Couchfish: Southeast Asia in a day—virtually

  
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As you may have heard, most recreational travel is on hold at the moment, and has been for much of the last twelve months. It is a frustrating time for travellers and a devastating time for people involved in the tourism industry worldwide. Stuck at home, perhaps on the couch (reading Couchfish I see!), gazing out the window, wondering when travel will restart.

Stuck on the couch or in the hammock—same difference. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

All is not lost! I’ve written before about ways to keep travel in mind—the last two Travelfish newsletters of 2020 focused on this. First with a year’s worth of reading online, then a year’s worth of books—though the latter will probably take me a decade to get through.

Today, I thought I’d take a look at video. With nothing but a mouse click and a set of earphones, you can get stuck into the region—from the couch! Best of all? No uncomfortable bus rides to get from A to B.

Before dawn: Rinjani, Indonesia

Ok, so you’d need to start climbing well before dawn, like two days before dawn, to reach the summit of Gunung Rinjani—Indonesia’s second highest volcano.

Once upon a time, back in the year 1257, the original peak, Gunung Samaras was thought to have reached 4,200 metres. A catastrophic eruption that year, blew the peak off leaving us with a revised elevation of 3,726 metres. In the process it delivered a mini ice age. Tambora, on neighbouring Sumbawa, repeated the process in the 19th century.

Climbs come in two- and three-day flavours, and the walking is hard—you will pant and sweat. When you’re on the summit though, it is more than worth it.

There is, of course, no better way to work up an appetite than climbing a volcano, so once you’ve taken your selfie with an elevation marker, jump into your transporter and head to Ho Chi Minh City—it is time to eat.

Breakfast: Bún thịt nướng, Vietnam

In a country with so much amazing food, it can be hard to settle on a single breakfast dish over all the others. Bún thịt nướng is as good a spot as any to start gorging on. A vermicelli noodle dish, layered in barbeque pork, a chopped spring roll (or three) and lashings of chilli and herbs, there is really no better way to start the day. You’ll find the dish everywhere, from street side to upmarket eateries. My preference is for street side, as it won’t cost me as much when I order a second bowl.

Don’t forget a steaming Vietnamese drip coffee with half an inch of condensed milk at the base. Heaven.

Sated? Caffeinated? Great, back into the transporter for a quick jump west.

Mid morning: Sukhothai, Thailand

An ancient Siamese capital, the ruins of Sukhothai, and to the north at Si Satchanalai are one of the most popular destinations in the Thai heartland. They’re best explored by bicycle, and as the ruins are set in park areas, you don’t need to worry about being mowed down by a bus. It is also a fantastic destination for families, with the smooth pathways and ample open space ideal for a leisurely exploration of Thai history. Pack a hamper, find a shady tree, and make a day of it.

Don’t raise your nose at Si Satchanalai to the north. The ruins are smaller and less manicured, but there are a few terrific home stays in the area, so make an overnight of it and you won’t be disappointed.

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Sukhothai is also famous for its food, but hold your horses, we’re heading west again to fill that hole in your belly.

Lunch: Mandalay market fare, Burma

Burma’s northern capital, and most Chinese city, Mandalay runs a distant second to Yangon in many ways. There is not as much to do, the city is not as attractive and the traffic, well, you need to see it to believe it. Mandalay does hold its own though, at least one regard, its food. So it is lunch in Mandalay. Many give Burma a bad wrap for its food, characterising it as too oily, but I love it. Like the country, it sort of explains the transition from South Asia to Southeast Asia, from India to Thailand, and this is superbly reflected in its cuisine. While mohingya is the breakfast staple, there’s no law against eating it three times a day, and you’ll get some of the best bowls market–side.

Back in your transporter, we’re heading northeast and into the wilderness.

Afternoon: Nam Nern Night Safari, Laos

Often the only news that gets out of Laos are dire tales of dams and human rights. Sometimes though there are projects done right, and the Nam Nern Night Safari is one such affair. Set in the remote wilderness of northern Laos, the project deftly melds ecotourism done right, sustainable development and community based tourism. Head upriver into the jungle on a pirogue. The river gets smaller, rapids appear, the boat man poling you along the way. Eat traditional fare by the river, then when darkness falls, back onto the river for some wildlife spotting. For each creature spotted, money is deposited into a fund for surrounding villages—the more you spot, the more they get. The end result? A financial incentive to stop poaching. It is an amazing scheme, and we wish more like it existed in the region.

Back in your transporter for a long hop to the southeast. We’re headed to the Cambodian capital.

Dinner: Phnom Penh market grazing, Cambodia

Phnom Penh is not in short supply of fancy pants eateries—I confess to trying many of them myself—but there is a whole world of local fare out there worth trying. Khmer food may not receive the same accolades as that of its nearest neighbours Thailand and Vietnam, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth eating. It most certainly is. Hit the market, find a crowded stall, sit down, point, and start eating. Better still, do a street food tour.

Once you’re done eating local, do grab a more cosmopolitan vibe at Juniper Gin Bar—the evening views are fantastic, and you need to wash all that food down, as next stop is Malaysia—for a spot of diving.

Evening: Mabul night diving, Malaysia

Diving is great, night diving is even better. On my first night dive (around Indonesia’s Togean Islands) I felt like I was on the set of Avatar. The colours and the magical floating underwater beasties. The coral was just amazing—I’ve never seen a place like it.

Mabul Island, off the south coast of Semporna in Malaysia’s Sabah State, is another such place. What better way to work off a Khmer dinner than floating through this other–worldy underwater universe.

Late: An evening bicycle ride, Singapore

We started the day climbing a volcano, we cycled through historic ruins, floated into the jungle on a pirogue and dove into another world. Yes, we ate a bit too. Where better to finish the day then, than with a night–time bicycle ride through Southeast Asia’s most neon city, Singapore.

There are plenty of different routes worth considering. I’m sure you could finish the ride with yet another plate of noodles—and an iced Tiger Beer on the side.