Backpacking in Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos
Drop all preconceptions (not to mention hang-ups) you may have when getting ready for a trip to the sprawling, steaming asylum that is South East Asia.
Let me put it this way: you expect coconut prawn curry. You get clawsicles (roasted chicken claws on a stick). You expect everyone to speak English. You get 'Dollar?' and 'David Beckham!' You expect interesting, yet straight-forward, transport. You get three million people crammed into a bus. That breaks down. Twice.
Simply be ready for a good time, a muggy time and a weird time. Oh, and when an entire village starts pointing and yelling 'Farang!' ('Foreigner!') at you, don't take it personally. Not everybody gets out as much as you do.
Where to go
If beach parties and clubbing are your cup of tea (laced, though it may be), then it is in southern Thailand (Koh Phangan, Phuket, Koh Samui, Pattaya Beach...) that you will find your hedonistic homeland. But Thailand has much more to offer than getting sand in weird places, dodgy geezers with bad dreads and dubious 'caffeine' drinks. The frenetic streets of Bangkok are a fitting introduction to the SE Asia region - hectic, colourful, confusing and ponging - while Northern Thailand, famous for its accessible hill tribe villages and trekking adventures, offers relative serenity. If you're as lazy as I am, keep in mind that up here, 'trekking' doesn't have to mean you have to use your own feet. That's what taxis are for.
This tiny nation is billed as the place you go to 'listen to the rice grow'. If you were visiting when I was there, Laos was the place to 'listen to the farang get heinously drunk on Beer Lao.' The local brew is great, especially as it seems to magically prohibit the development of hangovers. Laos' capital city, Vientiane, is charming and chilled-out, but it's in the hazy, languid north that you'll start pinching yourself, just to be sure you haven't swooned into an ethereal neverland. Luang Prabang is a dreamy playground for temple and nature lovers, while the enigmatic Plain of Jars - fields dotted with huge stone vats used, supposedly, to hold wine - proves that one civilisation's 'empties' are another's treasures.
Saigon (officially, Ho Chi Minh City) is like Bangkok on heavy amounts of amphetamines. Whether it involves dancing monkeys, elaborate pickpocketing or cramming 13 people on to a moped, there is not a single inch of the city upon which someone is not doing something completely bizarre. Whenever I get a whiff of off fish, old oil and sweat, I am instantly transported back to Saigon. This, by the way, is a good thing. Vietnam also has ample opportunities to kick back, albeit in maverick style. Nha Trang is famous for its beautiful beaches and, um, unorthodox sea cruises while Dalat is a mountainous idyll known for its red Eiffel Tower and 'The Crazy House', a paean to all things gaudy and grotesque.
Phnom Penh, with its proximity to the Killing Fields and a population deeply affected by Pol Pot's brutal Khmer Rouge experiment, can break your heart. But it can also inspire hope: the bustling city's residents are among the most open-hearted and forgiving people ever to walk the earth. Cambodia is also home to Angkor Wat (in the Siem Reap province), the largest religious monument in the world. Billed as the 'Lost City of Cambodia', the complex is so vast, ancient and mind-bogglingly beautiful as to surpass any superlatives beyond the imperative 'must-see'. And get in quick to Sihanoukville (Kompong Som) on the Gulf of Thailand. This sleepy, ambling beach town is sure to become SE Asia's Next Big Thing.
To lug or not to lug?
Some Asian countries have a reputation for being pharmacologically free-wheelin'. But just because you can pick up anything from superannuated Valium to pickled ears over the counter, it doesn't mean they're going to have tampons, paracetamol or life-saving medications (including anti-histamines for those spankin' new allergies you never knew you had). Chuck 'em in your pack.
Other toting tips:
- Don't bother carting your entire summer wardrobe. Clothes are dead cheap in SE Asia and you're going to get grubby. Really grubby.
- Sturdy hiking boots, yes. Stiletto-heeled / suede / ugg boots, no. Ibid Wellingtons.
- Swiss Army Knife. Handy for cutting food, opening things and making you feel tough. Don't ask me why, it just does.
When I was in Vietnam, I got obsessed with buying opium pipes. In Cambodia, it was all about the krama, eye-smartingly bright scarves to be worn or hung smugly on the wall back home. And I made a fool of myself in Laos and Thailand, drooling over vivid tapestries of goats in the former and buying dozens of tacky, disco-light-flashing cigarette lighters in the latter. Here are some other awesome, if less esoteric, things to shell out for during your trip...
