To Asia, With Love (and Other Emotions)

Shelley with Ultadanga kids

My time in Asia challenged me, rewarded me, made my heart ache and churned out a stronger person. I learned more in the last 11 months than I have in the last 11 years, and that’s no hyperbole. I became more familiar with the world and with myself. As it turns out, I’m a nomadic homebody. My style is to hunker down in a city and get the lay of the land instead of moving every three days. Maybe when in a state of constant change, it’s comforting to know where you can go for a reliable bowl of pho or a cup of REAL coffee.

Surprisingly I did make it to 12 countries (if you count Tibet and Hong Kong as separate from mainland China, which I do). I’ve had 7 telephone numbers, taken 13 flights, crossed 2 borders overland, added 31 stamps to my passport, secured 10 visas and spent about $24,000. Below is a snapshot of my feelings about each country: what I liked, what I didn’t and how I sum them each up. India is longer than the rest because I spent the most time there and it had such a profound effect. Ladies and gentlemen, I present my view of Asia in 2,000 words or less…


Women at a pump- Sunderbans

It wasn’t love at first sight. Being forgotten at the Kolkata airport in the middle of the night isn’t exactly the warmest welcome, but it was actually a fitting start. Nothing in India goes according to plan and it was better I learned that right off the bat. After travels to other Asian countries and a recent re-visit, I have a little more perspective. India is an enigma; a country of contradictions. Their side-to-side-up-down head bob which usually means yes, but can sometimes mean no provides a glimpse. Not to mention the fact that it can take six hours of running around town to buy a train ticket while half their country is devoted to the tech industry. So it may come as no surprise that I too feel conflicted. I have a love/hate relationship with India, as many people do. Here’s how I see it from a distance…

What I Dislike

Horns- Kolkata is the noisiest city I’ve ever been to. Drivers use horns like I (used to) buy shoes: far too often and for no particular reason.

Trash- Indians complain about the trash problem while throwing plastic bottles out of train windows and dropping wrappers in the gutter. My theory is that they think it’s someone else’s job to pick it up (a lingering effect of the caste system). No one does.

Poverty- There’s too much of it. I hate that children tug at your clothes or bang on the taxi window to hold out their hand and put it up to their mouth. And what I hate even more is that it starts out heartbreaking, then becomes commonplace. The detachment that must occur in order to step outside to face it again isn’t something I ever want to fully develop.

Indian Stretchable Time-  IST is Indian Standard Time, but an Indian told me about the “other” meaning. It’s true. They give the concept of “island time” a run for its money. Have a trip to a temple planned? Well, it’s raining and your friend may want to wait until it stops… in three hours… maybe. Or you’ll just go tomorrow. Maybe.

What I Love

The colors- I was constantly enchanted by the array of colors that adorn women, even on the poorest of the poor. Nothing is more beautiful than a group of Indian women clustered together in their saris. Ok, one thing is more beautiful- those same women laughing.

Laughing women- Dupghuri

Sense of family- As with most Asian cultures, the Indian family bond is strong. People even call their cousins “brothers” or “sisters”, which can be a little confusing at first. I knew my friend Ritu to be an only child so this took a while to grasp.

Hindu celebrations- I was lucky enough to be in Kolkata during Durga Puja, their biggest festival of the year. The whole city stops to enjoy the magnificent statues and structures that are constructed for the event. And let’s not leave out Indian weddings, which have a well-earned reputation for being grand, opulent events.

The tea- Tea isn’t only a drink in India, it’s a lifestyle. Long car rides will be broken up by roadside tea breaks where little thimbles of chai can be had for a dime. Not only is it delicious, but I love the idea of taking a time-out to savor something.

In a Nutshell

India challenged every cell in my body, every thought in my head. I learned it’s a country that reveals itself to those who are patient- and persistent. It was the launching pad for my belief that empowering women can literally change the world thanks to my experience with BJS and Kiva. I am a better, stronger person because of India, and for that I have nothing but love.


Shelley at Grand Palace- Bangkok

What I Dislike

Constant deadlocked traffic, old white men with young Thai women, ripping my only pair of jeans at a riverside restaurant and the occasional coup d’ etat.

What I Love

$2 pad thai, bbq pork on a stick, Chatuchak weekend market and watching lanterns light up the sky at the beach on New Year’s eve.

In a Nutshell

Thailand is one-stop shopping. It has a bustling capital city with great food, sites and souvenirs, but also a ridiculous number of islands to relax, party, swim, dive… whatever your pleasure.


Little monks- Myanmar

What I Dislike

The horrid train from Yangon to Bagan, hygiene levels of street food, high hotel prices and the oppression of its people (although things are thankfully changing).

What I Love

An opening up to the world, a country not yet spoiled by Western influence, wine tasting near Inle Lake and the site of my very first package tour which I documented for TourMatters.

In a Nutshell

Myanmar is going to change a lot over the coming years. My one regret is not staying beyond the end of my tour to visit the beaches. I’m sure resorts are already salivating at that beachfront real estate.


Noodle maker- Kratie, Cambodia

What I Dislike

The atrocities of the Khmer Rouge and the child sex trade. Period.

What I Love

The resilience of its people, the magnificence of Angkor Wat, village weddings, the proliferation of good-cause dining /shopping and fresh squeezed pomelo juice.

