11 Countries in 11 Months: World Race
Countries Discussed: Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia, Cambodia, & China
Let me just start by expressing how amazing South Asia is culturally and geographically. I thoroughly enjoyed each of these countries and intend to visit them again as soon as I am able.
Alright, where did we leave off...
Lesson: Everyone and their mother smokes.
Experience: If you are trying to break your smoking habit like I was during this season of my life, South Asia may not be the best destination for you, specifically the Philippines. When a pack of cigarettes costs about $0.50, and you are constantly breathing in second-hand smoke, your defenses get pretty low. I gave in and didn't stop again until I left South Asia 4 months later. Be aware that Filipinos will be smoking in building, on the sidewalk, in restaurants, and pretty much everywhere else.
Lesson: The news reports that you hear are not to be taken as gospel.
Experience: When we were entering Thailand, the news reports were all still a-buzz with accounts of the massive flooding in Bangkok. If you recall, Thailand was afflicted with severe flooding in the latter half of 2011. I remember reading reports of Bangkok experiencing a lot of flooding while I was on the plane from Manila to Bangkok. My whole team expected to get off the plane in Bangkok and see effects of the flooding all around us. To our surprise, the flooding did not affect much of Bangkok and most of the locals we encountered said that the flooding had not been that bad in Bangkok. In no way am I trying to understate the devastation that was endured by the Thai people during that time, I am simply stating that you should not rely on western news outlets for your full understanding of what you will encounter when entering another country as the report can be outdated, exaggerated, or even entirely incorrect.
Lesson: When forced to pay with USD, you always pay more than you should.
Experience: While staying in Phnom Penh (Cambodia's capital), I chose to use local "tuk tuk's" for transportation around the city. A tuk tuk is a carriage with a motorcycle front on one end and is the main form of local transport around Cambodia. Phnom Penh quickly became one of my favorite cities in the world and I found myself exploring more and more of it by tuk tuk. One interesting thing to note about Cambodia is that they use USD more than their own currency. Their ATMs spit out USD and almost everyone wants to be paid in USD instead of their local currency, the Cambodian Riel. Since the tuk tuk drivers insist on being paid in USD (especially when they find out you are American), and our lowest denomination is the one dollar bill, Cambodian tuk tuk drivers charge anywhere from $1-4 for a ride around the city. Currently one dollar is the equivalent of 4050 Cambodian Riel. When I truly had only Riel on me, I was able to get tuk tuk rides for 2,000 Riel, but when I paid with USD, the starting point was $1 (4050 Riel) and usually they would charge $2 (8,100 Riel). Hope this helps you better prepare for your trip to Cambodia.
Lesson (this one is less of a lesson and more of an observation): Malaysia is one of the most demographically diverse countries I have ever visited. This increases the need to be careful not to offend anyone when visiting this incredible country.
Experience: Malaysia is extremely diversified ethnically, spiritually, and culturally. There is a large population of Indian's that have migrated to Malaysia (you can enjoy some incredible Indian cuisine almost everywhere you turn in the country). There is also a decent population of Malay people who are native to the island. And then there is a sizable number of Chinese that have migrated to Malaysia. The diversified demographics of Malaysia get even more segmented when you take into account its spiritual polarization. Many of the Chinese, some Malays, and some Indians are Christians. Almost every Indian that is not Christian or Muslim practices Buddhism. Then there is a group of Malays and Indians that are vehemently Muslim. The government has made it illegal to proselytize Muslims, but allows all other religious groups to freely share their religions with each other. This distinction leads to a lot of segregation between the Muslims of Malaysia and the rest of the population. Hopefully, Malaysia's government will soon create laws that allow true freedom of religion to all in Malaysia.
Lesson: China's government casts a shadow over the states otherwise promising economic, social, and political future as a world leader.
Experience: I had the opportunity to visit quite a few special needs orphanages while I was traveling throughout China. Most of these were run by western charity organizations alongside government run organizations. The western charities did their very best to care for the overwhelming amount of special needs children they housed. They explained to me that the main issue was that Chinese people are regulated in how many children they can have, so when they have a child that they believe suffers from a disability, they discard it and try again. This even applies to kids who are simply born with a cleft lip. These children are often found discarded in the gullies surrounding more rural cities and are also dropped off at the orphanages set up by western organizations. The truly astonishing and heartbreaking reality is the stark contrast between the way that the Chinese government runs their portions of the orphanages with the way that the western organizations run theirs. I have never witnessed humans in such a starved and frail condition except in movies about the holocaust. It was beyond sobering. The terrible part was that the local authorities would only show visitors and inspectors the western clinic's side of the orphanage so that everyone would think that that was the government's institution and believe that they were doing a good job of taking care of the special needs kids. This attempt at "saving face" at the expense of human life sickened me. I was there while a kid from the government run side of the orphanage died of exposure to the cold (they do not heat their buildings in winter) and starvation. One day the child was there, the next day he wasn't. I know I got a little emotional involved in this part of my article, but there are some things worth getting frustrated and even angry over. I truly hope China's government starts to see special needs kids as people and not simply as liabilities of the state.
Whew...tough topic. I will be finishing my series on 11 lessons learned in 11 countries with a post about 3 countries in Eastern Europe. Stay tuned!