Difficult Travel Experiences in Southeast Asia
Travel can bring many difficult experiences in between all the fun times we set out to have. I was just reading a post from my friend Jaime about the Ganges River in India, and it made me think about all of the heart-wrenching or disturbing or awkwardly difficult moments I’ve experienced, especially while traveling in Southeast Asia for two months. I’m not even talking about visiting a concentration camp in Germany or seeing the Killing Fields in Cambodia. I’m talking about normal, every day life.
In most modern, westernized countries, the worst you are likely to see while traveling is a homeless person begging for money. That can be awkward enough, the dilemma of wanting to help versus what we’ve been told, that most of them will use the money for drugs or alcohol and that giving them money gives them no incentive to try to better their lives. But get out of these countries and into the less developed countries, and it’s a totally different situation.
The parts of Indonesia I visited weren’t so bad. The roads weren’t great, the sidewalks were in desperate need of repair, and the houses wouldn’t exactly pass inspections in the US. I knew this was not a wealthy country. But a few weeks later when I got to Cambodia, things really changed for me.
Aside from the already disturbing images of the Killing Fields and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, men lingered at the entrances and exits asking for money. They were all missing a limb or two, most likely from landmines.
After visiting these museums to learn about the horrors of the Khmer Rouge, I went to get a couple beers with another woman in my hostel. While sitting by the river, little kids constantly came up to us asking for money and trying to sell junky bracelets or bootlegged DVDs. We also saw a woman bathing herself and shampooing her hair in the dirty river just a few feet away from us. She either didn’t have running water in her home or didn’t even have a home.
In Siem Reap while visiting Angkor Wat, we were constantly hassled by people, almost all children. They were selling everything from cans of soda to junky jewelry to postcards, all for US$1. Not only did I not want what they were selling, but I had read that buying things from these children encourages their parents to keep sending them out there to sell instead of going to school. It also teaches the children that they can make money without even knowing how to read, reinforcing their parents’ reluctance to send them to school.
In the beautiful country of Laos, I was constantly aware of the destruction my own country caused. During the Vietnam War, the US dropped 260 million cluster bombs on Laos, making it the most bombed country in history. That’s approximately one plane load of bombs dropped every 8 minutes from 1965 to 1973. Read that sentence again. That’s insane! Approximately 75 million (I’ve read as high as 78 million) of those bombs didn’t explode and less than 1% of those have been removed, which means decades later, people there are still injured or killed by unexploded ordnance.
I didn’t even visit any of the organizations dedicated to helping victims, but I saw people with missing limbs or other obvious signs of injury, most likely from the UXOs. But the people of Laos were some of the warmest, nicest people I’ve ever met. No one even flinched when I said I was from the US, even though I’m sure every single one of them knows it was the US who provided them with a potentially never-ending supply of pain.
When my flight to Vientiane was delayed and I was stuck in the Pakse Airport for hours, a few of the airport employees wanted to talk to me. Aside from the normal confusion at a female traveling alone, they were shocked to hear I was traveling for five months. How much did that kind of travel cost? How could I afford that? I blushed with embarrassment trying to answer the questions, knowing the amount I spent on five months of travel was more than they earned in several years. That was confirmed to me when one of the men told me how much he made: approximately US$140 a month. And that’s actually a lot since a job at the airport pays more than the average.
As difficult as it was to see these horrible situations, it reminded me how good my life is in so many ways. I love seeing the famous sites, eating the delicious food, and experiencing the fun activities. But it’s also important to look at the reality many people live with in many parts of the world. It might be uncomfortable, it might make me want to cry, but these difficult moments are just as important to my travel experience.
You might also enjoy:
- How Much We Spent Traveling in Southeast Asia for Two Months
- How to Use Frequent Flyer Miles for a Round the World Ticket – Or Not
- Solo Travel Sucks. Do It Anyway.
- On Living a Non-Traditional Life
April 30, 2012 @ 3:26 PM
What a poignant post! I think seeing the difficult side of life is our duty as travelers.
April 30, 2012 @ 10:11 PM
Thanks Andi, I totally agree with you.
April 30, 2012 @ 4:49 PM
I am glad my post on not understanding the Ganges River encouraged you to write this. It’s crazy the amount of things we are faced with on a daily bases traveling through a less developed country. It is hard to just walk away, I mean we know these people are not making any money or barely enough to survive. It’s also even harder when you know they are living in pain or agony because of what your own country did. This is a side of travel most people don’t think about but is the part that really teaches us and makes us value what we do have just a bit more.
