Back in the USA. It feels nice. I don’t know why I feel like making rice.
I’ve been home for over a week now, and I feel pressed to write my conclusions before my short trip to Asia gets too far in the past. I knew while traveling that the ratio of stimuli to reflection time was way too much to way too little. The lessons learned from the trip would come out gradually after I came home. I was right. The conclusions started flowing as though a dam burst and now I have to clean up the aftermath. Showing the photos to folks helps me pull together conclusions about the trip, conclusions both for the trip as a whole and for the individual places I visited. If any of you venture to South East Asia, I hope these thoughts can serve you as advice for how best to plan.
Six weeks is simultaneously too short and too long to do the trip we did. On the one hand, we only got a taste of South East Asia. We dipped our toes, we didn’t dunk. There are so many more activties, so many more places to go. We spent a month in Thailand and didn’t even skim the surface of all there is to do there, whether as a tourist on vacation or as a traveler trying to find the real Thailand. There are hundreds of beaches in Thailand, and we only saw three. Tales from Chiang Mai and the northern mountains came from every other starry-eyed traveler, but we were unable to follow their advice and go up there because of time constraints. In this sense, the trip felt too short. On the other hand, though, we covered an enormous distance for six weeks, which, though impressive in retrospect, felt like a whirlwind at the time. We moved every few days, and rarely got a chance to meet many people, observe what normal life is like for residents, and really get to enjoy the surrounding areas. Instead we came to deserve our backpacker’s status, and kept moving, despite our growing exhaustion. It gets hard, moving to new places every few days without a break. It wears you down. Given this feeling, six weeks felt like too long. Considering these conflicting predicaments, we either should have stayed longer to cover that distance, or just picked one country to tackle in our six weeks. In the future, I think the rest of South East Asia could be explored in three-week stints. It wouldn’t disrupt life at home too much, and it would allow you sufficient time to do an equal amount of resting an exploration.
This trip to Asia took me by surprise in the sense that it was unlike everywhere else I’ve travelled, places I could figure out my itinerary as I went along without too much difficulty. Looking back, we should have made more decisions ahead of time, given how short the trip was for the distance. My travelling buddies and I figured we would just ask for advice on what activties to pick once we got there. The Lonely Planet overwhelmed us with the number of cool activities it listed, everything from kayaking Halong Bay to Rock Climbing in Krabi to riding elephants in Chiang Mai to boating through the floating markets of Bangkok. They all sounded good. We had no clue how to organize this trip. We were pretty proud of ourselves when we finally decided to look at a map of Southeast Asia and draw a circle through it and call that an intinerary. (Incidentally, it turned out that we weren’t too far off with this crude method, as most of the travellers we met had a very similar circle in mind.) Needless to say, we weren’t even close to completing this circle in six weeks. Part of this, however, was not our fault. What shocked me in particular was how difficult it was to get advice, particularly from people in the tourist industry. In most of the places we visited, you couldn’t trust the locals for advice. You never knew if they recommended you to a legitimately good place, or just some place where their friends worked, or some place where they would get commission. I can’t tell you how many taxis and tuk tuks we took that wanted to take us to places we didn’t request. In Cambodia, our tuk tuk driver took us to three different guesthouses before he finally, and begrudgingly, took us to the hostel we originally requested. In Vietnam, the streets of the old quarter are checkered with tourist agencies booking tours that all looked exactly the same on paper and we couldn’t for the life of us figure out how they different apart from price. It turned out they didn’t differ at all because the all were the same tour. Everyone on our boat had booked the tour at a different place and at different prices, a fact that made us all realize it was a giant conspiracy. This kind of thing happened so frequently we felt the need to be constantly on our guard, even when people were acting genuinely kind. I always felt terrible whenever we came across a person who was not trying to take advantage of us, because we had to address them at a disinterested distance, and sometimes accidentally came across as downright rude. I hated this, but it was a necessary caution. Of course, the overall effect of the inability to trust people was that a lot of our travel time got sucked into logistics and buses that took too long. In spots, we were only able to figure out where we were because, by the Grace of God, there were other, more knowledgeable Westerners there who could point us in the right direction. Lesson learned: Read more before hand. Oh, and get better maps.
Another lesson learned, albeit, a happier one, was to relax. We were so nervous before this trip, nervous about disease and things like abduction into the sex trade. Granted, there are legitimate concerns to take into account and have in your mind as you travel through these places. Then again, it is rare in life to find places where you can be completely at ease. Thailand may have riots on occasion, but the South Side of Chicago is far more dangerous on a regular basis. I realize, of course, that this reasoning probably doesn’t soothe my grandmother much, but it nonetheless puts things into perspective. On the South Side, don’t walk alone at the dead of night, or else you might get mugged. Easy to remember. In Thailand, if you see someone wearing a red or yellow shirt, walk the other way. Rules for common sense living exist everywhere, and it doesn’t pay to worry excessively just because the rules differ slightly from place to place. Most of the time we were surrounded by people, Westerners included. In such populated areas the biggest risk we faced was being financially ripped off, which did happen but never for large amounts. Now, if we had decided to venture into the heart of impoverished Phnom Phen for an adrenaline rush, I wouldn’t have this lax attitude. But we’re not dumb. To a certain extent, and without applying this assurance to liberally, I think we can rely on our streetsmarts most of the time without letting anxiety get in the way of enjoying such beautiful places.
Many thoughts to come. Stay tuned.