confession to make. For no specific reason, I’ve never been all that taken with Melaka. This isn’t to say I haven’t tried, over the years I’ve been there a bunch of times, but I struggle with it, and this puts me in a tiny minority.
I like to think that throughout my life I’ve had more than my share of jobs. My first (aside from digging trenches in the backyard) was delivering newspapers. Since then I’ve cooked KFC, worked for a diplomatic mission, at a newspaper and as an accountant. I had a part-time job with a watchmaker, another with a jeweller. I’ve freelanced all sorts, leeched off a foreign government and panhandled. I even started a travel website. It sounds like a lot, but my guide Aziz leaves me in the shade.
In the past entry for Kuala Lumpur, you may have picked up on a bit of a stuffing face theme. If so, you’d be on the money—when it comes to eating, KL delivers. In fact, I’d go as far as to say writing the food section for the city was about an eight-kilo task. I’m serious. So, with that in mind, let’s bounce around town for a bit of all-day grazing.
Set on the periphery of Kuala Lumpur’s Little India, the hostel has come recommended by a friend in Jakarta. She tells me it is a great spot, and where she always stays when in KL. \"Ace staff,\" she says.
It’s common to write about tradition under the shadow of development, but in Kampung Baru’s case, it’s accurate. A part of the sprawling “village” has, for years, laid under the shadow of Kuala Lumpur’s forever soaring skyline.
On one of my trips to KL, I’ve been there so many times I can’t remember which, I find myself at Heli Lounge Bar. With plans to meet a couple of other travellers from my hostel (not the Italians), for sundowners, I arrive early. There’s only so much plodding through hotels one can do before sitting alone at an empty bar in the blazing sun wins out.
The steel towers of Kuala Lumpur glint in the morning sun as my train pulls out of KL Sentral. A short, two and a half-hour train ride north will deposit me at what was once the largest tin producer on Earth—Ipoh.
As I mentioned yesterday, in a nod to its food and historic buildings, Ipoh is often referred to as Malaysia’s “new Penang.” On both counts Ipoh delivers, but there’s no need to invoke Penang to grasp this—the town stands on its own feet just fine. So, let’s eat.
About two-thirds of the way between Tanah Rata and Brinchang in Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands, opposite the golf course, Jalan Sultan Abu Bakar breaks north from the main road. It winds up into the hills, lined by forest, car parks and resorts. There are a couple of hairpins along the way, but you never get all that high—the Highlands are already high enough.
I’d struggle to nominate somewhere in Southeast Asia I’ve received more conflicting opinions on than the Cameron Highlands. There are always different opinions on places, but in this case, well, it is like they were talking about different universes. How bad could it be?
The first time I was in Penang was on one of my early trips to Southeast Asia. I’d been having an especially unproductive time in southern Thailand and my visa was up. “Go to Penang,” other travellers told me, “the beaches are great.”
The proposed food tour and market visit seem straightforward. Meet at 7 am, from where the group will walk to a local market, then have a snack and do some sightseeing. Following that, we’ll cook a couple of Malaysian dishes, and eat them. What could go wrong?
Given my efforts so far you might be thinking I have it in for Penang. I’ve covered wrong-headed missionaries, wonky UNESCO efforts and unhinged travellers, but it isn’t all bad news.
A short walk from the Thai and Burmese takes on Buddhism brings me to coffee and tea. Like the two takes on faith, these two offer differing takes on how to start a day yet reach the same destination. Me, I’m a devotee of the former.
Langkawi is the next major island to the north of Penang, the last stop before falling back into Thailand’s southwest offerings. I’ve been here a couple of days and am not feeling the love.
After leaving my less than exemplary lodgings behind, I decide to get into nature. A friend in Penang has pointed me towards a mangrove trip as a good way to see the island in a different light.
If I haven’t already made it clear, the first time I arrived in Langkawi I knew little about it. Well, rather, most I thought I knew about it was wrong. I certainly didn’t know it had a cable car. It does.
There are two stories that do the rounds to explain away the backstory to Telaga Tujuh Waterfall—the Seven Well Waterfall. One is science-based, the other not so much—both are worth a quick telling.
A note for those reading who are familiar with Malaysia to Thailand travel options. If you’re scratching your head wondering why I’m not taking the boat from Langkawi, believe me, so am I.
Breakfast at Satun’s morning market is simple fare. One plate dishes and some local coffee put away, the four of us head back to the Thai-Chinese hotel we slept at. We’d met up there late the previous evening after my slow trip over the border.
