5 QUIET PLACES IN ASIA TO TAKE A BREAK AND REGROUP
“I was driving myself, pounding out the miles because I was no longer hearing or seeing. I had passed my limit of taking in or, like a man who goes on stuffing in food after he is filled, I felt helpless to assimilate what was fed in through my eyes. Each hill looked like the one just passed. I have felt this way in the Prado in Madrid after looking at a hundred paintings—the stuffed and helpless inability to see more. This would be a time to find a sheltered place beside a stream to rest and refurbish.”
–John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley (1962)
Travel can be hard work. Adrenaline may keep our heads spinning and our feet moving, but it’s important to consider the hidden exhaustion of long trips. Weeks of momentum, scheduling and packing/unpacking will take its toll on your body and dull your senses; even causing you to lose appreciation for the places you are working so hard to see. Perhaps you need to write those university admission essays, construct your memoir, or tear through those paperbacks that have been weighing your bag down.
Many travelers take a break at a beach resort or a comfortable city hostel to unwind. These places include Boracay, Chaing Mai, Bali, Kao Shan Road and countless other heavily-touristed stations along the backpacker path. These are easy to find and you won’t need our help in locating them or enjoying their qualities. However, I’d like to introduce some places to relax that are under the radar: accessible, yet still relatively untouched and under-appreciated. These places are cultural, offer great food, local ambiance and generally are off the main backpacker trail. Meaning, you will not only be taking a break from being in transit, but also from other travelers.
Battambamg is a city of 250,000 located on the Mekong River. Its fulcrum is a dusty town square. The square and other main thoroughfares are lined with handsome colonial houses with interesting shopfronts and balconies offering up a view of everyday Cambodian city life. There is a wonderful central market for healthy daily meals. Also, for those that need a comfortable, well-wired café, the centrally located Gecko Café is a great place to chill and get some work done.
On the outskirts of town you can visit some lovely temples, rent a bike, go kayaking and enjoy the wide, flat peaceful landscape.
By bus, Battambang is located 6 hours east of Phnom Penh ($4) and 4 hours south of Siem Reap ($3). There is a boat from Siem Reap and time travel / enjoyment depends largely on the water level. Check with your guesthouse in SR for up-to-date info on that.
4. SAVANNAKHET, LAOS
Savannakhet, with its 130,000 easygoing residents, is the second-largest city in unhurried Laos. It has all the offerings of the capital, Vientiane, but with just a small fraction of the tourists who are passing through that city. Despite its relatively large size, Savannakhet seems to roll through life half-asleep, basking under its dry blue sky. Lazily watching the Mekong River crawl by seems to be the main activity here. Informal restaurants and cafes line the riverfront (Vientiane’s riverfront is now a charmless concrete barrier) and offer wonderful places to read, write and study. The sunsets are vivid and seem to go on forever. French colonial charm abounds.
Savannahket has retained is Lao charm even as Vientiane and Luang Prabang have been heavily altered by mass tourism and Japanese fusion cafes. There are few international tourists who hang around Savannakhet long enough to really take it in, as guidebooks have dismissed it as just merely a transit station en route to Pakse and the 1,000 Islands. The friendly, honest locals appreciate the attention and returning customers will be greeted with a warm, genuine smile. This is a rewarding place spend a week and excuse yourself from the Indochine tourist trail.
Simple, charming guesthouses (25,000kip, $2.50) can be found if you walk the quiet side streets; established riverfront hotels hover around 70,000kip, or $7; be sure to ask if there is a curfew if you stay out past midnight
Simple noodle dishes (10,000kip, $1) are adequate but unmemorable; fresh-baked baguettes (5000kip, $0.50); fish from the Mekong river (30,000kip, $3); a nice, cool 600ml bottle of Beer Laos (8,000kip, $1)
3. VIGAN, PHILIPPINES
Vigan is the best-preserved Spanish colonial city in the Philippines. It’s a relatively quiet town of 60,000 located eight hours north of Manila (by bus). As most backpackers enter Manila and quickly go south to Boracay, Cebu, Dumaguete and other beachfront locations, north Luzon has retained its wild, cultural appeal by attracting the more curious, thoughtful tourists. You won’t be the only tourist in Vigan, as many local Filipinos and older, National Geographic writer-looking westerners come here for the historic architecture and cultural offerings. The food is also some of the best in the Philippines, with local empanadas and hand-tied longaniza sausages being sold inexpensively in the lovely old nooks and crannies of the old city.
