Hoi An has seen a huge development in the last 15 to 20 years. This little colonial town in central Vietnam is a UNESCO world heritage site and one of the richest and most visited destinations in the country. However, despite the tourism, Hoi An still manages to keep its interest, charm, beauty and traditions intact. We visited Hoi An after our three day trip with the Da Lat Easy Riders, and a short stay in Nha Trang, and stayed in Hoi An for 11 days – the single longest stay within our trip.
When we were in Asia, as part of our round the world trip, we tried to learn as much as we could about the diverse and fascinating cultures we came across.
One thing that we loved doing was reading both fiction and non-fiction books about the countries we were visiting. Even though there’s no replacement for being there in person and feeling, smelling and seeing things for yourself, a good book will entertain you and, at the same time, enhance your understanding of a place.
Books can tell you things that local people may not be willing to talk about openly. They can also answer questions about behaviours and customs that may otherwise be left unexplained – how many times did we ask locals about how a certain tradition may have originated, or what was the meaning of some rituals, just to find out they didn’t have a clue? 🙂
Below is a list with some of our favorite reading while we were travelling in Asia:
Romana says: I left Dublin with this 920 pages book on my backpack. I started reading Shantaram in Dublin before our trip and I finished it at the end of a troubled trip to Mumbai, as our train approached Mumbai’s chaotic and overcrowded slums.
This book tells the seemingly semi-true story of a convicted Australian heroin addict and bank robber who escaped prison and fled to Mumbai, India, where he got involved in organized crime and other nasty business. In the first half of the book, which I found the most interesting and entertaining, Gregory David Roberts, author and main character, tells about his daily life in the slums of Mumbai.
Not only did I smile and cry alongside with the characters of the book, but I also got an invaluable amount of insights on the Indian national psyche. The second half of the book was in my opinion a bit less interesting and even a tad boring at some stage. However this is still one of the most entertaining books I’ve read and I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys a good reading.
Also, because many people travelling in India are still reading this book, reading Shantaram will provide you with one or two good conversation-starting lines if you’re travelling solo 🙂
Emanuele says: Far away from a cliché-image of India as a colourful and exotic destination, Aravind Adiga‘s fictional story brings you into the dark side of the subcontinent south of the Himalayas. A great story that delves into the gap between the filthy-rich and the animal-like poor, the corruption and the other underlying mechanisms of the Indian society.
Romana says: No other book (or movie) made me shed so many tears as First They Killed My Father. I still remember being on an old bus somewhere in Cambodia and having to stop reading the book because some people started to look at me wondering if I was feeling well as they could ear me crying.
Loung Ung, Cambodia-born author and human-rights activist, tells the story of her family and herself as a child, under the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime, between 1975 and 1979. I believe this book is a MUST read if you want to learn more about Cambodia‘s recent, tragic history.
Romana says: Lucky Child is a sort of sequel of First They Killed My Father and I read it because I wanted to follow the story of Loung and her older brother after they fled Cambodia to live as refugees in the USA. In Lucky Child Loung also tells the story of the other three siblings they left behind in Cambodia and all the difficulties they went through in the aftermath of Pol Pot’s regime.
Romana says: Do you remember the most famous picture of the Vietnam war? A young girl, naked, runs out of a smoke cloud with her arms open and a terrified expression on her face, after having been hit by a napalm bomb.
Even though the Vietnam war ended a few years before I was born I remembered that picture very well, so when I saw it on the cover of a book in a shop in Vietnam I almost immediately knew I wanted to buy and read that book.
The author narrates the story of this little girl called Kim Phuc and how the Napalm attack changed her life forever, turning her into Vietnam’s most famous casualty. As you go through Kim Phuc’s life, a rich historical context emerges, which makes you learn more about the war, the communist regime and its propaganda, as well as the local traditions and the culture of Southern Vietnamese people.
