Way back in 2009, before I had met my wife and way before I discovered the early retirement concept, my parents took us (me and my sisters) to a long trip in South-East Asia. During this trip, we traveled through Japan, Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar, and Laos, flying through continents, walking through borders, and backpacking across mountain ranges. Traveling there and meeting the locals and ex-pats really opened my eyes to what I would later label as; Financial Independence.
Traveling to Japan
We started our journey flying from Canada to Japan on a long, long, loooong 23-hour flight. Thankfully, it was with Japan Airlines, one of the best airline I ever flew on. The hostesses gave us hot face towels to freshen up during the flight, the food was excellent, and they even had games for my younger sisters to play. When traveling to Asia, try booking Japan Airline, they are usually the same price but offer much better service. Unfortunately, they are not a member of Star Alliance so you will not be able to use Aeroplan rewards to book with them.
Once landed in Tokyo, we visited famous tourist areas such as the Ginza District, Sensō-ji Temple and National Museum of Nature and Science but also tried to go outside the given path and explore the city, like the locals, taking the subway and exploring the lesser-known attractions in town.
Even if it is mentioned in every guidebook, going to the Tsukiji Fish Market sure was worth the adventure! I did not notice any westerners and the whole experience is as authentic as it gets. The sprawling wholesale fish market is packed with seafood, fishes, and people. Even if I could not understand what they were saying, I really enjoyed seeing their bargaining and trade tactics.
There is also a tuna auction, every morning, but you need to get there around 3 A.M. to see the all the action. 😛 Since the subway is closed at the time, you can either find a room around the market or simply spend the night out until the wee hours! You will be able to view the auction for free but places are limited. After that, you will find plenty of vendors offering a tasty raw fish menu from kaisen-don (seafood donburi) to sashimi. We did not assist to the auction but I am sure it is worth the wake-up call.
Tsukiji Fish Market at 3 A.M. Chome-2-1 Tsukiji, Chuo, Tokyo
Japan has a lot to offer but the cost of living is one of the most expensive in the world. A very basic hotel room can range in the $200 to $300 per night in Tokyo or you can opt for a Capsule Hotel for roughly $100 per night. Personally, I much prefer booking with Airbnb for a nicer, larger, place for half the price!
Traveling to Thailand
We stayed in Thailand for most of our trip, for about two months. It was the logical choice given its low-cost of living and favorable views towards tourism. The country is beautiful, simply breathtaking! There are massive temples to visit, the cities are vibrant, and the people are some of the most welcoming in the world. In contrast to the closed and busy-bee people of Japan, Thais are laid-back, smiling, and very welcoming.
Thailand has a lot to offer! I really enjoyed the various temples and religious sites, they are all free to visit and are full of history. It is a great, frugal, way to discover the culture, history, and beliefs of this beautiful country. There is a lot of architectural landmarks such as the Wat Rong Khun that are simply stunning!
Wat Rong Khun (Thai: วัดร่องขุ่น), better known to tourists as the White Temple. Chiang Rai, Thailand.
On the food scene, Thailand has so much to offer. I enjoyed the hundreds of street food vendors all over the country that cook up delicious meals from Pad Thai to sticky rice. If you are on the more adventurous side, you can even taste BBQ cockroaches or salted ants. Those turned out to be surprisingly good. 🙂 If you are traveling on a budget, you can easily find meals under $3 and accommodation under $15 per night in major urban areas. You can live on even less in the less touristic regions or if you shop around for accommodations.
BBQ cockroaches served in a local Thai market. Bankok, Thailand.
Traveling to Laos
Given the 30-days tourist visa offered in Thailand, we had to get out of the country a bit and we took the opportunity to visit Laos. The contrast is breathtaking. History shows itself through the French colonial architecture and the French bakeries around the corner. Laos is a one-party socialist republic run by military generals and is one of the poorest countries in South-East Asia but they are still smiling and welcoming. Even with a per-capita GDP of only $1,692 (compared to $57,220 in the US), people are lively.
