I can’t believe three months have gone by since we’ve left on our trip. It felt like yesterday that we were discussing the idea of traveling abroad for a few months, that we were packing up our apartment (much love 378!), that we were sitting in SFO waiting for our delayed flight…8 countries and 18 flights later, how was it?
What was your favorite city?
IB: This was a tough one…I’d have to say Hanoi but George Town comes in at a real close second. Hanoi was the first time we had to be really alert, we had to walk with our heads up, we had to be on our toes. The chaos of Hanoi is addicting, the street food is phenomenal, and it was incredibly easy to navigate.
MB: 90% through our tour of Southeast Asia, Hanoi remained my favorite city as well. Coming from the quiet and soft-paced Luang Prabang, Hanoi attacked all our senses, in the best possible way. I loved being in Old Town where we stayed, walking around Hoan Kiem Lake, and we were never short of interesting things to do and places to see. Though, probably a bit unfair, Hanoi was officially dethroned for me once we got to Singapore. Without a doubt the most modern place we visited, as well as being the most expensive, Singapore felt like a dream – and somewhere I could picture myself living, if only I had the salary to afford it.
What was your favorite dish?
IB: Another tough one, mostly because I love food so much. My favorite Asian dish was the char kway teow plate we had in Singapore. It had noodles, obvs my favorite, but it was also flavorful and gritty. Not gritty in the sense that it was gross, but it had a density to it, like I was really eating something of substance. The meat was tender too. You know when you think of really good Chinese take out from your favorite place, how your brain kind of salivates? Like that, it tasted like that. My favorite Western dish was probably the pasta special I had at Zibiru in Bali. The pasta was freshly made and beautifully cooked. The dry ricotta on top was the perfect cheese to use, the tomatoes were fresh and nothing was drowning in oil. Fantastico!
MB: Going back to Hanoi, we ate a lot of local dishes that Isabel was really excited to try. I flipped when we ate Xoi Yen. A very underwhelming establishment by appearance, we shouldered our way in past the crowds, scaled two narrow stairways up to the third floor, and sat on the tiniest red plastic chairs I had ever seen. Then the dish came: a sticky rice with corn meal, bbq meat and crispy onions on top. That’s when my stomach felt like it had truly arrived in Southeast Asia. We scarfed it down, and ordered another one to share. A tight second place goes to a dish I had in Hoi An. One day when we were hiding in our hotel room to beat the heat, we ventured into Old Town to a recommended restaurant called Bep 1919. There was absolutely no one in there, which I could not figure out. I ordered the crispy pork belly in five spice and caramel sauce, with coconut sticky rice and cole slaw. To quote my father, it was “fabulous!” One of the best meals I’ve every had. So good in fact, we went back the next day so I could have it again. *It’s also no coincidence that my top two dishes were in Vietnam; the food was delicious everywhere.
What was the biggest surprise?
IB: The biggest surprise was the diversity of George Town. Up until then, everything was self-explanatory to my brain. Thailand is full of Thais and has mostly Thai food, Vietnam is full of Vietnamese and offers mostly Vietnamese food, etc. Also, I had visited all of the countries prior to Malaysia (thanks mom and dad), so it was the first place that I went into not having any idea what it would be like. I was constantly reminded of how different George Town was from other cities. Everywhere we went we saw Indians, Malaysians, Muslims, Chinese, etc. The people were all different, the cuisine was all different, the languages were all different, it was wild. If a child were to draw a literal translation of “melting pot”, they would draw George Town. The art scene was crazy too.
MB: I had never been to Southeast Asia before, so everything was a surprise to me. When we first landed in Chiang Mai, with Isabel’s parents there to show us around, it felt very homey, very local. So even though everywhere I looked, it was completely different to anything I had seen before, being with them made it such a comfortable introduction. Being there felt very regular, very normal, something I was not anticipating. And again, I had no idea what Singapore was going to be like until we got there (apparently I didn’t pay too much attention when I watched Crazy Rich Asians), so I was absolutely blown away. Coming off a week of beach and resort stays, sandwiched between two thankfully short-lived bouts of feeling under the weather, I was not prepared at all for the experience that Singapore ended up providing. It felt like walking around Disney World for the first time.
