South East Asia: Reflections On Six Months of Travel

Sunrise Over the South China Sea

After six months of travelling throughout South East Asia, we’ve come to the end of this leg of our journey. Where better to reflect on our experiences, and what we’ve learned, than relaxing in the heat of sun-kissed Perth for Christmas and the New Year before we set off again. 

First here are the crude numbers: 7 countries; 24,000+ miles; 50 hotels; 25 flights; 1000+ mosquito bites (Sam thinks that’s a conservative estimate!); 5 haircuts; 20 blogs; 100,000+ Chinese tourists (there may be some South Koreans in that estimate); 28 books read; 1000+ photos; and no arrests!

 Here are brief thoughts on each country we’ve visited 


To quote Frank S “if I can make it there…. I can make it anywhere”. Manic Vietnam is probably the best place to start a trip in S/E Asia –  it’s a complete shock to European sensibilities, especially the omnipresent motorbikes. But once you’ve adjusted to and embraced the mayhem, everywhere else will feel serene (except Phnom Penh and Jakarta). Sitting cheek by jowl with the vibrancy are gorgeous beaches, stunning scenery, a truly fascinating ancient and modern history, and welcoming people. For some reason Vietnam will always be a personal favourite for us, the wild child of S/E Asia, the tearaway younger sibling China can’t tame. Long may that continue. 

You need hands…Ba Na Hills


We only saw two cities in Laos and one of those was the dull capital Vientiane. So we have a lot more to see and learn about Laos. However, Luang Prabang was one of the stars of our journey, a beautiful town wedged between two great roaring rivers, with picturesque buildings and a calming atmosphere. We visited Luang Prabang out of season, which was probably a good thing as we hear it can be a bit overwhelmed at other times. We definitely need to return to Laos.

The Mighty Mekong flowing beside Luang Prabang


Like Laos we only managed two cities and again didn’t like the capital at all, but you have to go to learn first hand about the Killing Fields. Siem Reap on the other hand was another gem and not solely due to being the base for Angkor Wat explorations. It’s a lovely town and the people in Cambodia are incredibly friendly and warm. Of course Angkor Wat is astonishing – the range and beauty of the temples are unique, the crown jewels among the treasures of S/E Asia. It’s a must see and make sure you give it enough time. We spent five days exploring the temples and could have taken longer still.


Writing a blog on the experience of the Killing Fields was difficult: trying to find the right words and images to express anger and outrage alongside respect and humility.   Without question this was the most bewildering and upsetting experience of our trip so far. The sight of the tree where children were murdered will never leave us, nor should it. 



Good old Thailand – same same but different for us as we revisited some familiar haunts, but also discovered  new treats. In and around Bangkok has so much to offer, but the real surprises for us were the inexplicably low-profile ruins and temples at Sukothai, the jaw-dropping limestone karst scenery at Khao Sok National Park, and beach life at Krabi, all of which left us re-appraising our favourite Thai places. We also endured one night in the worst hotel of our trip, monkey-ridden Lopburi. Don’t go!

Ruins at Sukothai


Having briefly visited KL before we didn’t know what to expect from the rest of the country and were delighted with what we discovered. Multi-cultural, relaxed, great food and architecture. Plus you have the joy of the Peninsula (with another city highlight for us – GeorgeTown); and Malaysian Borneo which kind of feels like another country, but because it’s Malaysia is very accessible and manageable for travellers. Fantastic street art can be found in nearly every town and city. The wildlife and jungle is something else again. We’ve still got the central highlands and the east coast peninsula to explore, so we will definitely be returning. It’s a very relaxed place…..



We came to Singapore with a bit of a cynical “will it be clinical” mindset and left it starry-eyed. What an island! Take Hong Kong, stir in some Manhattan and add a dash of  Vegas with some great ethnic neighbourhoods and colonial charm thrown in. It’s not cheap but you can spend judiciously and have a great time. Soooo many highlights here but Gardens by the Bay is just remarkable. Anywhere that makes you wander around smiling like a wide-eyed kid has got to be great. 

