Last summer, a few weeks into our travels abroad I emptied my pockets and laid out all the different tickets, currencies, and odds and ends that I had accumulated along the way (Pocket Litter). Two continents and over 6-months of travel later this is what the picture looks like..
I feel like I was writing about our second month just yesterday and here we are at the close of our third and final month in Asia. Looking back I can’t believe how much we’ve changed over the last three months here.
It took us a while to get over the culture shock at first. In Asia everything was different and in the first few days we were overwhelmed at all the adjustments we would need to make. Just before getting to Asia we spent 3 weeks in Spain where the cities have large sidewalks, public transportation, and supermarkets with entire aisles dedicated to things like, wine, cheese and chorizo. In Asia the sidewalks disappeared, public transportation became confusing and all the comfort foods we enjoyed in Europe were now imported and triple the western price.
Now it seems silly. Southeast Asia completely surpassed our expectations. It’s a wonderful, livable and (mostly) friendly place and I can’t help but feel a little guilt for our initial trepidations, though not all of them were our fault. Back home before the trip all talk of Southeast Asia was accompanied with a heavy dose of paranoia, like during a terrifying visit to the health clinic to get our shots. The doctor cringed when we failed to provide a concrete itinerary and she described places like Chiang Mai as rural and exotic. She even went so far as to prescribe malaria pills specifically for that destination. The scolding stopped only after she assured us that we would definitely sustain severe injuries in a motorbike accident and likely get robbed at least once and probably at gunpoint. Yikes!
My expectations were set on a jungle outpost in an Asian version of the wild west. The reality is that Chiang Mai is one of our favorite places in the entire world and has areas that are cleaner, safer and more modern than in New York or Los Angeles. For example, our favorite coffee shop there would be the envy of any in Williamsburg and is located around the block from a Ducati dealer. Oh and the coffee – the best we’ve had in the entire world – is only $2 USD.
I guess what has surprised me the most is how easily the western things I thought we would miss became irrelevant or replaced. One of our favorite spots on Koh Lanta called Shanti Shanti sits on stilts over water is run by a friendly French expat and his staff. Like any self-respecting French man on the island he imports and serves wines from France. It’s a rare comfort from home in this part of the world, but one that’s easy to ignore given that the alternative is a fresh strawberry-watermelon smoothie with black pepper for 1/3 the cost.
Three Months ago we were enjoying our final days in Europe and I remember back then thinking ahead to the culture shock we would surely feel arriving in Southeast Asia. Now after more than 100 days here I can’t help but feel like we’re in for a good deal of reverse culture shock when we get back home. Leaving Asia means saying goodbye to comically low prices, friendly people, fresh and organic food, amazing weather and other-worldly landscapes. I never thought I would say this but family, friends, and a few comforts aside, I think that the adjustments coming home will be harder than the ones we made coming here.
Before going abroad we took a two month road trip all around the United States. We listened to jazz in New Orleans, ate barbeque in Austin, and drank lots of wine in Sonoma, but aside from these local specialties and pastimes a lot of it felt the same. In Southeast Asia each place is distinctly unique from the ground up (not just because of a local food) and local customs often shape daily life to the point of inconvenience (from a western perspective). All of these things combine to make each place feel truly different and special and that is definitely what I will miss the most.
It was midday when we arrived at the elephant camp an hour north of Chiang Mai. Our guide for the day named “Off” gave us some background on the camp and its mission, which is to adopt and care for elephants that have been abused or overworked in logging camps. Each elephant has a dedicated mahout (elephant care taker) and aside from feeding time they roam freely. After this he explained that for safety we would need to change into denim jumpsuits so the elephants would recognize us.
Now that we were changed and looking ridiculous it was time to see the elephants. We left the main building on the compound and took a short walk up to a field where about 20 elephants of all sizes were waiting with their mahouts for us to feed them a snack of bananas and sugar cane. The smaller ones were bashful and cautiously accepted our presence while the larger elephants who knew the drill happily flapped there ears and and reached for us with their trunks. Bananas – bunches of a dozen or so, peals included – were the most coveted and it felt like handing out candy to kids on Halloween as the elephants happily chomped away.
