Tuesday, February 7, 2012

South-East Asia Extravaganza!

I've been pondering over this for a few days now... How can I successfully recount three weeks of travel through South East Asia without:
a) wasting an entire day writing about it;
b) boring our readers to death with every detail;
c) boring myself to death writing all day about every detail?

To keep things simple and enjoyable for everyone involved, I've decided to challenge my 'poetic' side (believe me, I had to dig deep...) and come up with three Alphabet Poems, or 'Acrostiches' as we call them in French, one for each of the three countries we have visited.

Actually, TWO for every country we've visited: One highlighting my favorites, and, since most travel experiences are not all candies and chocolate (I don't think that's even a valid expression, but you get the idea), one that mentions the not-so-good parts of the whole deal.

Each spot has something unique to offer, as I'm sure Jason would agree, and I hope this short recap of our vacation inspires in you (as it did in us) the desire to see more, and more, and more!

Let's start with Malaysia: our first stop.

Monkeys. So cute, they behave like little humans. But beware if you are carrying food on you. They give themselves all kinds of permission.

Accommodations. Quiet Nipah Guesthouse on Pulau Pangkor and pumpin' Reggae Mansion in Kuala Lumpur were mint. Friendly staff, clean rooms, and super cheap prices.

Lazy days. Our first 3 days were spent on an almost deserted island sleeping, reading, swimming, and eating.

Anchor beer. The beer and drinks were fantastic, albeit more expensive than anticipated. We've come to accept it as normal though, given the Muslim tradition there. We certainly did not abstain.

Year of the Dragon. In Chinese tradition, the year of the dragon (2012) is extra special and we just happened to be visiting Asia during Chinese New Year. Throughout Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand, larger than normal decorations were displayed in preparation for the celebratory events. Cascades of red and gold could be seen just about everywhere we went and we enjoyed every moment.

Scooter. On Pulau Pangkor, it's pretty much the only efficient way to get around. Renting one of these was cheap and fun, not to mention the best way to visit the island. I left the driving to Jason.

Interesting mix of old and new. This was especially apparent in Malaysia's capital city of Kuala Lumpur, where mirrored skyscrapers were erected alongside traditional village houses, and where urban development seems to be starting to close in on authentic chinese markets and Buddhist temple grounds.

A-Frame cottages at Nipah Guesthouse. These charming little rooms were perfect for our relaxing stay on Pulau Pangkor.

Here's the not so sweet...

McDonald's is everywhere! Damn you Mickey D's - you pry me away from local food and force me to eat your delicious cheeseburgers. Everywhere. I. go.

All you can eat seafood buffet. I can't do it. I like to try different dishes, but seafood repulses me, and it likely always will.

Lights (or lack of!). Upon our evening arrival at the site of the much anticipated Petrona Towers in Kuala Lumpur, we discovered that they had shut off the lights. At midnight? Really? Thankfully our camera captured semi-nice shots despite this disappointment.

Asphyxiation. I'm talking garbage. There was a marked difference between the 'touristy' and 'local' areas. It was like night and day, and sometimes the smell of garbage and sewer was overwhelming. A strong indication that the country is still developing, I suppose.

Yuck. It was unfortunate to see garbage laying around absolutely everywhere in Malaysia. In some areas the situation seemed almost hopeless. This was the most obvious difference between Malaysia and its spotlessly clean neighbour, Singapore.

Snake. What's the only thing that could ruin Jason's quiet afternon reading in a hammock? A water snake slithering up the tree he's laying next to! Wasn't long before we moved to the other end of the beach!

Insects. Malaysia's tropical climate was home to the most interesting (and sometimes disgusting) creatures, notably big black millipedes, giant screaming cockroaches, jellyfish, and (most of all!) mosquitoes. AAAH!

Appropriate clothing. This I had none of, therefore I had to borrow long skirts, wraps and headdresses at the various temples we visited. I didn't mind this, however, and it was definitely better than dressing in long-sleeved shirts and veils all day, like the local Muslim women do. I truly admire them- they never seem to break a sweat.

Whew! Next up: Singapore.

Slings. Yes, they're from Singapore. Delectable.

India and China Towns. So much culture and tradition inside an ultra modern city.

Nightlife on Clark Quay. The lights, the drinks, the music, the restaurants, all by the water. Everything about this place screams 'ENERGY'.

Gorgeous. This city is like the best of all the metropolitan cities put together. Well, in my opinion at least.

Architecture. Just to give you an idea, we rode up to the 57th floor of a posh 5-star hotel onto a boat (yes, a boat on top of a building) to take in breathtaking views of the cityscape. Singapore is also home to the largest ferris wheel in the world.

Palm trees. Just another reason why Singapore is better than North-American cities.

Outliers. The title of the fabulous book I finished on my first day here, about how people achieve success (it's not what you think). Are you curious yet?

Rich - is an understatement. I'm convinced this city has too much money and doesn't know what to do with it. Of course, I haven't been to Dubai. I'll let you know if I change my mind.

English. It's the country's first language. Yahoo! Fellow Canadians, believe me when I say that you don't know what you've got until it's gone. Sure, it's nice to be thrown into a foreign environment where the use of the English language is so scarce you're left to fend for yourself, but after a while it's nice to spend three days in a place where you can be sure you'll be understood by any local you approach.

But the grass isn't always greener...

Sleepless. My first night in Singapore was spent reading in the common area of our hostel and creeping on Facebook. Everything was bothering me, outside (garbage trucks, rowdy partiers) as much as inside (pre-programmed Glade spray next to my bed, snoring, and whatever else goes on when you sleep in a room with 28 people).

