46 days is not a lot of time to spread across 8 countries.
That's how long I spent in the Asia-Pacific region in the months of June 2017 and July 2018. Partly alone, partly with friends, but all of it a unique and challenging experience that I'll never forget. Now that a new year is upon us back in the UK, I wanted to finally finish putting together some of my thoughts and favourite photographs from these trips, and show how they've changed the way I look at the world.
Welcome to China.
The quaint little street near our hostel in central Beijing.
The sight of the endless plains of the Gobi Desert as I peek out the window of my Air China Boeing 777, shortly before we begin our descent into Beijing, is something I'll never forget. It both looks and feels like I'm flying into another planet. Having never left the confines of Europe and North America before, this would be the farthest outside my comfort zone I had ever travelled. It's early June 2017, and we touch down. I'm not totally alone yet; for this trip I am travelling with a good friend, and am glad for it. China turns out to be possibly the hardest country to visit as a Westerner, yet it's the first on our itinerary. Even in the capital city, finding anyone who speaks a word of English (including airport, immigration and hostel staff) is difficult, and transit signs are mostly in Mandarin only.
We climb the Great Wall at Badaling, and the views are stunning.
From the Summer Palace to the Forbidden City, Beijing's imperial architecture is stunning. But the most impressive sight in the area is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the Great Wall itself. When we visit, after what seems like an eternity our tour bus (which we are only 70% sure is the right one) escapes the sprawling concrete of the city and almost immediately plunges us into tight winding roads through lush green forest. There is the wall, stretching out in every direction. Like the hills surrounding the city, atop which the wall stands guard, the sheer scale of Beijing is impressive in every way. Enormous swathes of concrete abound, with Tiananmen Square a stark, imposingly large monument in itself and the Olympic stadium surrounded by a similar featureless expanse.
The sunset flag-lowering ceremony at Tiananmen Square is a sombre moment for us and locals.
Be prepared for smog. On our leaving flight two weeks later, mid-afternoon, Beijing looks like this.
It is encouraging to see China making it easier to visit the country without having to apply for a visa: our trip falls just within the 72-hour visa free period if you have onward travel and the right passport, and this is just long enough to get a taste of local life while seeing some of the city's most famous monuments. If you can, connecting through Beijing is a cheap and comparatively easy way to set foot in China, and is well worth it.
From China, and after perhaps the most enthusiastic passport stamping I've ever seen, we catch an afternoon flight to the classic travellers' haunt of Thailand.
We arrive in Bangkok for a few days in another altogether different Asian megacity, before we are due to make our way further south to the islands. Bangkok is immediately more hospitable to English-speakers, and we spend the first day touring the city with some others from the hostel. As an intensely Buddhist nation, you are constantly reminded of the importance of spirituality here, with the number of wats (temples) outdone only by the 7-Elevens that grace every street corner. There are temples to suit every taste, from the hilltop Wat Phu Khao Thong, offering some of the only elevated views of the city's ring of skyscrapers, to Wat Pho near the Grand Palace, with its enormous reclining Buddha and colourful architecture.
Bangkok's skyline feels more like a ring of skyscrapers around the low-built centre.
Water taxi is great way of getting around parts of Bangkok, and offers a view into the contrasting lifestyles of its inhabitants. Along the banks of the Chao Phraya and its surrounding waterways are opulent sights like palaces, luxury shopping malls and private residences, immediately adjacent to makeshift shacks where the city's poorer residents live.
Water taxi is a common way to avoid the gridlocked roads.
As the gateway to Southeast Asia, Bangkok offers everything a new traveller might need, including transport links by plane, bus and train to destinations throughout Thailand and across the peninsula. There is also a strong sense of community among the revellers who frequent the city's backpacking epicentre, the Khao San Road. Despite its initial welcomeness, however, Bangkok can be so vast and sprawling that it is hard to find many of its gems, and I am sure that we miss out on much to see. After a week of city travel, though, we decide to head further out into nature, and take a cheap AirAsia flight down to Surat Thani, the home of some of Thailand's most spectacular islands.
If there's a better view to wake up to, I haven't seen it.
Sun, sea (not pictured: sand).