After snack time, we were escorted to a clearing where two elephants waited with their mahouts. The larger bull elephant was happily scratching an itch by rubbing himself on a 50 foot tall tree, which shook like a sapling. This is where we were taught to ride and after learning a few commands we climbed up and started riding.
After a couple turns we were assigned our elephant for the afternoon named Nomi, or Lady Gaga as the mahouts affectionately referred to her. She sat down for us to get on and let out a colossal fart – possibly more, though lucky for us we weren’t on that side – only matched by her immense size. “Ohh lady gaga, she poo poo every time!” Off enthusiastically reassured us with his shrill thai accented voice as the other mahouts laughed. Not sure what to make of Nomi’s gesture, we hopped on and left the clearing with our group for a ride through the forest with the occasional stop for Nomi to grab some leaves along the way.
At the end of the ride we made our way to a small pond on and we’re given a bucket to bathe Nomi. We didn’t really need the bucket though as the elephants promptly made it a priority to start spraying each other and all of us with their trunks.
It’s been exactly a month since we left Bali and neither of us have yet to write very specifically about it. Our expectations were greater of Bali than any other place in Asia – we envisioned pristine beaches, epic scenery, and a rich culture and history. Its known as the island of the gods, how could we not have high hopes?
Bali has all of those wonderful things, but the reality is that they were hard for us to find. Indonesia doesn’t appear to have done a thing to accommodate the influx of tourism and it shows – litter is everywhere and trash cans are non-existent, most beaches are run down, and you will be asked if you need a taxi, massage, or dinner about 60 times during a 2 minute walk down the street. All major cultural attractions have high (for bali) entrance prices for westerners and local artisan shops are rapidly being replaced by cheap souvenir stores selling knockoff purses, Bintang t-shirts, and shot glasses. Locals aren’t really that friendly and the focus is on making money off tourism without regard for the long term impact. It’s definitely a place that I wish we could have visited years ago when things were quieter.
Much of the tourist crowd was brought on by the book Eat Pray Love, which is set in Ubud, the religious, artistic, and cultural center of the island. Its actually pretty funny. Hordes of wistful and semi-desperate looking, single western women crowd this place and wander the streets aimlessly in search of themselves. They’re seriously everywhere and we started to call them “eat-pray-lovers” as they might as well be carrying copies of the book for everyone to see. The upside is if you’re a single guy reading this, you know where to take your next holiday.
But for each bad thing brought on by tourism, Bali has such amazing pockets of authenticity and beauty that it’s easy to forget the issues. No place on our travels has given us such intensely disparate feelings.
I think the image that really sums it up is a one we’ve shared of a woman working in the rice fields just north of Ubud. It had just rained and she’s looking away from the camera across acres of rice fields towards her house and the mist rising from the mountains and jungle just beyond. It was one of the most stunning and peaceful landscapes we’ve ever seen and a moment that captures the essence of traditional Balinese life.
What we’ve yet to share until now is the image of her after she turned around and saw us looking ridiculous in bike helmets and blue ponchos as we essentially traipsed through her back yard. Her tired expression tells so much about Bali today and the opposing feelings it left us with. A beautiful place with traditions and experiences that as I write this makes me yearn to be back despite the compromises.
It’s like a fleeting summer romance where the happiness of each new and amazing experience is matched only by the sobering knowledge that it’ll be that much harder when it all ends. Bali offered us extremely rewarding experiences, but not without many reminders that these moments are scarce and slowly vanishing.
