SE Asia: Before You Go

24 12 2016

I have been to Southeast Asia eight times – to Bali, Cambodia, Laos, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. I’ve visited Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Denpasar, Hanoi, Pakse, Phnom Penh, Saigon, and even Hong Kong. And, well, from all those experiences, there are some common things everyone should know before they go.

People Are Warm

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In every country, every city I’ve been to, I’ve found the people warm and hospitable. Whenever I need help, or ask for directions, someone is able to guide me to the right place. People will go out of their way to ensure I am taken care of – and this is something that keeps me returning time after time. Even people in uniform one might be anxious asking – army personnel, police or security are usually willing to help. Sometimes, I’ve found folks seem to take an active interest in ensuring I’m on the right path. Examples of compassion and hospitality from my experience – In Bhutan, we got robbed on the trail. The King learned of it, and went out of his way to have us cared for and compensated. In Cambodia, when I was part of a volunteer crew building WCs for a village out in the rice paddies, the elders met and had all of us to the communal kitchen for dinner as thanks. In Bangkok, I had dropped my passport on a taxi seat. The driver chased me down to return it! And recently, in Vietnam, my friend Laura was sick. She found her hosts had made her special soup so she felt better.

English Is Spoken

If traveling in SE Asia, don’t be too concerned that nobody will understand your English. I’ve found pretty much everywhere I can find someone with some understanding of my language. If you can pick up a few phrases of the local language, you get bonus points! But locals won’t get upset if you cannot speak their tongue, for they understand their tonal languages are very challenging for outsiders! I’ve been to English classes for grade school kids on the River Kwai in Thailand, and outside Siem Reap, Cambodia. I’ve been approached by children just dying to try out their English on me!

Try To Save Face

Status and appearances are important. So if you discover your meal is not what you ordered, your hotel room isn’t quite right, or the Website you’re working on with someone in SE Asia isn’t in correct English, try to approach the situation diplomatically. Don’t berate a subordinate in front of their boss. Try not to raise your voice when pointing out something is wrong. Instead, gently approach the topic from their side, and use a win-win strategy. Raising voices and pumping fists won’t get you anywhere.

Transportation Is Adventurous – You’ll Need Understanding and Flexibility

Whether walking, taking a bus, a ferry, taxi, tuk tuk or motorbike, Westerners will find getting around an adventure! Traffic congestion can reach biblical proportions, road manners seem chaotic to Westerners, safety standards appear non-existant, and keeping a tight schedule might seem confounding. You’ve got to take it all in stride. At times, getting around seems like a scene from “Mad Max!”

 

The motorbike is the most ubiquitous mode by far. Especially in Vietnam and Cambodia, they swarm like locusts seemingly navigating in unison like schools of fish. They will often filter through cars and trucks to the front at a stop light. In Saigon at rush hour, they spill over onto the sidewalks. Got an appointment at 11:00 sharp? Your late arrival won’t be an insult; rather, an expected part of everyday life.

Pedestrian Strategies – How to cross the street in this seeming madness? The idea is to make up your mind where you want to cross, and cross slowly and deliberately. Believe it or not, the fish will swarm right around you. Even on the sidewalk. Keep going in one direction. Hesitation or quick changes in direction invite disaster.

For us Westerners, visiting SE Asia is fascinating. There is a lot of eye candy – everything from street food vendors, 4 people on bikes, to monks passing by. It is easy to get caught up in all the activity, watching. But when on the sidewalk, mind what’s immediately in front of you, because it might be a hole. This condition pretty much applies everywhere. And I also advise shoes with toe protection just in case.

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Just be careful!

Boats

If your destination lies on a river, hiring a long-tail boat is one fun way to get there. But don’t expect the standards of safety you’re accustomed to at home! You will likely inhale some diesel fumes, get splashed by river water, and feel lucky if the boat has life preservers. And some captains are more interested in haste than simply arriving in one piece. Here, we’re heading from Cambodia into Laos when the Mekong was flooding. Helmet schmelmet.

