Posts Tagged With: Asia

Some Reflections on SE Asia

When I arrived in Chiang Mai back in January, I had never set foot onto Asian soil.  This city was my first exposure to Asian life and culture.  I’ll never forget my first experience riding down Huay Kaew road on the back of Dave’s motorcycle: I thought I was going to die.  Everything seemed so frenzied, with cars, tuk tuks, motorbikes and pedestrians darting everywhere.  The sights, sounds and smells of the city were a full on assault on my senses.  Despite the initial chaos, I quickly adjusted to this foreign place and Chiang Mai became a kind of home, my baseline Asian city.

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Home sweet home! And our new ATMA SEVA office!

It wasn’t until I left the familiar comforts of my apartment in Chiang Mai to venture south to Bangkok that I realized just how good I have it here.  From the moment I arrived in the Bangkok train station to the great pleasure of the dozens of taxi and tuk tuk drivers vying for my baht, I realized that I wasn’t in Kansas anymore, as the saying goes.  From there things only got more aggressive, heading into Cambodia where the poverty is much more prevalent and in your face.  Walking around Angkor Wat, you can’t go twenty feet without ten cries of “Lady! Fresh pineapple for you! Very cheap!” or a dozen little girls following you along the road trying to sell you postcards and other small trinkets.  At first it’s easy enough to smile and say no politely.  At 2pm when you’ve been climbing around temples since 5am in 100 degree plus heat and approximately 147% humidity, it’s much harder to put on your happy face to turn down vendor #493.  I can sympathize with their position, but at some point, it’s just exhausting to constantly have to say “no” ten times before someone hears it.

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The streets of Saigon. One of the many vendors who will approach you on the street, peddling his wares. As he repeatedly told us, he didn’t JUST sell sunglasses, but he had an impressive collection of lighters too! Unfortunately, we were not in the market for either.

It’s the same with tuk tuk and pedicab drivers.  The only time you’re safe is when you are physically in another tuk tuk.  Until then, you are fair game and you will be hassled.  I remember one afternoon we were in Hue, Vietnam trying to walk around the old Imperial Citadel.  This is a large complex of restored buildings, old gates, crumbling walls, and other sites.  After spending 75% of the previous day in a car, we were ready to explore on foot.  A helpful pedicab driver pointed us in the right direction to the Citadel.  Starting to understand how the game works, I knew we hadn’t seen the last of him.  After waving and thanking him, he continued to follow us all the way to the Citadel, repeatedly offering us a ride in his pedicab for lower and lower prices.  I tried to explain to him that it wasn’t the price- we just didn’t want a pedicab ride- to which he replied, “you never try, you never know!” Clever, sir.  Unfortunately all we wanted to do was walk around and he did not seem to be getting the message.  It took us a solid ten minutes to lose him, at which point I’m pretty sure Anna, my traveling companion, was on the verge of snapping his head off.

Similar scenarios occurred in every city we visited in Cambodia and Vietnam, although this particular experience in Hue was the worst.  It really opened my eyes to comfortable my life in Chiang Mai is.  Everyone always says that Thai people are extremely friendly and welcoming and I can personally attest this to be true.  In Chiang Mai, when somebody says hello to you on the street, 99% of the time they are just being friendly and have no agenda.  When a tuk tuk driver pulls over to offer you a ride, if you say no, they nod and drive off.  I was absolutely astounded by how different the culture in Chiang Mai is to the rest of the parts of SE Asia that I visited.  Granted, I went to mostly tourist hot spots and didn’t even make it to Laos, but overall, I was amazed at how artificial the friendliness felt everywhere we went.  Sure, that lady with the basket of donuts is all smiles and cheer until you say “no, I don’t want donuts” for the fifth time, at which point her face drops and she stomps off to her next target.

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Classic Hanoi. You can find everything on the sidewalk except for pedestrians!

There are plenty of things that I loved about Cambodia and Vietnam, which I’ll be writing about soon, but this feeling of fake friendliness is one of the biggest things that stuck out to me throughout our trip.  Had I started in Hanoi, I would have had a very different understanding of SE Asia.  It just goes to show how relative our impressions are.  Also, although the cultures do share a lot of similarities, this trip highlighted how different these three countries and the cities within them are. It makes me very grateful to have found such a warm, welcoming temporary home in Chiang Mai!

Cheers, J

p.s. For more thoughts, check out my latest blog entry for the ATMA SEVA organization blog, Southeast Asia on a Shoestring Schedule. Another entry with pictures coming soon!

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I’m Alive!

Well hello again! Things have been quiet here for the past two and half weeks while I’ve been traveling through Cambodia and Vietnam with a good friend from college.  I barely have time to breathe back here in Chiang Mai before taking off tomorrow morning for another trip to the Lawa Village where I previously lived for three weeks back in February.  I’m eager to get back and see all the kids, including possibly my favorite baby in the world (she was just on the verge of being able to walk when I left.. I’m hoping she may be walking this time!)  