You can spend your days reading in the old squares or sketching the handsome facades of the historic cathedrals. For some excitement, check out a cockfight. After dinner in a romantic streetside café, you can party right in the heart of the colonial quarter at the two-storey high Legacy Super Club, one of our favorite little clubs / bars in all of Asia, with its artful expressionist angles and top quality sound system. On Sundays, take in a cockfight and meet some friendly locals. Unfortunately, as in all the Philippines, accommodation is not particularly cheap here compared with destinations such as Laos or Indonesia. However, everything else is.
Tom Cruise and Oliver Stone stopped in during the filming of Born on the Fourth of July (1989). Vigan stood in for Mexico in the film.
2. GULANGYU ISLAND, XIAMEN, CHINA
Gulangyu has been famous for years amongst Chinese tourists, who outnumber everyone else on this surprising little island just off the 8+ million metropolis of Xiamen, on China’s southeast coast across from Taiwan. Though it’s touristic, don’t expect to see any Chang Beer tank tops or pub crawls. Gulangyu retains its faded grandeur with grace. Gulangyu (formerly Amoy) was selected as a place for foreign settlement in 1903 and Europeans, Japanese and wealthy overseas Chinese built lavish mansions and gardens here. You’re forgiven if you forget you’re even in Asia. The contours of the island are European.
In contrast to China’s booming car ownership, the island is car and motorbike free. Foot traffic is the only mode allowed. At night, when many tourists go back to the lovely city of Xiamen, the island becomes an eerie labyrinth of stone passageways and spooky forgotten chateaus. Avoid the expensive tourist traps on the island and just enjoy the quiet ambiance of Gulangyu’s streets and alleyways. There are plenty of cute, unique cafes to work or study in. The food is hit-or-miss, however; this being a tourist spot. Be sure to book your accommodation a week or two in advance, as the island is growing in popularity amongst China’s new moneyed class.
Go to Xiamen first. Xiamen is now connected to Shanghai with high-speed rail (7hrs, 320RMB, $55) and soon to be connected with Shenzhen. Find cheap flights to Xiamen on www.elong.com from other Chinese cities.
walk the circumference of the island; stay up late and spook yourself out; relax on the beach; venture into Xiamen for some thump-thump nightlife (Key Club, Soho, no cover 35-50RMB,$5-7 drinks) if you’re getting bored.
1. LAKE TOBA, SUMATRA, INDONESIA
Asian destinations tend to be huge, flashing cities (north Asia) or temples and beaches (south Asia). But, a rural, volcanic lake surrounded by interesting vernacular architecture?
Of the hundreds of travelers we have met in Asia, we have only talked to two others who have been to Lake Toba, on the northern half of Indonesia’s wild Sumatra Island. In both encounters, our eyes lit up knowingly and we quickly wax ecstatic about our love of this place. Lake Toba is the destination you plan on visiting for three days and end up staying for three weeks. Its cheap, its gorgeous, its friendly, tranquil, blue, exotic…we could go on. And on. You’ll probably stay in Tuk Tuk, the lake’s main tourist center. It exists for tourism, but you’ll get over it soon enough. The hotels are unique, cheap and friendly. Your fellow travelers are thoughtful and in calm spirits. The restaurants serve up surprisingly good western food and refreshing fresh juices and Bintang beer. Fresh fish from the lake is a gourmet specialty that’s affordable and healthy. The view from the cafes can be breathtaking, with the air silent and the breeze eternal. Cafes perched clifftops overlooking the blue waters and skies may even remind some of Santorini. There are plenty of book exchanges in town where you can restock your library. The only difficulties you’ll have here will be tearing yourself away from the new lifestyle you’ve adopted.