Tag Archives: southeast_asia

My Top 10 Southeast Asia Travel Tips

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tl;dr:

  1. Don’t rush
  2. For longer trips, use Bangkok as a Base
  3. Next, Look Beyond Thailand to Cambodia, Laos, and Especially Vietnam
  4. More Destinations: Myanmar and Borneo
  5. Eat Liberally
  6. Disconnect
  7. If You Must, SIM Cards are Wi-Fi Widely Available
  8. Don’t Overpack, But Bring the Right Stuff
  9. Ask Friends of Friends for Advice
  10. Do Your Own Research

I spent a decade living and reporting in Southeast Asia: eight years in Bangkok followed by just over two years in Singapore.

Between work trips and vacations, I’ve visited every sizable country in the region, and most on several occasions: Myanmar, Malaysia, Laos, Cambodia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam.

Friends sometimes ask me for tips on visiting the region, so I decided to compile my advice here, in one place.

But first, a couple of caveats:

  • The Web abounds with detailed suggestions on where to go and what do in the region. You will certainly be able to find specific tips by simply Googling your potential destinations and interests, but what I’ve aimed to do here is provide mostly my big-picture thoughts — the most important principles you should know when planning a trip.

    I’m also throwing in a few specifics, of course, but this post is meant to be a starting point for trip research and planning.

  • Also, a warning that things change quickly: small, once-quiet towns become overrun (I’m looking at you, Pai, Thailand) and cool new bars and restaurants pop up unexpectedly where they once didn’t exist.

1. Don’t Rush

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This is a no-brainer for seasoned travelers, but it bears repeating.

As Rolf Potts says in his excellent 2002 book “Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel,” few regions in the world offer such diversity of culture, within such close proximity, that can be visited as easily and cheaply as Southeast Asia.

But don’t hurry to try to do too much all at once, with a rapid-fire itinerary like you would compile for a trip to the U.S. or Europe. Transportation links are pretty good, but things can take a little longer in Southeast Asia, which is part of its charm anyway.

If you’re coming from the U.S., for example, you really need two weeks at a minimum, otherwise you’ll be jet lagged much of the time you’re here, and will simply spend too much time on the airplane compared to your time actually on the ground. Longer than two weeks is even better, if you can swing it.

(This is, of course, generally good travel advice wherever you’re going: It’s better to focus on one or two destinations and explore them well than to visit as many places as possible but only get to know them superficially.)

2. For longer trips, use Bangkok as a Base

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Again, this may seem obvious, but a good approach, especially if you’re traveling on a limited budget or have a a lot of time — as in, months — and a flexible schedule, is to fly into the Thai capital.

Bangkok is an excellent choice because:

  • it’s right in the middle of the region, with good transport links
  • has food and lodging that are relatively inexpensive
  • is fascinating in its own right

Those who do even a little bit of investigating will a find a much more complex place than the one featured in movies like “The Beach” and “The Hangover Part 2.”

A few of my favorite Bangkok destinations and activities include:

  • The Jim Thomspon House — an excellent first-day-in-Bangkok place to visit, with a lovely shaded restaurant where you can have a cool drink after the tour
  • Chatuchak Market, the famous weekend bazaar, great for shopping — or simply people watching via the handful of bars and restaurants there
  • the restaurant Arun Residence, from which you can take in Wat Arun, across the Chao Phraya
  • the roofop bar at the Banyan Tree hotel
  • Smalls, a new-ish neighborhood bar on Soi Suan Phlu
  • Lumphini Park — great for a walk or jog, especially in the mornings and evenings, when it’s a bit cooler
  • Eat Me restaurant in Silom
  • Soul Food Mahanakorn restaurant in Thonglor
  • river taxi ride on the Chao Phraya
  • a shopping mall food court at a place like MBK, where you can sample just about any Thai dish imaginable

From the Thai capital, you can travel up to the northern city of Chiang Mai or down to some of the beaches, depending on your inclination. (One fun way to get up to Chiang Mai is the overnight train. You can book tickets from a local travel agent or from your hotel concierge in Bangkok.)

