Three Weeks in Southeast Asia
I’m back in San Diego at last, after eighteen days and eleven different flights, traveling around Asia.
This wasn’t a very long trip, but it might be one of my most fast-paced journeys. This also was an extremely segmented trip, meaning my time at my four main destinations were nothing like each other. I visited Seoul, Chiang Rai, Kuala Lumpur, and Phuket all for very different reasons on totally different types of missions:
1) To visit my good friend Jihyun and to spend some quality time with him in Seoul
2) To record interviews of the villagers Plant With Purpose has worked with in Chiang Rai
3) To get a taste of the digital nomad life working remotely from Kuala Lumpur
4) To participate in my cousin’s wedding in Phuket
Over the two and a half weeks I stayed in everything from a prison-cell like room to a luxury villa. I had to figure out how to pack a bunch of filming equipment and clothing for a wedding while traveling out of two backpacks like usual. I ate like Anthony Bourdain but sweat buckets like Shaq. It was a wild one.
Leaving LAX at 10 am meant that I did no sleeping on the plane. After thirteen hours, Spider-Man, Baby Driver, and a handful of Chinese movies, I arrived at the Beijing airport pretty tired. So much energy came back while I walked around the airport, though. Just being in a new, unfamiliar environment fills me up with so much life I can physically feel it.
I got to Seoul that night, met up with Jihyun, and crashed at his place.
The next day was my one full day of Seoul. This wasn’t my first time, and since Jihyun was such a great tour guide during my 2014 visit, I didn’t feel much of a need to see too many sights. Instead, I just enjoyed spending quality time with a very good friend. We walked around old Itaewon alleyways, all the way to Gangnam, just talking. It had been four years since he moved back to Seoul, but I’d been impressed by our ability to average seeing each other once per year.
This was also my one and only day of experiencing winter. I packed (appropriately for every other day) just a bunch of light t-shirts, so thankfully Jihyun had a few big puffy coats for me to spend the day in.
Eating out in Seoul is relatively inexpensive compared to what I’m used to, and he took me on quite the street food tour. Highlights included a sweet potato latte, street side tteokbokki and soondae, and marinated chicken with him and his girlfriend.
My next stop came out to be Chiang Rai. Plant With Purpose works in villages across northern Thailand to help rural communities restore their environment and escape poverty. It had been a few years since we had anyone collect stories, photos, and videos from those sites, and that turned out to be my mission.
This was my second field visit with Plant With Purpose, but Thailand is perhaps the most unique out of Plant With Purpose’s programs.
- The people we work with aren’t actually Thai– we work with a variety of ethnic minority tribes. These populations play a critical role in global environmental protection, but their situation and human rights issues aren’t often understood.
- They often are refugees coming from Myanmar or other areas and have seen terrible parts of history. Many have participated or have been directly affected.
- While there’s some focus on individual family farms, there’s more emphasis on the way a community manages their forest to protect their citizenship rights.
I wanted to record a video that did justice to these unique facets of our work but that was still clear and not distracting. At best, I’m an amateur video maker, and I definitely didn’t have the most ideal equipment.
Our director took me to the village of Huay Lu Luang, where it felt like he had the whole village lined up to meet me. I interviewed people one by one, hearing incredible- and often heartbreaking stories of what they’d gone through. Many of the villagers had been forced to fight in a war, had to escape their homes by the cover of night, and had to learn to deal with no access to land.
I realized that my best way to tell the story was to simply capture the lived experiences of the people of Huay Lu Luang, and so I did. I spent two full days conducting interviews, and by the end of it, I felt like I had bonded pretty well with the whole village.
Before leaving for Kuala Lumpur, Tui made sure I had two more necessary experiences:
- Visiting the Golden Triangle where Myanmar, Thailand, and Laos meet.
- Trying larb made with raw buffalo meat, definitely still bleeding
My next stop was Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Because there was a gap in between filming and the wedding festivities, I needed a pretty accessible city that I could easily work from remotely. Enter Kuala Lumpur.
Malaysia is my 41st country, and I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. It’s a country that mostly manages to stay quiet on the global stage these days, and that’s not such a bad thing.
I made it to my guesthouse at night and checked in. I immediately had to laugh at the situation I found myself in. I got the room I reserved online. It looked like it did in pictures, it was clean, and it was even air conditioned (the main draw!). But– I could also stretch out my arms and touch both walls. It was hilariously the size of a prison cell. Still, it was a great deal, I couldn’t complain.
It was also located on a street at the edge of China town. At the intersection, one road was adorned with red paper lanterns and Chinese script, and the other was marked by Indian restaurants and Hindi signs. Kuala Lumpur is quite the cultural blend.
