Happiness Out of Chaos in Southeast Asia

The grueling 7-hour bus ride through the Cambodian countryside was finally over as we veered into the bus station in the rustic town of Battambang. We were eagerly greeted by dozens of tuk-tuk drivers who chased down our bus and crowded the exit as we rolled to a stop. Each of them were waving signs for hotels and guesthouses, and stammering in broken English, "You need tuk-tuk, hotel?"

Tired and weary from the long ride, we attempted to weave through the crowd to gather our luggage while keeping our kids within an eye shot. Since we already booked a hotel that offered free pick-up service we saw little need to respond to the countless solicitations with anything more than, "No, thank you. We already have a ride."

But our hotel driver was nowhere to be found and a young, soft-spoken Cambodian named "Happy" offered his service to the hotel for 50 cents. Exhausted and overwhelmed, we readily accepted and loaded our gear into his motorcycle-powered carriage that squeaked and groaned all the way to the hotel. We paid him $2, to his astonished gratitude. With that shared gesture of appreciation, he became our loyal tour guide for the rest of our stay.

Happy's English was far more polished than his unlicensed vehicle, which he permitted our 4-year-old son to ride on the gas tank and handle the throttle during each trip around the area. It was probably not the smartest parental decision given the complete lack of traffic laws, incessant horn honking, and travel lanes that seemed to be mere suggestions instead of strictly followed paths. Yet, the smile never left his face -- the driver's or our son's. And, somehow, the chaos was organized where the right-of-way flowed organically without the need for rigid rules.

Happy lets the wild child drive

We've come to appreciate how this organized chaos works in each of the four countries we've toured in Southeast Asia. In Laos, vendors rented motor scooters to our 12-year-old son (to his glory) without batting an eye at his age. Virtually anything goes in Bangkok, yet we never felt in danger there. In the Thai countryside, riding an elephant down the road and through rivers is a common activity. And racing on a speedboat through the choppy waters of the Gulf of Thailand to the pristine Perhentian islands in Malaysia is as exhilarating as the remote islands themselves.

Then there are the unregulated roadside stands crowding the sidewalks of nearly every corner of Southeast Asia offering exotic cuisine ranging from delicious grilled chicken on a stick, fresh fruit, corn on the cob, and killer Pad Thai, to fried bats, snakes, bugs and baby chicks which we declined to try. And lest we forget the bootleg-DVD and the "Same, Same...But Different" t-shirt vendors which we were excited to discover.

Order in the chaos of Bangkok

At first the rawness in these countries appeared startling to suburban Westerners like ourselves. After all, we're accustomed to having any sense of danger or adventure scrubbed from society as if to make life easier. But, ultimately, few people feel less stressed in our sanitized culture as a result. Indeed, suburban life can be extremely complicated, challenging and even threatening despite the authorities' best efforts to regulate our "safety".

Although this freedom in Southeast Asia may seem suspect or unsanitary on the surface, hidden in it is also the reason it can offer so many unique experiences not found in sterile parts of the world. What's more, the bustling creativity and innovation spawned by this liberty makes it one of the most interesting places to visit.

Despite the evidently higher levels of poverty, each and every person we've encountered during our 10-month journey here has offered us beaming smiles and gracious assistance. Something that appears increasingly lacking in the Western world. Even the poorest among them display pride in their handcrafted toils and helpful services. They seem more than content to have the right to provide a simple living for their families, while, at the same time, they're hopeful for a better future.

This contented simplicity is evident everywhere; in the tribal women singing while washing their laundry in the Nam Song River in Vang Vieng, Laos; in the peaceful monks strolling meditatively along the moat in Chiang Mai, Thailand wearing their brilliant orange robes and matching umbrellas; in the rice farmer tending to his water buffalo while his naked children wave enthusiastically at our passing bus in Cambodia; to the more sophisticated tourism workers that cater to our every need in Thailand and Malaysia.

They seem to desire nothing more than a peaceful existence with the potential to provide for their families -- a goal which we've found to be common among all the people of the world -- "Same, Same." And in that respect they appear quite successful, while the rest of the world still seems to struggle to find this balance -- "But Different."

As our ten days of exploring Battambang came to an end, parting company with our tuk-tuk driver Happy came with the sadness of leaving a genuine friend. He taught us so much about the rich history of the area and the culture of its people. He taught us when you trust the flow of chaos with a smile, happiness is the result. He, his name, and his character exemplify our experience in Southeast Asia -- happiness out of chaos.

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  1. Excellent description of your experience in southeast Asia. It really captures the atmosphere there. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thanks, it is an incredible part of the world and we are so grateful to have been able to spend so much time here!

  2. I lived in Vietnam for one year, I forgot the "feeling" of it. Wonderful pics, thanks!