Chiang Mai:

  • has excellent food
  • has many picturesque temples
  • has a climate is slightly cooler than Bangkok’s
  • is fairly walkable, for Thailand, at least in the center of the city

Note: It is, however, a city; many people imagine it to be a small town, but it does suffer from big city ills like surprisingly thick traffic at times, and occasionally aggressive touts.

For budget hotels in Chiang Mai, I have had some nice stays at 3 Sis.

And for khao soi noodle soup, a northern Thailand specialty, my favorite restaurant is the nearby Huen Phen. (For Huen Phen, note that khao soi is served at the restaurant during lunchtime; the more upscale restaurant inside doesn’t serve it for dinner.)

Outside Chiang Mai, I really love the far northern town of Mae Hong Son. We had a fun trip there several years ago and stayed at Fern Resort.

Another option, from Bangkok, is go to the beach.

Popular destinations in the Gulf of Thailand, just several hours drive (taxis are bookable through hotels) are:

  • Koh Samet
  • the resort city of Hua Hin

Some of the best beach trips we took from Bangkok involved simply renting a car and driving the three or so hours down to a resort or hotel in Hua Hin.

Koh Samet and Hua Hin aren’t as exotic as some of Thailand’ more far-flung seaside spots, but they’re easier to get to.

Farther afield are beaches you’d need to fly to, but where you’ll find more options:

  • the island of Phuket
  • Krabi

Parts of Phuket are over-developed and seedy, while others a quiet and contain gorgeous, serene beaches. The thing to remember about Phuket is that it’s so big that it offers all kinds of accommodations, even though many people are only familiar with its less attractive parts.

Meanwhile, a longtime favorite location of ours in Krabi is Railei Beach Club, though I haven’t been in several years and I hear the area has gotten quite crowded.

Further afield: One of the most memorable trips I did in Thailand was in 2008, when, for a Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia story I rented a car and drove along the Mekong river, from the city of Udon Thani in the north to the city of Ubon Ratchathani in the east.

Few tourists venture to this part of Thailand, the rural Isaan region, and I very much recommend visiting to see how a huge portion of Thai people live.

So, to sum up: Bangkok is an fascinating and fun city, and gives you access to Chiang Mai in the north and the beaches in the south.

3. Next, Look Beyond Thailand to Cambodia, Laos, and Especially Vietnam

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If you have more than ten days or two weeks, you also visit somewhere nearby like Angkor Wat, next door in Cambodia. (It’s possible to travel overland from Bangkok, to Siem Reap, where Angkor Wat is located, but flights are cheap, plentiful, and safer.)

A few additional destinations nearby are Laos, where you could visit the sleepy capital of Vientiane, or the even sleepier riverside city of Luang Prabang.

That said, Vietnam deserves special mention – it’s where I’ve had many of my most exciting and interesting travel experiences in Asia, particularly on motorbiking trips.

I’ve done two on World War II-era Minsk motorbikes with Hanoi-based tour group Explore Indochina.

I did another one independently, taking the bike on a train overnight from Hanoi to Sapa, a city in the north, and riding back to Hanoi over several days. There’s no better way to see the countryside and interact with people than on two wheels.

Hanoi, the cultural capital, is especially atmospheric, with a dense downtown area full of cafes and shops. Ho Chi Minh City, the commercial hub formerly known as Saigon, is buzzing and has incredible food.

4. More Destinations: Myanmar and Borneo

Myanmar

If you’re interested, now seems to be a good time to visit Myanmar. The country is largely undeveloped, and can be difficult to travel in, but began several years ago the process of political and economic reforms. That means tourism will likely pick up in the future. I haven’t been to the temples of Bagan, but I hear they are worth visiting.

Yangon, the former capital, is home to the remarkable Shwedagon Pagoda. Meanwhile the new capital, the largely deserted Naypyidaw, is increasingly drawing curious onlookers.

Consider Borneo. Travelers often forget about the gargantuan island, shared by Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei, but it’s not too far a flight from Singapore or Kuala Lumpur.

I highly recommend Gunung Mulu National Park, where you can take in a curious sight known as the bat exodus.

5. Eat Liberally

Khao soi

Street food, in most Southeast Asia locations – and certainly in Thailand – is generally safe to eat. Though you should follow the well-known rule of avoiding food that’s been sitting around for a while and aim to eat freshly cooked items. And when in doubt, don’t eat fresh vegetables that haven’t been cooked.

