#15 Humbled in Si Phan Don, Laos

So, there I was, on the idyllic Don Khon, enjoying the cool breeze along the Mekong and gazing over at Don Det on the opposite bank… We just arrived in Si Phan Don, located in the southern region of Laos (right across the border from Cambodia).  Stomachs growling, we ducked in a rustic-looking restaurant overlooking the murky brown Mekong River.

That was when a Laotian boy, around ten years of age, armed with an impressive command of English, came up and served us our menus.

Seizing the opportunity to practice a bit of English, he asked, “Where are you from? China?”

I shook my head politely, but in my head I was once again slightly affronted. With all due respect, I may look Chinese but that doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m from China.

“Hmm, so where are you from?” He asked inquisitively, bouncing along with me as he showed me the way to the ‘bathroom’, a toilet bowl fixed upon a tiny attap outdoor cubicle, haphazardly built in between a chicken coop and a tool shack. Tiny green crabs were skittering across muddy tufts of grass while a yellow-furred dog stretched lazily in the afternoon sun.

“I’m from Singapore.” I wasn’t sure if he knows where that is, yet at the same time, I sort of hoped he did too. After all, Laos and Singapore aren’t that far apart. Let’s see if this kid stayed awake during his classes.

“Oh!” His saucer-like brown eyes lit up with recognition, two rows of shiny white teeth baring as he grinned.

He paused as if to ponder over that knowledge.

“Singapore? It’s a small country.” He actually sniffed and waved his hand in dismissal.

Every time I traveled to a less developed country, I try to play down on the fact that I came from a more well-off place. I did not want to let any preconceived notions or differences come between my making new connections with people I meet on my travels.

Yet, this was the first time I was faced with such an unexpected role reversal. I felt the need to defend where I came from. But more than that I battled with conflicting emotions: I didn’t know whether to feel glad at least we were “on the map” enough for a village boy to recognize us, or aghast that we are so small and unimpressive that a boy who has probably never traveled out of his village actually scoffed at us with distaste.

Later, it occurred to me that the boy probably learnt his English from the hordes of tourists that flocked to the islands all year round. It was also equally possible that he garnered his knowledge about the world from the Lonely Planet guides that travellers left behind… In any case, he is young and the world is his oyster. And hopefully, by being around tourists all the time will inspire him to reach out and see all the foreign places he has heard about.

One revelation that I came away with? That more often than not, surprises hit you when you least expect it, and in this case from a young boy barely half my age. ♥

#14 Crossing from Siem Reap into Bangkok

You have survived the muggy heat and the crush of tourists at the UNESCO-listed world heritage site Angkor Wat, and can’t wait to get back on the banana pancake trail…and what better place than to seek refuge in the City of Sin, where cheap pad thai stalls line the streets, smartly dressed office workers stride alongside downtrodden backpackers weighed down by their packs, where the good kids are seen praying sans shoes at the temples and the bad ones living’ it up in Patpong.

It’s time to dust off your passport and head on a long journey again… I know you are tempted to do it the cheapest way possible but we were so annoyed by the nonsensical struggles of doing it the “cheap way” (and in the end it didn’t seem to be worth all that effort, really, unless you are planning to stretch that cash a loooooong way) that we just gave in and got a direct coach from Siem Reap to Bangkok for US$10. DON’T DO THIS! In fact, many lessons were learnt, but that’s just how it goes when you are striking out on your own.

1. Hunt around the vicinity for similar buses heading to Bangkok.
Don’t purchase from the first one you see, unless they charge less than US$8. I found out that a fellow traveller on the same bus only paid US$6.50 for the same crappy ride.

2. Don’t trust the tour agency when they promise a tuk-tuk will pick you up from your guesthouse.
No partying the night before unless you want to miss that bus. Get up early, if it’s the 8am bus (trust me you want to leave at this time to reach Bangkok just around sunset), at least 45 minutes early, make sure you get to the bus 10-15 minutes before departure time. Our promised tuk-tuk didn’t arrive; we hired one ourselves and the driver hunted for our bus for 40 minutes. We only managed finally to catch it at a random place much later, after our driver borrowed a cellphone (his cell ran out of credits) from a friend, contacted his “people” and hunted it down. We were the last people to board. Needless to say, this time, we were LUCKY.

3. The ride is going to be shit. Yes, even though you paid good money for it.
They made us wait not once but thrice, for no apparent good reason given to us. Most of the travellers on the bus were Western travellers/tourists with a few East Asians, all going to different places like Ko Samui, Bangkok etc. So their ingenious idea was, at the Aranyaprathet-Poipet border, to split everyone from the original bus up into different mini vans heading to different directions. We crossed the immigration, walked nearly 1km in the blazing afternoon heat across to the Thai side, and waited in the hot sun, and waited. Continue reading