The End

Shrine in Tokyo, Japan
Shrine in Tokyo, Japan

So, it’s all finally coming to its end. The year and a half that I’ve spent in Asia has been reducing itself to its final months, weeks, days and soon hours, before I embark on a 24-hour plane ride back to New York City.

Bell House in Vigan, Philippines

It’s difficult not to reflect or try to remember certain themes or occurrences, even when I am in states of not being attached to the fact that it’s really happening. I’ve been traveling throughout Southeast Asia for about six months, and it’s gotten to the point where it’s become my reality, and doesn’t even feel like a trip any more. Perhaps it will feel more like traveling when I’m not actually here.

Of course there are many things I’ve learned, about myself and the places I’ve seen. I’ve gained new perspective even on being American and the United States itself.

Tiger in Kaohsing, Taiwan

This has been the longest I’ve traveled at once. After a year of South Korea, the weather was headed towards fall, where I decided to skip the cold this time around. First stop was Taiwan, where we motor-tripped around the perimeter of the island, and that was followed by an island-hopping adventure in the Philippines.

Lizard in Malacca, Malaysia

From Manila, Philippines, we flew to Singapore, quite possibly the cleanest city I’ve seen. When I was younger, my impressions of Singapore were that you’d be arrested for chewing gum or littering. When I got there, however, I did not see one cop the whole time, and people were even jaywakling. I only spent two days there before heading to Malaysia and into the cities of Malacca and Kuala Lumpur, learning about the multi-racial aspects of what makes the country what it is.

Lake Toba, Sumatra

Ten days of Sumatra, Indonesia, involved wonderful lake views, volcano trekking and hot springs. It was then we flew back to Malaysia to Penang island, then to the Cameron highlands, a low-temperature tourist spot full of green tea plantations and other assorted temperate agriculture.

Guest house window in Vientiane, Laos

A few weeks in Vietnam was a mixed experience. Then it was through Cambodia, stopping in its biggest city, Phnom Penh, then making it up to the provincial towns on the northern route. We then spent a week in Laos, starting from the south on the river island of Don Det, then the provincial city of Pakse and capital city, Vientiane. Vientiane was very laid-back and hardly a bustling metropolis, and it somewhat reminded me of Binghamton, New York, being full of empty buildings and pedestrian-less streets.

Canal in Bangkok, Thailand

We ended up in Bangkok for a week, a wonderful city of canals, cats, markets and street food. I traveled on my first sleeper train before a brief excursion to Koh Lipe, an island in the sea in the south, before making it back to Malaysia.

Anyway, most people can acknowledge that it’s not about the biggest list of places you travel or how many sites you’ve seen versus how far you got away from the tourist trail, but what you get out of it, whether at the time or during a session of reflecting. Of course I’ll emphasize the good and the adventurous when I look at pictures and tell others stories, but there have certainly been periods of downs during my travels, whether it’s sketchy food, allergic reactions to bug bites, lies and rip-offs or air conditioners breaking on boat rides where all the people are packed in like sardines.

Motorbike shop in Ulsan, South Korea

There are of course big things I will miss about Asia. For one, I’ll miss the casualness of everyday life. In America, I feel as if there is too much officialdom, that I’m always being watched and that I always have to consider the legal consequences of simple actions. Asian food will never be the same when I return, whether spiced incorrectly or just not being up to substantial quality. I’ve consumed many different versions of rice and tofu that I’ll certainly wish to eat again. I’ll miss riding a motor scooter without repetitive visits to the DMV, and checking into a place to sleep without having to give a form of valid identification and copy of a credit card before I even pay the enormous fees.

And, there are of course things I have missed about the US. It will be pleasant going back to where I can truly speak English the way it is on my mind, without modifications to people of other cultures. People, places and food are of course a big factor, but there is also the general feeling of truly belonging to a place and being part of it. There can of course be problems when you’re expected to keep up with the expectations of your society, but this is a standard that any local living in their own country has to acknowledge, whether or not they choose to follow these norms.

Toy vending machines in Tokyo, Japan

Perhaps I’ll return to Asia one day. Maybe I’ll make it to the places I’ve missed in the countries I’ve traveled, or go further on into new places like China, or Burma, or Nepal. But, for now, the time is coming to leave this travel experience as what it was. While it will likely affect me in the future in ways I may not even realize, it is an experience that is meant to have a designated start and finish.

I will make my return home this weekend. Though I’m full of anticipations, wonders and predictions, I’ll really only know what it holds after I arrive.

Vietnam Continued

Vietnam is definitely the land of “Things on Bikes”. Here is a man driving with over a dozen jackfruit attached to baskets on his scooter. These smelly but tasty fruits are incredibly dense and heavy.

Bananas are another common crop, hence their presence on scooters. The vast majority of people do not own cars, but scooters and/or bicycles. If you wander off of the main roads and into the alleys or deep into the countryside, you’ll find that many of the lanes are so narrow that a car couldn’t possibly fit on them.

Not only produce, but livestock, is carried around on scooters. Here is a man with a selection of chickens fastened to the back of his bike. I’ve also seen ducks, and even pigs, riding as passengers.

People even use their scooters as beds to nap during the hot hours of the day. I have no idea how they are able to maintain such balance.

This was taken from a pagoda in Dalat. Due to its mean facial expression, I think it is supposed to be a guard.

We also stopped by the Valley of Love in Dalat, a perfect place to take cheesy photos. For anyone who is interested, they host a fine selection of plastic big cats.

We traveled to Lak Lake one night to do a homestay in a longhouse. Upon arrival to the cafe that arranges these homestays, we discovered they had an elephant to the side. I think the elephants in this town are only used for tourists to ride into the lake.

