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First backpacking trip lessons

March 1, 2010 1 comment

We’re back in Zhuhai with Chinese New Year resolutions.  Brian wants to quit smoking and lose 20 pounds.  I’m vowing to scoot around the firewall and update this account more often–and improve my Chinese!  I do have resolutions of another kind, though, to be used at another time.  I wouldn’t have any resolutions to make, however, without first looking back on the past few weeks.  There are things that I did on the Thailand/Malaysia trip that I would hesitate to do again, though many things that were wonderful and perfectly right.

A.  Right thing: spending enough time in one place to be able to experience in it.  Wrong thing: spending too much time in said place.

There was no reason to stay in Bangkok for four days.  Day four was just spent in overwhelmed hiding from the city, in air conditioning and eating food that I’d already eaten before.  I was happy to be in Kuala Lumpur for several days, because it gave me the opportunity to visit with my friends, but had it not been the end of the trip, and had I not been on the last ringets of my paycheck, I really would’ve liked to visit the tea plantations or something outside the cities for a day or two.  Cities help with reconnecting to civilization, but too much civilization can give you heat stroke.  The money dilemma, however, leads me to my next lesson:

B.  The street is the best place for food.  The convenience store is the best place for booze.

If I had stuck to that rule, I would definitely have made it to the highlands.  There are, of course, meals that are special or reserved for special occasions, but after a while everything becomes a special occasion…last night in a city, first night in a city, a birthday, a first visit to a waterfall…With the exception of Nop’s specially caught squid in Khao Lak, the best food I had on the trip was Pad Thai and Char Kuay Teow–both from food stalls.  The wine coolers and domestic beers aren’t usually better, but they are within budget and definitely do the trick.

C.  Set goals.

This may be something meant more for my own personality, but unless I’m prepared for an activity, unless I’ve done all the research previously and know how to go about it, I’m perfectly happy in a hammock with a book for the entire trip.  I read four of them over the course of this trip: Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey, The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, A Land on Fire by James Fahn and The Beach by Alex Garland.  While part of me is proud of that fact, the other part of me isn’t so proud.  Trips such as these, especially when only on the road for a few weeks, are about exploration and discovery of new cultures.  I resisted the “to do list” method to traveling because I have had some to-do list making travel companions in the past who were not very flexible in their approach and really knew how to kill a good time.  However, while most of my reading was done on a train platform, some of it was done when I could’ve been out at an Islamic Art Museum or a park, or exploring architecture, or meeting new people, or something else that I could’ve learned about if one of those books I’d read was a Lonely Planet or Rough Guide.  Which leads me to my last point:

D.  Never travel without a guide!

Lonely Planet took me to some of the most fun times I’ve ever had in Hong Kong, as well as in Florence, Pisa, Siena, Rome and Vienna.  Without it, Brian and I were mapless, uncharted wanderers in much-charted territory going “what do you wanna do?”  “I don’t know, what do you wanna do?”  We always ended up doing something, but with a guide and a plan, we could have done a lot more, a lot more cheaply, and with a lot more efficiency.

There were plenty of small lessons to be learned as well: Clean and Clear oil absorbing sheets are the bomb in the tropics, as is showering as many times as possible, as is washing things in your sink on the first day you reach a location rather than the night before you leave.  Those are practical things I’m sure anyone besides I, the sometimes overly big-picture oriented person, would most certainly have thought of before buying a plane ticket.  Also, I learned that places like Surat Thani are a necessary evil, as are things like waiting until 3am for a train while your travel companion sings “The green grass grows all around all around…” over and over again.  Shiver.

Anyway, thanks for reading so faithfully for the past few month, and special shout-outs to Usha and Anu for hosting me in Kuala Lumpur!  I had a wonderful time and you were great hosts!

The next few weeks of work should be pretty interesting, and I’ve resolved to try to help you all get more insight into Chinese culture as I do myself.  So stay tuned!