Late last year it started again. The urges. The feeling in the deep pit of my stomach. It happens every couple of years or so and I knew what it was screaming for once again: that I must dust off the dirt that had languished on my grotty backpack and go travelling. The direction was clear. Two years ago I was forced to discard a trip to SE Asia in favour of another adventure – buying a place in Margate.
Two years on and I knew now was the time – and perfect opportunity – to finally head back to Asia, 14 years after I’d last ventured to the region. Not wanting to dig too much into my savings, I planned to work and travel. It was all rather last-minute – my flight was to depart three weeks later. All I knew was that I would fly in and out of Kuala Lumpur. What was to happen next would be decided once I landed, in hindsight perhaps not to best mindset when you’re facing the twin joys of jetlag and insomnia. The first destination ended up being Vietnam, a country I’d heard friends rave about over the past few years. It didn’t disappoint. I think I’ll always remember my first meal in the country – bulging fresh spring rolls in a busy colourful cafe in Saigon. If this was just the beginning of my Vietnamese culinary journey then boy, was I in for an unforgettable trip. Steaming bowls of pho for breakfast became standard. Rice became my staple. A history buff, the country’s wounded past got under my skin, and the tears welled up reading upsetting stories of the impact of the Vietnam War in the War Remnants Museum. On the flip side, cycling around a village outside of Can Tho with children running outside their homes to greet me, lit me up. I ended up in a backpacker dive bar in Hoi An, lapped up a five-star spa hotel experience at Fusion Resort Phu Quoc (an assignment that didn’t disappoint – I mean how often can you order a golf buggy to hoist your ass down to the beach?), discovered a network of astonishing caves located near Phong Nha, and set sail along Halong Bay, which, whilst overcrowded was still a magical experience.
While Vietnam was good for the soul, it was Burma, which grabbed hold of my heart. Minutes after setting foot on Myanmar soil, when rival taxi companies to our ordered Uber were trying to find our lost driver, “Uber, Uber,” bellowed the men in their shirts and coloured longyi in the soaring humidity outside the airport, I knew this country would enrapture me. If rivals were trying to help each other, what could I expect from everyone else? The graciousness and kindness of the Burmese is something I’ll never forget. In Bagan, a shopkeeper with poor English spotted an almost hidden mosquito bite on my ankle and swiftly pulled out a glass jar to dish out some leaves for me to rub on the red swelling bite; she pushed another bunch in my hand to keep for later. When I fell ill, guesthouse staff looked after me. While the streets of Yangon are hectic, with people cooking up dishes on every corner, there’s still a calmness and amongst the locals. In Yangon I cooled off by doing laps in the swimming pool at the sumptuous Chatrium Hotel, where rooms overlook the Kandawgyi Lake.
I’m now in Bali, which feels like a world away from the two other countries. I had been warned. Still, I didn’t expect to see two Ralph Lauren stores in Ubud, the spiritual village made famous by Eat Pray Love, and which is sadly perhaps paying the price for the over-exposure that’s followed. Still, the food is healthy and delicious (think tofu curries and green shakes) and I’m making the most of the opportunity to work everyday from a homestay where the fast Wifi and huge veranda terrace that comes complete with scenic views of coconut palms and towering ferns, is proving rather addictive. Every day I end up booking another night’s stay. Namaste, indeed. (Don’t worry, there’s no yogi about to be unleashed).