This Canadian couple, recently retired, travelled independently for three months in Southeast Asia and wrote home about it, highlights of which are captured here.
This is the quintessential Southeast Asian travel experience, and one that Barb and Ben Dietrich—new to this kind of travel—undertook with obvious humour, curiosity and class.
What missing? Perhaps the Plain of Jars in Laos, Sapa in North Vietnam, the Mekong Delta in South Vietnam, Penang in Malaysia. So what. They left the farm to see the world and their itinerary is mighty impressive.
Barb and Ben’s Route
Thailand (Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Pia, Chiang Rai and Chiang Saen)
Laos (Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng, Vientienne)
North Vietnam (Hanoi, Halong Bay, Hue)
South Vietnam (Hoi An, Ho Chi Ming (Saigon)
Cambodia (Phnom Penh, Siem Reap)
Southern Thailand (Phuket, Nai Harn, Phi Phi Don, Ao Nang)
Malaysia (Kuala Lumpur, Melaka)
Here is their journey.
We started in Bangkok, which has approximately 12 million people. I will confess it was quite a culture shock! The dirt, garbage, poverty were shocking. Motorbikes are their main transportation as they are cheaper and much quicker to get around and horns honk non-stop but nobody seems to get too concerned. You never see road rage – which seems crazy when there appears to be so much chaos.
Markets are very popular – during the day and at night – but not once did the vendors hassle us as we walked around. The sex trade is big here and there are certain areas where you can go and see go-go girls out on the streets flaunting their stuff and trying to get picked by some wealthy man. It is not uncommon to see older men walking around with these beautiful women that they have bought for their pleasure. Many men walk the streets trying to get you to go to their bars; they will often ask you if you would like to play ping-pong. We googled “ping-pong” the next day and it is a type of sex game – that is all I need to say!
The temples are huge and are everywhere. The architecture is amazing with their slanted roofs and glittering glass and gold paint.
After Bangkok we went to see the floating market and the famous Bridge over the River Kwai where over 100,000 men died building the “Death Railway” to connect Burma to Thailand during WWII.
Then we flew north to Chiang Mai. First we took a half-day cooking class and I was referred to as the boring one as I didn’t want to use the hot chili peppers in my cooking. Then we hired a private guide to take us on a 2-day jungle trek to a hill tribe village and what an adventure it was. Our first stop was a visit to a village where the women wear brass rings on their necks and their necks look very stretched. But we found out that this is not the case – it is their shoulders that are pushed down, which condenses their rib cages. This ritual started many years ago because women were being attacked by wild animals and not able to defend themselves so they started wearing brass rings.
The next part of our tour was a trek to the hill tribe village. It was a good 3-hour trek almost straight up in the jungle in 35-degree heat. It was a really hard climb but we eventually made it. It was an authentic village, nothing staged. We stayed in a hut with another man and his child and our guide; we had our own sleeping room – just blankets on the ground. Our guide explained that the village was completely self sufficient with hunting, raising pigs and chickens, and growing all of their own vegetables. The children do not go to school. They live with just the basics – no furniture in their huts, which are made out of bamboo. But the biggest surprise was that they all had cell phones. How crazy is that!
Our supper was cooked over an open fire in the one small room they called their kitchen. How they don’t burn down the house is amazing. Our guide moved the fire out onto the porch and he played his guitar and explained more about the tribe and how there is still such a problem with opium among the people. The biggest observation we made was that these people were not malnourished and were quite happy with their lifestyle, maybe because they really don’t know anything different. We didn’t sleep much – between the hard floor, roosters crowing, cats meowing, and even gun shots going off, it was a long night.
Our guide made us breakfast and we started the trek down. It was very steep in places and hard on the old knees. We stopped at a beautiful waterfall where we had lunch. Then we rode an elephant for an hour, went white-water-river rafting in some pretty wild rapids, and finished up our tour with a peaceful ride on a bamboo raft. It was an amazing tour!
Pia is often referred to as the “hippy” town – very laid back from the crazy big cities we have visited. We had a little cottage on its own so we decided to take an extra day here to get our breath and rent some bicycles to see the countryside.
We went north of Chiang Rai and Chiang Saen to the Golden Triangle where three countries meet and you can see all three: Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar.
