So, that was Indonesia; I'm now in Singapore, getting over my last dose of Indonesian food poisoning, which has proved more obstinate to move than anticipated. And what do I think of my first real Asian experience? I wish I knew.
I can't decide whether I love or hate Indonesia, which probably means I'm somewhere in the middle. It's certainly been infuriating, but it's also been satisfying. It's been hard work, but it's been uplifting. It's been boring, but also exciting. It's a paradise, but it's ruined. I've had easy travelling, logistically speaking, and very hard travelling, physically speaking. Indonesia is a contradiction. If I think about the bad times, then I've hated Indonesia with a passion, for its invasively friendly people, its rammed buses, its unceasing heat, its cultural destruction and its repetitive food. But the good times have been great: Gunung Rinjani, the Bada Valley, the Togian Islands, Tana Toraja, Java's temples... and the list goes on. So will I go back one day? Probably... but not definitely.
For now, though, I have a more pressing problem. Where do I go next?
Planning for Southeast Asia
Just as I have very little physical baggage left over from the good old days of London smog, I have precious little emotional baggage too. If you'd asked me two years ago whether I'd like to visit Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar, India and Nepal, I'd have jumped up, kissed you and screamed, 'What do you think?' Now, faced with the glorious choice of where to spend the next eight months – which can be anywhere, as long as I end up in Delhi for my flight home – I'm a bit stumped.
Why? One reason, and one I can't ignore, is the health aspect. Travelling's not a lot of fun when you're passing out in restaurants, rushing off to the toilet at every opportunity and burning a temperature; and, possibly worse, any illness brings you down psychologically, and that lasts a lot longer than the physical effect. I spent an awful lot of my time in Indonesia under a cloud of illness and lack of energy, which can't have helped the experience. Is the rest of Southeast Asia going to be the same?
I have met plenty of people who have come through Asia the other way. The impression I get from them1 is that Singapore has no soul, Malaysia is too Muslim, Thailand is touristy, Laos is lovely, Vietnam is very easy travelling, Cambodia is carnage, and Myanmar is magnificent... but India and Nepal are in a totally different league, especially if you're into trekking. So do I spend time in countries that might potentially disappoint, or do I go straight for the jugular and head straight for the Indian subcontinent? Or do I explore the rest of Southeast Asia first, no doubt finding some wonderful places and experiences, but gambling away time that I could be spending in a guaranteed hotspot like the Himalayas?
One thing's for sure: after this long on the road, very little surprises me and very little makes my jaw hit the ground, and that's a concern. So a third possibility would be to go home, save the cash, work for a while, and then get back into the travelling, all fresh and keen. But this assumes two things: that I'll want to travel again after I get back home, and that I want to go home this early in the first place. I don't think either of these things is particularly applicable.
So here's my plan2. In total accordance with the Asian inability to make decisions, I'll play it by ear. I'll float into Malaysia and check it out, then I'll make my way up to Bangkok somehow – either by flying from Singapore, or by going overland – and make a decision there. I have to buy a flight to India at some stage, as the land borders of Myanmar are firmly closed; Bangkok is the best place in the region for buying flights, so it makes sense to make my decision then. Most likely I'll be casting around for ideas in Thailand, too; I suspect the heat is affecting my ability to plan properly.
Having the world at your fingertips has never been so confusing. Still, it could be worse. I could be working for a living...
1 Impressions that were not that accurate; Singapore does have a soul and Malaysia is a delight, but Thailand was indeed too touristy for me. I didn't make it to the rest of Southeast Asia, so I can't comment on Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia or Myanmar, but the other travellers were right about one thing: India and Nepal are definitely in a different league.