Feeling overwhelmed and anxious in Southeast Asia

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I guess I’m embarrassed to be saying this, but I find travelling in Southeast Asia to be pretty damn hard a lot of the time. And I say this as someone who has been to the region three times: Thailand (2019), Indonesia (2020), and Singapore (2022).

Earlier this summer, after most Asian countries had lifted travel restrictions, I booked an end-of-year trip to Southeast Asia. I’d spent a week in Singapore in January and enjoyed it so much, I was salivating at the possibility of coming back and fully immersing myself in Asia during the December holidays. I wanted to hike mountains and visit temples. Feast upon delicious Asian food. And most importantly, as an Asian person, I wanted to blend into the crowd for once. To be amongst millions upon millions of other people who looked just like me.

When this much-awaited trip finally came along, though, reality dealt me a punch in the face.

It started before the trip, even. First Turkish Airlines cancelled my inbound flight and took two weeks to rebook me on a new ticket. Then I was diagnosed with iron deficiency and had to get an iron infusion (my first IV therapy experience) just two days before my departure. There was also the worrying and anxiety over my family members in China being locked down for over a hundred days. By the time I arrived in Bangkok, I was dazed and exhausted.

At the airport, I joined the public taxi line, and the driver made me an offer up front. “600 baht,” he said. I knew that I should have asked him to turn on the meter instead. I knew that he was overcharging me. But I was so tired, it felt like I wasn’t really mentally there, just running on reserves. “Okay,” I said. I don’t have the energy to haggle with you. Just get me to my hotel.

In the taxi, the driver asked me where I was from. “I’m from America,” I said.

“America?” he began laughing as though I had told him the funniest joke. “You are Chinese? Chinese, yes?”

“Yes, I’m Chinese American! My family is from China.”

He kept chuckling to himself, mostly in Thai; the only English words that I caught were “American” and “Chinese”. (To be clear, I don’t think it’s problematic when Asian people do the whole ‘where are you really from‘ thing with me. Doesn’t mean it doesn’t get old, though. And so far in Asia, having had variations of this conversation many, many times, it has certainly gotten a little old.)

The plan was to spend a week in Bangkok, teleworking from 1 to 10pm for five days so that I could stay on Geneva time. It had seemed so incredibly easy in my head. Wake up at an leisurely hour; have breakfast at the hotel; go into the local office on some days to have coffees with Bangkok-based colleagues; have amazing Thai food every day.

Reality punched me again when I stepped into the hotel room, which I’d specifically booked for its dedicated laptop work space. The room smelled terrible. It was genuinely the worst-smelling hotel room that I’d encountered in a decade of solo travel, musty and damp and rotten. The glass windows were sealed shut, creating a fishbowl of staleness. I called the front desk and asked if they had any other rooms whose windows could be opened. The answer was no.

I couldn’t sleep that night. At 2am, I sat up in bed, wild-eyed and desperate, like a caged animal. I opened up Booking.com and started searching for any other hotels in Bangkok that had availability the following day, specifically selecting ‘balcony’ as a must-have amenity to ensure that I wouldn’t be stuck in another hermetically sealed chamber. I found a hotel with a pool view and booked it for two nights, both rejoicing in my eventual freedom and berating myself for wasting money on two hotel rooms at the same time. You fucking idiot. Privileged asshole. There are people sleeping on the streets, and you’re whining and having an anxiety attack because your nice hotel room happens to have a smell. Get a fucking grip.

I felt even worse the next day. I was still severely jetlagged, in the middle of a heavy period, and recovering from the side effects of the IV. I packed a bag for two days and went to the nearest bus stop, where a bus would — in theory, according to Google Maps — take me to my new hotel. And the bus did come, with one caveat: it didn’t stop for me. I watched, slack-jawed with confusion, as it blew past the bus stop without even veering into the bus lane. I waited for another 20 minutes. It was noon, extremely hot out, and I sensed that I was about to fall down flat on my ass, so I called a car using the popular app Grab. It took 15 minutes to reach me, and then another hour to get to the new hotel, which was only a couple miles away. (I had not yet grasped just how insane the traffic was in Bangkok.)

