Our Favourite Places in: South East Asia

Favourite Places

Since the end of our South East Asia trip and relocating to England the question we’re asked the most is what were our favourite places from the trip. To us it’s a nearly impossible question to answer as every place we’ve been to has had its own charm and things we’ve liked. But we did some thinking and were able to put together a list of all the places we visited over the three months we travelled South East Asia, that now have a special place in our hearts.

 

Hoi An, Vietnam

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Vietnam would not be at the top of the list for places we’d go back to, solely because it was just too loud and too busy, but Hoi An is where we found a little slice of Vietnamese paradise.

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Nestled amongst the hustle and bustle of Hoi An is the Hoi An Old Town. This area would have been the original parts of the city before it grew into what it is today and it’s like stepping back in time. There are no cars allowed down the narrow streets, only pedal bikes and motor bikes (between 10AM and 6pm), and even then there aren’t many motorbikes. It gets quite busy and crowed during the day so we found the best time to walk around peacefully was early morning when the motorbikes aren’t allowed on the walking streets and people haven’t made it out of their hotels yet.

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We liked the Old Town so much we didn’t really venture out to anywhere else. The food was SO good, the locals were friendly, and at night the whole area gleamed with the glow of lanterns. It was the first time I really felt like we were actually in Vietnam.

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Hoi An is where you’ll find the lanterns Vietnam is known for. At night the stalls and store entrances are lined with lit up lanterns that give the streets a romantic feel. By the night market is where the lantern stalls are, with walls on walls of lit up Vietnamese Lanterns, and couples taking their wedding photos. It’s absolutely stunning and photos do not do it justice.

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And we can’t forget about the food! In case you didn’t already know, we’re huge foodies, and Hoi An did not disappoint. The city is most famous for its Banh Bao Vac (White Roses), and Cao Lau.

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Banh Bao Vac are special dumplings made with rice flour dough and stuffed with minced pork and spices, then pinched together in a way that make them look like roses. They are served warm with crispy fried onions and a sweet/tangy sauce. They are such a Hoi An specialty you literally cannot get them anywhere else in Vietnam. They are made by only one shop who distribute them all over Hoi An, and they’ve been doing so for generations. So whether you have them in the Old Town or somewhere else, they’ve all come from the same place.

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Cao Lau is a noodle dish that comes with a delicious, thick flavourful pork broth, fresh greens and herbs, refreshing bean sprouts, spiced sliced pork, and to make it that much better, it’s topped with crispy pork skin. Excuse me while drool a little.

You can get it anywhere, the pricier restaurants, the cheap restaurants, even from the street food vendors. But the best we had (in our opinion) was at Thuan Y, a little river front restaurant that also had the best banana shakes.

 

Gili Trawangan, Bali

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Oh Gili T, how you stole our hearts from the first day we ever saw you.

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Our first visit to Gili T was back in October of 2014, when we did a short trip during our working holiday year in Australia. We fell hopelessly and endlessly in love with the island, from its quiet nature to its drop dead gorgeous waters. It’s a diver’s paradise, a seafood lovers heaven and a beach bum’s eden. There are no cars, no motorbikes, only horse-drawn carts and pedal bikes. Every evening the night market springs to life with the smell of satay and flame grilled corn, and the restaurants display fresh seafood caught that day.

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{ Our favourite BBQ spot }

The island has everything you could possibly want. Want to go shopping? They’ve got designer clothing stores to souvenir stalls. Want good food? There’s fresh oven fired pizza, seafood BBQ, vegan cafes, italian restaurants, authentic Balinese, and even gourmet burgers. Want to go to the beach? Parts of the beach are busy but if you walk far enough around (you can walk around the whole island in about 4 hours) you’ll find quite, secluded beaches. You want it, they’ve got it.

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And we can’t forget about the diving! World class dive sites are right out your front door. We dove with Trawangan Dive both times because, A) It is a Dive resort, meaning you can you can get dive and stay packages, making it slightly cheaper and hassle free; and B) we like the all around vibe of the place. The guides, instructors and helping hands are amazing. They’re all cheerful and outgoing and really make you excited for you’re dives. It’s just a super chill environment and we absolutely loved it.

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No questions about it, Gili T is our favourite place on Earth and it will forever have a special place in our hearts.

 

Koh Tao, Thailand

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Koh Tao is similar to Gili T in the sense that it’s definitely a divers niche. It is, after all, the cheapest place to get certified. In the high season the diving is pristine, with visibility up to or more than 30 meters and you may even be lucky enough to spot a whale shark or two. On top of that the water is SO warm, we never had to wear wetsuit! On average it’s about 30 degrees or more and thats at anywhere from 30 to 18 meters down. It’s the most free a diver can feel, diving with nothing but a bikini or shorts and your BCD. Heaven I tell you, Heaven!

