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My Best Frenemy
Many people say it is very easy to travel in South East Asia. I can see why- getting around is convenient and many destinations cater to foreigners. But for many reasons, this was the most challenging trip I've ever done. I had a feeling it would be before I left, but I wasn't sure how the challenges would materialize. But even though traveling isn't always fun, it's always rewarding. It makes the world bigger when you explore new places and cultures and realize there is so much more out there than what you know. And when you experience a new place firsthand, the world becomes a smaller and makes "out there" less daunting place to be.

The Backpack

When I first bought the backpack, I thought it was great until I started packing it and realized how little it would fit. "I can't take my gold strappy sandals and red peep toe slingbacks? Nooooo!" But I still ended up overpacking it. There are a lot of lessons to be learned from carrying a heavy overstuffed backpack almost every day for an extended period of time. I think this trip might have finally cured my overpacking tendencies. I got used to the backpack over the course of the month and it slowly morphed from a burden I couldn't get rid of to a friendly extension of my back. I would definitely "backpack" again. There is something very cool about the idea of carrying everything you need on your back.

Standing Out

This was the first trip where I've had to worry about really standing out. Part of what I loved about some of my past travels was being able to blend in to the local scene and move around like just another person. That was not an option on this trip and there were many frustrating situations. I've always been a little bit different, but this was the first time I've felt so... exposed. And there were times and places where locals didn't make it any easier. But there were also some lovely moments and really friendly people. It was nice on my last evening in Luang Prabang when the kids waved and said hello to me when just a few days before, they had seemed frightened by me. My skin color is much more on my mind when I think about traveling, especially when it comes to the places where it won't help me blend in with locals or even tourists for that matter. But I'm glad I didn't let these concerns stop me from visiting South East Asia.

Cultural and Language Barriers

There is this concept of "saving face" in Asia that seems to pervade everyday life. I can't explain this concept in detail, but from what I gather, people there tend put an emphasis on maintaining a good image and avoiding conflict. One thing I noticed was that many people with minimal English language knowledge will not understand what you are saying, but they will not admit it. And then sometimes people tell you what you want to hear regardless of whether or not it's true. These were the two things that made it sometimes hard to get things done.

Group vs Solo

Joining a group definitely helped me work up the courage to take this trip. It was really nice to start off with a built in group of travel buddies. But there were definitely times (especially in Cambodia) when I felt like I wanted to make more adventurous decisions and the majority of the group was content to stick with what was more familiar. This is a problem when you want to spend time with the people in your group but want to do something different from them. And then by the end of the trip, I felt fine with traveling on my own. Being solo can be lonely at times, but it seems that you are never alone for long. I would consider joining a loosely guided tour group again, depending on where I wanted to go. But I think if I was traveling for an extended period of time and I joined a group, I would just join a for a short time to familiarize myself with a place and then venture out on my own.

Same Same, But Different

There were many similarities between the countries- temples, mountains, temples, great sunsets and sunrises, temples, rivers, temples. I definitely felt "templed-out" a few times on my trip. I think this was partially because some of the first places I saw were the Grand Palace in Bangkok and the temples of Angkor and they set an incredibly high standard. But as we moved from place to place, there were distinct styles of architecture and a lot of pleasant surprises.

And the differences between the countries were really clear as we traveled overland. I felt that every country contributed to my trip in a unique way and I was happy with the order in which we traveled through them. Thailand was a bridge. It helped ease me into South East Asia and it was a good place to transition back into the Western world.

Cambodia was eye opening and heart breaking. Even when you know a lot about the history of a place, it is really different to actually be there. Some of the current living conditions we saw while driving through the countryside were quite shocking, especially in contrast with the grandeur of Angkor Wat and the lovely town of Siem Reap. But I found that many people there were hopeful, captivating, and had a great sense of humor. It's a place you want to root for and hope that their future will be brighter.

Aside from the border experience, I had a great first impression of Vietnam in the Mekong Delta area and the southern part of the country. But as we moved north, I felt increasingly uncomfortable and struggled through the last gloomy days in Vietnam. I felt like the country broke me down and I have to admit, I've never been so ready to leave a place. But there was a personal turning point for me at the end of my time in Vietnam, the day I left Cat Ba on my own and went back to Hanoi. It was the beginning of a growing traveling independence. And then as we drove through the countryside on the way to Laos, I saw a different, more likeable and peaceful Vietnam that hadn't yet been tainted by tourism and money.

In Laos I felt restored, it was a place to just be. It was my favorite part of the trip. I was happy to slip into the slow pace and loved driving through miles of uninhabitated mountains or mountains inhabited by incredible hill tribes. I liked the atmosphere of "the most laid back capital city in the world" and it was great to join the backpacker scene in Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang. I met so many interesting and wonderful travelers from all over the world there. The locals weren't as outgoing as in other countries, but they were friendly and very genuine.

Be Free Where You Are

When I got back, people asked me a lot of questions and some wanted to know what I learned from the trip. It can't always answer these questions in the moment, it can take awhile to fully process and understand the significance of a journey. Looking back now, what stands out most to me is the phrase "Be free where you are". This was on a scroll I saw and bought at the Buddhist monastery in Hue. I thought the idea that freedom comes from within was wonderful. It kind of takes the idea that happiness is a choice a step further.

I later learned that "Be Free Where You Are" is the title of a book based on talk given to a group of prisoners by a Thich Naht Hahn, a monk and former student at the monastery. I didn't realize the book was for sale at the monastery but I found it at a bookstore when I got home. It's a small, but informative book that introduces the idea of mindfulness. The themes are being present and in the moment, focusing on your breathing, and being aware that every day is a miracle. It's one thing to think about being mindful when you are at a beautiful monastery in Vietnam but I think the challenge is incorporating these ideas into everyday life in modern America where you are surrounded by people who are doing whatever is the exact opposite of mindfulness. But the idea is that everyone can achieve freedom, even a prisoner, and when you practice mindfulness, you will hopefully impact those around you.

There were many controversial issues that were always present in South East Asia. Traveling can expose you to so many different sides of a story that it becomes harder to say what's good or bad and it muddles the line between right and wrong. When you see an unfiltered view of a situation, I think it forces you to think more about the reasons why people do things the way they do them and why certain things happen.

I feel like I started off on the trip open to the possibilities but still stuck in my typical way of being. By the end, I felt like I eased into each new location and could have definitely spent more time in South East Asia. This trip definitely covered new territory for me- the culture clashes, getting ripped off, trying new foods and experiences, shady border officials, etc. But it was amazing and memorable and quite an experience. I was sad to leave at the end, but it felt great to have made it through. I now feel like a stonger traveler and even more ready and open to exploring the world.
worldcitizen says:
Haha, I try, but not always so great at it! I think it does take a lot of time and dedication. The little book is a nice reminder though.
Posted on: Jul 31, 2008
sybil says:
i find that living in the moment is easier said than done. but it seems that you had a great trip. that being said, are you still living in the moment in the good ol us of stateside? ;)
Posted on: Jul 30, 2008
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My Best Frenemy
My Best Frenemy
30,036 km (18,664 miles) traveled
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