By: Juno Kim
– Southeast Asia is one of the all-around favorite destinations of backpackers and a frequent subject of travel articles, but there is more to it than that. Beyond the mega-popular cities like Bangkok and touristic temples, Southeast Asia is a land of mystery that has many unrevealed stories. First-time backpackers love Bangkok, which connects most of the major ports around the world, Kuala Lumpur, another major hub that offers excellent food, Singapore, a small island country at the end of the Malay peninsula, Ho Chi Minh City, and so on.
But let’s face it, you don’t want to hop between cities in Southeast Asia. If you want to know what this area is all about, you have to dig a little deeper. Here are a few of the things you will uncover if you choose to start looking.
More authentic and hands-on experiences
Because Southeast Asia has been highlighted as one of the top travel destinations over the years, many parts of the area have been modernized. Convenience stores, English menus, western style outfits, and foreign fast food chain restaurants are just a few examples. Ironically, this is one of the clear reasons why Southeast Asia is so popular for travelers. But if you want to experience all walks of life, you have to step off the banana pancake trail. SE Asia is known to be safe for international travelers, and people are open and welcoming, especially in small towns. Local people are pleasantly surprised that someone made this much effort to visit their tiny little towns up in the mountains.
The small step out of the boundary between you and the locals will open up a whole new world. Chau Doc, Vietnam in Mekong Delta, is a bastion of cultural diversity and has a great mountain waiting to be climbed. Xishuangbanna of southern China, is the home of Pu’er tea, and even the Negros Island, which hosts the MassKara Festival, famous for its colorful masks and street celebrations, of the Philippines greeted me with warm hospitality on my visits.
Gain appreciation of what you have back home
In this fast-moving modernized world, we need lots of stuff to survive. We have a house full of gadgets, but it never seems to be enough. Most Southeast Asian towns are still pursuing a traditional lifestyle that is simpler, and closer to nature.
Seeing the simpler lifestyle always makes me think twice about my life and attitude. When I went to visit orangutans at Tanjung Puting National Park in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia, I gained a deep appreciation for hot showers. Two days on a klotok (small wooden boat) in the Borneo jungle was a magnificent experience I wouldn’t change, but a few days without a shower in a hot and humid rainforest felt like a big challenge…I realized what a luxury it is to have a hot shower at home, accessible anytime, something not everyone is lucky enough to have.
Make long-lasting memories
Reading a guide book from cover to cover to find a few details about a tiny little town, figuring out the boat route with the local guide only through body language, riding a less-than-comfortable bus for 9 hours, and stepping into a town that seems like not one foreigner has entered before – these are the ways to make long-lasting travel memories. And often, these places offer peace and quiet. My trip to Muang Noi from Nong Khiaw was four days of nothing but reading, walking, and sleeping. I had no electricity and no running water, but I had my books and hammock with a river view. My ‘jeepney’ (a highly decorated jeep/jitney combo, and the most popular public transport in the Philippines) ride on Guimaras island, Philippines, took much longer than a journey of the same length in, say, Colorado, but it is still one of the strongest memories I have from that country. You’ve make the effort to travel all the way to Southeast Asia, why not make adventurous memories?
Moving around in small towns in Southeast Asia comes cheap. Most places are connected by bus, boat, or even rickshaw. But even if there is no obvious public transportation, you can always hire a vehicle and a driver for a day with a small budget. It takes an extra effort to find experiences that are really off-the-beaten-track because of globalization. But there are still numerous places that offer unique, local stories. A little digging will lead you out of Bangkok and into the countryside, where you can meet people from all walks of life and create your own stories and adventures.
Juno Kim is a blogger, storyteller and photographer who left a career as a mechanical engineer to travel the world. Hailing from Seoul, South Korea, she shares her stories at Runaway Juno or catch her on Twitter @runawayjuno.