The beach that lies three steps outside the door of our room in Koh Phangan is the closest thing to paradise I have seen yet. The island has two distinct seasons, and cycles between them in time with the lunar calendar. Around the time of the full moon — the day itself and the couple surrounding it — is the busy season, where the island is swarmed by backpackers looking to experience the infamous Full Moon Party, occurring on Haad Rin. For the rest of the month, Koh Phangan is quiet, placid and laid back. Its landscapes are just as stunning as those of our next destination, the place more commonly associated with fine beaches: Koh Tao. We arrive a few days before the rest of the full moon seekers, giving us time to see the island in its natural state.
Like moths to a flame at the Full Moon Party.
The morning after full moon, half the island leaves, taking us with them on a deeply uncomfortable three-hour ferry to the next island in the archipelago, Koh Tao. Despite an increase in development in recent years, Koh Tao remains one of the most acclaimed diving locations in the world. It is a small island, with one main road linking the two ends (often water taxis around the perimeter are quicker) and some stunning hotels nestled among the cliffs in the more hidden spots. It truly feels like you are an eternity away from the rest of the world. We don't have time for a full diving course (although it's something that remains on my to-do list), so take a couple of days snorkelling instead.
Leaving Koh Phangan feels like leaving the edge of the world.
The boat trip around the island includes a stop at Nang Yuan, an even smaller island that consists of two hills, some sand, and not a lot else. Like much of the tourist industry in this part of the world, access is strictly controlled by the local families. It's photogenic enough to make you forget that, however, and lucky for us despite arriving in the wet season we are greeted by clear skies almost every day. On another day, we make the decision to take the walk from our hostel to a nearby beach where we can snorkel. It's meant to take less than an hour; after 90 minutes we are half way down a lane in the baking sun, and decide to make a beeline for the nearest hotel bar. Looking bedraggled and sweaty we feel quite out of place in this expensive hotel, but they accept our custom and we soon find that the beach we are looking for is a quick walk along the shore. Paying 200 baht to rent a snorkel for the day, we come within touching distance of a blue reef shark and giant turtle, an incredible sight among the shoals of other fish. Not a bad find for our final day on the island.
Nang Yuan is a picturesque spot just acorss the water from Koh Tao.
Chiang Mai is the capital city of the north, located among Thailand's lush forests, and the last main stop on our journey. We arrive there after a long day of travel from several miles near nowhere in the middle of the Gulf of Thailand. After a 6am ferry that lasts three hours and leaves us tired from a combination of the time and the diesel fumes, and a bus through rural Surat Thani province, a delayed AirAsia flight takes us from an airport seemingly in the middle of nowhere to Chiang Mai International. The first thing that hits you in Chiang Mai is the humidity, like stepping into one of those rainforest plant houses at the zoo, except this time you're actually in the rainforest.
The city has a much clearer distinction between the old and new areas, unlike in Bangkok where they are intertwined on every level. The old city, a perfect square, was once walled and is still surrounded by a moat. Inside, there are numerous temples and the quaint, laidback feel of roads stuck in time. Outside the city can be found many other reasons for visiting: the temple of Wat Phra That Doi Suthep lies atop one of Thailand's most sacred sites, the Doi Suthep. Buddhists from across the region make the pilgrimage to see its spectacular golden stupa. Heading the other way out of the city, we spend the next day at an elephant sanctuary and view these awesome animals in their natural habitat.
Buddhists pray atop Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai.
From Chiang Mai, we make our way back to Bangkok, and after visiting the café selling the world's largest ice cream sundae, catch our flight into Beijing. A 10-hour layover is spent attempting to fit some sleep into 48 hours of constant travel, before boarding our final plane for London, another ancient Air China B777.
Reflecting on this first trip of mine to Asia, Thailand has truly earned its reputation as a traveller's paradise. I'm already planning my next trip, however, and this time I hope to do something a bit more challenging.
Over the water on the Malaysian peninsula.
Fast forward one year. A lot has happened in that time but as they say, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Beginning my next trip, I touch down in Kuala Lumpur International or, as the locals call it, KLIA. It's taken me three flights and a lost night of sleep to get here, with stops in Doha (short — barely two hours on the ground) and Singapore (long — an overnight stay at a friend's house with a sharp 5:30am wakeup). KLIA is a stark contrast from the airport I left in Changi, Singapore, just as Malaysia is in some ways similar but in many more ways very different to its southern neighbour.
The Petronas Towers are most impressive at night.
