With the end of 2013 and beginning of 2014 I often find myself reflecting on just how fast it’s all gone by. 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 us 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 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 out of the simple 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. South of the equator in mountain town of Ubud, Indonesia it’s hard to walk down any street without stepping on the offerings of orchids and food laid out each morning. The fragrant smell of burning incense mixes with exotic flowers and lingers in the air, which 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 decides to take you the long way back to your hotel. It’s hard not to feel anxious slowly driving through the desolate parts of town past staring locals as the streets get 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 sort 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 one-way route through the palaces. There are rules and regulations for everything there including specific rules for how to wear a backpack (We didn’t know this and got yelled at for wearing ours incorrectly). 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.