For Thailand eats, I suggest checking out my pal Austin Bush’s blog. He’s a longtime Bangkok-based food writer and photographer and knows a tremendous amount about the region’s cuisines, especially Thai food.

You can search his site for specific dishes or cities, and he also has an annotated food map of Bangkok on Google Maps.

I also suggest my friend Chawadee Nualkhair’s Bangkok Glutton blog.

Chaw also has a book I recommend called “Thailand’s Best Street Food,” which tackles Bangkok, Phuket, Chiang Mai and more.

6. Disconnect

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You will likely be excited and want to show images from your travels, as soon as you capture them, via Facebook and Instagram. You may want to Tweet things.

You should not.

Wait until the trip is over to delve into your social media feeds. That way you can focus on the present and enjoy the moment. Read books or listen to music instead.

Definitely document things by taking photos and writing down your experiences, but sharing them in real-time will only divert your attention unnecessarily.

On several occasions after getting through especially frenzied periods of work in Bangkok, I decamped to Chiang Mai, where I spent a few days decompressing, enjoying novels while sitting next to the river drinking coffee (or beer).

These periods of offline reflection were always rewarding.

7. If You Must, SIM Cards and Wi-Fi are Widely Available

Smartphone

Although I advocate disconnecting while traveling for pleasure, I often like to have a local number while I’m in a different country to make calls and get mobile internet access for mapping and other uses.

SIM cards for (unlocked) smartphones are widely available in Southeast Asia. You can buy them when you arrive at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport, for example, and at most other airports in the region these days. In Thailand they are often available in 7-Elevens, as well.

Wi-Fi is also available at not just at hotels, as you’d expect, but in places like cafes and restaurants.

8. Don’t Overpack, But Bring the Right Stuff

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Yes, Southeast Asia’s climate is tropical, so you’ll want warm weather clothing like shorts and short-sleeved shirts. But keep in mind that people in cities, especially, tend to dress conservatively despite the heat, eschewing shorts for trousers and often wearing long-sleeved shirts.

My opinion: You should aim to blend in, not stick out. So save your swim suits and battered T-shirts for the beach or pool.

And a word on sandals: These generally shouldn’t be worn in cities. Some nicer bars and restaurants in many Southeast Asian cities require patrons to wear closed-toe shoes. So bring some along, and when in doubt, dress in a more respectable manner than you might assume is necessary. It’s always better to be slightly over-dressed than under-dressed.

9. Ask Friends of Friends for Advice

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Traveling years ago with my pal Matt Gross, a fantastic food and travel writer, taught me the importance of hitting up friends — and friends of friends — for travel tips.

When researching his New York Times travel stories, Matt was a master at using his vast network of contacts to suss out where to go and what to do in particular destinations.

So, before you embark on your trip:

  • Email all your friends to ask if anyone has recently been to the countries you’re considering visiting
  • Put out a call on Facebook and Twitter for advice
  • Ask everyone you know to put you in touch with people they might know who live in the places you’re targeting

The tips you get this way — from people to whom you may only be loosely connected — are often highly valuable. Of course, you’ll want to do your online research, but advice from people on the ground is always important.

10. Do Your Own Research

Flying

Reading the Lonely Planet tour guide history section for the destination you’re exploring is better than nothing, but if you’re not delving more deeply into the region’s history, you’re doing it wrong.

Some books I recommend:

Happy traveling!

Recent Stories: Grab <--> Lyft; Microsoft Exec on Self-Driving Cars; Venture Capital in Southeast Asia

I’m behind in sharing some of the stories I’ve been working on. Here are a few from last week.

The first, on Grab’s integration with Lyft in the U.S., begins:

The latest step in a global ride-sharing alliance between rivals of Uber Technologies Inc. went into effect Thursday, allowing users of a popular Southeast Asia-focused transportation app to begin making car bookings via Lyft Inc. in the U.S.

