My son Olie and I have been traveling through Cambodia and Vietnam for the last five weeks. We are by no means a rarity; there are travelers making similar journeys here and all over the world. What is different about us is that we are Americans. We have run across very few Americans in our journey. Could it be that we have just missed them? Judging by the reactions of other people when we tell them we are Americans, it appears that no one is seeing many of us.
Often we are asked by locals where we come from. We usually answer that we are from California, or the Republic of California, or northern California. But occasionally we ask them to guess. Their guesses are very revealing. On average, America (or USA) is about their 15th guess. Sometimes they simply give up after throwing out countries such as New Zealand, France, Austria, and even Finland. They are excited to meet Americans and many of the Vietnamese even have relatives in Compton or Downey or some such place in California.
Why are there so few Americans traveling here? We are one of the most populous countries in the world and the richest. So the way exists and, by the old saying, Americans must be lacking in will. A good possible explanation is fear. The world is a scary place what with terrorists such as Osama Bin Laden and George W. Fear of terrorists might prevent one from going into tall buildings in New York or traveling to Iraq, but Southeast Asia? It may be fear, but I think it is of another sort.
Americans are too comfortable at home. An Australian overheard me speaking English, but he said he didn't take me for American. His reason — I wasn't fat. The view of Americans walking the aisles of Walmart, eating at McDonalds, and watching TV is widespread. Unfortunately, the shoe fits. We are also uninformed about the rest of the world. We are extremely isolated. I heard that only about 10% of Americans can locate Iraq on a map, yet most of them are in favor of invading it. That makes sense, huh? We also work too much. Europeans typically get five to six weeks vacation. That sure makes it easier to travel.
There are many fears about travel to the third world, many of them expressed to us by friends. How can you travel in a place where no one speaks English? As it turns out, English is the international language. If we spoke only Latvian, we might be in trouble, but people everywhere speak English. In the mountains of Vietnam near the Chinese border we talked to Hmong children who spoke very good English, but almost no Vietnamese. All of the European travelers have to speak English to get by, so for many of them it is a much greater burden to travel here. And yet, they are here in droves. If you question that, just look at the casualty statistics from the tsunami. Last I heard (quite a while ago) there were seven American deaths and 1700 Swedes, and that isn't because Swedes can't swim.
Is it too difficult to travel because it would be hard to figure out how to get around? How do you figure it out? This is a real joke. The hard part is getting off of a train or bus and shaking off the people offering a hotel, a meal, a bunch of bananas, a piece of hand woven cloth, or transportation to wherever you could possibly want to go. You pick one and it happens. In Vietnam they have a bus system that, for $17, will take you the length of the country on air conditioned buses, drop you off at the towns you request, and pick you up again whatever day you wish (at your hotel). They make it too easy.
The food is different. Is it safe? This one is harder to answer. Yes, it is different, but I go out to restaurants in California just to get what I find on every corner and down every alley here. Is it safe? That I cannot truly answer, for the only way I test the safety of food is to eat it. So far my son and I have not been sick at all. We eat most of our food at stands on the side of the road or in markets. The dishes are washed or rinsed in bowls of water that have already washed every other bowl eaten out of that day. The food we eat is often sitting in its raw state right next to us, We do this not out of a death wish, but because we feel that if you want to experience a culture, you need to eat with the people, not while looking at them out a restaurant window. The favorable reaction of those you sit down with makes it all worthwhile. That and the cost of the meal. We have eaten ten-course delicious meals for four for $10 on the street in Thailand and bowls of warming noodle and vegetable soup for 13¢ in Vietnam.
The places are dangerous. Aren't you afraid of the people? I have yet to run into an angry encounter. When Olie and I were cruising through the Mekong Delta, my Vietnam War (or American War, as they call it here) era mentality came through and I asked how anyone could ever consider trying to pacify this area, referring to the mazes of canals and islands. Olie, being more observant, replied, “They look pretty pacified to me already.”
Even though the people here are in high praise of the United States, because of what I have seen, my opinion of Americans has dropped. Probably getting closer to that of how a European views us.