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Looking back on our recent month in Thailand, Singapore, and Malaysia, and the stories we’ve shared along the way, there are a few key points that continually rise to the surface. So here it is, the cream of our SE Asia travels:
Activity based travel is currently our favorite travel style
By this I mean that we found the most enjoyment when we were actively doing things in the culture and learning new skills. The two that come most quickly to mind are our Thai cooking classes and our scuba diving lessons. Why is this so fun and so memorable for us at this point in our lives? My thought is that during these activities we were very engaged and focused, and the experiences were largely new to us. The activities also heavily involved our senses and because of the newness and our attentiveness, I think the experiences have been all the more memorable and valuable.
Vegan is challenging
While Julie and I are very happy with our vegan lifestyle, living vegan in SE Asia is certainly a challenge. Obviously, some areas were more difficult than others but overall, we actually had to focus part of our daily planning on actually finding vegan food. For those that have been to SE Asia, you will understand how silly this can sound because food is everywhere! From our perspective, it seems as if most people there do not cook much but instead really on the food carts and stalls lining the streets and filling the food courts. Food is cheap, abundant, and ubiquitous, but not usually vegan.
We definitely survived and in fact thrived on the good food of the region. However, traveling to new places with a dietary restriction does make the experience different. I can understand why some may say it’s better to go in with more of an openness to try anything and everything to better experience a culture. However, for us as long term vegetarians, the vegan lifestyle is heavily engrained into who we have decided to be, and the ease and benefits of experiencing the culture didn’t outweigh our reasons for being vegan.
Friends as tour guides is optimal
With a food challenge, and with the challenges that come with traveling in unfamiliar settings, it is very enjoyable to have a local friend to guide our way. Cloud fit the bill here perfectly. Cloud is a 24 year old Singaporean that we met in Guatemala last year while we were all studying Spanish together. Not only did we tour the glitzy side of Singapore seeing the amazing downtown waterfront, big buildings, and malls, but we also went to the “Heartlands” and saw where the majority of Singaporeans live. To top it off, Cloud was our key to unlocking local vegan cuisine. He speaks Mandarin and was easily able to confirm what foods fit our criteria. We would simply sit in the food court as he brought us dish after dish of interesting new foods.
It all averages out in the end
While we at first thought shopping and bargaining was the way to go (particularly with hotels), by the end of the trip, our view changed and we now think our time is better spent on things other than shopping for lodging and deals. I am largely influenced by the book I was reading during the trip, Thinking, Fast and Slow, which delves into statistics and our psychology relating to decision making. My take away as I applied the book’s lessons to our travel experience is that largely regardless of our efforts, we’re likely to get some good deals and some bad deals when it comes to hotel choice and rather than agonize or stress over our lodging, it’s more optimal for our time and our experience not to focus too much energy on getting good deals.
Additionally, it helped us quite a bit to be as objective as possible when establishing our expectations for what we’d get for our money. For example, in Singapore, where lodging is very expensive, we decided to go with a simple, cheap hotel and not expect much. We didn’t get much, but the experience was still good because it was in line with our realistic expectations. In the end, it didn’t really matter whether we spent 1200 bhat or 1500 bhat for our hotel room ($40 or $50 respectively), what mattered was that we were happy, comfortable, and able to enjoy the area.
Being an expat will hopefully be in our future
We met many along our trip that lived abroad and loved it. We met a group of foreign women living in Bangkok doing their weekly service to the community by visiting inmates at the immigration prison. They profusely expressed their love of the expat life and all its advantages, particularly with raising kids abroad. Then there was David, the French investment banker working in London, thinking about moving to San Francisco, that was part of our diving group. We shared dinner with him one night and heard his story about growing up abroad and living all over the world. “An experience I’m forever thankful for” was the gist of his thoughts on how he was raised (and how he lives now). He has friends around the world, speaks multiple languages, and is blessed with perspectives of life and the world that many will never understand. With this in mind, we hope to have similar experiences both for ourselves and potentially for our kids, should we be fortunate enough to have that opportunity.
Running, the global unifier
Time and again, wherever we travel, running unites. From our first few days in Bangkok where we met our new vegan Japanese marathoning friend to Chiang Mai where we became regulars with the local Master’s track club members, we were consistently running and we were consistently encountering others doing the same. There is camaraderie in sport and in putting in concerted efforts as is the case with distance running and it doesn’t matter if we can’t speak a word of the same language, when seeing someone running, something can be said about that person and their character that needs no words. I think specifically to my time in Chiang Mai. There was a guy, maybe in his forties doing intervals on a path around the athletic complex we ran at. I jumped in and started running laps with him. We pushed the pace and both got a good workout in, without any words exchanged. At the end of the workout, the guy, amidst pants and sweating, puts his hands in the prayer position and bows slightly and says “thank you, thank you” repeatedly. I did the same and on a level difficult to reach while traveling, I felt truly connected in Thailand with real Thai people. The man and I worked hard together, we suffered together, we motivated each other, and in the end, were both thankful for the once in a lifetime experience we shared.
So there it is, our SE Asia trip for 2013. It was a great experience in many ways. For me, most importantly, I am now thinking differently about my life and the world, and that is what I love most about travel (and challenging experiences in general). I see life in a new way and my life feels richer for it. I don’t think I would have this richer life had I simply stayed home. So my biggest lesson is the lesson to keep challenging, keep exploring, and keep experiencing as long as I have this life to live. On to the next adventure!