A year ago I was restless. I woke up each morning, I took a shower, I fed the cat, I made breakfast, I drove to work, and I sat in a chair all day. Some days I worked out, some days I ate out, and some nights were spent cooking. Life felt mundane, the daily grind of my routine leaving me unfulfilled with a yearning for more. I was bored with my life as I knew it, and I wanted to see the world.
I do love Southeast Asia. Something about the organised chaos and beautiful food keeps drawing me back. This is my third time visiting, but for some reason I’m seeing things very differently than I have on previous trips. I’ve been here for three weeks, and traveled from Bangkok to Vientiane, via Luang Prabang and some smaller cities along the way. It’s really stuck out to me just how many tourists there are here. Perhaps it’s been to do with the places that I’m staying, or perhaps my perception has changed in some way; I’m more comfortable in my surroundings and I’m past all of the culture shock so perhaps I approach things with different eyes. Basically what I’m trying to say is that you go to a new city, you stay in a particular area and you just get trapped inside of this little tourist bubble. I feel like I walk for miles to find local food (I’m sick of eating pancakes for breakfast), and any attraction I go to is just thronged with tourists. Where did the real Asia go?
Vang Vieng is a prime example of what I’m trying to describe in words. It’s probably one of the most picturesque places that I’ve been. Its a tiny wee town surround by mountains with a river that winds through. It’s breathtakingly gorgeous. The primary tourist attraction there consists of hiring a tube and floating down the river, stopping at numerous bars along the way, taking drugs and partying all night. It’s quite sad to think that this tiny towns economic existence is based on the want of backpackers to party with other backpackers for days on end. I realize that everybody has different ideas of fun, but I just don’t understand this kind of tourism. This obviously isn’t the only type of tourism around, there are plenty activities, ranging from kayaking to caving to cooking classes to temple visits.
By staying in these areas and simply by being here I am contributing to these cultural adaptations, and the growth of these areas. There are quite a few places run by expats, and the locals are providing services that must be their interpretation of what tourists want; perhaps they are spot on, because a lot of these places are packed with people. I am internally conflicted because just because I don’t like to do something, doesn’t mean that it’s stupid or a waste of time for somebody that enjoys it. We’re all different after all. Tourism of any form also contributes a lot to the local economy here. I find it funny that I find this environment offensive, when it’s essentially the same as Chinatown in a western city, which I think is super cool. It’s definitely all about perspective.
I suppose I should admit here to being a sucker for western style coffee shops. I like to take my laptop/journal/book and just chill, so I suppose you could say that these places really do cater for what I want.
So what have I been up to? On a few recommendations I stayed near Khaosan Road in Bangkok. Oh my god, please don’t ever go here. It’s a few streets designated to partying and drinking. It boasts 90% western restaurants and fake ID shops, absolutely all prices everywhere are inflated. I found this funny website about The Khaosan, it actually sums it up perfectly. I did however find The Khaosan is a different world at 7am. I spoke to lovely Monks walking the streets collecting their daily Alms, and was treated to a street breakfast by a local couple on their way to work.
I overnight trained to Chiang Mai, a small city in Northern Thailand. It’s such a nice place that a lot of tourists stay for months on end, doing 10 hour visa runs to the border every 60 days. It’s a bit of a backpacker hub, which makes it quite comfortable. Most people have a small grasp of English and you can find anything you want. It’s still super cheap. 100 Baht per night for a nice enough dorm bed ($3-4) and meals are about $2. The place I stayed (Big & O’s house) was run by some really cool Thai guys, and I met some nice people here. Harry, a chef from Ireland eating his way through Asia (sounds familiar), directed me to a fantastic local restaurant tucked away inside a drug store, and told me what I needed to order in Thai. Best Thai food I’ve ever had. I genuinely believe 80% of the food we see as ‘Thai food’ is generally not what local people eat in Thailand.
Armed with a couple of new travel buddies, I made my way to Luang Prabang via slow boat, overnighting in Huay Xai and Pak Beng (both in Laos). Huay Xai was a sleepy little border town, which I really liked. Pak Being was hilarious. It serves purely as an overnight accommodation town for slow boat travelers and consists of a single street lined with guest houses and restaurants. Despite being a town for the slow boats, there is no dock and you jump off the boat and climb up a hill of sand with your bag. 3 minutes after getting off the boat I was offered ’smoking’ (read: opium), then not long afterward a very excitable guest house owner wanted us to come to his bar for Happy Shakes (read: mushrooms). He described his bar’s happy hour as, “Happy happy, too much, many hour!” With, “Whiskey more and more and more.” Which I think means free refills.
Like Hoi An in Vietnam, Luang Prabang has a lot of pretty French Colonial architecture, and is nice to walk or cycle around. As such it is a tourist haven with almost no indication that you are in Laos. Harry and I took the local ferry across the river and walked out to a village a few kilometers away. As soon as you cross the river there is a drastic change in scenery. Gone are the paved roads and buildings, and in are the dusty streets with wild dogs, lined with wooden shacks. We walked in on a family having their lunch in the village, we weren’t sure if it was a shop or not, but we asked the lady for some soup anyway. She cooked us a delicious noodle soup with what looked like the leftovers of her family lunch. We learnt some Lao, “Pep, pep!” As we high-fived with the kids.
I continued on alone to Vang Vieng, where I cycled around the town a little, but mostly spent some time resting my leg. Vang Vieng is the tubing town I described earlier, surrounded by beautiful mountains. The day I left I went on a sunrise hot air balloon ride, which was spectacular. It was my first time ballooning, and to be honest, it isn’t really a safe feeling. It’s also not as peaceful as I imagined, as the burners are super loud and are going 90% of the time. Even so, I really enjoyed it.
Vientiane I found interesting. It’s the capital city, and feels similar to Saigon, except much less hectic. I felt like I could blend in with local life a little more here. The food was interesting too, a mish-mash of Southern Chinese, Vietnamese, and Thai food. I went to the COPE Center, which is where they make prosthetics for Laotians. Obviously I found this ridiculously interesting, especially seeing all the hand made legs that people wore for years and years, I cannot even imagine. I was also lucky enough to pick up food poisoning in Vientiane, so stayed for a few days before heading to Phnom Penh via plane. I wouldn’t really recommend food poisoning, but to only get food poisoning one time given the amount of things I’ve eaten, I’m definitely still ahead. I’m staying at a friend’s apartment in Phonm Penh for a few more days while I finish my TEFL certification and find somewhere to volunteer.