Tuesday, September 05, 2006

South East Asia Summary

It is the end of our time in South East Asia and therefore summary time. Really we barely scratched the surface of the region, as we only managed to get to Singapore, Malaysia (including Sabah in Borneo) and Thailand. I tried to have as little as possible preconceptions about the places we visited but, I'm afraid, I don't think I quite managed that. Overall I have enjoyed being here and would definately visit again, maybe to visit other countries, maybe to visit things we missed in the countries we did visit and maybe just to go back to favourite places. I know there are some who might think that we hardly saw anything and wasted a lot of time, but sod them! We like a quite relaxed form of travel, rather than rushing around from place to place, trying to spend at least a couple of nights and breaking up long journeys with rest stops.

As we'd very briefly stopped in Singapore on our way back from Australia a few years ago we had a kind of idea of what to expect. Many people find Singapore a bit dull, and maybe it is, but I quite like it. Probably because I'm a bit dull. It's clean, safe and an easy place to be. The food choices are staggering. The downside are that it is more expensive than neighbouring countries. It's a good starting point and ending point I think as it has a mix of the Western and Oriental that is leaning toward the Western. A gentle easing in if you will.

I think I probably had least preconceptions of what Peninsular Malaysia would be like. I just hadn't really thought of it as a destination before going to the region. Even when we entered Malaysia I was still only thinking of it as a country to travel to on the way to Thailand. I was pleasantly surprised most of the way through. The Malaysian tourist motto is, 'Malaysia: Truly Asia', which I suppose it is. It's got the oddness of Asia, whilst not having the nasty side that can be seen in other places. The people are nice and don't seem to be trying to rip you off all the time. It is pretty easy to travel in especially as, being a former British colony, English is very widely spoken. Coming from Singapore was a step up in wierdness and, I suppose, a step out of our comfort zone, although not as big a step as going to other countries might have been. The islands that we visited in Peninsular Malaysia were absolutely what I thought South East Asian islands would be. Crystal clear waters, palm fringed beaches, jungle clad hills and tasteful little chalet businesses.

Sabah was a strange time for us. We really wanted to visit there and I think had some unrealistic ideas about the place. We weren't able to do some of the things we wanted because of restrictions on the numbers of people allowed to do them. This is a good thing for the sustainability of Sabah's tourist industry, but a bad thing for people like us who do not do a lot of prebooking. The numbers of tourists visiting must be increasing given that they are overhauling the airport to cope with increased numbers and certain prices have gone through the roof. It's a really nice place to visit but if I was to go again I'd do so on a 2 week holiday, where the money pressure is maybe not so acute, and ensure I prebooked everything I wanted to do. Sabah is quite big and the attractions are quite spread out, so we spent a lot of time on buses. It is possible to skip a lot of this as local air travel is fairly comprehensive. I think we'd expected vast jungle all over the state, but most of it has been cleared by logging or for Oil Palm plantations. The wildlife is the draw for Sabah, and is certainly not only our highlight from here, but also of our trip so far. If I went back I think I'd like to do a deep jungle wildlife spotting trek. The food in Sabah was not great. Noodles and scrawny chicken knuckle or rice and scrawny chicken knuckle was just about all I ate.

The food in Thailand was brilliant. Although the choice was quite wide, at one point I think I had Pad Thai for six meals in a row! Thailand was probably the place I let preconceptions get the better of me. I'd heard of lovely island paradises, and saw overdeveloped and grotty resorts full of Aussie and hostess bars. I'd heard of lovely people and experienced everyone out to try and separate me from my money. I'd heard of everything being dirt cheap, including accomodation, but actually found that we paid more than in Malaysia. Perhaps we spent too much time chasing Carly and Charlotte, that we could have used visiting other places. We missed some places fearing monsoon weather so we still have places we'd like to visit. All of the negativity that we'd had about the country vanished in a stroke when we spent time near Surin with Noi's family. Our welcome from them was so unexpectedly brilliant that we changed our mind about the Thai people. Thailand is known as the land of smiles and we had initially thought it referred to false smiles, but we changed our mind. We left feeling quite sad about going.

All in all though I have really enjoyed being in the little bit of South East Asia that we have been to. I'm not disappointed about not going to Cambodia or Laos, I can always visit them another time. Similarly, Vietnam was a possibility to visit but we did not and given the comments of people we spoke to we aren't bothered. Everyone said it was rip-offs constantly and without the false niceness that accompanies it in Thailand. We'd like to go to Indonesia, which might warrant a future trip in it's own right. If I regret anything it is not learning to dive, but for various reasons it didn't work out for me to learn. This is not a problem as I can do it elsewhere or even at home. I enjoyed visiting South East Asia but I don't think I would ever settle there. In South Africa we didn't see too many fellow 'backpackers', in South East Asia though they are everywhere. Watching people struggling in the heat and humidity with backpacks bigger than they are vindicated my decision to carry only hand luggage. In fact I felt like the Mayor of Smugville (which is a small town in Smugland). It has been fun to watch peoples jaws drop when they realise that we are away for so long with such small luggage. Jumping on boats, coaches and planes has all been made much easier.

Things I probably won't miss about South East Asia are the smell of the drains especially after rain, the traffic and nightmare of crossing the road. With the exception of Singapore you take your life into your hands every time you want to get across the road. In Singapore it's okay because of plenty of crossings, you just have to budget for several hours waiting at them. In most places you hear a constant stream of horn beeps. It appears that the horn is used as a greeting, a tout for business, a warning, for the fun of it and in some cases in leui of the brakes!

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