Southeast Asian Capitals Tour

Again, this year, my wife and I did a fast-paced trip over the Christmas and New Year holidays.  We visited the capitals of multiple Southeast Asia countries.  Starting in Kuala Lumper, Malaysia, on Christmas day, moving to Yangon, Myanmar; Hanoi, Vietnam, Vientiane, Laos; and wrapping up in Bangkok, Thailand.   The order was due to the availability of flights between countries and into/out of Asia. 

This was not the optional or desired routing but was reasonably inexpensive and available for our window. Our flights took us from  Hartford> Chicago>Tokyo>Kualau Lumper>Yangon>Hanoi>Vientiane>Bankgok>Tokyo>Washington DC>Hartford, and we felt every mile of it.

What stood out?

Commercialized Christmas

Nowadays, it seems that everywhere has some commercialized Christmas going on. In every country we visited, there were small trees and bulbs. Lights and Christmas music and, of course, sales.  With only about 9% of the population being Christian and the majority practicing Islam (63.5%) followed by Buddism (18.7% ), it was surprisingly festive.  In Malaysia, Christmas Day is a national holiday, so many people are at one of the shopping malls viewing the holiday lights, shopping, and eating.  All good restaurants were booked for family holiday dinners on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. 

Appreciation for Visiting

I felt a tremendous and legitimate appreciation from the local people for visiting a few of these countries, especially Myanmar and Laos. Everywhere, from the hotel to the restaurants to a few temple staff, all thanked us for visiting, especially when they learned we were from the US. Many were curious what we thought of the country and city and wanted to make sure that we were enjoying our tip and hoped we would tell others about our visit.

Payment Options

This was an exciting contrast. There is a significant drive for cashless payments and most businesses took two or three local cashless apps for payment. We could not use them because we had no account with any of those local banks.

Larger shops and hotels and some restaurants would take credit cards. Many have promotional signs for Visa, which we never had a problem using. Some would list Master Card and a few took the Japanese JCB.  Other than in the major hotels, American Express was nonexistent or had a 6 to 8% surcharge. In Laos and Myanmar, having local currency was required.

Airport ATMs charge astronomical fees, so we avoided them. Some hotels had ATMs or they were close by. In Laos, a few locations had more than a dozen ATMs next to each other. We used a currency exchange vendor near our hotel in Myanmar and Laos. They gave us a good rate due to having pristine currency.

Our only real payment challenge was booking our flights directly with Myanmar Airlines.   After I had entered my credit card, the site was spinning. Their online support told me I should not be having a problem and that it must be my card, and they suggested I email the website team. The web team told me they don’t take US credit cards. I suggested they note that on the website or detect and flag my IP – no response.

I had to arrange flights with a local Yangon tour operator to ensure we had flights over a busy holiday weekend.  Despite their site saying they take credit cards, we could not pay them with them. We needed a wire transfer, and I needed to do it ASAP to keep the reservation. Wonderful, this was at 11 pm on a Friday night during a long weekend when the banks would be closed on Monday. Fortunately, I could initiate the transfer on Saturday morning with Chase, but it was a challenge proving that Monday was a bank holiday and they would not receive the transfer until Tuesday.

Food is Amazing

The food everywhere was amazing and ridiculously inexpensive. It was almost always fresh and heavy with vegetables and lots of flavor. We did not have a bad meal anywhere. We try to eat like locals wherever we go. Our guides took us to places they would go with their families. In KL, we went to a neighborhood buffet where the guide said families and local workers would visit. There was an amazing selection of items so we could sample many dishes. It was around $5 for the meal.

Clean and Crisp Notes

It was either cash or cashless apps, typically from a prominent local bank.  We did not find any locations that used Apple or Google Pay.   While many hotels, larger restaurants, and some taxis took credit cards, most did so reluctantly or with a surcharge.  We did find the occasional ATM that worked, and there were numerous exchange kiosks in central locations. 

The tour operator in Yangon told us to bring plenty of cash in $100 and $50 bills and ensure it is the crispest, newest, and, without any markings.  In every case, the exchange rate was significantly better for these bills, and if they were not perfect, I would ask you to switch them to better ones.  The irony was they wanted crisp and fresh, but what you got back was very much not so, especially the smaller bills. 

Key Cultural Sites

These capitals are relatively small, and most of the key sites are close to each other, so if you are adventurous and willing to walk and take local transport, you don’t need to book a tour unless you want many details about each site. For example, in Veintein, we did book a half-day tour. We saw all of the tour locations on our first afternoon on our own. We mentioned this to the guide the day before, and he took us to a number of smaller places.

Influencer Frustration

The lack of respect and general courtesy by “influencers,” especially the wannabees, frustrates me. Some of these locations are religiously sacred and/or hundreds if not thousands of years old, so you should not be climbing on them to get some cool pictures. In a few places, there were enablers to help them with their quest for something different. In KL, we went to Batu Caves, where a few people had bags of snacks and other items for influencers to enrage or entice the monkeys. In other places, they either prevent a line from moving when they want to do their photoshoot or they and their entourage push their way around those who have been patiently waiting.

Google Fi

Google Fi Rocks – Google Fi worked almost perfectly.  We could not get a connection in Myanmar (as expected), and while Motoko did not have a problem in Vietnam, I had to select a provider manually.  Google Fi was typically connected by the time we left the airport and did not have any issues.  In Yangon, our tour guide offered us a data SIM for my Huawei Mifi card, but we decided we would just use WIFI at the hotel.