Our trip started at the Chiang Mai bus station just outside of town. We walked towards the ticket window past countless backpackers wearing elephant print balloon pants. One sat with his bare feet up strumming a ukulele, producing nothing but strange and disjointed noises impossible to be mistaken for music. Another, just beyond the nearest row of plastic seats twirled what looked like brightly patterned socks with weighted toes in a desperate attempt to look graceful and artistic like a ribbon dancer or gymnast. These people were trying so hard to fit into the backpacker subculture, which ironically is based on freedom and not trying to fit in. It just doesn’t make sense. I looked over at Bethany and saw her already sour expression from only a few hours of sleep the night before start to blend with confusion as she let out a quiet sigh and slowly shook her head. I love how after so much time together we have an unspoken way of knowing exactly what the other is thinking. After much confusion and frustration, which is par for the course at any Thai bus sation, we ultimately decided to take a taxi up to Pai.
Earlier that week we spent a day playing with elephants and asked our guide about the dangers of his job. The most dangerous thing he said is when a bull elephant secretes a thick, orange, hormonal substance from its temples (the official term is musth). No one knows exactly why or what causes it, but during this time the elephant is uncontrollable and will attack people, animals, and even other elephants without provocation. Nothing is safe and the only thing to do is chain the elephant away from the others until enough time has passed and he’s calmed down. Its fascinating to me that in nature there are these explosively powerful and mysterious substances that we know so little about. So why all the talk on elephants and this strange orange stuff? Well, on the road to Pai – 4 hours of harrowing switchback turns crossing a massive jungle mountain range – I’m convinced it that was this orange substance alone that fueled our driver, who completed the 4 hour drive in 2.5.
Now I haven’t actually described Pai yet, but that’s ok for two reasons.
First – The drive is actually as bad as everyone says. There is no easy or pleasant way to get there – private drivers are insane, buses are a mess, and most flights in are privately chartered. Getting to Pai is a serious investment of time and most people who visit northern Thailand stick to Chiang Mai.
Second (and most important) – Pai is a rare place that is exactly what it sets out to be. Unlike so many other places we’ve been in Asia Pai doesn’t waste it’s time trying to fit into something else – it just is, and that’s good enough.
Once we overcame the extreme nausea from the drive we found Pai to be a peaceful, relaxing place. The town is on a small river running through the floor of a valley with huge mountains on all sides. There is very little to do except to walk around the town, visit one of the many independent cafes or bars, and take in the scenery. The atmosphere is calm, lazy and contagious – even the stray dogs here all seem to move more slowly. It’s a really special place and we’re thankful to have invested the time to go.
Ever since our experience in Paris we approach new destinations with a little skepticism, mostly to keep our expectations in check. We’ve been lucky in our travels to have visited several places where within minutes of arriving we just know we’ll love it. There’s something about these places that just feels right, everything is balanced and perfect. Finding these places – oases in a desert of touristy and overrate destinations – is one of the most rewarding parts of our trip. Hua Hin, Thailand is NOT one of these places.
Like anyone considering a trip to Hua Hin it started in Bangkok. We had a little under a week to kill before our next booked flight and we’re looking for a change of pace from the big city for a few days. The “clean, sleepy, family-friendly” beach town of Hua Hin is only a 2-3 hour drive to the south and was way more practical than flying anywhere. It’s touted as a getaway for the well-to-do from Bangkok – the king even has a vacation home (palace) here. Our expectations were of a Thai Martha’s Vineyard or Nantucket – a quaint, upscale escape from the big city. The reality feels more like rockaway beach in queens – here’s why..
The People: I couldn’t take pictures, so allow me to describe the typical couple. Lets start with the man: He’s 50 but probably older, western, overweight, often covered in tattoos stretched beyond recognition, and shifty-eyed with a look of guilt shared only with those who’ve either just stolen something or farted in a crowded elevator. Now the lady: Mid 20′s, Thai, very basic English, half (or less) the weight of her man and dressed in a way that Bethany’s mom would definitely disapprove of. In beach towns like Pattaya these couples are as common as sand – which is why avoided it altogether. Sadly it seems Hua Hin has inherited some Pattaya seediness.