I know I finished yesterday’s piece writing “Save a single longtail pulled up on the sand, the beach is empty,” but this isn’t exactly true. Near the pulled-up longtail there is a fishers’ hut, but more importantly, at the far end of the beach, near where the trail empties out, there is a bar.
As anyone who has been to Ko Lipe in the last decade or so will know, the island I’ve described over the past two days no longer exists. The island, at least pre-pandemic, was home to over 100 hotels and north of one thousand rooms. Damaged reefs, pollution, water access and various social and land-ownership issues are common. This is a transition Thai islands are well familiar with, with the country having honed “paving over paradise” to a fine art. For another, more slow-moving example, I look across the water to the east, to Ko Bulon Lae.
As I mentioned earlier, the first time I visited Ko Lipe it was a long stay filled with doing very little. On one day though, ground down by our abject slothiness, we decided to organise a boat trip. The owner of our guesthouse knew a dude with a boat and we signed off on an after-breakfast start. Our destinations: Some snorkelling spots, “haunted” Ko Hin Ngam and looming Ko Adang.
So, to be clear, I didn’t do a two-day trip to Ko Hin Ngam and Ko Adang. Rather, this is the second part of the previous post on Ko Hin Ngam, taking up from the tale about karma and a pebble thief.
If, over the last few days I’ve painted a bit of a “too good to be true” image of Ko Lipe and surrounds, well good things never last. Following on from the boat trip to Ko Hin Ngam and Ko Adang we contented ourselves with a few (more) lazy days on the island. Anyone who knows me knows I can do “beach lazy” like the best of them, and over those few days, I excelled.
Thailand’s southwest provincial capitals come in many flavours. There’s Ranong in the north for little Ko Chang and Ko Phayam, then a little to the east of Phuket, Krabi, which serves a whole gamut of islands. Further south comes to Trang and south again, Satun. While Krabi is regularly a longer-stay stop, the others are far less so—little more than transport hubs between bus and boat. Trang in particular seems an oversight.
As I mentioned yesterday, of Thailand’s mainland Andaman Coast towns, Krabi sees more than its fair share of tourists. Many treat it not as a pitstop en route to the islands, but as a destination in its own right. This, they are right to do, as Krabi has plenty to offer, including an excellent food scene. That said, with plenty of tourists, sometimes comes less desirable aspects.
Many moons ago I was kicking around Thailand’s south when I received an email from an old friend. They’d decided to join me for two weeks and had booked their tickets, landing in Phuket. “Look forward to catching up,” they wrote.
It should come as no surprise that one night in our off-purple concrete treehouse was enough. Part two of our Khao Sok sojourn would take us to the reservoir itself—floating on it to be exact.
One of the reasons Khao Sok National Park is so popular—aside from its beauty—is its accessibility. It is set between Thailand’s east and west coasts and within a few hours of plenty of popular tourist towns. Even for the not-nature-inclined, it is a hard one to justify skipping.
A hop, skip and a jump north—or thirty minutes on a local bus—from Takua Pa takes you to Khuraburi. There’s little to distinguish it from other Thai fishing villages, except for one thing. It is from Khuraburi that one gets a longtail to Ko Phra Thong—Golden Buddha Island.
Leaving Ko Phra Thong behind, it was a straight run up the coast to Ranong, the wettest provincial capital in Thailand. A funny little town, little more than a bowl of winding roads with a sizeable fishing port perched on its western rim. The port does a heavy trade in fisheries, but also in labour—legal and otherwise—and drugs—just otherwise—thanks to its location on the frontier with Burma.
Arrival at Medan on a ferry from Malaysia was for decades the stuff of traveller legends. The ferry, overcrowded and generally sucky, with some justification caught flack. It was arrival on land though, that the whining when up a notch. Travellers encountered a near endless array of schemes and scams from the moment they alighted.
While Medan isn’t overflowing with sights, there is enough to fill a day or two. If you’re one who enjoys aimless wandering, then you can add a day to that. If you like to eat, add yet another day—or ten.
Not far from the not-haunted mansion, and within the same quarter that I reckon could do with a map, lies Tip Top. It is a restaurant cum cafe with a shaded street-facing area and a more typical restaurant inside. It is the kind of place you’ll often find in travel guides, as much on account of it having an English menu, as its fare.
