Overlanding Southeast Asia – The Idyllic Dream That Never Really Was

**I’ve been a little quiet on the blog front in the last 12 months, choosing to only post a few fluffy bits and pieces as the months progressed. It wasn’t by accident, I can assure you. But Southeast Asia is one of the world’s ‘special’ places, where even a single critical Tweet can see you booted out and onto the next plane home. Thanks Leonardo di Caprio. And when you travel with your motorbike (oh, and your life partner) getting booted out is a tad inconvenient. So I’ve had to be quiet. Eerily quiet. There have been 1001 thoughts and anecdotes I’ve been busting to share, but couldn’t. Until now.

There are also certain situations where a bit of distance, physical and emotional distance, is needed in order to recalibrate the mind and sort out thoughts. We’ve been in Australia for 5 weeks now and I’m finally ready to share.

Here goes. You may want to make a cup of coffee first.

It may seem incredibly unfair to clump an entire region of the world under one banner. But I’m gonna do that anyway. Because, at the end of the day, it’s all clumped in my brain, in my memory bank. Two years travelling through Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, with a brief side-trip to southern Vietnam. Two incredibly interesting years but also two years filled with frustrations and contradictions and quite a few shakes of the head. It’s not unique, in this respect, Southeast Asia. Yet although the feelings it elicited in me may not be unique, the reasons certainly are.

So if you’ll be so kind as to forgive my sweeping generalisations, I’d appreciate it. These are my memories, my thoughts, my observations and my eventual conclusions, as an overlander, after 25 months. Brutally honest though you may find them. If you had a different overlanding experience over an extended period of time, and the mere mention of ‘Southeast Asia’ makes you feel all warm and fuzzy, then great.

But it doesn’t really work for me. And these, after all, are my travel tales.

The stunning canyon at Nong Khiaw, in northern Laos. An idyllic beginning....

The stunning canyon at Nong Khiaw, in northern Laos. An idyllic beginning….

I had dreamt of spending a whole year in Southeast Asia from the moment we started planning our overland motorbike trip, back in 2012. Mind you, I wasn’t quite convinced I’d ever get there, on my own two wheels, but nonetheless, I dreamt. I fantasised about spending an entire year of my life wearing only my bikini and sarong. Of spending endless days sipping fresh coconut juice under the shade of a colossal palm tree, strolling along endless stretches of blinding white beaches, and watching the sun set beyond an azure horizon of calm and warm waters. In my tropical dream, I enjoyed it all very much. It was heaven, in fact.

But then I went and did it.

When no-one's looking, in low season, the beaches of Ko Lanta, in southern Thailand, are left to the graces of sea currents.

When no-one’s looking, in low season, the beaches of Ko Lanta, in southern Thailand, are left to the graces of sea currents.

It all started off innocently enough…

The moment we entered Laos, from China, we encountered the first lot of foreigners. Oh, how nice that was! After months of social deprivation here we were meeting travellers at every turn, sharing meals and conversations, all without the help of Google Translate. Goodie. Laos is where we met Jonas and Ellen, of Intothefar.de fame, who would become treasured friends and travel companions for a great part of the following two years.

Laos is also where we finally entered the tropics and cast our eyes, for the first time on this trip, on enticing tropical jungles. The impenetrable pain in the ass jungles, as they would soon come to be known, that apparently are only enticing from a distance.

From a distance, in fact, Southeast Asia is idyllic. And when I say ‘distance’, I mean that quite literally.

Like, from a plane.

Komodo Island, from a couple thousand metres up, is perfection.

Komodo Island, from a couple thousand metres up, is perfection.

It’s when you get too close that the picture starts to really come into focus. When the sparkle starts to fade. Those stunning beaches I had dreamt for so long turned out be mostly rubbish-strewn, and when they weren’t filled with rubbish, they were filled with tourists. Lots and lots of tourists. As happy as I was to finally see them in Laos, I couldn’t wait to get away from them in eastern Indonesia. Tropical ‘heavens’ besieged by foreigners looking for a cheap time, if not a good time. And who can blame them? When you can live like a king for 20 bucks a day, and you’re willing to overlook a few irksome aspects, Southeast Asia works a treat. But that’s the problem with tropical but undeveloped countries: they attract a certain kind of tourist. One who puts ‘cheap’ above and beyond every other priority, one who turns out to be more detrimental to a region than beneficial. One who exploits. And exploitation, in all forms, is what stands out more than anything else in Southeast Asia, one of the few regions in the world renowned for its thriving child-sex industry. Since Thailand has been busily cracking down on the practice, Cambodia is swiftly rising in popularity. While we were in Cambodia, there were almost weekly reports of foreigners arrested in connection with paedophile rings.

