It’s nothing wildly original, but I always LOVED South-East Asia, ever since I first visited Vietnam in 1994. It was my first holidays beyond Europe or the Mediterranean sea. Vietnam had just opened to the world, but it was still a land out of time, that hadn’t changed much since 1975, with a lot going further back to French Indochine or to times immemorial. That trip was an initiation, almost a mystical experience, something I will never forget. From then on I was hooked. Just after I got my first real job, my first holidays were to Phuket, Thailand. I thought I had discovered paradise. Phuket was very different at the time, pre-tsunami, and it had EVERYTHING. Green jungle, white beaches, turquoise sea, still pristine coral reefs and colourful fishes under the water, glorious sun and occasional warm showers of rain above. The people were beautiful and incredibly nice. Their religion, though everywhere, was peaceful and tolerant. Everything was both more densely vibrant with life and more relaxed. And everything seemed so cheap and easy. I tried other places, like the Red Sea, Egypt – it wasn’t the same. No other place on Earth can compare. South-East Asia as a whole is the best part of the world, period. One day I would find a way to stay there for good, I thought every time I had to go back to grey and cold Europe.
When I quit my job for my one-year-round-the-world trip ten years ago, I knew most of my time would be spent in South-East Asia. I loved South America, though – but I preferred Bali, or Bangkok. So when I decided I was going to reclaim my life and get the hell out of Switzerland there was no question where I was planning to go.
At first I had thought of Phuket, Thailand, because that was the place I knew best, so I first settled here for a few months, to go through the whole administrative process before I could get my money. Thailand is probably the most economically developed country of the area (with the exception of Singapore), and the offer in terms of touristic infrastructures is already above and beyond the demand. So what could I be doing there? Opening a bar or a guesthouse was not an option – they have already way too many, everywhere, and building thousands more. So I had that idea of a craft brewery – everybody loves beer, tourists drink LOADS of beer, and a few of them would probably enjoy having some choices and diversity outside of industrial lager, I figured, and I thought that was something I could see myself doing – though I had actually never done it. It was a last minute idea, too late to actually learn the trade. Which would have been a major obstacle if… but more about this another day.
After three months in Phuket, one EXTREMELY unpleasant experience with the police (I will come back to this too), a few eye-opening discussions with Westerners who had settled here… I knew it was not going to be Thailand, a country that is definitely not what it pretends to be. Behind the amazing holidays postcard, the golden luxury of the temples, that all-pervasive elaborate glittery Thai aesthetics, there is a very dark and disturbing reality of general corruption, brutality, totalitarian propaganda (that insane cult of the King!), extreme conformism and deep dislike of “aliens”, who are only supposed to spend as much as possible then get out. You certainly can find some of this in all other South-East Asian countries, but I think Thailand is the most extreme case. They make it extremely clear that foreigners are NOT welcome anymore, unless they are 1. short-term tourists, 2. wealthy pensioners.
I knew the Philippines since I had once travelled to El Nido, Palawan for some unforgettably perfect holidays six years ago. It was like rediscovering Phuket the first time around – but better. The Bacuit Bay has to be one of the most amazing site on Earth, on par with Halong Bay in Vietnam. Philippines has so many islands, so many pristine beaches that it’s impossible to deface all of them with huge resorts, jetskis and mass tourism. So it seemed like a logical choice. I embarked on a recon tour around Christmas and New Year’s Eve.