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The night life is great (in high season), with fire shows every night, a pub crawl every Sunday, Monday, Wednesday, Friday and decent bars with live music.

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Koh Tao has that low key, relaxed, island vibe that we love and as long as you’re just around Sairee Beach it’s relatively quite in terms of traffic because there are no cars in that particular area. We’re small town people, we like to be away from the noise and busyness of big cities. What makes it great is it has a little something for everyone, great diving, good nightlife, nature walks, island tours, 5 star resorts, you name it. It’s the perfect place to recover from it’s rowdier sister island, Koh Pha Ngan.

Similan Islands, Thailand

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Another diver’s paradise (apologies for repetition but our happy place truly is in the water). The Similan Islands are rated one of the top 10 places to dive in the world. You have a great chance of seeing Whale Sharks and Manta Rays here as well as plenty of other sea life you might not see anywhere else and the water is so warm you can get away with only wearing a 3mm shortie.

What’s unique about the Similans is the best way to dive around them is to do a Live Aboard Dive Boat. You can go for anywhere between 2 – 7 days and on a number of quality boats costing from 17 000-32 000 TBH.

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Our live abroad is what made the Similans so memorable for us. We chose Khao Lak Scuba Adventures because of the quality and the price of their particular tours. We were on the boat for 4 nights and it was incredible. We saw so much sea life that we’ve never seen before, Will did his Advanced Open Water certification, and we saw a Manta Ray!

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{ The highlight of our Live Aboard }

We got to dive 4 times a day which helped us become more confident as divers and taught us a lot about our own strengths and weaknesses in the water. We learned a lot and to me this is important when travelling, because not only did we come away with great stories but we came away self-improved. Those five days were definitely a big highlight of our trip.

Read all about our dive trip in the Similan Islands on our 50 Shades of Blue post, here.

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Khao Lak itself doesn’t really have much going on. You can take day trips into the National Park and it is a good place to get into Khao Sok National Park. It is also one of the places that got hit the hardest by the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, the damage of which you can still see today.

 

Vang Vieng, Laos

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Vang Viang is known among backpackers (and probably all other travellers) as a place to party, but there’s a lot more to it than meets the eye.

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The scenery alone won us over the day we got there. The mountains, the trees, and the river, all make for a stunning back drop. Everything is so green and colourful with nature. There are caves to explore, the Blue Lagoon to swim in, motorbikes to rent for exploring. It’s a great little town trying to rid itself of its dark and partying past.

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{ The Blue Lagoon }

There’s a cafe/restaurant that plays Friends on repeat all day, every day. Restaurants with special menus if thats what you’re looking for. Bars with free drinks (Nope, I’m not joking. They literally line the bar with shots of whisky just waiting for you to choose your mix, ALL free between 8 and 9). And the baguettes, oh those baguettes! We still crave them!

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{ Will started being called Mr.Chicken because we had so many baguettes }

There are still remnants of the French influence in Laos and baguettes are one of them. They’re just a little smaller than a foot long subway sandwich and you get just as many filling options as subway, although you only get lettuce, cucumber and tomatoes as salad and mayo, chilli, and ketchup as sauce options. I don’t know how or why they are so good, and I probably don’t want to know but they are delicious!

 

Siem Reap, Cambodia

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Angkor Wat has been at the top of our Bucket Lists for years, so actually stepping foot into the grounds was an experience of a life time. We’ll never forget walking up to the gates at 5am in the morning and getting that surreal feeling like we couldn’t believe we were actually there.

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I’m a huge archaeology buff, after all, it is what I studied in my first year of University, so I was having a field day (HA! pardon the pun) walking around all the sites and exploring all the nooks and crannies we could.

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There is way more too it than most people expect because Angkor Wat is just one structure our of hundreds in the Angkor area. We only got two full days to explore the area, which was plenty of time but I think one more day would have been just perfect.

Check out more of our photos from Angkor here.

 


 

So those are our Favourite Places from our past South East Asia trip. It was an amazing adventure, one we had been planning for years and we will never forget the experiences we had, the people we met and all the incredible things we got to see. Stay tuned for a possible series of Favourite Places posts, from our previous trips to our current travels. If you have any questions about other places we visited or companies we went through don’t hesitate to ask, we’d be happy to help.

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A Check off the Bucket List: Angkor in Photos

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We’re at a loss for words at how awesome visiting Angkor Wat was. It was one of those moments in life that felt so surreal, a Bucket List moment. So we’re just going to let the photos do the talking. Plus, Bry made me take so many photos; so if I had to endure taking them, the least you guys could do is look at them.

