A lot of my friends are envious of my so-called traveler’s lifestyle. But in truth, I don’t see myself as a traveller. I actually am not at all attracted to the idea of constantly moving, living moment to moment, and never settling anywhere. Now I know people travel for different reasons, and whenever I meet someone who has the guts to set off without a plan other than I want to get to this place, I say “go for it man!”
The reason I left my home country however is because I wanted to know how other people live, to see what they see, and to know what they know. I was being stifled by British society, and was ready for a new perspective.
So I saved up and bought a one-way ticket to Malaysia.
Having heard all the clichés about Southeast Asia I was determined not to become one of them. I didn’t need to find myself, I wasn’t going to dive into some religion because it sounded cool, and I definitely would not be picking up trinkets here there and everywhere to show back home, with some long emotive tale attached.
I was also determined not to run out of money- I wanted to stay out of the UK for as long as possible. My solution to this was to find an organization that worked in the community. A lot of these organizations will offer board and lodging in return for your work. So I started with a volunteer organization that runs projects throughout Peninsula Malaysia.
My impressions when I first arrived in the town of Merapoh, where I was to be based for the next eight months, were of a small dusty settlement of about 1000 inhabitants with a couple of shops and restaurants, sprawled in the midst of limestone mountains and bordering the mighty Taman Negara National Park. These were the facts.
By the time I left however, I knew the families who ran those restaurants, had shared meals with many of the shop-keepers, and could turn up to any of my neighbor’s houses uninvited and be given a warm welcome. I had taught aerobics to the Muslim ladies in the village, and discovered the fun-loving nature that lay behind their demure dignity.
From them I learned that you can, and should, always make time for people whoever they are; that experiences and belongings are only worth something when they are shared; and that favours performed without the expectation of being repaid, are worth a thousand times the ‘manners’ that often prevent us from asking for them. None of these lessons or experiences could have been gained over a short trip- they took time to build, as did the relationships I formed (and still maintain) with the people I lived amongst.
I also learned that, not far from that town, was a village of people who had been moved out of their forest home in the 1950s, and now lived in fear of their lives. I learned what it was to work with the Batek and gain their trust, and finally be called ‘kaben’ (friend) and ‘guru’ (teacher).
I got to know the Batek children by name, learned their individual characters, and what captured the imagination of people who had grown up in the arms of the rainforest.
The significance of this was highlighted to me when a film unit came through to capture the life of these people. They played sports, bought them durian (a large smelly fruit and delicacy throughout Southeast Asia), taught them about the solar system and set off a coke-Mentos volcano. Knowing the Batek however, I could see how culturally inappropriate these things were.
One of the sports they played was an egg-and-spoon race, using real eggs. For people who were balancing on the edge of poverty food was not something you played with. Bringing in expensive fruit highlighted the affluence of the film crew, and in the following weeks I had to deal with the people’s expectation that I also could provide that, because of who I was and where I came from. Hanging up large coloured balls and explaining in a foreign language that planets orbit the sun was never going to have much of an impact on the kids, and neither was the coke-Mentos volcano, which produced no reaction from them other than a suspicious “eeeeeeh” from Lee, one of the older boys.
The film crew totally miss-represented the Batek as a charity case who had a lot to learn from the Western world.
The truth was that we had a lot more to learn from them. I discovered this when I accompanied them into the forest on camping trips. They taught me how forest materials can be used to make a shelter big enough to sleep ten people, and keep the rain off. I attempted the art of fishing using a bamboo rod with a worm on the end, and how to find the worms by digging in the soft mud at the edge of a stream with a sharp stick.
A lot of the time we just spent sitting, listening and watching, a vital forest skill. The ladies would observe the area we had chosen for our camp, pointing at the various branches above us and making comments on how likely they were to fall down in the night. If an area was deemed too dangerous, we would move on. It even reached the point when I myself advised that we move downstream to an area where the water was cleaner, and there was a bigger clearing for us to make the shelter, which the ladies agreed was a good idea. Sometimes they could be lazy, and would drop their things when they got tired and tell me we would make camp, even if it was a patch of ground next to a muddy trickle of water, thickly over-grown with vines and small trees.
What I enjoyed best, however, was driving over to the village with a box of sports equipment for the kids, who would make up their own games using what I brought, or simply sitting with the Batek elders and making odd comments in their language which I slowly started to pick up.
This always left me with the feeling yes, this is what I came for, and could not have been achieved had I simply come out for a day or two’s trekking experience, before moving onto the next destination.
Of Bali and Thailand however, I cannot give such a glowing account, because I came to these places as a tourist on a visa run from Malaysia. On these shorter trips I figured I could be a bit more spontaneous, though if I’m honest, I have never been much good at this type of travel.
This time I was supposed to be meeting a friend in Ubud, which many may know as a delightful little town in the centre of Bali’s main island where the glitzy tourist life meets the local cuisine. I don’t know- that’s not really my scene. “I’ll just see where you’ve got to when I arrive” was my airy response to any plans my friend tried to make with me, the upshot being that it was rather a while before I actually caught up with her.
On this uncharacteristically spontaneous occasion, owing to unlucky circumstances (I had failed to give myself enough travel time) I missed my first flight out of KL, so by the time I eventually arrived in Bali my friend had already moved on.
