Katie and I just wrapped up 19 nights in Hanoi. We visited for the first time almost exactly a year ago, but only for three nights. That previous visit was part of our first trip to Asia and our last vacation ever. At the time, I thought the city was totally crazy but also a lot of fun. It’s a cacophony of sights, sounds, activity, and traffic that’s both entertaining and intimidating. I assumed that a longer stay would allow us to explore at a slower pace, help mitigate some of the sensory overload issues, and be more enjoyable. I was wrong.
By any measure, 2019 was one remarkable year. We experienced such drastic changes that the beginning of the year almost feels like a whole different lifetime. The top among these changes was retiring from our jobs at the ripe old ages of 41 and 42. Even though we have only been retired for 8 months, it might as well have been a decade ago. It feels like forever since I stepped foot into a fluorescent lit office partitioned into cubicles. Part of the reason for this distance is that we completely uprooted our lives upon retirement. If we had stayed in the same place but just stopped going to work, it may not have felt as drastic. Instead, we not only quit work, we also sold everything we owned and got on a plane bound for Thailand. Lots of other things happened too.
Kuala Lumpur is a cosmopolitan city with a green twist. The downtown area could be mistaken for Chicago or New York at first glance. It’s full of tall buildings, trendy shopping, and plenty of traffic. Yet despite the gigantic skyscrapers of glass and steel, nature still exists here. The sidewalks often pass by huge trees that were here before there was concrete or asphalt surrounding them. The tropical climate means that everything grows fast while frequent rains keep things clean and green. It’s a city that was literally carved out of the middle of the jungle and it shows.
On the surface, Malacca appears to be a great destination for us. Despite not being a large city, there are a lot of things to see and do. The historic downtown area is a UNESCO Heritage Site. It has a lively weekend night market. There are a ton of museums. But it seemed like there was always something a little bit off. Despite staying for a month, we were never able to settle into a local living groove and couldn’t wait to leave.
On each side of the river that meanders through downtown Malacca is a nice walking path. Scattered amongst the cafes, restaurants, and street art that adorn this walkway are signs with public service announcements. These offer encouragement for people to be healthy and active by touting the benefits of walking. I’ve learned that by walking only a few times a week, I can avoid diabetes, heart disease, and even mental decline. While the claims made by these banners might be a bit overstated, they serve as a good reminder to continue to take care of my health. After all, I’m not on vacation here. This is my regular life, and while it may be exotic, it still comes with all of the same requirements for healthy living. It had been 6 months since my last dental checkup, so I booked an appointment for my first cleaning while living abroad.
Since our travels have no defined end date, it’s not always easy to decide how long to stay in one spot. Being able to take our time and thoroughly explore our destination is one of the best parts of slow travel. It’s a luxury that we rarely experienced during our working years and we don’t want to take it for granted. Conversely, staying too long in any one area means that we could end up bored. After all, not every place has a lot to see or do. One of the easiest solutions to keep things fresh and interesting is to simply change locations. The first few days in a new spot are always exciting. But even for us globetrotters, the actual act of travel is still no fun. So how do we strike the proper balance?
After Siem Reap, Katie and I took the bus to the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh where we stayed for 16 days. This was a big change from the laid back smaller town, as Phnom Penh is a large somewhat chaotic city with heavy traffic and a certain grittiness. While rough around the edges, it still has some redeeming qualities. Considering that only a few decades ago the city was practically destroyed by the Khmer Rouge, Phnom Penh has made some remarkable progress.
Foreign travel is nothing if not a continual learning experience. Travel in Thailand specifically, and Asia in general, is particularly different from Europe or Latin America. While I had been to Asia once before, it was a whirlwind trip of only ten days. Katie and I visited Hong Kong and Vietnam in February as our last official vacation before retiring. Therefore, the following learning experiences are from the perspective of someone who is mostly a novice to Asian travel and a complete newcomer to travel in Thailand. I had a lot to learn.
There’s a Thai tourist slogan that applies to nearly everything. The catch phrase Same Same But Different can be seen on t-shirts and other items in any souvenir store. We even stayed near a restaurant named after the saying on Koh Phangan. While I haven’t actually heard it spoken yet, it’s clearly part of the culture, at least in tourist areas. The idea is that they have whatever you’re looking for, but it might be just a little different. You want a Louis Vuitton bag? They have those. Is it authentic? Yes, same same but different. (So that means no, but it’s a good fake and you can’t tell. Plus, it’s priced right.)
In contrast to our activity packed days in Bangkok, living on Koh Phangan in the Gulf of Thailand was highlighted mostly by relaxation. I might even go so far as to call it a bit boring. Not that I’m bothered by that. I enjoy the idea of having nothing to do nor anyone to answer to. In fact, I’m getting really, really good at the leisurely breakfast. I have been waking up around 8:00am and putting on a baseball game from the night before. (Sometimes this baseball game from the night before is happening live. Time zones are weird.) During the game I drink a few cups of tea and eat some amazing fresh fruit. It’s a pretty stellar way to start the day and I highly recommend it.