My first trip to Southeast Asia was in August 2013, immediately after I took the bar exam. I spent almost a month in Hong Kong, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia. At the end of my trip, I had absolutely no desire to leave and dragged my feet on the way to my flight home.
I’m so glad that I got to go back to Southeast Asia and travel at a slower pace. While I got to visit so many amazing sights, I didn’t have nearly enough time to do each country justice. After 5.5 months, I still wasn’t ready to leave the region when I boarded my flight from the Philippines to Taiwan.
While I tried to capture as much as possible in my blog posts, I have a few stray observations about Southeast Asia generally.
I can’t go through a day without having (at least one) dessert. Ice cream was the easiest dessert for me to pick up in Southeast Asia. Cookies and candy were too dangerous since I’d eat the whole pack in one sitting. Ice cream didn’t pose the same type of risk: one cone, and I’d be done.
Cornettos were the most widely available ice cream brand in convenience stores throughout Southeast Asia. Here’s my ranking of the flavors I tried:
- Oreo. I normally don’t care much for Oreos, and if I do eat them, I’m the weirdo who prefers the cookies over the cream. However, the Oreo Cornetto is excellent. The cone consists of vanilla ice cream mixed with tiny Oreo chunks and is topped with crushed cookie bits. My favorite Cornetto by a mile.
- Vanilla. It’s hard to mess up vanilla. The crushed nuts and chocolate syrup on top added some interest to the cone.
- Chocolate. I normally prefer chocolate over vanilla, but the chocolate Cornetto isn’t anything special.
- Red velvet. I’m basic and love anything red velvet. I thought the red velvet Cornetto would be amazing but was sorely disappointed. I couldn’t detect any cocoa or buttermilk. It just tasted sugary, with flavorless bits of cake and dollops of cream thrown on top. Pass.
Magnums weren’t quite as common as Cornettos, but they were still a regular feature in convenience store freezers. I always cringed at the name, but I generally preferred Magnums over Cornettos (except for the almighty Oreo Cornetto). My rankings:
- Tiramisu. The unicorn. I found this in only one location: an Indomaret in Senggigi, Indonesia. The “limited edition” stamp on the blue wrapper caught my eye. The ice cream tasted exactly like tiramisu, with swirls of chocolate and coffee. I thought I could even taste a little rum, but that’s unlikely with Indonesia’s sizable Muslim population. I had this twice in Senggigi and never found it again.
- White almond. I had trouble deciding whether to put tiramisu or white almond in the top spot. Tiramisu won since it was rarer. White almond was easier to find but no less delicious. Vanilla ice cream was covered with white chocolate and almond chunks. It tiptoed the edge of being a little too sweet; I probably would have felt nauseous if I ate more than one. But one bar was perfect.
- Classic. As much as I liked this, I don’t have much to say. You can’t go wrong with chocolate-covered vanilla ice cream.
Backpack or suitcase?
If my mom had her way, I would have used a rolling suitcase in Southeast Asia. She thought a backpack would strain my back. This is a totally legitimate concern, but I had to ignore my mom this time.
Back in 2013, I planned to use a backpack for my first trip to Southeast Asia, but my mom convinced me to use a suitcase instead. I immediately regretted this when one of the wheels snapped as I stepped out of my mom’s car for my flight to Hong Kong (true story). I had to drag the suitcase through dirt, sand, and gravel for a month.
Unless you have back issues, bring a backpack to Southeast Asia. Seriously. Paved roads and sidewalks aren’t a guarantee. If you’re beach or island hopping, you might have to wade through knee-high water to get from your boat to shore. A backpack is a lot easier to handle, and it leaves your hands free.
Music played an important role as I traveled through different countries. Listening to Spotify helped pass the time on long bus and train rides and (kind of) drowned out loud snorers in my dorm rooms.
For the first couple of months of my trip, it was a given that Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You” would play at least once at a bar. “Despacito” soon took its place. Malaysia supposedly banned “Despacito” from public airwaves toward the end of my stay there. They didn’t do it quickly enough because it was blasted everywhere in Malaysia…then Indonesia (even on Mount Rinjani)…then the Philippines.
