This post is not, alas, the much delayed update on how our second semester teaching has been going that you’ve all been desperately waiting for (it’s been going well, don’t fret). I feel that there were some overarching lessons learned while Adrianna and I were traveling throughout Southeast Asia, and I thought I would wrap them up in a neat little package for you, so that you, my readers, could understand some of the ins and outs of traveling in SE Asia, just in case you decide to expand your horizons to that corner of the globe. Please, partake of my limited knowledge, and prepare for a future post about how Chinese High School students write very strange haikus.
1. English is King
In Cambodia, I was told that English is taught in primary school. This was also true in Indonesia, and Singapore. While it would certainly be an advantage to speak the local tongue, it was wonderful to know that, without being able to speak or understand any of the local languages in SE Asia, I could still get around as long as I spoke a few basic phrases in English. Particularly in areas where tourists are prevalent, English is common–though it was mostly spoken with an Australian accent. Hotel staff (at least at the front desk), taxi drivers (and tuk tuks), sightseeing locale service people, and even some restaurant staff can speak a little English, and usually have readily available English language menus/price sheets. If I was unfortunate enough to speak only Chinese, Japanese, French, German, or any other language, I would have been stranded, lost, and doomed to feel a sense of endless confusion. Even in Vietnam, which has many reasons to despise the English language (and French, and Japanese, and even Chinese to a degree), most of the tourist staff were English speakers to one degree or another. It was fortunate. I’m pretty confident that, had we wandered too far off the beaten path in any of our destinations (even Singapore, the “city on a hill” of our vacation), we would have found our English to be completely useless. However, as long as one doesn’t stray too far beyond the rough edges of the oft-used road, then one need not fear complete linguistic isolation.
2. The Dollar Still Holds Weight
To my knowledge, the US dollar has been losing strength since my birth. Youths are constantly bombarded with stories about how “back in my day, you could buy dinner for $2, and a movie ticket was only 25 cents!” This led me to believe that, as I traveled abroad, especially in a location so close to China, prices would certainly not be quoted in USD. I was wrong! With the exception of Singapore (where the exchange rate was pretty close to 1:1 and the local currency is called the “dollar” anyway) every place we went would quote prices in USD, especially near the airport. Some menu items would even be quoted in USD, as though Americans are incapable of doing simple calculations without direct assistance! In Cambodia, as I mentioned here, the country operates on a dual currency system, with the US dollar functioning alongside the Cambodian riel, with 1000 riel approximately equal to $0.25. It was convenient, if a little confusing initially. It’s comforting to know that, even if you are unable to exchange your USD into the local currency, you can still buy some basic goods and services, albeit at an elevated rate.
3. Trust People
During our travels, Adrianna and I were put in a lot of situations where we had to trust people we did not know and who spoke only a little English. Every cab driver was a potential kidnapping murderer, but–unsurprisingly–none of them were hardened criminals. They were all pretty nice, and besides probably overcharging us (looking at you, cabby from the Bali airport), they were more than willing to provide quick and effective service. Ordering food by pointing at a menu almost always turns out alright, and when it doesn’t it’s because you have no idea what you’re pointing at. Most people are just, quite frankly, people, and more than willing to help a hapless foreigner bumble along and spend some money (especially that money part). With that said, we did receive more than a few warnings from locals to avoid certain areas, or to be extra careful walking home late at night. This came to a head in Hanoi, where a woman working at a bar we visited spent lots of time impressing upon us how dangerous our walk back to the hotel–only about 2 minutes–could potentially be if we said the wrong thing to the wrong prostitute/drug dealer. When we left that night we didn’t see any prostitutes, but a motorcycle cabbie asked us if we needed a ride before inquiring about our opinion towards opium, so I guess you could technically say we ran in to a drug dealer. Still, I felt safer abroad than I’ve felt literally every single time I’ve been on Bourbon Street in New Orleans, so maybe I just have a high bar for sketchiness.
4. Making Friends is Fun
Ok, duh, making friends is fun. But it can be a bit embarrassing to try, especially when you’re abroad and not everyone is guaranteed to speak a tongue you recognize. But, if you do make friends, I have every reason to believe that it will make your trip that much more fun. Remember, if you’re in a non-conventional vacation destination like most of SE Asia and you meet a foreigner (other than Australians in SE Asia; they’re a special case), they’re probably like minded. They probably traveled long and far for the same reasons as you, and have similar intentions and interests.
Don’t be afraid to branch out, stretch out, and shake hands with strangers from across the globe; the worst thing you can expect is a well deserved stretch.