It is truly a flying visit to KL, with barely 24 hours between touching down and leaving again. After visiting the popular tourist attraction of Batu Caves, with their huge golden Buddha and thieving monkeys, I head to the heart of KL's business district, where the skyscrapers are larger than anywhere I've seen in Asia yet. Towering over them all is the mighty Petronas Twin Towers, once the tallest buildings in the world and still the tallest twin towers. Seeing this feat of engineering is the main reason I decide to visit KL at all, as one day would otherwise be not nearly enough to get a sense of what the city is like. Visiting the hawker centre inside the towers' shopping mall, I try the national dish, nasi lemak. Then I sit behind the towers and watch the coloured lights illuminate the water fountains as evening prayer is played on loudspeakers. It is a tranquil moment among the otherwise noisy city, and just time to catch my breath before I head onwards into backpacker territory, and to Cambodia.
Siem Reap, Cambodia is the key to the kingdom of Angkor, once capital of the Khmer Empire from the 9th to the 15th century, when it was abandoned and mostly lay untouched until recently. The town has grown into a busy city due to the influx of tourists the now UNESCO World Heritage Site brings to the region. Cambodia is a poor country, the most under-developed I've seen yet. As I take a tuk-tuk (really just a wooden bench pulled behind a scooter) from the airport, we have to take a diversion because some of the road leading to my hostel has washed away in the rains. Yet despite this (or, perhaps, because of it), its people are also some of the nicest I've ever met.
Pre Rup is the first temple I visit and remains one of the most enchanting.
I purchase a three-day ticket for the Angkor site, which includes entrance to the over 72 major temples that make up the region. There are two common 'routes' around the most popular temples, and I take the grand route on my first day, which visits some of the lesser known temples, like Pre Rup above. It's the low season for tourists due to the rains, so early in the day the temples are almost deserted. It feels almost like mine are the first feet to step on each one for hundreds of years. You turn a corner and see nothing but rubble, hear nothing but birds and the trees. It is quite magical, especially during the golden hour as the sun sets and casts long shadows through the disused doorways.
Chau Say Tevoda.
Not-quite-sunrise over Angkor Wat.
I wait until the next day to see Angkor Wat, the crown jewel of Angkor. It is more busy, and has less of the mystery of the quieter outer temples, although its size is equally impressive. Deciding on my last day to rent a bike and make my way around the walled city of Angkor Thom, rather than take a tuk-tuk driver, I have time to gaze upon the somber reflecting pools around the footpaths of Angkor Thom, that could easily be missed if you go only with a tour group.
When it rains, it rains hard.
When the rain comes in Southeast Asia, you know it. It comes on fast and heavy, quick enough to drench you almost instantly unless you have cover nearby. But it's a nice way to take some of the heat out of the otherwise blazing midday sun. Attempting to cycle south towards Tonle Sap lake, I am reminded of the developing nature of the country by what appears to be a policeman, telling me I can't use the public road unless I'm with an organised tour (who no doubt pay for this privilege). Defeated, I turn around, and come across a few children cycling home from school. One decides to hang on my wheel and challenge me to a race, a heartwarming moment as we pedal furiously, laughing our beaten up old bikes to the next intersection.
Not quite a toy-town airport but not far off.
Cambodia is a fascinating country and, from what I've seen, has some of the nicest people in Southeast Asia. Continuing my gradual journey north, I now head back along the wide roads to the tiny airport, and onto one of the world's few remaining communist nations: Vietnam.
I fully understand now that Vietnam is a country that requires spending more than a few days to really understand. That said, a few days is all I can spare, so I make the most of it and spend most of my time in the historic capital of the north, Hanoi.
Welcome to Vietnam.
A moment in time among the fast-moving Hanoi traffic.
Hanoi is a crazy place. It has some of the most hectic traffic I've ever seen; to cross the road you simply hope and walk, as motorbikes weave around you as you go. The narrow, maze-like roads of the old city only exacerbate this. However, the charm of the place is wonderful: roads are still named after their original purpose, down to oddly specific types of shop. One street you walk down might have all the city's silverware shops, another all the bike locks, and so on.
I still have no idea what's going on in this scene.
I am impressed with the food and, especially, coffee in Hanoi. The variety of street food, bars (known locally as bia hoi) and pho shops mean it is never hard to find good cheap food. This is handy for long days of museum-touring: I spend a good while in the city's administrative centre, which includes the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum and museum, as well as the museum of military history that houses much of the captured war material left by the US military after they pulled out of the country. Being a modern communist nation, Vietnam never lets you forget that they defeated the US aggressors during the war, and it's interesting to get a different view on these sort of conflicts than we typically see in the west.
The cliffs of Halong Bay are impressive in the overcast weather.
