Considering a trip to Southeast Asia? If you’ve read my blog entries and scoured travel guides, you’ve generally been given a view of the wonderful, delightful aspects of the area. It’s all true.
But Southeast Asia, like most places on our planet, isn’t all friendly people, great food and captivating landscapes. Here are some things to know that might inform your travel plans — or not.
Toto, we’re not in Kansas, anymore.
Set aside your first-world expectations.when visiting. With a few exceptions (e.g. Bangkok, Singapore), you won’t generally find infrastructure resembling anything you’re used to. Sidewalks are a luxury. Paved, maintained roads are few and far between. If dirt and grit are issues for you, stick to resorts and four-star-and-up hotels and don’t stray far from their pampered environs. Reality is grimy.
All Thai massages are not created equal.
The best Thai massage I ever had was not in Thailand! Rather, it was in Florence, Italy where the Italian employer of the Thai masseuse had insured she was well trained. Nothing ever hurt so good! Yet, while massage centers are more plentiful in Southeast Asia than Starbucks are in the U.S., the quality of the experience varies greatly. But, it’s hard to complain when the service is so inexpensive. For example, I had at least one or more foot massages in almost every country we visited. The average price for an hour was just $6.
Bargaining begins with bait and switch.
Cambodia was the worst offender. A $5 guidebook, quickly becomes $10 or more when you show interest. My most memorable example was one evening in Siem Reap. John and I entered one of several massage establishments advertising $2 foot massages. The price was actually $8. No problem, but the young women giving the massages quickly separated John and me, telling us men were serviced in one room and women in the other. We quickly found out why as the young woman proceeded to solicit John.
Bait and switch — then try to up sell sex to the man while his wife/girlfriend is sequestered in another room 10 feet away. How’s that for a sales process?!
If you can’t take the heat — just don’t go in the kitchen.
Southeast Asia is sweltering. I say that as a Southerner born and raised. Growing up in the Deep South before a/c was ubiquitous, I have experienced the wilting effect of the heat/humidity combo. It pales in comparison to the unrelenting sauna known as Southeast Asia.
We planned our trip for the tailend of the rainy season, heading toward cooler weather. We learned it doesn’t really get “cooler” there until late November. Our first month there, every single day hit 100F or more on the heat index. Night brought no relief. Be prepared to sweat. You’ll never take a/c for granted again!
Road rules are for Westerners.
With some rare exceptions (Singapore comes to mind), there are few road rules throughout Southeast Asia that a Westerner would recognize. Lanes are essentially non-existent. Animals, vehicles, bicycles, motorcycles and people all vie for the same space. Imagine a city, like Hanoi with a population of almost 4 million, with almost no traffic lights or pedestrian crosswalks. It is a free-for-all that I, at least, found daunting.
Height is a real handicap.
Anyone over 5’6″ will feel like Gulliver in the land of the Lilliputians. Beds are low. Bathroom mirrors are low. Toilets are low when they’re not a hole in the floor. Restaurant chairs are low. Bus seats and Tuk Tuk seats do not accommodate my 36-inch inseam. I spent four hours on a bus sitting sideways in an aisle seat because my long legs literally wouldn’t fit.
It’s a man’s world.
Women are invisible in this part of the world, even large, conspicuous women like me. One small example: when walking through a crowd, it magically parted for my husband, but shut tight for me. Even he noticed the difference. As a result, I got cut off, pushed, shoved and poked, particularly in Hanoi, as if I was non-existent with no need, much less right, to occupy the space.
On two separate occasions, when I boarded a bus alone in Vietnam and sat in a public seat right behind/beside the driver because those seats had the most leg room, the drivers got verbally upset and demanded that I move further back in the bus. The second time, I refused and asked the driver “Why?” He mimicked my question and told me to move, but when my husband arrived, he backed down.
When opportunities arose to discuss the behavior with English-speaking locals, they dismissed it with words like “culture” and “tradition” or “religious beliefs.” As the recipient of the negative bias, I prefer to call it what it is — sexism.
No matter where you go
Confucius said “No matter where you go, there you are.” And “there” is always a culture not your own.
I enjoy observing the differences between my own culture and others. I seek to learn from those differences. I try to withhold judgment when I find cultural differences odd or uncomfortable until I gain a better understanding of why they exist. Different doesn’t always mean wrong. Often, it just means different.
Yet, as Confucius wisely observed — I am there. My physicality, my cultural preferences, my morality, my world views are always with me no matter where I go.They work together to form my preferences of one person, place or thing over another. And in my case, they don’t work in favor of Southeast Asia.
In the fall, we travel to new places and in the spring, John and I always return to a spot we particularly enjoyed. While I am awfully glad we ventured there this fall, we probably won’t be returning to Southeast Asia in the springs left to us.