Renting a motorbike – this is a fun way to get around. Or foolish, depending. Keep in mind that if you get in an accident, you may be required to pay the full cost for damage immediately. Better to try your luck in a rural setting than getting into the melee in a big city!

Pollution and Garbage

Air quality standards seem non existent. In the big, smoky, humid cities, exhaust and smoke can get stifling. Some can be seen wearing dust masks as an everyday affair. It’s part of life over there.

Garbage is another matter altogether. Unfortunately, the thin, black plastic bag is seen blowing around, clinging to whatever it can catch. Then, there are those whose idea of emptying the garbage is just dump the can over the nearest wall. Somehow, this needs to be changed. In Bali, setting out “disposable” offerings several times daily leads to epic “offering piles” of refuse.

In Bhutan, not part of SE Asia, the King has stepped in to circumvent the garbage plague. There, plastic bags are banned entirely. Instead, reusable bags have been used for years.

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The Authorities Might Be Out for Themselves

Cops, customs officers and immigration officials are paid paltry wages, and often make up for this at your expense. Literally. So don’t be surprised if you wind up being asked to pay for something you KNOW you shouldn’t have to. I was in a friend’s car in Bangkok when we encountered a traffic stop run by cops. When asked for his license, my friend couldn’t produce. The cop asked, “You can pay me now and I’ll let you go, or we’ll have to deal with this at the police station.” My friend paid on the spot. After when I asked about it, he said simply, “Oh that happens all the time.” In Cambodia I watched as a cop was trying to ticket an Australian on a rented motorbike with a Cambodian girl on the back. She got into this argument with the cop, and in the end, she convinced him to let them go for a price. And in Bali, where we were traveling on a 30-day visa, we were leaving on day 29. The customs officer says to my friend, eye brows raised, “Your visa is expired. It costs $20 to renew.” My friend began arguing, to no avail. She simply paid up. And on the Cambodia – Laos border, I was in this village where there was only one fisherman authorized to stamp my passport, and there was no fee required, according to the Laotian Website. I already had a government issued visa. But oh no. I had to pay him the extra $15 to get my “stamp.” So don’t be surprised if you need to shell out some extra to keep your trip going smoothly once in a while.

Things Might Not Be As They Appear

Fancy looking hotels, new developments, and sparkling restaurants are often not as they appear at first glance. Construction doesn’t seem to be on par with Western standards. A quick look at window casings even on late model buildings often reveals cracks or caulking to band-aid mistaken construction. A look out back behind the restaurant might reveal standards uncomfortable for the Western visitor. It all needs to be taken in stride. Highways may have less-than-smooth surfaces, necessitating slower travel speeds over bumpy pavement.

Have Fun! Miracles Happen, Magic Awaits, Things Work Out

For all the differences, a visit to SE Asia is worth the effort. Even when difficulties do arise, something magical always seems to happen to make up for it. And those unforseen challenges and successes make memories that last a lifetime.

 





Bangkok – First Stop On Our SE Asia Odyssey

9 12 2016

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In November 2016, two friends from Portland and I began a junket to Southeast Asia that would take us to Thailand and Vietnam. Cindy, Kristi and I were to spend a couple of days in Bangkok to visit my friends Sakun and Yim, friends from the outdoor industry, then spend two weeks traveling in Vietnam.

This was my 8th visit to Thailand. I love Thailand – the people, the culture, the cuisine, the varied environments. From tropical paradises in the south, to the go-go capital Bangkok, the spirituality of Sukhothai, to the mountains north of Chiang Mai. It’s always had a special place in my heart.

For me, the primary reason for this trip was to see Vietnam. I’ve also been to Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Singapore and Bhutan – and it was high time I experience Vietnam. But I couldn’t just go to Vietnam without visiting my Thai friends! I’d been in a business arrangement with them distributing kayaks and gear in the USA under the brand Feelfree. Sakun and his wife Yim are fine examples of the generosity, tolerance and hospitality Thais are famous for. I also have hosted them on their visits to my home town Portland, Oregon. And I was anxious to give Cindy and Kristi the experience of meeting them.