The next day I discovered she was now in Ahmed, and agreed (rather recklessly I thought) to hitch a lift on the back of a local boy’s bike. But this fell through at the last minute and I was left sitting frustratedly in the lobby of my hostel, awaiting a shuttle bus. My mood was by no means improved by the presence of a bread roll I had bought earlier that morning for breakfast, and which, on taking a bite, exploded with red ants which came crawling out of every air-hole and bready cavern.
I was however treated to one of the best coffees I have ever tasted, on the house, by the hostel owner, who seemed to take pity on me.
Eventually I boarded my shuttle to Ahmed and we sped on our way, dodging and weaving between traffic, the driver beeping at every vehicle in sight. It reminded me of a similar journey in Peru, when I thought they beep for any and every reason- to tell you you’re going to fast, to tell you you’re going to slow and they’re going to overtake you, to tell you they’re overtaking you, and finally to let you know they’ve successfully overtaken you and wish you a good day.
Whereas in Iquitos, the little fishing village in Peru, this all seemed to be done in good spirits however, here in Bali there was an impatience about the beeping, swerving nature of the shuttle driver’s manner. It was as though he were outraged at the presence of others on the road. To accompany his reckless driving the man would curse, and make frequent utterances of “Ayooo!”.
On reaching my destination in Ahmed, I had not the foggiest idea where I was going, having neglected to look up the name of the place before I had left. I had assumed, stupidly, that I would be able to message my friend once I arrived to find out where she was. However, standing on the hot dusty road having been expelled from the shuttle, I realized I had no signal and no Wi-Fi.
I dug around for a message containing the name of the hostel and eventually found a link sent by my friend, that contained what I’d assumed was the name of the place we were staying at.
I showed this name to several people and eventually ascertained the place was “one kilomet that way”, whereupon I set off in the appointed direction, in the hope of finding a nice cold drink waiting for me at the hostel.
As I walked, hot and sweaty with my large bag on my back, several of the locals stopped to ask where I was going, each of them offering me a lift in a taxi or on a scooter, behaviour I have now come to associate with the Asian habit of wanting to help. I repeatedly told them where I was headed and turned down the offer of a lift, as the original distance estimate was not all that far and I could easily walk it.
Worryingly however, the closer I assumed I was getting to my destination, the further and further away people told me it was, and the quotes for taxis got correspondingly higher. Eventually I shook off the taxi drivers and reached the place on foot, already a little flustered.
On reaching this hostel, I discovered the proprietor had never heard the names of my friend nor the two others we were staying with, and certainly did not have a reservation for me. Of course, I could not get hold of my friend as the number she’d given me did not work. At this point hot, tired and still lugging my extremely heavy bag, I decided to take myself down to the beach.
I sat in the shade admiring the black volcanic sands, and started chatting to a Balinese man who seemed to be relaying everything I told him into the white phone he was holding to his left ear. This calmed and amused me.
After a little while I had a brainwave- maybe the hostel I had come to had Wi-Fi, and maybe I could contact my friend that way. I got on the phone to her and established that I was at the wrong place entirely (the names weren’t even similar), and with that set out to the correct hostel. Seeing as it was apparently quite a way off I decided it would be as well to hitch a ride with someone, but, predictably, no-one stopped to offer one.
Then there was the time I was supposed to rent a bike and take a tour of Thailand, but it rained……
On both these occasions, I was looking too hard to get that experience advertised on the web, of cool dudes and backpackers hanging out having a great time, and ultimately failed to enjoy myself. It was only at the moment when I sat on the black beach with the man on the white phone, that I thought ‘Hey, I’m in Bali!’
I am continuing to learn about the culture and customs of Southeast Asia, which vary country to country as much as they do in Europe. Currently I am working in Laos, in the city of Luang Prabang, and my friends and teachers consist of Buddhist Novices and Monks, students from the Laos, Hmong and Khmu ethnic groups, and of course my international colleagues. Again my perceptions of the city, and of the people, and even the language have changed as I have got to know them.
One of my favourite phrases in Laos is bor pen yang. This literally means was not anything, or translated more correctly no worries! Don’t stress about the things you can’t change, let it go. This can be applied to a wide range of situations, and makes the Laos one of the most accepting people I know. So maybe your neighbor killed your dog because they wanted to eat it- bor pen yang, we’ll eat it together!
That isn’t to say they don’t take life seriously- if you want to witness diligence and hard work I strongly recommend a month or two teaching English to students from rural Laos.
None of this I would have been able to tell you within my first three months in the country. As with Malaysia, the true colours of society have taken their time to come through, but they have been well worth getting to know.
From my experiences in Southeast Asia I have learned some very important lessons: go with your heart, and what you want, rather than what everyone else says is good or thinks you ought to enjoy; Once you get to a place, talk to the locals, do some work there if you can, preferably with an established organization who know and respect the culture; and if you are going to wing it, bor pen yang! There will always be someone willing to help. This is Southeast Asia after all!
Written by: Elizabeth Wells
Elizabeth caught the travel bug in 2012 when she spent 6 weeks in Peru with a University research group, fulfilling a childhood ambition to live in the jungle. Since then she has volunteered with GVI (Global Vision International) on a reserve in South Africa, worked as a Rainforest leader and Education Officer with Fuze Ecoteer in Malaysia, and is currently working in Laos as Field Staff for GVI in their education program.