I was never the type of person who went backpacking through Europe, took a year off from college to study abroad or booked a solo adventure through Southeast Asia.
I wanted to do all this stuff but I never had the finances or the balls. So naturally, I harbored feelings of pure envy for people who went on these adventures, while I was left to my imagination to paint a picture of exactly how cool their trip would be.
In my mind, their adventures were full of beautiful places, beautiful people, hot flings, lovely trains, yummy adventurous food, blending in and fully embracing each culture they encountered, and of course, lots of journaling.
Their trips were perfect in my mind and they would come home with a ton of stories, cool new pants and a tan.
Last week I was walking down a crowded street in Trang, a popular stopover town in southern Thailand. As I was walking past a food cart on the side of the road selling fried fish for breakfast, I saw them.
They were hard to make out at first given the black car fumes, smoke from the food cart and the cigarette smoke that was pouring out of a local coffee shop, but as soon as I was past the plume of smoke, I saw them loud and clear.
Three American girls in their early twenties. From afar I could see their bandana wrapped heads, their cute but rugged sandals, a pair of hiking boots dangling from the side of each of their backpacks, a tie dye scarf knotted around the strap of their sling bag, and the coolest fucking Thai pants I have ever seen.
These girls were the epitome of cool backpackers and they could have walked directly out of the picture I painted in my head so many years back.
But once I got closer, the picture started to change, and the reality of the tropics hit.
The first girl had huge painful looking blisters covering her lips, the second was so sunburned that I could feel heat radiating from her red body as she passed by, the third girl was limping, and they all looked confused, hot, tired, cranky and ready for their own beds.
When we think about something that we want but that's not yet in our grasp, we only think about the good stuff that comes with it, and the crap stuff selectively escapes our daydreams.
I have been to Southeast Asia a handful of times now and I can assure you that it's not all beaches and plumerias. Here are 8 things that people are less likely to talk about when chatting about their travels to Southeast Asia.
1. The combination of the heat and the humidity 365 days a year. Holy hell buckets of fire. Have you ever been in a wet sauna, and you had to get the hell out before you faint and crack your head? It's kind of like that but with nowhere to go.
2. The tardiness of trains, vans, boats and anything that takes people to and from places is epic. And if you ask when the next ________ will be arrive, they will tell you "15 minutes". Every single time.
3. The taxi, bus and van drivers. They drive like maniacs, and the shit is scary. And if you tell them to slow down, they drive faster.
4. The swaying train cars. Train tickets from Ipoh, Malaysia to Hat Yai, Thailand are $10 USD, and this is for sleeper cars. Even with the comfort of the sleeper cars, once you crossed the border into Thailand, it's impossible to sleep on account of the cars swaying so far side to side that I think they will come off the tracks at any moment. I couldn't even hold the thought of kittens in my head to distract me.
5. The food when in between major cities and towns. There will be food of some kind, but it will have been sitting out for a few hours and all of the flies in that area know about it.
6. The language barrier. Malaysia and Singapore are easy because most people speak English, but once you hit Thailand that all stops. Thailand is one of the only countries in Southeast Asia that has not been colonized by the West, so the culture isn't a mixed bag.
You don't realize how important communication is until you literally can't communicate with someone.Not even my English to Thai translator app was help. Not one person understood a damn word I typed in.
7. The traffic. I thought San Francisco was bad. The Bay Bridge at 5pm on Friday is NOTHING compared to Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, Manila and Ho Chi Minh at any hour of the day on any day of the week. And people don't use driving rules because they're not enforced. A motorbike driving on the wrong side of the highway because it's less jammed? I've seen it -- and people don't think it's strange.
8. Heat rash. When I used to think of badass adventurous travelers, I never pictured them with a gross heat rash in their armpit. Well, I should have because I can tell you from personal experience that the state of my right armpit is disgusting right now.
Even with all these crap things, it's safe to say that I'm absolutely addicted to this part of the world. It's like really yummy spicy salsa from your fave Mexican restaurant. It burns the hell out of your mouth when you eat it, but no matter how painful your mouth is, you keep going back for more. At the end of the day, the enjoyment of the salsa is worth the pain of eating it.
This part of the world has a way of stealing your heart without you even noticing, and mine breaks a little more each time I say goodbye.