There’s something magical and exotic about Asia. Whenever I think about the East, my mind conjures up images of quirky pagodas, mysterious temples, sinuous dragons, rice paddies, pandas, pristine blue waters along endless stretches of white sand beaches, street food and the glittering lights of Hong Kong. Sadly, it’s been more than a decade since I last set foot on that faraway continent, but I still remember it like it was yesterday.
I was nineteen years old and it was only my second overseas trip. My friends and I were to spend two days in Singapore, followed by a week in Bangkok, the capital of Thailand, and a week on the Thai island of Phuket.
I knew I was on foreign soil the moment we stepped off the plane in Singapore. It was June and the heat and humidity was intense, especially coming from a dry African winter. The surrounding scenery was completely unexpected: tall white skyscrapers jutted out from lush greenery along the way from the airport to our hotel, and then we were in the city and it was a city like none I had seen before. Singapore is known as one of the cleanest countries in the world, and it showed. Although its white buildings and tidy sidewalks were not what I had expected, it was just the gentle easing into Asian culture that we needed. We spent the next two days exploring the city on foot, stopping to take pictures next to pretty monuments, ogling the beautiful clothes that were too small for us in their impressive shopping malls, and paying our respects to the iconic “merlion”. Before we knew it, it was time to fly to Thailand.
Bangkok was a culture shock! It was noisy and dirty, but oh so wonderfully different. Here was the Asia that I had been expecting. Tuk-tuks zipped recklessly through the traffic, the smells of strange fruit wafted unexpectedly from dinghy food stands and streets were lined with stalls selling everything from fake brand name clothes to exquisitely handcrafted wares. I learned to haggle for the delicately embroidered bags, the pure silk evening dress and the silver topaz jewellery I bought, an exhausting custom but extremely satisfying if you manage to get the price you wanted.
We went on two sightseeing excursions. The first was to an elephant paddock where we were treated to a show by the elephant handlers and their magnificent animals, after which we were allowed to touch the animals and take a ride on their backs along the compound. Amazingly enough, this was the first time I had ever touched an elephant, even though I’m from South Africa, and its hard bristly skin and sandpaper tongue was a completely new tactile experience for me.
Afterwards, a variety of traditional shows were performed, from the somewhat creepy “fingernail-dance” to a Thai boxing match and a wedding ceremony, for which the bride was dressed in yellow and most of the proceedings saw the couple kneeling on a table. Very strange, and very interesting. On our way home from the elephant compound, while driving through the busy streets of Bangkok, we were fortunate enough to encounter a lone elephant crossing the road. Only in Asia!
By far my favourite part of the trip was our visit to the Grand Palace. The temples were iconically Eastern, covered in gold and embellished with statues of demons and devils. We read bits of the Ramayana on the walls, took our shoes off to pay our respects to the Emerald Buddha and watched as the believers lighted incense in the presence of the sacred cows. This was the first time I came in contact with non-Christian philosophies, and I found it riveting. Travel broadens more than our horizons, it also opens our minds.
The lazy days spent on the beaches of Phuket were just what we needed to relax after the hustle and bustle of the capital. Think endless hours of blue skies, blue waters and palm trees swaying in the mild breeze. It was bliss.
We weren’t completely sedentary, however. One afternoon saw me parasailing across the bay of Patong, while another day we braved a trip on a wooden dhow to snorkel in the clear waters of Koh Phi Phi. We visited the caves where they harvest swallow’s nests to make desserts from and spent whole afternoons in the company of travellers from as far abroad as the UK and Portugal. We even made friends with some of the local staff at our resort, who found our simple attempts at speaking their language hilarious yet endearing.
All too soon it was time for us to return home.
While paging through my photo album, I can hardly believe that I haven’t returned to the East since then. This holiday was truly an Asian experience to remember. There are so many sights still to see – I long to visit China with its Great Wall and Terra Cotta Army, to see the cherry blossoms in Japan, and the rice paddies of Vietnam. Hopefully, I will get the chance to make some new Asian memories soon.