An item on my bucket list for a long time was to go diving with sharks. But since I can’t swim (really) and I’m terrified of sharks (not to mention of the ocean in general), I thought snorkeling with whale sharks (which don’t really count as one of the scary sharks since whale sharks eat planktons) is the next best thing.
“You can always go to Mexico if you want to swim with whale sharks”, a friend said when I told her about Djibouti.
No way! Really?
The Yucatan Peninsula where we’re heading offers so much more than the opportunity to swim with whale sharks. There’s the food, the beach, the arts, and apparently there are a bunch of famous Mayan ruins there as well. The more I read about the Yucatan peninsula the more I realise that it sounds like a really cool place to visit.
But can I be really, really honest with you guys? If we come back from our Mexico trip having done nothing but snorkeling with the biggest fish in the world – I’d be completely, utterly, happy.
I want it to happen to bad I’m afraid if I think too much about it, I’ll end up jinxing it altogether. Maybe I should be talking in whispers (or whatever the writing equivalent of a whisper)
“We’re going to Mexico to snorkel with whale sharks”.
So tomorrow, we’ll be on a plane heading to Yucatan, Mexico. Do you think we’ll get to see some big fish? Eeeek! Let’s hope so.
If not, I guess I’ll just have console myself by Plan B that consists of me stuffing my face silly with Mexican food, and go snorkeling in the world’s second largest barrier reef system. Or maybe I’ll go down to Oaxaca to swim with some glow-in-the-dark planktons.
You have to agree, I want Plan A to happen, but Plan B doesn’t sound so bad after all.
Chiang Mai Sunday market, held every… well, Sunday, is the mother of all markets. It’s the most touristy and crowded market we’ve ever visited. We loved every minute of it.
Every Sunday night the main street of Chiang Mai was lined with stalls after stalls selling anything from handmade crafts to deeply discounted branded backpacks. The front yards of the wats (the temples) – and there seems at least a wat in every block – are turned into instant food courts crammed with more food stalls than my stomach knew what to do with.
This is what heaven must feel like. To be surrounded with morsels of food (and so cheap) everywhere you look. (Although in heaven, I’d have 4 stomachs like a cow so I could eat 4 times as much).
People come out in droves: tourists and locals alike. By early evening, the speed of the crowd has slowed to snail like.
Then the strangest thing happened..
My brother and I were stuck in this crowd, trying to make our way back when I noticed a crowd of people gathering around a stall. With great effort I elbowed my way through the crowd to see what they were staring at only to be mildly disappointed. They were watching people making smoothies. Wha?
Now that I’m paying a closer attention, the people working behind the booth aren’t even doing that good of a job at it. They look bored, standing around doing nothing. Don’t they realise that there’s a group of people waiting?
Quickly losing interest, I turn around and ran smash into a wall of people. Quite literally. We – as a group of people – have stopped moving and were standing completely, utterly, still.
Just imagine New York Times Square on a weekend night. You’re out and about ogling the orgy of light displays when all of a sudden the thousands of people around you are standing still as if frozen by an invisible light beam of an alien spaceship. Only the movement of their eyes give a hint that there’s life within.
Of course by this time, my brain was whirrring frantically trying to find an explanation to this phenomena.
Is it an alien attack? But no, aliens only attack American cities. Or big cities. I mean, they’d attack Bangkok. But Chiang Mai? No.
The lack of noise was obvious. I didn’t even notice how loud the thoroughfare was until it stopped being so loud. We could only hear the gurgle of static coming out of the loudpeakers spread out throughout the street. It seems that… wait, is it playing a song?
Suddenly everything clicks together. Something I read a while ago comes rushing back from the depth of my memory. They’d play Thai national anthem before every movie in movie theaters and during this time, you’re supposed to get off your butt and stand up to pay respect. The loudspeakers are currently playing the national anthem and this is why everyone has stopped whatever they were doing in the market: to stand up, stay still, and pay respect.
As soon as I realised this, the song ended. As if relased from the spell, everyone went back doing what they were doing before. The smoothie makers go back making smoothie, the shoppers and the vendors go back bargaining, we – as a group – continue inching forward as if the last 10 seconds, when the whole street of Chiang Mai stood still, didn’t happen.
You just have to be there. I swear, it was the most surreal thing that ever happened.
Did you guess right away what was happening before the end of the post? 🙂
Whenever someone asks me about my favorite countries I’ve visited, Morocco somehow always makes it up there on the list. Which is kind of funny considering that I left Morocco completely exhausted. Exhausted by the constant hassle, the rough intercity travels, and by its overall intensity.
But to me that pretty much sums up what Moroccos is all about. A country that evokes such a contrast in emotions. I went from loving it, to hating it almost on an hourly basis.
