After two and a half months, it’s time to depart South East Asia. And as is tradition, here is my recap of the last few months, along with my favorite pictures.
Same Same? Definitely Not.
I had two major assumptions before heading into this region. Firstly, that it would be a similar backpacker adventure experience like South America. Secondly, that each of the countries I would visit (Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam) were essentially the same. With both, I couldn’t have been further from the truth.
Backpacking in South East Asia is very far removed from the adventurous, confusing, bewildering but ultimately rewarding experience that was South America. It’s more of a holiday destination, navigated equally easily by old hippies carrying satchels, yuppies with carry-ons on wheels, and busloads of middle-aged tourists. It’s never necessary to know any of the local languages beyond hello and thank you. A complicated, multiple-change busride is easily arranged through any guesthouse (including tuk-tuk pick-up and drop-off). It took the edge off the adventure a lot, and I needed some time to stop and reconsider my priorities (ie less culture, more fun).
The second surprise was that the four countries are vastly different. The landscape of Thailand cannot be compared to that of Vietnam (to be honest, no country’s landscape could be compared to the incredible beauty of Vietnam’s). The people of Laos are completely different from those in Cambodia. And the languages share some commonalities but are in no way interchangeable. I had been quick to throw all four nations under the header ‘South East Asia’, but I can now proudly and happily say that I understand more of the sensibilities driving each place.
Things I Haven’t Done
Visit a ping-pong show in Bangkok, pet a tiger, see a tarantula. Trek through the snowy hills of northern Vietnam. Drunkenly float down the river in Vang Vieng.
Music Makes The People Come Together
But if I ever hear another David Guetta song again I will shoot the DJ. For nine months now I’ve been chased relentlessly by tunes like ‘I’ve Got A Feeling’ or ‘Sexy Bitch’ and I’m afraid I can’t stand it any longer. It’s just the same music night after night. And don’t even get me started on ‘We No Speak Americano’, which was fun at first but has after many months of overexposure degenerated into something that makes me escape a club like it’s on fire.
Laos – Please Don’t Rush
My favorite country here was without a doubt Laos. It seemed to me to be the true ‘original Asia’ – hot, humid, slow, exceedingly hospitable and friendly, towns bursting with life only at 6am huddling around woodfires to prepare the morning rice, old colonial buildings slowly falling into disrepair, monks performing the morning prayer ceremonies, the smell of incense filling the air. It was really, really perfect, and I loved it there. No surprise then that it was also the country where I connected with the locals and ended up visiting two weddings and a funeral.
No I Haven’t Forgotten
I’m still planning that charity to help kids go to school. I just need a name – all suggestions welcome!
You Count Down, I Count Up
Haggling, they say, is a skill. I say it’s a pain in the ass. It’s all fun and games in Thailand and Cambodia. Especially in Cambodia with the tried-and-true ‘divide the quoted price by four and refuse to go up, they’ll budge eventually’ strategy. But in Vietnam it became some kind of battle to the death. I tried to buy some shoes and was quoted a price of $25. I countered with $15 and would have happily bought the shoes for $20. But no, no, $15 was impossible, had to be $25. I usually wait for the vendor to make the first price drop, but here there was none forthcoming, so I increased my offer to $17. Fine, she said, I will drop my price as well. To $24,50. And that was as low as she would go. At that point I decided to just walk away. This happened time and time again in Vietnam, where haggling was about as enjoyable as pulling teeth.
Backpacker Prices vs Real Life Prices
After a couple of months on the road, enjoying $1 meals, $0.50 beers, $4 beds, etc. it was a rough shock to the senses to spend a few days in the real world. The Hua Hin Sheraton is a marvelous resort and I very much enjoyed my three-night stay there, with its private beach, 560-meter lagoon pool, massive bathtub, limousine service, huge pile of fresh towels, midnight room service, the works. But I couldn’t help but swallow hard when I realized that the White Russian I was drinking was the equivalent of 35% of my normal daily budget. It’s going to be tough to be back in Europe and not have my eyes pop out when I buy a round at the bar.
The Best Place In The World?
I’ve visited some amazing places in the last few months. The incredible atmosphere of Luang Prabang. The perfect relaxation of the Four Thousand Islands. Saigon’s traffic insanity. The two-day drift downstream the Mekong River. Halong Bay. But my favorite place here, and perhaps in my whole trip, was Bamboo Island on Cambodia. It was a little backpacker paradise hidden away on a tropical island with water so warm to the touch by day and so brightly phosphorescent at night. With fellow backpackers who were perfect company, also off the islands as we kept running into each other across Vietnam. Where you would ask for an update of your tab, dreading the moment what with all that food and drink and random fake Rayban purchases, only to be told that you’re only spending $25 a day. With a brightly painted goat called Rambo, and a cheeky cat named Pringles. A staff that made everyone feel right at home, and would get a new party going night after night.
A three-night stay turned into eight nights, and I’m very glad to have been there.
Places like that are becoming exceedingly rare as tourism goes upmarket here, and indeed Bamboo Island will be gone by this time next year to be replaced by a French eco-resort. But for the time being it’s still there, and it’s perfect.
I fly home on May 3, and in the last month I intend to have one more adventure: India. When I originally planned this trip, I intentionally saved it for last, hoping to accumulate enough backpacker skills and the necessary level of zen relaxation to withstand the assault on the senses that India is supposed to be. And now I can say that I am ready, and I’m excited. Saturday I fly to Calcutta, and the last chapter of this trip begins.