Wallowing in the comfort of unparalleled infrastructure in Japan for four months took its toll on us. As a result, we lost some of our Wanderlust mojo. The truth of the matter is, in the harmonious nature of Japan, we rarely had an occasion for hustling and we inevitably slowed down. When it was time to leave, we looked forward to getting back to the more ‘chaotic’ side of Asia as we embarked southward for Southeast Asia.
Japan was a milestone for us, the U-turn point where our orientation turned from East to the West – back to Europe. We realised our planned one-year trip had metamorphosed into a two-year trip. Thus, we found ourselves mapping a new timeline with the goal to be back in Europe by July 2020. As a result, we unfortunately had to rush through some parts of the world, and Southeast Asia was one of them.
Landing in Malaysia in the middle of July was like being dropped into a rainforest. The humidity and heat hit you square in the face, trapping you in an inescapable sauna. As we attempted to acclimatise and organise ourselves in Kuala Lumpur, while waiting for Toyotoro, we soon saw our thirst for discovery return. Just in time to welcome our dear travel companion to arrive safely into Port Kelang, after two weeks of solo wandering at sea. Clearing Toyotoro out of the port was an adventure of its own (check here for the whole bureaucratic shebang), so we were very glad to be hitting the road again. And swore to not ship again for a long time.
Combating the heat and humidity became one of our major challenges, especially during night times and we soon saw ourselves fighting for the only portable fan in the car. At a mere 15cm in diameter it was a lot to ask from its small propellers working overtime to while away the Southeast Asian heat for us. Thus, we had to adapt to a new daily routine of sleeping as soon as it was cool enough and waking up before the heat can get us at sunrise.
First stop: Peninsular Malaysia. The multi-ethnic and multi-cultural inhabitants of Malaysia are what make this country one of the most pleasurable places to visit. The people are incredibly friendly and welcoming. Maybe it is down to the Malays, Chinese and Indians having lived together as early as the 1st century AD, that they have found ways to embrace their differences. This diversity is reflected in the vibrant street life of Kuala Lumpur and Penang, but most notably, and most relevant to me, in Malaysian cuisine. Where else in the world could you get such authentic tastes from these three cultures on one street? We ate like there was no tomorrow. I am not ashamed to admit that we did not turn on our gas hobs once during our time in Southeast Asia.
Wandering around in Malaysia I noticed something I would never have spared a thought on before and that was the presence of so many young people. I had almost forgotten what youth looked like after being in Japan for so long. With over a third of Japan’s population above the age of 60, I was reminded again of youth’s vitality, vigour and noise that so often come with ambition and drive.
We quickly warmed to our chaotic surroundings, whether it be fighting for another inch of the road in Bangkok with the hooting of the insolent tuk tuk at our tail; or almost colliding with a two-wheel tractor roaming on the roads in the dark in Cambodia; or spotting the transportation of dozens of live birds of all kinds tied skilfully upside-down to motorbikes. The lack of rules and regulations saw us rub shoulders with locals at a regular basis, which guaranteed more skirmishes but also revealed our humanity.
Filling up our irregularly shaped European cooking gas bottle in Thailand showed us the kindness of locals who were willing to help even if it was at the risk of their own lives. Quite literally. Due to a lack of the proper adaptor a few Thai from a workshop decided to create a Jenga-style chain of different adaptors to channel compressed liquid gas from one bottle to another, without a weighing scale. This is the pinnacle of Asian-ness for me and it felt great.
Being Asian I do feel more at home drifting around this part of the world, especially in Malaysia where I could use my Chinese to our advantage. However, I did not expect to find myself feeling ‘at home’ in certain corners of Bangkok. Our second stop: Thailand. It turns out that the Chinese Thai community is the largest minority group in the country and the largest overseas community outside of China, totalling to ten million. That accounts to almost 15% of Thailand’s entire population. With this newly acquired information in mind, it was then to little surprise that the locals tried to make conversation with me when we had breakfast at Hia Tai Kee café in Bangkok. Sadly, I do not speak Cantonese nor Kejia dialect, therefore our engagement was only brief. What an anti-climax I thought.
Thailand had long been a tourist destination for Westerners, making it harder to escape the crowds or to find the off-the-beaten-path locations. From the lush mountains in the north to the bustling cities and to the paradise islands, there is no wonder why tourists flock to this beautifully diverse country. When we entered Thailand in the middle of August, we first paid a visit to the island of Koh Phangan where a Japanese friend of mine opened an Italian restaurant with her boyfriend. La Vela looks amazing and the food tasted even better. Please go and have a pasta dish or focaccia or tiramisu there! You will not regret it. With a bellyful of Italian delicacies, it makes you go down easier during snorkelling in those beautiful waters around the island.
One of my highlights of Thailand, apart from the mouth-watering food, are the gorgeous palaces and Buddhist temples all around the country. Bangkok has a great concentration of them, namely around the Grand Palace complex, exhibiting traditional Thai architectural style. Although, after some time spent in this huge complex, the gold and symmetric patterns became quite hypnotic and dizzying. Throughout the north of the country there were some more modestly designed temples, without the crowd and heat, they were much more relaxing and enjoyable to visit.
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