It seemed simple. Not long after I’d settled into Medan, I got in touch with a guesthouse in Bukit Lawang to sort out a room. They’d come recommended by a few friends as a legit operator, and, despite a clunky deposit process, I was sorted. In the final email they warned me to be aware of scammers on the way, but I didn’t pay all that much attention to that—as much as I should have. I’d already decided I’d get the train, then the bus.
The village/tourist hub of Bukit Lawang sits for the most part on the northern bank of the Bahorok River. A tributary of the Wanpu, the two converge about ten kilometres downriver of the village. A steep river, the Bahorok courses through the depths of Gunung Leuser National Park, a part of the greater Leuser Ecosystem—one of the largest expanses of tropical forest on Earth.
As I wrote the other day, the trip from Medan to Bukit Lawang wasn’t the smoothest of trips. There was though, one last barrier to cross. Once I’d alighted from the van and shook my circulation back into my legs, I started the walk to my digs. It was about a ten to fifteen minute walk, but it was ten to fifteen seconds before the first tout latched onto me. “Did I need a place to stay,” he asked.
Most visitors to Bukit Lawang tend to stay at one of the joints on the Bohorok River. These do offer a lot—there’s a social vibe, plenty of spots to eat at, and, of course, the great views over the river to the jungle. From the village, people do anything from a half-day to a few day wander into the woods.
Sometimes it is nice to have an uneventful trip, and leaving Bukit Lawang and its surrounds behind is exactly that. There’s no bargaining with transport dudes, nor eleventy passengers on the same seat row. The trip is comfortable and not too bumpy and I don’t spend stretches pulled over for no clear reason. Yes, you’re correct, I hired a private car for the run back to Medan.
Volcanoes are a bit like people in that they have a family tree. Take Rinjani on Lombok for example—it wasn’t always Rinjani. In 1257 thanks to one of the largest eruptions ever, Mount Samalas literally lost its head, leaving Rinjani as the peak. Within Rinjani’s caldera lies Segara Anak, a lake, it with a smouldering peak, Gunung Baru Jari, beside.
It’s only after an aimless day wandering Berastagi that I stumble upon the Museum Pusaka Karo. Thinking about it, I probably wandered by it a few times before I took a closer look, and when I did, I was glad I did. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
My guide didn’t mean it when he said we’d be seeing some “Karo shit.” If anything, it was a term of affection picked up thanks to so much time with Australians and Brits. So while the Karo village we are to visit is one hundred per cent not shit, his van most certainly is. I so wish I had a photo of it.
We rejoin the main road and drive south towards Merek. Little more than a scratch in the earth, it marks a three-way junction—north, south and a back way of sorts to Sumatra’s west coast. It is also the launching point for Gunung Sibuatan, the tallest peak in North Sumatra, but I’ll not be climbing it. Not this time anyway.
The boat crossing from Parapat to Samosir, on a still day, is a spectacular affair. Glassy waters reflect daubs of white fluffy clouds and later, an overcast sheen as we near the island. There’s no sound save murmurs of passenger chit chat, the ferry’s engine and the slosh of the wake. Travel doesn’t get much more idyllic than this—it wasn’t though, always this way.
It turns out that a year before my arrival on Toba, another foreigner, also named Stuart, arrived. Staying at the same joint as me, it seems he left quite an impression on the owner, who upon realising his mistake can’t hide his disappointment. Ho hum, I am sorry I am not that other Stuart.
Lake Toba’s Samosir Island is one of those peculiar geographic anomalies you encounter now and then. It’s an island in a lake in an island in an ocean. I plan to add another level to that, but I’ll get to that tomorrow.
Leaving behind the “Stone Chair of King Siallagan,” I ride north. The single lane road winds towards the island’s tip, sometimes by the water, other times inland. There is no traffic—nada.
Leaving my viewpoint behind, I backtrack to the causeway and head south. I stick to the mainland, winding down the coast, Samosir to my left. It is, like all the riding so far, beautiful.
“Jakarta is not what you’d call a beautiful place. It’s a chaotic maze of low-lying slums, gleaming skyscrapers and imposing road tolls, enveloped in a gigantic cloud of pollution and trapped in hopeless gridlock.” So writes my friend Daniel Ziv’s in his introduction to Jakarta Inside Out.
As I mentioned yesterday, over my two years in Jakarta I spent more time pottering than wandering, but this isn’t to say I didn’t wander at all—I did. Over the years, friends would pass through and it was always a pleasure—if a hot and sweaty one—to do a quick wander with them.