But sometimes, it doesn’t have to even be that extreme.

I remember meeting a retired British expat, living in Thailand, in January 2015. Upon first meeting him, and after literally two minutes of conversation, he went on a tirade about how awful the UK has become. About how you can ‘walk down any street and you hear every language except English!’ So I asked him how long he’d been living in Thailand.

“8 years” he replied.

“WOW…you must be so fluent in Thai!”

“Don’t be daft” he said, “That’s what I’ve got my young girlfriend for!”

The beautiful countryside of northern Laos

The beautiful countryside of northern Laos

There are plenty of corners of the region not besieged by tourists or expats. Or if you do find some, they are the other kind of foreigners, the one you like. The great majority keep away because of a dreadful lack of infrastructure so that in turn makes it blissful for the discerning overlander. But only for a short while, of course, because that lack of infrastructure gets up the discerning traveller’s goat too, eventually. I loved the southwestern coast of Sumatra, for example, but it was impossible to stay for very long. It was ridiculously expensive, comparatively speaking, and lack of amenities made it less that comfortable. Not much to eat besides the now loathed nasi goreng. A disastrous lack of electricity, and of decent places to sleep, the lack of cleanliness and even lack of friendliness. Whilst I grew to detest the ready smiles and disingenuous friendliness we experienced in touristy places, it was still a better alternative to the ‘fuck you!’ we received in remote corners of Sumatra. Beautiful, wild Sumatra. My favourite part of all, in retrospect.

You know…besides the fuck-yous.

Sumatra was absolutely spectacular. Worth a few insults, at least

Sumatra was absolutely spectacular. Worth a few insults, at least

If ever you wish to really understand the old adage ‘you can’t have it all!’ then you ought to consider overlanding through Southeast Asia. Yin and yang, pros and cons, something’s gotta give…these all became our most uttered phrases. But that just about sums up every country in the world, does it not? Well, yes, it does. Some just a little more than others.

A fuming Mt Sinabung

A fuming Mt Sinabung

Back to those jungles, those thick, impenetrable cosmos where dengue and malaria-carrying mosquitos lie in waiting, salivating for your blood. Where you couldn’t pitch a tent to save your life. Not without hacking away with a machete for at least a couple of hours. But in 40-degree heat and 250% humidity (yes, 250% humidity is real, trust me) you won’t be doing any of that. It’s too hot to camp in Southeast Asia, too damp and too unbearable to sleep in a tent. Luckily, accommodation is cheap and, to varying degrees of comfort and cleanliness, you can score an air-conditioned room of sorts for just $10. So that’s what we did. For two years straight. And it killed us. It literally drowned our nomadic spirits. Always in a town, living in between walls, surrounded by people all the time.

It is impossible to get away from people in Southeast Asia, they are everywhere.

Our friend and fellow biker, Michael, trying to fill up in Belawan, Sumatra

Our friend and fellow biker, Michael, trying to fill up in Belawan, Sumatra

Southeast Asia is roughly half the size of continental USA, but boasts an eye-watering 620 million people, almost twice as many as the US. Six hundred and twenty million people in a landmass that’s just over half the size of Australia, imagine that. AND, to top it off, most of it is uninhabitable, so all those souls are crammed into slithers of developed roadways. To enjoy some aloneness you’d need to head out in the countryside but you can’t escape anywhere, because of the jungle. If there’s a cleared track, somewhere, rest assured there’s a village at the end, and houses sprawled alongside the track the whole way.

As an overlanding destination, Southeast Asia is hard work. Really, really hard work. You’re fighting all the time. Fighting the oppressive heat and humidity which never abates, all year long. Fighting your inner desires to enjoy nature and to keep as far removed from it as possible. Ironically enough, this isn’t something I noticed straight away. The first thing I noticed was the rubbish. The oppressive air pollution came later.

6.Puck broke own on our drive out of Melaka, in Malaysia, on one of the smoggiest days of the year. The air was so thick it was unbearable

6. Puck broke own on our drive out of Melaka, in Malaysia, on one of the smoggiest days of the year. The air was so thick it was unbearable

We didn’t see blue skies for 6 whole weeks at the end of 2015. We were in Southern Malaysia while Indonesia was burning its oil plantations.

