Langkawi, Malaysia 2/24-3/3
I’ve broken the first rule of travel…well, at least a top five rule: I’ve been traveling with expectations. I’ve been looking for a very chilled out place that has a good social scene where it’s easy to meet people. I would normally argue that the very best way to travel is to just take every situation as you find it and make the best of it. Obviously not having preconceived ideas about what you will encounter makes this much easier to do. However, I think I can be forgiven for breaking this rule since I am so familiar with SE Asia after regularly vacationing in this region over the last six years. I know some of the specific scenes a person can expect to find even if I don’t know exactly where to find them sometimes.
To this end, I rushed through several locations in Malaysia and gave them less time then they likely deserved because they weren’t what I was looking for. However, my search for a relaxed, fun and social scene came to an end in Langkawi, an island just north of Penang and just south of the Thailand-Malaysian border. It’s a large island full of beautiful beaches, mountain views and lots of boat tours to amazing, smaller, nearby islands. But most importantly to me, it was home to a nice hostel that made it easy for me and Chris, who I was still traveling with since meeting up in the Cameron Highlands, to meet people. And meet people we did.
Cheap hostels with dorms are a magnet for the kind of travelers I like to meet, but are not very common in SE Asia since most places are so cheap people can stay in hotel-styled guest houses; however, they aren’t the best for meeting people. Hostels, on the other hand, are a sanctuary for people who are trying to travel for a long time on the cheap and as I’ve explained before in my article, Put It On Your Back…, the people that travel this way share many qualities and have the same perspective on a lot of things all of which combines to make it easy to connect and get along no matter where they’re from in the world.
Combine all this with an in-hostel bar and you have all the ingredients for a great place to stay and have a good time. Chris and I quickly found ourselves with new friends from Canada, England, Norway, Sweden, Austria and Ireland, and even met up with some people from Denmark who we had met in Malaysia a week earlier. For the next week we all hung out, took motor bike rides, jumped in rivers, went on boat tours and just chilled on the beach, at the hostel and at a few of the island’s night spots. I even celebrated a memorable birthday with this motley crew of backpackers. While I had planned on staying in Langkawi for just a few days, I ended up staying for a week and still felt like I had to force myself to go once I finally did, but Chris needed to start heading north to catch a flight out of Bangkok in a week and myself and the nice Irish couple staying at the hostel all agreed to head north with him.
Koh Lanta 3/3 – 3/9
For the first time ever in my life, I crossed into another country by boat. There wasn’t anything particularly different about it other than getting to immigrate as a seamen which, of course, gave me a bit of a chuckle. Chris, the Irish couple and I were all heading to Koh Lanta. It’s a new up and coming travel destination for backpackers that I personally hadn’t heard about until very recently despite being very familiar with SE Asia. Word-of-mouth said it was a very relaxed and underpopulated island with tons of beaches. Word-of-mouth, as so often is the case in travel circles, was correct.
On our very first night there, we struggled to find cheap accommodations and the sheer length of the island made getting around hard to do, especially for people arriving at 9 at night and after 14 hours of travel. We eventually found something beach front for the night, put down our packs and sat on the beach to relax. Not more than ten minutes after sitting down on the nearly empty beach, a group of Americans came walking up the beach. Given that we were some of the only people they had seen near their age that were not a couple on a romantic holiday, they went out of their way to talk to us.
The next hour was one of the scariest and most concerning reality checks I’ve ever had in my life. The three Americas, all in their early 30’s and all flight attendants, quickly reminded me of everything I was scared of about returning home. Despite the fact that they were in the exact same part of the world as me and my travel buddies, we could not have been further apart. They were scared of everything, found everything in Thailand dirty and disgusting (everything outside of their five star resort that is), they could not correctly pronounce the name of anything, talked insanely loud and honestly all came across like overly dramatic and animated characters you would see on a television show. However, it was abundantly clear that they viewed us in an equally odd and curious light. “How can you just travel for months on end?” “What about work?” “Your career?” “Why would you want to live like this?” “What do you get out of traveling like a poor person?” OK, they didn’t actually ask that last one, but that was very much the tone in which the questions were being asked. The sacrifices we were willing to make to travel for a long period of time made us nothing short of madmen to them. Especially me, since I was the most close to them in terms of age.