As I wrote the other day, there are two main quarters of Jakarta that feature in the sightseeing checklists of most travellers. One is pretty much in the centre of town, while the other lies to the north, near the coast, and is known as Kota Tua. Literally “Old Town,” most shorten it to simply “Kota,” and it is well worth a day of wandering—today I’m looking at the morning, tomorrow, the afternoon.
Power up Google Maps and switch it to “Satellite View,” then zoom into Jakarta. To the north you’ll see the Jakarta Bay’s murky waters lapping—and encroaching into—the city’s northern reaches. To the east of Ancol you’ll see a vast container terminal, which forms the coastline of Tanjung Priok.
When you’re travelling in a country where it is routine for prices to be in the millions, denominations matter. More so, when the largest note is one hundred thousand—as in Indonesia. While not as acute as Burma, where people with hessian bags of kyat is normal, leaving a bank with a few inches of cash is not unusual here You did buy a super-sized money belt right?
As I wrote the other day in free-to-read Couchfish, there’s a growing similarity in Southeast Asia. Everywhere is different for sure, but there’s also a growing not-so-different. Nowhere is this clearer than the mall.
Writing Couchfish is sometimes as much an educational experience for me as it is for you. Well, I hope it is sometimes educational for you anyway. Today, is no exception, as I’ve just learned Indonesia was the first country in Southeast Asia to build a railway. Who knew?!
I know I said the other day that I was catching the train from Jakarta to Yogyakarta, but that isn’t true. Instead I’m jumping off an hour shy of “Java’s cultural heart” and alighting at Solo.
Whenever a planeload of foreign dignitaries roll into Indonesia, within a few hours you’ll see them meeting and greeting in something other than an ill-fitting suit. Instead they’re kitted out in patterned shirts with not a tie in sight. What on earth are they wearing?
I’m sitting in the meditation tower which pierces the centre of Cakra Homestay, Sally and my digs in town. The tower—yes it really is a tower—offers solid sunset views over the batik quarter and greater Solo. It’s also quiet, and good for reflective spells as the call to prayer kicks off. Which is to say I’m never in the tower for long before the owner climbs up for a chat.
Not distracted by talk of the other “sexy mountain,” we make plans for the slopes of Gunung Lawu, an hour or so east of Solo. Aside from being a popular peak for volcano climbers, it also hosts a trio of ancient, dare I say, sexy, temples.
Any semi-frequent traveller knows the feeling. That feeling when you walk into a hotel and everything—and I mean everything—is wrong. I’ve written before of such places—the weird, the haunted and so on.
Food is a funny thing. In Thailand, every tourist knows what pad Thai is, but ask if they’ve eaten crying tiger and they’ll call PETA. The same goes in Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, and likewise in Indonesia.
On the train from Surabaya’s central train station it is a straight run south to university town Malang. Set roughly at the centre of the triangle formed by three volcanic peaks—Kawi and Arjuno to the west, and the enormous Bromo caldera to the east, the valley enroute is smooth and fertile. Beyond the city to the south lies some of East Java’s beaches, and between them, some beautiful waterfalls. My train rolls south.
I like Malang. I like it a lot. A university town with the vibe to match, it has some pretty spots, and some good wandering—by Indonesian standards, it’s a well walkable city. It also has food—lots of food. If you’re coming from Yogyakarta, Malang might feel untouristed, cosmopolitan if from Solo, and low rise if from Surabaya. This is all to say its an interesting mix, and if I had to pick a similar joint, I’d lean towards Semarang, but that would be a stretch. Best to think of Malang as, well, Malang.
Malang sits upon a fertile base at the centre of a triangle traced by grand volcanic peaks. To the north, lies the Arjuna and Welirang twin volcanoes, both of which reach to over 3,000 metres in elevation. The former takes its name from Arjuna, a hero of the Mahabharata, while the latter somewhat less imaginatively uses the Javanese word for sulfur. To the west lies Gunung Kawi, not the tallest of another cluster of almost 3,000 metre tall peaks.
Sometimes it can take just six words to unravel most of a day and so it was to be for our first full day at Gunung Bromo. While Sally was off to look at accommodation on the outside slope of the caldera, I decided to go for a walk. Our lodging was so threadbare I’m still not sure if it was a staffer or some random dude who was unlucky enough to be on the premises, that I asked my question of.