Fewa Lake, Pokhara, Nepal
I’m sitting in a Pokhara kopitiam, sipping masala tea and looking out at the crisp, calm edge of Fewa Lake. Chinese and European backpackers, hippies, and Northface clad tourists pass by in flocks. Traffic slows as a Buddhist monk ambles across the street. As the morning settles and warms I alternate between getting some work done, reading Johnny Cash’s autobiography and attempting to write about the road we’ve traveled so far.
As with most of our travels, Nepal was not in my original travel plan. Funny thing is, at this point, I can’t even fully remember what my original travel plan was but I know for certain it never involved bargain shopping cashmere shawls in the dusty traveler markets of Kathmandu. Nevertheless, once you are where you are, it’s hard to imagine ever being anywhere else.
It also occurs to me that, if things had gone according to an earlier draft of the plan, we would still be in India. Welcome to life on the road where your guess is as good as mine.
As my time in Asia comes to a very bitter-sweet close I spend a lot of time trying to parse and process the different cultures I’ve walked through in the last five months. The hustling but polite inhabitants of metropolitan Bangkok and the cut throat tuk tuk drivers prowling Chiang Mai. The locals on a tiny Cambodian Island, hustling to get their businesses up and running. The multi-cultural mishmash of Kuala Lumpur where you eat at an Indian restaurant in Chinatown and sip coffee in the shadow of a famous Hindu gopuram while Mercedes roll by on their way to the mega-mall. The colorful, vibrant, and intimidating crush of India, burying you with the crowd, the smells, the unscrupulous autorickshaw drivers and the sheer size of the country. And now the quiet peace of the foothills of the Himalayas and a plate of delicious mo mo.
Even though we’ve spent about a month in each country, it seems we are moving at a terrible pace. Each country becomes familiar and a home, just in time to start over new. You’ve just finished making all the rookie mistakes and you’ve really got this thing figured out and then you start over with a new country, new set of rookie mistakes. I suspect this feeling would persist, even if we spent two or six months in each country before moving on. But this pattern, of uncomfortable novelty, cozy familiarity, back to uncomfortable novelty has given us a unique opportunity to have rich experiences with a variety of related but very distinct cultures and to compare what sets them apart and, just as importantly, what they have in common.
In Southeast Asia they have a saying that I have a growing appreciation for: “Same Same but Different.”
When I first encountered this cheeky slogan slapped across every piece of clothing on Khao San Road in Bangkok, I thought that this phrase was primarily a playful jab at the lazy tourists who showed up in Thailand, and claimed they had “traveled” SEA by getting wasted in the Phi Phi islands for 10 days. You’re doing the same thing as at home but against a different backdrop; Same people, same drinks, same stories, but this time on an island. Maybe it was just something that didn’t translate well but someone made a lot of shirts, and it somehow caught on. (Like some of the other head scratching slogan t-shirts we’ve seen on the road such as: “I May Not be Perfect but I am 100% Original,” which we saw maybe two dozen times a day in Thailand and Cambodia. There are dozens of strange english phrases plastered on t-shirts, most of which, like a strange dream, lack any sort of logic and slip from memory as soon as you see them.)But when I think back across our path through Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia, India and Nepal, this phrase has stuck with me.
“Same Same but Different”
A young bracelet tout in Cambodia tried to explain the phrase to us once in Sihanoukville. His name was Nic, he was 17 and aspired to become a tour guide. He was earnest and sassy. He took a fist full of my dangling curls and held them up to his face and made an expression that I can only describe as a “Diva pout”. We liked him immediately. Among his various brief explanations I remember he said, “Like Cambodia like Thailand. Same Same but Different.”
At the time I understood what he meant, that Thailand and Cambodia have a lot of shared culture but are very different countries. But, sitting in this coffee shop, I can’t help but turn the slogan over again in my mind and extend that thought to all the countries we’ve visited.
Because, yes indeed, Thailand, like Cambodia, like Malaysia, like India and Nepal. Different countries (and different, certainly, from my home in the heart of New Mexico, USA) but, in all the best ways I can think of, the same.
All 5 countries have met us with the same outstanding kindness, generosity, and love to the point that anytime I think back to someone at home encouraging me, “you’re so brave for traveling asia”, I find myself laughing. The people in Asia are the same as at home: They are good people who work hard and love their families. They’re hustling, working jobs, getting married, buying, selling, learning and occasionally helping lost foreigners. Are there bad apples in the bunch? People who would take advantage of your disorientation? Sure, Same-Same as at home.
We have had our share of unpleasant encounters, scams, and rip-offs, but our experience in this part of the world has been overwhelmingly positive. We’ve found kindness every place we’ve been, from people who are helping us simply because they’re decent people and we’re dumb foreigners who may wander into traffic if left to our own devices. The examples of kindness are numerous and occur frequently: a Thai food cart owner kindly offering us some free thai sweets after we showed up too late in the morning to get any food our third day on the road; a Cambodian landlord teaching me broken bits of power tool related Khmer in his downtime; an Indian railway worker taking us under her wing because we were so clearly stuck and lost and scared; a former monk showing us his favorite soup spot in the city and talking with us for hours about Thai culture and surfing; a middle aged man telling us yes, this is the right train and then explaining how night trains work.
Good people and experiences exist in every part of the world.
I genuinely feel that traveling in Asia and SEA does not HAVE to be terrifying and if, like me, you have ever desired to see the sunrise over Angkor Wat, have an impromptu ukulele jam session with an Indian entrepreneur or talk politics with a Canadian on a rooftop in Malaysia over the beautifully haunting evening call to prayer, I hope you don’t let fear of these seemingly wildly foreign cultures and places hold you back. Yes, they are different from your home but, in the way of kindness and compassion, I promise you, they are very much Same Same.