11 Things I Learned Traveling in South East Asia

Recently took a trip through South East Asia.  I typically like to spend more than a few days in any city/country I travel to, but I didn’t know much about these countries.  I assumed it would be better to briefly experience each one and then decide which ones I should return to sometime in the future.  Besides, my wife planned the whole trip.  Below are the top 11 things (wasn’t aiming for a particular number, just happened to be 11) I learned while traveling through Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, and Hong Kong.

1) Skip Phnom Penh in Cambodia

During our two days in Phnom Penh, we didn’t find anything particularly exciting to do.  If you are there, the palace and National Museum are worth visiting, but I feel there are many more interesting countries and cities to spend your time.  There was one restaurant along the river that was very good, Khmer Saravan; though not good enough to warrant stopping by the city.

2) Spend at least two full days in Siem Reap

The temples there are a truly unique experience.  Between the various temples, you will see a lot of variety.  The general area is known as Angkor and is a world heritage site.  I have been to other places that boast dozens of temples, but in the end they run together and seem extremely similar.  I did not have this impression in Siem Reap.  If the weather is nice, you can  take your time moving through the temples and just enjoy the day, have a picnic, or take a nap in the shade.

3) Hire a Tuk-Tuk Driver

A tuk-tuk is basically a motorcycle with a covered cart attached.  Many of the drivers in Siem Reap speak passable English and rides are very cheap.  A full day trip through the temples will run about $25—the cost covers the distance and the amount of time the trip takes is irrelevant.  The driver will patiently wait for you to walk through each temple, even if it is several hours.  Even the drive from the city center to the temple area is quite pleasant.

4) Consider a Private Tour Guide

When you only have two days to spend in a city, you want to accomplish as much as possible in that time.  Without experience in the city, it is difficult to know when and where to go.  Coordinating transportation can also be difficult and time-consuming.  In Bangkok, we hired a private guide through ratservice.com and couldn’t be happier with the result.  They helped us plan our stay and provided comfortable transportation to every location.  Depending on time and distance, they charge between $100 and $200 per day.  It may seem expensive, but if you are already spending that much money to travel halfway around the world, why not spend a little extra to make the most of it.

5) Learn Mandarin, Korean, or Japanese

This is a little tongue-in-cheek.  Notice that those three languages are not the native languages of any countries listed above.  At every major attraction, we saw at least one Chinese, Japanese, and Korean tour group.  Each group had a tour guide speaking their native language.  If you knew one of those three languages, you could simply follow them and get a free tour.  If you aren’t Asian, they likely wouldn’t suspect you to understand what they are saying.

6) Research Restaurants

While much of the street food is delicious in these countries, the actual restaurants can be very hit or miss.  We mistakenly believed that everywhere would have good food, especially in tourist areas.  Either do some research before going or ask locals to recommend a good, authentic place to eat.

7) Check out the Bird Park in Kuala Lumpur 

Claims to be the world’s largest in-flight aviary.  While I can’t confirm the claim, the park itself is impressive.  It was my first experience being among such a large variety of birds that were free to move about the park and to actually fly above your head.

8) Visit the Petronas Towers

The twin towers, symbolic of Kuala Lumpur, are a beautiful sight, especially in the evening.  The south end of the towers also features a park, complete with lake and fountains. The city aquarium is also on the edge of the park, but I would only visit if you really enjoy aquariums or need something to do on a rainy day.

9) Avoid Sentosa Island

Official Singapore websites will lead you to believe Sentosa Island is the must see attraction, but that is simply not the case.  It is a large man-made island filled with overpriced activities, food, and resorts.  You would expect the island to at least offer a nice view, but much of the coast is difficult or impossible to access.  Unless the new aquarium under construction actually lives up to the advertised claims, I just can’t imagine why anybody would want to visit that island.

10) Visit Marina Bay

In my opinion, Marina Bay is the actual must see attraction.  The entire area is well-kept and provides the ability to take a long walk along the bay and enjoy the beautiful skyline.  Surprising to me, many restaurants and hotels along the bay have signs that specifically say walkways and certain viewpoints are always open to the public.  Most places would block off such routes and only offer them to paying customers.  There are several attractions in the area, but the only one we had time to visit was the large mall.  While the stores held no interest for us, the food court is the best I have ever seen in any mall.  The food is delicious, inexpensive, and there is a wonderful variety. The best part about the mall is that the roof contains a park/garden that is open to the public.  I hope to get a chance to explore the area further in the future.

11) Enjoy Shopping

If you are going to Hong Kong and you don’ enjoy shopping, I’m not sure what Hong Kong has to offer.  The Peak offers a great view of the city and the food is great, but there isn’t much to do between meals.  We had a good time hiking in Lantou, but it certainly isn’t a reason to visit Hong Kong.  Luckily we have friends in Hong Kong, so spending time with them gave us something to do.  Without local friends, I don’t think I would visit again.

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