Leaving Southeast Asia: What I Can’t Wait For and What I’ll Miss

Today is, for all intents and purposes, my last in Southeast Asia. Tomorrow afternoon, after a 9-hour stint in a Bangkok hostel, I’ll fly back to Auckland. I’ll go from a life of winging it on a daily basis to a land where I’m going to have to find some kind of job and place to live. It’s a bittersweet feeling for me, preparing to leave, because I’m at once so ready to get back to western civilization and so sad to move on.

There are parts of life on (and off) the backpacker circuit that I’ll miss, elements of daily life in Southeast Asia that I’m sure I’ll wake up some days craving. And then there are those familiar, comfortable bits of western culture that are causing me unbridled joy even to think about now. And even though I’m still sitting here in southern Thailand, even though I’m still several countries behind on this blog and will likely spend the next month or so catching you up on Vietnam and Cambodia, I want to pause here. Because I can’t imagine a better time to look back on Southeast Asia as a whole with a little nostalgia, a little frustration, and mostly a lot of wonder.

What I’ll Miss

  • Bahn mi. Young coconut. Fruit shakes. Banana-chocolate roti. The constant, mouthwatering possibility that my next great meal or new favorite snack could literally be on the next street corner, crackling in a pan of oil over an open burner, waiting to be wrapped up in newspaper and handed over to me for the equivalent of loose change.

Spinach in chewy-crispy rice dough with sweet chili sauce in Cambodia. There is an actual name for these. I made the guy tell me what it was. And then I promptly forgot it.

  • Chili-garlic sauce as a condiment with ketchup-level presence at every restaurant, bar, or plastic street-side table.
  • Little kids who call out “Hello! Hello!” and reach out to high-five you as you pass them by on your bicycle.
  • Seeing monks light up a street corner, temple, or passing motorbike with their tangerine robes.

Monks at sunset, Phnom Bakheng, Angkor Wat, Cambodia. Luckily, no photo-stalkers this time.

  • The thrill of bargaining a bag, bracelet, or surf lesson down to — well, let’s be honest — just above what you know it’s actually worth. I’m still not great at bargaining, but I’m learning to love the give-and-take of it, the satisfied smile on a merchant’s face when you’re both happy with the final price.
  • The ease and inexpensiveness of country-to-country transportation. Last week I paid $13 for a 7-hour bus trip from Siem Reap, Cambodia, into Bangkok, Thailand. I’ll have to pay more than that to get from the airport to the central business district in Auckland on Sunday.
  • Tuk-tuks. God help me, I’m actually going to miss tuk-tuks, possibly the most blatantly unsafe, pollutant-releasing, dirt-in-the-face-spitting mode of transport known to man.

Dangerous and dirty, but also cheap and fun.

  • Free wi-fi, everywhere from the convenience store to the neighborhood restaurant to the most basic of guest houses and hostels. My blogging productivity may well plummet once I get back to New Zealand, land of the pay-per-megabyte Internet.
  • Geckos on the walls, the TV screens, the lights, the ceilings. It always looks as if someone’s decorated the hostel or bar with a theme of 1980s-New-Mexico-chic, until what you assumed were painted-on little lizards scamper to life.
  • Having next to no plan from day to day; deciding where to go and what to see only hours or minutes ahead of time. “What do you think about going to Laos tomorrow?” “Feel like seeing a waterfall today?” “This boat’s leaving for the beach as soon as we get one more passenger — want to go to Railay?”

Can you spot him?

  • Running into people I’ve met somewhere else in the streets of foreign countries. It’s a very special feeling being recognized in a completely foreign place, hearing your familiar name called out amid a sea of Vietnamese (or Lao, or Khmer) words you don’t understand.
  • Night markets: cheap, fun, lamp-lit shopping. What more could you ask for?
  • The goodwill towards Americans I’m constantly humbled to receive from locals across the continent. Half of them actually want to know what state I’m from (and 90% of those turn on the grins when I answer “California”). The other half usually either exclaim “I love Obama!” or “I love Lady Gaga!” Still, try getting that enthusiastic a response to America while traveling some place like Europe.
  • Soot-stained temples at every turn, randomly elegant architecture sandwiched between sagging row houses, beat-up but colorful long-tail boats bobbing on turquoise waters. Even in the dirty or downtrodden, there always seems to be hidden beauty here.

Hanoi houses.

  • Postcard-perfect beach towns so cheap and accessible I can justify spending a few days there in order to save money.
  • Trying the national beer in each new country I visit and realizing it’s usually far tastier, and always far cheaper, than what I’m used to at home.
  • Seeing, hearing, or eating something not only completely new but totally surprising almost each and every day.

Oh, well hello there, Angkor Wat!

What I Can’t Wait For

  • Salads.
  • Paved roads, traffic lights, and cross-walks.

A rare cross-walk sighting in Vietnam.

  • Weather I can go running in without passing out.
  • Not having to wear long pants and/or sweaters in the sweltering heat in a show of decorum (sorry, but I’m looking at you, random temples).
  • Using my words rather than having to mime out products such as saline solution, Bio Oil, or facial wipes to the pharmacy cashier.
  • Follow-up: not being looked at as if I’m asking for opiates when I enquire about saline solution at the pharmacy.
  • Walking down the street without being hassled to buy something every five feet.
  • Living without the risk of a sudden olfactory assault by durian.

This is an actual sign posted above the entrance to a train station in Bangkok.

  • Being awoken each morning my alarm instead of by roosters, local calls to prayer over a speaker system, or a fresh batch of mosquito bites on my ankles.
  • Wearing my fleece and my down jacket. I’m sure I’ll rescind this statement after about 48 hours in New Zealand’s southern-hemisphere winter, but as I sit here lingering in the airconditioning of my hostel room, a little arctic wind sounds pretty appealing right now.
  • Being able to get away with only one shower a day. Between the sweat, the sunscreen, the bug repellent, and the dirt in Southeast Asia, I’ve never gone through so many bars of soap in such a short period of time.
  • Vegetables that aren’t resting on a bed of fried noodles or white rice. My system needs a break!
  • Not wondering if I’m about to be hit by a motorcycle each time I set foot in the street.

4 thoughts on “Leaving Southeast Asia: What I Can’t Wait For and What I’ll Miss

  1. I’d say yes to most of the topics you’ve listed. Wait until you go to India then, if you haven’t already. Both lists would be even longer.
    Very nice post! ๐Ÿ™‚

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