We are loving the experience of travelling in such a different part of the world! The culture here is truly amazing and almost every day brings something new.
We took the slow boat from Thailand into Laos. It was a two-day trip down the Mekong River and we stayed in a little village on the way down. It was a trip I will never forget.
We loaded on the boat at 9 in the morning. It had seating for 70 people and they loaded over 100 people on the boat. They won’t leave until the boat is full – so we waited over 3 hours. The seats are old car seats and none of them are bolted down. The driver lives on the boat so the back part of the boat is his home – you could see laundry hanging out the back.
There was not a life jacket to be found but no one seemed too concerned. On our second day we hit some rocks and cracked the casing on the propeller, so we went to shore and 2 of the men dove under water, pulled the casing off, and then using only two pieces of wood and a machete they fixed it and off we went. We saw the most amazing village scenery all along the way: many fishing lines in the water, women doing their laundry, children playing, gardens on every inch of available space. We even saw an elephant logging!
Our first stop in Laos was Luang Prabang and we were so ready for this and ended up staying a couple of extra nights, enjoying the restaurants and markets. The city is set in the mountains along the Mekong River and has beautiful Buddhist temples and French architecture. You see many women selling their goods and food on the streets, some even cooking the food as they walked along. There are many bamboo bridges; they have to be taken down during the rainy season when the water is higher than the bridge.
The next stop was Vang Vieng and it is beautiful, right on the Nam Song River with limestone mountains in the background. It’s a big backpacker town, famous for caving, rock climbing, trekking, kayaking and tubing. Apparently this town was featured on 20/20 not long ago because young kids flocked here for the tubing and villagers set up drink stops along the way. It became such a problem with drugs and alcohol and many deaths that in December the government banned all drink stops and imposed hefty fines for anyone breaking this law.
Ben and I did some tubing and could see young children hiding in the trees calling the tubers over to buy their alcohol but not wanting to get caught. We kayaked down the river and there were some pretty good rapids in spots but so calm in other areas. It took us a couple of hours to kayak back. It was beautiful.
The cave tour was done on a tube; you just follow the rope. We had to use headlights in order to see where we were going. A bell hanging in one of the caves was an old bombshell from the Vietnam War. Our guide told us that 5,000 bombs were dropped for every person in Laos and that the people used the caves to hide in.
Our last stop in Laos was Vientiane, described as one of the worlds most laid back capitals. We only stayed for one night. They have a beautiful walkway along the Mekong River that goes on for miles and you can see Thailand across the river. People cook on the sidewalks and you can stop and sit on little stools and have your lunch. It was very common to see women selling their goods from their bicycles. Can you imagine peddling around town all day with that weight on your bike!
We found a rooftop bar and met some very happy Laos men drinking green label Scotch. Ben says it is very expensive liquor at home and these 3 guys were on their second bottle and offered Ben a drink too. Sitting behind us were people from China who kept turning around and taking our picture. It was quite the night but so fun as our nightlife has been pretty limited.
Everyone seems to work in Laos. We have seen very few tractors and it is common to see water buffalo pulling the plough and workers in the field hand picking crops.
Travelling here is very cheap. Our hotels vary, usually from $30-$40.00/night and all have been very nice and clean and include a big breakfast, which keeps us going until supper. Dinner costs around $10.00 for the two of us. A local beer is 60¢ to a dollar and if you drink their draft beer, it can cost as low as 25¢. I can see why so many young backpackers love to travel here.
The songtao is one of their main modes of transportation. People sit along the benches and when the benches are full they stand on the back shelf and hang on.
Our travels continue to be going well and we are loving the experience of travelling in such a different part of the world. The culture here is truly amazing and almost every day brings something new.
On to Vietnam.
We have loved Vietnam and we are now much more seasoned to the cultural differences. Many of you have asked about the language barrier and it really has not been a problem anywhere except when you get away from the city and in the countryside. We would probably have more trouble in Quebec than what we are experiencing in Southeast Asia.
Of course one of the big things about Vietnam is the history and the aftermath of the Vietnam War, which ended in 1973. It was the 40th anniversary of the signing of the Peace Treaty while we were here. It was such a senseless war and so many lives were brutally lost—both American and Vietnamese.
