Avid traveller and frequent flyer Charles David shares his memorable highlights from all his trips around ASEAN, and what every traveller-to-be should know — from a backpacker’s point of view.
The most memorable event was the Cu Ci Tunnel exploration for me. It awed me because it looked so plain and deserted from the top, but there was a much larger network of tunnels that underlie much of the country. It was amazing that during the Vietnam War, the Viet Cong practically lived their whole lives in the tunnels, fearing the US Army. They basically had hospitals in them too! But I had difficulty moving around in the tunnel due to my large size as the tunnels were built for the Vietnamese who are mostly petite.
Travelling within Vietnam wasn’t a problem as most of the time I was on foot or on a bike. If you have a sufficient budget, then you may also hire a Grab (e-hailing ride similar to Uber) to move around. Always take care of your belongings, keep it close with you. People will approach you to sell souvenirs and force you to buy them, but be careful of what you buy because some of the souvenirs are not allowed on planes. In Saigon, I bought a bullet as a keychain and I was asked to throw it in the bin, as it wasn’t allowed even for check-in. When I looked into the bin, I saw tonnes of bullet keychains!
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The sunset and sunrise in Angkor Wat! It was so majestic and beautiful…I could just sit there for hours and be mesmerised by its architectural beauty. Every temple has its own beauty like the Ta Phrom (also known as the Tomb Raider temple), and you can even find street artists creating eye-catching paintings of temples and Buddhas along the walkways.
Almost everything in Cambodia is sold in USD. Beers are cheap too, priced around USD1.5 to 2 per glass!
Cambodian currency can be used but it is not as widely used as the USD, so don’t bother exchanging your money to Cambodiel riels. On average, street food can be found from USD2 to USD4. If you’re a fan of crocodile meat, it can be found at most street food stalls.
However, if you’re one to explore the temples, you need to buy a pass for that.
The entrance fee to the Angkor Archaeological Park depends on the type of admission pass that you choose. There are 3 types of passes available:
1-day pass – USD37;
3-day pass – USD62;
7-day pass – USD72;
Personally, if you’re into backpacking, I recommend the one-day pass which is sufficient to explore all the major temples. If you’re into sunrises, I suggest that you be awake by 5am to get your tickets because the queue to purchase them is super-duper long! Alternatively, you can buy your pass the morning before. The average tuk-tuk price for a day’s temple tour would be between USD18 and 20. If the tuk-tuk guys request more, walk away. I rented a bike that cost USD12 for three days, which was much more worth it.
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I preferred the quiet side of Indonesia, which was Lake Toba. The greenery and scenery were amazing. It was such a peaceful and quiet place to be rather than the overpopulated Bali and busy streets of Jakarta! If you’re seeking a place for peace and relaxation, this is the place to be.
Just be prepared: some events might set off a chain of reactions. For example, some street kids and vendors will persuade you to purchase their arts and crafts. If you buy one, many more will come to you! Other than that, there are actually some quite good bed and breakfast homes and places to stay; you don’t actually need to put up at a fancy spot.
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Considering Singapore is Malaysia’s close neighbour, the food is pretty much the same (although some may beg to differ!) Their attractions are quite impressive like the Marina Bay, Gardens by the Bay and their famous Universal Studios. I am more of a nature person than a city one, though, but if you like modern architecture then you’ll love Singapore.
Prepare your budget for high-cost living and expenses if you are planning to stay here, even for two to three days. Even the cheapest hostel for a backpacker costs about USD47-52 a night! I would suggest staying in Johor Bahru and travelling to Singapore daily via bus, however, traffic is a nightmare too during peak hours!
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Malaysia has one of the most beautiful flora and fauna in the world, and the most breathtaking turquoise blue oceans too! I don’t have a favourite place to be, I just love everything about Malaysia, my home country!
Unlike the West Side, the East Side (Sabah and Sarawak) houses more greenery and cultural places to visit like the long houses, orang utan care centres, the different tribe villages, ancient caves, pinnacles, diving spots along the coral reefs at Sipadan and many more!
If you are more into cultural vibes, then you may want to visit during their festive season: Kaamatan for Sabah and Gawai for Sarawak. Both celebrations are tentatively held at the end of May.
On the West side, we have the famous world-class tea plantations in Cameron Highlands, streets art along Penang streets, giant statues standing tall, the famous steps of Batu Caves, Islamic architectural designs on Putrajaya Official government buildings, the famous Twin Towers, the blue underworld of Perhentian and Redang Islands and many more. Let’s not even get started on the food!