This trip to Pa Pae will be a welcome vacation from my vacation, which was amazing but quite the whirlwind and rather exhausting.  Trying to get through Cambodia and Vietnam in just two weeks is hard.  Most people take 3-4 weeks in each country, fully maximizing the 30 day visas.  We spent 4 days in Cambodia and 10 in Vietnam (and 1 in Bangkok where we met up.)  Amazingly, everything went pretty smoothly!  Details and pictures will be posted next week when I return from Pa Pae, but I’ll leave you with one as a teaser…

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Relaxing on an overnight cruise through Halong Bay. And yes, I’m rocking quite the flip flop tan.

Highlights included Angkor Wat (NOT overrated), Starbucks in Saigon, touring the DMZ with a former ARVN officer, Halong Bay, successfully crossing roads in Vietnam, and lots of pho and rice paper spring rolls.  As much fun as it was, I’m happy to be back in Thailand with my pad thai and only slightly frenzied traffic.  Man did this trip open my eyes to how much I love Chiang Mai and how (relatively) quiet it is. Anyways, I’m getting ahead of myself. I am alive and well and will share more soon once I’ve had time to process it all (and sort through the 700 photos I took!) 🙂

❤ J

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Polish? You’re Polish? Oh… PO-LICE. Like, Police.

It’s funny what you end up missing.  When I departed Chiang Mai a little over two weeks ago for village life, I thought I would miss the comforts of the city, like western style toilets and showers.  I thought I’d start craving some random farang (foreign) food like pizza.  Turns out, two weeks in, I really don’t miss any of these tangibles that much.  I’ve gotten used to my cold bucket showers, taken around the same time everyday after my late afternoon walk around the village, categorizing the experience as “refreshing” rather than “frigid.”  Honestly, they feel great.  As far as the rest of the bathroom situation goes, I’ve adjusted to the idea of the squat toilet and now the idea of sitting on a toilet seems weird.  It’s funny how quickly we can recalibrate to a new culture if we’re just open to it.  It’s human nature to initially have the knee jerk reaction of “they do WHAT? HOW? Why?? I’m not doing that!!” but eventually the question flips- we start to wonder why we do things the way we do.  Who decided that sitting on a toilet was a better idea than squatting over one?  (This is a legitimate question.)  Seeing more of the world has made me more introspective, thinking about how I do certain things and why.  The whole idea of perspective starts to become a reality instead of a buzzword thrown around by world travelers.

The things that I have missed while in Pa Pae are less palpable.  I’ve missed the comfort of being able to communicate easily.  To have a thought and know, instantly, how to convey that idea to another human being via speech.  It’s something we take for granted in daily life. This has given me a newfound appreciation for anyone who has ever left their homeland for a foreign country with no knowledge of the native language.  It can be hard as hell.

But the flip side of this, or the progression, is the realization that the experience of hitting a linguistic road block actually can be great fun.  Passing the handy Thai-English dictionary back and forth can make for an entertaining afternoon, with both parties learning a new word and laughing at the other’s mispronunciation (I don’t think I’ll ever get the “ng” letter/sound down…!)  There’s also something great about the moment when your message is conveyed.  Like the other night…

So Friday night around 6pm, a thunderstorm rolls through the hills.  It didn’t hit Pa Pae too hard, but it was enough to take out the power.  I noticed this at my tee bahn (home) and went back to a friend’s for dinner, bringing with me the news that the power was down.  Using my limited arsenal of Thai words, I pointed to the light switch and the ceiling light and said “mai mee,” meaning “don’t have.”  Of course, my hosts were confused.  Holding up a finger to wait, I pulled out the dictionary and found the word for electricity.  A-ha!  Now they understood, flipping the light switch and exclaiming in Thai that yes, the power was in fact out.  Another win for the dictionary.

The title of this entry refers to another entertaining exchange involving a 23 year old Lawa man telling me repeatedly that he was Polish.  I was confused, trying to figure out if this was possible or if he was mixing up the word (hey, how do I know, maybe a Polish person came to visit Pa Pae once? Maybe I found a long lost relative!)  Eventually, and I mean like 30 minutes later, we figure out with the help of a friend that he means police.  Not Polish.  Ahhh, bummer.

It’s little moments like these that I’ll look back fondly on, not for any special reason, just for the unique and utterly exotic experience that they represent.  My stay here has been both extremely challenging and very fun, often at the same time.  Sometimes I find myself thinking of the common interview question “tell us about a challenge you faced and what you did” and think that I’ve found my answer.  I mean, after this, grad school should be a breeze!

I have two more nights solo here before Katherine and a new friend of Atma Seva arrive on Wednesday.  Despite the fact that I’m now comfortably living here on my own, I’m looking forward to a friendly face and some English-speaking company!  And then we all head back to Chiang Mai early Saturday, where I’ll move into my new apartment!!  Stay tuned for more news as my Thai adventures continue 🙂

❤ J

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