The Top Ten things that become normal after backpacking in Southeast Asia for four months…
I have to put this at number one, because I had been somewhat prepared for everything else from past travels… but this was culture shock at its finest. No one warned me about squat toilets (proper name). The first time I saw one, I just looked at it for a minute trying to figure out how exactly I was supposed to use this thing. It was just a hole in the floor with two (very slippery) “steps” on either side of it. Looking back now, I guess it is somewhat intuitive and maybe most people have come across these at some point (especially if you have spent much time in the Middle East, South America, or Asia), but in all of my travels- this was a first for me. There was also no button, lever or cord to flush it. Instead, there is usually a trough of water, often with a nasty green film around the edges, and a cup or bowl. I couldn’t figure this part out on my own. In order to flush, Brian explained to me, you have to ladle the water from the trough into the toilet and the pressure flushes the waste down.
They don’t have directions to tell you how to use a squat toilet, but if you ever wander across a Western toilet (you’ll find these in bigger cities, most hostels, and the islands) they do have pictures reminding locals NOT to squat on the seats. Let’s just say in my months here, I have learned how to go carefully. A slip would be tragic. More than tragic really. And poor form means you end up with pee on your feet… and your shoes… because there is no way in hell I am stepping up there barefoot. After a while, though, you get used to it. Thank you, Crossfit. I am proficient when it comes to the toilets in Southeast Asia.
Keeping with the theme of number one, this also took some getting used to. Even when you pay to use the toilet, which happens more often than I like, paper will rarely be provided. There is always a hose, however. I suppose the logic is that it is better to air dry clean than the alternative. However, in all my Western ways, I have chosen to stay away from this custom and have become a pathological paper stealer. When I’m in restaurants or hostels and I see napkins or toilet paper, I feel no remorse when I stash some in my purse. When we check out of a hostel, I pull out the cardboard tube and tuck the rest away for later use. Oh, and on a related note of what is not provided- bring hand sanitizer. The bathrooms have sinks- if you are lucky. But they only have soap if you are REALLY lucky. I try not to think about what this means about everything I touch, and the sanitizing habits of those who have touched it before.
(Have you noticed there is a lot of carrying going on here? You’re right.) You’ve heard it before. It’s the same story in half of the world. You can’t drink the water. You can’t eat the ice (unless it was boiled first, and try communicating that over here!). You can’t brush your teeth under the faucet. You can’t open your mouth in the shower. Water=Bad. Carry water bottles everywhere. Problem solved.
I have to constantly remind myself that just because everyone around me is using broken English, doesn’t mean that I should too. I actually caught myself saying “How do you say…?” about an English word the other day. They ask me that question when they can’t translate a word because I SPEAK ENGLISH. It is not okay for me to say the same just because I can’t think of a word. It’s funny, I have actually found myself speaking in some weird non-existent accent at times, even to other Americans. I smile when I hear other native English speakers doing the same. We all do it. We speak in slow, fragmented sentences punctuated with exaggerated hand gestures. I have several theories on why we do this, but one thing I’m sure of: The fewer words you use to communicate the better. When you are asking questions, it’s better to just make a statement and then ask “Yes?” Ex: “We get boat here. Yes?” They will correct you if you are wrong, but if you ask, “Can we get on the boat here?” and they don’t understand you, they are most likely still going to smile and say yes.
I like being barefoot. I have incredibly tough feet- probably from growing up playing in bare feet all the time. I can walk on shells and rocks that other people tiptoe over. Heck, I’d probably be a natural when it comes to walking on coals (something for the bucket list). So it’s not so much being barefoot that was hard to get used to, it’s just that leaving my shoes outside was kind of weird at first… especially walking into a restaurant, bar or public bathroom. It’s been so drilled into me in the states: “No shoes, No service.” Here you better take off those shoes before you walk inside, or they are going to tell you to turn around and walk right back out. (Remember when I said I wouldn’t stand on a squat toilet barefoot? Well sometimes you have no choice.)