Oil plantations, now there’s another bane of the region…

The mosque of Melaka, and the constant greyish colour of the sky, for months on end

The mosque of Melaka, and the constant greyish colour of the sky, for months on end

We rode through thousands and thousands of kilometres of oil plantations, all the way from Bangkok to Kuala Lumpur. A disastrous crop that’s literally in everything and makes up almost 40% of the vegetable oil production on our planet yet an industry which feeds millions of people and one of Southeast Asia’s biggest earners. The social and environmental impact of palm oil are mind-boggling but the collective and misguided pointing of fingers is even more staggering. Malaysia was livid with Indonesia during the yearly back-burning, yet Malaysia is the largest producer of the slimy liquid gold, producing almost half of the world’s needs. In the West, we are perhaps even more idiotic. We are quick to chastise Ferrero, the maker of Nutella, and every country heavily involved in deforestation without acknowledging the fact that if we made more conscious choices the demand would certainly dwindle. But it’s an insidious product, palm oil, and it’s in an insane amount of products we all use, every day.

10-palm-oil-list

Then there’s the local aspect, of course. Southeast Asians love palm oil and use it incessantly, even in bread, shampoo, soap and cereal. It’s cheap to make, boasts an impressive shelf-life and besides, locals have been using it since time immemorial. In the remotest parts of Southeast Asia, we had no choice but to consume it, and even to buy it to cook. There was simply no other oil or fat available. If it were up to us, arrogant us, we’d just ban the damn thing in an instant. Then millions would die because they’d have no other way to earn a crust. And not many think about that either.

The environmental devastation I personally witnessed in the region will remain with me forever. The stench, the rubbish, the deforestation. The atrocious pollution was the ultimate killer, for me. I’ll never forget landing in Sydney just a month ago and seeing, for the first time in months, clear blue skies. I couldn’t remember the last time I saw that kind of blue.

Exploitation of Southeast Asia’s resources, in every way imaginable, is by far its biggest downfall. And everyone is responsible. Them for allowing it, and the rest of the world for inciting it. What we’ve managed to do in more developed countries is export manufacturing so that we can enjoy clean air, and then point the finger at our enslaved productive regions and admonish them in disgust for ruining the planet. The irony is painful.

Southern Indonesia on fire. Pic courtesy of TodayOnline

Southern Indonesia on fire. Pic courtesy of TodayOnline

The racial divide of Southeast Asia

It still seems quite odd to me, that over the course of 2 years, we had very limited cultural experiences. Minimal as minimal can be. We were outsiders, constantly. We were farangs…and we weren’t allowed in. The rare times we were, then we were special ‘guests’, something I often loathe. Don’t get me wrong, we made a few beautiful friendships, but only enough to count on one hand.

The seemingly impossible barrier between locals and foreigners, even those who have lived as expats for years, was something which fascinated us no end. In southern Thailand, we befriended a Greek couple running a café on the island of Ko Lanta, and they told us they waited 2 years before they were invited over at a neighbour’s house for a meal. At the time, I found this incredible. I had never encountered this phenomenon anywhere else, this complete separation of people due, no doubt I thought, to the substantial cultural differences between East and West.

We spent two weeks on Ko Lanta, at the height of low tourist season. Probably the best (and worst) time to visit. No tourists but full of rubbish

We spent two weeks on Ko Lanta, at the height of low tourist season. Probably the best (and worst) time to visit. No tourists but full of rubbish

At first, I thought the divisiveness which we encountered in Southeast Asia was due only to our physical differences. Westerners can never really integrate here because they simply stand out too much. They will never be considered ‘local’ no matter how many decades. But then I experienced quite extreme racial intolerance in Southeast Asia, to levels I had only ever encountered in Africa. The Thai guesthouse owner who didn’t want to advertise her business on TripAdvisor because heaven forbids Chinese visitors turned up.  Or the Indonesian food-stall owner who laughed whole-heartedly after refusing to feed two Burmese migrants.

If you are one of those who holds the common misconception that racism is a trait specific to the white race, you may need to travel a little more. Asian racism is as insidious as it is disturbingly widespread. A unique aspect here, as opposed to many other parts of the world, is that it is ingrained in their very current laws and was part of their very recent history.

The cleansing of ethnic Chinese in Indonesia, in the 1960s, is something I’d barely even heard mentioned. If you ever happen to have a spare 90 minutes, then watch The Act of Killing, undoubtedly one of the most disturbing movies/documentaries I’ve ever seen. It is almost imperative to watch it when travelling to Sumatra, and then to realise that the police death squads which carried out the genocide then, are still in power now. Just last year, an international tribunal set up in The Hague concluded that Indonesia’s killings were ‘crimes against humanity’ and that “Australia, the US and the UK were complicit in the crimes”. Apparently, our countries were only concerned about the spread of Communism, not the fact that the great majority of victims were ethnic minorities.

