Andrew and I checked our calendars for the first time in forever- these days we often don’t know what month it is, let alone the day of the week. But regardless, we were extremely surprised to see that it was November 23- officially one full month since we arrived in Southeast Asia. A cliché if there ever was one, but our time in Asia has truly flown. When it was time to leave Europe, I was really bummed. There are so many aspects of Europe that I absolutely love- café culture, beautiful cobblestone streets, the fashion- but I never thought I would love Southeast Asia on par with (Maybe more?! Too soon to tell) our time traveling through Europe. In fact, when we landed in Kuala Lumpur, I was actually homesick for Europe. But over the past four weeks, I have developed an affinity for Asia that I never ever expected to. While Andrew and I both have an adventurous streak, anyone who knows us well (or maybe even just a little bit) knows that we are cautious people. I was dreading landing on this foreign continent and immediately 1) contracting some form of malaria, typhoid, and/or other tropical disease and 2) developing a horrible bout of food poisoning. Neither one has come to fruition, and it seems that all my paranoia was completely unjustified. So just what exactly has us so taken with this part of the world?
The food: Of course this had to be number one. The cuisine in Southeast Asia is truly amazing. Noodle, rice and vegetable dishes come to the table steaming hot, prepared with only fresh and simple ingredients. My favorite thing is the delicious fruit juices, shakes and smoothies that I basically order now at all meals. All the fruit is grown locally and blended without sugar. From watermelon and pineapple to papaya and dragon fruit, it’s all natural.
The prices: I still experience reverse sticker shock every single day in Asia. The fact that we go out for dinner and the total bill with meals and drinks comes to $10 or less. Or that you can get a massage, or manicure, or other beauty treatment for just a few dollars. But what really strikes me is that you don’t lose out on quality just because you are paying low prices.
The people: After three years in New York, getting shoved into (and out of) the subway and literally body slamming people on my frantic commute to the office each morning, I never cease to be amazed by the level of friendliness. Obviously, there Is some “fake” friendliness- people just trying to strike up conversation so you will buy something from their shop or pay a tip at dinner- but a lot of the people are genuinely friendly and happy to you have as a visitor in their country. The other night we took a tuk tuk (taxi) home along with a few other people. The driver accidentally ended up taking a longer and more indirect route, and at the end would only accept a smaller payment from us (although we had already agreed on a higher fare) simply because he felt badly for his mistake.
The customs: The culture in Southeast Asia focuses largely on courtesy. It has become a common routine to take our shoes off before we enter a restaurant or hotel. In Thailand, people bow to one another as a sign of respect. The people are also very appreciative when we try to use simple sayings (hello or thank you) in conversation. Everyone knows how to say ‘merci’ in France or ‘gracias’ in Spain, so we try and take the time to learn and use these common phrases in Asia as well.
The culture: I have found a lot of Southeast Asian destinations to be a hybrid of old and new. . In Chiang Mai we visited a very trendy, hipster coffee shop that was adjacent to an ancient Buddhist temple. In Penang, old Malaysian men slowly peddle rickshaws by modern-day office buildings. The locals, using the same recipes as their great-great grandparents to serve up fresh noodle and rice dishes at roadside stalls, have links to their Facebook page on their signage. It’s such an interesting dynamic that you just don’t experience in the United States- 21st century life strongly infused with heritage and traditions from the past.
Elephants: Enough said.