6 months of Southeast Asia has already brought us a lifetime of memories. A recent 10 day silent meditation retreat in Thailand has afforded us ample time to stop and reflect on our half-year of travel, and we’ve agreed that this has been by far the best year of our lives, and getting better!
Beaches, beers, buses, flights, food, friends, mountains, meditation, motorbikes, sunsets, snorkeling, volunteering, ENGAGEMENT – AHHH the list never ends! So in celebration of our first 6 months since losing sight of the American shore, we’ve developed a list of our favorite experiences so far. Enjoy!
Best Beach: Nacpan Beach, Palawan, Philippines.
This pristine and undeveloped beach is nestled on the northern tip of the island of Palawan, far beyond the reaches of the existing tourism industry. The sand is extra fine and snow white, the water crystal clear, and the lush islands sing with the chorus of happy birds just offshore. It is the poster child of a perfect beach.
A small hut near a grass parking area offers fresh young coconut to quench your thirst, and the local children of the neighboring fishing village wander around singing Christmas carols to the handful of tourists. We only wish we had made time for more than an afternoon at this incredible place, but for such a short visit, it is a memory that will stay with us forever.
Runner up: Tanjung Rhu, Langkawi, Malaysia
Best Island: Koh Pha Ngan, Thailand.
This decision came after much deliberation. Up until recently, we were convinced that there was no island in the world better than Koh Lipe, Thailand. Then we met Koh Pha Ngan, and everything changed. We visited the island in the Gulf of Thailand with minimal expectation, as the reputation of Koh Pha Ngan was mostly limited to the notorious Full Moon parties (think 5,000-30,000 partiers on one beach). Well, we’re here to tell you that Koh Pha Ngan is soooo much more than the Full Moon party!
Dozens of beautiful pocket beaches, each with their own personalities, circumvent this stunning and mostly undeveloped island while the interior remains lush and wild. In one day, you can take a scenic hike in the mountainous interior, then take a load off on the quiet beaches in the north, grab some dinner at sunset in the hippie expat area in the southwest and end your night with a bucket or two of mojitos on the infamous Haad Rin beach. Koh Pha Ngan has the serene beauty and laid back vibe of Koh Lipe, but with a much more diverse landscape and wide range of available activities.
Runner up: Koh Lipe, Thailand.
Best Snorkeling: Mangrove Bay, Nusa Lembongan, Indonesia.
We had heard that Indonesia offered world class underwater sport options, but we were not prepared to have our best snorkel trip in our first month of travel (AH seems so long ago!) After being picked up on an outrigger boat in front of our hotel by the father, uncle or something-or-other of the brother-in-law of our hostel owner (yeesh), who spoke exactly zero english, we were slowly putt-putted around the island and dropped off at three different snorkeling locations, each more stunning than the previous.
Beautiful coral, fish of all shapes and sizes, eels, puffer fish and rock formations seemed to be visible for miles in all directions. Each time we thought we were ready to come out, the enthusiastic boat operator waved us onward, as if the best was still yet to come; and he was always right. The best stop of the day was the north side of Nusa Lembongan at Mangrove Bay, where the water kept a constant depth of about 10 feet for miles in all directions with seemingly infinite little pockets of coral to explore. 5 hours in the water was all it took to leave us completely spent with the memory of a lifetime.
Runner up: Koh Rok, Thailand.
Best Food: Penang, Malaysia and Singapore.
I know Penang-ans and Singaporeans will whine about sharing this top spot, but in all reality there’s nothing you can get in one place that you can’t get at the other of equal or better quality. These two culinary traditions don’t get nearly the international exposure they deserve, especially in the West. Here you can get the best mishmash of the famously delicious culinary giants of India and China infused with the regional Malay food tradition. With noodle dishes, curries, flatbreads, fried goodies, sweet teas and stewed meats galore, few food enthusiasts would argue these two destinations’ supremacy in the culinary collage of Southeast Asia.
Runner up: Thailand’s creamy, spicy curries, noodle dishes, stir fries, and desserts.
Best Drink: Vietnamese iced coffee.
WARNING! THIS STUFF WILL MESS YOU UP! When the sweet little Vietnamese lady brings your cup around, still outfitted with the filter, you still have to wait impatiently with frothy jowls as this black tar slowly, drip by drip, fills your glass which is already about half way full of sweetened condensed milk. After about ten minutes of torture, our impatience would usually get the best of us and we’d toss off the filter (usually still partially full) and vigorously guzzle down the delicious creamy treat; and then do it again; and again. Before long we would usually find ourselves hustling around town with a persistent eye twitch and occasional nose bleed, passing motorbikes on foot and machine gunning through 3 or 4 simultaneous conversations.
Accompanying elations aside, Vietnamese iced coffee is some of the freshest and most delicious stuff we’ve ever had. After all, Vietnam is the second largest producer of coffee in the world, and it’s easy to see that the Vietnamese absolutely love their coffee, and so do we!
Runner up: Fresh fruit shakes in Thailand.
Best Sunset: Sunrise Beach, Koh Lipe, Thailand.
