What I Read: South East Asia 2017

House of Mirth, Edith Wharton.

House of Mirth in a Vang Vieng bedroom

Truthfully, I started House of Mirth in June 2016 but it remained half read until I stuffed it in my South East Asia hand luggage in January 2017.

Lead character Lily Bart is broke. Her rich friends and love of expensive things means she lives way beyond her means, and I can relate. She’s hot, and a bunch of men like her but since she’s broke and it’s the early 1900s she has to marry for money. That’s a task, considering at 29, she’s knocking on in age a bit (remember this is early 20th Century literature) and there’s an absolute bitch intent on ruining her life because she’s jealous and petty. Lily does a pretty good job of ruining her choices herself, but the question is if she redeems herself.

I like Wharton, 20th Century American lit and New York high society dramatics, so this was always going to be a hit. None of the characters are remotely likeable, which again is just American lit in general, but the stories are so compelling – even if the ending is unsurprising for the genre. It wasn’t too heavy to carry in a daybag and was an easy, enjoyable read.

4/5
Beloved, Toni Morrison

Beloved on a Koh Kut beach

If there’s any book I’ve been recommended most, it’s this. It was on all literature reading lists I have received over the past decade, lecturers recommended it, friends recommended it, probably even my friends’ pets. I dragged my heels, though. Any vaguely supernatural theme repels me immediately, and this was no exception. Then I got Beloved as a birthday gift. It too was packed for my travels.

Beloved is set in the late 1800s. Slavery is newly over, and the characters are still recovering from the scars of enduring such an atrocity. Many had escaped enslavement, including the lead character, Sethe. We learn early on that Sethe, based on a real woman, murdered one of her children. The toddler’s apparition haunts the family, its presence initially malicious but morphing into something quite indescribable as the years pass.

Despite finding supernatural fiction unreadably dire on the whole, I found this book so rich, complex and raw. It depicted with honesty the weight carried by slaves even after emancipation. The ghost of the toddler seemed to represent the trauma of surviving slavery, and as the horrors are retold, the spectre’s presence grows more gruesome.

Ghost babies are really not my thing, but Morrison writes so beautifully and with such lyricism. The topic is heavy and the book is often dark, but I read it as a beach read and the poetry in the words complimented the scenery. 4/5
Vanity Fair, William Makepeace Thackeray

This tome on an Inle Lake bus

I had never read this as I always found it too expensive to buy, but it was 75 baht in a Soi Rambuttri bookshop. I picked it over a history book, Grapes of Wrath and The Beautiful and The Damned. I’ll say it now, how stupid I was.

I like books that talk about how dreadful high society is and women the in 19th
and 20th Century. I had hopes. The set up is two girls, Amelia “Emmy” Sedley (dry, cries and blushes a lot, literally don’t care about her) and Rebecca “Becky” Sharp, who has a fiery, scheming personality. Her parents are dead so she has to find a rich man to marry of her own volition. Lots in there for me to identify with and like. The tale is 500ish pages of the trials of these women, Emmy never getting a personality and Becky scamming everyone and being wonderfully dreadful.

Becky’s awful excellence was not enough to keep me compelled. I left the book abandoned in Inle Lake after a frustrating ten hour bus journey where I tried, really tried to plough on with the book and found it all so unnecessary and irritating. I got to page 300 or so, then read the last few pages when everyone’s dying.

The book could be about 449 pages shorter if WMT didn’t go on random rambles – “reader, we all know what happened to Geraldine Smithwank! And Mrs if you’re reading this, do not take offense!” Unnecessary. 19th Century writers do it a lot, long unnecessary rambles (the Les Mis Paris sewers chapter for one dry example) but I have never found it so annoying. I’m on holiday, I don’t need my books pissing me off.

2/5 because it occasionally was readable and I managed to read most of it.
An Outline of American History

American History in a Bagan hotel garden

Another Khao San bookshop find. It was cheap and I’m interested in US History.

I think there’s no deception in the naming of this one. When they say ‘an outline’ they literally mean the briefest trace. Massive aspects of history were skimmed over, especially the darkest elements. Internment got a paragraph. It’s the kind of book you read in order to find out which aspects of history you want to learn about more. If I knew nothing of a subject, I learned a lot more, but if I had even slight prior knowledge I learned nothing – or even disagreed with its overly positive (deceptive) perspective.

It was alright. Better than Vanity Fair.

3/5

How The World Really Works, Noam Chomsky

How the World Really Works on a Koh Rong Beach

This was on my reading list for some time, then I came across it in a very good bookshop in Phnom Penh. The title and cover say it all – it almost functions as an exposé on how America works.
Chomsky was interviewed by David Barsamian on a range of topics, and the book was then compiled by Arthur Naiman. Topics covered range from American foreign policy to media, with a critical approach towards the American political system and corporate control.
I was glad to have read the US history book before this, as my background knowledge was more solid, but Chomsky’s book was both far more informative and transformative. The content will shock, anger and make you want to organise. Importantly, despite the last interviews taking place in 1998, Chomsky seems farsighted and in some places accurately describes future developments.
It’s a very good and informative book. Not an easy read, but very worthwhile.

4/5

UNFINISHED: Dr. Zhivago! Boris Pasternak

Dr Zhivago on a Vietnam sleeper train

I bought Zhivago before a seventeen hour sleeper train in Vietnam because the idea of seventeen hours sitting still filled me with dread. I bought a fat book to see me through the very end of the trip, and I had been craving some Russian lit since December.

What I didn’t consider is how much I love being asleep. For a good 14 of the seventeen hours that’s exactly how I passed the time. The rest of the time I was writing my blog and enjoying the beautiful views from the train window. I didn’t get a lot of reading time in the last week, so Zhivago will have to be finished in London!