Romana says: Even though it’s always been at the top of the list of the countries I want to visit, I didn’t go to China yet – and I read this book at home, so for consistency’s sake Wild Swans shouldn’t be in this list 🙂 Still, I loved Wild Swans so much that I had to share it here too. Wild Swans is such an absorbing story that once you start it becomes hard to put the book down. Emanuele bought this book years ago for himself but I managed to put my hands on it first and once I read the first page I just couldn’t let it go. I told him so much of the story that in the end he never ready it 🙂
Jung Chang, the author of the book, tells here the story of three generations of her family: her grandmother, her mother and herself.
An extraordinary reading at the end of which you’ll learn so much about China, the communism, Mao Tse Tung and the Chinese culture in general.
My final verdict: A MUST READ even if China is not in your travel plans 🙂
Emanuele says: Another book which shouldn’t be on the list: I read this book a couple of years before the round the world journey. But my wanderlust levels increased dramatically ever since, so I had to share it here 🙂 Italian travellers already know journalist Tiziano Terzani‘s powerful and compelling narrative, but I believe not many international travellers have read this author – so this may be a chance for you, non-Italian reader, to widen your literary horizons and discover new exciting reading material.
In 1976 a Hong-Kong fortune-teller warns Tiziano Terzani that he shouldn’t fly in 1993 or he’ll risk his life. Despite the demands of a life as a correspondent covering Asia for European newspapers, Terzani decides to take the warning seriously and, in 1993, he spends a whole year travelling overland (including a 13,000 miles train journey to Florence!) Terzani will spend one of the most extraordinary years of his life, while keeping his commitments as a journalist, meeting many fortune-tellers (and their prophecies) along the way and witnessing the constant tension between tradition and modernity in the Asian societies.
What about you? Have you ever read a book about a country you were visiting, during your trip? Were they fiction or non-fiction books? Any book you particularly liked? Do you have a recommendation for us? Share your thoughts with us – we love your feedback 🙂
Unlike the other countries we’ve visited in this trip we didn’t do much research or reading about Malaysia before arriving, so we knew very little about this country and we didn’t know what to expect.
Once we got to Georgetown we found out that the guesthouse we had booked online the day before was well outside the backpacking district in a posh part of town between Jalan Burma and Gurney drive, a scenic sea front promenade with many upmarket restaurants, hotels, skyscrapers and shopping centres. However, our guesthouse was not expensive at all, it was nice and cosy and the staff was brilliant.
With the historical centre (UNESCO heritage site since 2008) not so close, and with other attractions being out of town, we had to find an alternative to expensive taxis to keep our budget down while moving from one place to another. We were pleasantly surprised to find out that there was a public bus system (Rapid Penang) – a very organized and efficient one indeed! Buses are so clean and modern, and some of them also have wi-fi. Would you believe it?
During our stay we learned that Malay people are about 50% of the population and the remaining 50% are mainly Indian and Chinese. Chinese are the owners of the economy and entrepreneurship is their second nature. An Indian-Malay told us and during Chinese new year the country stops, because Chinese people own most businesses and they don’t work during this period.
The other major component of the Malay society are Indians – most come from the state of Tamil Nadu in the south, and many of them are Muslim.
Pulau Pinang (this is the Malay name for Penang, the island where Georgetown is), like all Malaysia, is a big melting pot and this diversity is reflected in its cuisine. Locals will tell you they have the best food in Malaysia, and if you say, like we did, that you’ve heard that Kuala Lumpur is also supposed to have good food, they’ll tell you that you won’t find KL’s food good after having tried Penang’s delicacies.
Normally we would have done a lot of sightseeing (we did some of course) but our stay took inevitably (and rightly so) an intense gastronomic twist. Therefore we spent 4 days exploring… the food markets!!
What we will remember the most about Georgetown are the numerous food courts (the Hawkers centres), the fusion Indian, Chinese, Malay dishes, with their smell of spices and of course extra kilos we gained there.