Throwbacks were and always will be the best. Nothing gets people onto a dance floor quicker than the macarena; it was surprising how many times it was played at bars. Know your audience, I suppose.
Thankfully, I never had to visit the hospital in Southeast Asia. I was concerned when water was stuck in my ear for 2.5 days on the Perhentian Islands in Malaysia, but it finally dribbled out when I ascended from a dive. I had a couple of colds but nothing that caused me to be bedridden.
A good number of travelers suffered from food poisoning, especially in Vietnam, Indonesia, and the Philippines. I’m not sure why I wasn’t affected. I ate my fair share of street food in Vietnam and salads in Bali. I did avoid uncooked vegetables outside of Bali and never drank tap water (although I brushed my teeth with it).
I might have been lucky with food, and mosquitoes sure seemed to love my diet. I had no willpower and constantly scratched my bites, which led to scarring. Cuts – even tiny ones from mosquito bites – take forever to heal in Southeast Asia’s humidity. Many travelers sport huge bandages to protect scrapes from motorbiking or diving.
If you’re a smoker, cigarettes are incredibly cheap in Southeast Asia. You can buy a pack for a dollar. I met quite a few western travelers who ripped through cigarettes in Southeast Asia and said they would quit once they went back home. The record for the largest number of non-smokers in a group was 16, the number of travelers on my Halong Bay cruise. I remember this only because it was so strange to be in a group without a single smoker. Many local men smoked, but I almost never saw local women smoking.
It’s Southeast Asia. It’s going to rain. The weather forecast is useless here. Just bring a poncho, rain jacket, or umbrella.
Even though I visited some locations during the rainy season, I still got to enjoy dry periods. I sailed around Phuket and surrounding islands during the low season and didn’t see a drop of rain until my fifth and last day on the boat. I visited the Philippines during the rainy season in September, but enjoyed a fair share of good weather. I can only think of a handful of instances throughout my time in Southeast Asia where a whole day was rained out.
The Dutch are everywhere. It was unquestionably the most common nationality I met in Southeast Asia. For such a small country, it’s amazing how many citizens are traveling abroad. I never met a rude or disrespectful Dutch traveler; perhaps this was because they had so much travel experience. If you ask a Dutch traveler where he/she lives, the answer – almost without fail – will be, “Not Amsterdam.”
The next most common nationalities were Germans and Brits. This was in line with my previous travels in Southeast Asia, Australia, and New Zealand. I also met a decent number of French and Spanish travelers, especially in Vietnam and Indonesia.
Americans and Canadians were rarer. An easy explanation is that we generally have fewer vacation days than western Europeans. I also didn’t meet as many Australians as I expected. I thought they would be everywhere in Bali, but this wasn’t the case when I visited.
I saw quite a few Korean and Chinese travelers in Vietnam and the Philippines but didn’t interact with many of them. They tended to stick to tour groups, so there wasn’t much overlap in activities.
Regardless of nationality, I had no problem meeting wonderful people. I did feel lonely sometimes (more on this in a future post), but the vast majority of travelers I met were friendly and kind. If I did come across people who were more obnoxious, I could easily keep my distance.
Traveling as an Asian American
As a traveler of Asian heritage, I could blend in more easily in Southeast Asia than most other western travelers. Locals could tell I was a foreigner, but I didn’t attract as many curious looks (or selfie requests) as blonde-haired, blue-eyed travelers.
Many locals had a hard time believing I was American. When I said I was from the US, a common response was, “But you’re Asian.” Apparently, being Asian and American are mutually exclusive. Toward the beginning of my trip, I came up with a canned response where I explained that I was born in the US, but my parents were born in Korea. This didn’t stop the interesting responses though. I still got comments about the shape of my eyes and what nationality I “looked” like. I eventually got tired of this, so I reverted to just saying I was American and dealt with any follow-up questions and comments.
It would have been easier to say I was Korean, but I didn’t want to lie about my nationality. Call it patriotism…or whatever. I certainly wasn’t changing anyone’s mind about what a “typical” American looked like, but I wanted to show – in some small way – that Americans were diverse.