You wouldn’t want to journey to the other side of the planet without doing a little research first. We take it one step further and offer the perspective of a man who has called multiple countries home at different points within the past few years. Close friend of the blog Andrew Lyon has found himself all over the world. Now working on his fifth continent, he believes he has found a place to put down roots, at least for now. From his first station in Thailand to his current residence in Taiwan, Andrew has become an expert on living and traveling in Southeast Asia. He connected with Open Tab to share some of his fascinating experiences as well as his stunning photo collection.
What made you first decide on the move to Thailand and what were your feelings at the beginning of that major transition?
I moved to Baltimore after graduating from George Mason University and began selling roofs and windows and living with my girlfriend. That lasted about six months before it fell apart and I decided I wanted to only do things that made me happy from then on. After four months of working as a pizza maker at Casey’s Pizza, and janitor at a warehouse, I had saved enough money to get to Thailand and take a TESOL (teaching English to speakers of other languages) course!
I had been counting down the days to when I was supposed to leave, but once the day arrived I was nervous. I had a bit of a “fuck everything I just wanna leave and actually live for once” attitude during most of that time, but once the day came it was like “oh shit I have a one way ticket and not enough money to get back.” Like I literally have to make this work at least long enough to pay to get home. As nerve wracking as that was, it also made me feel so fucking alive. Like we live everyday and just do the same things. It’s not everyday that you make a revolutionary change to your life like this, so for the most part I was excited as fuck.
Was there a plan or trip that went awry but ended up being an unforgettable adventure?
So as an American citizen working in Thailand I’m eligible to get a year long visa, that is if your company doesn’t mess up the paperwork…
During my second year the company I worked for spelled my name as “Andre” instead of “Andrew” and there wasn’t enough time to change the official document, so I had to get on a bus the next morning and go down to Malaysia for a few days to get my passport stamped, then return to Thailand so I can get another 90 day visa on arrival. (This is a pretty standard process in SE Asia called border bouncing, and there are thousands of people living in SE Asia who do this several times a year.)
I took the earliest bus from my beach town of Hua Hin down close to the border of Thailand and Malaysia. My bus ended up taking several hours longer than scheduled, so when I finally arrived, the ticket person told me to run for the border before it closed. As I was sprinting, there were suddenly three other guys who must have also been told to run because we became one group running towards the border. We got to the passport control who also noted how late we were. She stamped our passports and again motioned for us to run. We ran past the gates literally as they were closing. I slowed and turned around to snap a picture of the gates closing to form the Malaysia flag and thought, “How lucky am I??”
Our group walked down a slight hill to where the group’s car was parked. They had nicely offered for me tag along with them as they were also heading to Penang. (Seriously this kind of thing happens all of the time in Asia. People are just super friendly 99 percent of the time. It’s one of the things that keeps me here.)
As we got to the bottom of the hill we suddenly realized that the gate was closed and nobody was there. We walked back up to the gate with the Malaysian flag that we had seen close minutes before. Nobody was there. We had found ourselves stuck in no man’s land between the border of Thailand and Malaysia. Officially not in either of the countries. Until 6 am the next morning.
A cool thing about Malaysia is that everyone there learns three languages in school: Malay, Chinese, and English. The three other guys and I spent half the night chatting with each other and swapping stories from home and from our travels. The rest of the night we did our best to catch some sleep on the sidewalk until 6 am arrived. This is one of those times you’re super aware you are thousands of miles from your home and are really living in an adventure.
What was one of your favorite places to visit that might not be considered by most tourists?
100 percent my answer has to be Myanmar. I visited the former capital city of Yangon for a week while checking out our TESOL company there. Myanmar closed its doors to the world for 50 years and only reopened them to tourists in 2011. It was like stepping back in time! They still had people who push carts of goods through the streets yelling out things like “Milk, milk, get your milk here!” Most apartment buildings have pulley systems that run vertical up the buildings in front of the balconies of each floor. You simply go to your balcony, shout down what you want, put the money in the bag attached to the pulley system, and lower it down. The vendor puts the good in the bag and you shimmy it back up to your apartment. Incredible!
