A taste of Southeast Asia

Originally published at The Student Journals.

Enjoying the views from above Haad Khuad resort, Koh Phagnan. Photography: Josh Cooke

There’s nothing quite like that post-graduation holiday – a student’s last taste of freedom before the real world of work and responsibilities inevitably has to begin. We were determined to make ours an adventure, travelling on a tour from Bangkok to Singapore and taking in a fantastic, varied range of Thai and Malaysian culture along the way.

Arriving in Bangkok was perhaps the biggest culture shock of the whole trip; Thailand’s capital is like nowhere I’ve ever experienced. From its vibrantly coloured Buddhist temples and the delicious aroma of street food, to the frenzied sound of traffic chaos and the sweltering humidity, Bangkok is a constant bombardment of the senses. It’s as fascinating as it is overwhelming. The stunningly intricate Golden Buddha Temple and Grand Palace are both well worth a visit, but the best part of our time in Bangkok was simply spent exploring the narrow, labyrinthine streets of China Town, buying chicken satay and fresh fruit from street vendors and getting utterly lost amongst market stalls selling everything from retro electronics to gorgeous Thai silk clothing.

After a few intense days in the capital we were ready for a something a bit calmer, and island hopping off Thailand’s east coast didn’t disappoint. After an overnight train (an experience, if not a highlight!) and a short ferry crossing, we arrived at Koh Phagnan. Although the island is best known for its wild Full Moon Parties, our experience was a little different – a nail-biting off-road drive through the jungle to the breath-taking, secluded Haad Khuad (Bottle Beach) resort. There we found a stunning white private beach with crystal clear, bath-warm sea, around which we spent two days snorkelling, relaxing, drinking cocktails, soaking up the astounding mountain-top views. It was complete with a beach barbeque, with both bonfire and poi. Blissful. Our next island was Koh Samui, where we rode an elephant, sampled yet more wonderful Thai food at the night market, and visited the famous “Grandfather” and “Grandmother” rocks – two natural formations, respectively in the shape of male and female genitalia, which are… impressive, to say the least.

One of the biggest highlights of Thailand was the food, which, if I’m honest, was one of the deciding factors in starting our trip there! I’ve long been of the opinion that Thai cuisine is the best in the world, and everywhere we went, Thai chefs proved me right. We didn’t have a single bad meal – from delicious noodles, fragrant rice and stir-fries full of fresh vegetables and nuts, to curries so full of chilli they made your lips tingle.

That said, as we moved on and across the border into Malaysia, there were yet more culinary delights in store. The Malaysian population is a mixture of Chinese, Indian and Malay, which is reflected in their food as much as in other aspects of Malaysian culture. One night we tried out a steamboat, cooking our own raw ingredients in a simmering pot of spicy Chinese soup. The following night, we ate Indian curries off a banana leaf with our fingers.

Our first port of call in Malaysia was George Town, Penang Island, just off the west coast. George Town, named in honour of King George III, combines this distinctly Asian multiculturalism with remnants of Malaysia’s colonial past. Fort Cornwallis, built by a trader for the British East India Company in the late 18th century, stands in stark contrast to the beautifully ornate Kek Lok Si Chinese temple. But it’s not just colonial architecture that endures in Malaysia – up in the hills of Cameron Highlands you don’t have to look far to find a cream tea! As well as some comforting brews, our two days in Cameron Highlands provided some much cooler temperatures, and our first real experience of the Malaysian monsoon season. The absolute highlight of our time in Cameron Highlands though was our trek through the rainforest to find the Rafflesia, which boasts the title of world’s largest flower – as well as the nickname “corpse flower”, for its delightful scent of rotting flesh.

Needless to say, our next stop, Malaysia’s bustling capital city Kuala Lumpur, was very different. KL is, on the one hand, incredibly westernised and modern: the business district, where the stunningly impressive Petronas Twin Towers are situated, has some truly breath-taking contemporary architecture. On the other hand, the city’s effervescent China Town, the National Mosque, and the incredible Hindu temple inside the Batu Caves, all retain the history and culture of Malaysia’s pan-Asian heritage. This multicultural mix was what made Kuala Lumpur my favourite city of the tour, and its beautiful views can best be enjoyed from atop the KL tower at sunset.

Our final stop before Singapore was Melaka, a historic city with much colonial Portuguese and Dutch influence. Like Penang, we didn’t really have enough time to do Melaka justice (the obvious downside to cramming eight cities into a fortnight!) but dinner and shopping at the famous Jonker Walk night market were fantastic.

We finished our trip in Singapore, which could not have been a more different experience from our start point. Bangkok was noisy, shabby and chaotic; Singapore was clean, orderly and ultramodern. However, while I’d found Bangkok overwhelming, I actually found Singapore a little disappointing. Its architecture is purely of the “we’re just showing-off now” variety – from the very impressive Helix bridge; to the Marina Bay Sands hotel, designed to look like a deck of cards; and the incredible lotus flower design of the ArtScience Museum. The Singaporeans’ national pastimes are dining and shopping, both of which you can do in abundance, as the city boasts literally hundreds of shopping malls. Yet it all felt too artificial – the entire city reminded me of Canary Wharf – and didn’t seem to have a huge amount more to offer for those on a tighter budget. We splashed out and spent our last night high above the city, first in the 282 metre 1-Altitude bar, the tallest rooftop bar in the world, and later in the 165 metre Singapore Flyer, the world’s highest observation wheel (are you starting to see a pattern?!) The Singaporeans are certainly masters of building the biggest and best, and the amazing views that night were worth paying the biggest prices of our holiday.

Two weeks isn’t nearly long enough to take in one country, let alone three, but our non-stop tour provided a taste of the enormous variety of experiences Southeast Asia has to offer.

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