Everything feels perfectly normal. Everything feels perfectly off. Max and I took a day-long snorkel boat excursion off the Thailand coast while there. On the way out to one of the islands, one of the two boat propellers fell off. That was the seemingly normal experience. What was abnormal was that the next tour boat that passed us in the middle of the ocean only a few minutes after our mishap had a brand new replacement propeller. Much of SE Asia seems to work in this way. While in the Peace Corps in Central America I also experienced similar mishaps on a regular basis, but there a mishap typically resulted in a change of plans. For example, if a road washed out or a vehicle broke down we would need to find lodging in the town of the mishap until the problem was resolved. In SE Asia, similar mishaps happen, but there seems to almost always be an odd or unique immediate fix to the problem not requiring a shift of plans, just a little mental energy to try to understand how something was addressed.
Overall, I feel more comfortable in SE Asia than I did during our travels in Europe. Much of that is probably due to the fact that we look different and therefore are expected to somewhat act differently. In most of Europe we “looked” liked most of the Europeans and I always felt inadequate for the situation. Here in Asia, we absolutely “look” like travelers and there is little expectation that we won’t act like them. It makes it easier. Additionally, the culture, landscape, and the food have been interesting and unique. All of these have allowed me to really appreciate the countries we’ve visited:
As a traveler, Thailand felt easy. As it was the place we landed coming from Europe, it felt easy even before we had the context of the other SE Asian countries we visited. Most everything – transportation, accommodation, food, sites – felt like it was set up for tourists. We landed in Bangkok, spent a couple days there before heading to the island of Koh Lanta for two weeks. From there we traveled to Chang Mai for four days. We took the train from Bangkok to Chang Mai as it was suggested you’d miss a lot by flying. I disagree as aside from seeing some monkeys and miles of brown rice fields, the 9-hour ride wasn’t worth it. Sarah has a cousin who lives in Chang Mai who was a fabulous host and gave us a much better feel for the city and country than we could have gathered on our own. From Chang Mai, we flew to Udon Thani, which is a city near the Laos border.
We entered from Udon Thani via bus to Vientiane. After a day in Vientiane, we traveled via a long mini-van “bus” ride to Luang Prabang. Unlike the underwhelming train ride in Thailand, the bus trip was worth it. There was always something to look at and some amazing views. While we only spent four days in Laos, I feel like I was able to get a good sense from the country. It felt like the country was very aware of who they were as a collective people. Both the Laos and Communist flags were displayed proudly (mostly in the South of the country) and took tourism in stride. I felt like tourists were forced (for the good) to do things on Laos terms. We had to wake very early one morning in order to take a shuttle to the bus that would take us to Luang Prabang. After driving around smoggy Vientiane for an hour in an open-back truck picking up and dropping off other tourists, we ended up a block away from our point of origin only to get on another shuttle at that time for the trip north. That was on their terms, certainly not ours!
Vietnam has more kinetic energy than any country we’ve visited thus far. From the moment we arrived via air from Luang Prabang, our senses were attacked. Thousands…no, millions of motor scooters filled the streets in Hanoi. Shops spill into the street everywhere making a place to walk a premium. Businesses rent common space in front of their establishments to one vendor in the day and a different one at night. Absolute chaos best describes it, but somehow it all works and there is a flow to it all. One quickly adapts to the energy of the country and learns to jump into the raging river that is the masses of people, motorbikes, and cars…because to attempt to fight it would be futile. The ability for Vietnam to accost my senses in this way has made it my favorite country visited thus far on our trip. From Hanoi, we took the train south to Da Nang and spent two nights in Hoi An. We took the train from there to Ho Chi Minh City for a couple days. While there, we went to the War Remnants Museum. As a citizen of the U.S., the entire visit was an exercise in self-awareness given the devastation the war brought to the people of Vietnam and the impact (agent orange and napalm) it still has on the people and environment of the country.
We flew from Ho Chi Minh City to Siem Reap. While there we took a full day to tour Angkor Wat, visited the war museum another and relaxed on the third day. Angkor Wat and surrounding sites really are impressive. The crowds of people were substantial and took us by surprise given our first impression of Siem Reap was that it was a smaller-sized town. The number of tourists has necessitated infrastructure to support it. Not just roads and public utilities, but masses of people to work in the hotels, restaurants, and tour companies. I imagine Cambodia is what Thailand was 20 years ago, but I get the sense that it already hit its tipping point a while back. I wouldn’t be surprised to see amusement parks, water parks, and outlet shopping malls being built in Siem Reap in the near future.
I significantly over-estimated what Indonesia was going to be. Islands with names like Bali and Borneo, and Papua have always been these romanticized tropical paradises in my mind. I just assumed we’d want to spend as much time as we could muster here while in SE Asia. We flew from Siem Reap to Bali via Kuala Lumpur. Spent a night in Denpasar before jumping on a ferry to the small Lombok Island of Gili Air. The Gili Islands definitely have some good things going for them: no gas-powered vehicles, great scuba/snorkeling, laid-back island atmosphere. On the negative side, there are no waves, trash piles are burned everywhere, and the islands are claustrophobically small. With a circumference of only three miles, it started to feel a bit more like Alcatraz than a beach paradise after a week. We had hoped for a few more watersports, but the coral reefs and lack of wind this time of year limited our daily options to scuba/snorkeling or reading on the beach. If this was a one-week vacation from work back in the States it would have been ideal, but midway through a longer trip, it just didn’t resonate with us and wasn’t what we needed at the time. We decided to leave early and go to the south of the Lombok island where we heard there were good waves for surfing.
We spent 12 days in the emerging and aspiring town of Kuta, Lombok. Max and I spent the majority of those days improving our surfing skills. Aside from surfing and visiting the various towns and beaches along the coast, there isn’t much more to do in South Lombok. Not that more is needed – it’s been pleasant enough, but at this point in our trip, I regretfully needed more from Indonesia than it could deliver. On the plus side, I feel I’ve become a pretty good novice surfer, have read a ton, have many additional thoughts about development (another post on poverty and development in Indonesia forthcoming) and have seen some mind-blowing things here.