AN OVERVIEW OF SOUTHEAST ASIA
Rob and I recently sent out a Philippine update and more updates on SE Asia are coming. Before we send those, weíd like to talk about our impressions overall and answer some questions often asked of us. There are so many things that weíve seen on a daily basis for the past 7 months that they are no longer extraordinary to us. Weíve tried to turn back our thoughts to remember what struck us initially as different. We put together a list of Q&A that we thought people would like to read about.
Here it goes:
Outside of the cities
*Outside of the cities, the countryside is covered in farmlands. Farming is often done with water buffalo/plow or by hand. Simple tools are employed and in some areas irrigation is all manual: bucket-by-bucket. The rice fields are beautiful with rich emerald colors and stalks dancing in the breeze. Some areas have terraced fields, like giantís steps carpeted in various shades of green heading toward the heavens.
*Village Life- Most villages consist of 100 or so small simple cottages grouped together along a river. The farmlands surround these homes. People grow chickens, pigs, rabbits and sometimes 1 or 2 village cows. In the evenings people come out and congregate playing games, showing off new babies or talking. Entertainment is scarce. In some areas we visited off the beaten track, we became the entertainment. People would stare continuously at us no matter what we were doing. Itís almost like we fell out of the sky. Of course, Coca cola was already here.
*The market - loud and colorful, the heart of it all. Stalls of fresh vegetables and fruit vie for space with freshly slaughtered animals, live fish, eels, bugs, snakes and other yummy treats. Grains can be found in large sacks and sometimes a few household goods are on sale. The animal section is not for the faint of heart giving reason to all those vegetarians.
*One of the most striking things weíve seen, and it is quite evident in the cities, is the huge gap between "the haves and have nots", (especially in those "communist" countries) . Every country has this but in Asia the gap seems wider. For example, in Manila, one can visit an area where people live in shacks and there is little running water. Children have open sores from rat bites and the filth is unbelievable. One bus ride away and you step out in 5 star heaven.
*One very surprising thing was the modernity in the big cities. Skyscrapers fill the sky. Shopping malls loaded with western goods line the avenues and neon billboards flash brilliantly. All this and the cities still have open sewers and water you canít drink from a tap. While in Manilla there was a cholera outbreak (from the tap water).
*Bicycles -Everyone is on a bicycle. After a few bone crushing bus rides we often opted for this transport. All the cities over 500, 000 have special bike lanes or give way to bikes. It was not uncommon to see 4ó6 people on one bike! They equate cars or motorbikes with money and as we are foreign, people assume we have money and often seemed puzzled that we would choose the "lowest" form of transport.
*Even if we never picked up a book, read the statistics or spoke with someone knowledgeable we would have realized on our own that overpopulation and the large scale destruction of natural resources are big problems facing these countries. From barren hills to muddy swollen rivers to dead reefs the evidence screams in your face.
For us, the most heart wrenching things are the really poverty stricken people, the poor treatment of animals and the environmental damage. On the brighter note we enjoyed the friendly country life, thriving markets and picturesque scenery of the rice fields. Especially Viet Nam
When we first started traveling I called a friend to talk with her and shared our excitement over buying a car in New Zealand that we could live out of. She was shocked "you are sleeping in your car!" she said. As so many things have become common to us we are often surprised and delighted with questions people back home and other travellers ask. The questions make us think and gain a new perspective when attempting to give an honest answer. We have included some of the most commonly asked questions and tried to give brief answers.
THE BIG ONE - MONEY
1. How much have you spent? In 18 months we have spent on average $70 USD a day (37K), this includes absolutely every expenditure one could name. Asian countries are the cheapest. A good way to save money is to stay in the countryside.
2. Do you have a budget? No, we try and stay within a realistic spending frame. Some places are known to be expensive, but you have to remember that poor people live here too. There is always a way.
3. Does watching what you spend hinder your travels? Although we donít stay in 5óstar accommodations, we really donít miss out, it enhances our travel more than anything as we stay where the locals stay and eat what they eat.
4. How do you get money? We use American Express offices or cash travelerís cheques at the local bank. To purchase new t.c., we write a personal check to Amex.
5. Do you regret spending your money on traveling? Not for one minute.
1. Do we get along? Surprisingly so as we are together 24 hours a day. We have to watch ourselves as it is easier to take frustrations out on each other.