Gardens by the Bay


We’ve visited three of the main islands (Sumatra, Java and Bali) and I still don’t have the foggiest idea of how to capture the essence of this country. I’m not sure the people do either. Maybe that’s its secret: the diversity of beliefs, peoples, languages, and the vast archipelago itself. It’s got it all, wild beauty, dense jungle, Borobudur, volcanic lakes, Balinese beaches and the most hospitable hosts. It has a horrible health and safety track record that can fray the nerves somewhat. Nevertheless it’s a really enigmatic place that has been fascinating to experience, and we didn’t make it to Komodo so we will be back to explore more.

Lake Toba

Mekong River

Okay it’s not a country but for several months it was a feature of our journey seeing it rolling alongside four of the countries we visited. From the deep red mud saturated delta in Can Tho, Vietnam to the bulging fast-flowing river crashing alongside Luang-Prabang, witnessing and boating along this mighty river fulfilled a lifetimes ambition. 

Dawn on the Floating Market on the Mekong, Can Tho

So, what have we learnt?

It would be easy to gush about all of wonderful experiences we have had – and there have been plenty. But we’ve always tried to balance the superlatives with some of the day to day realities of travelling in this region. Here are some random thoughts, compliments and complaints.

S/E Asians – the world’s friendliest people?

After you grow accustomed to the friendliness of the people of S/E Asia it is easy to take it for granted, but it’s such a warm welcome you get everywhere in this part of the world. Some of it is pure generosity, some of it is inquisitiveness, and at other times it’s amusement, but it’s always with goodwill and a smile on the face. Admittedly as travellers we encounter a lot of people in the service industry whose job it is to be welcoming – but just consider that proposition for a moment and apply it to London or Paris! 


Life’s a Beach

I’m not sure we are ever going to be able to hobble back onto the pebbled beach at home in Brighton and Hove after this trip. Talk about being spoilt!  The choice seems to be as endless as some of the stretches of beaches. Soft clean sand, warm crystal clear waters, and the sun beating down in what was often allegedly “rainy season”.  Having said that, it does pay to check whether you need to be on east or west coast of Thailand to avoid monsoon. The only cloud on this idyllic horizon? Litter. As the blog from Mui Ne (What a Waste) illustrated – when it’s bad, it’s appalling. Someone is making a lot of money from tourism and not re-investing in basic infrastructure. That needs to change.

Beautiful Quy Nhon

Travelling not Holidaying

A corollary to our beach time has been the understanding that we are travelling and not on holiday, which in turn means not feeling guilty about having downtime. Doing nothing is not only fine, it’s essential to avoid total exhaustion. Sleeping well and eating as healthily as we can has also been key to our wellbeing. We haven’t over-planned things, rarely booking flights or accommodation more than 3 weeks ahead. Occasionally that has left us nervously wondering where we will be sleeping next week, but wifi has improved out of all recognition here and its been very easy to get online, understand and sort visa’s and book hotels, flights etc with the minimum of fuss.

Borneo Sunset

Back-Packing or Flash-Packing?

When we meet people on our travels and tell them our plans they often say something along the lines of “how wonderful, backpacking through South-East Asia”. We haven’t corrected this assumption because it makes us sound very adventurous and hardy. However, backpacking we are not! The idea of spending one minute let alone a night in a hostel sharing the same bathroom and oxygen with a bunch of hairy arsed flatulent 20 somethings is totally out of the question! We are “mature” travellers and need some level of comfort and privacy. It turns out that as with everything in life there is a label for us – we are “flash-packers”.  And with the incredibly affordable cost of living in South-East Asia and a reasonable but not over-indulgent budget, it’s possible to lead a very comfortable “flash-pack” life here.  Back-packer or Flash-packer?

