January 25, 2014

Day 109 – Same same but different

The more time I spend in South East Asia (SEA), the more I try and master the art of haggling.  I have to say it’s just not my cup of tea but the trouble is, you have to bargain. Most places have two prices, one for the locals and one for the foreigners and yes they often try and rip you off! The other problem is, once they know you’re from London, they work out that you must be able to afford the price they’ve set. This idea that people from the West or England, are loaded and so should pay more.  Now, of course, this isn’t true, especially for those of us who are backpacking and intend to try and make our money stretch as much as possible.


I do also sense a level of jealously or resentment from some of the locals. Us foreigners, travel around with our massive backpackers and 1 litre water bottles and the locals help us load the tuk tuk, bus or boat.  Many, although not all, haven’t traveled, they haven’t traveled to the different cities within their country or traveled aboard.  But there we are booking tours, going on treks and trying to soak in as much of the local culture as possible. It’s understandable that local people within Thailand or Cambodia would also want to travel, why not? Other than lack of money and time, different lifestyles prevent this from happening.


Take the local transport means in Cambodia, Thailand and Laos for instance; there are plenty of tuk tuks and most will overcharge you because they know they can. There are no local buses in Cambodia so it’s either you rent/buy a bicycle or motorbike or you take a tuk tuk. In Bangkok, you see buses but then up north, in Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai it’s mainly motorbikes and tuk tuks. Here, from what I’ve seen in Luangng Prabang again no buses.  It would be much easier to travel around with better travel means.


Nonetheless, one of the main benefits of travelling around in SEA, is you experience no road rage.  There is none of this overtaking one another down the high way or putting up the finger to another driver. The simple rule is, larger vehicles almost always have right of way.  Unlike Vietnam, in Thailand, they press their horn to alert any on coming traffic so the roads are relatively quiet. Also, despite the lack of road markings, potholes, unlit highways and few traffic lights, I have only witnessed two road side accidents. One was in Vietnam, a coach hitting the back of another bus and one in Thailand, a car hitting a van.


The lack of swearing and fist fights fits into the mentality of people here.  On the whole, they are calm, chilled out and patient people. I’ve yet to encounter a unpleasant situation or argument either with foreigners or amongst locals. Undoubtedly, this must happen but for the last 3 months, I haven’t witnessed it and I know, back home, I would see a bus driver shouting at a driver or a local arguing with a cyclist.


What I find most interesting though, is how they can maintain this calm manner within their lifestyle.  The sheer simplicity of life shows that people here don’t have it anyway near as easy as we have it back home. In both Siem Reap and Chiang Mai for instance, there is no gas stove, there is a open fire, they is no kettle plugged in, hot water comes from leaving the kettle over the fire.  No electricity also means resorting to open fire and candles.  There are no street lights so the average day begins with sun rise and ends pretty much with sun set. As there is no central heating or electric blankets, you layer up and wrap up in blankets.


With no television or wifi, no local pub or bar, means of entertainment consist of singing whilst sat around the open fire. It is pleasant and refreshingly different to what we do back home. Of course, you would love to have a mug of tea or hot chocolate and curl up on the coach but here you spend time discussing after life, beliefs surrounding reincarnation and monks instead.


Ultimately, having traveled around SEA, the main thing for me is learning to accept situations as they are. For instance, buses don’t come on time, very often they are late, not everyone speaks English – why would they? You also learn to become much more flexible with your surroundings so staying in a clean room that has a good bed and a shower, is great. Showering with cold water is no longer a problem, not sleeping is also not a problem provided you sleep on the bus/boat the next day and not eating proper meals is fine provided you have a packet of oreos!


The other main thing, I find is, you adapt to your surroundings quickly and get a sense of the location. I find myself remembering the local corner shop, school or bill board to ensure I can find my route back.  Maps are great but of little help when you can’t find street names or it’s too dark to see the name.  Knowing that you have to find and spend however many pounds for a meals also makes you appreciate the food you eat more.  I manage to finish a whole main meal now! Now, for the average person, this may be nothing but for me, it’s a big deal as back home I just about managed half. The other great thing is, I’ve learnt how to use chopsticks!


Learning to accept things is one thing, learning to let go is another and this is something I’m working on. We all carry some kind of baggage and inevitably it weighs us down at the best of times. My aim is try and let go of much of it as possible and see where it takes me. After all, we are young and wild and free.