An hour later, I was at the new hotel and checked in to my new room. I hadn’t eaten lunch yet and was feeling dizzy, but I was already late for my first day of teleworking, so I quickly logged on and began working–

Then the internet suddenly died.

And the A/C suddenly died.

And the hotel phone suddenly died.

And I realized — with a sinking feeling — that the entire hotel had just lost power.

I went downstairs and asked the staff when they expected power could be restored. “We’re working on it,” they said. I realized what a stupid question I had asked.

Since I was without internet and couldn’t work, I decided to go out in search of food or possibly even a little cafe that I could work from. I found nothing. No open restaurants, no open hawker carts, certainly no coffee shops. Just residential homes and closed shops and closed restaurants and vendors selling rubber slippers. It was still blazing hot, and I became dizzy again, unable to walk much further. I grabbed some bread from 7-Eleven and headed back to the hotel, where — thankfully — power was restored just an hour later.

Things had not gone off to a great start. But I want to note here that I also did something that was crappy: I didn’t change my mentality very much. I couldn’t just throw up my hands and say, ‘oh well, This is Thailand,’ as a colleague said to me. I was unable to adjust my expectations to match the reality of the situation, and so I simmered in frustration, becoming increasingly crabby, bitter and annoyed as the week wore on.

Every little thing bothered me. I could barely drag myself out of bed every morning, which should have been normal because of jet lag, but I beat myself up for it and called myself weak. I often skipped meals because I felt nauseated. Going to the office multiple days that week, while only a 15-minute walk on paper, drained my battery. Every time I had to cross a street, I felt fearful and jumpy because there was always a wave of motorbikes coming at me from both directions — and they couldn’t have given less of a crap about whether I had the pedestrian light or right of way or whatever. It was every person for themselves. Traffic lights were but suggestions. Locals were constantly staring at me as I passed, even though I’d thought I could just blend in as another Asian. At night, working longer hours than I’d expected, I felt exhausted, isolated, and resented myself for having come up with this teleworking arrangement in the first place.

When I left Bangkok, I was relieved. My week of work was finally over. My vacation was about to start. From now on, it was going to all smooth sailing. But I had no idea that Vietnam, the next stop on my journey, would take all of the things that I’d struggled to cope with in Bangkok and dial them up to an 11.

Stepping out of the hotel on my first morning in Hanoi, I was charmed by the fusion of French and Vietnamese architecture. Reassured by the large and diverse array of restaurants. And also flabbergasted by how hard it was to actually walk anywhere. It wasn’t that Hanoi didn’t have sidewalks. It’s that the sidewalks were completely, absolutely taken over by rows upon rows of parked motorbikes and curbside restaurants. Walking down the street in Hanoi was like playing a video game in real life. On the sidewalk for two steps, swerve onto the street to go around parked motorbikes (while taking care not to get hit by other motorbikes that are zooming past), back on the sidewalk, squeeze behind someone who is eating while seated on a stool, walk halfway between the sidewalk and the street while trying to keep your shoes out of the muddy water in that crevice. A Vietnamese friend and I went to a restaurant that was 0.6 miles away on foot. We called a Grab taxi because it wasn’t safe to walk.

I wouldn’t have been bothered by any of this if I’d been younger and healthier. But now, with my physical health in pieces, I felt my sanity going, too. Just like in Bangkok, every little thing got under my skin. Why are so many people honking on their motorbikes when it clearly achieves nothing? Why won’t even one person stop and let me cross when I’m at the pedestrian walkway? Why are people walking so slowly? Why is there no toilet paper in the bathroom of this tourist attraction? Why isn’t the hotel’s credit card reader working?

