While on the bus from Malaysia to Singapore, I reflected on all the Southeast Asian countries we’d traveled through. Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore, in that order. I realized that (excepting a small backwards step to Cambodia) we had been easing ourselves back into the first world with every new country we visited.
Once I started to look for them, I found arguments to support this theory everywhere. Bathrooms steadily improved, from bucket-flushing in Laos to modern toilets in Thailand and beyond. Hotel keys changed from big, metal skeleton keys to RFID-enabled plastic cards. Safe drinking water was more readily available; we could once again drink from the taps in our Singapore hotel. Internet access speed increased and wifi hotspots, while more prevalent, were also more often locked down and monetized. English in Laos was only found in hostels and travel agencies, but by the time we arrived in Kuala Lumpur it was the de facto standard. In Singapore, we could watch the local news (a novelty for us!) because the major newspapers and television news broadcasts were all in English.
Perhaps the most obvious indication that we were climbing back up to U.S. standards was the lessening number of scooters on the road. It was literally impossible to view any stretch of road in Vietnam, no matter how short, and not see a motorcycle somewhere. There were fewer in Cambodia, fewer still in Thailand. By the time we arrived in Singapore, it was almost all cars again.
Anyone who has traveled extensively knows that reverse culture shock is a very real thing. Setting aside the psychological problems that some travelers cope with after being in a third-world country long enough (being unable to share experiences with friends and family because they’re don’t care about or, conversely, are jealous of them; difficulty readjusting to “the daily grind,” etc.), there are many surprises – some good, some bad – waiting for you when you return home. Toilet paper in public restrooms. Drivers sticking to their lanes. People showing up to appointments on time. Having to make hundreds of choices in a grocery store. High prices. The constant barrage of advertising.
Personally, I’ve noticed it always takes me at least a week to stop mentally preparing my approach to each and every person in public. How do I translate my question into Spanish? What gestures can I make if they don’t understand me? Shut up, brain! I’m back in the States! I can just ask in English!