Tuk tuks, temples and trying new things

“The trip should take about 10 hours, but it all depends on whether the train makes extra stops or breaks down”

With these encouraging words from our tour guide, we were officially introduced to Asian time, where it takes you 6 hours to cover a 150km road, or a 10 hour train trip slowly ticks over to 14 hours. And yet, changing from Joburg’s fast lane to a slow boat down the Mekong River makes me wonder if perhaps Asia is doing it right…

For 2 weeks in November I was lucky enough to explore the tastes and cultures of this beautiful part of the world, covering Thailand, Laos and Cambodia on a once-in-a-lifetime tour. From climbing the 309 stairs to Wat Doi Suthep in the mist, laughing and bartering with locals in the markets, riding on an elephant (literally, on his neck), to dodging traffic on the Tuk Tuk Of Death, playing with snakes and eating insects (silkworms are pretty good!), the trip exposed me to the beautiful, the ugly and the bizarre things that make Asia such an incredible and inspirational place.

I started in Thailand, called the land of 1000 smiles – and for good reason. The people are some of the friendliest and most genuine that I’ve met. Their ethos of ‘saving face’, where any display of anger or irritation is seen as temporary insanity, ensures that the people deal with things calmly and gently, making it such a welcoming place for a ‘farang’ like me to explore. Thailand is a bit of a study in opposites: elegant golden stupas and high rise malls puncture the sky, and stray dogs wander through muddy-pooled sois (side streets or alleys) in search of food. I chatted to a fellow South African at Suvarnabhumi Airport (shoppers paradise!) who absolutely hated Bangkok and had spent an entire week inside his hotel (seriously?). So yes, the streets smell like bog water, and yes, the humidity is unbelievable, but half the point of travelling is to challenge yourself and your perceptions, right? I’m glad I ventured out into the streets to see the Royal Palace, the Hill Tribes in Northern Thailand, and the eerily beautiful white temple Wat Rong Kuhn. They were truly unforgettable experiences.

The trip down the Mekong River into Laos was one of the biggest highlights for me. 2 days of drifting down the river, listening to Jack Johnson and basking on the front of the boat with my feet dangling over the water was absolute heaven. And a great introduction to Laos too. Despite the fact that Laos remains the world’s most bombed country, and despite the fact the 80 000 unexploded ordinances still lurk undiscovered in the countryside, the people are generous, friendly, and completely laid back – even with 30 bicycle-riding tourists whizzing around their town like lunatics, trying to remember which side of the road to stay on while keeping their snake whiskey shots down.

From watching the sunset over the limestone karsts in Vang Vieng, to greeting the sun (and the monks) as they went about their alms collections, Laos is the one place on earth that can really teach you about yourself: what’s really important, what needs to change, and what to be grateful for (which is everything, really).

After Laos it was onto Cambodia, where I fulfilled a bucket list item by visiting the legendary Angkor Wat. The sun rose behind the towers to the clicking of thousands of cameras, but soon afterwards the temple emptied out and allowed me to walk its quiet halls and feel immersed in history. The Apsara dancer reliefs were beautiful to see up close, only slightly outdone by the colossal Buddha faces at the Bayon Temple, and the giant strangler figs holding Ta Prohm (the Tomb Raider temple) together. It was a day filled with temples, rainforest cicadas and lots of sweat, but it suited me just fine. It was also sadly my last day of tour, but what a highnote to end it on.

So while my heart is aching to go back, my suitcase was pushed to its capacity limit, and my purse is a little (ok, a lot) lighter, it was the most worthwhile and spiritual holiday I have ever had. After all, travel is the one thing you buy yourself that makes you richer, and I feel like a million bucks.

PS: Please check out two very worthy causes that are very near and dear to the Lao people’s hearts, and mine too:
www.stopclusterbombs.org and www.copelaos.org

Khawp Jai Lai Lai