Our timing was very good to come to Vietnam as we were right in the thick of their celebrations for the Chinese lunar New Year (called Tết) and this is a huge affair and so fascinating. They believe their New Year is a fresh start, so they clean, paint and decorate their homes and businesses with brightly coloured Chinese lanterns and flowers that are for sale everywhere.
As far as the food goes—that has been our biggest challenge. We are not much to try new things and we are very cautious about the street foods, although they say they are generally pretty safe and are very good. We do not eat much meat, unless we see it being cooked in front of us, or if we are at a higher end restaurant. We have stayed away from salads as they can be washed in non-potable water. I am sure we are being way too cautious but we have heard some nightmare stories of some very sick people who have had to go home or who have been hospitalized. We are both missing a good home-cooked meal but you make the most of it – and no I am not losing weight—I eat a lot of junk food.
When we arrived in Vietnam we started in Hanoi in the north. It is the capital city of Vietnam and has approximately 6.5 million people. It is described as one of the world’s most attractive and interesting cities. The biggest shock for us in Hanoi was the traffic. Seeing is believing and it is absolutely terrifying to cross the street. You go slowly and DO NOT STOP or you will get hit. It is mostly motorcycles and scooters on the road and they calculate your speed so they can dodge around you. They come from every direction and they are moving. I almost got us killed twice by stopping.
A popular thing to do here is to have a beer on a street corner and watch traffic go by. There is one corner in particular where international travellers often go. You have to sit on child-size plastic stools or chairs. The draft beer cost 16 cents and local canned beer 50 cents and you can’t beat that.
We did enjoy Hanoi. There was so much to see and do and people were very friendly and helpful. There’s a large lake in the centre of the old town that we would walk around each day. We visited a few museums and saw a water puppet show. One night Ben went squid fishing but his catch was not impressive.
We went on an overnight cruise in Halong Bay, which is one of the new 7 wonders of the world. It was a little misty but the scenery was stunning. We visited a floating fishing village, toured through a huge cave with limestone formations and visited a pearl oyster farm.
The next day we left for Hue, which is further south down the coast. It is a very historical city but unfortunately most of it was decimated during the French and American wars. We did a lot of biking out of the city, following the river, and it was fascinating. There were thousands of acres of rice fields, all hand-planted and harvested. Vietnam is the 2nd largest rice exporter after Thailand. Their gardens are immaculate. We saw many shrimp farms too. People do their laundry and bath in the river, and they dry rice right in the middle of the road. Cars just drive over it.
We loved South Vietnam as much as the North. We continued down the coast from Hue to Hoi An. Hoi An is a world heritage site and back in the 16th century it was an important trading post with China. It is now a quaint picturesque town with many protected historic landmarks. We were astounded by how many tailor shops there were and how they could pretty well make anything you wished for at amazing prices. So Ben had a suit made and I got a dress. We were measured up and had 2 fittings, all completed within 48 hours. We then shipped the clothes home.
We did a lot of biking in Hoi An. It’s nice and flat. The beach was about 5 km from our hotel and the hotel offered free bikes and chairs and umbrellas on the beach for our use, so how could we resist. We spent two afternoons there and we pretty much owned the beach!
Then we went on a full day bike tour. There were 4 travellers and 2 guides. Our bikes were loaded on a boat and we toured down the river for about an hour. Then we started riding out in the boonies—for 23 km in total—through rice fields and over bamboo bridges. We visited a home where the family was making rice papers and noodles—even the little ones were involved. We saw families weaving mats, building wooden boats and making the round bamboo boats that they still use for fishing. The bamboo ones are not considered to be “boats” so the fishermen don’t have to pay taxes to use them.
The men are the important ones in their culture so you often see the women working and the men sitting on the floor with their buddies drinking and playing cards, at any time of day. The men insisted that Ben and the other guy on our tour join in their toast. This was at 10 in the morning. They were drinking homemade rice wine but the bucket they were dipping out of was full of roots and who knows what else. Ben couldn’t do it.
Our guide was great and shared a lot of stories about life in Vietnam. She told us that many of the Vietnamese people don’t worship a god—they worship their ancestors. They have pictures of their dead ancestors (up to 3 generations) on their mantels and there is one door that is only for their ancestors to use when they return for the celebrations. She told us the oldest boy is the most important child in a family and when he marries he and his wife live with his parents. The parents look after their children while they work and in return the son and his wife stay with the parents and care for them until they die.
