As I come to the end of my three months exploring Southeast Asia, I’ve noticed a few things that the cities here seem to have in common.
1) Sidewalks are not for people. If sidewalks even exist, which is a big if, they are there for motorcycle parking and street stalls. Want a snack? T-shirt? Knock-off electronic? Souvenir knickknacks? Head to the sidewalks where you can find all you could ever want and not want blocking your path. Get used to walking on the road if you want to walk around most of these cities.
2) Traffic lights are few and far between. Once in a while you can get lucky and find a light, although being able to predict when you get to walk is not likely. Mostly though traffic lights or signs are absent. This contributes to the real life Frogger experience that is trying to cross the street. Walk forth with confidence and you will most likely make it. If you’re a thrill seeker you can try to ride through this chaos on a motorcycle.
3) Temples pop up out of nowhere. Unlike European cathedrals which tend to be surrounded by open space, temples and pagodas are in the middle of it all. One minute you’re walking past 7/11 and the next a shiny gold stupa or tiered-roofed wat has appeared alongside you. It’s a bit of a chicken or the egg situation, although I’m guessing the temples were there first. And it’s never just one temple; these cities have tons of them. Just try to walk around a Southeast Asian city without running into one. I dare you.
4) No one minds being barefoot. Take off your shoes at the entrance to the temple. Take off your shoes to go into the tattoo parlor. Take off your shoes at the bar. Take off your shoes to enter your hostel. Take off your shoes to climb over 700 feet to the top of a hill because there’s half a dozen pagodas on the way. This is why cutting my foot on a rock in a river was such a problem.
5) Honking means everything. It’s hi I’m behind you. Watch out I’m going to pass you. Ok you can pass me. Thanks I’m past you. I’m going to turn in front of you. You turn first. Thanks for letting me turn first. I swear drivers from Southeast Asia must think New York City is full of the friendliest, most polite drivers.
6) If it’s from a cart, it’s probably cheap and delicious. Food carts are everywhere, and despite all the warnings about street food, they’re often the source of tasty cheap bites. It’s like the original food truck, just without the strict sanitary regulations. Eat at your own risk.
7) Someone made a killing in the beer sign industry. Plastered on the side of buildings or used to advertise an establishment, whether it’s a restaurant or hotel, there’s a good chance a sign will have the local beer logo above the name of whatever it is. I actually got used to looking for “Angkor” signs in Cambodia to find somewhere to eat. And it’s usually a beer named after where you are: Hanoi and Saigon, Angkor and Cambodia, Beerlao, and Mandalay and Myanmar are all beer names. If only Chang was spelled Chiang, then it could be linked to Northern Thailand.
8) Southeast Asia is in serious need of electrical engineers. Power lines hang like vines that have been allowed to grow wild, clinging to the corners of buildings in huge clusters. And while interior lighting and internet may be dim, sparkling, flashing lights adorn the exterior of hotels, restaurants and bars like year-long Christmas decorations.