Travelling light

Japanese Occupation WWII and its Legacy

As we’ve worked our way through countries and cities, reading about their history the common thread of the impact of Japanese occupation has surfaced frequently. In some cases at high profile sites such as Kanchanburi, but also at the lesser known: the Sandakan Death Marches that was an act of mass murder. It’s made us realise how little we know about the WWII Pacific theatre of conflict. Inevitably what little we do know tends to focus on Allied forces, but time and again we discovered the brutality and terrible losses the indigenous populations suffered at the hands of Japanese imperialism. Their departure created vacuums that nationalists tried to fill, but not before dreadful, misguided campaigns by the French, British, Dutch and USA caused further suffering and enmity. Seeing the work of COPE in Laos supporting victims of land mines was for us one of the most eye-opening experiences of this legacy, the effects of which continues today.


One Road, One Belt…..a big cheque book and a lot of debt.

Anyone who has (inexplicably) read a lot of our blogs will have noticed a recurrent theme: an antipathy towards China and Chinese tourists. This isn’t borne out of some irrational jingoistic prejudice. More a case of speaking as we find. It’s no secret that many third world countries have welcomed Chinese investment with open arms – why wouldn’t they? The problem is that many of these projects are destroying the environment and further harming endangered species, for example the Threat to Orang-Utans in Sumatra and the damming of the Mekong in Laos that will change the nature of the River downstream forever: Impact of Dams on the Mekong River. In addition to the environmental harm the Dam collapse in Laos in July killed 39 people and left thousands homeless. What is more, China’s huge One Road, One Belt project seems to have a canny knack of channelling its benefits back to the homeland.

Having invested so much in South East Asia it’s little wonder that the new Chinese middle classes who are now holidaying abroad in their millions treat it as if they own it – they kinda do!  Their graceless behaviour neatly leads us onto another gripe….

All Hail Insta-Culture!

Now we have no problem with Instagram, in fact if you go to  #samjohntravelogue on Instagram (shameless plug) you will find a thriving collection of some of our favourite travel images. There are no selfies. You won’t see a picture of Sam blocking out a perfect sunset or a gorgeous ancient temple with a vacant smile and two fingers in the air. Worse still you will not see a picture of one of us sitting crossed legged in a meditation pose in front of an image of Bhudda while out of shot hundreds of irritated sweating tourists mill around waiting to do the same. It seems to be a growing problem:  Instagram Snappers Hogging NZ Beauty Spot

“When you think you’ve gone too far…go farther”

Democracy – it’s so overrated

There is no denying that there are some dubious political practices and situations in this part of the world where there have been abuses of power. Men who were once freedom fighters have slipped easily into the role of dictators, holding onto power despite shocking levels of inequality and grinding poverty. It would be easy to point to a lack of true democracy in some countries. However, the recent pantomime performance of western-style democracy in the UK, USA, and Australia does leave you wondering who, if anyone, is getting it right.

We didn’t have any particular desire to visit Myanmar but would not do so on principal given the genocide that has taken place there over the past two years. It’s also been disturbing to see a serious shift towards some rabid homophobia – particularly in parts of Indonesia – in order to win votes. 

Books, Books, Glorious Books.

One of the unexpected joys of our trip has been having time to read and enjoy books in a way that we could never do when working. Biographies, crime thrillers, philosophy,  and spy novels have all been devoured. It’s interesting to see the path that we’ve followed in selecting books, where one novel has led us on to another.  Sam has been much more eclectic in her tastes, currently devouring Michelle Obama’s ‘Becoming”, while I’ve become obsessed with George Smiley, enjoying the time we have to read every Le Carre book he appears in. 


What started out as a bit of an informal diary so that a few family and friends can keep track of us has turned into a monster! I’m a slave to it, constantly trying to source interesting stories, perspectives, and appropriate photos. It’s been great fun and it’s a brilliant way to keep track of what we’ve done. Comments and likes from readers is such a pleasant surprise. There have been times when I’ve got really frustrated with the limits of my vocabulary, and on one dreadful occasion I somehow lost nearly all of a blog I’d been writing for an hour or two. I crash out a rough copy then Sam patiently polishes it, correcting grammar, carefully editing and occasionally pointing out that “this paragraph makes absolutely no sense at all”. 

