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open mind, empty stomach

travel, food, and fun

Starting and ending my Asian adventure in Bangkok was ideal in that it showed me how the last couple months changed my outlook. When I arrived, I thought the city was big, loud, dirty, and full of aggressive locals trying to squeeze every penny they can from foreigners. Twelve weeks later, I still think all of the above to be true, but I’m cool with it.
Whenever I thought of what it means to be a developing nation, I thought in terms of making gains in infrastructure, sanitation, education, etc. Of course these things are present, but there is also the human factor. A developing nation, at least in southeast Asia, is a nation, a people, and a culture experiencing a radical transition. The implementation, or imposition, of foreign technologies, innovations, practices, and values creates an impact zone. The current working age generation has lived through war, genocide, corruption, and about everything else you can imagine. They weren’t fortunate enough to have the education (that only some) of the children and young people now have. This is truly a lost generation in a time of drastic cultural transformation. Their options are to do manual labor, work in a factory for slave wages, or try to capitalize on the influx of foreigners and their cash. Working professionals in Cambodia make less than $1,000 a year. In Vietnam, if you have a 4 year degree and a few years of experience you are lucky to make $10,000 a year. Granted, the cost of living is proportionate to their income, but when you have tourist coming from places like the US where the median annual income is over $50,000, something has to give.
My advice to keep your cool (and your sanity) when visiting these places is the following. Know that you’re getting ripped off. There is no way around it, most of the time you will be paying much more than locals. It is still good to comparison shop, do research online, talk with other travelers, to make sure you aren’t getting it too bad, but you will pay more. Also, know that the difference between what you and locals pay isn’t very much in western terms. If it is something like a bus/train ticket or food, you will be paying an extra couple dollars. This is cheaper than a coffee at starbucks and means a whole lot more to someone living on a few dollars a day than it does to you or I. My last little pearl of wisdom is that it’s not their fault. For the most part, even in the touristy areas, these are not bad people; they are victims of circumstance. They did not ask to be born into a war zone and abject poverty. They did not have the things that we take for granted, most importantly an education. I don’t think their childhood ambition was to wait around all day in hopes of giving tourists a tuk tuk ride or forcing their daughters into prostitution.
Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos are all amazing places. The farther you get from the impact zone, the more authentic that place becomes. The tide of development/westernization/corporate colonialism/whatever you want to call it is spreading and will eventually cover the entire region. Between the 4 countries, and within each, you can see the effects of outside influence. Whether you are in a major city like Saigon, Phnom Penh, or Bangkok, or a sleepy little place like Kong Lo, Mae Sarang, or Don Khon, people are still people and have a lot to offer. For me, the best way to observe foreign influence and the cultural/societal impact has been in the villages. Electricity, satellite dishes, cell phones, motorbikes, and tourists change places fast and the differences are astounding. Relatively untouched villagers, like the ones I came across in some treks, look confused as to why you would want to be there and are curious/shy/friendly. People in villagers with heavy tourist traffic, like in Sapa, will sprint to you, attach themselves to you, and try to sell you handicrafts the entire time you’re there.
As inevitable as the change is, it is also irreversible. The shift from subsistence agriculture to a commercial economy, especially when that economy is tourist-centric, is drastic. As visitors, the most we can do is help preserve the culture as best we can. You can vote with your wallet while traveling. I choose treks that are owned and operated by locals whenever possible. If that is not an option, I go through agencies that compensate guides and the villages they visit fairly. If animals are involved, usually elephants, I make sure they are treated humanely and not being abused. I wouldn’t be caught dead in a McDonald’s in the states and wouldn’t dream of patronizing a foreign chain while abroad either. You get better food at a better price and the money goes to a much better cause when you eat local.
There are many things I could have done differently, added, or done without over the course of the trip, but I am very happy with my time spent in southeast Asia. I had some amazing experiences and met some truly wonderful people, both locals and fellow travelers. The highlights are too many to mention and the regrets to few. The monetary cost was not that much (unless you’re Cambodian), and the experience I gained is priceless. If you can do a similar trip, I can’t recommend going for it enough. If you think you can’t to a similar trip, think again because anything is possible!

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