South East Asia was an interesting part of our trip. There were places I loved (Hanoi, Hoi An, Chiang Mai) and places where we had a pretty rubbish time of it (Saigon, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur). There were signs of incredible human courage and incredible atrocity (Phnom Penh), There were some fantastic museums (Singapore, Hanoi, Phnom Penh, Bangkok) and some slightly rubbish ones (Saigon, KL). There was a lot of rain in Hué and Singapore, and some scorching heat in KL and Siem Reap. In general, I think the food was pretty great throughout the region, with some superb seafood in Mui Ne and a great steak in Phuket. There was constant hassle of foreigners in Vietnam and complete indifference to them in Singapore. Above all there was incredible natural beauty, particularly in Cat Ba and Chiang Mai, as well as impressive amounts of manmade beauty, both old (Angkor Wat) and new (Singapore).
So the short summary is that there is no consistency. South East Asia is massively varied (shock, I know), from the Communism of Vietnam, its legacies and presence in Cambodia, the democratic protests in Thailand contrasted to the worship of their king and his lese majeste, to the single-party (and monocultural) capitalism of Malaysia and Singapore. In general I found the people to be extremely friendly. One particular girl jumped off her bike in Danang to warn two wandering westerners of the coming typhoon if we weren’t aware, and a guide in Tonle Sap told me the story of how his wife had left him with their kids and taken all their money – so he couldn’t afford the exam to be a tour guide at the more lucrative Angkor Wat. Across Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand the guides stressed education as the most important thing to develop their countries, while acknowledging the challenges they had in pushing this through to the deepest countryside.
There was bitterness too. Bitterness to the Americans in Vietnam, to the French in Vietnam and Cambodia, to the Chinese in Cambodia, to the Malays and Chinese in Malaysia (and to the Russians and the Brits in any tourist beach spot). But the region as a whole shows huge signs of growing wealth, roads are pretty excellent (although Cambodia is still a work in progress) and trains are slow, but growing in use and access (there’s talk of reopening the train line across Cambodia, which would allow a traveller to go from London to Singapore by train!). It’s generally too damn hot, but that’s kind of understandable. The hassle in Vietnam and Bangkok really isn’t that bad (especially having been to Delhi). And there are an evergrowing number of airlines, regional and intercontinental connections. There is still so much to see and experience.