“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…
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.
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.
“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.
- 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
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.