Infatuation with urban life. More tall buildings! More expensive Louis Vuitton shops! More 5-star hotels and restaurants! More, more, more! This seems to be Singapore's motto as the city's ever increasingly pricey attractions will likely soon become unattainable for middle-class tourists such as us :(

No! No smoking, no spitting, no yelling, no eating or drinking, no chewing gum, no nudity, no kissing... or else.

Gum. You'd better not be caught chewing the stuff, for risk of facing large fines or, worse!, deportation. Jason actually contemplated throwing away full, unopened packs upon our entry into Singapore. I assured him that, as long as he hid it away, he would be safe. Thankfully I was right!

Antihistamines. Never found the stuff! Only available through a pharmacist, it was not to be on a National Holiday. I was left scratching my mosquito bites and nursing the swelling for weeks afterwards.

Packed beach. As amazing as Sentosa Island was, there was not much relaxing here. Screaming kids and blaring music are not my style.

Out with the old. Like Malaysia, Singapore seems to be slowly crowding out its authentic marketplaces. Even Chinatown has recently transformed itself into a tourist frenzy packed with merchants selling t-shirts and magnets. Sigh.

Rucksack Hostel. Now this wasn't the worst place I've stayed at, au contraire. The common and sleeping areas were clean, the staff was helpful, and the price was decent given the location. I've just come to realize that 28-bed dorms are not for me. I would gladly pay the extra $20 to stay in a private room free of snoring, burping, farting, and alcohol-smelling breath that makes you wake up in the morning thinking you've spent the night in a college dorm room. Come to think of it though, that's kind of what it was. Plus I'm bitter because I had almost all my underwear stolen at this place. Humph. Not recommended for beginner backpackers.

Expensive. $18 drinks, $24 appetizers, $20 chair rental at the beach, $5 metro ride. Let's just say our wallets were glad to have only spent three days here.

Finally, the apple of our eye: Thailand.

Thai massage. No, not the one you're thinking of! Rather, the wonderful stretching-and-bending-of-every-limb-in-your-body-and-deep-tissue-knawing-out-of-your-shoulder-kinks kind. Aw yeah.

Hongs. They are also called lagoons. We experienced these through sea kayaking (John Gray Sea Canoe - highly recommended tour if you're ever in the Phuket area). The landscape and water were just gorgeous, and we made traditional offerings, which we let go of in the caves after sunset. One of the most meaningful moments of my life. Of course the on-board food was amazing too.

Awesome beaches and culture. Let's kill two birds with one stone here. Bangkok was home to some of the most beautiful temples I've seen. And Phuket wins the prize for best beaches IN THE WORLD.

Intuition. When in Thailand, trust your intuition. If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Protect yourself from scams by questioning everything and everybody.

Lady boys. Thailand is extremely liberated in terms of sexuality/orientation and is a safe haven for a very large LGBTQ community. Although they are sometimes treated as a bit of a novelty, the Lady Boys never fail to entertain the crowds of tourists (men and women alike) who stop to watch them dance on bar tops or to snap a picture of them wearing what I like to call their 'pride parade' costume.

All you can eat. The streets are literally littered with street food vendors: Pad Thai, Shishkabob, and the like. Everything is so darn cheap and readily available that you just want to eat more, and more, and more!

Nightlife. I thought Bankok's Kao San Rd. was 'lively'? I hadn't seen Phuket yet! A single backpacker's/bachelor's dream. Even for newlyweds, though, there were various you-have-to-do-it-once-in-your-life-type of attractions that kept us busy to say the least.

Drinks. The fruity, fresh kind you can buy off the street for $1, and the alcoholic kind of course that comes in buckets. One is never enough.

Doesn't Thailand sound utterly appealing? Oh yes, there were negatives there too.

Tour companies that are bogus. You truly have to be careful. Avoid scams by booking through your hostel.

Heat and humidity. As much as it was perfect weather on the beach, it became almost intolerable when touring sights mid-city.

Alligator-like creatures. Apparently when Crocodiles inundated the streets after last October's major floods near Bangkok, the government offered a 100Baht ($33) reward to any citizen who dared to capture one. Water monitors have less teeth, but they're just as scaly and large and lizard-like as their cousins. I shiver thinking about it.

Innapropriate age differences, especially between old, fat and ugly European/American men and their pretty, young Thai/Russian girls. Eww.

Lame tourists. The ones that don't respect the local culture and engage in all kinds of exploitation. Get a life.

Animals. A serious lack of animal control has led to hundreds of cats and dogs prowling the streets night and day in hopes of finding food scraps. Many of them scratched their fur off from flea infestation. So sad!

No toilet paper. I was kind of used to this from living in Korea, but Thailand is much worse. Most toilets are equipped with a squatter and hose to flush down your business. I've started hoping for the 'paying' toilets - yes, it costs 5 cents to get in, but at least you're given a couple of sheets of TP.

Dirty water. I guess that's the product of an overcrowded city. I can only imagine the sewer product that runs off in those waterways.

As much as flying South for a tropical getaway can temporarily cure the winter blues, it can just as well induce a much worse case of it upon one's return to the bitter cold climate. As I sit in my school's ice cube of a teacher's room trying to bring some feeling back to my toes, I wonder why I would ever complain about Bangkok's excruciating heat, and vow to never again wish to spend my time in an air-conditioned room on a sunny, hot January day.

Where to next?
Cheers to travels!

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  1. Awesome! Well written Jason and Jen, you should work for TripAdvisor!
    I have never been to Malaysia and Thailand but I have been to Singapore many-many times (15 times?).
    I don't know if I am considered lucky for not visiting the other 2 countries after reading all the bad things about them ;) But I think I will someday.
    I envy the warm weather (but not with the moisture though), It is 21.6 degrees Fahrenheit here as I type looking at my outside thermometer in North East Ohio! It's probably about the same in Seoul.

    Thanks again for sharing the stories.
    Chong-mal Khamsa-Hapnida!


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