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




Laos: A Tale of Two Cities


Of all the locations on our itinerary, Laos is probably the one we knew least about and had done nearly no advance reading on.  The only land-locked country in S/E Asia, Laos doesn’t have an obvious wow factor to poach tourists from its neighbours. No Bangkok or Saigon, and while it certainly doesn’t lack interesting ancient temples, it has nothing in the scale of Angkor in Cambodia.

However, therein lies some of its charm. Laos feels calm, relaxed and is certainly less hectic than its Vietnamese neighbour. On arriving it had more in common with Cambodia – although the capital Vientiane is much smaller than its Cambodian counterpart Phnom Penh, which is no bad thing.

Vientiane has to be the smallest and quietest capital city we have ever visited. Sitting on the banks of the Mekong, you can view the northeast border of Thailan. The river was high when we visited, but in the dry season we were told there are numerous mud flats meaning you can actually make the journey across on foot for part of the year. Being so compact it’s quite easy to visit several of the main tourist attractions of Vientiane in a few days: a smattering of temples; a beautiful reclining Bhudda;


French colonial architecture; a rather endearing but tired version of the Arc de Triomphe; and a very grand Presidential Palace which seems strangely incongruous in what is one of the only Marxist-Leninist Socialist Republics in the world…


Nice pad comrade!

Sam and I are trying to avoid the travellers affliction of getting “templed-out” on our trip by visiting other sites, museums and attractions. In Vientiane this led us to a fascinating but shocking discovery about the legacy of the Vietnam War that Laos continues to live with over 40 years after the last shots were fired.


While we knew that the USA had bombed Laos and Cambodia as part of their efforts to disrupt the Ho Chi Minh trail, we didn’t appreciate the scale of the bombardment or its nature. We discovered more when we visited a medical centre that provides artificial limbs and treatment for the victims of land mines in Laos.

Incredibly, the USAF dropped more bombs on Laos than was dropped by the allies in Europe in WWII – 2 million tonnes of ordnance between 1964 and 1973; 580,000 missions, equivalent to a bombing raid every eight minutes 24 hours a day for nine years. Laos had more bombs dropped on it during the Vietnam war, despite having nothing to do with the war, than Vietnam itself.  As a result, Laos continues to hold the unwanted record of being the most bombed country in the world per capita.

If that wasn’t bad enough the “bombs” contained millions of small bombs known as “bombies” – the size of a tennis ball. 30% of these failed to detonate, leaving 80 million bombies scattered throughout the country at the end of the war. In turn this led to over 20,000 people being killed or injured by the unexploded bombs between 1975 and 2011.


A model of “bombies” at the COPE Centre

These bombies, which lie dormant for decades, are still being detonated today by farmers digging their land, the heat of an adjacent cooking pot, or commonly children discovering and playing with one. Having swathes of agricultural land, where farming can kill or maim you, prolongs the deadly legacy and poverty in Laos. Poverty also leads some to hunt for the scrap metal left from the war – a dangerous game of Russian roulette. The good news is that real progress is being made on bomb clearance making areas safe again, although this work can be undone in rainy season when mudslides and landslips mean that areas already declared safe once again become dangerous and need to be surveyed once again. It is a thoroughly depressing story that continues to create casualties today. The devastation caused by the USAs so called ‘Secret War’ is an epitaph to the war crimes of LBJ and Nixon.

Our visit to the COPE centre in Vientiane displayed not only the terrible consequences of the bombing, but the remarkable rehabilitation work to supply victims with new limbs and physiotherapy – a really inspiring effort in the face of what must seem like insurmountable odds.  If you are interested in reading more about their work it can be found at:


A short flight took us north to Luang Prabang, a Unesco World Heritage site. On landing we immediately knew we had arrived somewhere special, with jungle and mountains bordering a gorgeous town that sits as a peninsula between the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers. Both rivers were high, topped up by rainy season and full of mud gorged from the fields and plantations that usually form their embankments. The speed of the rivers, especially at their confluence was an amazing sight.


Go on, push him in..

Despite the surrounding geography, the centre of Luang Prabang is pancake flat – perfect for pottering around on bicycles, especially ones that have no brakes, gears or lights (though they did come with baskets). We spent our first day gently rolling around the town, getting our bearings and making several pit stops for delicious homegrown banana smoothies.

Beside the Nam Khan River we came across a sign inviting us to a lovely riverside cafe – one catch: it’s on the other side of the river only accessible by a small boat. We parked the bikes and gingerly stepped onto the boat, sitting down among the liberally distributed life jackets. Off we went battling the current when suddenly the engine stalled and for a moment we thought we might be making another unscheduled trip to the Mekong Delta.


