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29 April, 2012

20 Stamps, Many Memories

I had to know how many stamps I'd got while I was here, turns out it's 20 trips. Add four trips back to Australia in that time and that's a lot of time in the air. The past 15 months have been amazing, and I'm trying to document what each trip meant to me here.

The Short Version

  1. Singapore - 27th February, 2011
  2. Krabi - 6th March, 2011
  3. Chiang Mai - 1st April, 2011
  4. Kuala Lumpur - 6th May, 2011
  5. Chiang Mai - 29th July, 2011
  6. Chiang Mai - 13th October, 2011
  7. Manila - 22nd November, 2011
  8. Tokyo - 3rd October, 2011
  9. Bali - 28th October, 2011
  10. Ho Chi Minh - 5th November, 2011
  11. Kuala Lumpur - 24th December, 2011
  12. Ho Chi Minh - 31st December, 2011
  13. Tokyo - 17th January, 2012
  14. Bangkok - 19th January, 2012
  15. Manila - 26th February, 2012
  16. Chiang Mai - 2nd March, 2012
  17. Ho Chi Minh - 5th March, 2012
  18. Bangkok - 25th March, 2012
  19. Jakarta - 24th April, 2012
  20. Kuching - 27th April, 2012

My apartment view (when I wasn't on the road!)

The Long Version
Singapore - 27th February, 2011
My first international trip. And it's to relocate overseas. Looking back, I hadn't done a lot of research. I sourced a few opinions from people, and threw myself in without giving it a second thought. I've already documented what it was like on those first few hours (link to old entry), but I'm still convinced it was one of the best decisions I've ever made. The amount of learned about the world, or more accurately, learned how little I know of the world is staggering.

Very simple things that I took for granted, like my accent, were completely foreign to people. It took me a while to stop thinking: "are you serious?" when somebody asked where I was from, and that's totally down to my ignorance.

I'm not much better these days, but I'm damn sight further along the cultural knowledge spectrum than Marshwah was 15 months ago.

Krabi - 6th March, 2011
My first international business trip, and in my second week of being in a new country too. The penny dropped here. Where Singapore was a somewhat easily-negotiated, condensed city. This was a town surrounded by jungle and by some beautiful beaches. There's nothing I can take away from my opening week in Singapore, but this is where it first dawned on me that international travel with friends is something that I needed to do.

I arrived at a five-star beach resort. It was the most scenic thing I'd ever engaged in, and easily the most majestic surrounds I'd ever stayed in. A thought entered my head as well. I wondered if I could film or take photos on this trip and capture what I was experiencing, then realised it's best done with friends.

Career-wise I hit another milestone, I delivered a presentation on the Singaporean digital landscape to our agency's brightest minds, including two global CEOs, and nailed it. I remember being so amped after that presentation that I called a few of my friends back home and garbled excitedly. I kind of forgot about the time difference but they appreciated my enthusiasm.

Chiang Mai - 1st April, 2011
It was but six weeks into my international jaunt and I knew I had to connect with my two friends that had been there the last time I relocated. Last time was Sydney, and they absolutely made the transition between cities ten times easier. This time they were involved as well. Less directly, but had certainly urged me to explore all of what SE Asia has to offer.

So I visited their home in Chiang Mai and the bar was set even higher. I made it quite clear what I wanted to do there. Eat, drink, and be merry. And that is what we did. And then some. After at least a year of rejecting their travel pleas, ignoring their assertions that the region was a bountiful and rewarding place to explore, I finally did it.

My friend tells me that I was raving about how good the place was within half an hour of arriving. I don't doubt it. It was like a part of me had been unlocked!

Kuala Lumpur - 6th May, 2011
Another friend I caught up with in Singapore had said it's worth making it habit to get out of Singapore at least once a month. It had been longer and I flippantly booked a trip to Kuala Lumpur for that weekend. It was $200 SGD return including accommodation. I asked some people within the office how to go about it, got some tips, and then plunged in.

What a random adventure. I'd mentioned on Facebook where I was going and it turned out a buddy just happened to be in town that night. We painted the town red, had many a laugh, and I finished the evening eating delicious street food outside Chinatown at 3am in the morning. I couldn't finish the Guinness Foreign Extra Stout I purchased alongside it, that shit is vile.

With my mate gone and not having much of a clue about anything, I checked Resident Advisor (link) what's on that evening. It turned out Deadmau5 was in town. With nothing better to do I purchased a ticket and went and danced to one of the world's most notorious dance music producers. And I loved it. Random, but that's the point.

Chiang Mai - 29th July, 2011
My friends in Chiang Mai are renowned for springing surprise visits to Australia. It was time to return the favour to one of them. Booking a last minute trip there was a spur of the moment decision, seeing the reaction and receiving a hug from one of my dearest friends was something I'll cherish.

As with all of my trips, my focus was on drinking and eating, but we broke it up with a delightful bike ride out of town and to a nearby lake. Sitting in a bamboo hut by the water, drinking vodka and mixer, and eating some of the spicier foods within Northern Thailand was a pleasurable experience. The ride back into town was interesting, and then the sheer scale of where they eat steam boat blew my mind.