In a Nutshell

While tourism is on the rise, Cambodia is still trying to rebuild itself and recover the culture it lost under the Khmer Rouge. Angkor Wat is the country’s prized jewel, but its villages and hardworking people also deserve attention.


Family on a motorbike- Hanoi, Vietnam

What I Dislike

The invasion of Chanel and Starbucks, the tourist influx, pedicures (the worst of my life), motorbike crashes and crossing the street.

What I Love

The French influence (wine, pastries, coffee and baguettes), delicious soups, little plastic stools, motorbike tours through the countryside and fresh- albeit weak- beer on tap for $.20/glass.

In a Nutshell

Vietnam is a country for all the senses: smell the coffee, taste the balance of flavors, listen to the forceful yet rhythmic language, see the women working in the rice fields and feel the wind on your face while riding a motorbike. Yes, that makes up for all those damn tourists.


Balinese woman carrying coconuts

What I Dislike

The lack of transportation options and the cost of transportation relative to other Southeast Asian countries. Hmmm, there has to be more.

What I Love

100 shades of green, Hindu offerings, riding a motorbike through the rice fields, salads (real ones that are safe to eat), live salsa music at Jazz Café and eating calamari at the beach while sipping a Bintang.

In a Nutshell

Bali is so much more than beach resorts and yoga retreats. Their rich culture, green landscape, spiritual vibe and pristine beaches have a seductive quality, daring you not to fall head over heels. It also dares you to leave your blood pressure medicine at home.


Downtown Kuala Lumpur

What I Dislike

An overabundance of American fast food, giant shopping malls, disappointing street food, the Chinese Consulate and expensive beer.

What I Love

Salmon and horse sashimi, replenishing my wardrobe, cooking at Jun’s apartment, trip to Malacca, taking a break from travel logistics and having a home to relax in.

In a Nutshell

Kuala Lumpur felt like more of a stopover than a destination, although having a “home base” there made a big difference. I’d heard the melding of Indian, Chinese and Malay cultures made for some excellent eats, but I never did uncover them.


Chili crab- Singapore

What I Dislike

How expensive EVERYTHING is, being distracted by cleanliness and order (I blame India), cameras everywhere and a lack of grit.

What I Love

Spending time with friends from various stages in my life, the Singapore Zoo, meats and cheeses from Huber’s Butchery, chili crab (with the chili sauce on the side) and Amanda’s family graciously taking me into their home and spoiling me for a week.

In a Nutshell (or a Crab shell)

Admittedly, Singapore wasn’t at the top of my travel list, but exploring with friends elevated its ranking. I was also fascinated by their government with low corruption and abundance of regulations. It was vastly different from anywhere else I’d been.

China (Beijing)

Hutong life- Beijing

What I Dislike

Rude people, constant pushing, no queuing and getting ripped off more times in four days than in any other country.

What I Love

Wandering around the old hutong neighborhoods, visiting the Great Wall and easily navigating the subway.

In a Nutshell

Four days is hardly enough time to get a feel for a country as big as China, or even just Beijing, but sadly I’m in no big hurry to return.


Pilgrims in Lhasa

What I Dislike

The Chinese hold on the Autonomous Region of Tibet, restriction on the number of monks, blocked websites, cameras/checkpoints everywhere, lack of oxygen and not-so-tasty yak meat.

What I Love

The gorgeous and giggly Tibetan people, enormous monasteries, butter lamps, sheep traffic jams, monks on cell phones and listening to a local rock band sing Bob Dylan in a dive bar.

In a Nutshell

Tibet is one of the most spiritual places I’ve ever been. It’s full of monasteries, prayer flags and devout Buddhists. I would love nothing more than returning to see them thriving in a free society.


Pashupati Temple- KathmanduWhat I Dislike

Loud horns, crowded streets, multiple trips to government offices and orphanage scams.

What I Love

Big pillows on restaurant floors, cashmere scarves, a strange abundance of hummus and drinking Gorkha beer on rooftops.

In a Nutshell

Nepal is more than just Kathmandu, and I really would’ve liked to see more of it. Unfortunately due to visa errands and getting sick, my visit was restricted. Alas, another time.

Hong Kong

Hong Kong street meats

What I Dislike

Expensive shoebox hotels, getting lost in a city that’s near impossible to get lost in and not having enough time to eat my way through the city.

What I Love

The food, duh! Dim sum, roasted goose, pork and cheese noodles, people walking the streets at midnight, shopping at Uniqlo and everything being within a 20-minute train ride.

In a Nutshell

Hong Kong is an eater’s and shopper’s paradise. From high-end to low-end(ish), it’s got it all. I just wish hotel rooms were cheaper… and bigger.

Parting Words For You, Asia

Thank you for opening yourself up to this humble American and showing me that life is more than the sum of its parts. Your priorities are straight even when your pockets are empty. Hard work and family are what you value, and I have the utmost respect for how you live and celebrate life. If I take even a small part of that with me, I am a rich woman.

I learned the words for “hello” and “thank you” in the languages of each place I visited, but rarely “goodbye”. Maybe that’s because I know I’ll be back. I need to finally make it to Laos, check out the Sri Lankan beaches, re-charge my soul again in Bali, visit Japan after far too many years, hit up the Philippines and most definitely step foot in the Middle East. Sorry mom, but it’s gotta happen. Until next time…

Kid waving- Inle Lake, Myanmar


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