Happily after a few moments the engine spluttered back into life and we made it to the other side, rewarding ourselves with sublime crepes while perched precariously above the river.


Luang Prabang as well as being wonderful to pronounce is a delight, certainly comparable to Hoi An in Vietnam. The night  market is full of stalls selling local goods – (no fake designer tat like the other markets) and totally hassle-free – Laotians don’t do hassle; fab street food, excellent restaurants in beautiful wooden French colonial buildings, temples with bhudda’s galore, and the two stunning rivers regularly popping into view as you glance down a street one way or the other.


During one of our cycle trips we came across an old iron bridge only accessible for  motorbikes. We weren’t entirely sure if it was meant for cycles but decided to go for it. The wooden slats wobbled as we peddled our way nervously across facing the oncoming motorbikes just inches from our wheels.  We became increasingly aware of the queue of motorbikes patiently building up behind us as we pootled our way across, as illustrated by the stubborn tricyclist below…


On returning we found a narrow section of bridge which we thought might be intended for pedestrian access and thought it might be a safer option to push our bikes along this quieter, but considerably narrower route….so began the terror. This part of the bridge was made up of planks of wood, most of which were loose, and in one or two spots had disappeared altogether into the Nam Khan River below which was a long way down, very deep and fast flowing. Every now and then the front wheels of our bikes would slip down a gap between the planks, and we had to yank the wheel out causing the wood to creak and shake. Neither of us uttered a word during the crossing, a sure sign we were both properly scared and just wanted it to be over. It probably took us 10 minutes to cross, but it felt an awful lot longer.


When we eventually stepped back onto terra firma an elderly gentleman stood looking at us bewildered by our antics. “Good afternoon” I said in my best Hugh Grant voice, while Sam plonked herself down in the kerb and tried to regain some composure. I don’t know why but at no point, not even a few yards in did we ever consider stopping and going back, as if forward was our only option.


Smiling through gritted teeth

Luang Prabang is also a great base to visit the surrounding countryside that offers waterfalls, caves and elephant treks. We adore elephants (who doesn’t) and took a trip to a sanctuary where they have been spared a life of logging. Being with an elephant up close never fails to be a jaw dropping experience, their size, strength, and beauty overwhelming the senses.


After feeding them bananas we hopped on their necks for a ride through the jungle to a watering hole. It’s a strange sensation feeling yourself rock from side to side as your elephant lumbers forward, with nothing to hold on to. Despite being given some basic instructions (forward, left, right, stop….stop, PLEASE STOP!!) they regularly wander off the route to find whatever food they can forage to feed their voracious appetite.


You just have to hope that you aren’t going to be decapitated by overhanging branches or launched into the mud head first several feet below! Riding an elephant into a watering hole is exhilarating and terrifying, watching your elephant slowly disappear into the water leaving you marooned on her head and back, trunk sloshing about joyfully. We can’t get enough of elephants and will be staying in an AirBnB located in an elephant sanctuary in Thailand next week – can’t wait!


Another must see is Kuang Si waterfalls – famed for their bright blue water. However in rainy season the falls are a gushing torrent, milky coffee in colour, and are an absolutely drenching spectacle.


With waters high and wild lots of the paths and viewing platforms are closed or actually under water.


In the park area we unexpectedly came across a sanctuary for Moon Bears – much smaller than black bears, but looking equally adorable. These bears have been rescued from farms where their bile is extracted for “health benefits”. Sadly many have spent years in cages and can’t be released into the wild, unable to fed themselves and at the mercy of poachers. The sanctuary they are in is spacious, but it is sad to see fences keeping them in. The lesser of two evils.


On our last day in Laos we found that the Mekong had calmed and we took the opportunity to take a boat trip out to see it close up – beautiful and serene. When we set off we didn’t think about how often we would meet the Mekong and what an incredible river it is, sustaining so many communities and lives on its path from the mountains in the north, right through to the Delta.



The River isn’t without controversy, with Laos building dams along its course with the aim of being the hydro-electricity powerhouse of the region. However there are real concerns about how that will affect the rivers’ ecology and sustainability downstream, particularly for Cambodia and Vietnam.


Laos, the quiet relation of S/E Asia has been a very relaxing leg on our journey, and Luang Prabang will be one of our highlights of our travels.

Next Week – 10 years on we return to Chiang Mai in Thailand: same same but different.