Angkor Wat is actually only one section/temple in the Angkor area. The area is roughly 400 square kilometers and is actually made up of about 1000 temples and structures. The whole area was built at different times between the 8th and the 12th centuries and under different rulers. The population of Angkor once reached up to a million people, to put that into perspective, at the same time London had a population of a mere 5000.DSCN3087

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Angkor Wat

“The City that is a Temple”

Built: Early 12th Century
Purpose: Khmer Capital/Temple/State Temple
Religion: Hindu/Buddhist

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The first day we arrived into Siem Reap we arranged a tuk tuk driver to pick us up early the following morning so we could get to Angkor Wat for sunrise.

At 4:30 in the morning and with a chill in the air we watched the sun come up from the back of a tuk tuk. Unfortunately, even after all my research on tips for doing the Angkor area, no one mentioned we probably should have bought our tickets the day before (Stay tuned for a follow-up post on tips for successfully doing Angkor). That and the tuk tuk we got was possibly the slowest thing in Siem Reap. Seriously! You know those little old ladies you see hobbling down the street? The ones that take about two steps a minute and you know it’s going to take her like, 3 days to get to wherever she’s going? Yeah that was us and our tuk tuk.

I’m not sure what was worse, watching all the other tuk tuks whiz past us, knowing they were going to get there 10 years before we did, or knowing I was going to make us do it all over again the next morning, but earlier. After all, to me it’s not a sunrise unless you watch that first sliver of sunlight peak over the horizon.

 

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{ What it actually looks like behind the camera at Angkor Wat at sunrise. }

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{ The photo on the right is highly zoomed in, he had no idea I was taking the photo. }

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Angkor Thom: South Gate

Built: 12th Century
Purpose: Point of entry/gate into the city of Angkor Thom

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{ Look pretty he said }

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Angkor Thom: Bapuon

Built: 11th Century
Purpose: State Temple
Religion: Originally Hindu but converted to Buddhist in the 16th Century

Dress code to this temple applies. Shoulders should be covered and long pants/skirts should be worn. Men should have shoulders covered and long pants but can get by with shorts.

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This was one of the few temples we couldn’t get into on Day One because of what we were wearing.

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{ A good example of what not to wear. }

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Angkor Thom: Phimeanakas

Built: Late 10th – Early 11th Century
Purpose: (Private) Temple

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Built: 10th Century
Purpose: State Temple
Religion: Hindu

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The Bayon

“Temple of Smiling Buddhas”

Built: 12th – Late 13th Centuries
Purpose: State Temple
Religion: Hindu/Buddhist (each at different points in its history)

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Te Prohm

Built: Late 12th – 13th Centuries
Purpose: Temple/Monastery
Religion: Buddhist

Known as the Tomb Raider Temple because of its appearance in the film, Te Prohm is one of the few temples they let be and haven’t restored. It’s slowly being taken back by the forest, with vines/roots weaving their way through cracks and entire trees growing on the roofs of the buildings. This is what most of the temples and palaces would have looked like when rediscovered in the 19th Century. Most have since then been restored.

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Preah Khan

Built: 12th Century (on 56 hectares of land)
Purpose: Temple/ Buddhist University/City
Religion: Buddhist/Hindu

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{ When he starts getting antsy because I’m taking too many photos. }

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{ Figures that seem to have been chiseled away or altered. }

While wandering Preah Khan we were told by a guard that the temple was originally Hindu and was converted to Buddhist later in its history. We’re not sure how true the information was as he started asking for money when we tried to walk away but there does appear to be evidence of alterations like the ones above.

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Stone work from various temple in the Angkor Area

The bad thing about taking so many photos, is you forget where certain ones were taken. Looking back, there are definitely things we could have done to categorize/organize our photos better but we didn’t think of it until it was too late. I suggest taking a photo of the map of each place you visit before taking photos of the site. That way when you look back you will know which photos belong to which sites.

Anyway, these are all the carvings and such from all the sites we visited. Unfortunately we’re not sure which ones belong to which buildings.

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Temples We Went To But Can’t Remember The Name Of.

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Exploring Angkor Wat (1)

 

Choeung Ke : A Sad Reminder of Cambodia’s History

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Deep, hollow pits, like ragged, rough, scars lay empty in a once unscathed landscape. Chickens run around pecking at insects while birds chirp peacefully in the distance. If you only look up to the sky and surrounding trees you’d never be able to tell what horrible things happened here.

Choeung Ek, the killing fields in Phnom Penh, the place where identity and dignity were stripped from men and women, and innocence from children. A place that has left physical and emotional scars on the country and the its people. But now, with the past behind them, Cambodians have moved on and, for the most part, are a happy, welcoming people. You could never tell that just 40 years ago what brutalities took place.

The mass graves, most that held a couple hundred people each, one that even held up to 450 people, now sit empty since they were rediscovered and exhumed in the 80’s; Deep, hollow scars, now over grown with grass and weeds, even flowers in some, as if they’re trying to heal.