They say that no visit to northern Vietnam is complete without a trip to Halong Bay. The large formation of natural cliffs and outcrops is a few hours' drive eastwards, and despite criticism for being overrun with tourists, I enjoy my day there. It is overcast and somewhat misty, lending a gloomy and brooding feel to the place as we float between the many islands, new cliffs coming into view seemingly from nowhere. The area is home to some enormous natural caves which also impress.
I can still hear the group of Japanese tourists ahead singing strangely enthusiastic sea shanties.
It is obvious to me now why many people use the full duration of their 30-day entry permit to Vietnam, taking their time to meander through the country. I would like to visit the south, to see Ho Chi Minh City and its contrast with the north. For now though, I visit the south of another country divided by war in the 20th century, and catch a sleepless overnight flight to Korea.
While I have enjoyed travelling solo, the sight of my friends' faces at Incheon International is a welcome one. When travelling by yourself, there is no delegation of planning, so it can be a lot of work, but at the same time there is no opportunity for disagreements. The average time spent seeing a familiar face at your hostel is only one or two days, but you have total, luxurious freedom. Slightly spent from nearly two weeks on my own, I meet my friends at the airport in Seoul, this time also catching up with another friend who grew up and lives in the city.
The Korean palaces are kept beautifully.
A lone guard at Changdeokgung.
I have heard that Seoul is notoriously difficult for non-Korean speakers to get around, but we mostly manage just fine. The biggest issue is the lack of Google Maps, as the local alternative has no English language option and Korean is incredibly hard to parse, even phonetically. Most of the more tourist-focused sights, including the Joseon Grand Palaces (like Changdeokgung, pictured above) are easy to navigate and have English-speaking guides. However, when it comes to more local pasttimes like going out for cocktails in Gangnam, visiting karaoke bars up a seedy-looking third floor staircase, or finding perhaps the best Korean BBQ restaurant in the world, I am glad to have a local friend to act as guide and translator.
Korean chopsticks are infuriating, but worth it for this barbecued pork belly.
This corridor in Dongdaemun Design Plaza feels like walking through a spaceship.
Despite the occasional difficulties for the non-local traveller, Seoul feels like a welcoming, wholesome city. Visiting with a local friend my own age gives me a different perspective to the other cities I've been to on this trip, and really highlights the commonality among us. Young Seoulites enjoy going to the movies, shopping malls, bars, parks, just like we all do. Something we definitely don't all do, though, is eat an octopus so fresh that it's still squirming around as you attempt to prise it from the plate (known locally as san-nakji). Not an enjoyable experience, unlike the other foods Korea does so well.
The suburbs of Seoul on the train to the airport really seem to go on forever.
Bisecting almost perfectly the flight path from Seoul to our final destination is the formerly quaint little fishing village (and British colony), now international financial centre, of Hong Kong. We arrive on the same plane as a k-pop star who is swarmed at the airport, but are able to slip past the paparazzi and take a bus over the bridge to very different side of the Chinese mainland than I've been before.
The streets of Hong Kong have a unique magic and energy to them...
If I were to pick one of my travel destinations in this region to describe as the most vibrant of all, it would be Hong Kong: it is to the East as New York City is to the West, a melting pot of global cultures and a cacophany of noise and sights, while standing out as a bastion of capitalism and democratic ideals. Old meets new in the most striking way possible, as dilapidated apartment blocks sit centimetres away from glass skyscrapers, and the neon lights at ground level mirror the grandeur of the city's unbeatable skyline.
...but the region's greenland is a nice respite from the city.
History can be found all over Hong Kong, if you know where to look. For example, the Peak Tram that takes visitors up Victoria Peak has been in operation since 1888. Religious features like the Tian Tan Big Buddha or the Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery are good excuses to traverse some of the city-state's wonderful lush mountain greenery. We spend a day on Lantau Island, seeing the aforementioned Buddha before taking the precarious local bus to the curious fishing village of Tai O, which feels like a world away from the bustling streets of Tsim Sha Tsui.
The winding streets of Tai O feel like they haven't changed in fifty years.
Hong Kong's prosperity has led to considerably higher hotel prices than neighbouring countries, a fact which leads us into unwittingly booking a stay at a hostel in the notorious Chungking Mansions. This building is a fascinating sight in itself, not on the outside but the inside: the ground floor is a mess of Indian market and food stalls which present an obvious fire hazard to the building's narrow, winding corridors. And good luck taking the lift at busy times of day, as there are only two to serve an entire block of the building. Nonetheless, it is an interesting experience and places us in a great location from which to explore both the bustling Hong Kong Island to the south, or the quieter areas north of Kowloon.
