Things I Learned In Southeast Asia

Will Chase

In May of 2003, as part of a solo around-the-world backpacking trip, I spent one month traveling through Southeast Asia. I visited Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia, moving through the countries by whatever method made the most sense at the time, be it plane, train, bus, automobile or chicken truck.

These are just some of the things I learned in Southeast Asia:

  1. When watching a Thai kickboxing match from the front row, you must be prepared for the fact that the contestants’ blood is still warm when it hits your face. This takes some getting used to. Same goes for the sweat.
  2. Just because it’s unbelievably cheap, don’t get lulled into thinking that a Laotian “happy pizza” (readily available in a plethora of Vang Vieng restaurants) won’t send you into orbit around your very own star system for hours and hours and hours …
  3. The parasites found in the Cu Chi tunnels of southern Vietnam will leave you with a particularly nasty pimple-ish rash that itches like a mother****** at night. Apparently these parasites are part animal and part plant. I don’t know quite what to make of that, really … in fact, I don’t really want to think about it that much. But I can tell you this much for a fact: they’ll stick with you for a good 4 months, by my clock.
  4. Eating the still-beating heart of a bamboo viper snake is not really as bad as people will have you believe. You just have to get past the whole thumping thing as it sits in its pool of blood and rice wine. No really … it’s not that bad. Hey, where you going?
  5. Despite what they think, the local teenagers on Cat Ba Island in Vietnam don’t provide terribly stiff competition in drinking contests. They learned this the hard way. (Score one for the good ol’ USofA!)
  6. Apparently, I can fight off 5 muggers. Unfortunately, my friend Tom couldn’t.
  7. Taking a longboat ride up the Mekong River from Saigon up to Phnom Penh to emulate the “Apocalypse Now” experience is, in fact, all that and a bag of chips.
  8. There is a woman in Bangkok who, I kid you not, can fire a blowdart out of her coochie and pop a balloon you’re holding in your hand – 20 feet away. I seriously thought I was going to lose an eye … I mean, how good can your aim really be? Blow ping-pong balls at me, that’s fine … but darts??
  9. Dog tastes like ass.
  10. There’s a lovely ladyboy (read: transexual) in Chiang Khong, Thailand who will really look after you, if you give her half a chance. She’ll be happy to give you a ride through town on the back of her motorbike while waving and cooing to everybody she sees. You just have to be OK with basically looking like her new boy toy. Ask for Kitty.
  11. Buddhist monks have email addresses. Who’da thunk it?
  12. One sure way to garner lots of attention in Vietnam is to crash your motorbike into the guardrail of a bridge. Be sure to bleed profusely from your new wounds as the crowd gathers. Now we’re talking fun!
  13. Contrary to popular belief, riding a longboat down the Mekong River to a tiny Laotian village called “Pakbeng” and being offered copious amounts of dirt-cheap opium actually makes for quite a pleasant 35th birthday. That is, of course, if you don’t mind the fact that they cut the power to the village at 10pm.
  14. The gallbladder fluid of the bamboo viper snake tastes like Drain-O. And it doesn’t look much different, either.
  15. Nestled snugly between Burma, China, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam, Laos has the ignominious honor of being the most bombed country in the history of warfare. And yet, it is populated by some of the kindest, most generous people on the face of the earth. Go figure.
  16. One is, in fact, capable of taking a “shower” while straddling – by necessity – a urinal.
  17. The maximum capacity of your average Laotian flat-bed truck (read: taxi) is 24 persons. And that doesn’t include the chickens, snakes and other unidentifiable animals on board. And just for the record, I’m counting the pregnant woman hanging off the back as one, not two.
  18. You get a pretty weird buzz from drinking shots of rice wine fermented in a) goat balls, b) gecko, c) sea horse, d) bees, and e) snake venom. Viva Hanoi!
  19. If you haven’t burned your leg on the hot tailpipe of a Cambodian auto-rickshaw motorcycle, you just haven’t lived. Just remember this: chicks dig scars.
  20. With just a little bit of coaxing, Laotian Buddhist monks will join you in launching from a 30-foot rope swing into the lagoon on top of a massive waterfall outside Luang Prabang. Just don’t tell their masters.
  21. The brain poster acquired from seeing the Khmer Rouge’s killing fields and S21 torture prison will stay with you until you die. Pol Pot was one crazy bastard.
  22. The Hanoi Museum of History features, amongst other things, a gold medal-winning plastic bucket. Yes, a bucket. I’m not kidding.
  23. It will cost you only US$200 to fire a rocket launcher in Cambodia. If you want to make more of a sport of it, they’ll be happy to sell you a cow to shoot at for an additional US$200. If you miss, they keep the cow. Unless of course you can fit it into your backpack. Your call.
  24. There are over 200 tailors in Hoi An, Vietnam. They will make you anything from a bikini to a tuxedo to a wool coat, to your exact measurements, overnight, for about 1/10th the cost of any first world country.
  25. Toilet paper is a luxury.
  26. The hill tribesmen of northern Thailand make one mean-ass moonshine. You don’t fully fathom this until you’re being recruited to help drag one of the village elders into his hut to pass out, and you realize you can’t feel your legs.
  27. Put yourself in the right place at the right time while visiting Cambodia, and you will be offered the tantalizing opportunity to fire a Russian RK-67 machine gun at a live chicken. It’s not exactly a fair fight, but who’s keeping score, right?
  28. Laos Airlines does not fly with navigational instruments. In other words, they’ll just fly around until they see a hole in the clouds through which they can descend. I didn’t quite get the scoop on what exactly they do if they can’t find a hole … I opted to fly Vietnam Air instead. Call me crazy.
  29. One can become paralized from the waist down by riding on the neck of an elephant for a good half hour. This becomes particularly problematic when you try to actually get *off* the elephant.
  30. You quickly learn the art of self-control when you’re crawling through Vietnam’s highly-claustrophobic Cu Chi tunnels (they’re about 2.5 feet tall, 2 feet wide, and pitch black), and the bats fly past your head. If you don’t, you completely freak out, causing you smash your head into the wall and to likely place your hand on a millipede or a spider. Good luck to ya in there, cowboy.
  31. “Same same but different” is not just a phrase, it’s a way of life. I’m still not sure exactly what it means, but it all seems to make sense when it’s being said to you 10 times a day.
  32. Nobody saw me do it, you can’t prove it, and as far as I know there is no evidence. That’s all I’m going to say about that one.
  33. Ditto on the other thing.
  34. The “streets” of Cambodia are fully capable of, at the very least, loosening your teeth, and at worst, swallowing your car whole.
  35. Anywhere in Southeast Asia, the running average number of geckos you can expect to find clinging to the ceiling directly above your head while you eat is 8.
  36. Once you’ve fired an AK47, Colt 45 and an M16, it’s not such a hot idea to keep the shell casings and try and take them through airport security. No sir, not a hot idea at all.
  37. There are over one zillion temples (wats) in Southeast Asia. I’m not exaggerating that. One ZILLION.
  38. If you would like a mango, pineapple, coconut, massage, pedicure, necklace, bracelet, pack of cigarettes, deck of playing cards, bouncy-ball, or 5-course dinner for 4, just stand on the beach in Hoi An, Vietnam for 10 minutes. Just stand there. Feel the love.
  39. Vietnamese alligator farms are terribly weird places, and their owners terribly accommodating. Maybe it’s all the aphrodisiacs they’re sucking down? I dunno.
  40. Southeast Asia is a magical place filled with beauty, joy, and some of the most wonderful people on earth. If you haven’t gone, you should be kicking yourself right now. Go ahead, kick. I’ll wait.

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