Somewhat ironic that the best sunset we’ve had has been on a beach named “Sunrise Beach” in Koh Lipe, Thailand (equally famous for its epic sunrises). The geology of this island is such that the tidal currents have built a magnificent sand bar on the north end of the island (from which both sunsets and sunrises are visible). Depending on the time of year, the sand bar can be completely emergent at low tide, allowing beachgoers to walk all the way out to the bar.
However, at the time of our visit, the sandbar was just barely submerged at high tide (right around sunset), thus scaring all the hydrophobic tourists back to their beach chairs on the mainland. This afforded us the perfect opportunity to snag a couple beers and swim out to the sandbar and have the beautiful sandbar all to ourselves for sunset. Koh Lipe is worth the long trip just for this!
Runner up: Gili Meno, Lombok, Indonesia.
Best Cultural Experience: North Vietnam.
Despite pervasive westernization of most other tourist regions in Southeast Asia, North Vietnam is still standing strong in its cultural identity with not even a single McDonalds or Starbucks in the entire capital city of Hanoi. Every little aspect of life in North Vietnam is crazy! Driving a motorbike around town is like a freaking video game where you have to dodge trucks, pedestrians, chickens and little old ladies in pointy hats. Basically you just do whatever you want; drive on the sidewalk or against traffic, hell – tie on a full sized fridge to the back if you want. If you can dream it, you can do it! Need secondhand clothes? They got a full street dedicated to that. Need motorbike parts? There’s a street for that. Need a haircut? You guessed it, you get one right on the sidewalk.
Despite the cultural idiosyncrasies, we might not have had the same impression of Vietnam had we not spent the month volunteering as English teachers and really immersing ourselves in the culture. Had we only spent a few days in the Old Quarter like most travelers, we might think Vietnam is just an absolutely crazy place. But since we took the time to immerse ourselves in the culture, we know it’s an absolutely crazy place. And we loved it!
Volunteering has really been our greatest travel experience thus far, allowing us to develop a personal attachment to the places we visit rather than just a pocketful of pictures. North Vietnam was the perfect place for our first volunteer opportunity and we are inspired to find many more for the rest of our trip.
Runner up: Mindfulness Project, Khon Kaen, Thailand.
More info here: www.mindfulness-project.org .
Best Big City: Tokyo.
Bangkok was disappointing, Kuala Lumpur met our very low expectations, and Singapore was great for food but lacked the character of more historical cities. Hanoi was incredible, but we didn’t feel right lumping it in to the really big cities category. Thus the clear winner in the big city category for our trip so far was Tokyo!
With its spotless streets, delicious food and uncomfortably cat obsessed populace, Tokyo is a city of extreme confusion. The visual stimulation, flashing lights, crowded streets and vending machines completely belie the ultra-reserved culture. Tokyo is one of those places you have to see to believe; not understand, just believe. You’re guaranteed to be confused and awed out of your mind.
Runner up: Singapore.
Best Island Hopping: El Nido, Palawan, Philippines.
We’ve had our share of island hopping tours in our first 6 months, and while they’ve all been amazing in their own ways, the Bacuit Archipelago off the coast of North Palawan takes the cake. With a series of four available tours which include beautiful hidden lagoons, secret beaches accessible only by a swim through a tiny hole in a cliffside, crystal blue waters and high limestone crevices, the islands in the Bacuit Archipelago are some of the most picturesque in the world. Add on a freshly cooked seafood lunch (grilled right on the boat), a fleet of vendor boats offering cold beers, and the option to chartering your own boat with a group of friends to personalize your tours, and you have one of the best value tours around.
We did two of the four tours and both were spectacular. This region also has the option to do some overnight tours on the way up to Coron Island, camping on islands along the way. Though we haven’t done this tour yet, it’s definitely on the bucket list.
Runner up: Halong Bay, Vietnam.
Best Adventure: Hiking the Ifugao Rice Terraces, North Luzon, Philippines.
In Asia, every day is an adventure. But some days are particularly memorable. Of all our adventures so far, none are more memorable than our three day trek through the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Ifugao rice terraces. Where most travelers take a short cut day hike to the beautiful village of Batad, we made sure to savor every step of this adventure. Taking the high pass around through the northern remote villages of Pula and Cambulo, seemingly frozen in time, we were some of the only westerners to be found.
This hike had us drinking the fresh mountain spring water, braving the terraced cliffside and bathing in the icy mountain streams. While the amphitheater style terraces of Batad were a wonder in themselves, the true adventure of this trek was visiting the pristine, undisturbed and lesser known villages perched high among the rice fields. It’s an adventure we recommend highly, and we insist that you take the time to hit the remote areas.
Runner up: Motorbiking through the countryside in Sapa, Vietnam.
We’re nearing the end of our two months in Thailand in Chiang Mai with Songkran, (also known as the world’s largest water fight), to celebrate the Thai New Year.
Then we’re headed to Nepal to conquer a major bucket list item: a 3-week trek through the Himalayas on the Annapurna Circuit. Afterwards we’ll head overland into India for (potentially) 3 months and dive into the food, yoga and volunteer opportunities.
Follow our journey via our Facebook page, Lose Sight of Shore.