After Hoi An, we took the overnight train down to the bottom of Vietnam to Ho Chi Minh. It was a 20-hour train trip. Ben wasn’t keen on the train but I reminded him that our trip is all about the experience. Well, it was an experience. We had the bottom beds and a nice young couple had the top ones. We all stayed in this little room together for the full 20 hours. The train was very dirty and we were very ready to get off.
Ho Cho Minh city was our last stop in Vietnam. It’s the largest city with a population of 8 million people. There are 5 million motorbikes and 400,00 cars on the roads. 65% of the people are under the age of 35. The traffic was just as crazy as in Hanoi and there was much excitement because it was soon to be New Year’s Eve. We visited a few museums and the famous Ben Thanh market.
Our most memorable tour here was to the Cu Chi Tunnels. These underground networks were used during the war. They were brilliantly designed with kitchens (which were vented elsewhere so the enemy couldn’t find them), meeting rooms and sleeping rooms. It was hard to believe that people lived down in these cramped, dirty, claustrophobic quarters. We had a chance to climb into them and Ben had to crawl as he was way too tall to stand up.
Last but not least was our New Year’s Eve party. We went to the famous rooftop bar at the Rex and had an all-inclusive evening with unlimited beer, wine, buffet with every kind of BBQ seafood and steak. There was non-stop entertainment and then at midnight we were given a bottle of champagne to pop and spray. I got picked to help fill up the chandelier of champagne glasses. There were the most amazing fireworks that we watched from the rooftop. Literally thousands of people lined the streets.
Needless to say our next day was pretty low key as we said goodbye to Vietnam.
Cambodia is a country that leaves a special spot in your heart. Cambodians have lived through decades of war and conflict and this has left them as one of the world’s poorest countries. Many of the streets in Cambodia are not paved so there is a lot of dust and dirt. The air is polluted, particularly because of the many motor bikes. We really noticed it in our lungs and it was suggested that we wear the masks to help with breathing.
I will try to give you the “Coles notes” version on the genocide, as it was a big part of our Cambodia travels. I apologize to those people who are familiar with this if some of my info is not totally accurate, but this is what was shared with us.
In 1975, Cambodia went under the control of a very paranoid communist leader named Pol Pot. He separated families, sending them to different parts of Cambodia to work in conditions of slavery. He recruited young Cambodian men as his soldiers (they had no choice or he would have them killed) and their job was to bring random Cambodians to interrogation and torture places, which were set up in different parts of Cambodia. The one we visited was S21 (which was a former high school). The men brought here were from all trades—it didn’t matter who you were or what you did. The soldiers would brutally torture these men in order to get them to confess of betraying Pol Pot, which they eventually would for the sole purpose of stopping the torture.
Once the confession was made they were told they would be going to a better place. They were then blindfolded and taken to the Killing Fields where they were beaten and many buried alive. Loud music would be played so that no one could hear the screaming. This went on until 1979. When the killings finally stopped, almost a quarter of the Cambodian population had been murdered and by their very own people. How sad is that.
Many of the people that we spoke to had actually experienced this first hand. Yet despite all they had been through, they were generally very happy and caring people. One would think there would be a lot of bitterness and anger but not once did we see that. They were just trying to rebuild their lives.
After visiting S21 and the Killing Fields, which were just outside of the city Phnom Penh, we headed north to Siem Reap. Siem Reap serves as a small gateway town to the world famous heritage site of the Angkor temples.
The history of the Angkor Kingdom starts at the beginning of the 9th century and for about 600 years several hundred temples were built, the most famous temple being Angkor Wat. It covers 37 square miles and is on the Cambodian flag.
These temples are amazing to see. Many have crumbled over the years and have large trees growing in them. The limestone blocks are huge and one could only wonder how they got them 300 feet in the air. The rock carvings are intricate and most tell a story about daily life or about legends back in the day. You could spend days wandering through the many, many different temples.
Our next stop was the Island of Phuket in Southern Thailand. Patong, where we stayed for two nights, is known for its beautiful beaches, nightlife, bars, restaurants and sex trade. As they say, seeing is believing.
