The best of, worst of and many things in between…
Hands down, the worst guesthouse was a no-name hotel in Samut Songkran (Thailand) that we ended up in after a fiasco of a day trying to reach an obscure floating market. Between the handprints on the walls, the thick goo sliding down the bathroom wall and the furniture that appeared to have been attacked with a sledgehammer, it was the sort of place where you wear long pants to bed and don’t touch anything. The jungle in Cambodia was a bit rough at times as well…
Vietnam had the best places to sleep overall; $8 was the going rate for a clean room, real bedcovers, hot shower and typically a television. The best room award, however, has to go to Rainbow Chalets on Tioman Island in Malaysia – there is a post not too far back that’ll tell you all about it!
We’ve had an uncountable number of hellacious, never-ending travel days, slews of breakdowns and blown tires and traffic jams and buses full of animals and carsick Asians, but the one that stands out from them all was our bus ride from Sam Neua to Nong Khiaw in Laos. It was 14 hours of sharp mountain switchbacks in a contraption that was more or less held together with duct tape. The hilltribe women were vomiting out the windows, the engine croaked, the rearview mirror was ripped off by a passing truck, there were no food stops (the toilet stops were useless for us female passengers, as it involved the side of the road you can’t actually step off of the side of the road for fear of unexploded bombs) and by the 12th hour the center aisle was filled with occupied plastic stools. The guy next to us was drunk, breathing down Gabe’s neck and occasionally stroking his arm – we had never been so relieved to reach a destination!
The fishing boat full of live ducks that broke down three times (and was repaired by draining oil from the motorbikes onboard) on the way to Phu Quoc was a memorable one as well.
The best transport? Every single motorbike that we’ve rented ourselves.
In Thailand, the two most useful phrases out there were mai ow, meaning “I don’t want” (think moto drivers, souvenir sellers and the obscene amount of plastic bags that are shoved at you for the most minute purchases) and phet mahk mahk, meaning “make it very spicy!”
In Cambodia, it was simply “hello,” the greeting that is screamed at you by adorable, ecstatic barefoot children everywhere that you go.
The most important phrase in Vietnam was bow niew tien, meaning “how much?” If you don’t ask this before touching, looking or eating, you will be charged five times what you expected.
In Laos, sabai dee served the same purpose as “hello” in Cambodia. The cutest kids on earth, no question about it!
There is so, so much to buy in Asia, but a few items have been especially useful. One is the blue silk blanket that we used as a bedcover in Bangkok and then brought along on our travels, unaware of just how many filthy beds it was going to protect us from!
Another are the spoons that we picked up at a market in Laos for about 10 cents – no more fashioning utensils out of paper for takeaway food!
Surprises and Disappointments:
The best surprises of the trip included our intense Cambodian jungle trek in Ratanakiri Province, the beautiful, vineyard covered mountains of Dalat in Vietnam, Juara Beach in Malaysia and the entire country of Laos.
Biggest disappointments? Koh Phi Phi in Thailand and Sapa in Vietnam. Two “must see” destinations that we would never encourage anyone to visit. Both are exploited, over-touristed zoos.
Eating has been one of the greatest pleasures of SE Asia, but there have certainly been a few slipups! One in particular was the spicy-looking dish that we pointed at one night in Bangsue – it turned out to be small, bony fish with the distinct taste of Bangkok canal sludge.
Gabe was pretty put off by the grilled chicken skewers he bought one night that ended up being grilled chicken livers, and the interesting-looking noodle soup that we spotted in a Laos market proved to be a cringe-worthy bowl of cold noodles and gooey tapioca mass in vinegar. In Cambodia we just stayed away from the street stalls, as nearly all of the dishes included innards or insects – we’re adventurous, but we have limits!
I couldn’t even begin to name the best of, nearly every meal has been a delight. A few standouts include pad kaprow (fried basil, chilies and meat on rice), anything at a Thai point-place, som tam (papaya salad), Indian anything (but especially Kashmir naan and masala tosai), laab (cold herb and meat salad), khao soi (best noodle soup on the planet) and bun cha. Just refer back to the food blogs (or visit our kitchen, once we have one) for more!
All Thai beer is terrible, and the local specialty of Sangsom (rice whiskey) and Red Bull is especially horrendous.
Beer Lao is wonderful and bia hoi is 25 cents per mug, thus making it equally great. Chai yen, or Thai tea, is a tooth-rotting delight of 4 parts sweet condensed milk, 3 parts sugar and one part tea, usually served in a bag full of ice.
No worst-of here, these are simply a few encounters that will remain foremost in our memories.
The jungle trek in Cambodia, especially the final night, after we’d hiked 35km in 8 hours, sitting in the village learning rice wine drinking games with all of the Brau men.
The lunch we had our last day in Vietnam. We were sick and tired of the country, ready to get out, but were able to leave on a good note after sitting down to a meal in a family’s living room. As the wife and daughter cooked up plate after plate of meats and veggies, the husband treated us to beer and whiskey shots and photos of his military days and smiles.
The ceremony and dinner that we experienced after being invited in the chief’s hut at an Akha New Year celebration in Laos.
The internet café in Sam Neua, Laos, whose owner had just had his first child and invited us to celebrate with his friends and Beer Lao, then several days later had us back for dinner and toasts with his family.
And, of course, the diving trip.
Frequently used phrases, terms and their true meanings…
Where are you from? – I want to sell you something.
Hello my friend! – I want to sell you something.
Special price for you! – I want to sell you something for 5x what it should be.
Is very far! Walk not possible! (coming from any sort of driver or friend of a driver) – It’s just around the corner.
Full moon party – Payday for the ladyboys, expensive for those with wallets.
Thai toe – The grimy, blackened effect that you get on the soles of your feet after a day of trudging around Bangkok.
Building juice - The liquid that inevitable falls onto your head from above in any Thai city. Air conditioners? Drains? Something worse?
Let’s go explore! (coming from Allison) – Let’s go walk at least 20 miles, just for the hell of it.
Let’s see where this goes! (coming from Gabe) – Get your climbing shoes on…this will involve mountains, rivers, heavy brush and/or caves.
I’m ready when you are. (in an internet cafe) – I’ve checked Facebook 15 times, my photos are uploaded, no one has replied to my emails yet, Skype is broken and I can’t take any more video game explosions. Please, let’s go now.
Let’s keep looking (when shown a room) – This is a shithole.
I’m thirsty (coming from Gabe) – I want a 7-11 fountain drink, must be Sprite and MUST have ice.
I need a snack (coming from Allison) – I want a Milo bar or an icecream cone.
My stomach isn’t cooperating… – Don’t touch me, I need a toilet. Now.
Let’s eat spicy food! – I’m constipated.
Gabe, are you awake? – It’s 6:30 a.m., I’m done running and I want breakfast right now!
This is far from exhaustive, but hopefully a small taste of what the past year has encompassed for us. We head home tomorrow, ready to take all we’ve seen, heard, tasted and learned and apply it to whatever adventure awaits us next – I’ve got no plans to abandon this blog, so keep on checking back. It won’t be Asia (for now), but I’d like to keep life, and thus this blog, as interesting as possible (let me know if it isn’t)!
Also, the last of our photos have been posted, so make a stop on our Flickr sites!