The Traveler in me
The constant hassle, the cheating taxi drivers – they leave us harried and exhausted at the end of the day as we escaped into the relative peace and quiet of our riyad.
Morocco’s famous touts might not deserve their past notoriety but they’re there, and for those not prepared it can get very overwhelming. I’d suggest layering up a good sense of humor and a thick skin when getting off the bus and walking around the souks. It might sound like you’re being rude, but responsing to every single ‘Hi, how are you?’ means you’ll never get to go anywhere.
Worst hassle encounter: Essaouira, Fes.
Morocco has everything! Beaches, mountains, deserts and it’s relatively easy to get around. The buses are not the best, but thankfully the small size of the country means less long distance bus trips you have to take.
Morocco is exciting, it’s exotic. The architecture is different, the people look different. The diversity of its people mean everyone speaks a little bit of everything: Spanish, Berber, Arabic, and French. The old town, the medinah of Morocco is compact, walkable, and to me the kind of towns I love: I can walk everywhere and there are things to see whereever you lay your eyes on.
Stepping into Morocco’s old towns does feel like stepping back in time.
Must visit Moroccan cities: Essaouira for its overal charm, Fes for its souks, Chefchaouen for its blue medina.
The Animal Lover in me
There are so many stray cats in Morocco it’s heart breaking. I saw a black kitten covered in flies, its chest moving occasionally, erratically until it stopped altogether. That kitten died in front of our eyes in front of a busy mosque – and nobody else seemed to care. It still haunts me to this day. I had never felt completely, utterly helpless.
Worst cat problem: Rabat – too many skinny cats
Most of the street cats in Morocco look well-fed. Do you know the signs of well treated animals? They’re not afraid of humans and Moroccan cats are anything but shy. I can tell they’re used to being fed and petted, or at the very worst ignored.
Essaouira fisherman and one of the street cats
Compared that to the scraggly stray cats of Jakarta who run away when approached.
Then I saw signs of random kindness towards animals:a makeshift cat shelter in Fes, fishermen feeding scraps of fish in Essaouira, a lady giving out milk to the cats in Rabat and I thought – there’s hope. There are those who care.
Jack describes the medinas of Morocco as ‘one big sausage fest’ – and I have to say it’s somehow apt. Men, men everywhere you see. They man (pun intended) the stores in the souks, they congregate in large numbers in coffee shops – which just killed my desire to do what I usually like to do: go to a coffeeshop and watch people. It was just too weird being the only woman in the place.
Now that I look back, except for the scary lady in the hammam in Marrakesh, we dealt only with men in hotels, restaurants, and shops.
I bumped into a group of Moroccan students in Chefchaoen. They belong to an organization that fights for equality for gays and women in Morocco. We became friends and still talk on Facebook occasionally. The organization is fighting a tough battle but it warms my heart knowing that yes, things are changing – slowly, but more importantly, these are changes the come from within Morocco itself.
The Photographer in me
I don’t think you can afford to NOT like Morocco if you’re a photographer.
Morocco is the most photogenic country I’ve ever been. I took more photos in Morocco than anywhere else I’ve been. Everything was fascinating: the hanging camel head in Fes market, the colors of Moroccan slippers, the people, the madrassas…
I was mesmerized by everything.
The detailed wooden and plaster carvings that cover the walls and ceilings of madrassas will blow your mind. As it did mine.
Details of Marrakech, Morocco
My favorite things to photograph in Morocco: the souks, the plaster carvings in madrassas, fountains, and the port in Essaouira. And Moroccan cats, of course.
— There has never been another country that made me feel this way.
Morocco was everything I imagined it to be but so much more. I was charmed and repulsed, I was loved and abused, I don’t want to go back but at the same time, I sort of do.
First thing I noticed about Thailand (besides the humidity) was how easy travel became.
Take note that I just arrived from Africa, and by comparison, Thailand (and to lesser degree, its neighbors) felt much more, oh, about a gazillion times much more accommodating to travelers.
Which is why whenever someone asks us, “Where should I go as a first time traveler?” I say – “Thailand” or “South East Asia” then gush about why I ended up falling in love with the region.
It’s Easy to Get Around in South East Asia
In the spirit of making broad generalization – I’d like to say that South East Asia is an easy place to get around. The roads are decent, the border crossings are well documented, and the public transportation options are relatively comfortable and clean.
Although to be honest, after my brother was stuck in a piss-smelling, cramped train compartment in Vietnam for 12 hours – it’s not perfect. But for the most part, they’re…endurable.
But the big reason why it’s easy to get around in SE Asia is because there’s an established infrastructure to ferry backpackers around (see below).
There’s an established backpacker’s trail in South East Asia
This was another thing that came as a pleasant surprise for me. Not the fact that it’s popular with backpackers (I knew that) – but how much I enjoyed what it actually means.
