What I’ve Learned Walking Around in SE Asia

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve logged a lot of walking and wandering around the various towns I’ve had the chance to visit. And, in the process, I think I have learned a few things.  I’m sure you can’t wait to hear about them..

Learn to walk in the street

Even with the chaotic traffic and potential peril, you have to get used to walking in the street.  If you get outside of city center, you will have no choice as you will not have a sidewalk.  But, even in major city centers like Phnom Penh, Saigon, and Hanoi, the sidewalks are really not for walking.  They are for food stalls, small shops, Bia Hoi’s, and motorbike parking.  Even if you can find space on the sidewalk, they are slanted and uneven and you never know when there will be an open hole to step in.

Get used to being dirty and dusty

There are good reasons why you see so many people wearing face masks as the ride around on their motorbikes or in tuk-tuks.  One, pollution levels are sky high – not nearly as bad as Beijing, but worse than you will find in most places.  Hanoi and Saigon were the worst, but also the most developed metropolitan areas.

But, besides the pollution, there is just dirt and dust everywhere.  Walk around for a couple of hours and you have it in on your clothes, in your nasal passages, and in your hair.

You might have to learn to litter

You have two choices once you’ve finished your soda/bottle of water/snack/whatever – 1) You can carry it with you the rest of the day; or 2) You can throw it on the ground.  Garbage tends to be all over the place, with no rubbish bins and no type of regular garbage pickup, you don’t have lots of choices.  Yes, at the temples and most touristy sites, you might find a public trash can but not once you get a little further afield.

Stream in Siem Reap

Stream in Siem Reap

One time, I gave my empty water bottle to an old woman at a market stall thinking she could put it in her trash can.  She threw it on the floor.  Oh well.

The further you get away from tourist sites, the less you are hassled

No doubt about it, there are times where you want to scream, “I don’t want a massage, I don’t need a tuk-tuk, and I’m not buying a frickin’ scarf!!”  But, these are pretty poor countries and tourism is a major source of revenue.  A Westerner is pretty easy to spot and assumed to be rich.

But, the further I walked away from Pub Street in Siem Reap or the Old Quarter in Hanoi or any major tourist sites, the less I was assaulted by the touting.  But, again, it was not aggressive and a simple “no” tends to be accepted without protest.

The world is a pretty safe place

Or, at least, Vietnam and Cambodia seem to be safe.  Granted, I’m sure there are dodgy spots but walking all over, I never felt in danger.  I did freak myself a little bit on my first night in Phnom Penh when I wandered down a small alley that couldn’t have been more than five feet wide and was what we would probably call a slum.  After three or four turns into the dark, I decided I didn’t want to go that way.  There were no threats so it would not be fair to say it was unsafe, but caution can be the better part of reason especially when there was no reason for me to be there.

Alley in Phnom Penh

Alley in Phnom Penh

What is quaint and captivating to the tourist probably sucks for the resident

I remember staying at a family run place in Split, Croatia a few years ago and thinking it was so awesome.  The room was right in the old town area and looking out the windows there were washed clothes hanging and people on their balconies and sounds of laughter and argument and the smell of food cooking and this really charming sense that you don’t get in your big house or apartment in the U.S.  Charming?  Yes, for two nights.  But, I bet living there would suck.  No privacy, no space, no reliable hot water, no wireless internet.

Walking around Phnom Penh or riding through the dirt poor villages of northern Cambodia is fascinating and interesting to see how happy people are who have nothing.  Probably a good lesson for Americans.  But, not an existence you would want for anyone you care about.

Lower end home = thatched hut

Lower end home = thatched hut

Here’s a great post on why you shouldn’t move to Cambodia – http://tinyurl.com/n895dqs

Sex tourism is real

I have never been to Bangkok with its sleazy reputation, but it is hard to imagine it being sleazier than Phnom Penh.  Just a couple of weeks ago, CNN did a news series on sex trafficking in Cambodia and it is pretty in your face in both Vietnam and Cambodia.

Walk by any bar along the river or in the area around street 51 and you’ll see dozens of older white guys sitting with young Khmer women (I also saw some of this in Saigon).  Sometimes, they are hostess bars, but, often times, they are just regular bars.  I’ve overheard some of the conversations and there is really no pretense.  I guess the extreme poverty is a big motivator for a young woman to try and find her American or British dream guy who can spend more on her in a night than she could earn in months.

Except in the most touristy areas – like around street 51, home of the famous “Heart of Darkness” bar – it is not aggressive but it is evident.  And, pathetic.

4 Responses to What I’ve Learned Walking Around in SE Asia

  1. Comedy Champion says:

    JP, can’t believe you still like to travel for fun after all the miles you’ve logged for work. I worked with a guy from Vietnam while on sabbatical and he told many stories about what it is like to live under communist rule. Doesn’t sound like much has changed since he took the river boat to Cambodia. Would like to hear about your trip over some pho when you get back. Continued safe journeys!

  2. Stephanie says:

    OK, have to admit that my Southeast Asia trip is still in planning and not yet done, so no hands-on experience. But reading your point 3) littering, I do not agree. For me, sounds like you saying “just do as the residents” and throw your garbage on the floor. Why not being conscious that this isn’t the right why? Why not avoid buying water bottles but instead using a refillable bottle?

    • jparker says:

      Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating for litter. My only experience with it was with the old woman at the market stall. Otherwise, I put my used wrappers in my pocket. But, if spending extended time, I think it would be hard to avoid. It is certainly what the locals appear to do based on my observations. As to refillable water bottle, water quality is not good and not likely that you will want to drink it. It ranges from simply distasteful to dangerous depending on location. You will also be hard pressed to find sources to fill your bottle outside of your hotel. At least, that was my experience.

      • Stephanie says:

        Ok, I admit that this was not well thought through. It would be very arduous carrying around all the water you’ll need for a day. Especially as climate is rather dry and hot. I didn’t want to propose refilling the bottle “on the street” but rather refill it every day in the hotel with water from a bigger container…
        Looking forward to read more of your posts and getting ready for my own travel to Southeast Asia :)

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