Hear Ye! Since 1998.
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Aug 05

Travel snippets

An issue of nationality
We were eating in a restaurant in Luang Prabang when this elderly man started to make conversation with us. His opening line was: “Are you … konichiwa?”

Later on, in a Bangkok food court, I was browsing through all the stalls and paused by one selling Japanese ramen. A man turned around and looked me over before giving me a double thumbs up: “Japanese ramen! Very good!” I just smiled and nodded. He didn’t stop there, he was determined to unload his entire stock of Japanese vocabulary on me, each word bursting from him like some revelatory profundity. So I let him. “KONICHIWA!” Pause. “Uh… SUGOI! Mmm… OISHI!”

“Sorry, I’m not Japanese.” I said in as broad an Aussie accent as I could muster, and he turned slightly red. “Oh… you’re from Singapore?”

Locals in heavily touristed countries pride themselves on being able to pick what country a tourist comes from. It’s all part of a game really – especially with people selling stuff – to figure out how much money they can extract from you and to figure out what you might have a tendency to buy (not in all cases, but often). When we went to Angkor, our driver Jack had an impressive knack of being able to pick out who was Korean and who was Japanese with uncanny 100% accuracy. He’d point out someone to us and label them, then approach them to confirm. However, Asian tourists born in Western countries always mess with people.

Even after speaking in English, I have never been identified as being Australian, except by other Australians (and one Irishman in Chiang Mai). The overwhelming majority of people pick me out as Japanese, and running gauntlets of moto, tuk-tuk and cyclo drivers inevitably ends up with me creating a stream of konichiwas and ohios. In marketplaces, deft salespeople jabber off a stream of Japanese at me before quickly switching to English when I shoot back with a, “What?”

Cheryl places the blame on my hair, which is now long overdue for a cut. However, when it comes to her, people really don’t know what to make of her genetic heritage. An inordinately large number of Vietnamese thought that she was Vietnamese, and in Laos she could occasionally pass for a Laotian. Otherwise, she’s either Japanese or Korean like me.

Whenever someone asks us where we’re from, we have several choices: Australia, Singapore and Malaysia. We could easily masquerade as Japanese, but that would be asking for trouble, because some people can string together a few sentences in Japanese and I can’t. Saying Australia always raises eyebrows, and makes us have to explain where our parents come from. Saying Malaysia is a lie, but makes us less prone to being ripped off while bargaining (since it is known in the region that Malaysia is not as affluent as Singapore). Normally, we just say Singapore, and that has satisfied everyone.

It’s a small world
Over the past few weeks we’ve repeatedly run into people we’ve met earlier in the trip. However, none as often as a German, Hans, and his family whom we first met in Ha Long Bay. It’s not altogether surprising since most people in this region follow similar itineraries, but it is still quite amusing. We ran into them again while crossing a bridge in HuĂ© and again the following day while visiting some tombs. We bumped into them again in Hoi An – Hans literally almost fell off his bike when he saw us. And just when we thought we’d seen the last of them, we ran into them after the Beatocello concert in Siem Reap.

Hotel to airport in ten minutes
The taxi drivers sure drive quickly in Bangkok. There is an “elevated expressway” that goes from central Bangkok to the international airport. Our driver was determined to break the expressway’s land speed record, posting a top speed of 180km/h and cruising at 150km/h for the rest of the way (despite a 90km/h speed limit). I think he would have gone faster if his car was able to take it. It turns out there was a cop with a speed gun standing at the expressway exit, but by that time our driver had deftly slowed down to a more pedestrian 80km/h.