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Tall Man Travels: South East Asia

by Alex Sinanan |

Traveling at 6'6" can be weird. I recently travelled to Vietnam with a layover in Bangkok/Sukhothai on the way there and a day in Tokyo on the way home. Here is a somewhat random account of fun travel moments and musings.

men's tall tees

I have travelled to 30-odd countries in the last 20 years. Like for many people, Bangkok was my first solo destination when I headed out solo for the first time in 2001. It was a major destination back then but nothing could prepare me for what it has become. I wanted to return to the same spots and see if the past had anything to say. How much have I changed? How much has Bangkok changed? I brought my friend Amy along. This was her first trip to a non-euro-western country. I figure any person's first visit to SE Asia should start in Bangkok.

Packing

I pack light. Asia has everything you could possibly want so bring as little as possible. You can always buy what you need and do laundry along the way. A 45L pack is more than enough room for travel in SE Asia. On this trip I tried the Osprey Dupley 65, which was great. A 45L pack can be brought as carry-on which really helps get through airports quickly and easily. No wheely-bags! A bag you can wear semi-comfortably on your shoulder is a godsend for efficiently getting about. A 20L daypack for everything else. I still brought more than I needed. 

1 pair of shoes, 1 pair of flip flops, shorts and tees were all I needed. Once out of winter weather I put my jacket, hoody and jeans into an Eagle Creek Compression Sac and forgot about them. I wore Navas microstripe tees and long sleeves and flip flops the entire time. They stayed sharp and odour-free for weeks at a time.

I have some Eagle Creek cubes that I use for everything else. 1 for sock and underwear. 1 for tees and shorts.  

Traveling light as a tall guy gets complicated if you have to bring a coat or another pair of shoes. If you have to bring more shoes then wear the biggest ones on the plane.

packing tall guy travels packing
 The cat was not on the list. Nearly done, sans cat.

No camera. This is my first trip in a long time without a proper camera. It was a successful experiment. My IphoneX takes incredible photos and with 256gig of storage it won't run out of memory. I back up to Google Photos when I'm on wifi so my images are always protected. I'm a functional photographer with a good eye so I used to bring a DSLR because that was necessary to get decent shots but now the Iphone tech is so good that it gets me pretty close to what I want with a whole lot less fuss. There were a few times when I would have liked the form factor of a dedicated camera but overall I was happy just using the phone.

Speaking of phones. Pretty much every other place in the world gets better value cellular/data service than Canada. In Vietnam and Thailand I got a 30-day unlimited data SIM card for <$20CAD. Most of the time my phone was faster than any wifi network I could have joined. Mind blown. 

Traveling Tall Quandaries

I make a scene wherever I go.The best thing to do is embrace it and have a laugh. People want to take photos with you. Old ladies are surprised you want to eat at their street food stall. Everybody's minds are being blown.

I didn't have many issues, just a lot of laughs. People are amused and fascinated so it makes for a great opportunity to engage with people, try to improve your local language skills and experience some new stuff. 

Night train to Sukhothai
 Traveling can be hard. Night train from Bangkok to Sukhothai.

If your body gets crick from bad chairs or night trains SE Asia is the place for cheap massages. You'll just have to get a long one to cover the extra square footage. And your feet might hang off the table. Again, more laughs :) Getting a great 90 minute massage for $10 is nice. Of the dozens of massages, these two spas were particularly incredible: in Bangkok, in Hanoi (the Omamori spa is a teaching school which trains blind people to be massage therapists so it's doubly awesome). If you're thinking of getting a long massage and the place seems a bit, uh, untrained, get a 30 minute foot massage and see how they do. There is always tomorrow. 

Eating

It's not hard to eat well in SE Asia. Obviously noodle soups are the big draw. I found that whenever a place tries to cater to foreign tastes it's sad for everyone. I try to eat where locals eat. If I come across a stall that's obviously popular I hover and check out what people are having. Then grab a tiny seat and let the pantomimes begin. "Two" of "that" please. 

In Vietnam pho is more of a breakfast meal so great stalls are out early but close early too. Then they open up again at night. Banh Mi during the day makes a lot of sense.

We seem to end up at a lot of spots like this where they are a bit surprised to see us. Take a bite of the pepper then a mouthful of soup. Repeat.

 Hoi An Noodles!
Often the only ones, always an adventure. Hoi An.
Hoi An Street Food
These pan fried taco things were amazing. Hoi An.

There is no shortage of "the best bowl of soup you ever had" (for $2!) on pretty much every block. 

Alex Red Stool Soup, tall guy problems, mens tall tees Fried greens in bangkok
Prepare for tiny stools in all the places. Mui Ne street stall.
Wilted greens compressed into a cake and deep fried. 

Hanoi Soup
Of all the street pho we ate in Vietnam this one in Hanoi was our favourite. 
She is right here is you want to try it!