I can barely remember what was said, but finishing the rest of the vodka and arguing/talking with my friend was one of the best conversations I've ever had. (Vomiting due to over-consumption at the end of mentioned night, not so much).

Chiang Mai - 13th October, 2011
Some of my best friends from Sydney were travelling to Chiang Mai and circumstances conspired against their visiting Singapore to see my digs. Some back and forth made things work, and it was time to re-visit one of my favourite places in SE Asia. What was different this time, was that we had a whole crew with us and we were headed to a village outside of Chiang Mai, the fabled Pai (link to Wikitravel).

Seeing everyone was a blast. While I wouldn't say the 300 odd-turns on the way to Pai were rewarding at least I can say I've done them. That's when I wasn't crapping on excitedly. The mood was buoyant and the only regret I had was not staying longer. It's been a problem with the majority of my trips: cramming them into extended weekends and not getting as much as I would have liked out of them. I guess I'll have to travel more!

Manila - 22nd November, 2011
This was my first business trip with a new company and while Manila isn't somewhere I'd ordinarily go to, I was keen to make the most of the experience.

A few things I picked up on right away. The poverty was evident. And the security guards with automatic rifles were pretty hard to miss. We toured a lot of important clients and I got to know some of my colleagues better. The Greenbelt quarter was quite fun as well with cheap alcohol and great food.

I've heard a lot of the beaches in the Philippines are quite pretty, but it's more the realm of an experienced traveller, and I don't put myself in that category. I enjoy a bit more comfort and safety on my trips. Still, it was a very interesting place and one I'm glad I visited.

Tokyo - 3rd October, 2011
I have not heard many people talk about the similarities Japan shares with other countries. Tokyo blew my mind. I knew I was in another country the second I was off the plane. I loved every second of it. Before I'd even left the airport I was amazed by their toilets! Their toilets for crying out loud. I was here on business again and had just completed a leg from Melbourne (was there for a wedding). To say I was tired was an understatement. I lasted until about 4.30 that day much to the derision of my boss.

The rest of my time there was a blast. Being on business, I didn't really get to explore, but each night was a joy, the most bizarre experience being cosplay karaoke. Enjoyably bizarre. I had the Friday night spare, and ate some food, drank some local alcohol (ginger highballs), and went to a club where I discovered Darren Emerson was playing.

I didn't last the distance as I had an early flight the next day, but what I experienced was amazing and I really got a lot out of my time there.

Bali - 28th October, 2011
Bali has never been on my to-do list. From what I heard it was a bit of a tourist mecca and not much else. However, a group of friends from Australia were headed there and it'd be rude to ignore that fact when they were so close to Singapore. I made a weekend of it, and stayed in some very lush villas in Semanyak.

This trip was all about the company, these people were old work associates and colleagues and I was keen to chew the fat. The weekend was pleasant, with some overindulgence on my behalf Saturday afternoon. It was a long afternoon!

Having said that, Potatohead has to be one of the most pristine beachside bars I've ever had the pleasure of attending.

Ho Chi Minh - 5th November, 2011
Like a lot of my trips in SE Asia, this one was organised at short-notice. And after all the travel I'd done in the past couple of months I wasn't sure if I was keen. A colleague asked if I wanted to go however and who am I to knock back an adventure?

My travel fatigue was washed away the second we left the airport. Wow. What an amazing city. Absolute chaos. Yet in its chaos there is some sort of beauty that I struggle to articulate. The weekend I spent there was a good mix of shopping, sight-seeing, drinking, eating and partying. Special shout-outs go to the Vietnamese coffee. Having spent seven years living in Melbourne I was pretty skeptical of sweetened coffee, and this stuff blew me away.

It's very hard to pick between Tokyo and here for best city in Asia. Tokyo if I had unlimited money, Ho Chi Minh for us mere mortals. I swore I'd return.

Kuala Lumpur - 24th December, 2011
One of my best friends announced he was getting married in Melbourne in January and I put the random travels on hold for a while to save money. This interrupted my Christmas plans and it looked like I was spending Christmas in Singapore. An old colleague from Sydney got wind of this and at her insistence I boarded a bus to Kuala Lumpur for her family's Christmas celebrations.

It was the first time I'd crossed an international border over land and the feeling was quite surreal. That wasn't the half of it. Eating dim sum at 11am on Christmas morning, with an Asian family of about 20-strong, was very hard to process for someone that had grown up on the traditional Christmas dinners. It was unforgettable and a novel way to celebrate the end of the year. Mum made me swear I spend the next one at home!

Ho Chi Minh - 31st December, 2011
Another colleague from work was at a loose end as to what to do on New Year's Eve, and a cheeky Facebook status update saw us make plans to visit Vietnam to bring in the New Year. There were hotel dramas, but to be fair, I had a miracle run through Asia thus far and wasn't too bothered. I remember updating my status while there commenting on how crowded it was. A few know-it-alls commented on my update and said "oh, that's Ho Chi Minh". No, fuck you guys, I had been to Ho Chi Minh before and this was ten times more staggering.