There is often no way for me to communicate except to put my hands together and nod. Luckily, around here, this can work universally as a thank you, a hello, a goodbye, an excuse me, a yes, a no, or an “I have no idea what you are trying to tell me.” It’s convenient. I might try it back in the States when I want to avoid an unpleasant interaction. Just bow my head down until the other person gets uncomfortable enough and gives up on the conversation.
The soundtrack of Vietnam is a constant collage of beeps. Motorbikes are everywhere and there is literally no rhyme or reason to their driving habits. Feel like driving in the left hand lane because you will be turning left in 5 miles? No problem. Want to drive on the right because it’s your best side? Sure! Just honk incessantly so people will see you. It’s like one giant, life threatening game of chicken. I didn’t realize it until half way through the trip, but I literally hold my breath while I cross the street and every time we are on a motorbike trying to navigate a roundabout. Red lights? Green lights? These are helpful suggestions that some people abide by in major cities. But in most of Asia- they might as well be Christmas decorations. They. Mean. Nothing.
(Quick sad story… Skip this if you love ducklings.) Once upon a time, we were in a minivan with about 15 people in Laos. As I earlier stated, vehicles here do not stop, motorbikes swerve all over the place… but apparently if you are bigger than a motorbike (like a minivan) you don’t even bother with swerving. I was sitting on the front bench unfortunately, so I saw the whole thing go down. Here’s the scene: There is a family of ducks crossing the street. They hear honking and all sort of scatter. One makes the wrong choice when it comes to scattering and ends up splattering. I almost cry. The van driver doesn’t blink. Ten minutes later a small child runs through the street. The driver lays on his horn and swerves a little. I am relieved that we do not squish the child, but I am still pretty darn angry that apparently ducks don’t matter.
We eat rice for breakfast, lunch and dinner. As a matter of fact, rice can also be made into several desserts: rice pudding, sticky rice with mango, coconut milk and rice. Most places are backpacker friendly enough that they offer Western menus too, but I have firmly put my foot down about ever ordering from a fast food joint (which you can find in bigger cities like Bangkok, HCMC and Hue.) Want fast food? Check out a street vendor. They are very fast. Want “fast food”? Wait till you get back to the States.
I can pack everything I have in about 10 minutes. I have learned to live out of a pack that weighs less than 13 kilos (about 26 pounds) plus an extra bag that has my computer/camera/etc. It’s amazing how efficiently you learn to roll everything you need, and how quickly you can load everything into your pack in the perfect order. I usually have everything I need for two days on the top, so depending on how long I will be in a certain location, I might not even need to unpack deeper than the first layer. Amazing-Backpack-Packer.
I suppose this one is closely related to number 9. When I started this trip I packed two pairs of shorts, two cotton dresses, a pair of jeans, five t-shirts, a pair of sandals and a pair of running shoes. I will admit that I have absolutely added to this collection as I have walked the market streets… but I have also gotten rid of most of what I started with. I actually went into the market today and traded three shirts and a Vera Bradley purse for a pair of sunglasses and 100 baht ($3.50). After two months in the same five shirts, they get a little old. However, the lack of choices does make my life easier. It’s amazing how quickly you can get ready when your entire routine involves brushing your teeth, washing your face, and picking out a pair of elephant pants and a shirt (doesn’t even matter if they match). On a good day, I might throw on mascara… but I haven’t thought about drying my hair in months.
I know that as soon as I go home, these things will go back to normal. If I see a motorbike on the wrong side of the road- I am going to freak out. I’m going to LOVE brushing my teeth in the sink again (oh and don’t get me started on how much I miss my Sonicare brush). I will definitely slip into a pair of heels- just for fun, and will probably even plug in a hair straightener. But right now… my life feels pretty perfectly low maintenance. I don’t even mind the squatting.
In 2013, I quit my job and bought a one-way ticket to Thailand. After four months of backpacking I returned to the States and fell in love with a guy whose job sent us straight back to Asia. Nothing has gone according to plan... and it's been absolutely magical.