I never cried, but I felt inwardly angry and tense. By the time I left Ha Long Bay, the level of trust that I had in other people had plummeted to zero. It wasn’t even the getting ripped off part that was upsetting. It was, for instance, making eye contact with a taxi driver and literally being able to see the gears turning in his head, both of us knowing perfectly well that he’s going to rip me off, and there’s nothing I can do about it because there are no other taxis around nor drivers available on Grab. It was being constantly asked “where is your friend?” in a prying, pitying tone as though the act of travelling solo were equivalent to a death wish. It was being stared at and frequently approached by strange Asian men who ask where I’m from and then insist, very bizarrely, that I must in fact be from Japan. (What? Why?) And again, it was the fucking motorbikes coming from everywhere, and it was people pushing me in line because they will absolutely die if they get to their pre-assigned seat five seconds later, and it was the Hokkien-speaking woman next to me on the plane who didn’t shut up once for the entire two-hour flight.

It was just this mindset — and this is by no means unique to Vietnam, by the way, I see it all the time in China — where “I” come first, and everybody else can get fucked. Of course I’m not going to stop on my motorbike and let you cross if it’s going to delay my own journey. Of course I’m going to charge you the maximum price that I can get away with. Of course I’m going to push you and try to cut in front of you in line if I can get served faster. Of course I’m going talk super loudly and get all up in your business if that’s what I want; who cares how that makes you feel? And I get it. So many people in Asia have grown up in developing economies, deprived of resources, fighting their whole life to bring in enough money to feed their families and create better lives for their kids. Again, I get it. It’s their country, their culture, their lives. I came, I saw, I experienced everything quietly and without argument, and now I’m leaving.

The day I checked into my current hotel, I arrived, drew the curtains, cracked the window for air, and laid down in bed and didn’t leave for the rest of the day. I ordered dinner via Grab — thank goodness for the hardworking drivers on this platform — and ate it in my hotel room, watching the sky grow dark. The hotel room felt strange and hostile. I desperately missed my home in Geneva and wished I could cancel the rest of this trip and just go home. I had been in Southeast Asia for nine days.

When night came, my anxiety became so bad that I was convinced I was going to die. Not logically, but emotionally, I felt that overwhelming dread. At 1am, I looked at my phone and saw a message from my mother: someone we knew, a wonderful human being who had done so much for our family, had suddenly passed away. I called my mom, and we talked for 45 minutes. That talk saved me from falling into a deep crevice. I slept for five hours, and when I woke up, I felt much better. Ready to go out there and show my face in the world again.

Instead of asking myself “what could I have done differently to make this trip better?”, I’ve been asking myself “what can I do tomorrow to address the things that have been challenging?”. And I’ve been adapting in real time. I’ve gotten much better at crossing pedestrian walkways despite the motorbikes, although if it’s a really long walkway with a lot of cars, I’ll take a different route. Instead of using taxis, I now only use public transport (i.e., city buses) or Grab, because with the latter, there’s no haggling and no language barrier; you just put in the addresses yourself, and the price is predetermined. I wake up when I want to wake up, and I come back to the hotel as early as I want, with no pressure to see any particular sights. And I’ve rediscovered my love for Asian malls. They’re glitzy and air conditioned; they have huge food courts with tons of options; and they have great free bathrooms. There’s no shame in spending half a day at the mall, just looking at the Christmas displays and window-shopping.

And most importantly, I’m learning to re-calibrate my expectations. Just because I’m an Asian in Asia doesn’t mean I’ll automatically have a wonderful, perfect, stress-free journey. Asian people get ripped off too. They get scammed. And they have bad days where they just want to hide under the covers. I’m learning to take this trip one day at a time, and I think I’m starting to feel better already.

4 comments

  1. I totally understand so much of this. There are so many times I have been traveling and all these types of situations make me just want to punch people right in the throat. Thanks for being so honest about it, and please don’t discount the effect of low health on your ability to cope. It probably feels like your fault in some way (the dreaded “lack of resiliency,”) but it is more complicated than that. In 2004 I had very severe uterine fibroids and was so ill with hemorrhaging and iron deficiency I lost my job and had to go on unemployment. I also had to have four major surgeries at the UCSF Med Center, delaying my plans for grad school almost a year. It was a disaster and I was very weak and unable to deal with almost anything, physically or emotionally, for a very long time – a state most people did not recognize in me, someone who had been very capable up to that point. Medical issues really change the game, so don’t be hard on yourself for not adjusting to things that are super dumb to begin with on top of everything else. I love your writing. Travel safely!

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