Travelling across Malaysia is always convenient as coach services and flights run 24 hours. If you’re travelling within the city there’s Grab, MyCab, taxis, feeder buses or even trains. Commuting isn’t a problem but always beware of pickpockets in crowded places. Be experimental and try out the local food and don’t forget to bargain on your goods if you intend to buy them from night markets! You can always ask for directions if you are lost, as most people are quite helpful in Malaysia.
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The temple visits and the old city of Bagan in Mandalay. The scenery here is to die for! The mist covering the old ancient temples during sunrise is like a movie set in ancient times. Seeing the hot air balloons filling up the skies is also a breathtaking view. I’m not a Buddhist, but visiting these temples seems so peaceful, a relaxation for the soul. At times, you can even observe the monks chanting at dawn.
People here are generally nice, helpful and very easy to talk to. You can even commute using Grab. Tourists are not allowed to ride a bike in Yangon but in other cities of Myanmar there are fewer restrictions, so you can opt for Grab as a cheaper alternative if you’re too tired to go on foot. Yangon is a nice place a visit just for a day or two, but the real gem is at Mandalay. The Burmese national costume is called the lungi (or longyi), so don’t be surprised when you see men wearing formal office shirts with a lungi, or schoolkids with longyi as their uniforms. That was an interesting sight to see on the streets of Myanmar.
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7. Brunei Darussalam
The Ulu Temburong National Park is one of the highlights here. The country is small, so sightseeing within the country can be done within a day if you have a car to travel around with. The national park in Brunei has a famous canopy walk where the key times to visit are during sunrise and sunset, when mist enshrouds the forest, and the various calls of animals leave you with an unforgettable experience of peace and serenity.
First things first, tourists need to keep in mind that the country is strict with their Shariah Islamic Law. Therefore, entertainment outlets are totally forbidden. No alcohol, no cigarettes and no sort of entertainment in public areas. Most shops close around 11pm and that’s it; you have to wait for a new day to plan your next move. Food is easily available in most places as most Bruneians spend their social time at eateries. The best places to visit for photography would be the Jame Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque, the Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque and, of course, the Ulu Temburong Park.
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WHERE TO NEXT?
What are you most excited to experience there?
Unlike the well-known tourist spots such as Manila, Cebu and Boracay, I have decided to travel to a less well-known part of the country, which is the Camiguin Island. Camiguin, situated about 10 kilometres north of Mindanao, has both beautiful beaches and waterfalls set against lush green backdrops. It has ruins of Old Spanish churches and the one I am looking forward to is the sunken cemetery. In the 1870s, a volcano near this place erupted and caused the cemetery along with the capital city surrounding it to sink below sea level. In order to commemorate this place of loss, a looming cross was built in remembrance. So, I am really looking forward to swimming above those cemeteries. Creepy but exciting!
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Why do you want to go to Laos?
Laos is the only Buddhist country left for me to discover. I am just waiting for the right time and price for me to click the “Book Flight” button. While damming of rivers, poaching and mining threaten the Lao wilderness, there are still huge areas of untouched land where elephants, tigers, birds and other native species live in the wild. The Mekong River is home to the endangered Irrawaddy dolphins and beautiful waterfalls. There are even relics in the form of hair and a piece of bone from the Buddha in one of the stupas.
Have you eaten fried morning glory? Neither have I, but apparently, they have it in Laos, as a type of dish. Just putting it out there in case you would be interested in eating flowers!
What are some of the preparations and research you have done?
I am constantly monitoring the right price and time for me to discover Laos. I am planning the trip in such a way where I can at least join one of the few festivals in November or April, like Boin Ok Phansa (Boat Racing) or the Pi Mai aka Songkran festival.
It’s a long way to go but I will start planning intensively after my Philippines trip.
Timor-Leste inaccessible at the moment…
But if AirAsia starts flying there, I would definitely go! I hope it happens soon. The country is still new in terms of tourism, so before it becomes overly famous, I’d like to take a trip there.
What would you want to experience there, and what are your impressions on the country?
It has a very strong Portuguese culture because it was once ruled by them and later taken over by the Indonesian Government. As a matter of fact, Portuguese is still their official language. Plus, the country is quite close to the Australian continent so I am pretty sure there it would have plenty of Australian influences. But yes, again, it’s a long way to go as I haven’t a lot of research on the country yet, just surface knowledge from Googling!
Many thanks to Charles David for sharing his insight, experiences, photos and stories with us! Follow him on Instagram at @macha_travels!