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Travelling through Asia with Foot-in-Mouth Disease

Author: John M.
Date of Trip: April 2006

I was in Cambodia touring the temples of Angkor. My guide Ry, was staring at me with a look of utter horror on his face. I was smiling broadly before the penny dropped, and realised I had made one of life’s awful tourist gaffes.

It was a hot morning, and I had been at the temples since 5.30 to capture the magical moment when the sun rose over one of the ancient world’s most amazing complexes — Angkor Wat.

By 11.30 am, Ry could see I was struggling with the heat and humidity.

“Sir,” he enquired, “Would you like to walk back to the air-conditioned car and go to a restaurant for a late breakfast? You are looking very hot.”

It sounded an excellent idea, so I willingly agreed. We returned to the car and, as we began driving towards the restaurant, I decided to invite Ry and the driver to join me because I was travelling solo and disliked eating alone.

After some 10 minutes, the driver pulled into a small car park and we got out. Ry pointed to a cute little bridge over a small stream and a winding path that led through the trees to a vague sort of stone building. He nodded enthusiastically and gestured for me to cross the bridge.

I beamed, and said: “Ry, I’d like you and the driver to come with me. It will be so much more fun if we go together. I really don’t like going by myself.”

It was at the this point that Ry blushed profusely, looked stricken and stammered “No, Sir…”

But I was not to be so easily put off. I jocularly grabbed Ry and the driver by the arms and began theatrically pulling them over the bridge, chuckling, “Come on guys, let’s all go together! It will be so much more fun!”

It was at that point Ry explained the car had stopped at the Angkor public toilets so I could have a comfort stop. Apparently, the restaurant was still several kilometres away. I wished the bridge would collapse and the stream would carry me away.

I am good at creating embarrassing moments for myself. But, in a strange country, many of us are prone to the tourist foot-in-mouth statement.

As I wandered through Indo China, my embarrassing moments continued.

In Hoi An, on Vietnam’s central coast, I made enemies with a female solo traveller. Hoi An is the tailoring capital of Vietnam, and has about 400 tailor shops. Take tear-sheets from fashion magazines, and the tailors will copy anything for you — at dirt cheap prices.

My initial thoughts, as I wandered through streets filled with tailor shops was that the clothing looked very 1970s-ish. The styles and colors were, in the main, diabolically awful.

While sitting at a coffee shop, a female solo traveller asked to join me. As we chatted about our Vietnam experiences, she commented about how cheap the Hoi An clothing was. I nodded, and looked diagonally cross the road to one of the tailor shops. I thought most of the clothing on show looked utterly hideous.

“I agree, it is very cheap,” I said to my coffee companion, “but most of it looks like rubbish.”

I pointed to the shop opposite.

“Look at that shop,” I said with a chuckle, “who would be seen dead in most of the outfits it has on display, especially that dreadful looking furry jacket!”

My companion looked startled and replied more than a tad angrily, “I have just spent almost $1,500 in that shop, and at the top of the list is the furry jacket.”

As I tried to regain my composure, she stared icily at me, stood, turned on her heel and left.

While I make numerous gaffes, it is also wonderful to see others do the same thing.

While cruising the Mekong aboard a magnificent and luxurious vessel called the RV Mekong, an American woman opposite me at the dining table looked at her evening meal and deftly pushed to one side of her plate some delicious and very innocent looking grilled aubergine.

“I have no idea what it is,” she said haughtily, “but it looks foreign and I am not going to eat it.”

The next morning we did an on-shore excursion to a snake wine factory. It was hot and steamy, and by the time we tied up at a wharf, stepped ashore and walked several hundred metres along the riverbank to the snake wine establishment, my American friend looked frightening overheated.

As we entered the place, a young factory employee handed everyone a glass of snake wine. The American grabbed hers and quickly tossed it down. “God,” she said, “I really needed that.”

I stared at her in amazement.

“I can’t believe what you just did!” I said in astonishment. “You won’t eat aubergine, but you have no hesitation in drinking snake wine!”

The woman visibly paled. “Snake wine?” she gasped in horror. “I thought it was rice wine!”

I watched as she scooted past scores of full wine bottles, each containing one or two pickled reptiles, and regurgitated her breakfast into the Mekong.

Just as interesting is watching people about to blunder into embarrassing moments – and being helpless to stop them.

While waiting for a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Ho Chi Minh City, I met some very posh women from Sydney and chatted with them briefly, discovering they were also heading for Ho Chi Minh City to join a tour operated by Peregrine, one of the more up-market adventure travel companies.

“We always travel with Peregrine,” they chorused. “They have such a nice class clientele.”

About 15 minutes later, a short rotund woman wearing a mini skirt that looked at least one size too small plonked beside me and introduced herself.

“I shouldn’t have worn this bloody mini skirt,” she said. “All the bloody men have been perving on me.”

She told me she was also headed for Ho Chi Minh City – to join a Peregrine tour, presumably the same one as the posh Sydney-siders.

She was the total opposite to what the posh Sydney-siders, and I noted she was clutching a well-worn paperback called “Naughty Housewives.” I smiled pleasantly at her and said: “I think those two women (I nodded in the direction of the Double Bay duo) are on the same tour as you.”

“Bonzer,” she said, “I’ll bloody well go and make myself known to them.”

I sighed and watched helplessly as she bustled over and was given extremely short shrift.

“That didn’t work,” she said dolefully as she returned. “They really aren’t my type at all. In fact, I don’t think they have anything in common with me.”

I wondered how the trip would go, but kept my mouth shut.

Sometimes fellow tourists can deliberately go out of their way to actually cause embarrassment to others.

The last night of my Mekong cruise, one of the Australians on the trip – and who had a delightful sense of humour – deliberately sat at a table with four Mormon couples who, until that moment, had never shared their table with anyone during the 8-day voyage. The Mormons looked startled and uncomfortable as he pulled up a chair and beamed at them.

“I suppose you are wondering why I am sitting with you,” he said wickedly. “But as Mormons, you must understand that in Australia your disciples always knock on my door at the most inopportune times. This is payback time and I am exacting my revenge.”

The Mormons continued to look non-plussed and sank deeper and deeper into embarrassment as throughout the meal he regaled them with extremely bawdy and steamy stories.

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