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You’re Not A ‘Real Backpacker’ if…

Yeah yeah, you’re travelling with a backpack. So, you took some time away from home and maybe your job to travel in a location you always found intriguing. Whatever, you’re learning new things and doing new things.

But if your travels aren’t 100% pure, authentic and approved, are you REALLY travelling? Or are you just one of those much-maligned, supposedly superficial “tourists”? This test will help you find out!

My eyes are firmly rolling all the way back to London, as I lie in this bed in Hanoi. Because in case you haven’t guessed, I’m being sarcastic

 

You’re Not a ‘Real Backpacker’ If you…

1. Eat Western Food

Secret Pizza, Luang Prabang. Italian owned and snatching the title for one of the best pizzas I’ve eaten

 

When you travel, you’ll hear the words “well, I try to ONLY eat local”. Often said as you’re tucking into lasagne. There are those who seemingly eat so local, they’d rather starve than eat a rice dish from a town further than five minutes away because it’s not local enough. People get very pious about eating local and very sniffy about Westerners eating familiar food. For me, there’s a difference in refusing to try any local dishes because they’ll never match up to a Big Mac and fries, and eating Western and local when you want. I ate pasta when I wanted, and local food when I wanted. After being food poisoned, the familiarity of Western food was bliss, and sometimes knowing a Western portion would be bigger than a local dish compelled me to eat Western. Equally, in Cambodia and Vietnam, local dishes excited me so much they were all I wanted!

Additionally, eschewing a dish because it’s French is ridiculous – many countries have an international (read: colonial) history, many foreigners have emigrated and many local chefs also make exceptional international cuisine. In an effort to seem authentic, you may miss out on great food.

Real backpackers eat whatever they want.
 1b. Never order delivery

Sacré bleu! Yes kids. Even worse, we even got a Dominoes take out!!

To add to our travel sacrilege, we also ordered delivery. More than once. It’s often frustrating because after 45 hungry minutes, we would be told they cancelled our order. But delivery and restaurant dishes to go sure came in handy when Ale got food poisoning or when we were too tired after travel to trawl a new city at night for food (and there’s also a good movie on).

2. Go to Khao San Road (or other backpacker enclaves)

Yes, I travelled this far to go to Shagaluf

“Khao San Road is not the real Thailand!!”

If it’s in Thailand, it’s the ‘real Thailand’. It’s not all of Thailand, certainly not all of Bangkok, and only represents one side of a much larger, diverse and wonderful city – the same as Chinatown, Soi Nana, Soi Arab and Little India. You will see lots of white Westerners, drunk and behaving badly. You will be hassled by hawkers. You will not find it pretty. The rats and the sleaze scene put me off staying there, but I went for a stroll there to see it for myself, and have a dance. It is neither as fun nor as disgusting as they say, but for people starting out on their trips it’s a firm base to meet people, buy supplies and get your hair braided like a 12 year old European girl in Majorca.

3. Stay in hotels and nice guesthouses

“I’ve been locked outta heaven, for too loOOoOOong!”

Staying in dorms is nice for meeting people you’ll eventually love or hate. Places with a communal atmosphere lead to chatting with inspiring people. They’re also much cheaper. Here’s the thing though. If you’re travelling as a couple, you probably want to have sex or at least share a bed. If you’re with pals or even solo, you may want your own space. Booking a double room feels like a relief after sleeping in dorms. Tents offer privacy but a bed and large room feels delicious after four nights in a tent that shakes furiously in the wind. There’s also bathrooms. Showering off the city dirt for half an hour in a warm shower that you can call your own is incomparable. Not to mention the convenience late at night, or if your stomach is playing up!

4. Do anything on the beaten path

An authentic slice of Burmese working life for me and 80 other tourists a day

The proverbial beaten path. That well-trodden tourist path that makes you feel like everything is so done. Real travellers find the unfound, locations where there’s not a European for miles. Or something.

With the growth of tourism, a lot will be on the beaten path. I have been taken to places which feel tacky, where every stop is crafted for you to buy souvenirs, and you’ll see ten European nationals haggling for “local handicrafts”. There are often stops which involve visits to see people from local tribes. Presumably you shove your camera in the face of a woman who has been translocated from her village and feel like you’re shooting for the NatGeo, even if you know deep down it’s unethical.

It’s great to find somewhere you didn’t expect. It’s great to wonder and explore places yourself but find the balance. Recommendations and the bible of South East Asian travel, Travelfish shaped my trip immensely, but I also shared my recommendations. I went on touristy tours but I also walked for hours to see what cool things I could spontaneously find. I found some of the most interesting parts of big cities that way.

5. Travel for less than 16,000 months

Did we even get time to take off and land?

“Is that ALL?” was the most common thing I heard from people when asked how long I was staying in a location. Everyone seemingly planned to travel until the next millennium, spending at least a year in each location to “really get to know the place”. Whatever that entails.

Not everyone has the time, budget or inclination to stay travelling for extended periods of time. Those with more time are luckier, but not more authentic.

For people travelling for less time, we make the most of it as best we can, and do the most that we can in the time! In our case, it involved some sacrifices but almost everything we wanted to do, we did. For that which we did not, there’s the rest of our lives to revisit and reexplore!
And so?

Really, the answer is that there’s no way to be a “real backpacker”. Getting caught up in the quest for authenticity can mean missing out on things you really want to do, and forgetting what really matters – you’re here to be happy.

You’ll meet so many people, and unfortunately those who are self-righteous at home are self-righteous abroad. I rolled my eyes at their faux authority on countries they’d only been in for three weeks. How you see the workd is not important. What matters is being respectful, open-minded and enjoying yourself.

In a world where the majority could never visit abroad or even travel around their country, you made it here. So, forget about what you feel you “should” do, and do what you want to do!