Where was your favorite place to stay?
IB: Now that I’ve had a taste of the #resortlife, I’d have to say Koh Samui. I know, I know, I didn’t pick the jungle resort. Koh Samui was the first resort we went to, so the experience was fresh. The pool was amazing, the staff was nice, our suite was beautiful and I loved our balcony. The facilities had video games and a pool table too, so that was fun. Also, as awesome as the jungle resort in Bali was, it was almost too good (I know, I’m the worst). I don’t like to be bothered most of the time and the staff at Kayon were always checking in on us. We walked around the place constantly bowing because the staff were so accommodating. Also, my sister Zoe is going to be disappointed that I say this, but I don’t like turndown service. I don’t like people coming into my room more than once a day.
MB: Unsurprisingly, I have to agree with Isabel here: Mantra Samui Resort provided the greatest overall experience. It was our first taste of relaxing beach life, especially coming off of ten sweltering hot days in Cambodia where we just absolutely melted. We hardly left the resort, and the view left me speechless every single time. A three-way tie for second place (I know, I’m cheating, just pick one, Mark!) all belong to Vietnam: Hanoi Golden Moment Hotel, Vinh Hung Library Hotel in Hoi An, and the Hue Serene Palace all stand out above the rest: the staff were extremely friendly and helpful, the rooms were really nice, and the location could not have been more perfect. And at rates of $44, $32 and $34 a night, respectively, that didn’t hurt either.
What is the best thing you packed?
IB: My Hinterland pants. They are super warm, very comfortable, fit well, and go with everything. They aren’t fitted at the ankles so they don’t ride up, but they aren’t super baggy either. The dark gray color goes with everything so even if my luggage is lost for a day or two, it’s not as if I’m walking around in pajamas.
MB: No one item really stands out to me, to be honest. When Isabel first asked me this question, it made me think of: what would be your one luxury item to take with you if you were on Survivor? And I never came up with an answer for that. I will say, using packing cubes to organize our clothes and other stuff in our duffel bags is an absolute necessity. Being on the move every 4th day would have gotten ugly without it. It’s an absolute godsend, and I could not recommend it enough.
What is one thing you wished you packed?
IB: My mom knits these wonderful fingerless gloves and I wished I packed a pair. I used to wear them around my apartment because we didn’t have heat, and they were great. They pack well, keep your hands warm but your fingers free which is perfect for taking photos and handling money.
MB: I was hoping that by some miracle my electric beard trimmer would last the entire trip. Not just to keep the beard looking clean, but also so I’d be able to give myself haircuts whenever I wanted to, free of charge. It lasted exactly one self-buzzcut in Luang Prabang, when after I was done, I stupidly plugged it into the outlet to charge, and blew the power (in my razor, not the building). So now I go about two weeks between cleanups (definitely past the point of looking scruffy), and the price of haircuts are only going up from here.
What is the best book you’ve read so far on the trip?
IB: Tough one, I’ve liked a few book I’ve read this year. I’ll go with The Girl with All the Gifts by M.R. Carey. It wasn’t complex writing but the story was great. The author switches between points of views and despite the back and forth, the story moves well and you get a great sense of detail through various conversations and interactions. I also loved What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah. The stories are captivating and poetic, verging on bizarre in a nice Murakami way.