The beach at Patong isn’t busy in the morning because the kids don’t start showing up until after lunch and then the beach is packed. Serious people watching can be done here.
We headed down the coast to the village of Nai Hairn, which is almost on the southern tip of Phuket. It was a much quieter spot and another beautiful beach. I sprained my ankle so we ended up staying here for 6 nights and we really did not move much from the hotel.
We continued on to Phi Phi Don, a small island off the west coast of Thailand. Cars and motorcycles are not allowed on the island, which was a treat because motorcycles get very tiresome after a while. The island is well known for its excellent diving and partying and there were a ton of young backpackers here. Each night there were great fire shows all along the beach, free of charge. It was amazing to watch the natives twirling, throwing and swallowing fireballs.
One day we climbed up to a lookout where we could see the entire island and the view was stunning. There was a display there showing pictures of Phi Phi Don before and after the tsunami that hit on Boxing Day in 2005. They say people did not know why the water was going out and that they were actually running around picking up the fish that were left on the bottom of the ocean floor. Sadly, much of the town was wiped out but it didn’t take long to rebuild.
During our stay at Phi Phi Don we took a boat trip out to the island of Phi Phi Lee, which is not very far away, and went snorkeling at this amazing spot.
After two nights we headed back to the mainland and stayed in the town of Ao Nang near Krabi, famous for rock climbing. I think you would have to be fearless to do this.
We went on an organized kayak tour through mangrove forests by the limestone rock walls and it was stunning. Sometimes we would hear screaming because a monkey had jumped into a kayak to steal food or water bottles that weren’t hidden. Thank goodness it wasn’t ours!
Transportation in the waterways is done mainly by long, narrow, wooden boats run by old car engines, with a drive shaft and propeller on the end of it. Talk about pollution.
That pretty well sums up our Southern Thailand travels. Stay tune for Malaysia, soon to follow.
We ended up only visiting the capital city, Kuala Lumpur (aka KL). It is a huge city of about 5 million people, the most modern and developed city in Malaysia. The shopping is a huge attraction for tourists.
We stayed with a local family, the family of my cousin’s soon-to-be wife. We had never met them before but once they knew we were coming they treated us like their own family, welcomed us into their home and showed us the sites.
We saw the famous KL tower, which is presently the 18th tallest structure in the world, and the Petronas Twin Towers, which are 88 stories high. The towers are set in a tropical forest in the centre of the city. They are amazing to see, particularly at night when they glow.
On our second day we were taken to the famous Batu caves, one of the most significant Hindu religious sites outside of India. There are 3 main caves inside a limestone hill that make up a temple complex. You have to climb 272 steps to get into the caves and there is a great view of the city from the top. A priest is there to bless you. The caves are also home to many wild monkeys that take your food and water bottles if you aren’t careful.
On our last day we toured to the city of Melaka, which has been deemed as a world heritage site with churches and forts dating back to the 1500’s.
Singapore was our favourite city, hands down! They say it’s the most innovative city in the world. It’s located 1degree north of the equator, which means they have 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of darkness every day of the year. There is little variance of temperatures with the average temperature between 25 to 30 degrees. Who wouldn’t love that!
Singapore is a city-state, which means the city is the entire country. It is 26 miles by 14 miles and has a population of about 5 million people, and they are predicting that in the next couple of years it will expand to 7 million people so it is one booming city. Since Singapore is so heavily populated in comparison to its land size most people live in high rise condos and apartments. You see very few homes.
Singapore is SO CLEAN and SO MODERN. They are very particular in keeping their country clean—they don’t even sell chewing gum. There are heavy fines for anyone eating or drinking on the transit systems so everything is immaculate. Such a simple concept and what a difference it makes.
Once again we really lucked in with our travels in Singapore because we were able to meet up with the daughter of a friend from home who has been teaching in Singapore for 8 years at the Canadian International School. She and her husband opened up their place to us and helped us draw up an itinerary of what to see.
Our first stop was China Town where the streets were lined with lanterns in the shape of a snake as this is the year of the snake. The Chinese are the largest ethnic group in Singapore. While in China Town we visited one of their famous temples, which has 6 tiers of sculptures and ornamental decorations.