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Flies constantly pester you as if to be a constant reminder of where you are, that there were once hundreds of bodies here, piled like garbage and left to rot. My words might seem harsh but they are the truth and ignorance is not bliss.

Out of respect for the dead and the suffering they endured we did not take any photos of the graves. It’s not like a photo could capture any of it anyway. Not until you’re standing there, looking over a mass grave that held the bodies of over 100 women and their infants, can you feel the sadness of what’s happened here. The words ‘a picture doesn’t do it justice‘ falls short.

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There are over 300 killing fields in Cambodia but this is the largest. Over 3 000 000 people died in the 3 years 8 months and 20 days of Pol Pots Khmer Regime. Most were tortured, some were sent to work camps just like in Germany, where they we’re given little to no food and worked 12 hours a day, if not more, and some were sent to camps like Choeung Ek, where they awaited death, blind folded and tied. Who suffered more is an impossible question.13346877_10156948280285285_3410049442367344410_n

There was no regard for any life that did not fit into Pol Pots new regime. He was a very paranoid man so even if they did their best to mould into what he wanted, he still might have sent you to the the camps if he had any suspicion against you. Words said in a moment of anger by a fellow soldier or friend could cost you your life.

The people taken to the killing fields were categorized and kept track to make sure no one was missed or had escaped. Pol Pot wanted no one to survive, he wiped out entire families so that there was no one left to seek revenge. He even had the babies and children murdered, his reasoning is best said in one of his propaganda slogans “To dig up the grass, one must dig up the roots”. They were meticulous and organized but the actual acts of killing were primal, Stone Age, brutal, and messy.

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Because the cost of bullets was too high they could only use what they had available; South East Asia is still like this today: Resourceful. Farming tools and things like machetes and steel poles were used in place of bullets. Victims were beaten and hacked while they knelt on the edges of their soon to be graves. Cambodians killing Cambodians. They were not always gone by the the time the soldiers pushed everyone into the mass graves but the DDT the soldiers used to mask the smell of the bodies finished off the task.

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{ All the squares are mass graves }

How could anyone do this we asked ourselves. Not just to the men but the women, children and even babies. Pol Pot used the poor and promised them jobs and food. Most of the executioners were between the ages of 15-19 years old. They were brain washed into believing what they were doing was right. I mean what can you expect when you take the poor and suffering and tell them that these people (the victims) are the reason for their suffering. 

Most of all he used fear, he threatened his soldiers with the lives of their families and their own. After the horrors they’ve seen and taken part in who would want to die that way. Fear does horrific things to people. We cannot be so quick to judge. Of course some soldiers defected, and some were lucky enough to fully escape but most were not and inevitably suffered the same fate of their victims.

A nasty form of retribution I suppose.

The scenery is quite nice to look at, all greenery and palm trees, until you look at the ground and see pieces of bone or strips of clothing, that have been unearthed over time. Bone and clothes are still being revealed to this day. The soil moves and settles with weather and time as if the souls of the dead can not find peace and lay forever un-rested.

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Included in the price of a ticket ($6 USD for foreigners) is an audio tour. You receive a narrowcaster and headphones at the door and then just follow the signs. The place is quite, not in people but in sound, it’s a graveyard after all and respect should be shown. Along with being informative about those sad and horrible years, there are recordings of first hand accounts to listen to, from both survivors and soldiers.

I cried when we listened to the story of a mother who survived the work camps but lost her 8 month old son, though I suppose in a way, she died in that camp the day she lost her son. The baby died because she could not feed him. She was made to work 12 hours a day and was given no food so she could not produce enough milk. One of the things we women are made to do for our children and to no fault of her own she could not. How consumingly heartbreaking is that.

Pol pot lived another 20 comfortable years before dying peacefully under house arrest. There’s speculation about how exactly he died, some think he was poisoned by his enemy’s or maybe even his disciples, regardless he died a much too easy death for the horrors he committed.

It took us over an hour to walk around the area. We took it slow to really take in our surroundings, stopping every once in a while to sit, listen to the recordings and absorb what we were listening to.

The last stop before the Memorial Stupa is at the “Magic Tree”, although no magic happened here. It was where a loud speaker hung to play propaganda music. It was to drown out the screams of the victims while they were murdered. On the narrowcaster was an example of what it would have sounded like, the music I mean, not the screams. There also would have been the sound of a loud generator for the lights above the graves. We listen to what would have been the last sounds these people would have heard. It was utterly eerie.

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We left with damp checks and heavy hearts.

Going into Cambodia we knew we had very little time, like 4 days little. So we decided to only do two things; the killing fields in Phom Penh and Angkor in Siem Reap. The above was our experience at the Killing Fields. I didn’t want to get into the history of it all because it would have made for a long post, but if you’re wanting more information about how and why such things took place this website has some simple information.