Interesting side note: the mayor of the city once had a dream that he got killed by a motorbike, so he put a ban on all motorbikes. After living in Southeast Asia for awhile, it’s very odd to be somewhere without any motorbikes!
Lastly they are still working on their electrical grid, so throughout the day there are rolling blackouts. This happens at least 3 times a day if not more. While I was there I was surprised to see how casually people had re-situated their lives around this. At our office, we would work until there was a blackout, finish up what we were working on before our batteries died, and then go out for a coffee, or grab a newspaper and start reading until the power came back on. Myanmar was wild.
My runner-up is Laos. It’s another country that hasn’t really been westernized, and I’ve never seen a capital city that felt like a small town like that before. Unreal places I never expected to go to.
Who was a local you met that changed your outlook or added to your experience of the region you were visiting?
I took a one month TESOL course in the south of Thailand during my first month in the country. During that time, the TESOL company placed me in a small, rural town named Chumphuang. It’s 6 hours northeast of Bangkok and truly out in the sticks. Once I got there, I asked my school about renting a motorbike. They said there was a local who could help me out and would meet me after school. This is how I met Rita. Rita is such a unique character in this story. She’s outgoing as fuck which is a bit unusual for Thai people. She will talk to anyone at any time, speaks English, and loves to drink. I knew we were going to be friends early on. Rita became my Thai sister and I spent many evenings at her house for dinner followed by lots of drinks. She’s one of those people who everyone just loves right away because she is unashamed and unabashed about who she is and is just living life her own way. It’s contagious. She helped me countless times during that year, and I would eat lunch at her restaurant most days of the week during the school year too. We’d talk over my extended lunch break and I 100 percent attribute me learning Thai to Rita. It was easy to casually be like, “Oh, how do you say this in Thai?” I’d say something in Thai and she’d correct me, or tell me a more slang version of how to say the same thing. Rita really made that year what it was.
I actually went back to Thailand a couple months ago for Rita’s wedding! It was awesome to be back and celebrate the important day with her and her amazing family!
Having a local family take you in is hugely beneficial to acclimation, longevity, and overall happiness while in the country.
What’s a piece of advice you would give someone so they can avoid being the stereotypical “ugly American tourist” in Southeast Asia?
Oh man, I’ve seen it bad and it makes me cringe every time I do. Basically it comes down to a few easy things:
1) You are NOT at home anymore. You cannot possibly think that everything will be the same or function in the way you expect it to. Many people speak English, but you can’t be mad if someone doesn’t. If you wanted things to be exactly the same as home, you should have stayed there.
2) Use your brain. Things aren’t as different as they may seem at first, it’s still a world where humans work together, live together, and make things happen together. If you can, learn a few basic phrases that will get you by. They’ll go a long way when combined with hand gestures. One thing I typically do before I go to a new country is Google “Five things I wish I knew before I went to _______” I’ve learned a lot about what to expect and how to adapt from doing that.
3) Relax and go with the flow. The whole point of visiting a new place is to see new things, new people, and new places. If you go with the flow it’s really likely that you’ll not only have a great time, but you’ll also have a great story or two to share about a crazy adventure you had. There’s an awesome bliss that comes with giving up control and seeing where something goes.
Can you describe your perfect day you’ve had so far in Taiwan?
When my dad and his friend visited we took the train to the northeast coast of Taiwan to a place called Fulong Beach. The Japanese heavily mined this area, and therefore made dozens of mining tunnels that remained long after they left. In Fulong you can rent bikes and take a trail that goes about 20 km along the ocean while going through some of these old mining tunnels! (They’ve been fortified and paved.)
The views of the ocean were incredible, as well as getting the chance to ride through these old tunnels! Afterwards we ate at an-all-you-can-eat BBQ place and drank beers. It was a great day!
Have you traveled to any of these countries Andrew discussed? Or do you have any unique insights in living abroad?