I can’t say I’m not familiar with this attitude. In fact, it’s one I’m very used to encountering when I’m back home from some people. The surprising thing was that people like this had somehow managed to make their way to the other side of the world and that traveling appeared to have no impact on how they viewed or thought about the world. However, one thing I do know about traveling is that much of what you learn from it comes after you get back home. So it could very well be that once they get back home and hear some of their friends speaking ignorantly about Asia something in them will click and make them aware of what it looks and sounds like to be so fundamentally ignorant about the world. Regardless, encountering them was both embarrassing, as they too perfectly personified every negative stereotype of Americans my foreign travel companions had, and worrying, since it made me concerned about what awaits me once I get back home and try to reintegrate into my native culture.
All this aside, despite knowing that Koh Lanta was a very chilled out place, Chris and the Irish were still up for a party. We tried several nights to find the party scene with varying degrees of success, a lot of stops at 7-11 and a few hilarious sorties along the way. Still, after a few days, they were ready to head over to Koh Phi Phi, one of the most famous places to party in all of the SE Asia. I, however, was still cool with chilling out and had also been in touch with a friend, Caitlin, who had also just started her own long trip after leaving Korea a few days earlier and was supposed to be heading my way. I decided to stay behind and see if we couldn’t meet up. While I had no idea how long I would be on my own or even if Caitlin was for sure coming, as it turned out, not more than ten minutes after waving bye to Chris and the Irish, Caitlin messaged me and within an hour of them leaving, we were having lunch. We chilled out for the next few days and then headed over of Koh Phi Phi ourselves.
Koh Phi Phi 3/9-3/12
Phi Phi lived up to the hype and was every bit the party everyone said it was. There were fire shows on the beach featuring either very talented performers or drunk idiots doing idiotic things involving jump ropes and rings of fire, booze by the bucket, pumping music that went late into the night and just an overall energy that made me want to dance. This is to say nothing of the beautiful white-sand beaches, stunningly clear and vivid blue water, and jagged rock cliffs that served as a back drop to all this partying. The next few days were a bit of a blur, but I think it’s fair to say Caitlin and I did Seoul proud and were some of the few people on that island complaining about how early things shutdown. After two days, I wasn’t done with Phi Phi, there was still a nearby island that many were calling the most beautiful they’ed ever seen. It is also home to the beach where the movie The Beach (starring Leonard DiCaprio) was filmed. I decided to hang out for one more day and take a tour of the island. I’m very glad I did because the beaches and the island itself was amazing and like nothing I had ever seen before. However, I am now also convinced that Central America and the Caribbean have better beaches than SE Asia. This is not a diss on SE Asia, this is really just a battle of the best-of-the-best. A person would be lucky to see any of the beaches in SE Asia, but if you can only see one set of beaches, head to the Americas.
To say Im over Bangkok would be a huge understatement. It’s big, loud, dirty and everyone there is constantly trying to sell you something or rip you off (usually they’re trying to do both). However, it’s hard to spent time traveling in SE Asia without ending up here. It is a flight, bus and train hub. My flight to Myanmar was leaving from there and, more importantly, I had to go there to get my visa for Myanmar there. However, against my better judgment, I timed my trip so that I could get my visa in just two days. I arrived in Bangkok from Phi Phi on an overnight bus at 6 am and pretty much went right to the embassy to apply for a next day visa. The next day, just 4 hours before my flight, I went back to get the visa. It was a chaotic 24 hours, full of cross town tuk-tuk and motor bikes rides, but I got it all sorted and kept my time in Bangkok to an absolute minimum.