South East Asia: Mainland Travel Trails

Posted by on Jun 9, 2013 in Asia, South East Asia, Travel | 6 Comments
South East Asia: Mainland Travel Trails

“This is stupid,” I think to myself as I feel my patience tested one times too many. “What’s happened to me?” goes the internal voice. Before I left the service-focussed embrace of London I’d preached the transformative effect of travel. Learning to go with the flow and expecting organised chaos was surely part of the fun?

When I spouted such a cliché I wasn’t picturing a midnight transfer at a Cambodian service station with no instructions, next bus times or English speakers, complete with an interrupted power supply and drunk local man who was threatening to give The Shining’s protagonist a run for his money.

So sorry, I cannnnnnot…

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The Beautiful Hoi An In Vietnam

Mainland Mystery

South East Asia used to be a far-off destination beset by war, local craft and French / British colonial influence. Now it’s a land of incessant moped beeps, VIP busses, idiocy, drunken lunacy, and tourist tat and traps. Yet for all the sheen it’s [probably] lost since Leonardo paddled across to Koh Phi-Phi’s golden sands, it is still one of the most varied, exciting and breathtakingly beautiful areas in the world.

One minute you’re amid rice paddies, robe-clad monks and cattle, the next polluted skies, hawkers and suicidal tuk-tuks. However this is offensively over-simplifying the region. As you’d expect, each country offers a wildly different experience, culture and people.

There’s Thailand’s smut and sun, Myanmar’s (Burma) vanishing ‘un-touchedness’, Laos’ bakeries and busses, the Cambodian hospitality forged from the ashes of Genocide, a unique Malaysian multiculturism and Vietnam’s… Well everything about Vietnam.

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Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Popping Some Tags

“How much is this?” I ask the market seller; a girl who’s barely reached double figures. “150 Baht,” goes the reply. I pull out my next line, the stereotypical “Ahhhh, sooo expensive.” She feigns surprise before spouting, “it’s OK, I give you special discount.”

“Best price please,” comes my reply, flashing a smile to sweeten the deal – the most important bargaining chip I have. As we haggle back and forth there comes a point where we’re stuck, both unwilling to budge over the sake of 20 pence. She throws in some free water to sweeten the deal and we’re done.

Perhaps the most Asian of routines is bartering. For Western cultures, South East Asian commerce can seem like a minefield. What’s the right price? How do I reach that point? Should I even bother?

If there’s any advice more accurate for the region, it’s to definitely partake in the ritual. It’s where you learn most about a country (after the food), how the people view foreigners (whether it’s with respect or as a walking ATM), what the local sense of humour is like and how, despite all the money tourism brings, how shockingly cheap the region is compared to the West.

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Malaysian Familes

Sitting Street-side

“What is this,” I ask the smiling Burmese lady, pointing to her vat of meat, vegetables and broth. I give her a quizzical glance; unsure whether she’s understood me. She ignores the question, instead piling a plate high before pointing to a tiny plastic stool on the pavement. “Sit,” she harks, gravelled voice worn away from one too many cigarettes.

In South East Asia, you’ll be wildly under-budget even without trying – it’s a certifiable fact and one that cannot be avoided.

Eating on the street, the most consistent of tasty-food establishments, is another South East Asia guarantee. It’s safer than restaurants (you can see what’s being cooked), it’s fresh (ignore how the plates are washed on the pavement, that there’s grime everywhere and no-one cleans their hands), and it’s a dining experience where you most feel ‘alive’.

The average cost for a plate of food – one pound. Not twenty pounds for a chain establishment experience, not thirty-five for upmarket ponce cuisine or not even a couple quid for a late-night post-night burger-van stodge-fest.

Is it good? God is it good.

Highlights

  • Chang Mai – north Thailand culture at its finest
  • Bagan – Burmese temples as far as the eye can see
  • Cameron Highlands – tea, trails and Malaysian time to kill
  • Luang Prabang – stunning Laos food and festivities
  • Siem Reap – Cambodia’s Ankor Wat?
  • Hoi-an – Vietnamese quaintness, beaches and beauty
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Luang Prabang, Laos

Leftover love

After a while it’ll grate, no matter how laidback, impulsive or dirt-friendly you are. The funny thing is, as soon as you’re back with hot showers, on-time transport and logic, you miss the buzzing streets, the ludicrously cheap beer and the friends you’ve made along the way.

Everyone follows the same track. Unlike your home country, you’ll bump into people constantly. Everyone has different stories – that time we were squeezed onto a Vietnamese bus with chickens, the time a lady-boy accustomed me, the craziness seen at Full Moon, the Chinese-Malay man we grabbed a lift off – the highs, the lows, the outrageous, the unexpected, the insanity, sights, smells, noise.

South East Asia never rests.

I travelled to South East Asia for four months during January – May 2013.

6 Comments

  1. Ch Hegg
    10 June, 2013

    Marco… What a writer you are. Amongst all of your qualities I came to appreciate while travelling with you, that’s the most unexpected, I think.

    Love the way you describe SEA. Feels like its been way to long since I left this gorgeous piece of earth.

    Hope you’re doing well.

    Ch

    Reply
    • Marco Fiori
      10 June, 2013

      Thanks Chris – glad to surprise you and thanks for the compliment on my writing. I actually do a lot of writing but rarely actually talk about it in person.

      I’m doing great, just in Hong Kong now. Hope you’re good as well.

      Reply
  2. Victor Yuan
    11 June, 2013

    Every morning when I woke up, I put everything I own into my backpack , security comes with the fact I am carrying it on my shoulder. To live in the world, all it would take is a backpack, who cares about cars and houses?
    When I was in Bangkok, after we said goodbye, I walked through Khao San Road, carrying my incredibly heavy bag. I heard different languages, different accents, I had passerby brushing against my shoulder, I heard people bargaining, I saw drunks, I saw people from all over the world pouring into this place, carrying their backpacks. That was the first time I ever felt I am actually living in this world. This sense of being is what keeps me alive and also is the last thing we want to lose.
    People asked me since when did I want to be a journalist. I clearly remember that day, in 2003, I was 11, I looked at the TV, noticing the planes were projecting bombs into the land in Iraq, I asked my dad what was happening. He told there was a war. I said to myself, why do we have to see all this on TV, why can’t we see it with our own eye, kiss every land with our own feet? That’s when I decided to do journalistic work, simply wanting to witness the world with my own eyes. You said “There are some many places to see, not enough time, not enough money”. True, but as long as we cherish each and every day of our life, we can really be a part of this world, which is even more important than just seeing it. We are experiencing it.
    Marco, I’m glad I met you, you are way more than a simple foreign friend whom I simply want to practice my English with. I see a true friend in you, keep going this way, I know you can make a difference. We both can.
    And God, you are a freaking awesome writer!

    Reply
    • Marco Fiori
      11 June, 2013

      Victor, you’re too damn kind with your words. I feel the same buddy – you’re a incredible person who’s going to continue changing my life. That and probably the world.

      Reply
  3. Jason D
    12 June, 2013

    Wow Marco! Incredible stuff! Like Chris said, I had no idea you had this supernatural power to translate experiences into words so eloquently. Can’t wait to read about China when you get around to it!

    Reply

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