Before David and I head off to Europe to continue our adventure, I have some reflections to share on Southeast Asia.
Many I have spoken with after our travels in Asia think that David and I are very brave for having traveled there. They see SE Asia as a dangerous place. But it’s really not true. SE Asia is a beautiful area of the world. The people are among the most friendly, generous and helpful people I have ever met. If you travel to SE Asia and have any meaningful contact with the people there, you won’t be able to help but leave with a heart filled with love.
It is very poor in certain areas of SE Asia and so food safety and sanitation are concerns. But it is not a dangerous place. At least, that was not our experience. The culture is different there, so that can be intimidating. But, it is also wonderful to experience new cultures and different ways to live. I hope some of our experiences have made SE Asia more approachable to others. When we set off on this trip, I was afraid of SE Asia too, and now I would recommend it to anyone open to travel.
DIFFERENCES IN CULTURE
In some ways, the culture in SE Asia is very different from our culture back in the States. Acceptable clothing is different, bathrooms are different. Food, sanitation, access to drinking water, greetings, transportation – these are all different. But you get used to it. And then it’s cool and fun and you realize how resilient and adaptable you are. And that is a lovely lesson.
Perhaps the most difficult thing to get used to in SE Asia is sanitation. We take for granted our public trash collection and access to clean drinking water. In many areas of SE Asia you see litter everywhere or smell the burning of trash. You really begin to appreciate the public works systems in the developed world. You also begin to appreciate drinking water in a different way. In SE Asia, you cannot drink water from the tap or wash your fresh fruits and veggies. You have to use bottled water. What a luxury we have back home. We have perfectly clean drinking water right from our faucets!
Other differences are easier to get used to. SE Asians are a more conservatively dressed culture – so you learn to cover you shoulders and knees. It is considered rude to touch in public, so you learn not to hold hands or kiss in front of others. You also learn a new way to greet – instead of shaking hands, hugging, or kissing a cheek to greet each other, you bow your head and clasp your hands at your heart.
You also always always always take off your shoes before entering into a temple or someone’s home. This is easy to remember for everyone except for me. I don’t know why I had such a hard time remembering this one!
Bathrooms also have funny differences. For one, squatting toilets are more common in SE Asia. Although, probably because of the large tourist culture, western sitting toilets are also common. With squatting or western toilets, often you find that they do not have a functioning flush, instead there is a bucket of water or water basin beside the toilet used to flush. Also, toilet paper is not a common amenity. You should carry your own. Or if you’re feeling adventurous, you can use the hose that is typically beside the toilet. Another bathroom difference is that the toilet and showering experience are not separate. Toilets and showers are often right beside each other (i.e. you could sit on the toilet and take a shower at the same time). Great space-saving design, but also a bit weird and the toilet seat was never dry, so, not my favorite.
As I mentioned before, SE Asians are very friendly and helpful people. Thai people are known for their easy smile. But I felt that across SE Asia, most people greeted you warmly with a smile on their face. And they are also very helpful. If we were ever a little turned around, most often someone would ask us if we needed help. Being the cautious travelers that we are, we were always a bit skeptical of the offered help, but most often it was genuine. I can remember only twice on this trip where someone was trying to scheme us – once in Thailand where a man tried to con us into an expensive ride and once in Cambodia when our taxi driver took us to the unofficial Cambodian border and refused to take us to the true Cambodian border (all bets are off at the Cambodian border – this is schemer central!).
GETTING OFF THE BANANA PANCAKE TRAIL
It is easy to find yourself on the banana pancake trail while you travel SE Asia. The tourist track is often referred to as the banana pancake trail because everywhere there are tourists, there are also vendors selling delicious banana crepes.
Most all countries we traveled have a well established tourist culture. They cater to western visitors. When you’re in this tourist culture, you’re very far removed from the local culture. You sit at restaurants and look around, and you see only western faces dining beside you. You receive your menu in English. It’s all very inauthentic.
To get off the tourist trail, you must find a way to be with the locals. This is very challenging because where the locals live and dine is far from where tourists would be. But we found a way to do it – work trades. You volunteer with locals and you get to experience the local culture. You live, work and eat with local people, and it is really great. It can be hard work, it can be uncomfortable living situations, but it’s real, and so rewarding. The people you meet at these work trades really touch your heart.
ALL IN ALL
I loved Southeast Asia! There is a simplicity to life there that I fell in love with. And there is a warmth and authenticity to the people that reminds you to be a better person. To always smile, to be authentic, to be helpful. A piece of my heart will stay in SE Asia with all the wonderful people that we met.