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 by 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 changed entirely 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 it seemed like all our ideas of travel in Southeast Asia were met 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 of Chiang Mai were set on a jungle outpost in an Asian version of the wild west. The reality is that it’s 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. Local customs, heritage and western colonial legacies blend together to uniquely shape and balance the values and daily life in each place we visited. All of these things combine to make each place feel truly different and special and that is definitely what I will miss the most.