Georgetown eateries you shouldn’t miss out on
Of course there are many places to go for food. The places below are, among the ones that were recommended to us by locals and other travellers, the ones that we tried and loved. Make sure you get a copy of ‘Penang Food Trail’, a free map for foodies, with restaurants and the types of specialities they offer. The map also includes a section with photos and notes about typical local dishes, including desserts.
One last note about Hawker centres. These are open air, street restaurants with many different food stalls. Usually there’ll be only one stall serving drinks and a few selling desserts (don’t miss Ice Kacang and Cendol, and if you are adventurous try durian at least once). Our main tip is to eat small portion of many dishes to maximise variety – there is only a limited number of lunches and dinners you can have but a limitless range of exotic delicacies to try!
Gurney drive hawker centre
Quite outside the historical centre, we wouldn’t have known about this night food market if we didn’t take this out-of-the-way guesthouse. Looi, the guesthouse owner, recommended this place to us and we went there for dinner on our first night in Georgetown. What a great way to get introduced to Penang’s food.
To see Gurney drive hawker centre on the map click here
Red garden food court
This is the most famous food hawker centre in Georgetown, straight in the middle of the action in Jalan Penang, centre of gravity of the backpacking and local night-life.
To see Red Garden food court on the map click here
Lorong baru (new lane), off Macalister street (Jalan Macalister)
We’d seen many food hawker centres in Macalister street from the bus on our way into town. On our last night we decided to give this one a try and it was worth – definitely.
To see Lorong Baru on the map click here
Sri Weld food court
Even though this food market is in the historical centre not many tourists end up here. We were lucky enough to try the delicious food they some of the stalls have. But don’t go there at night, as this food court is only open for lunch.
To see Sri Weld food court on the map click here
If you’ve been to India before, the smell of incense mixed with notes of curries and spices, Hindi music coming out loud from sari shops and images of Hindu deities are guaranteed to give an emotional twist. Try one of the many Indian restaurants in lebuh Queen, lebuh King or lebuh Bishop. Look for Nasi Kandar restaurants – in these restaurants you’ll get a plate with plain rice which you will be able to ‘decorate’ with as many types of curry (and meat or fish) as you want.
To see little India on the map click here
Oh… did I mention we tried Durian too? 🙂
Greetings from Chiang Rai! Four days ago in Luang Prabang we took a slow boat to Houay Xai, a little town on the Mekong, across the river from Thailand. The trip lasted two days but we enjoyed some stunning and unspoiled scenery along the way (pictures coming soon), and it gave us a chance to catch up on our reading and our future travel plans. We spent the first night in Pak Beng, mid-way between Luang Prabang and Houay Xay. We left the boat, took a room in a guesthouse, and jumped back in the boat the morning after. At the end of the second day we arrived in Houay Xay but because it was too late, the border crossing was closed, and we had to stay overnight. Finally the day after we crossed the Mekong (and the border), got to Chiang Kong, cleared the customs and entered Thailand with a free 15-day stay permit. The thing is we should have arranged a visa beforehand, if we wanted a longer permit. But because we didn’t do so, we’ll have to sort out a visa extension in Chiang Mai, in a few days time, or leave the country briefly and re-enter at some stage (we are seriously considering going to Burma for a week, as Air Asia’s fares are very cheap at the moment). If we re-enter through the airport, as opposed to overland as we did, we would be granted a free 30 day visa.
Baan Warabordee – Our accommodation
In Chiang Kong we managed to take a bus to Chiang Rai, where we arrived two hours later. We got us a nice guesthouse called Baan Warabordee, which is down a quiet secondary road, but within walking distance from where the action is. Maybe not the cheapest accommodation we’ve found so far (500 bahts, about 12 euros) but the standard is excellent and eating out here is so cheap that it compensates for the extra amount we’re spending for the accommodation.
The night market
One of the things that we’ve loved since the very beginning is the night market. There is a big square at the back of it, with a bunch of food stalls and tables. At one end of the square there’s a stage where dance shows and concerts are performed.