The Beach: Here’s a fun game that no one wants to play on a beach vacation. It’s called “what’s that?” the choices are: trash, poisonous jellyfish, or horse shit. Bethany and I took a walk on Hua Hin beach for a few miles and played this the entire way. Locals offering horse rides on the beach are abundant and many people sign up for a trot down the stretch of sand. Unfortunately there are no sanitary regulations / enforcement, so no one picks up after the horses. And then there are the jellyfish – it took a while before we saw the first one, but where there’s one there are many and sure enough they’re everywhere. Our time at the beach (and the guessing game) ended abruptly when we became distracted and both stepped within 6 inches of a round beached jellyfish the size of a Brooklyn style pizza.
The Food: Bottom line – It’s just not as good as it is anywhere else we’ve been in Thailand. Picture menus abound, prices are high (for Thailand) and tripadvisor lists multiple Irish pubs in the top 10 restaurants. On a raw, rainy New England day in late fall very little sounds better to me than a brew and some fish and chips, but not in 90 degree heat at the beach in Thailand.
So where does that leave us? If you’re one of the people I described above, buy tickets while they’re cheap and plan to stay a while. If not, avoid it. Stay put in the city or invest the time to get down to southern Thailand. It’s been almost 6 months since we left the states and we’ve come to realize that not everywhere we visit is a place we’ll want to return to. There’s no substitute for experience, good or bad, and Hua Hin is a lesson learned for us.
With the end of 2013 and beginning of 2014 I find myself saying I can’t believe how fast it’s gone by several times a day. That couldn’t be more true for how I feel about our time in Asia now that we’ve spent over two months on the continent. Our second month has shown Bethany and I a Southeast Asia that’s rougher around the edges than what we first experienced. Indonesia and Cambodia are just not that built up and face tough issues that countries like Thailand and Malaysia have long since resolved. The flip side though is that these countries have yet to inherit many of the annoyances brought on by over-tourism and in some parts remain truly authentic.
This month pushed our comfort zones more than any other this year. Our tolerances for lack of sleep, language gaps, rustic accommodations, scams, and (at times) perception of personal security were put to the test. It wasn’t always easy, but the experience was totally worth it. Here are some of the highlights and challenges we faced during our second month in Asia.
The People: In Bali we took a bike tour from the base of the Mt Batur volcano south toward Ubud through rustic villages, jungle and rice fields. Each time we entered a new village barefoot kids wearing tattered clothing and huge smiles would run up to the side of the road and start waving and pointing. A few reached out for high fives. Everyone was smiling and excited and proud to have new people visiting their village. Most kids in this rural part of the island had never seen western people. In some places we unintentionally became the center of attention with several people asking for pictures together. In Thailand many people smile, but some do so because they want you to visit their store or restaurant. Most people we encountered in Bali and Cambodia smile simply out of happiness, pride and the excitement of seeing a new face. Its a refreshingly unadulterated form of hospitality and a window into the simple, happy and peaceful lives that many people lead in Southeast Asia.
The Culture: Wandering the temples of Angkor Wat was one of the high points of the entire trip. We’ve been to The Acropolis, Roman Forum and cliff houses in the American south west – the beauty and sheer scale of Angkor Wat dwarfs them all. Combined. New temples are still being discovered in the nearby jungles, which only contributes to the mystery and excitement that we felt visiting. In Ubud it’s hard to walk down any street without stepping on the offerings of orchids and food laid out each morning and the smell of burning incense mixes with exotic flowers and lingers in the air. The air actually smells sweeter on Ubud’s quiet side streets than anywhere else on the island.
