I was never the type of person who went backpacking through Europe, took a year off from college to study abroad or booked a solo adventure through Southeast Asia.
I wanted to do all this stuff but I never had the finances or the balls. So naturally, I harbored feelings of pure envy for people who went on these grand adventures, while I was left to my imagination to paint a picture of exactly how cool their trip would be. And more importantly, how badass they would look with their cool pack, bandana wrapped head, tie-dye scarf and rugged but cute sandals.
In my mind, their adventures were full of beautiful places, beautiful people, hot flings, lovely trains, yummy adventurous food, blending in and fully embracing each culture they encountered. And of course, LOTS of journaling.
Their trips were perfect in my mind and they would come home with a ton of stories, cool new pants and a tan.
Whoever they were, fuck them! I wanted cool new pants from somewhere exotic.
Last week I was walking down a crowded street in Trang, a popular stopover town in southern Thailand for people who are either en route to Bangkok or on their way to the west coast of southern Thailand to island hop.
As I was walking past a particularly smelly food cart on the side of the road selling fried fish for breakfast, I saw them.
They were hard to make out at first given the black car fumes, smoke from the food cart and the cigarette smoke that was pouring out of a local coffee shop, but as soon as I was past the plume of smoke, I saw them loud and clear.
Three American girls in their early twenties. From afar I could see their bandana wrapped heads, their cute but rugged sandals, a pair of hiking boots dangling from the side of each of their backpacks, a tie dye scarf knotted around the strap of their sling bag, and the coolest fucking Thai pants I have ever seen.
I’m pretty sure they just wrapped up a session of journaling after an hour of meditation in one of the temples.
These girls were the epitome of cool backpackers and they could have walked directly out of the picture I painted in my head so many years back.
But hold the Oriental Express.
Once I got closer, the picture started to change, and the reality of the tropics hit.
The first girl had huge painful looking blisters covering her lips, the second was so sunburned that I could feel heat radiating from her red body as she passed by, the third girl was limping, and they ALL looked confused, hot, tired, cranky and ready for their own beds.
Here’s the thing.
When we think about something that we want but that’s not yet in our grasp, we only think about the good shit that comes with it. The crap stuff selectively escapes our daydreams.
I have been to Southeast Asia a handful of times now and I can assure you that it’s not all beaches and plumerias.
I recently took a train from Malaysia to southern Thailand and I was reminded of all the shit things that go along with travel in these parts.
Oh, and I looked nothing like one of those cool backpackers while I was traveling.
I had a fucking bright yellow rolling bag because my back can’t be bothered to carry around my stuff; I wore fluorescent colored sneakers because the thought of wearing sandals in the train bathroom is enough to make me throw up in my mouth (think squat toilets up on a platform with the hole opening directly to the tracks beneath you. Let’s just say the splash factor will forever be in my mind); I had a floral reusable shopping bag to tote my extra shit, and I wore a big floppy red sun hat which doesn’t fit my head anymore on account of my new haircut, so I looked like a bald person with a tiny head.
It wasn’t a cool scene.
Cool or not, here are a few things that people are less likely to talk about when chatting about their travels to Southeast Asia.
1. The combination of the heat and the humidity 365 days a year.
Holy hell buckets of fire. Have you ever been in a wet sauna, and you had to get the hell out before you faint and crack your head? It’s kind of like that but with nowhere to go.
2. The tardiness of trains, vans, boats and anything that takes people to and from places is epic.
And none of the workers seem to think a thing about it. In fact, if you ask them when the ________ will be arriving, they will tell you “15 minutes” EVERY. SINGLE. TIME.
3. The fucking taxi, bus and van drivers.
I don’t know if they all have a death wish, but judging from the way they drive, they have no regard for human life. And there’s no telling them to slow down. They won’t take that shit seriously even if I did speak Thai.
4. The swaying train cars.
I have to preempt this by telling you that our train tickets from Ipoh, Malaysia to Hat Yai, Thailand were $10 USD each, and this was for sleeper cars. Even with the comfort of the sleeper cars, once we crossed the border into Thailand, it was impossible to sleep on account of the cars swaying so far side to side that I thought they would come off the tracks at any moment. The only thing I could think about were snippets of CNN reporting a derailed train in Thailand. I couldn’t even hold the thought of kittens in my head to distract me.
5. The food when in between major cities and towns.
There will be food of some kind, but it will have been sitting out for a few hours without being kept hot, and all of the flies in that area know about it.
6. And if you’re used to eating really healthy, you can kiss that goodbye for the time being.
At one point, I closed my eyes and made a huge green juice in my head. I washed all my green veggies and slowly put them through the juicer. I even washed the fucking juicer in my head before I took that first sip of pure green goodness. I imagined the nutrients going into my body and my cells. I’ve never wanted to drink kale so badly in all my life.
7. The language barrier.
Malaysia and Singapore are easy because a lot of people speak English, but once you hit Thailand that all stops. Thailand is one of the only countries in Southeast Asia that has not been colonized by the West, so the culture isn’t a mixed bag. The food, the language, the mentality – it’s all very Thai, without a scattering of other influences.
You don’t realize how important communication is until you literally can’t communicate with someone.
I was super stoked about my English to Thai translator app, but not one person understood a damn word I typed in.
8. The traffic.
OMFG! I thought San Francisco was bad. The Bay Bridge at 5pm on Friday is NOTHING compared to Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, Manila and Ho Chi Minh at any hour of the day on any day of the week. And people don’t use driving rules because they’re not enforced. A motorbike driving on the wrong side of the highway because it’s less jammed? This shit happens! I’ve seen it – and people don’t think it’s strange.
9. Heat rash and tropical rot.
When I used to think of badass adventurous travelers, I never pictured them with a gross heat rash in their armpit and a nasty case of tropical rot on their foot. Well, I should have because I can tell you from personal experience that the state of my left foot and my right armpit is fucking disgusting right now. I don’t know that it’s technically tropical rot, but the shit is nasty whatever’s going on with my foot.
Even with all these crap things, it’s safe to say that I’m absolutely addicted to this part of the world.
It’s like really yummy spicy salsa from your fave Mexican restaurant. It burns the hell out of your mouth when you eat it, but no matter how painful your mouth is you keep going back for more. And you keep ordering it again and again, knowing there’s some amount of agony involved. At the end of the day, the enjoyment of the salsa is worth the pain of eating it.
As I write this I’m sitting on the bus, en route to Singapore where I’ll catch my plane back home in the morning. This part of the world has a way of stealing your heart without you even noticing, and mine breaks a little more each time I say goodbye. Tropical rot and all.
I will come back to South East Asia, I will endure the burn yet again, and I will love every second of it.
Today I’m giving you a really simple salad recipe that I would do just about anything to eat right now.
Remember that baked tofu from a few weeks ago? Go make it and then come back and make this:
Red Leaf Salad with Baked Tofu and Sesame Orange Dressing – Whole Food Plant Based
- Place a large portion of red lettuce, some red onion and some baked tofu in a mixing bowl, pour some dressing over it and gently mix so that the dressing gets evenly incorporated.
- Place a portion onto your plate and top with avocado and hemp seeds.