37 monuments in 30 days, and what I learned along the way.
Saturday 11 March 2017
I just got home from a surprising, and wonderful, last-minute 3-week whirl around South East Asia.
I am not much of a planner at the best of times, but this last trip was spontaneous even by my standards – I had a few months off between tour-leading commitments, I saw a €200 flight to Bangkok, and I just packed a bag and went. I ended up in Myanmar after that, somewhere I’ve always wanted to visit, then one thing led to another and I found myself in Penang, Malaysia.
My return flight (or rather, series of flights) took 48 hours in total, and I’ve been home just 8 hours so far. I haven’t slept in days. My ears are still weird from flying, I can’t hear anything properly, and added to that my legs are hideously swollen from the knees down; I was eaten alive by mosquitos last week in Malaysia then on the way home, during a brief stopover in Abu Dhabi, I picked up some kind of post-bite balm in the airport. It stank of ammonia and I think I may have been a little too liberal in applying it… either that, or perhaps the massive swelling is an allergic reaction.
Oh, and I left my laptop on a plane, too. It was my mistake entirely – after I disembarked a flight in Kuala Lumpur, my laptop stayed behind to make an extra lap around Malaysia. I’ve been remotely negotiating its return all morning, and it has just now been passed from AirAsia’s lost & found department to a friend of mine in KL. The next leg will be a slow (and expensive) courier service to Bulgaria.
Suffice to say, I’m writing this in a tired and disorientated state. But that’s the bad stuff finished. From here on I only have positive things to share about this trip… so I’ll work through now, country by country, to give you an idea what kind of articles I’m planning to write about it all.
Did I mention Kuwait? It was only a stopover, and I honestly didn’t think I’d make it out of the airport this time… but I did. I had 6 hours, and it turned out the visa process was actually very easy. Within 30 minutes of touching down I was sat in a taxi heading into the centre of Kuwait City.
There’s only so much you can see in 3-and-a-half hours, particularly after dark, when everything’s closed; but I think I made pretty good use of the time. I wandered around a massive shopping centre, checked out some bizarre architecture and then had a walk on the beach. It was fun – a great, brief introduction to the country, and enough to give me a really positive first impression. I definitely plan on going back for a proper visit sometime.
Even though I barely touched the surface of Kuwait, I think I’ll likely write a blog post about this mini-trip sometime. I’d love to share my initial take on the place – plus I was pleased with how the photos came out, and visually, it’s a very different place to anywhere I’ve photographed before. Look out for a full set of photos hitting The Exclusion Zone soon.
You might already have realised I’m a big fan of Thailand – I’ve written a lot about the country before – though this time around, it felt more like a holiday than research. I was catching up with old friends, filling up on Thai food, but I also visited a few hidden gems around Bangkok that I plan to write about soon.
For starters, I spent quite a while photographing modern architecture this time. It’s easy to get sucked in by all those shiny Buddhist temples, but Bangkok also has some fantastic modernism (and brutalism) on display. I visited a couple of really weird museums too (including the Erawan Museum, pictured below) which I’ll tell you more about in time.
Oh, and in case you read my previous two stories detailing failed attempts at getting inside that abandoned skyscraper, the ‘Sathorn Unique,’ and you wondered if I’d have any luck the third time… Nope. I tried again, and failed again.
Fourth time lucky, maybe?
Myanmar – or Burma, as we used to call it – was a real mixed bag. I had heard so many people describe it as some kind of undiscovered gem, a little authentic slice of South East Asia that hadn’t yet been invaded by the hordes of tourists visiting neighbouring Thailand. Well, I think perhaps I waited too long… because the tourists have definitely found it now.
Not everything I write about Myanmar is going to be positive. I visited Bagan, the famous archeological site filled with abandoned Buddhist temples (pictured above), and I have to say it was one of my least pleasant travel experiences to date. Crowded, dirty and expensive, it seems like the tourism money has started pouring in but hasn’t yet begun to reach the people who need it. Tour operators walk about with iPhones, while average citizens of the region are still living in dire poverty. Of course, it was beautiful – but it was problematic too, and it will give me a lot to write about once I’ve had the chance to gather my thoughts.
On the other hand, the Burmese capital – Naypyidaw – was an absolute delight. It’s an almost-empty city, a massive unfinished development full of 20-lane highways and 5-star resorts… yet not a visitor in sight. It’s not quite a ghost town, as some newspapers have called it. There are already around a million Burmese people living there, but in a city built for 20+ million, exploring the streets was a surreal experience all the same. I think my article about Naypyidaw will be one of the first to appear from this recent trip.
After a very quick look around the capital, Kuala Lumpur, I headed north in Malaysia to get up to Penang. It’s a funny place: a beautiful, tropical island, that manages to feel incredibly laid-back despite being home to roughly 1 million people. The food there is fantastic, and most visitors rave about the local beaches… though as you might imagine, that’s really not my scene at all.
On this trip, I was more interested in the folklore. There are a huge number of ghost stories connected to various locations around Penang, and during my stay I went on several little ‘ghost hunts.’ I visited the War Museum, pictured above, built inside the remains of a British military fort which is said to be haunted by the ghost of a sadistic Japanese general. I also went trekking up Penang Hill, dodging vipers and wild monkeys, looking for allegedly haunted mansions in the jungle.
I don’t think I’m going to spoil the story if I tell you now: I didn’t meet any ghosts. But the history is fascinating, and I’ll definitely be writing one – maybe two – articles about Malay folklore in the near future.
Before I get onto any of this, I want to publish my first article about Belarus. This is going to be a ‘first impressions’ kind of piece, which I’m working on already, illustrated with photos of modernist architecture covered in snow. My visit back in January was quite spectacular, and I’m really excited to share these images with you. I’ll put a preview gallery up as soon as they’re ready, and the full article will follow soon after that.
For now though, here’s a little taster:
Keep an eye on my Patreon feed later today, as I’ll be putting up a new poll – to let you choose which one of these new Asian stories should come next.
At some point, I should probably think about getting some sleep, too.
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