Reflections On Southeast Asia

R: We haven’t quite come to the end of our time in Southeast Asia: we have two more days left and two more updates to come, but time is tight so we need to crack on. As a result, these are perhaps more ‘knee-jerk reactions’ to Southeast Asia rather than ‘reflections’.

So, how do you summarise more than six months of travel in Southeast Asia? How do you boil down to a few choice paragraphs all that you have seen, heard, smelled, tasted and touched? Well…

Sight. The number one ‘experience’ listed in our Lonely Planet guide is traffic. Yes, traffic. And it’s true: from the moment we left Bali airport right up to our time in Bangkok we have seen more motorbikes, tuk-tuks, cars, buses and trucks than we will probably ever see again.

Let’s take Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon to you, me and Mr Kurtz). In HCMC there are five million motorbikes. That’s one bike for every person in Scotland. And no photograph quite captures the scooter-thick streets; you need to see it to believe it. Crossing the road is a test of both your own nerve and the competency of your fellow man. All you can do is edge forward – never retreat, that would spell disaster – and trust that the approaching two-stroke swarm will weave around you.

In Kuala Lumpur, opposite the Thai Embassy, we stood for a full fifteen minutes waiting to cross the road. This was not a motorway but a road in the centre of the city. No pedestrian crossing, no traffic lights, no islands to break up the perilous four lane crossing. If it had not been for a sympathetic embassy guard we would have been there yet.

You see, in SE Asia pedestrians do not have the right of way – not on the road, and certainly not on the pavement. Instead, pedestrians inhabitant that strange netherworld between the pavement and the road: the gutter.

The pavement is a place to park your motorbike or your car, or perhaps your truck; it is an area to lay out all your goods and chattels; and a place to eat your evening meal on Lilliput plastic tables and chairs. It can also be a place where the local authorities choose to plant huge pedestrian-scuppering trees, their massive roots eventually pulling up the surrounding pavings. Whatever the use, just don’t expect to walk there.

But why would you be walking? In SE Asia, if you are wealthy you drive a jeep. If you are upwardly mobile you have a Japanese or Korean sedan. Failing that you have a motorbike; a two-stroke upon which you carry children, dogs, potatoes, huge six-feet high signage, fifty live chickens, a wardrobe, a satellite dish – anything that takes your fancy, really. And if you are old or poor – or both – you may have a bicycle. But walk? Only the poorest, the most pitiful people walk. Or backpackers, which, let’s face it, amounts to the same thing.

But despite so much traffic, so few pavements and the absence of traffic lights and pedestrian crossings, it seems to work. It really does. We saw no examples of road rage throughout the whole of our six months. Not one. And little in the way of accidents. We witnessed only a single incident – in Pakse – and heard two others – in Phnom Penh and Nha Trang.

Sound. Traffic, obviously. But more specifically tooting, or honking. In SE Asia you drive with one hand steering and the other hand on the horn. The air is continually filled with the blaring and bleating of competing horns. But it is not done in anger, as it is in the UK; or for no apparent reason, as is the case in New York. It is done as a polite declaration of your presence. It is the soundtrack to safety rather than a prelude to motorised apoplexy.

Dogs barking would be another favourite. Wherever you are in SE Asia you will always be able to make out a dog howling in the distance. And the shuffling of sandals. Yes, it is a strange feature that a lot of women (it doesn’t appear to be a trait of men here) shuffle rather than walk. They rarely lift their feet. Too hot, I guess. Who’d want to use up all that energy raising a leg unnecessarily.

Smell. Probably best summarised as a heady brew of petrol fumes, incense, warm sewage, honeyed lemongrass, mothballs (think benzene and vomit), the sun-baked earth, cigarette smoke, fried chicken (fried anything, in fact), bubbling rice, chargrilled corncobs, coconut oil, and what I can only describe as the smell of catnip. The proportions and predomination of one over another obviously varies, but you get the general idea.

Taste.We’ve been reasonably adventurous. No, we haven’t trapped a live monkey under a table, forced its head up through a hole, removed the top of its skull, and eaten its throbbing brain while it still hoots and hollers. But we have eaten at a number of roadside shacks. And in Indonesia, Malaysia, Laos and Cambodia this is arguably more dangerous than chowing down on simian cerebrum stew.

And although we’ve enjoyed many SE Asian dishes over the last six months, our ‘go to’ cuisine has undoubtedly been Indian. We’ve had some amazing curries in Malaysia, Laos, and Cambodia, and probably the best ever in Hoi An (New Way Restaurant). A life without lamb madras or aloo gobi would be a poor one indeed.

But it’s not been the content of the SE Asian cuisine which has surprised us; more the delivery. Perplexingly, the majority of our dining experiences have followed this well-worn pattern:

  1. Upon sitting down we are handed a menu as thick as the London telephone directory.
  2. We are given approximately twelve seconds to make our selections.
  3. Pleas for more time ensure that a waiter or waitress looms over our table with pen and pad poised.
  4. Once ordered, we wait no longer than two and a half minutes for the first plate to arrive (rather embarrassingly this is almost always my dish).
  5. Twenty minutes later Sophia’s dish arrives (I’ve usually finished mine by this stage).
  6. If we decide on a dessert (a rare treat) we usually eat from a table still cluttered with empty plates and dirty cutlery.
  7. Once finished it can take up to two hours to attract anybody’s attention and to pay the bill.

We have never managed to establish why this should be. We have asked countless people; but the question itself seems not to register, far less any answer. Perhaps there is some catering school buried deep in the mountains of the north, a secret school which teaches all chefs and cooks The Way Of The One Dish – an ancient, mystical rite which rejects modern-day multitasking. It would certainly explain why Cambodian weddings last three days.

Touch. I realise that I’m flirting with fromage here, but I’m genuine when I say that it’s the people that have touched us most. Cheesy but true. Two standouts for us have to be the children of Grace House, where Sophia volunteered for a month, and the people of Laos (although we didn’t meet them all).

After six months in Southeast Asia returning to Scotland may well prove a huge cultural shock – that low leaden skyline, the empty streets, the wide uncluttered pavements; but perhaps our month in Laos will have helped us acclimatise. Certainly there’s not much between the two countries in terms of population and geographical size; and worthy of reflection is the fact that Laos is one of the poorest and friendliest countries in world. I guess a lot like Scotland after independence.

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