April 30, 2012 @ 10:13 PM
Thanks for inspiring me with your post, Jaime! It’s an important part of traveling, and even though it’s not what most people set out to see on their vacation, it teaches us so much more than just sitting on a pretty beach.
April 30, 2012 @ 9:58 PM
It is so important when we travel to visit these places, the ones that make us sad, uncomfortable, open our eyes to the atrocities we, as human beings, are capable of. Thank you for sharing this. I plan on visiting these places when I head to SE Asia this summer.
April 30, 2012 @ 10:14 PM
Thanks! It’s definitely important to see these parts of the world. Sad and difficult, but so necessary.
Changes In Longitude
May 1, 2012 @ 12:48 AM
Oh how we can relate to this post. We faced a similar moral dilemma with the child vendors at Angkor Wat. You might be interested in the story we wrote about it for the Philadelphia Inquirer. It’s a heartbreaking situation.
Larissa and Michael
May 1, 2012 @ 11:27 AM
Thanks guys, I’ll check it out!
May 1, 2012 @ 2:44 AM
It is so important to be aware of your surroundings when you travel, not only in terms of safety but in terms of privilege. It is easy to be swept up in the adventure of travel and only see the good/fun part, glossing over some of the day-to-day challenges faced by the people living in the countries hosting you. Thanks for this reminder to take in the good and the bad as you travel and to reflect on both.
May 1, 2012 @ 11:29 AM
Thanks Holly, you’re so right. It is easy to only see the good parts, but it’s the not-so-good parts that helps us really understand the places we visit.
May 1, 2012 @ 4:56 AM
I agree with Andi – it’s our duty to see the sad or bad as well as the amazing parts of the places we visit. It’s not all picture postcards and margueritas; it’s important to see a whole place. Great post Ali!
May 1, 2012 @ 11:30 AM
Thanks Gillian! Definitely important to look at the whole place to really understand where you are and appreciate what you have back home.
May 1, 2012 @ 7:36 AM
What a great post. I completely agree with you and I wish more people looked at travel this way.
May 1, 2012 @ 11:30 AM
Thanks Christy, I wish more people did too, we’d all understand each other better if they did.
May 5, 2012 @ 7:14 PM
Hi Ali. I still think about one of the beggars I met in India. I didn’t give, and I still feel conflicted about it….. Do you know of any good organizations for street children we can give to? I meant to do that after I got home instead of giving to the children, haven’t done it.
May 6, 2012 @ 12:12 PM
Thanks Mary. I can totally understand that conflicted feeling, it’s tough to know what is the right thing to do. I don’t know of any but I did just do a search for charity street children Asia, and it looks like there are a bunch on the first page. I think it would just be a matter of looking through them to see which ones sound right for what you want to do and who you want to help.
May 7, 2012 @ 4:14 AM
What a fabulous post about experiences I, too, have shared in southeast Asia. I now live in Bali and see child vendors on the street every day when clearly they should be in school. Explanations for why they are not are as varied as the children. The simple answer: poverty.
As you noted – it’s so important to remember as we travel the world that we are privileged. The never-ending question of “how much you pay for _____?” makes me extremely uncomfortable, but it is so common. As you also stated, these uncomfortable travel situations are part of what helps us grow through travel.
Thanks again for a great post!
May 7, 2012 @ 1:43 PM
Thank you Heather! I can’t imagine seeing this kind of thing in my every day life. I’m sure you’re getting a unique perspective living in Bali.
September 15, 2012 @ 5:00 AM
I mean no offense at all to the United States of America or to Americans in general – I love you guys! – but it must be extra tough traveling through Laos, hearing awful stories about all the destruction caused by US bombs during the Vietnam conflict. This is an excellent, thought-provoking post!
September 15, 2012 @ 11:30 AM
Thanks Simon, I’m glad you enjoyed my post! You’re exactly right, it was definitely hard to be there knowing what my country did a few decades back. So horrible, and it’s something I didn’t even learn about until the last few years when I started researching places to travel. The US bombing Laos during the Vietnam War just isn’t mentioned in history class. I’m not sure I even heard of Laos when I was a kid.