I’m still a little in reverse culture shock since returning from southeast Asia. Once you get in the habit of walking slowly but surely across a busy street (because crosswalks don’t exist) while holding your breath and hoping that you don’t get killed, or keeping your eyes peeled on sidewalks for stray motorbikes or jumping out of harms way with every beep of a horn, your adrenaline still peaks every time you walk outside. It was a bit terrifying at times, with no such thing as traffic laws or what seems to us westerners as life saving road rules or defensive driving. Even with multiple near death//motorbike crash experiences, I am amazed at the synchronicity of it all, the beautiful mazes of crossing traffic, the ability for drivers to zip and swerve around thousands of other drivers with not so much as even a hitch in breath. Order out of chaos is the only description I can muster.
It was beautiful to witness prayer offerings, chanting and incense burnings, bowing and praying in the various Hindu and Buddhist temples we visited. I love how stark the contrast is between architecture of different religions in different centuries, yet the beating heart of spirituality is consistent throughout. We had lunch in a Buddhist monastery one day and visited the school for monks and children studying the buddhist practice. We visited the very monastery where the monk who burned himself alive in a Saigon intersection in 1963 lived. Among these temples were jaw-dropping Angkor Wat, the Smiley temple and the temples where Tomb Raider was filmed.
To truly invest in a cultural experience, I push myself, even through waves of nausea, to try new foods. Not only did I try local coconut candies, fried crickets and local delicacies, I also attended a Vietnamese cooking class in Hoi An. Between shopping at the local market for ingredients, singing “together, forever” while stirring, and a temporary power outage, we created a beautiful and delectable masterpiece of spring rolls, soup, glazed fish and other side dishes.
Traveling in and of itself is a leap out of your comfort zone. It forces you to jump head first into unknown cities, with unknown cultures and unknown languages. The immersion into the unknown creates an attitude of “Why not?” Why not ride motorbikes in a country with no traffic laws even though not even 3 months ago, you swore to yourself that you would never ride a motorcycle again? Why not glide on an itsy bitsy rickety boat down the Mekong Delta where alligators and snakes infest the waters? Why not stroll through the very jungles that inhabit that ridiculously huge python that we just saw? Why not cruise around in a junk boat through Halong Bay a day before the typhoon hits?
One of the main reasons I enjoy traveling is the chance to broaden my knowledge of geography, cultures and history. In Vietnam, I crawled through the Cu Chi tunnels where Viet Kong lived for years below the earth while American soldiers searched above and walked through the American War Museum in Saigon where photographs of victims of agent orange and napalm bombs stare back at me as I grimaced in horror. In Cambodia, I met two survivors of the Khmer Rouge genocide and gazed wide-eyed at the mass graves at the killing fields. This learning in action sparked me to read The Quiet American, The Things They Carried and memoirs of the genocide survivors. Due to lack of time, our education system can’t possibly teach students about every country’s history or every story of war-torn lands. Stepping foot on another country’s soil, seeing for yourself the remnants of hundreds of years of history, transcends mere textbook learning and opens your eyes to true history.
Prayer bracelets outside the mass graves at the killing fields outside Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Whitney and I enjoyed every minute of these 3 weeks and words//pictures alone can’t captivate the wonder and beauty of both Vietnam and Cambodia.