We made a point of eating at Jai Fai, recently made famous by Netflix shows Somebody Feed Phil and Jay Fai. She's sort of the queen of Bangkok street food, earning a Michelin star in 2018, she is 74 and cooking every day in her iconic goggles. You have to turn up at 11am and put your name on the list to eat there that day. It was hands down the most expensive meal we ate the entire trip. And while it was exciting to do this thing we learned about online, I wasn't that excited. Street food is fun because it's super random and there's an element of chance and commitment involved when you decide to try something unfamiliar on the street. It's cheap and fun and exploratory. I prefer not to follow my phone just to end up in line with a bunch of westerners.

Jay Fai Herself!
Jay Fai working away!
Jay Fai List Jay Fai Meal
The infamous list. So many good things.

Many people who turn up at Jay Fai to get on the list end up eating at the stall next door, Which. Is. Amazing. And people eat there like it's a consolation prize, grumbling through their epic $2 meal in preparation for the main event. This is traveling in bad faith. That meal was the main event! Just because the lady next door wasn't on TV doesn't mean the food not recommended by the internet isn't great too. Follow your own feet and have an actual adventure. 

I wish more people had taken Bourdain to heart: great food is where you find it. It can be cheap, it can be expensive; either way it's everywhere. Open your heart to see what happens. Something can be awesome without the internet telling you so.

But if you're a so-called foodie and Jay Fai got you out the door and into the bigger world then fuck yeah welcome! Now go explore weird stuff. It's around every corner. For every traditional Thai/Vietnamese dish you think you know there are a dozen you don't.

Definitely my least favourite place: Ban Ah/ Golden Bridge

Custom Clothes In Hoi An

If you're a Navas guy and you're reading this blog then you know how hard it can be to find clothes. Hoi An is world famous for custom suits. So I got some clothes made and a pair of shoes. Everything is made nearby and you can be in and out in three days (measure on day 1, first fitting on day 2, final fitting on day 3). 

Measured for shoes at Friendly Shoe Shop Hoi An Finished custom shoes at Friendly Shoe shop Hoi An
Getting measured for custom shoes at Friendly Shoe Shop in Hoi An The finished product two days later!
Kimmy Custom Tailor Hoi An Kimmy Custom Tailor Hoi An
Getting tough love at Kimmy Custom Tailor in Hoi An
Kimmy's also makes amazing women's clothes too!

Hoi An by the river is shockingly touristy. Everything south of the street Kimmy Tailor is the old town, which is super fun to wander. The closer you get to the river the more touristy it gets. Lots of guides showing hordes of people what to look at and when to ooh and aah. We chose to do shots of banana rum with the bar staff who I'm pretty sure had never partied with customers before.

Souvenirs

That's a good segue to souvenirs. Any season traveler will tell you not to buy a souvenir the first time you encounter it. Chances are it's mass produced and after you fail to bargain effectively for it you will proceed to see it en masse at every store you go by.

IF you see something you like, drop a google maps favourite point there, and go about your day. If you continue wandering and that thing doesn't turn up then go back to that spot and get it. 

This is what I did in Hanoi. I had this idea that I'd get a painting for my house. Hanoi is full of painting shops full of canvases of all different kinds. And as I flipped through them a pattern emerged: lots of themes with lots of variations, probably made in a few giant factories. But I did see something on the wall that really caught my attention - so I took a discreet photo of it and dropped a Google pin so I could find my way back to that store in the maze of Hanoi old town streets. Turns out in dozens and dozens of stores that painting doesn't exist anywhere else. I continued to think about that particular painting. So I went back and bought it. 

Hanoi Painting Hanoi Painting Hanoi Painting Hung
On the wall in the shop Rolled up in the tube Stretched on a fresh canvas and hung up at home

They took it off the frame and rolled it up. I carried that damn PVC bazooka for nearly three weeks but it was worth it to see it on my wall!

Big takeaways

  1. Follow your gut to visit fun places. If it's not in the guide book that's often a good sign. People flock to places they see tagged in social media and then those places get overrun. Established traveler culture can help you get grounded in a new place but then makes it difficult to get to the real culture. I don't want to eat food that someone thinks a westerner would like. I want to eat what the locals eat!
    The best adventure can be a little thing that happens on the street. Fixating on big destinations often misses the point. The bigger the more well known the destination likely the more difficult it will be to see that place the way you want to see it.
  2. Guide books are suggestions. You get to decide what's worth seeing. Follow your feet not the backpacker crowd.
  3. Do what locals do.
  4. Most people are friendly and want you to have a good time. But always be careful. 
  5. Be careful with salads and water. 
    1. Be diligent about water/vegetables/ice/hygiene to avoid getting sick. In Vietnam if the ice is a hollow cylinder then it's industrially produced which means it's made from purified water.
      We brought some collapsible water bottles and CLO2 drops. This way we could treat clear tap water at the guest house and save a few bottles every day. 
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