Users of the app from GrabTaxi Holdings Pte. Ltd., which operates in 30 cities across six Southeast Asian countries, can now use the service to hail vehicles in more than 200 U.S. cities via Lyft. In December, Lyft said it was teaming up with Grab, as the company is known, after announcing a similar agreement with Chinese startup Didi Chuxing Technology Co. in September, bolstering the competitive field against the much larger Uber.

The second, on Microsoft, which I wrote while in Hong Kong for our Converge tech conference, begins:

Microsoft Corp. isn’t building its own self-driving car, but is bullish on helping others with related technology, a senior executive said.

“We won’t be building our own autonomous vehicle but we would like to enable autonomous vehicles and assisted driving as well,” said Peggy Johnson, who heads business development for the Redmond, Wash., tech titan, speaking at the Converge technology conference hosted by The Wall Street Journal and f.ounders in Hong Kong Friday.

Ms. Johnson said Microsoft has asked various auto makers what kind of technological applications they are looking for, whether it is working with Azure, its cloud-based service for businesses, Office 365, the cloud version of its productivity software suite, or its Windows operating system.

And finally, another from the conference: a look at how investors – such as Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin – are increasingly pouring venture capital funds into Southeast Asia:

Venture capitalists and investors attending the Converge technology conference in Hong Kong on Friday expressed optimism about the future of startups in Southeast Asia, despite significant challenges.

“Between Southeast Asia and India there are about two billion people,” said Facebook Inc. co-founder Eduardo Saverin, speaking on a panel about investment opportunities in the region. “It’s arguably the fastest-growing internet market in the world.”

In the first quarter of this year, funding to companies in Singaporethe region’s startup hub–rose sharply to $199 million from $53.1 million a year earlier, according to Hong Kong-based AVCJ Research.

Book Notes — ‘Asian Godfathers,’ by Joe Studwell

Note: I have long kept, on index cards, written notes about the books I read. I decided to share some of these thoughts here, and will be posting them, one by one on individual books, in no particular order. I’ll group them all together on a central page later. Thanks to Derek Sivers for the inspiration.

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Asian Godfathers: Money and Power in Hong Kong and Southeast Asia
By Joe Studwell
Published: Oct. 2007
Read: Nov. 2015
Amazon link

Brief recap: An incisive look at how Southeast Asia’s godfathers got rich by exploiting the region’s dysfunctional governments — and how local elites have used godfathers, in turn.

One of the best books, if not the very best, on the region that I’ve encountered; should be required reading for anyone with an interest in the history of modern Southeast Asia.

My notes:

  • The region’s godfathers — largely Chinese and Indians — emigrated to Southeast Asia before World War II, taking advantage of opportunities for concessions and monopolies from local political elites in exchange for not seeking their own political power. Typical godfather behavior would be, for example, to bribe local politicians for lucrative monopolies, which they then used to build their own fortunes. Local elites got a steady stream of incoming cash in return, and weren’t challenged in the governmental sphere.

  • Southeast Asia and Hong Kong have very few global brands because they employ “technology-less industrialization” — entrepreneurs seek rents and have monopolies, so don’t need to improve productivity or become globally competitive.

  • The economic landscape in Southeast Asia and Hong Kong is “shaped by the interaction of two historical forces: migration and colonization.” That is, migrants came to Southeast Asia and began building their riches by taking advantage of colonial systems.

  • Thailand’s Thaksin was a godfather who committed the sin of political ambition — and alienated his fellow godfathers.

  • Studwell is highly critical of Singapore despite the fact it is known globally for good governance and its outsized economic development. He argues that its small size makes comparisons with countries irrelevant, and that both the city-state and Hong Kong show that small cities with deep water ports and good banking facilities were always destined to flourish in the region, despite their very different political models. “As relatively easily managed city states, with highly motivated and purely immigrant populations,” Studwell writes, “Hong Kong and Singapore perform a simple economic trick: they arbitrage the relative economic inefficiency of their hinterlands. In other words, business comes to them because they perform certain tasks — principally services — a little better than surrounding countries.”

By Me Last Week: GrabTaxi Is Becoming Grab

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The story begins:

Uber Technologies Inc.’s main rival in Southeast Asia wants people to know that it—like the San Francisco, Calif. startup—offers not just taxis, but private cars.