The backpacker Mecca of Kao San Road in Bangkok is famous - or infamous to those vainly trying to protect copyright - for its teeming stalls of knock-off designer clothes, pirated CDs and electronic goods. Caveat emptor applies, but spending so little for so much has never been this much fun.
Drop your dong at any of Saigon's talented tailors. The snappy seamsters make everything from fancy frocks to hipster cords to your exact specifications. Residents of Hoi An (central Vietnam) are also renowned for their sartorial skill. Haute couture at cold-dinner prices.
Get riel...then spend it at Seeing Hands. The Phnom Penh massage parlour (don't worry: there are no 'happy endings') is staffed entirely by blind masseurs who use shiatsu and anma techniques to make your body feel like a happy puddle of warm liquid. Cheap and blissful.
There are no coins in Laotian currency: even the equivalent of 5p comes in bulky note form. The thrill of gadding about with wads of dough stuffed in your pockets wears off quickly, so lighten the load on Laos' trademark handstitched shirts, bags and caps.
How to Haggle
Bargaining is the norm throughout SE Asia (except in fancy restaurants and shops where the price is fixed: you'll know these places by the fact that they are devoid of local clientele). To avoid being taken for a farang rube, keep the following in mind...
- Make your first offer a stupendously low one. You and the vendor will battle it out in ever-increasing increments.
- Even if you'd give your left eyeball to own that kitsch neon-pink Buddha statuette, don't let them know it. Act semi-reluctant and disinterested or you'll make the market's Sucker of the Day list.
- Bargaining is not rude (it's actually expected) but bargaining like a bitch is. Smile, always remain polite and try to keep the 'hag' out of haggling. Losing your cool is, well, uncool.
You're eating beating cobra hearts and I'm a weirdo?
That's right, farang. Round these parts, you're the misfit and don't you forget it. Not that you'll be able to. As a six-foot, gangly Westerner-dork with a penchant for pigtails, I have never felt so out of place as I did in SE Asia.
You'll never, ever fit in. Deal with it. But learning even a couple words of the local lingo is a courtesy much appreciated by your hosts, who will doubtless be guffawing too hard at your attempts at 'Chuc ngu ngon' to care how badly you've stuffed it up. Learning to treasure the strangeness of the region will also go a long way towards avoiding total social-leperdom. This means no retching every time you pass a cafe advertising 'Dog'.
How not to get lynched - etiquette tips:
- Don't touch people on the head or point your feet at them.
- Eat with your right hand. Sorry southpaws, but your left hand is your loo hand.
- Leaving chopsticks standing straight up in your bowl is reminiscent of death and funeral rites. Not the best mood to set over dinner.
- Leave those cute monks alone. They're not allowed to touch, or be touched by, women. Their beautiful shaved heads seem to scream 'rub me!' but ladies, please, restrain yourselves.
- Dress modestly. In most places - temples especially - it's de rigueur to cover up all your bumpy bits: knockers, navels and knees. Plan on a wardrobe of sleeved T-shirts, airy blouses, sarongs, comfy pants and calf-length shorts / skirts. Anglo free-for-alls (full moon parties etc) are the exception. Go naked.
- Don't throw up on the table, even if you just realised you're drinking 'dead snake and poison-bird wine'. I speak from experience on this one.
- Register with your country's embassy when you arrive in a new country or province.
- Get the local lowdown from residents and those who've gone before you. Every region has their, often seemingly innocuous, dangerous spots or things. For example: while riding the rails through Vietnam is an eye-opening and culturally interesting experience, doing the same in Cambodia could end in kidnapping and death (buses and boats are generally safe, however).
- While many of these countries have reputations for friendliness (Laotians live by the concept of 'sanuk-sanuk' which means 'having a good time', and you'll OD on affability in Cambodia), pickpocketing and mugging are still rife in some cities (I'm talking to you, Saigon). Wear your daypack on your chest and keep an eagle eye on your stuff.
- Many of these countries have been involved in nasty wars where the landmine was l'arme du jour, with thousands of these evil suckers still lurking unseen in otherwise innocent-looking paddies. In other words: a Cambodian field is not a good place for an impromptu football match.