“There are certain things that cannot be adequately explained to a virgin by either words or pictures. Nor can any description that I might offer here even approximate what it feels like to”1 . . . lose yourself in a place that is completely foreign.
Try as we might, no one can really tell you about travel. Some things you just have to experience for yourself. That’s true even under the best of circumstances but especially so when talking about areas that are rapidly changing, like South East Asia.
Rarely have we experienced such disconnects between the things we read and our experiences on the ground as we did in this part of the world. So much is changing so fast that the travel article written even a couple of years ago is now badly out of date. The same is true of the stories you hear on the road. Time and again we met people who told us things about places that turned out not to be true.
Here are just some of the things that surprised us on our eighteen-week tour of the region.
Cambodia’s Rising Tide
Of all the countries on our South East Asia itinerary, we were most unnerved about visiting Cambodia. We had heard so much about its abject poverty that we felt slightly uneasy at the thought of touring the country. Before arriving we steeled ourselves against an expected onslaught of child beggars and amputees. We prepared ourselves in other ways for the rising incidents of crime we were increasingly reading about.
The country we visited bore little resemblance to the many stories we had heard. We spent three weeks in Cambodia, and it didn’t strike us as noticeably poorer than most of its neighbors. We didn’t notice higher levels of hardship or encounter more children asking for money here than we did elsewhere.
Several years of brisk economic growth is quickly changing Cambodia and the region as a whole. Just five years ago, I’m told, there were only dirt roads in the city of Battambang. Today those roads are all paved. One even leads to a pretty decent wine bar.
An absence of Goodfellas
Stop me if you’ve heard this warning before: “Beware of the Taxi Mafia in . . . ” [INSERT COUNTRY NAME HERE]
From Thailand to Malaysia, we had heard warnings about unscrupulous gangs of cabbies who live to rip off their riders, fix prices, and even flatten bicycle tires to kill off the competition. And yet most everywhere we went taxi drivers simply ran their meters without complaint; many did so without even being asked.
It’s still true that taxi drivers are the people you’ll meet on the road who, as a profession, are the most likely to try to rip you off. Even the Chinese driver in Malaysia who assured us that he wasn’t “a criminal like those dirty Indians” was in the process of ripping us off at the very moment he uttered the slur.
But instead of quoting inflated prices or trying to charge more once you reach your destination they now mostly just try to drive the long way like cabbies everywhere. No need to haggle over the price. Just pay attention to where you’re going.
One thing that did live up to the expectations we formed over countless episodes of The Amazing Race is the way drivers like to take passengers along while they complete random errands. Stopping for gas is pretty common. Delivering packages and even changing tires, yup, did those too.
Better buses in Cambodia
Broken down, unreliable, loud, uncomfortable and, most of all, overcrowded, are all adjectives we’ve heard used to describe Cambodia’s buses. One frequent traveler to the region even warned us to hire a personal driver just to avoid them.
Like with most things, we wanted to see for ourselves. And like with most things, the buses in Cambodia were perfectly fine. They weren’t the newest or the most comfortable we had taken. But we had seats to ourselves and got where we were going without incident. That’s pretty much all we ever ask for.
Meanwhile, the stories about buses playing Cambodian karaoke videos non-stop for the duration of the trip? Those are definitely still true.
Just a little beach business
Want to have a relaxing day soaking up the sun on a beautiful tropical beach? Then you’ll definitely want to avoid the more popular Thai beaches. Or at least that’s what we heard. It’s not that those beaches aren’t beautiful or sun filled. It’s that you can’t get a moments peace from all the vendors trolling the sands selling junk.
I guess that’s the way things used to be. But that’s not what we found. From the island of Ko Samui off Thailand’s East Coast to Phi Phi and Railay Beach off the West, the beaches we visited were largely hassle free. We did have the occasional vendor offering us selfie sticks or those candle powered floating lanterns that sometimes set nearby houses ablaze. But the hawkers weren’t pushy or all that frequent, even on Thailand’s busiest beaches.
A foodie destination that wasn’t
Every once in a while we visit a destination that falls so far short of its reputation that we wonder if we’re actually even in the same place. It’s almost as if travel writers keep repeating the things they’re supposed to say rather than describing what they actually experience (because hey, everyone wants to keep those free press trips and other goodies coming, am I right?).
For us, the food in Penang fell in that category. It’s not just that the mediocre street food didn’t live up to the high praise it routinely receives. Even highly acclaimed places in Georgetown didn’t come close to the quality of food we’d regularly get from random vendors in Thailand and Vietnam.
The nicest people anywhere
“When I was in Vietnam, I was constantly hassled, overcharged, ripped off, and treated badly by the locals,” so said Nomadic Matt. We heard his complaints echoed in so many similar stories from so many different writers we assumed it had to be true.
Our experience traveling from North to South over the course of four full weeks couldn’t have been more different. I don’t think any people in any country in South East Asia or anywhere else for that matter treated us more kindly than they did in Vietnam. And it’s not, as Matt contends, that we were treated well because we were spending a lot of money, because we weren’t. Some of the most helpful people we met didn’t get a dime from us.
On other occasions we’d encounter people like the coffee vendor off the main strip in Hoi An who was eager to learn our story. We sat on little plastic stools and talked as best we could over coffees that cost a sixth of what the cafés around the corner charged. Along with discounted but delicious coffee she offered us complementary tea and small bites to eat while explaining to us that “America and Vietnam like family.”
Later when her daughters arrived everyone was eager to have their pictures taken with their new American friends. The oldest of the three offered Shannon a bouquet of five roses. We felt bad taking them but didn’t want to be rude. Their generosity was overwhelming. It was also fairly typical of our experience in this most wonderful of South East Asian countries.
Don’t listen to us
We left South East Asia three months ago. It’s quite likely that our experience is already out of date. The only way for you to know for sure is to go see for yourself.
1 With apologies to Fred Schwed for bastardizing his great line from his great book Where are the Customers’ Yachts?