Travels East. Life Lessons and Observations.

This summer my two siblings and I flew 14 hours east to visit our family and friends across Asia. Over the course of a month we visited Singapore, Chiang Mai and skirted around Bali. Seeing these places was a great learning experience for us. Staying with our local hosts we had more of a ‘local’s experience’; being able to eat on the street, see the sights less seen and gain an insider knowledge of how their respective homes worked. I really enjoyed my time out there and returned with many memories. However, I came home with a few thoughts I wanted to reflect upon.

Thailand and Bali are very different from London. I can see how this new foreign world can seem shocking to an outsider. Through rose-tinted lenses, Chiang Mai and Bali are exotic, alien and refreshingly full of difference to the UK. The air is hot and humid, the food can sear your tastebuds, and the lively markets are rich with colourful and aromatic produce. These countries produced a new vibrancy that I have not found elsewhere. However when I scooped beneath the surface, I was unsettled by the chaotic road systems, infrastructure and the inadequacy of amenities and sanitation.
In a serious ‘Gap Yah’ moment – I’ve been spoiled by Western society and it was grounding to see how another population go about daily life.

The view across Marina Bay from Level 33 bar.
Feasting on regional delicacies within Chiang Mai. Shown is the famous papaya salad.
A market just outside of Chiang Mai our hosts had yet to discover.
A market just outside of Chiang Mai our hosts had yet to discover.

In conversation with each of our hosts the topic turned to education in relation to economic, social and political development.

Singapore is renowned for its schooling system, N.U.S. and for being a leader in many academic fields. Despite having an environment cultivating academic success it was felt the students were led so carefully through the education system, an individual could be ‘well rounded’ in merits, yet lack breadth in thinking and personality. Thailand and Bali have their school systems too, but they do not seem to be as enforced or as successful as Singapore’s.

Our hired Balinese driver, Gede, said school is compulsory – yet as we navigated the rural broken roads we couldn’t explain why there were so many truant children. Chiang Mai had a university, but I was told pre-university students in schools were not taught lateral thinking or open mindedness, rather taught the basic tools to live a quiet life through the world with menial jobs and simple lifestyles. The feeling was the population lacked the entrepreneurial spirit needed to innovate and differentiate. I found an example of this in Chiang Mai amongst the hoards of coffee shops lining the streets. Perhaps the population love the artisan craftsmanship of coffee production or treat coffee as a delicacy to provide adequate demand, but I couldn’t understand the lack of entrepreneurial escape from a seemingly saturated market.

Now, I’m not usually one to complain – I love coffee! This is Kopi Luwak, in Bali. It’s produced from coffee beans eaten and digested (and pooed out) by Civets. These animals supposedly choose the ripest and best quality coffee beans to eat, producing a top-notch brew.

Singaporean society is growing more affluent and educated, with a booming Central Business District of metal and glass and constant innovation. It’s famous for a seemingly constant production of spectacles such as Marina Bay Sands, the Esplanade and the recent addition of the multi-sport, all weather stadium. Public services are complete, the infrastructure is meticulously maintained and upgraded and visitors are impressed. My evidence is anecdotal, but I found the attitude towards education to be more positive. Catching the buses at rush-hour, I overheard children talking about their school science projects, inundating mothers with questions about interesting things we drove past. My grandparents say success is due to the efficient control of work force, materials, energy and costs. ‘Management’. However, all this management can lead to a ‘managed’ population, slightly subdued and uncomplaining, but safely without the flare, fleeting sense of danger or intensity found in Thailand and Bali.

Mount Batur, an example of a double caldera. From Kintamani village.

On the other hand, travellers in Asia constantly question the sanitation and personal safety. It’s illegal to ride without a helmet or license in Chiang Mai, yet the roads are crowded with mopeds ridden by unlidded primary school children. The police face a dilemma of education and mobility or an arrest to promote safety. The choice is often is to turn a blind eye.
Or, in Bali the lack of economic equality of transport infrastructure became overwhelming at points. Gede blamed this on government corruption and mismanagement; there are smooth roads for the cars of the wealthy, yet no steady pavements for the poor to walk. The sides of the roads had new glowing bus stops, yet no buses. Compare yourself the megaliths of Nusa Dua and the Seminyak enclaves of Westerners, compared to the small rural villages of Kintamani.

Clear warm seas ornate with opal sea life, glowing white beaches and pristine, still rice paddies. A Western paradisical fantasy, that quickly bitters when viewing Bali as a country and more than a postcard setting. The contrast between the yoga aficionados and raw vegan restaurants in Ubud, compared to the local markets in Ubud and Denpasar visited near closing time, with dark smells, dim lights, poverty and disinhibited begging. The images and lifestyle promoted to us by the Balinese tourist board stuck ill in my mind.

I felt the populations of Chiang Mai and Bali lacked the empowerment brought by education to forge progress and promote a fair society. I approached Bali as an interested spectator but felt that I a Westerner in Bali was targeted as prey, that the inequality between our societies left not a curious mutuality but a battle between population tourism and a population’s survival.

Despite these points of discontent, I enjoyed the trip east and felt it to be a success. I’m really grateful for the rich experiences I was given, and for the chance to spend quality time with my siblings and family we rarely see. We got some miles under our belts, we picked up some language and we tasted a flavour of other countries and cultures. I’m looking forwards to returning in the future. What I’ve covered of education and society in these respective countries is hardly revolutionary, but it provided me with a chance to start to reflect upon and learn from my experiences. I could’ve filled this post with cheesy holiday photos I took with my ‘selfie stick’, but I thought some critical thinking would be more interesting and useful.

A cheesy photo for you. This is a friendly food stall owner I met whilst visiting the very popular Maxwell Food Court.

I’m recognising the importance of government in successful direction of populations and I have a newfound interest and respect of the difficulties of politics. We are fortunate in the UK to have efficient infrastructure, access to amenities, and brilliant education and healthcare systems.


One comment

  1. Brilliant that you’re making these realizations Rory. These insights are the most valuable aspect of traveling, central to the point of life itself imo!

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