Traveling in a region popular with other backpackers mean everything things are as streamlined and as efficient as it can be. Because thousands of others have walked on the trodden path.
Trying to figure out how to get from Phnom Penh to Vietnam? You’re not the only one who want to do it.
The Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos (and to a certain degree, Myanmar) circuit is a well trodden path with few variations. Wherever which way you’re planning to go, most likely others have done it in the past and many others are planning to do so at the same time as you are.
There are many companies who offer transports and there’s plenty of information about the best way to get there (land, river, ocean?), however you want to get there (In a bus, a minivan, a private taxi?), whenever you want to get there (now, next hour, in a few hours?).
Even better, guesthouses in South East Asia can provide you with this information. While in South America and Africa I had to rely more on guidebooks or online. Here, all I had to do was come down to the common area and look at the community board. Oh, the mind boggling options (land, river, ocean? In a bus, a minivan, a private taxi? – you get the gist). All easily arranged through the guesthouse.
South East Asia is cheap, traveling there feels like a vacation
Because your dollar stretches further, the little things that make traveling become so much more than sight seeing – like ducking in for a quick Thai massage, or renting a scooter to drive around an island, or renting a private beach cabin – is affordable.
I had never felt so… rich. I remember thinking to myself, “This is the kind of lifestyle I’ve always wanted to have – but can never afford back in the states.”
Having said that, SE Asia is not as cheap as a lot of people think. This was a sentiment I heard quite a bit from other travelers. I actually found that my daily cost there was about twice as much as South America.
South East Asia people are friendly
Yet another broad generalization. Which I usually hate to make (or hear). But in my limited personal experience, this is true. Especially in Thailand and Myanmar where the locals would get out of their way to help the lost and confused tourists.
Smiles, like humidity and strange looking fruit, was something that come in abundance in South East Asia. Even those who want to rip you off do so with a smile.
If you like Asian food (or good food, in general), you’ll find that South East Asia is the place to be.
I can go on and on about the variety of food and how easy it is to find food. For me, like many others, having not only good food, but easily accessible good food regardless of what time it is, is almost important as having good wifi. Almost.
In Morocco, I knew there’s more than just tajine, but how come all restaurants only serve tajine? I don’t get it.
Meanwhile, I’d go back to Thailand in a heartbeat just for the food and I know my brother would love to go back to Vietnam for some awesome pho.
(Here Jack would like to add that Tokyo is still his favorite foodie place – and I’d like to add, “Japan doesn’t count. It’s not even in South East Asia.)
Cheap, cheap, cold beer
Yes Asia can be hot and humid. But Asia is also the land of 50 cent draught beer. Brilliant!! Yes, some of them taste like water buffalo’s piss – but here’s my beer recommendation (not all available as draught): Beer Lao (Laos and Thailand), Angkor (Cambodia), Larue (Vietnam), Batavia Lager or Anker (Indonesia).
Wifi Is Everywhere
You won’t have an internet withdrawal syndrome. I think it’s partly because it’s so popular with the younger crowd, the South East Asia gringo trail is well served with wifi. It’s widely available in coffeeshops and honestly, finding a guesthouse that does not have wifi might as well be the more challenging task.
For first time backpackers, this will definitely ease the anxiety of being away in a foreign land. Plus, how else can you brag about your travels other than uploading all of your pictures on Facebook?
English is Widely Spoken in South East Asia
With the exception of Vietnam, we found that we could get by with only knowing English. Which is great, because even though I always strive to learn the basic words in local language, the tonal language and the crazy characters are daunting.
South East Asia is Safe (with regular precautions)
Because South East Asia is so popular with backpackers, and because there’s a big disparity between our purchasing power and that of the locals – the region is also rife with scams. Some of them are pretty creative ones, like the fake embassy on Thailand – Cambodia border, to the “the temple is closed, come with me on a shopping spree” in Bangkok.
Fortunately, most scams are harmless. And regardless of how you feel about bribes, know that in most situations, a little bribe can go a long way in smoothing them out.
There will be some unexpected things that don’t go as planned. But in a way, that story would be much more interesting than “We went to see this tourist site and everything went very well according to plan.” If you and I ever meet in person, ask me about Ethiopia. Or Vietnam. Boy, do I have stories to tell you.
— I never planned to go traveling in South East Asia. The opportunity just presented itself and I took it with the, “Well, might as well” attitude. But I surprised myself by how much I enjoyed my time there and I think it was mostly because how accommodating everything was.
So yes, I have no reservation in recommending first time travelers to go backpacking South East Asia. Or even seasoned travelers. It’s easy enough, but with a dash of challenges thrown in to make it exciting. I personally can’t wait to take Jack to Thailand. I know he’d love it there.
Do you agree? Where do you think first time backpackers should go?