Since no work would’ve actually gotten done at the cramped guesthouse, I got a three-day pass at Uppercase Bangsar, a coworking space in a trendy part of KL. It was at the upstairs part of an unfinished warehouse with a great balcony view, a consistent brand-yellow color job, and great facilities for work. (Cappuccino machine FTW.) And whaddya know, I was actually pretty productive at Uppercase.
After working hours, I tried to save as much time as I could for exploring and walking the city. I walked up Petaling Street, an open air market, and down some of the open streets by the storefronts. The casual passing glimpses of “ordinary life” were some of my favorite parts of being somewhere new, as usual.
I eventually worked my way up town, to KL Pavilion, and then the Petronas Towers. This is a very commercial, international, business district and if you spend enough time here you’ll become convinced that Kuala Lumpur is pretty much a giant shopping mall. It was pretty jarring to walk suddenly into a large and elaborate “Santa’s Workshop” right in the middle of the mall. It was so ridiculously festive, especially for a country that is formally Islamic.
I’m no big fan of shopping malls, and typically I would’ve tried to get out as quickly as possible. These Malaysian malls had a couple things going for them, however. The first was precious air-conditioning. The second was that the dollar-to-ringgit exchange rate is really favorable for visitors, and I wanted to get more shirts and underwear for the rest of the trip.
Speaking of great deals, I’ve never eaten as well for as low of a price as I did in Malaysia. Malaysian food really hasn’t taken off yet in the U.S., and even in our best and biggest culinary cities, it’s not easy to find. For just a couple dollars, I got incredible dishes of curries, beef noodles, curry mee noodles, chicken ipoh, nasa lemak, beef rendang and more. I think in retrospect, the food was my very favorite thing about Malaysia.
Phuket was sudden contrast. I went from being a solo-traveler in Malaysia to suddenly joining a whole crew of wedding party people and friends. I went from kind of roughing it for the first half of the trip to suddenly enjoying resorts and guided experiences.
My cousin Ivy, who is probably the closest thing I have to a sister, had been looking forward to marrying JB for a long time. When they announced their plans to have the wedding in Thailand I knew it would be in for a different, but really enjoyable time.
I showed up midday at a villa that was rented out to the wedding party, plus a few others. The house was empty when I arrived, everyone being out at an elephant sanctuary. I could tell, though, by the pool out front, the large and spacious bedrooms, and the general look of the place that this would be a chance to totally focus on enjoying my time.
I got to spend my Thanksgiving Day on a boat island hopping around the bay. This was one of the best experiences, since a pretty reasonable price got us all on board for the full day. The excursion came with breakfast and lunch, and the sailing route took us through some incredibly gorgeous waters. The two-level vessel was itself pretty comfy, with places to eat and lounge and chat as we sailed around. We made several stops: to Ko Hoang to get out and walk around the island; to snorkel with the fish; to do cannonballs and belly flops from the top deck; and to take pictures of pretty stuff. It wasn’t a traditional Thanksgiving, but hey, I was pretty damn thankful.
Over those few days, I had started to get to know people in the wedding party a bit more. Just hanging around the house chatting or going out at nights became more and more fun. That continued when we switched accommodations to be closer to the wedding venue. The day before turned into fun times at the swim up pool bar. Like I said, this trip was wrapping up very differently than how it started.
With that said, there would’ve been no more appropriate way for the trip to have ended other than to have had an amazing wedding ceremony. And it was. Honestly, the night was a blur. But there were a lot of crying people, a pretty active dance floor, a Thai food reception of course, unexpected karaoke performances, floating lanterns released on the beach, and a cameo appearance by Paris Hilton. And to top it all off was an afterparty that seemed to keep going.
Like any good song, a good adventure is all about resolution, that final note that you return to after all kinds of movement. And after over two weeks away, I looked forward to the return.
It wouldn’t be an easy journey- a whole lot of backtracking was involved. I spent a night at the Phuket airport to get to Hong Kong to get to Seoul. That led to another night of winter at Jihyun’s house and a surprise Christmas potluck. Then there was the long journey to Beijing, then LA, reversing course. By the end of everything, I had sat through eleven flights.
Looking back over the trip, I think I experienced hitting all the right notes of a good journey: I was able to let loose at the villa, and to grind at the co-working space. I experienced my cup being filled by gorgeous sights from the boat deck, and I hope I gave to others through capturing stories at Huay Lu. There were familiar faces like Jihyun and Ivy, and new sights like Kuala Lumpur and my new friends at the village. There was giving and receiving, fun and work, familiar and new.
But of course, there was one missing piece. Deanna was waiting for me back at home. The return trip was what finally made it a full adventure.