Singapore-based GrabTaxi Holdings Pte. Ltd. said Thursday it is shortening its name to simply Grab. The goal: to highlight that in addition to allowing users to book taxis in 28 cities across Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines and Vietnam, it also offers newer services like private cars—not to mention car pooling and even motorbike rides.

The re-branding comes as competition heats up for new users in the populous region. The U.S.’s Lyft Inc. in December said it was teaming up with GrabTaxi — er, make that Grab — and ANI Technologies Pvt. Ltd.’s Ola in India to permit users of each app to hail rides from drivers of the other apps while traveling abroad. That gives the alliance more leverage to compete against Uber, a global titan that has expanded its ride sharing platform, which includes private cars and taxis in some markets, to more than 370 cities across 68 countries since launching in the U.S. in 2010.

President Obama, ‘If You Were a Rohingya…”

A Thai attendee at a recent Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative event at the White House asked President Obama the following question: “If you were a Rohinya, which country would you prefer to live in, and why?”

Now, the question drew snickers, because it’s a bit odd to ask the world’s most powerful man what he would do if he were a member of one of the world’s most persecuted peoples.

But it was actually an effective query because it forced him to personalize the question. Part of his answer: I think I’d like to live in the country where I was born.

For more on the plight of the Rohingya, here’s a recent story providing the context:

Since early May, more than 4,600 boat people from Myanmar and Bangladesh have been brought ashore from Southeast Asian waters. Several thousand more are believed to still be at sea after human smugglers abandoned their boats amid a regional crackdown.

Some are Bangladeshis who left their impoverished homeland in hope of finding jobs abroad. But many are Rohingya Muslims who have fled persecution in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, which has denied them basic rights, including citizenship, and confined more than 100,000 to camps. There are more than one million Rohingya living in the country formerly known as Burma.

You can also click on the Rohingya tag to see posts I’ve written about them dating back to 2009.

(Formatting note: This link to the video should take you to the 41:58 mark in the video, when President Obama was asked the question. The embedded video starts from the beginning of the event.)

Arsenal Players + Durian = Funny

English Premier League sides Arsenal, Everton and Stoke are coming here to Singapore in July for some pre-season exhibition matches.

Ahead of the trip, Arsenal players were asked to try the notoriously stinky durian fruit, native to Southeast Asia. Love their reactions.

The video is embedded above and on YouTube here.

By Me Today: GrabTaxi’s Splashing the Cash New R&D Center, More Staff

The story begins:

Southeast Asia-focused Taxi booking app GrabTaxi says it’s about to splash the cash, mostly on new hires.

The Singapore-based company said Wednesday it will spend $100 million over the next five years on a new research and development center in the city-state, with a “significant portion” of that sum going to lure talent.

GrabTaxi, which launched in 2012 and operates in 20 cities across six countries, said in December it secured a $250 million investment from Japanese telecommunications and Internet giant SoftBank.

That brought its total funding nearly $340 million, with its valuation as of December reaching $1 billion, according to data from The Wall Street Journal and Dow Jones VentureSource.

Among the new hires GrabTaxi says it has recently made are Kevin Lee, who was head of Asia for U.S. data mining software company Palantir Technologies. Another is Arul Kumaravel, who previously held a senior engineering role Amazon.com.

By Me Today: Uber’s Controversial ‘Surge Pricing’ in Sydney

Earlier today, I wrote:

Uber acted quickly Monday in an attempt to tamp down the latest controversy to hit the company, saying it is offering passengers free rides amid an unfolding siege at a Sydney café after complaints that rates had soared to exorbitant levels.

The reversal came just a short time after the ride-sharing app drew criticism on Twitter for saying it was raising prices to attract more drivers to the city’s central business district, where at least one gunman had taken hostages in a cafe and placed an Islamic flag in the window, sparking concerns a terrorist attack was under way.

The fare uptick was the result of an Uber policy called surge pricing, in which an algorithm charges customers more money during times of high demand — as was apparently the case in Sydney. Some users reported that the minimum fare had skyrocketed to $100 Australian dollars ($82) for a ride.

Click through for more. And for updates about the situation in Sydney, see our live blog.

Meanwhile, I neglected to mention that I recently wrote about Uber’s regulatory issues in Southeast Asia.