Hong Kong at night is cinematic no matter where you look.
I love the colours of the Hong Kong skyline.
Hong Kong embodies change like no other city I've seen. And more change is certainly coming, whether residents like it or not. In 2047, the one country, two systems agreement, under which China has allowed Hong Kong to self-govern since its handover from Britain in 1997, will expire. This will mean China will essentially become free to absorb Hong Kong completely, possibly putting an end to the unique way the territory has evolved. What won't change, however, is the legacy that Hong Kong's immigrant ancestors have left on its identity, something that can also be said of the last of my destinations: Singapore.
Singapore brands itself as the Garden City, and while this may only really be true in some of its more heavily invested tourist areas, the city-state does have a spectacularly manicured feel all over. It is perhaps the cleanest and most immaculate city I've ever seen; stepping onto the self-driving MRT train for the first time at the airport feels as if I am contaminating a clean room just by being there. The "new car" smell of the stations is really quite startling.
Speaking of the acclaimed airport, I have mixed thoughts. My first two visits certainly live up to the hype, but the experience for my final flight home leaves a lot to be desired. My gate changes not once but twice, and due to the bizarre gate layout this meant I spend over half an hour walking through the terminal building. Also, the food court somehow doesn't take cards, meaning I have to exchange my remaining cash afford my last meal.
Singapore's artificial trees by the Bay impress day or night.
Towards the southernmost tip of continental Asia is where Singapore keeps its pride and joy, the Marina Bay resort. I've heard it described as Disneyland for grownups, and can say that this is entirely true. From the huge casino where we are greeted by a moving drinks-serving robot to the shopping centre with a river running through it, and of course the amazing architecture of the Marina Bay Sands hotel, as an upmarket destination it really is unmatched. The Gardens by the Bay are also a must-see, with the nightly light and music show an incredible sight as you lay down and the trees come to life above you. The two domes containing both a rainforest with its own waterfall and a huge greenhouse are also amazing feats, and a welcome relief from the humidity.
An indoor waterfall complete with actual clouds is a unique feature.
The food in Singapore is like nowhere else. Its hawker centres and food courts serve some of the most consistently high quality food I've ever had the pleasure of eating, and for a cost far lower than you would expect for somewhere as expensive as Singapore is in other ways. Whether it's local specialities like chilli crab, 'carrot cake' (which contains neither carrot nor cake) and barbecued stingray, or the renditions of cuisines from nearby Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and China that are as good as, if not better than, the average fare from their home countries, the food never disappoints. It is definitely what I miss most and what will likely bring me back in future.
The city's ambition to become intertwined with greenery really impresses, with this hotel a great example.
I enjoy ending my trip in such a pleasant place. Our last few days are spent visiting the many meticulously upkept tourist attractions Singapore has to offer, including its four famous animal parks. Seeing a giant panda for the first time is an unexpected highlight. And after two weeks of vacation without stepping into a swimming pool, I am extremely thankful for the one at my friend's apartment complex. If you look a little harder, though, you can find a little culture hidden between the blocks of HDB apartments, in the city's Indian, Chinese and Malaysian districts.
The artificial trees come to life at night.
The white tiger and giant panda are two highlights from Singapore Zoo.
The stunning Marina Bay Sands encompasses everything an upmarket traveller could desire.
Perhaps the most straightforward comment I can give about Singapore is that it is simply nice. It's easy to get to, very easy get around and there's something for everyone to enjoy, experienced traveller or not. Different in almost every way to Beining, the first Asian city I visited more than a year earlier, the Lion City has a little of everything, but no particular aspect (aside from perhaps the food) stands out to me as more memorable than any other of my destinations. For an overwhelming, 21st century mega-skyline, Hong Kong is king; for a vibrant generation of urbanites Seoul feels more full of life. But out of everywhere I travelled, Singapore is the first place I would recommend my parents visit. Maybe that's means it's doing something right, showing that travelling doesn't have to be confusing or stressful. For me, though, travelling wouldn't be worth anything if it weren't.
I know I have only scratched the surface of what all these amazing countries have to offer. I'm glad of that, though, because it means I really have no choice but to come back again.
Thanks for reading. You can find all the photos from my 2017 and 2018 trips, including those above, on Flickr.