We stayed two nights in a nice little hotel in a safe neighborhood for roughly $7 then ventured away on a boat down the Mekong river. I highly recommend the ride, it lets you see the country from a different perspective. From the river, you can see the daily life of farmers and fishermen along the riverbank.
Laos, like most of rural South-East Asia, is a place where traditional markets far out number shopping malls. Exploring the villages is fascinating and brings you back in time. Laos offers a rich culture and history but I do not think it will stay as such for long. Outside investments have started to pour in and high-rises to grow. The countryside might keep its authenticity but the cities are quickly changing.
Bamboo hut I photographed along the Mekong river. Near Phalat, Laos.
Traveling to Myanmar
Alongside Laos sits Myanmar (formally Burma), another war-ravaged country that was bombed for most of the Vietnam War. Most Westerners are not aware of this but the end of the war, over 7 million tons of bombs had been dropped on Vietnam and its surroundings. More bombs were dropped outside of Vietnam than in and the ravages are still visible to this day.
In this mountainous and evergreen landscape, we explored the temples, markets, and villages to discover the local culture. We got our visas in Bankok at the Union of Myanmar Embassy for 810 Bahts (or around $23) but you can also get it online for $50. The visa is valid for 28 days and is for a single entry.
The Burmese food, just like pretty much all food I ate in Asia, is delicious! They mainly serve chicken or seafood meals and you can easily eat for under $2 per meal. As long as you like rice, noodles, spicy foods, and chicken, you will not have any trouble finding a great, cheap, meal anywhere in South-East Asia.
We did not attend any festivals in Myanmar given our short stay but they sure know how to have fun. If you are visiting, you might want to see one of the many celebrations open to the public.
- April: Thingyan water throwing festival is their New Years celebration.
- May: Bo Tree of Enlightenment watering festival is a sacred celebration.
- June: Tipitaka honors the many monks, offering food to them.
- July: Robe Offering Festival marks the start of the Buddhist Lent.
- August: Taungbyon Nat near Mandalay worships the spirits.
- September: Regatta boat racing is a traditional boat race.
- October: lights festival to mark the end of the Buddhist Lent.
- November: Kahtein Thingan where new robes are offered to monks.
- December: New Years celebration for the Karen state.
- January: Equestrian celebration for their Independence day on the 4th.
- February: Harvest festival.
- March: Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon celebration.
Gold plated Shwedagon Pagoda. Yangon, Myanmar.
Traveling to Cambodia
Going into Cambodia was a whole other adventure! I can still remember the long, tedious, walk from Thailand through the border. We crossed, by foot, through the Poipet border with hundreds of Thais and Cambodians along with their chickens. 🙂 Right in between the two passport control counters, there are huge hotels and neon greeting you to a strip of casinos enabling Thais to gamble in Cambodia without needing to go through immigration. Thailand has very strict gambling laws but I guess they found a way around it. 😛
Poipet Casino Resort. Poipet, Cambodia.
When we first encountered the border agents, they asked for a little incentive before we could cross (in US dollars of course) then we hopped on a bus directly to Siem Reap. Once arrived, we got scammed by a taxi driver that brought us to the wrong hotel and kept telling us that the hotel we had booked was now closed. Taxi drivers in South-East Asia often take you to places they “recommend” just to get their cut but they are generally harmless. We simply paid the man and took another taxi to our hotel. Oh well, down a few dollars…
One of many faces of Angkor Wat. Siem Reap, Cambodia.
This trip throughout South-East Asia was wonderful, breathtaking, and enlightening but I simply cannot describe it in a single post. I will continue this journey later…
When you are traveling, take the time to research and stay safe. You can explore and discover the culture with the locals by booking in smaller, locally-owned, hotels or booking with Airbnb. We now travel the world for a fraction of the cost and you can too with reward miles. Life is made to be lived, don’t be afraid of the unknown. Xyz.