Working From Home

Jungle Wildlife

Last and most certainly not least we come to what we both agree is the highlight of our journey so far – wonderful wild animals. The sheer majestic beauty of lumbering Asian Elephants frolicking in rivers. Fireflies mysteriously lighting up a pitch black sky. Tree vipers lurking above our heads; Monitor Lizards scampering by our feet; Monkeys galore from the cute Dusky Leaf Monkey, ubiquitous long tailed macaques, and the downright bizarre Proboscis Monkey. Gibbons hollering and swinging through treetops. Sun and Moon Bears in their sanctuaries protected from poachers.


The highlight of the highlight? The moment after hours of trekking through the jungle we looked up and saw wild Orang-Utans just a few metres above us in the trees. It was overwhelming and very emotional.

Orangutan Mother and Child


Finally, we would like to say a bug thank you to everyone who has taken the time to read our thoughts, and send so much generous feedback. It really is appreciated and we look forward to resuming our musings in 2019 with blogs from our travels in Australia.

In the meantime Happy New Year and All The Best for 2019.

Sam & John xx




Angkor Wat – A Wonderful World!


We’ve made our way to our second country, flying from Sai Gon to a quiet and modern airport in Siem Reap, Cambodia. First impressions were very positive, after the traffic mayhem of Vietnam, Cambodia feels calm & the Khmer people are so very warm & friendly. Although in use for a number of years now “Cambodia” doesn’t register as the name of the country with the local people who’ve experienced more name changes than most – they think of themselves as Khmer, & reference to Kampuchea is more likely to be acknowledged than ‘Cambodia’.

We will return to the Country’s troubled history in the next blog, but our first week was to focus on the Angkor Park area. Thanks to a great tip from our friend Jerry we hooked up with a local guide (Kheleur) a few weeks before we arrived. He set up 5 days of visits for us in the Angkor area, with a number of dawn starts. We haven’t had such an intense tourist schedule since we left home so we wisely slotted in a ‘rest day’ in the middle of the programme. As he was booked up Kheleur organised a guide, car & driver for us.

The week that followed was fabulous. It becomes apparent very quickly why Angkor Wat and the surrounding area is a Unesco World Heritage site that always crops up in the top 5 listings of “must see” places to visit in the world.


We don’t have the vocabulary to do anything like justice to the raw beauty of Angkor, it’s tempting to stop writing now & let lots of pictures do the talking. We will endeavour though, trying to point out our highlights & for what it’s worth our advice should you visit (you should – there is nowhere quite like this).


The first thing to say is that Angkor Wat itself is just one of a vast series of temples and if you want to experience the area it’s worth spending at least 2/3 days exploring – but the more you can manage, the better. A guide will enhance the experience enormously. You can hire a Tuk Tuk & use a map/guide, but you won’t get the rich detail a good guide can provide or see some of the less visited temples that are off the beaten track. Having travelled so far to see Angkor it’s worth shelling out a bit more as it’s likely to be a once in a lifetime experience that you will never forget. Our guide Buntheoun was wonderful company, his passion for Angkor, its history, and the Khmer people shone through, bringing to life the astonishing temples and the beautiful carvings that adorn them.


Angkor was the capital of the Khmer Empire from the 9th to 15th Centuries, becoming the largest city in the world in the 12th century. The scale of the buildings, their complexity and the carvings are reminiscent of the skills and ingenuity it must have taken to build the Pyramids.


What adds to the wild beauty of the temples is their co-existence with trees and jungle that at many sites are as much a feature as the buildings themselves. None more so than Ta Prohm (also known as the Tomb Raider Temple as this is where some of the film was shot) where giant trees have taken root & wrap themselves around the temples – it’s hard to tell if the trees are holding up the temples or vice-versa.