The central business district of Ho Chi Minh on New Year's Eve is chaos in purest form. Picture droves of people shoulder-to-shoulder, add the scooters zipping through these crowds some how, and Vietnamese music blaring from any speaker that will play.

My colleague and I managed to beat our way through to discover a great little quarter with bars and restaurants. It was on the 31st December 2011 around 9pm that I had the best meal I'd eaten all year, and it was at this spot. This was followed up by some very enjoyable bar times. The hangover the next day was a bit much, but made perfectly bearable by a riverside brunch. 5 stars. Vietnam: amazing.

Tokyo - 17th January, 2012
After racking up so much airtime you would think I would have this down-pat by now. I didn't quite think this trip through. I was going to my friend's wedding in Melbourne during its hottest period. I was leaving from Singapore which is always hot. In between was Tokyo which was hot last time... To put it bluntly, I froze my dick off.

Getting into the place around 5am in the morning was a very striking wake-up call. I was there for two days. I toughed it out and endured a very strong ribbing from the rest of my team. The stupid Australian didn't check the weather before he went to Tokyo. It was bloody cold.

I still loved it. I got to eat at another restaurant and check out a hole-in-the-wall bar. I almost panicked on the train trips back to the airport too. Despite a frosty reception I still loved Tokyo, and it will definitely be a place I visit again.

Bangkok - 19th January, 2012
This one doesn't even count. I spent eight hours in the airport bored out of my mind (it is a good airport though, bloody large!) only to realise the connecting flight had lost my luggage. I went through immigration, got stamped, and found my purple suitcase in the lost and found section. Checked back in, put my bag through, and made my way to Melbourne.

Manila - 26th February, 2012
Another business trip. I don't to give Manila a bad wrap, as the people are some of the kindest in Asia, but I had another woeful time. The hotel placed me in a smoking room and couldn't move me anywhere else. I got sick. And did back-to-back-to-back meetings over four days.

I did get to bond with some team members though and shared a few laughs, so it wasn't all bad. It's just very hard to compete with places like Thailand, Japan and Vietnam.

Chiang Mai - 2nd March, 2012
Another last-minute decision. And given I'd just got back from Manila the last thing on my mind was travel. But a bad week culminated with a very frustrating Friday, meaning I was desperate to see some friends.

It just so happened my friends were very receptive, and headed to the mythical Pai that weekend to meet more of my friends. It was a fantastic weekend, and just what the doctor ordered, stress subsided and laughs were shared. The 300-turn trip on the way back wasn't even that bad, despite a monster hangover.

Ho Chi Minh - 5th March, 2012
The travel continued in earnest. This time it was a last-minute business trip to talk at a conference of one of our key partners. I stayed at the Majestic, a place I'd stayed at on my original trip, it didn't disappoint. The French-colonial architecture is beautiful.

I presented before one of my biggest crowds yet. An audience of 200 people or so, and to top it off, I won best presentation of the day to boot! The afternoon/evening I entertained clients, and made my way back to Singapore, still convinced of it being one of the best cities in Asia.

Bangkok - 25th March, 2012
I had deliberately avoided Bangkok. After enjoying Krabi and Chiang Mai (repeatedly) so much, I didn't want a more commercialised, city-centric version of the country I love. Yet business brought me there, and reeled off one of my biggest tours yet work-wise. Fortunately, I fell in love. If anything, Thailand without the village-like atmosphere I adored, was even more intriguing. It was cosmopolitan to the extreme, with all sorts of characters running around the city in harmony.

It had its dodgy-side, but I'd read up, and was experienced enougih with Asia now to know what to expect. My only regret? I didn't try and stay for the weekend. As being able to let loose without having to worry about work would be a real experience, especially in a city like this.

Jakarta - 24th April, 2012
My last business trip before I depart (knock on wood) and there was one thing that really resonated with me. Jakarta (and in a broader sense, Indonesia) is fucking huge. The scale of what we were dealing with was mind-boggling. It's punching in the same weight-division as the US for sheer population size. And yet it gets lumped in as SE Asia.

The other thing that really struck me was the gap between rich and poor. Like Manila, there is obvious poverty around the city and disparity between hotels I was staying in, and the shanties you see on the side of the road is sad to see.

It was never going to be the most pleasant trip with all that goes on there, but it was one of the most awe-inspiring.

Kuching - 27th April, 2012
My last trip before I head home (again, knock on wood) and this one was for selfish reasons. The move to Australia has been preying on my mind and the thought of being cooped up in Singapore without relaxing was too much to bear. I'd heard about this city from a few people, and it sounded like a great place for downtime. I caught an advance screening of The Avengers, ate sumptuous seafood, had my first full-body massage, and drank at some of the local bars. But most of all, I relaxed. Which is just what I needed.


20 stamps, and many memories. Asia, you've been great and I'll be returning for sure. I came with an open-mind, a willingness to explore, and gave back what I can. It's been one of the most awesome experiences of my life.

Next in the sights is Europe - I don't think its ready.