Photo Journal: A Taste of Southeast Asia

Photo Journal: A Taste of Southeast Asia

Written by Melissa Klurman on

Melissa Klurman is a freelance travel writer and editor, and the winner of a Lowell Thomas Gold Award for excellence in travel writing. Melissa explores Africa for Luxury Travel Advisor, scouts locations for destination weddings and honeymoons for Brides, sails away for OnBoard and ShermansCruise, and uncovers kid-friendly adventures for Family FunParents, and Working Mother, as well as her travel site, She is also a contributing editor at Frommer’s Travel Guides

Photo Journal: A Taste of Southeast Asia

Photo Journal: A Taste of Southeast Asia
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It took me 26 hours to get to Phuket. Well, 30 hours if you're counting from the time that I walked out my front door in chilly New Jersey with my sturdy, tan Afar Backpack slung over my shoulder to the time when I opened the door to my hotel room on gorgeous Layan Beach. And I can say that it was worth every hour of travel (even the last one, crammed next to a man who sucked on chicken feet for the entire flight)—especially when the most gorgeous sunrise greeted me on my first morning in the Land of Smiles.

In fact, the views over the Andaman Sea, the friendly “sawadee” greeting with hands in prayer from everyone I met in Phuket, and my first authentic bites of Thai curry made me certain that I had started my inaugural trip to Southeast Asia in the exact right spot.

I wanted to get a taste of the region, both figuratively and literally, getting a bite of culture, food, sights, and sounds, so I decided to follow an itinerary that started at the coast, moved to the city, and ended with one of my bucket-list destinations—Angkor Wat, which was just a hop over the border in Cambodia.

Phuket turned out to be the perfect place for me to get my feet wet, so to speak, in Thailand. I swam in the Andaman Sea, relaxed by the pool, and gently eased into a new country.

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I found that the best way to get a bite of my new destination was with a trip to the local market. There, I found a rainbow of fruits and vegetables that were as new to me as the Thai alphabet. I was fascinated by the hand-shaped ginger-esque galangal, lasso-length long beans, miniature eggplants the size of my thumb, and domes of fresh curry paste that looked like ancient turtle shells.

To learn how to combine all of these ingredients, I took a class with Chef Suthat at Spice Spoons cooking school where I stirred up a classic Thai dish, Tom Kha Gai, which is a delicious chicken coconut soup flavored with fresh kaffir lime leaf, long leaf coriander, and some galangal. I surprised myself with my love of the sweet and spicy massaman beef curry, a specialty of southern Thailand, which we crafted by toasting dried five spice and cinnamon along with some of the fresh curry paste from the local vendors. Cooked with beef and potatoes, it had layers of intricate flavors.

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I left feeling well rested, well fed, and recharged. (My camera and phone were also recharged, since I had the USB Travel Adapter Pro that allowed me to charge multiple electronics at once.) It was time to make my way to Bangkok and brace for the hustle and bustle in the heart of the country that 14 million people call home.

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One of my biggest surprises was, despite its dense population, Bangkok provides plenty of opportunities for quiet reflection away from the crowds. I loved cruising the small klongs (canals) on a festively adorned longtail boat to sightsee, taking water taxis to hit the night markets, and seeing the sunset and the city twinkle along the Chao Phraya River on a Manohra dinner cruise.

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Back on land, I learned to hold on tightly to my Afar Backpack* as I zipped through the city in the back of a tuk tuk (the open-air motorcycle taxis that shoot through traffic like suicidal chickens). On my ride, I could spot the glow of the golden Buddha-filled temples that fill the Old City.

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A highlight for me was visiting Wat Pho, the oldest and largest temple in Bangkok. It's famous for its reclining Buddha (which is the length of half a football field!) in a state of nirvana (talk about relaxing!). Just as impressive were the halls that were filled with Buddhas in prayer and the highly ornamented chedi (towers) outdoors. Bonus: Traditional Thai massage is available at the on-premise massage school for less than the price of a venti latte back at home.

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Some other favorite tastes of the city came in the form of street food in Bangrak market, where satay (sticks of grilled pork), kanom buang (mini crepes filled with fluffy sweet meringue and salty dried shrimp), and fried chicken were all winners.

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Then I went up to Siem Reap, a town in northwestern Cambodia, and one of my bucket-list destinations: Angkor Wat. Since I knew that I would be returning to the wonderful Anantara Bangkok Riverside that I had been calling home after my quick, two-day hop across the border, I was able to keep my medium-sized, checked bag with the front desk. I popped my Pack-It™ Original Cube Set into my backpack, and since just one carry-on was a little tight (I had my laptop along for the ride), I untucked my sea-blue Packable Tote from a side pocket and turned it into a cool new carry-on to augment my backpack.

Up in Siem Reap, the weather was so hot that I felt like an ice pop turning to liquid on the summer sidewalk. But the heat disappeared as I spied the 900-year-old remains of the massive temple complex. I’d been to other top bucket-list spots, but Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples and ruins—such as the 12th century Ta Prohm—far surpassed my expectations. The intricate carvings, the well preserved temples, and the surprise of the truck-sized faces in the Towers of Bayon at Angkor Thom all were worth traveling halfway around the world to see. 

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My trip ended the way it began, with another technicolor sunrise—this time over the towers of Angkor Wat. My guide said that it took 300,000 workers and 600 elephants 37 years to construct the five 699-foot towers, 1,532 columns, and 3,000-foot moat. Meanwhile, all I had to do was sip an iced coffee filled with condensed milk (which is like drinking melted cotton candy) while the sky transitioned from black to gray to pink and then to purple and the sun slowly made its debut.

I grabbed my pack and headed back for another long, although very comfortable Eva Air flight. I traveled in luxe style in premium economy (this time sans sloppy chicken-feet guy), promising myself that I'd return soon to this amazing corner of the world.