Despite the best efforts of conservation & restoration there are crumbling walls & large blocks of sandstone strewn about the sites, but this adds to the sense of unworldliness at Angkor, you really do feel that you’ve stepped back in time into a lost jungle empire.


Many of the carvings relate to Hindu folklore or Bhuddas, none more so than at Bayon one of the few sites where Bhuddist imagery hasn’t been removed in favour of Shiva, Vishnu & Brahma. Here we found dozens of Bhudda faces staring out at us benignly as the clouds opened & we enjoyed a rainy season downpour that eased the heat & humidity.


Bunthoeun guided us to sites off the tourist trail that we shared with just a handful of other gobsmacked visitors – so special.

We were up at 4.30 the next day to watch sunrise at Angkor Wat – far more company for this event but the temple is large & not overcrowded in rainy season. It’s tempting to focus on the lotus flower shaped towers at Angkor Wat, the archetypal image that has been replicated in the national flag. However, there is real treasure to be found in the gallery that runs around parts of the building, where intricate carvings depict images of life, heaven & hell. The quality and detail of a section completed in the 12th century is incredible. Many walked past these without giving them much of a glance. Happily for us Bunthoeun talked us through the galleries remarkable stories, that are still being told 800 years later – what a fitting tribute to the craftsmen and women who created them.

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After a rest day we visited Banteay Srei, known as the Woman’s Temple that has beautiful decoration in sandstone. A few local people had mentioned this as their favourite in Angkor, in part due to the detail and depth of the decoration which are amazing

We then took a jungle trek into the hills to discover ancient Hindu carvings in streams and waterfalls. How these have survived erosion & remain so vivid is a mystery. As we trekked back down the hill we could hear gibbons calling to each other, a wonderful sound but no sighting.

Close to Siem Reap is Tonle Sap, the largest freshwater lake in S/E Asia. The lake supports a large proportion of the Country’s population, growing with the lake in rainy season. Our boat took us alongside the eerie flooded forests..


and the fishing villages built on stilts alongside the river. Although they looked ramshackle on first appearance, they are really quite substantial and built to survive what the weather throws at them. We briefly sailed into the main body of the lake which is so large you would think you are at sea – a bit intimidating.


On our last day we visited a Bhuddist monastery, another dawn start, and met one of its monks, spending time listening to his prayers and chants. Sitting quietly cross-legged with the monk should have been a time of deep reflection, maybe enlightenment. Instead we found our minds drifting to the increasingly excruciating pain in our knees, and in my case a growing horror that a bit of a dodgy tummy was about to announce itself in the most inappropriate way imaginable. No matter how serene the monk was, I don’t think he would have forgiven me that!

By way of complete contrast we finished the week at Siem Reap’s local market, where a wide variety of fruit, veg & other unusual delicacies are available. This included ants & ant eggs which became a necessary part of the diet during the starvation years of Khmer Rouge. Bunthoeun told us how these, along with many other foods which were eaten out of pure necessity, have become part of the regular diet of locals nowadays.


There was meat, OMG, so much meat & blood & guts &  heads & limbs & beaks & claws & eyeballs & axes & cleavers & chopping – a stark reminder that behind the sanitised packaging of supermarkets there is still traditional butchery….here on graphic display in the market in front of two nervous veggies.

And so our week came to an end, fascinating, breathtaking and wonderful. This will be one of our trip highlights. Siem Reap really is a lovely city with such welcoming people. As you’ll have gathered from our gushing comments we can’t recommend Angkor highly enough. Although there is no direct flight from the UK, tying in a visit with a trip to Bangkok, Saigon or Hanoi (all direct flights) would be perfect.


In our next blog we reflect on a very different aspect of Cambodia’s past as we visit The Killing Fields in Phnom Penh and learn of the terror of the Khmer Rouge.