2. How do we find out where to go? We use guide books like Lonely Planet and ask travelersí advice.
3. What do we eat? Anything and everything. Sometimes we make soup or oatmeal with boiled water but mostly we eat out. In Asia our staples are rice, noodles, vegetables and fresh fruit (peeled by us) . Weíve gotten pretty good with chopsticks.
4. Have we been sick? Yes, a lot of stomach problems and a couple of virusí but nothing serious. Aside from the lack of sanitation in most places our systems are bombarded with new spices, oils etc.
5. What medicines do you carry? The regular (aspirin, bandaids,etc.) plus
3 kinds of antibiotics, antimalarial tablets and malarial treatment tablets, a bee sting kit, sterile syringes and medicine for Giardia, and a thermometer.
6. How and where do you meet other travellers? At the guesthouses mostly or traveler cafes. There is also kind of a travellers circuit because we all have the same travel books. Itís easy to get away if you want though, just look for the most difficult places to reach, or a place the guide book doesnít talk about.
7. What do you do all day? Every day is different. A lot of sightseeing, going to museums, short day hikes and the regular stuff like washing clothes, going to the bank, talking to new people etc.
8. What are the accommodations like? Very basic: a bed, fan or sometimes a/c, and that is it. The showers and toilets are usually communal. The toilets can be UNBELIEVABLY RANK!!
9. How do we call home? AT&T has direct access if you have a card.
10. What is it like to not have pressures of work? Great, but we still have pressures. This kind of travel brings its own stresses. Where will you stay, how do you get there... How do you get your point across when you donít speak the language? Why canít I get a ticket for this destination? (After spending 2 hours in line)
11. What are the toilets like? They range from really, really, really bad to just bad. Most toilets are "squatters (holes or line trenches in the floor). The squatter is preferable as if there is a western toilet the locals balance themselves squatting on the seat and really make a mess. Of course privacy is not really a word they understand. Frequently you can have a conversation or share a smoke with the guy next to you (if you really want to). Of course they stare at us here, too.
1. Are the people nice? Generally in SE Asia people involved in the tourist business are not so great but the regular people are okay. People in the countryside are the nicest.
2. What one thing could you not give up? Melissa- my sarong. I use it for a towel, blanket, skirt, dress, even a purse. Rob- pocket-knife. We use it on a daily basis.
3. Are there hassles at the border? No, not for us. We always dress nice, ask no questions, look really scared and lost and declare some stupid item like tea or a book. The guards pass us through. We have seen hippie looking people get hassled though. The funny thing is that they canít figure out why they get singled out. Whatís wrong with shaggy dreads, smelly bods, and ragged clothes?
4. Have we been in danger? No but we are really careful.
5. Would we do this again? Yes, for the first time only. In the future we would like to take shorter trips of 3ó4 months and only see one place. After awhile certain aspects of travel lose their newness and some of the fun goes out too.
6. Do you meet others traveling for this long? Yes, but most are only gone for 6ó12 months. We meet a lot of Brits, Aussies and Kiwis on long trips usually with work stops in between and Europeans on a 6ó8 week holiday.
7. Favorite country in SE ASIAóó Vietnam... The people, food, and scenery are outstanding.
8. Favorite Country overall ó Australia. Magnificent.
9. Any place youíve been you would move to permanently? NO WAY! God bless
America. Of course everyone thinks their country is the best. The Aussies prefer OZ.
10. Is it hard not speaking the language? Sometimes. We have phrasebooks and
most people speak some English or we pantomime. It can get frustrating though. Even when they do speak English, it is hard to communicate because they really donít understand what you want. Also, once they think they know what you want you canít change their thought process. You just smile and say thank you and walk away. You have to be good at spotting this or it will drive you crazy. Two questions together are a complete NOóNO. Also, they canít say "I donít know." If they donít know, they just make something up." Really! This is another one you have to be able to spot and unfortunately only experience helps.
1. How will we know when it is time to go home? Our money will run out.
2. Do you think youíve been gone too long? Overall no, but we have hit two down times that probably wouldnít happen on shorter trips.
3. Do we miss home? Yes, but not as bad as we thought. Our mail and email help keep us up to date.
4. Are we afraid to go home? A little. I donít think weíve changed much but other long term travellers say it is a difficult adjustment.
5. What will we do? Find a job pretty quickly. This really depends on where Rob can work more than anything.
Well thatís it for now. We will be sending some more updates soon.
Rob and Mel