Saturday, March 2, 2013

SE Asia - reflections on our 3.5 week vacation

I realize that I get caught up in documenting our trips while they are happening and don't get time to write about how those events make me feel or what I learn, so before the Southeast Asia trip is a foggy memory, I want to write down the highs, lows, and take-aways of the trip.

The friendliness of the people, especially the Thais and the Khmer.

Food, especially the nice restaurants we went to in Cambodia and the meal we had at the home stay in the Sapa region of Vietnam. I also enjoyed most of the street food we tried.

Meeting other travelers and comparing their perspectives on things we had all seen.

Hiking in the hill tribes region. It was great to get away from all the tourists and really get some exercise. Our guide was a sweetheart who enhanced the trip.

Getting authentic Thai massages and listening to the massage therapists talk quietly among themselves in their beautiful language as we were stretched and rubbed.

Seeing the temples of Angkor Wat. Despite all the tourists, the tour and cultural significance were worth the trip.

Seeing Halong Bay karst. That landscape is uber cool.

The boat rides in Thailand and Halong Bay.

Cambodia. Even though we only spent 4 days there, mostly filled with highly touristy activities, it was my favorite country and one I would like to go back and explore more fully.

Swimming through the traffic in Hanoi. I couldn't get over how cool it was to watch how the crazy traffic flows around pedestrians.

Experiencing a completely different culture. I especially enjoyed the contrast of northern Vietnam's socialist government with the explosion of capitalism there.

The mass transit system in Bangkok. Not driving a car for almost a month.

How cheap things were. Our average lodging cost was about $20 and food for both of us was about $30 per day, I think.

Spending a lot of time with Drew! His work takes him away from home about half the days of our lives. To be honest, I was a little surprised we got along so well being together 24-7 since we are so used to more time apart. Three and a half weeks together gave us time to reconnect.

Trash and litter.  We both had a hard time with how dirty the streets and waters of Vietnam are.  With 9 million people, centuries of history, and until 20 years ago, 80% of the population living below the poverty level, I suppose it should be no surprise that trash pickup is not on high on the list of daily chores, but we were disappointed when we would see sewer going into the gutter or someone throwing out their plastic and food garbage into water.

Large tour groups. The large groups of Korean, Japanese, and Chinese tourists in Cambodia and Vietnam were annoying in their slowness and rudeness.

Crowding. SE Asia is a highly populated place. For this one-time country girl accustomed to working solo in the wide open spaces of the West, there were way too many people around almost of the time.

Food: although we had some really good meals, I was a little disappointed by the lack of spice in a lot of the Vietnamese dishes. By spice I mean any spice, not just hot spice.

Spending so much time in Hanoi. Great city but we didn't need 5 days there.

Not getting to see Halong Bay on a beautiful sunny day.

Getting to Vietnam. The visa process was a drag and consequently we missed seeing the central or southern parts of the country. Vietnam missed out on some tourism dollars there.

Not feeling a sense of spirituality at any of the temples or wats we visited. I am a highly secular individual, but at other religious places I have visited (stupas in Nepal, Machu Pichu in Peru, churches in Europe) I had a sense of how holy the places were to the people worshiping at them. Perhaps it was because of the almost constant presence of tour groups and other tourists, but I didn't get that feeling at any of the places we visits, with the possible exception of the Emerald Buddha in Bangkok.

Long bus rides. Drew listed this one. He is too tall for Asian buses!

Shopping. Drew listed this one too ;-). We did spend a lot of time in markets. There was the guided tour in Chiang Mai, but I was also drawn to other markets just to see the mind boggling array of food items for sale.  I did not really buy all that much, I just liked to walk around.

My impetus for doing this trip was to have a similar experience to the one I had when I was 28 and went to Nepal.  On that trip, my mind was completely blown by the utterly different culture, religion, lifestyle, and landscape that a developing nation like Nepal projects.  The problem is, I am no longer 28 and I've been to a handful of other developing nations, so the newness factor is no longer there.  To be sure, I was shocked when the pregnant woman on the bus let her child pee on her like it was common practice, but I know more now about Buddhism, Hinduism, poverty, and traffic on streets that are 10 sizes too small for the number of vehicles traveling them.  So while the cultures of the places we visited was certainly exciting, it wasn't as exotic as I had expected.

I feel like the three+ weeks we spent in Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam gave us a very good feel for the parts of those countries that we visited, and some appreciation of Asian culture in general.  I may go back some day, but not for a while.  Although I sound somewhat negative about the trip, I assure you I have no regrets about going.  I had a great time learning about the history and culture of the places we visited. The scenery was beautiful in most places. Trying new food is always memorable and fun.  Even the difficultly in transportation and scheduling was just another aspect of the trip that made Southeast Asia, Southeast Asia to me.

I am very glad we did this "culture trip", as Drew called it once.  Since I met him, we have spent most of our big vacations on bikes or racing bikes.  We needed to try something different.  When I look back at the entire trip, some of the best moments were hiking with Drew and our guide in the mountains of northern Vietnam and kayaking in Halong Bay, proof, at least to me, that I enjoy time off best when I am moving in the natural world.

With that said, let the next active adventure planning begin!

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