A still from The Act of Killing, in which the subjects of the documentary, and perpetrators of the killings in 1965, had to pretend to be shooting a movie about the crushing of Communism, not a critical documentary about the genocide. The whole thing makes for a totally bizarre watch.

A still from The Act of Killing, where the subjects of the documentary, and perpetrators of the killings in 1965, had to pretend to be shooting a movie about the crushing of Communism, not a critical documentary about the genocide. The whole thing makes for a totally bizarre watch.

Over the past 50 years, the mass movement of people throughout Southeast Asia, due to racial oppression, has been considerable. Almost half a million Burmese Indians have fled Myanmar, and when they sought refuge in Bangladesh, they were systematically targeted for decades. Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge regime is perhaps the most famous ethnic cleanser of all, doing away with more than 1.5 million people in what has since been dubbed the ‘purest Cold-war genocide of all’. In Malaysia, blatant discriminatory laws impede life for Chinese and Indian Malays who, combined, make up just under half the entire population. From university places to jobs, pensions, health care and preferential choice on land ownership, trust funds and scholarships, ethnic Malays have the upper hand in every way. It matters not that Chinese and Indian descendants hail from a line of Malays who have lived there for centuries. They’re not made to feel at home in their own country.

So how does this affect the foreign overlander?

Well, it doesn’t, not really, not unless it bothers you. And it bothered me.

Sure, I could have travelled through the region for two years willy-nilly, with blinkers on, and ignored the blatantly obvious. But a month after we entered Laos, a titbit of news reached my ears.

For a year and a half, I obsessively followed the fate of two migrant Burmese workers who were arrested for the horrendous murder of a young British couple on Thailand’s Ko Tao island. I’ll spare you the details, but it soon became obvious that among a small island where corruption is strife, two innocent men, foreign men, were made scapegoats. Certainty is elusive, of course. A part of me desperately wishes for them to actually be guilty because receiving a death sentence for something you haven’t actually done is heartbreaking and unthinkable. But something which happens more often, all over the world, than any of us dare imagine.

So no, I couldn’t really play the holidaymaker in Southeast Asia (hard to do in places like Phnom Penh anyway) except a few delightful episodes of bliss. Because there were also plenty of those. The weeks spent exploring southern Laos, a dreamy paradise we never recognised as such at the time. My birthday in the Komodos, my mum’s visit to Ko Chang and good friends’ vacay in Hua Hin, all of which were quite idyllic. Because if there’s one thing Southeast Asia does well is offering up the ‘picture perfect vacation’. Not for too long, mind you, and in the right place, and at the right time of year. Then, it’s a dream 😉

And the last word I will say is about Bali. Wonderful, complex, toxic and stunning Bali. There’s at least another 5,000-word blog I could write on Bali alone. It’s everything you think it is and then some. The best and worst of Southeast Asia all in one little tropical package. The place where we made the most friends, in the end, local and foreign alike. The one place that took us in and made us feel at home, the one – perhaps only – place I would actually return to.

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4 Responses to Overlanding Southeast Asia – The Idyllic Dream That Never Really Was

  1. Jax says:

    What a refreshingly honest piece. I have never been to SE Asia so I have no opinion either way but a perspective from an overlander who sees beyond the glossy brochure farce and is willing to peel back the mask and expose the (their) truth is to be admired.

    I have travelled a lot and have one country where I loved the vistas and the villages and the countryside but hated my exposure to the rudeness of the society and sought constantly to find the gems amongst the rubble… didn’t happen. What was worse than my experience of the place was people going “oh but I loved said country – there must have been something wrong with you.”
    Laura, I love that you have “owned” your impressions and don’t let anyone try to make you deny your experiences.

    • laurapattara says:

      Thank you Jax. Sometimes, one needs to say it as one sees it. And certainly respect anyone else’s personal experience in equal measure, should it differ. Cheers.

  2. Andy hemmings says:

    What an awesome piece of writing yet so sad. There’s a lot of problems with few solutions it seems.
    Enjoyed Reading it though.
    Cheers

    • laurapattara says:

      Thank you for the writing compliment, Andy, that’s always well received. As for the rest…indeed, a sad state of affairs. Interesting world we have created, isn’t it? Hmmm….
      Cheers and happy travels to you too

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