The Risks: Bethany’s mom, please stop reading here. Indonesia and Cambodia may be more culturally authentic, but they have far more risks and much greater consequences than anywhere we’ve been before. In Bangkok the worst issues were bag snatching and pick pocketing, in Phnom Penh it was armed robbery, which is unfortunately common, or worse. A relaxing night out can quickly become stressful when your tuk tuk driver takes you the long way back to your hotel through a desolate part of town past staring locals and your mind races and nerves build as the streets become darker and less familiar. Awareness and caution are prerequisites for travel in this part of the world and the truth is that virtually every risk is avoidable with a little common sense. It’s human nature to react more strongly to negative events than positive ones – for every horror story online there are thousands (likely more) of travelers that came back happy and healthy.
This month was one of opposing forces. Challenges and rewards. One day we’d worry about getting mugged in Phnom Penh, and the next we’d get to see a kid’s face light up because we’d brought a few dollars worth of noodles and candy to her village. Bali and Cambodia are amazing places, but there are still many issues to sorted out and much of Bali has been overrun by tourism. What I do love about these countries is that in some places the rituals, celebrations, and culture have not been fully adapted for tourists. Things go on as they have for as long as anyone remembers. Sites like the Angkor Wat temples are still being unearthed and are fully open to explore. It reminds me of our trip to the Alhambra in Spain. Access is restricted to a limited number of guest each day who are required to walk a specific route through the palaces. There are even regulations on how to wear a backpack – we were called out for it. I love that the places we’ve seen this month are inconvenient, not well marked, at times dangerous and overwhelmingly unrefined for tourism. These are the places that feel truly different and unique and that I’m most thankful to have experienced.
It’s been a few days since we wrapped up our two weeks in Cambodia and took a quick flight over to Bangkok, Thailand for new years. Cambodia is the most rustic country that either of us have ever visited – Everything was rougher around the edges and less developed than anywhere we’ve been before. It’s been nice to get back to a large city with western amenities, but looking through our pictures I can’t help but miss Cambodia.
Andrew and I spent almost 2 weeks in Koh Lanta, Thailand this November, and despite there being one million+ destinations in Southeast Asia to visit and explore, we decided we had to make a return trip before heading back to the US. Koh Lanta has probably been our favorite place we’ve traveled to over the past six months – here’s a few reasons why we fell in love:
Not so Touristy: Koh Lanta is not nearly as busy as its better known sister island Koh Phi Phi, but still has easy access to many other islands in the region. We signed up for the “four island’ excursion, which took us to several smaller and uninhibited islands near Koh Lanta for snorkeling and kayaking.
The Nicest People: There are a definitely a lot of “fake” smiles in the Thai region, especially when locals are trying to make a sale, but in Koh Lanta we found the people to be genuinely nice, open, and interested to talk to us. The owner of our favorite coffee shop runs his business with his entire family in tow – from the grandmother to his new baby, and he loved sharing information about his life in Thailand.
Beautiful Beaches: All the beaches in Koh Lanta are white sand with minimal waves and luckily, minimal sea creatures (jellyfish are abundant in this region). Even the most crowded beaches have laid back vibes, with thatched hut bars dotting the sand and the sounds of island music lazily mixing with the gentle breeze.
Great Local Restaurants: Our favorite spot is pad thai rock n roll, owned and run by a Thai couple. Plates of the most delicious streaming pad Thai go for $2.5 accompanied by a laundry list of fresh fruit smoothies.
Koh Lanta has yet to be fully affected by the an overgrowth of tourism, and still maintains a true laid-back, Thai island vibe. It’s rustic for sure (i.e. gas stations are simply stands with whiskey bottles full of gas on the side of the road- workers pour the gas into your moped through a funnel) but still has enough amenities to be comfortable for a longer stay. We love having the opportunity to see the world, but it’s also nice to have a place like Koh Lanta that we enjoy so much we can’t help but return to.
A little over a week ago we packed our bags and left Bali for our first stop in Cambodia: Phnom Penh. Once we got settled we headed out to explore this new city and ended up at the central market, which is loaded with fake watches, cheap electronics and exotic fruit typical in most Asian markets. The new addition we found were the fried bugs. People (locals) snacked on everything from ants to tarantulas – Not really my cup of tea, but a reminder of how far from home we really are..