Dataran Merdeka tour guide, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Image courtesy Mike Aquino.
You miss the intimacy, the authenticity of Southeast Asia's cities if you only see them from aboard a tour bus. How can you best appreciate the scale of local historical buildings; the aroma and flavor of the street food; the busy-ness of the narrow market lanes? A bus or car-and-driver simply won't cut it; you'll need to get off the ride and explore by foot.
The three experiences listed below represent some of the best walking experiences you can find, in three of Southeast Asia's most historic cities. You'll be exposed to the local character, the best of the country's culture, and the real soul of each of these cities – all by giving up the ride and hitting the streets.
Colonial History on Foot: Dataran Merdeka, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Sultan Abdul Samad Building, Dataran Merdeka, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Image courtesy Mike Aquino.
Formerly the site of the Empire's administrative nerve center in Selangor, the buildings around the Kuala Lumpur field formerly known as the Padang served as the political, spiritual and social convergence point for the British in Malaya until independence was declared here on August 31, 1957. To commemorate the event, a Merdeka (Freedom) Parade is held here on August 31 every year.
The history of the British Empire in Kuala Lumpur can be taken in within the space of three or four hours, when you take the Kuala Lumpur city government's free Dataran Merdeka Heritage Walk.
The Long Bar, Royal Selangor Club, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Image courtesy Mike Aquino.
The tour makes the rounds of the numerous historic buildings around Dataran Merdeka, building up a comprehensive picture of Malaysian history from the tales told by its constituent parts: the Sultan Abdul Samad Building, a Mughal-style colonial administration building that housed the British colonial bureaucracy; the Cathedral of Saint Mary, a small, early-Gothic structure where the British would go to church; the Royal Selangor Club, a men's only club for drinking and socializing; and the National Textile Museum, a former railways building that now houses a number of air-conditioned exhibits showcasing the wardrobe arts from all across Malaysia.
Eat, Listen, Walk – a Culture/Culinary Tour of Joo Chiat, Singapore
Betel Box Tour’s guide explaining local hawker food to tourists. Image courtesy Mike Aquino.
Singapore's Katong neighborhood - of which Joo Chiat is its most famous street - was long known as the heartland for the nation's Peranakan community. In recent years, Joo Chiat has escaped the rapid modernization that has accompanied Singapore's march into the 21st century, with over 900 shophouses and buildings preserved by local conservation laws.
The trade in these shophouses caters more to locals than to tourists, although some degree of gentrification has taken hold. Bubble-tea shops and boutique bakeries coexist alongside dry goods stores, traditional Chinese medicine halls and Malay clothes shops.
To get elbows-deep into the aromatic, authentic mess of shops and homes around Joo Chiat, you'll need to join one of the area's most popular attractions, an award-winning walking tour hosted by the local Betel Box Tours.
Joo Chiat, Singapore in the daytime. Image courtesy Mike Aquino.
The tour focuses on the cuisine and culture of Joo Chiat where guests explore aspects of Singapore that tourists often bypass: public housing high-rises, fruit markets, and neighborhood restaurants. The tour doesn't ask for much: just a sense of adventure, comfortable walking shoes and a bottomless gullet.
For more on the long-running culinary tour of Joo Chiat, visit Betel Box Tours's official site to book a slot or to find out more of their other immersive tours.
Getting Lost in Viet Nam's Oldest City: Exploring the Old Quarter, Hanoi, Viet Nam
Motorcycle riders in the Old Quarter, Hanoi, Vietnam. Image courtesy of Andrea Schaffer/Creative Commons.
When visiting Viet Nam's capital Hanoi, you'll find its millennium-long history laid bare in its oldest, most character-filled district, the Old Quarter. Have yourself dropped off at Hoan Kiem Lake (the beating, if wet, heart of Hanoi) and from the red bridge, cross the street and lose yourself in the Old Quarter's maze of streets, shopping, and dining.
The Old Quarter is shaped like a triangle, with streets named after the goods sold in them (not so much now as it was several hundred years ago). The place is ancient, and the age does show in some places, but overall the impression you get is a clean albeit swarming retail area, with narrow sidewalks and persistent shopkeepers imploring you to check out their stuff; the shops are mostly full of cheap knockoffs with some real finds amidst the dross.
Conical hat & basket vendor in the Old Quarter, Hanoi, Vietnam. Image courtesy Chris Goldberg/Creative Commons.
What can you buy in the Old Quarter? Probably everything. Silk shirts, tailored suits, stuffed toys, suitcases, kitschy souvenir T-shirts, lacquerware. One afternoon isn’t enough, you’ll probably want to get lost here for several afternoons in succession.
Quick tip – if you want to dicker, pay in VN dong and not US dollars. This gives you a lot of latitude to talk the price down a bit. And remember to smile and be good-natured with the negotiation – the shopkeepers are hard-working folk selling real objects of value (well, some of them anyway), and smiling while you bargain makes the experience a pleasure for both of you.