Essays & Confessions

Southeast Asia Is Not The Cheap Place To “Find Yourself”

By | Tuesday, February 23, 2016


While traveling recently, I shared the table with a Dutch traveler over a complimentary breakfast of coffee, toast, and few slices of melon, which is something us Filipinos do not normally have for breakfast. But I enjoyed it, nonetheless, especially after an hour or so of pedaling on sandy paths, and checking out temples at the crack of dawn. When travelers meet, conversations often devolve into the usual questions: Where are you from? Where have you been? How long have you been traveling? How long is your trip? And it often feels like one’s traveler-ness is gauged according to one’s answer. The longer your trip is the “better” because it makes you a more experienced traveler.

This Dutch traveler and his girlfriend had been on the road for three months and were planning to travel around Southeast Asia for six months. And there I was, squeezing five countries into five weeks. After learning I was from the Philippines, the Dutch traveler commented that he had not met many travelers from the Philippines. He is perfectly right. It is rather rare to meet fellow Filipinos or citizens from other developing countries while traveling.

When people say it is dirt cheap to travel around Asia, it is often a Western tongue dictating that sentence. From my perspective as a Filipino citizen, saying that Asia is a cheap country to travel around typically comes from a voice of privilege. A backpacker’s average expenses — based on my own experience — range from $20 to $25 (Php800 – Php1000) a day. A typical working Filipino earns Php8,000 – Php10,000 a month. When I wrote an article called “What Stops Us Filipinos from Traveling,” the comments could be summed up easily: no money.

When I researched my Southeast Asia trips online, all the information was, ironically, provided by white travelers whose sentences were peppered with “horrible bed” and “hell ride.” I found that these assessments bothered me. While perhaps I am being unnecessarily scalding, it is important to discuss this issue. Traveling around Southeast Asia is still very white and neocolonial, and I am caught between faulting and not faulting the white travelers. In Inle Lake (Myanmar), I got fed up with the boat tour to so-called workshops and showrooms of authentic local craftsmen. It was not the idea of seeing something familiar that revolted me, nor was it any of the tourists on the boat tour; it was the nagging truth that some shop owners faked their workshops and expected travelers to buy their heftily-priced goods, authentic or not. Nyi-nyi, the boat’s captain, felt my uneasiness and discomfort when looking around at all these “workshops.” He admitted those places are for farang (the foreigners).

While traveling with my boyfriend in Lombok, Indonesia, we wanted to do a sailing trip, but it would have cost each of us 2,500,000 Indonesian Rupiah ($180). Growing up, I experienced the fact that most Filipinos live below poverty line and earn less than Php50 ($1) a day. Considering these numbers really puts the pricing of tourist activities in perspective. At the end of the day, we ditched the idea of joining a sailing trip (participants are, unsurprisingly, all Westerners). Each time I had an experience like this, it opened my eyes to the mirage travel sometimes creates, especially from Western travelers who come to Southeast Asia to “soak up” our culture and beaches.

After traveling for five weeks (and being caught between feeling like a local and feeling like a tourist), I’ve realized that every time I encountered an article that says something along the lines of, “Sell everything, leave everything behind, and travel the world,” I wonder to whom this post is addressed. It must be the author’s fellow Westerners. It must be their fellow middle-to-upper class friends who, just like them, have parents who would provide a safety net if they needed one. From the perspective of a citizen of a developing country who comes from a poor family, I cannot help but ask myself, is it really possible to leave everything behind to travel? What if you have nothing to sell or leave behind in order to fund your Life-Changing Experience? And how about the restraints and the limitations that come with a passport from a developing country?

I used to think that, regardless of one’s personal circumstances, everyone must travel. It does not have to be a grand or expensive trip; it can be somewhere you have never been, like the next town or island over. But I’m changing my tune these days. I’m not as assertive about the pro-travel mentality as I was before. Whenever I meet my close girlfriends, they would ask about my recent trips, and I would tell them details that could not be found on my blog. Back then, I would insist that traveling should be part of their life.

But I stopped doing this. I have come to accept that “leaving everything and traveling the world” is not the only way to have a well-lived life. In fact, as I have seen, you can travel to far away parts of the globe, and still end up woefully uninformed with no understanding of the culture. When I catch up with girlfriends, each of them has a different story to tell them, and I realize that what each of them are doing is not inferior to a life of travel. When my friend Ellen, a biology teacher, met me for coffee recently, she talked ardently about the eccentric characteristics of frogs, their way of copulation, and the female frog’s strength and vulnerability. The way she talked about her research was with the same passion I have when talking about poetry, fiction, and traveling. People of passion, or people of fire are the best ones to have a conversation with. And in my group of friends, most of them are not travelers. They are readers, athletes, mothers, poets, farmers, fishermen, gardeners, researchers, musicians, and filmmakers.

So travel quotes like “I rather have a passport full of stamps than a house full of stuff,” or “Travel is the only thing you can buy that makes you richer” make me snort. There is a certain arrogance that some travelers exude, and it is as upsetting as it is misinformed. A passport full of stamps does not guarantee that you are a well-traveled person. You can just be partying and getting drunk from one country to the next. And any person can be very well-traveled without leaving the comfort of one’s home. And on a similar note, there are things you can actually buy that can make you not only richer but also more humane, kinder, more generous, and more informed. Say, buying and reading books, for example.

In the end, the world is not only Southeast Asia and other developing countries where your money goes farther than it does back home; the world is not only the 20 countries you have traveled to. Just because you have partied in Boracay for a week does not mean you have truly seen the Philippines. While I occasionally experience the ache to go somewhere new, I am rather satisfied with my “mundane” life here in Cebu, living with my cats, reading books, having a well-paid job that I love (not all travelers have the classic “I quit my job” syndrome), tending a little garden, writing poetry and stories that matter, finishing my master’s, and once in a while, escaping to the nearest beach.

I love to travel, but there are bracing realities — specifically while traveling in my country — that Western travelers sometimes tend to overlook while glamorizing their travel experience. Taking an uncomfortable, muggy 14-hour bus ride, being scammed, sleeping in a bug-laden bed, getting sick in an unfamiliar place where it is hard to find someone who can understand words like “flu” or “diarrhea” are all realities of traveling that we never discuss. Similarly, the fact that the value of your dollar goes farther in Southeast Asia than you’re used to does not make a country “cheap” to the country’s citizens. Not only is traveling romanticized, but it can also skew our perceptions and bend the reality of a country simply by using the right filter, and we all need to remember that. 

Jona Branzuela Bering is a writer and photographer from Cebu, Philippines. When she is not traveling, she gardens, teaches, and becomes the slave of four cats.

Image via Unsplash

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