While Angkor Wat has rightfully carved out its place as one of the richest historical locations in Southeast Asia, Bagan can also lay claim to such an accolade. Natalie Krebs explores a quieter former capital and discovers Myanmar’s hidden charm. Photos by Phil Burnett
When looking at a world map, Hong Kong is usually represented by a tiny dot, or sometimes nothing at all. Other, larger countries in Southeast Asia may seem like more worthy destinations to the unknowing traveller, but maps, as we all know, don’t always accurately represent reality.
Hanoi is one of those cities — if you haven’t seen it, then you haven’t seen Vietnam. But simply follow the tourist trail or get snared by scammers and you may vow never to leave Ho Chi Minh City for the weekend again. Or, use your time in the 1001-year-old city wisely, and you’ll come back again and again, hooked by its people, its charm and the addictive hunt for that bowl of something you haven’t yet tried.
I’ve just got back from a four-day trip to Singapore for ITB Asia, the region’s biggest travel trade show. I have mixed feelings about Singapore — living in Vietnam, it’s nice to escape to somewhere peaceful and orderly for a few days, but generally I find Singapore to be lacking in charm. Most of its old colonial buildings have been bulldozed to make way for tower blocks, it lacks the bustling street life one normally associates with big Asian cities, and beer is ruinously expensive. And yet despite this, Singapore attracts serious tourist numbers – nearly 12 million of them in 2010. How it does this contains valuable lessons for Ho Chi Minh City and Vietnam as a whole, as it struggles to develop sustainable growth in tourism.
My most enduring memory of Paris was on a school 'Economics' trip when I was 18. We were staying near Porte de Clichy and one night rather than coaching it back to the hotel we decided to walk. The road took us past the Moulin Rouge in the Montmartre area and our economics teacher Mr Connolly — infamous for having tried to persuade the now legendary John Barnes to finish his last two years of school rather than pursue a career in football — led the way, his wife a few paces behind. Suddenly a lady of the night accosted the poor man and tried to drag him into a taxi. He fought back but it took his screaming wife and a short tug-of-war to prevent a potential tragedy.
A few years ago an excited resort owner in Nha Trang told me of one of those ‘undiscovered’ natural wonders that every travel writer yearns to find. Somewhere in Phu Yen between Tuy Hoa and Quy Nhon was a beach made up of black volcanic rock rolled into hexagonal coins that resembled the Giant’s Causeway in Ireland and the Devil’s Postpile in the US. He’d heard of the place from a traveller who had chanced to turn off Highway 1. But as with all the mythical Camelots out there, he didn’t have a location and certainly not a name. “You should go and have a look,” he told me. With no more than a description, two months later on a trip to Quy Nhon I did just that.
Travelling around Vietnam is certainly no carefree jaunt. Busses can be cramped, stuffy and undependable, while the drivers can often be maniacs. Hustlers are a constant annoyance and the hassles are numerous. But all that is a breeze compared to traversing around India. Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be that way if you skip Delhi and head straight to Rajasthan.
Having spent time on Java and Bali, I thought I had Indonesia figured out. After all, if you've seen one island you've seen them all, right? Sulawesi was a bit of a slap in the face to this narrow-mindedness. What I discovered there was an entirely different culture, as different from Java as any country in Southeast Asia is from its neighbours — in some places even more so. Travelling here offers the extremes of South Pacific geography, from cool rugged highlands to lush equatorial islands surrounded by intense blue waters. It is an experience like no other, a trip into the real heart of Indonesian island culture.
For most tourist visitors to Laos, Luang Prabang is the only game in town. Direct flights from various cities in Asia mean visitors can even bypass the charming capital city of Vientiane in their rush to reach what is admittedly one of the most stunning towns in the region, leaving the rest of the country still largely untouched by tourism.