December 19, 2012

70 Days In Southeast Asia

ON SOUTHEAST ASIA…
A very dear friend of mine told me before we came here, "You will feel that anything is possible in these places." Southeast Asians are innovative and savvy, but sometimes in very antiquated ways. Their exotic food, architecture, religions, style of dress, and unusual customs do leave a lasting impression of inspiration. 


That said, these places are not exactly easy to travel through. The language barrier, road conditions, traffic, heat, hassle-factor, and ethical code can all be a challenge. We're glad we've come here now…because later in life when we want to take a vacation from work, we don't want to have to work at our vacation.

As with other areas of the world, we're always amazed at how they assign values much differently than we do at home. In Thailand, an hour massage costs the same as a load of laundry. Once we were in a country for just a few days, we picked up enough to play their game. All of a sudden instead of the sales person telling us a price, we would tell them the price that we knew was appropriate. They almost always accepted our bid.

The majority of tourists in Southeast Asia are European...lots of French, German and Dutch abound. But the common denominator for communication is English. So it got us thinking, can you imagine going on vacation and having to speak your second language the entire time?  That would be so tiring! We had a hard enough time understanding Asian English…what about a French person trying to comprehend what a Vietnamese person is saying in English?

Among the four countries we have observed similarities…most notably the burning of trash. However culturally speaking, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos have the most in common. Vietnam is the outlier with much stronger ties to China. For some deranged reason, Laos and Cambodia were actually more expensive than Thailand and Vietnam. They may be dirt poor, but they certainly know how to grossly overcharge tourists.

I can't imagine trying to take a carbon-neutral trip to Asia. You'd have to donate your entire life savings to make up for the smog coming out of these vehicles. Here's a quick introduction to some of the more unusual forms of transportation we've taken:

Tuk tuk (Thailand, Laos, Cambodia) – 3-wheeled motorcycle with a carriage strapped to the back 


Songthew (Thailand) – pick-up truck with a roof and two facing benches in the back.


Cyclo (Vietnam) – 3-wheeled bicycle with a seat either in front of or behind the peddler. 


Sometimes we've felt that we were living in a real life game of Mario Cart…Southeast Asia edition. We got to pick our board: Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, or Vietnam. We got to pick our vehicle: tuk tuk, songthew, cyclo, motorbike, taxi, minivan, bus. And then we were off! We raced around the streets, weaving in and out of traffic, passing and being passed.

Vietnam gets the award for the most people on one motorbike…5. It's now a law that adults have to wear motorcycle helmets, but kids? No helmet, no big deal. The kids look like dogs who stick their heads out the window. They just peer around in awe taking in the world around them.


When walking through traffic we learned to just pick a line and GO! No slowing down, hesitating, or changing course. They would adjust to us, and it was scary every time.


Whenever there is a traffic accident, they don't put out cones or flares. Instead they lay tree branches on the road.

Sanity is not always a top priority. Our Dutch friend Gerard snapped this unbelievable picture on our boat trip down the Mekong in Laos. Fish for dinner, anyone?


We rarely saw an overweight person. There is hardly any graffiti. They fill their water bottles up to the VERY top. They are short…Steve has hit his head too many times to remember and has actually drawn blood about 5 times.

They're so afraid of the sun that on long bus rides they'll cover up their windows with curtains, even if it means missing the entire journey.

We watched a family hold each other tight and just bawl as they said goodbye to one of their loved ones at the airport in Laos. It absolutely broke my heart. Many of these people have nothing but family. Unlike in Bolivia where the men are nonexistent and you don't even see mothers interacting with their children, it was evident how strong the family ties are in Asia.

SOUTHEAST ASIA VS. SOUTH AMERICA...
In many ways what we've seen in Southeast Asia is very similar to South America…stray dogs, hand labor in rural farms, janky sidewalks, backpackers following the exact same trail, and hawkers uncomfortably staring at us thinking that this brilliant tactic is going to close the sale.

In other ways it's completely different from South America. The big cities are more advanced. We have worried about getting hit by traffic, but we have never once felt fear of crime. We think that Southeast Asia felt safer because night markets and eating outside on the streets are so common in their culture. In South America, if people were roaming the streets at night, it's because they were up to no good.

In the battle of the developing continents, the winners are…

  -  Harm by violence: South America
  -  Harm by traffic: Southeast Asia
  -  Air pollution: Southeast Asia
  -  Garbage: Southeast Asia
  -  Public urination: South America
  -  Cockroaches: Southeast Asia
  -  Family fun: Southeast Asia
  -  Stray dogs: South America
  -  Friendliest: Southeast Asia
  -  Biggest scams: Southeast Asia
  -  Biggest thieves: South America
  -  Most religious: South America 
  -  More expensive: South America
  -  More English: Southeast Asia
  -  Hardest workers: Southeast Asia
  -  Most beautiful landscapes: South America
  -  Best food: Southeast Asia

We have debated many times how our impressions of these continents would differ if we had done Southeast Asia at the beginning of our trip and South America at the end. Certainly we are more experienced now, and that has affected our experiences in ways we can't really understand.

ON OUR STATE OF WELL-BEING…
After 9 months on the road we felt we had really begun to master the tricks of traveling. We knew how to get around efficiently and how to make the right choices for us. That is, until we got to Southeast Asia. Things were just different here, and we were thrown back to day 1 as we tried to figure it all out. We made a lot of mistakes, and it was personally really frustrating. We took the Laos cities out of order and ended up back tracking. We picked the wrong islands in Thailand and paid for it with sub-par landscape and bad weather. We missed opportunities in Vietnam because we didn't have our days planned far enough in advance. It's not that any of these were a huge deal, but we just felt as though we should have known better by this point.

We are excited to announce that we were not victims of a stray dog bite! This happened to two of our friends while on bicycles and they had to go through rabies vaccinations during their vacations. We heard that temple dogs were the most desperate.

Before we started our trip we said we wanted to live like kings in Southeast Asia. Ha! I wouldn't go that far! There are some very upscale hotels and restaurants that are way out of our league. Instead I will say that we've been well-taken-care-of backpackers. We have stayed in private rooms, eaten at nice restaurants, and been able to afford the services of a guide or driver for the entire day if we wanted. I'm proud to say that we didn't always take the easy way out. As always, eating, traveling, and shopping like a local provided a more genuine (if not memorable) experience.


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