Next we continued on the subway to the downtown area. The river here is lined with many of the historic buildings as well as new and modern ones. They say it is “the old meets the new”.
Here you see the famous “Merlion” sculpture, which is part fish and lion. Singapore is referred to as the “lion” city. They even have a floating soccer field–can you believe it! Many restaurants line the river.
The Singapore River flows into Marina Bay and this is where their newest resort has been built, called the Marina Bay Sands. This resort dominates the skyline in Singapore and has 3 hotel towers, 2500 rooms, a 3-acre sky park on the top of the towers (in the shape of a boat) with a rooftop infinity pool for hotel guests. At the base of the hotel is a casino and a large shopping area. It even has an artificial skating rink on the bottom floor. Absolutely stunning.
Next we walked up to the Raffles Hotel, which is famous for inventing the first Singapore sling. Of course we had to try one but only one as it cost us $30.00/drink! That is the most we have ever paid for a drink. Our waitress told us they serve at least 800 Singapore slings in ONE day. What a moneymaker that is!
Singapore is famous for its zoos and we had an opportunity to go to their Night Safari where nocturnal animals are about and it was fabulous. The zoos are “open”, which means the animals roam freely in landscaped areas.
Indonesia was our last country to visit. WOW–talk about a fast 3 months!
We only made one stop in Indonesia and that was the island of Bali. We ended up staying here for 18 days and we called it our little piece of paradise. We didn’t venture too far from our resort and we literally did very little but relax. It was a welcomed change as we had gone pretty hard for over two months.
Bali has wonderful beaches, culture, nightlife, warm water, beautiful rice paddies, mountain scenery, fantastic year round weather, and the world’s best rated resorts at reasonable prices. It sure won our hearts!
Ninety percent of the population in Bali is Hindu and the Bali Hindus have their own uniqueness. Two days after our arrival, all of Bali shut down and I mean literally. Once a year Bali Hindus observe a “Day of Silence”, which is called Nyepi (their new year). It is observed from 6 a.m. until 6 a.m. the next morning. It is a government holiday where the Hindu people do not talk or eat and stay in darkness. Tourists and non-Hindus are asked to respect this and stay indoors. Nobody is to be on the streets other than a few security men patrolling. Even their airport shuts down. Needless to say the grocery store was PACKED the day before—kind of reminded us of Christmas Eve day at home with the line-ups in the grocery and liquor stores. To think that we struggle to get people to observe one hour for earth hour and they do this for 24 hours.
But the best part of being here at this time is the night before Nyepi. It was an EXPERIENCE. At dusk the Hindu people gather at the main crossroads of their towns and this becomes the catwalk for demons. Thousands of youths carry HUNDREDS of ogoh-ogoh. Yes, you read that right – ogoh-ogoh. They are giant paper mâché effigies that they start making about a month prior to this night and they are representative of many different demons. It is a very noisy procession with these gory characters parading down the streets with spectators following. At the end of the crossroads many of the different parades meet up and then the ogoh-ogohs are torched, with flames shooting everywhere. This is a symbolic act of destroying the evil. Then they all go back to their homes to observe the darkness for 24 hours – which marks new beginning and renewed hope. So fascinating!
One other little tidbit to share about the Bali Hindus is their daily offerings called Banten, which are found everywhere. The Balinese people make these every single night and put them out for the good spirits in hopes of prosperity. Store owners, restaurant owners set these out in front of their place every single morning hoping they will bring a successful day of sales. Every day our maid put them outside our villa, as well as around our pool and in the kitchen. Cabbies would have them on their vehicle dashboards.
Now – our little piece of paradise. We found this place by good luck as we so badly wanted our own kitchen and this was one of the few places available in our price range. It was considered off-season but we saw very little rain while we were there. We had a private pool, maid, pool boy and gardener. We couldn’t have asked for more! We even had a Bali cooking class – right in our own villa. They brought all the food and spices and then showed us how to prepare 4 different Balinese dishes. It was a feast.
The end of the journey
“This whole trip is truly an incredible experience”. This is the line we used many times, especially when things were getting a little rough.
And indeed it was an incredible experience.
Barb’s letters are reprinted with permission; the content has been condensed and edited.
Photo credits Barb and Ben Dietrich
© Riding the buses 2014