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




Singapore: A Sensational Assault on the Senses

Gardens By The Bay At Sunset

Singapore was always going to feel like a very different stop on our travels through South East Asia. After the relatively chaotic nature of cities like Hanoi, Chiang Mai and to a lesser extent Kuala Lumpur, would it be too cold and clinical compared to the hospitality and warmth of its neighbours? Happily, our five days in Singapore was a really good balance: enjoying its creature comforts – something as simple as walking on pavements unencumbered by mopeds or craters – stunning architecture and gardens; and vibrant ethnic neighbourhoods.

As you would expect, Downtown Singapore is very built up, resembling a clean-cut cross between Hong Kong and Manhattan.


One of the striking features of the modern skyscrapers is how much greenery has been incorporated into the design. As a result “vertical gardens” complement the glass and concrete beautifully throughout the downtown area. Combined with bays and rivers it makes for an engrossing built environment that demands attention and appreciation.

Vertical Gardens Galore

Dotted among the modernism are colonial style buildings that act as a reminder of an evocative past when the streets were full of rickshaws, opium dens flourished in China Town, and the Singapore Sling had just been concocted. Sadly one of the best known colonial buildings, Raffles Hotel, is currently being renovated so we didn’t get a chance to see much of it beyond glimpses  above construction hoardings.

Nowhere is the City’s commitment to greening more beautiful and stunning than Gardens by the Bay. This was one of the “must sees” on our travel to do list and it lived up to our very high expectations. Covering a huge area, the Gardens are dominated by the Supertree Grove and two huge glasshouses.

Looking down on Gardens By The Bay and the Shipping Lanes Beyond

The Supertrees are straight out of a sci-fi film, towering over the gardens, the “trunks” covered in flowers and foliage, while the “branches” stretch out carrying illuminations. You take an elevator inside the “tree” to get to the “Observation Deck” (how very Star Trek!) where you can get up close to the trees and survey the “forest”.

Super Tree Walkway

The best time to visit the Grove is late afternoon early evening as the sun is going down and the lights on the trees begin to glow, the colours constantly changing with the sunset. It makes for a magical sight, another experience we will treasure, but unlike the many natural wonders we have seen, this is man made ingenuity, a wonderful marriage of design and horticulture at its very best.

Lighting Up

Local families and sightseers gather for the Supertree Light Show that takes place twice in the evenings, when the trees light up in harmony to a soundtrack. “Tonight’s show” a voice sounding a bit like Hal from 2001: A Space Odyssey “will be on the theme of musical theatre”. On hearing this a little part of me died inside, but to be fair the show was fantastic, a symphony of lights and colour that made the Grove flash out against the nights backdrop. I even managed to appreciate a few seconds of Phantom of the Opera……just a few. Sharing this experience with hundreds of people gathered round on the grass was a delight and Sam captured a bit of great footage..


The two giant glasshouses comprise a Flower Dome and a Cloud Forest. The former is impressive, but the Cloud Forest really is jaw-dropping.

Cloud Forest Waterfall

Waterfalls cascade down a mini-mountain of flora creating a fine mist, among lovely orchids and rare plants.

A Forest Under Glass

Every effort is made to create a superb visitor experience and even though you are one of hundreds slowly wending their way through the forest it never felt crowded or hurried.

Misty Mountain Top

Towards the Bay Area sits the iconic Marina Bay Sands Hotel, quite unlike any other building in the city centre. Sam thinks the design of the top section is based on a surfboard, while it reminded me of something far more mundane, an ironing board. Judge for yourself….


Stonehenge maybe?

The plateau roof boasts a remarkable infinity pool, but it looks horribly crowded as hotel guests elbow each other for a bit of space to claim their perfect Insta shot. Like all tall buildings these days the hotel has a viewing deck (top right in the pic above) that has great views of Gardens by the Bay on one side and the city on the other.

Above The Flyer

It even manages to look down on the Singapore Flyer – largest wheel of its kind in the world providing more views of the city, sitting above the Singapore’s F1 track that hosts a night time Grand Prix. We took a spin on the Wheel – although at 30 minutes to rotate you hardly feel any movement.

As night falls the City lights up beautifully.

Up-lit Downtown


If this all sounds as though it does confirm the modern Singapore stereotype that would be a bit unfair as there are three neighbourhoods that literally bring you back down to earth with their age, authenticity, colour and vibrancy.

Street Art by Arab Street

I have to confess a real ignorance about Singapore: I had no idea about its ethnicity or language (I actually asked Sam “do they speak Singaporean”?) No, the ethnic mix of Chinese (76%), Indian (7%), and the indigenous Malay (15%), with a few others thrown in, means there is a mix of languages, although its colonial history  means that everyone seems to be able to speak English.

With this mix comes the three neighbourhoods of Chinatown, Little India, and the Arab Quarter. We saw some of Chinatown where it borders the Downtown area so we decided to spend more time in the other two.

Looking Cool in the Arab Quarter – it was about 35 degrees!

The Arab Quarter is relatively small but boasts a lot of tourist activity along the busy and pretty roads around Arab Street, the local Mosque and Malay Heritage Centre.


Colourful street art sits alongside buzzing cafes, independent shops, and cool bars. It’s the ideal spot to window shop and given the heat, regularly stop at cafes for refreshments and people watching.

Little India on the other hand is a much bigger area where the large Tamil population are based, in crowded streets where the noise, shops and stalls engulf you.

Shoppers Paradise


Little India Market

The indoor market is fabulous fun, drawing you in and saturating you with colour, fragrances and warm welcoming smiles.

Friendly Little India

This area feels nothing like the Singapore we expected, and it’s all the better for that, reminding visitors of the diversity of the City and an environment that feels a million miles from its high-tech neighbour just a mile or two Downtown.

The Double Helix Bridge

..and amid that modernity there is fun as well. On passing one of Singapore’s huge shopping malls a glittering chandelier caught our eyes. Further investigation revealed a giant sparkling light set above a digitally interactive dance floor where children cavorted about gleefully, seeing their footsteps create patterns on the floor. A joyful scene that made Singapore more endearing than we ever imagined it could be. It’s not typical South-East Asia, and it’s certainly not cheap, but it’s worth the effort and expense – there really is no place like it.

Not Your Usual Mall

Top Travelling Tips – Embracing the Bum Gun

South East Asia doesn’t have the most robust sewerage systems in the world and in most countries there will be a polite message by the toilet reminding you not to put paper down the loo but rather in the bin. Before you recoil at this, that paper should have been used for a gentle pat dry after deploying the Bum Gun. Plumbed into nearly every loo is a sort of hand-held bidet that shoots out jets of water to clean what needs to be cleaned. After overcoming my usual British reserve I have learnt to embrace the Bum Gun – metaphorically and literally. However, a word to the wise, care should be taken. Somewhere in Thailand I had become a bit Bum Gun “trigger happy” and rather gung-ho when I came across one that had its water pressure set so high I nearly shot off the pedestal. That one really made the eyes water – got the job done though!


Next Up: Orang-utans & Bataks in Volcanic Sumatra