We arrived at Suvarnabhumi Airport just before noon, seriously jet lagged but determined to stay awake the the entire rest of the day. We were very fortunate to be in good hands! Sakun and Yim had sent a van to pick us up! Once loaded we got to experience a Bangkok traffic nightmare first hand. The traffic crawled to a snails pace, but we eventually, through some crazy maneuvering, got to our hotel.

Checked in, it was time to get out and experience! First up, grab a long-tail boat to see, smell and just be amazed by a first-hand on-the water drama of life on a bustling SE Asian river and then check out Bangkok’s klongs (canals). Hopefully check out Wat Pho and get a massage after. To do that, we had to cross Sanam Luang. It is a park adjacent to the Royal Palace grounds, in between our hotel and the river. But three weeks before our arrival, the reigning King of Thailand, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, on the throne 70 years and revered by every single citizen, died. The country was in a national state of mourning, with 10,000 people a day using Sanam Luang as a staging point to go pay respects to the King at the Royal Palace. Respectful attire was mandatory – black top and bottom, no flip flops, no baseball caps, no t-shirts. We all had learned about this before the visit so we came as prepared as possible.

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Mourners arriving at Sanam Luang

The streets surrounding Sanam Luang were closed to traffic and the area fenced off, with security checkpoints at entries. The guards were perfectly friendly to us. Inside, there was an unusual to us, but 100% Thai, phenomenon going on. While people were mourning the king, others were gladly volunteering themselves – time, goods and services – to comfort those mourning – some who’d traveled hundreds of miles. All wearing black mourning ribbons on sleeves.

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This adorable volunteer completely epitomizes the Thai friendly nature!

Food service companies donated food. Massage therapists tended to the weary. And cooks prepared food – all day – as volunteers – for those who’d made the trek. What an awe inspiring sight! We were offered food as well, but we felt very awkward about accepting it, considering the circumstances.

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Even the military and police from around the nation came and paid respects.

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Having crossed Sanam Luang, it was only a couple of blocks further to the river and a pier, where a long tail boat could be arranged. There was so much going on at once Cindy and Kristi were snapping tons of photos. The crazy motorbike traffic. The Buddhist monks.

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Motorbikes are one of the primary land transportation modes!

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Customizing your motorbike is serious business!

Upon reaching the pier, I was able to grab a long-tail boat for what would about to about a 90-minute trip across the river and through the canals. The Chao Phraya River, which runs through Bangkok, is practically as busy and seemingly chaotic as the streets. We loved it.

Back in the canals, known as klongs, it’s a mish mash of rich and poor, expensive homes with gazebos over the water, temples, riverside parks, and families who make their living right there, eeking out a living day by day. It’s not Amsterdam by any means. Standards of cleanliness and pollution are, well, perhaps ignored altogether. Still, it is an interesting place to visit. Many homes have spirit houses perched outside.

 

Once back on shore, we meandered toward Wat Pho. Wat Pho is famous because it contains the largest sleeping Buddha in the world. It lies east of the south wall of the Grand Palace. All along the way we pass hordes of mourners dressed in black. When we finally arrive at the gate, Wat Pho is closed for the day. And right at that moment, our luck turned bright. An entrepreneurial Tuk Tuk driver struck up a conversation with us, and we told him we were hoping to find a seafood restaurant for dinner. He says, “Jump In – I’ll take you to one.” Not knowing much of anything about Bangkok’s neighborhoods, we went along – it turned out to be a riverside restaurant on the edge of Chinatown. Of course, the tuk-tuk ride is always fun, especially for the uninitiated! A tuk tuk ride is a must for anyone visiting Bangkok.

After a hot, humid afternoon, a riverside restaurant, with its cooling breezes, was welcome. As was the views of boats going back and forth!

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Cindy Kristi and Rod end a successful day 1!

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Dig in!

Hunger satisfied and tired after a very full day we head back to our hotel. Tomorrow we’d view some more Buddhist temples and then grab a massage – followed by dinner with Sakun and Yim!