Wednesday, January 13, 2010

My thoughts on Southeast Asia & the Mekong Region...

This is my thoughts thus far, there is still more to go - the rest of Vietnam, Laos & Northern Thailand. And for those of you reading to see about Crystal & my journey so far - this bit is purely my thoughts & feelings. Crystal, I am sure - has many different thoughts & ideas about her time here.


Wow. If ever there was a place to experience culture shock - this is it! It's been a great time so far & part of that is just how we traveled! Winging it, seeing what we want, where & when we want. A lot different than a fully planned schedule that my whirlwind Contiki experience was. Here, if we miss something, it's our faults & if we find something...somewhere or someone amazing, that is all on us! It's pretty incredible. Especially given the language barrier. It makes me feel guilty when everyone we meet can speak better English than I can Thai, Khmer, Vietnamese or Lao. And most of them want to, they try so hard to communicate. It makes me feel so narrow minded & ridiculous. I come from a bilingual country & even my understanding of french is practically negligable these days, so long has it been since I used it with any regularity!


However, amongst the rickshaws, temples, rice fields, tiny babies on the back of motorcycles & exotic fruits - a person still sees North American (namely U.S.) influence everywhere. From the clothing brands they wear, the television programming they watch & the music they listen to, there is also the plethora of North American & European food available to please tourists. Also - establishments owned by foreigners who thought they would come to escape, live simpler, make loads of money, or even because they fell in love with a country or a local!


Thailand - from our first moments on the ground I was feeling joyous & safe. Everyone truly has been so friendly. In some areas you can really see the lack of money, but you are always seeing smiles as well. I loved the country & the people & I think that every city we have been to so far has been a wonderful experience & can honestly say I cannot wait to get back to Thailand & see even more!


Cambodia - this country was the hardest to be on a holiday in. The people were not as happy, their poverty & desperation so obvious & impossible to ignore. They would get angry if we didn't buy something from them, fed up & believing us all to be rich. And yet there is so much in place to help. To train young & impoverished people, to teach a trade, to teach better healthcare, to raise money to helping end prostitution & child labour (aka beggin, selling jewellery or books on the street). And the people that we met who wanted & were able to talk to us were hungry for change & betterment. So excited to talk to us, hear our ideas, practice English, always wanting to learn to advance to a better job for a better life for themselves & their families. It was heartwarming to see the opportunities that they as a people are creating, being given & that we could have used (if we went through the right channels) to help out as well. The Friends Without A Border program & hospital is a miracle, and there were many other foundations we saw & heard about. The history & amazing accomplishments in Angkor Wat & Angkor Thom, surviving wars & their desire to share with us the beauty that their country does yet hold - it was beautiful. This is a place that I would love to come back to, but I would want it to be ain a charitable capacity; a role where I am teaching, building, volunteering - giving back.


Vietnam - we haven't been here long, but the differences are vast. Saigon was a crazy busy city with so many vehicles on the road & people everywhere; the kind of city you can find anything & have any kind of experience in. So far there have been no tuk tuks - only cylcos (which are bicycle rickshaws). The children are mostly chubby little things, which to me says that there is a lot more money here, as in Thailand & Cambodia the children (and adults) never had any extra body fat so meagre was their diet & so hard were their working lives. This is not to say that the Vietnamese don't work hard - for I have hardly seen anyone taking any kind of break. But definitely in the cities they have more food on the table. There have not been any begging children, or adults, and one thing so different the gardens/parks/greenery! In the city there are parks & not just grass but beautiful multicoloured patterns & bushes carved into giant serpentine dragons & other creatures. And not just in Saigon, but in random round abouts & meridians. It's a very different thing that they have the money to upkeep such a non-essential thing. And still we have just begun, Northern Vietnam might be entirely different, it is a divided country much like Ireland. And there is still Laos & Northern Thailand!


But there are some things that I will never forget -

*The driving, crazy & seemingly without rules or order as people drive wherever & on whichever side of the road they want. Horns honking regularly as acknowledgement & as warnings. Turning & driving into oncoming traffic because it gets them more quickly to their destination. Each journey in a vehicle or on foot has left me thankful to be alive & exhilarated from the adreniline pumping through my system. When crossing a street you need to look both ways, until you have reached the other side. And crosswalks (zebra stripes) & traffic lights, mean virtually nothing. No one slows or stops at a crosswalk, they just honk if you are in their way & they run red lights with frightening regularity - it just depends on how much of a hurry they are in.

*The markets, especially the ones with all the handmade & local goods & food. The smells are alternately glorious & horrific as I smell fruit & noodles, rice & spring rolls, so many tasty items on sticks. And then I walk past a fish stall without enough ice, and it's more than a bit smelly - or I encounter a mongrel dog stopping to scratch it's fleas in my general direction or licking at a scabby spot that is oozing some liquid...and I send up a little prayer that it won't rub up against my leg because I am sure that will result in a third foot, a growth of some kind will be birthed from said gooey, manky dog. But the beauty of the items, the bargains to be had, the texture of smooth coconut shell or rough hand woven silk - gorgeous things that are not easily found at home. The smiles, the bartering, the calls of "Laidee, you wanna buy a bracelet?" or "A scarf, I have many colour for you - for your friends at home?!". The tight cramped quarters as I feel the sweat trickle down my back because there is no airflow, thousands of people & we are all shoulder to shoulder. Nowhere to try on items, so over the clothes it goes, or thru some tricky rearranging or clever use of a sarong I get it on, only to discover - I am in Asia & with a butt & thighs like mine & yes, even breasts (over here I am fairly well endowed), I am more of a L or XL. Which folks, I gotta tell you - doesn't do much for the self esteem!!

*The children & the love, these people are ridiculous about children. They have no rules, they can be little devils & all they get is laughs & kisses & cuddles! And if you bring your child over here it will be grabbed from your hands & kissed & cuddled in much the same way. They cannot get enough of children. They light up their lives & bring smiles & joy to everyone in all of these countries. It's amazing to watch how the family unit works together through everything. You buy a dress in one shop, and they run you over to their cousins shop for shoes. It's great & hilarious. And the kids are more than a little bit adorable, and watching everyone together is beautiful.


It's all an experience that I wouldn't trade for the world. I am glad that Crystal wanted to come & I am glad that I came with her. What incredible places we have seen & incredible people we have met. What an incredible experience to have had at an age where I can take more from it than I would have been able to had I been younger.


And we're only half way through it!!!!