21 Aug Xin Chau, Again, Sabaidee, Again…
Phonsavanh, a small provincial capital in Northern Laos of ugly cement buildings congregated on the intersection of two ‘main’ roads. Cafe’s, guest houses and motorbike mechanics line street fronts, scattered with large disarmed bombshells, recovered and defused from the surrounding fields. I had overcome difficult elitist and egocentric ideals in taking a flight from Kolkata to Bangkok, continued to cycle through Cambodia, and Vietnam to where I now sit on a firm single bed in a dim room, sheltering from the torrential monsoon downpour outside.
South East Asia; lady boys, ping pong shows, parties, beaches and islands, big Chang’s and wife beaters, elephant rides and diving. The memories of partying here five years ago on the way back from living in New Zealand, taking speedboats like drugs barons, waking in unknown beds, zooming about islands on motorbikes, partying on the beach. All the expectations I had. All the expectations of an easy ride through serene landscapes, a party around one corner, a beautiful attraction around the next, how dangerous expectations can be…
Expectations, however, are hard to avoid, especially after visiting before and thinking you know a place. Bicycle travel opens different doors to those of busses and planes, the doors to locals ‘real’ lives and the gritty realities between the lacquered tourist destinations. As such South East Asia has, so far, thrown me hard ‘behind the scenes’ truths and insights into myself and the ever complicating issues of the human psyche.
I am now the spoilt traveller. On visiting Angkor Wat, I left half way through the day. After having seen so many of the worlds wonders on my own terms, the feeling of paying a large fee to be herded around with the other sheep and to have offers of tours, photos, snacks and souvenirs constantly thrown at me made me feel like just another number, another fat wallet to exploit, as I have felt in many places in SE Asia. It is not difficult to understand, large Western companies come to these countries and exploit the lax labour laws, squeezing every hour of work out of the workforce for as little as possible, why wouldn’t we be treated in the same way? And as rich tourists step out of their air conditioned busses to exoticise the locals in photos of everyday life, they pay the extortionate prices asked of them. We have a responsibility as tourists to show the world that the glossy pictures painted by Hollywood and MTV of our affluent Western lives is not a reality, that we are regular people too, a responsibility that is often overlooked.
My mind is facing a dilemma. What is important to see on this journey? The tourist attractions, the religious attractions, the geographical wonders, the beaches, the parties? As ever, the issue of balance and letting life unfold in front of me is important in my understanding of the world.
Cambodia was a difficult country for me to cross, experiencing only extremes, extreme concentration of tourists in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh and the extreme remoteness of poor rural life in the isolated North East. As I passed through these isolated areas, for the first time I truly felt like the face and reason for the disparity in living conditions in the country. Having seen the riches in the cities and hearing of the NGO’s set up with agendas of remedying the issues facing the poor but actually tripping over their own feet in ill prepared activities, not even involving locals in their faux-crusade to bring help, the people of these areas seemed to look upon me almost with distain. Having rested in Bangkok for a month, I thought that I was the reason for this attitude I was experiencing, maybe I wasn’t engaging with the people as I once did, had I become too involved in the trappings of our luxurious city life? Was I out of practise with my road life? But on arriving in Vietnam, I realised I was not at fault, for the first three nights sleeping in the homes of kind locals. In retrospect, I feel that the reason for not connecting with the locals of Cambodia was a lack of education and experience with Westerners in that area. A lesson that I learned in India, that, although hard to tolerate, pointing, laughing and poking me is not a negative response to my presence, it is their only response to something that these people could never do themselves.
Vietnam was very kind to me although I couldn’t help but associate the country’s greater accessibility, wealth and education with the exploitation of sweatshops and exploitative Western companies. As I ride I always carry a book and I currently happen to be reading Naomi Klein’s ‘No Logo’ about the issues of branding, globalisation, our slowly shrinking choice in the West as large companies govern our choices in retail and entertainment and the effects that they have through Export Production Zones in developing countries. Maybe it is the wrong book to be reading while travelling through such areas, but I feel my eyes are open to the realities facing these people, not blinded by the bright lights and thumping speakers, sedating the gap year tourists.
In Vietnam I really started to realise the filter down effect of tourism into smaller villages. As I would ride through, people would stop their daily work and stand all shouting “Hello, Xin Chau!” as if the tourism authority had broadcast propaganda that this is what is expected if you see a white man passing through your village. I love to see ‘real’ lives, unhampered by external involvement, that has been one of the beauties of bicycle travel around the world. It began to bother me. I love to see the working of the paddy fields, the farming, the spinning of yarn, but this attitude toward me seemed to turn every village into a generic computer generated animated background. I began to cycle through these places without responding to the Hello’s. I became increasingly introvert and the open heart and mind that is so important for immersive travel began to close with the thought of this conspiracy surrounding me.
This feeling has followed me into Laos with a continual “Sabaidee” as children run from their everyday play to stand in formation and wave at me. “Falang” is shouted among the children, a call to arms, everyone comes out of their homes to look at me and wave. I feel like a one man bicycle parade with a crowd cheering the white freak show. For once I feel that the bike is working against me. The tourist bus is a tried and tested method, the locals know that we get off and have a beginning and an end to the experience, I pose a new situation that is rarely seen in these remote villages.
These feelings of negativity built up inside me and my mind seems constantly unsatisfied. When I’m surrounded by people, I long for the solitude of the bike and when alone I desire the company of others. In the heat I want the cold but in the cool I long for the warm. I get bored of the flat monotony of the plains with dreams of the mountains and in the mountains my legs cry out for the flat. It seems that I cannot please myself at present. My mind has flicked from moments of sheer delight to closed misery. Maybe it is tiredness, maybe fourteen months on the road caught up with me. I have been without music for a while as my headphones broke, I bought a new pair yesterday and sat listening to music, almost in tears as songs remind me of moments on the road, memories of such special people I have met and things I have done. My life, this world, this journey is wonderful. Even through the hard times here, I think of such amazing things that are also happening and have to remember that the hard times represent such a small part of the trip. As in so many countries, I have been welcomed into homes, offered food and a bed, often in the most bizarre of places and situations and regularly with the help of the local moonshine…
Monsoon nights in the mountains and sweltering nights on the coast have left me with little sleep under canvas. The mountains are much more gruelling than I anticipated. My body fatigued and my mind closed. I have spent three nights now in this little town and am beginning to feel my energy building, ready to give my heart back to the travel, the experience. I feel disappointed at myself, as though there is a small section of the map where the bike has ridden itself as I absentmindedly became self indulgent in my analysing of this conspiracy. I need to let go, to open up and embrace the welcomes, as robotic as they might seem, they are not a negative response to me, I am the negative one and I am missing out. Today the road will unfold beneath my wheels once again and I am ready to embrace whatever my come my way.