Travel is like a relationship. There can be love (or hate) at first sight. There can be places you meet that you feel you’ve known forever. There can be a flash of infatuation that dissipates after you really get to know a place and find that its’ drawbacks are greater than its’ benefits. There can be the slow burn of a long lasting, lifelong bond. I have felt all of those. At the moment I’ve met someplace new, Southeast Asia. Travel in Asia is my new thing.
I’ve been traveling since I was 10 years old, professionally since I was 25. My travels have taken me to Europe mostly, with a bit of other continents mixed in. Technically, I have spent time in Asia while in Turkey but when you think of Asia, that’s probably not what comes to mind. The Far East is new to me and my sense of adventure is tingling with exotic visions.
I was invited to Thailand and Cambodia by a colleague who does tours all over the world. It was the sort of offer you cannot refuse and the kind of decision that was spontaneous, which is my favorite kind. Would I like to check out what a tour is like in Thailand? Ummmm. Yes.
There is so much to write about, I’ll be processing this over the next month or so. For now, I’d like to share some observations about my first impressions.
The “Welcome Factor”
Every country gives an impression right away, just like people do. I think of it as the “Welcome Factor”. When you get off the plane, is it clean? Organized? Helpful? Is it obvious how to get around and into a city? Is it smelly? Good smelly or bad smelly? Do the people stare? Of course they stare at me since I’m a giant, but do they stare at all Americans? My guidebook writer instincts comb my surroundings for the clues on how I’ll be treated and how to conduct my visit.
Travel in Asia has a good feeling. Both Thailand and Cambodia are much more welcoming than I expected. The airports are modern and beautiful, particularly the airport in Cambodia. Signs have English subtitles almost everywhere. It it straightforward to navigate transfers and arrivals. The toilets are gorgeous. What a relief!
Visa and immigration processes are simple, and no more time consuming than in the US. Both countries require a Visa but you can apply at the airport with no problem, with one exception. If you got drunk one night in your 20’s and had a Buddha tattooed on your arm, you’d best cover that up. It’s forbidden to have Buddha-themed body art or clothing. It says so right at the immigration counter. You’ve been warned!
The people are kind and friendly. Both Thai and Cambodian cultures are extremely polite and respectful, something that I didn’t expect. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you should totally let your guard down. I had a most polite and helpful taxi driver overcharge me for my taxi ride by 100 Baht with the sweetest smile on his face. I was tired and it was only $3, which wasn’t worth arguing over, so I considered it his tip.
Both cultures greet and say goodbye with a hand gesture, both hands together as if in prayer at the chest, which I find genteel and charming. It reminds me a bit of the yoga tradition of “Namaste” that I’ve always liked. Feeling appreciated and respected rates high on the Welcome Factor.
I’ve been shocked that I haven’t been harassed or even stared at. I’m stared at even on the streets of my own city. Here, I haven’t heard the common cat calls or comments which I’m used to in other cultures (countries that shall remain nameless).
The Welcome Factor is high here. They have done their best to make foreign travelers feel comfortable. They do their best to relieve you of your money, that’s true, but always with utmost cordiality.
I think I’ve seen too many adventure movies which have influenced my expectations. I thought I’d find Bangkok to be a seedy den, like a scene from Indiana Jones, with lots of red neon and bad smells. I was so wrong. Bangkok is a place that cannot be described, mostly because it is so varied. There are modern shopping malls, highrises straight out of LA, tidy and brightly painted government complexes. There is the scenic and ramshackle old town, of course, but even there, the crumbling sidewalks are furiously scrubbed every morning. I find Bangkok to be cleaner then Palermo.
On the other hand, there’s the smog. In both Thailand and Cambodia, the more populated areas have a haze hanging over them. Kind of reminds me of my childhood in Los Angeles. The haze isn’t always there, it comes and goes. Locals tell me it depends on if the wind is coming from China. This may sound gross, but I’ve actually been looking when I low my nose to see if there is any evidence of smog, but there isn’t. It’s much worse after a day on the Metro in Paris.
Hotel rooms are super clean, although I’ve chosen to stay in moderate to nicer places, in the $50 per night range. I wouldn’t advocate licking the floor, but you could if you had to. Insects are considered food here, you know.
As an architect, I can see that the hotels are not constructed with strict care. Walls are wonky and floors are uneven. Don’t even get me started on the electrical work. I try not to think about it. That aside, I’ve been impressed by the comfort level and cleanliness of the hotels and restaurants.
I’m used to crowded sights and massive lines. For some reason, I kind of imagined this part of the world to be empty. Yeah, um, that was silly. There are lots of tourists here, but they are mostly Asian, with Chinese tourists seeming to be most prevalent. Lines can be long and crowds intense, even in places I figured would be empty. My timing is likely the cause as it’s Chinese New Year.
The sights are more impressive that I’d imagined, but I didn’t have any solid expectations. Most major sights are very well maintained and orderly. The Grand Palace in Bangkok was so tidy and organized that I could have sworn I’d been at Disneyworld, had I gotten a whiff of fried Churros. Sights are more expensive than I expected them to be, but still less than the big sights in the US by quite a bit.
I’ll be honest, I came here for the food. I have a passion for Thai food and could probably eat it every day. It’s not everyone’s favorite…but it should be!
The most striking food scene is the street food. It’s the first thing I saw when I stepped out of my hotel, food of all kinds being cooked on every corner. 8am, a rough sidewalk full of women with carts frying fish, roasting meatballs and making smoothies. I‘ve been told that Thai people eat out more than at home because it’s cheaper.
As an adventurous traveler, the street food is so very enticing. As a timid and cautious American deep inside, the street food scares the bejeezus out of me. I’ve dipped my toes into the water, trying fruit, smoothies and meat that looked fully cooked. I’ve survived so far. It was all good too.
The restaurant food has been good but a little disappointing. I’m really spoiled. Seattle has a huge choice of Asian restaurants and lots of competition. My favorite Thai place is walking distance from my house and, honestly, I have found food there that I like better. I think it’s the big blonde woman issue. All of the things I’ve ordered have been a little bland. I think it may be that they don’t want to properly spice anything, assuming I can’t handle it. Next time I’ll have a card written in local script to indicate that I want some heat. Just a little.
The freshness of the food here is what I’m impressed by. Everything is so healthy and perfectly done, from grilled chicken to a perfectly ripe mango. Oh, the mangos. Swoon.
Travel in Asia: Love at First Sight?
First impressions are important and set the tone of a new relationship. My first impression of this part of Asia is that it’s bonkers. It so very different! It’s vibrant, lively and pretty. The architecture is weirder that I expected. The food is so diverse and fresh. The crowds are kind of intimidating, but the patience to deal with that is rewarded.
And the smells! I’m quite “scentsitive” and explore more with my nose than my eyes. I could fill a blog with impressions of the interesting scents: orchids in the jungle, the smokiness of ducks roasting, the smell of cut grass in the Cambodian countryside. I can’t believe how good everything smells here, even in the thick of cities.
I’m enjoying my new relationship so far. I’m being wooed, I know. The sparkle is fresh and everything is exciting. Underneath it there is a great potential for more. Asian cultures are deep and ancient, and gaining understanding of the wider world is a fascination for me. I’m very happy to see where this new adventure of travel in Asia will take me.
Interested in joining me on a tour of Thailand? See Imprint Tours for information or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.