The food is gorgeous, and as we said, extremely cheap – yesterday we had dinner with 60 bahts for both of us (the equivalent of 1.40€) 🙂
White Temple (Wat Rong Khun)
If you thought of religious art and architecture as a quite conservative form of expression, characterised by the re-iteration of a limited number of relevant, holy icons and symbols, you’ll feel a sense of displacement when you get into the white temple. Artist Chalermchai Kositpipat, the designer of this unconventional religious building, has managed to mix Buddhist and secular references in the mural painting inside the Buddha abode. Don’t be surprised to find graphical representations of Superman, Batman, Spider-man, planes crashing on the twin towers, Pandora’s green Na’vis from Avatar and much more, in the context of a wider metaphor, with an image of Mara (a demon in the Buddhist tradition) in the background (Read more on this temple on wikipedia.)
Here are a few photos I’ve taken today. Unfortunately it is prohibited to take pictures inside the abode but you can take pictures outside.
Responsible Hill-tribes treks – our experience and some tips
Chiang Rai is a very ethnically diverse province, with a number of hill-tribes living in the area. The tourism industry benefits from the presence of these tribes and expectedly the hill-tribe trek is a popular product, provided both by agencies and hotels/guesthouses. The problem is that not many of those who provide these tours are really concerned with giving back to these minorities. However there are some organizations who share part of their profits with the tribes, and engage in development projects aimed at improving the tribes conditions, while maintaining and preserving their traditions. One of these organization is Natural Focus, about which we found out through our lonely planet guide. Today we met Poo (please resist the temptation of making easy jokes!), who is Natural Focus’ project coordinator – he seems to be a very nice guy and what’s more important he’s very flexible. We agreed a one-night, two-day program with him, and tomorrow we’ll go to a Akha village, where we will stay overnight. The program includes staying with a Akha family, having a cultural exchange, and learning to cook a typical Akha lunch. We’re expecting a very exciting two days, and we’re sure we’ll be able to take one or two nice pictures 🙂 Another eco-tour organizations to look for in Chiang Rai is PDA. We visited their Hill-Tribe Museum yesterday and found it extremely informative and interesting. PDA also offers a range of tours and programs and, as a NGO, is involved in various community development initiatives including anti-human trafficking projects and AIDS education (read more on their website here).
The controversial long-neck Karen Padaung, or the human zoo
A few months before the trip we came across a documentary about this supposed ethnic group, whose women use to wear a neck coil that over time extends their neck. As we got curious about this unusual, picturesque thing, we thought we’d visit their village once in this area. However we changed our mind yesterday during our visit to the Hill-Tribe museum. As we asked the staff, we were told that these people, referred to as long-neck Karen, or Karen Padaung (sometimes written as Padong), are just Burmese refugees who were hired by a businessman and used as a human zoo type of tourist attraction. Tourists visiting the long-neck Karen village pay a fee, a part of which (maybe a thin part) goes to the villagers. Tour guides use to tell tourists that Karen Padaung people rely on farming for their living, but – we learned – there is no evidence of farming activities in the village or around, and it is quite likely that their only income comes from tourism (e.g. the fees I was talking about above and the sales of crafts). Someone says that, on a positive note, these Karen live in better conditions than most refugees, which may be true, however the Thai government doesn’t recognize them as Thai citizens, it tolerates their presence, but doesn’t allow them to move out of their area. Also, BBC news reported some times ago that some of these people were offered the possibility to move to other countries including New Zealand but the Thai government didn’t allow them to leave. Well… for us this was enough information to decide to boycott this type of tourism. Maybe we’re overreacting, but the idea of visiting a human zoo where people are not allowed to leave and decide what type of life they should be living, makes both of us uncomfortable. To see some images of long-neck women click here. Also, here is that short news video from the BBC news website I was mentioning above (if the video doesn’t start, then click ‘launch on a stand alone player’, or click here and open with your default media player).
That’s it for now. We’re looking forward to taking the tour with Poo tomorrow. Hopefully I’ll be able to share some pictures of the Akha soon – and a recipe. Keep in touch!