MB: During our cruise along the Mekong River that brought us to Luang Prabang, we had a lot of relaxing downtime. It was the first time I really picked up my Kindle on the trip, and I decided to read Mortal Engines, by Phillip Reeve. Iz and I thought the movie trailer looked interesting, even though the movie totally bombed at the box office, and we had been seeing advertisements even in Vietnam for the book series. I read Mortal Engines, and could not bring myself to put down my Kindle until I finished. It was a really intriguing world the author created, and I found it to be such a fun adventure. Of course, I had to read the sequels, and tore through the entire four-book series in less than ten days. The sequels were nowhere near as good, and Isabel laughed at me knowing that after a while I wasn’t even enjoying it anymore, but I just. had. to finish them. (We rented the movie a week or two ago, and it was actually quite fun, if you don’t take it too seriously. As is the case 99% of the time, the book is better than the movie.)
Do you have any advice for your pre-trip self?
IB: I’m going to completely steal the advice my parent’s gave me: pack only essentials, everything else can be bought out here. They were not kidding, everything can be found out here. There are pharmacies, malls, and shops everywhere and you can find face wash, sunscreen, saline, lotion, clothes, etc. There are some Asian brands but we also found a lot of Western brands too. Also a plus, most products are much cheaper out here.
MB: Yeah, stop going to REI and dropping so much money! I went out and bought all new clothes for the trip, thinking those fast-cooling dry-wick t-shirts were going to save me from the heat. Nothing will save you from 95°F and humid. I honestly would have been better off in my cotton graphic t-shirts that became my regular go-to’s back home in SF. I also bought and brought way too many shorts; I ended up alternating between only two pair. Because of all that, I basically only packed for the heat of Southeast Asia. Our first day in Istanbul, I bought a puffy jacket that was an absolute necessity – our weather dropped from 95° to 45° real quick.
If you could go back and edit the itinerary, would you? If so, how?
IB: I would, although full credit for planning must go to Mark, he did all the grunt work. Knowing what I know now, I would have cut out Vientiane, either cut out Phuket or found a different place to stay, and spend more time in Singapore. I also would have reduced our time in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap and instead tried to go somewhere else in Malaysia like Kuala Lumpur.
MB: Oh yeah, big time. When I planned the trip, I was going in rather blind. I did a lot of research on the web, but when you’re reading blogs that spins everything in a positive light, everywhere seems like the hip place to spend those extra days. We could have skipped Vientiane, Laos entirely (didn’t even warrant a blog post – a three night stop between Luang Prabang and Hanoi). Rather than five nights each in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, Cambodia, I’d spend five nights total between the two. Phuket was a disaster, I should have picked a different area of the island. Less time in Hoi An – which I really liked, but whether it was because of Tet or just because, it was way overcrowded – six nights was too much there. And I’d like to have seen more of Malaysia – Georgetown really whet our appetite.
Now that Southeast Asia is over, any regrets?
IB: I wish I kept a business card from every hotel we stayed at. It would’ve been cool to mount and frame all of them for a cool, visual memory of our trip.
MB: I don’t think I picked up a single souvenir. My buddy Blake told me before we left on this trip, make it a point to pick up something nice that you’ll want to have for years to come. Pay to have it shipped back to the States, it’ll be worth it. I thought that was a great idea at the time, and replayed that thought in my head as we went around, yet I managed to grab nothing. We have zero room in our luggage to add souvenirs. But what I absolutely should have done was grab a magnet or a postcard from each of our stops. We’ve been to so many places, and still have many more in front of us, I really wish I had something small to remind me of everywhere we’ve been and will go.
Lastly, anything that you will not miss about Southeast Asia? Or are glad to leave behind?
IB: I’m so happy to be out of the heat and humidity. I’m happy to not be sweating through all of my clothes ten minutes out of the door. I also won’t miss the non-existent traffic lights. We can safely cross streets now without playing chicken with traffic.
MB: I am completely over the heat and humidity. As I write this, we’ve been nearly freezing in Istanbul, but the heat and humidity just zap you of all energy. I’m also thankful to have sidewalks again. I won’t miss walking single file in the street, looking over my shoulder hoping motorbikes don’t clip us. And toilets capable of handling toilet paper – no more waste bins under the sink for us!
Now on to Europe! First stop — Istanbul!