How to travel in South-East Asia

I’m sure someone else has already written this. I’m equally sure that it applies to visitors to parts of the globe besides South-east Asia. Never mind, it’s something I have to get off my chest. If I see it one more time, I swear, I’m going to take a hostage.  Somebody will be planning a visit to SEA and have an itinerary something like the following:

  • Monday, Bangkok 8am-noon, visit Wat Po and the Floating Markets
  • Monday, afternoon, fly to Hanoi
  • Monday, evening, bus to Ha Long Bay
  • Tuesday, morning, bus to Hanoi
  • Tuesday, 11am – 2pm, Hoa Lo Prison
  • Tuesday, 3pm – 6pm, visit Snake Village
  • Wednesday, Sa Pa
  • Wednesday night, fly to Mandalay

and so on.

OK, Item One — this is not a race and you are not Phileas Fogg, traveling around the world in 80 days. Yes, I realize SEA is a long flight from your home country and yes, you only have X days off of work. Running around like a headless chicken is not going to make it any closer or make your vacation any longer.

Traveling is supposed to be about experience. A delicious restaurant, a charming smile, a glorious sunset. It’s not supposed to be about hour upon hour of waiting for your flight to be called, of staring at the back of the seat ahead of you, of staring at the back of the cabbie’s head, of waiting in the lobby for your room to be ready.

Use this simple calculation: every time you change cities, you lose a day, give or take. So an 10-day vacation in five cities has as much actual vacation time as a five-day vacation in one city. Make sure it’s worth it.

Item Two — this is not a military operation. It’s not a shuttle launch. You don’t have to have everything planned to the split-second. Especially in SEA, you can arrange pretty much anything you need on the spot. Most places you’ll go, tourism is an industry and there is no shortage of industrious locals enthusiastic to make a few bucks getting the tourists whatever they need. And if there isn’t, so what? So you don’t get to see the third-largest reclining bronze Buddha outside of China. Screw it, you’re on vacation, and there’s a 50-cent beer waiting for you in the mini-bar.

In general, don’t even make reservations unless you absolutely have to (e.g. during big holidays). Drift into town, poke around the various hotels, look at the rooms, dicker on the price but not hard — you’re on vacation . Get a guide for the afternoon, if you like him, hire him for the following day, and ask him if he can get you a ride to the next town.

I get the feeling some tourists believe that the customs police enforce tour-book recommendations, and at the border some scary guy with bad skin and a green uniform will shout at them, “Mr White Person, you did not visit our national temple! Did you not read in Frommer’s that the national temple is a must-see ! You have insulted our national honor and will now be thrown into a bamboo cage and forced to live on caterpillars! Die, lazy temple-skipping white person, die!”

Suffice it to say, no. You do not have see every tourist attraction and cultural site in the country; you aren’t even obligated to see the best ones. See the ones that are accessible to wherever you happen to find yourself.

Don’t make a schedule, make a list. Two lists, actually. One is the short list of big things. On this list there should be (roughly) as many entries as there are weeks in your vacation. They’re your must-sees and must-dos. So “Mt Popa” or “Angkor Wat” or whatever. Do all of these, unless it’s too much trouble (remember: you’re on vacation).

The second list is the long list of little things, and should have about as many entries as there are days on your trip. These are the things you’d like to do, if you get a chance. “See Cu-Chi Tunnels” or “Ride an elephant”. Don’t worry too much about this list, it’s just some ideas.

Finally, read a novel set in the country you’re going to visit. Not a tour guide, a novel, or at least a memoir of some sort. For every country in SEA, there are hundreds of English-language books about that country and they will give you some insight into the life there. Note: this rule does not apply to Cambodia. As far as I can tell, every book set in Cambodia, the author’s entire family dies by the end. This is not helpful to the traveler.

A movie is not an acceptable substitute here. Every movie set in SEA revolves around one person shooting a machine gun at another person. Again, not helpful to the traveler.

Item Three – be flexible. If you planned to go by hydrofoil to city A but are offered a free ride on a banana sampan to city B, consider it. The hydrofoil will safely convey you where you planned to go in air-conditioned comfort, with a DVD player and a snack bar, but your house is safe and comfortable and air-conditioned and has a DVD player and a full refrigerator and you are paying thousands of dollars just to get away from that house. On the banana sampan, you might get bitten by some indigenous fauna, like a monkey, or a spider, or the sampan-pilot’s toddler. That might sound like a bad thing, but when you get back, which would your friends rather hear about: your nasty infected monkey/spider/toddler bite or the Chinese-subtitled DVD of Transformers 2 you watched on the hydrofoil? Travel is about the experience; even the bad parts are the good parts.

Item Four – forget about safety. There is nowhere in SEA that’s as dangerous as where you live.

Item Five – be careful. There’s a weird, almost mystical thing about SEA: somehow, you always get what you deserve. I think that’s the problem with the West: everything is so carefully monitored and padded and inspected, the bad things that do happen to you really are random. It’s almost frustrating. Whenever there’s a crime or disaster on the TV news, you can see the victims are outraged. They say things like “Why did this happen?” and “Why did this happen to me ?” And the obvious answer is, no reason. The Western way of life is so primped and perfected, its imperfections really are maddening.

South-East Asia probably does have a lot more bad shit happening, but it seems to be very fairly distributed.

Get drunk at a bar and try to run out on the check? The bouncer will fuck you up. He won’t worry about lawsuits or insurance liability or police; he will grab his baseball bat and he will fuck you up.

Rent a scooter and drive drunk? An over-loaded pick-up truck will leave you in a pool of your own blood, your own internal organs, and whatever the truck was hauling, and the driver will drive off and not tell anyone.

Leave your camera in your unlocked hotel room, just for a minute? Some thief will grab it and have enough money left over after whiskey and cigarettes to buy some food for his mom.

Go to a sleazy bar and pick up that tall girl in the corner? Yeah, she’s not a girl.

The average South-East Asian believes in karma for the same reasons you believe in stop signs: you see them every day, and they’re enforced.

That’s why I said SEA was safer than your home town. Act like a fool and you’ll come home smarter. Be smart, and you’ll come home safe.

Item Six – relax. You’re on vacation.

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