In this small town, the animals definitely seem part of the community. Pigs, dogs and chickens graze around between the properties. While nice to look at during the day, they do make it hard to sleep at night, by constantly barking or crowing in the dark.

Many miles later, we made it down to the busy city of Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City. Being the biggest city of Vietnam, it consequently seemed to hold the highest concentration of traffic. It is normal to find people driving the opposite way down one-way streets, on sidewalks, right into busy traffic, or anywhere a bike may possibly fit. Though it seems chaotic, traffic does go on like it does anywhere else. One just cannot drive the way they do in their home country while riding around in Saigon.

After a few days in this busy, crowded city, we decided to take a nature break and go check out a mangrove forest. This part of the country is the Mekong Delta, so all of the land is separated by small rivers, which requires taking a ferry from one point to another.

Once we got there, we wished we had a boat to go around, rather than a scooter.

Off the long, flat, paved road, we found one of the muddy paths leading into the depths of the mangrove forest. If you head down one of these, make sure you wear some sturdy hiking or rubber boots, as a few inches of mud will stick to your shoes.

We walked down this path until it got too muddy and slippery, and admired the sturdy, intricate roots that these trees stand from.

The wet mud on the ground is full of little holes that tiny crabs crawl into and out of. If you look closely (in the picture or in nature), you can spot a mudskipper. I don’t know if these creatures need to hide from many predators, but they certainly do embody a good camouflage tone for such an environment.

Vietnam Agriculture Shots

Like most places in Asia, rice is a staple food in Vietnam. Here, I find myself eating it every day.

Therefore, like most rural regions in this continent, rice is grown all over the place. Especially in flat lands, one can find so many stretches of rice fields. Some are smaller and just look like they feed families, but others look like they grow it to sell.

In the hill country of the Central Highlands, coffee is a huge crop. I learned that most of the beans are Robusta, but some are Arabica. Vietnam is the world’s second-largest coffee exporter, after Brazil, and this rural drive certainly made it seem so.

In the driveways of this region, the farmers carry the coffee beans out to dry under the sun.

After we were out of the Central Highlands, the weather got hotter, and all of these green, dread-locked plants started appearing.

I was wondering what they were, until we got up close, and discovered they were dragon fruit cacti.

We’d been eating these our whole trip, but still had never seen one grow. Now, we were surrounded by them, and couldn’t escape if we tried.

Here is a shot of the finished product of coffee, and the finished fruit of dragon. Coffee in Vietnam is served very strong. It is given on the spot to drip right before you drink it. Often, people need to consume it with condensed milk, as the taste is too intense, but some can handle the thick bitterness and drink it black. Most of the time, Vietnamese coffee is accompanied by green tea, which helps neutralize the flavorful caffeine and sugar.

Monkeys are also fans of dragon fruit, for future notice, whenever you happen to run into a monkey and have a dragon fruit handy (and preferably a knife to cut one up). I was able to toss this piece to this monkey, in which it caught with its two hands!

This market is in the city of Dalat. Supermarkets are not common in most of Vietnam, but markets are. Even in towns that have a big supermarket, markets still dominate how produce is sold.

Apart from plants being grown to eat, there are also plants used for other factors. For example, rubber tree plantations are common in Vietnam.

Up close, it kind of looks like they are wearing visors around the tap. Sort of like the ones that older women in Korea wear, for anyone who has seen those.

Looking at them as a whole, though, they look extremely carefully planned, mathematically measured on all dimensions.

So, it’s been quite the educational experience driving around Vietnam, getting to learn about the different crops and other products I’ve been consuming here and elsewhere, where they come from and how they are processed from the earth. Even so, there are so many things I’ve eaten or seen and still not known the name of, let alone have any idea about the agricultural process it takes to create them.

Vietnam So Far

First starting out in Vietnam, we were trying to figure out what to do. We were in the central coast of the country, and as Vietnam is a long, coastal country, we could either make a move north or south. That gave us some time to check out the tourist sites around us.

This is from Marble Mountain. It was full of caves, Buddhas and candles.

We went to Hoi An for a couple days, which was probably the most touristy place so far. We drove out to My Son from there, to check out some Cham ruins.

The ride there and back was full of rice fields.

We rented a scooter went up to Hue from there, and on the cloudy ride, this was on the way there.

In Hue, we bought a scooter from another foreigner, so we had to return the first one to Hoi An. So, I got to learn how to drive semi-automatic for the first time, in a foreign country, in the rain!

Though a good skill to have in these parts, these types of bikes do not exist in the United States, so it is only a temporarily useful skill.

After returning the bike, we made a decision to head southward, as the weather was warmer.We ended up spending days riding for hours and hours at a time, observing the agricultural and natural scenery, stopping at night in small towns. Vietnam has so many visitors that even in the smallest, off-the-map villages, we ran into other westerners. During one of the rides, we noticed this foot bridge. We only took a picture of it from one side, as it looked a bit sketchy to cross.

Most of the area we passed was largely rural, hence the omnipresence of cows. In some towns, at any point, a cow, pig or dog can run out into the middle of the street while you are driving. This might be very dangerous in a car, but on bike, you have more opportunity to maneuver, plus you aren’t driving too fast anyway.

Through the hills, some of the driving can get quite windy, so you’ll be forewarned. Some signs even let you know that the area has a high cow population.

Many of the landscapes reminded me of parts of California or the Southwestern United States I’d been to. I realized how little I knew about Vietnam before I had actually come.

From the movies, I thought it was all jungle, but in reality, the natural surrounding is quite diverse.

Rubber tree plantations are quite fine places to stop for a picnic, with all of the symmetrical cleared space, plus the umbrella-effect from the top of the trees.

Apart from landscape, this is a very populated country, so lots of different types of houses and buildings line the road.