Same same but different

Published in ‘Palatinate’ in October 2012

The prospect of squeezing one month’s worth of eye-opening and inspiring experiences into a few pages of written text was daunting to say the least. But the more I thought about it, the more I began to realise that it was, in fact, that simple and unavoidable gimmicky slogan, that phrase plastered across Southeast Asia, that actually entirely and perfectly sums up my trip.

‘Same same but different’ (for those of you who took gap years this is certainly not the first time you’ve heard the phrase); it’s everywhere and on everything – the markets, the signs, the t-shirts… At first I cast it aside as some silly cheap touristy catchphrase with no real purpose or meaning, but the further I travelled and the more I saw, the more I discovered how truly profound these four words were to be. ‘Same same but different’, it turned out, could be applied to almost any aspect of my trip. On a superficial level, the phrase perfectly reflects Southeast Asian markets. On my arrival at Siem Reap’s famous Nightmarket I was overwhelmed by the sheer mass of exciting things to buy; endless stalls, a bustling hoard of scarves, bags and sunglasses, a vibrant mass of t-shirts (at least half of which had this phrase printed on them), a sea of colourful harem pants (which, on arrival at the airport, my mother was quick to remark made me look like “some kind of hippie”) and fake everything. However, it didn’t take too long before it hit me that every market seemed to sell these few staple items; it was all the same…but different, obviously. And the difference was only really in the price (which of course means haggling – the most fun and ridiculous part of it all), the catchphrase used to guilt-trick you into buying their merchandise (“if you buy, I can go to school”), and the colour…oh, and that minor detail that the Mulbery handbag that seems “extraordinarily cheap”, isn’t actually a Mulbery handbag – it’s “same same…but different”.

It didn’t take long to pick up on the locals’ habit of repeating words; whilst “same same” seemed the most common expression, it was certainly not the only one. I was bombarded with screams of “teacher, teacher!” (they didn’t seem interested in learning my name) from a class of Cambodian 7 year-olds (who, by the way, are by far the cutest children I have ever seen) at me when I made the mistake of asking for a volunteer to draw on the board. “Lady, lady” was also a common attention-seeking mechanism as I walked along the street of any town…and I must admit it is pretty difficult to say no to a poor old man with no hands asking you to give him money.

As I continued my travels I discovered that this tagline was fitting to so many other aspects of my trip too. For every lunch and dinner we were given the same rice and chicken combo, but in various different forms. If in need of some familiar western fast-food, we were welcomed by the same golden arches that we would have back at home, yet I’m pretty sure they don’t sell the ‘Samurai Pork Burger’ back in the UK. I was even more surprised to come across a ‘Boots the Chemist’ – same logo, same brands, same layout – yet it seemed that the Thai had replaced bottles of fake tan with tubes of ‘whitening cream’, the most bizarre concept to us Brits who, only seconds before, had been remarking on how “lucky they are to be so tanned all the time”!

The slogan was even more fitting to my particular trip as I spent the final ten days in a group of 4 girls, coincidently all of whom are called ‘Katie’! Having caught onto the true meaning of the catchphrase, we were quick to develop our own take on it – “same name but different”.

It was late into the trip, eating our first ‘western’ meal (burger and chips of course) on Siem Reap’s ‘Pub Street’, that it struck me quite how many ‘gap yah’s there were in the same place as us, doing the same thing as us, and, in some cases, wearing the same thing as us. A moody and seemingly rah blonde at the table next to us (annoyingly wearing the exact same pair of harem pants as me at the time) lazily commented to her friend that another girl “from school” (I assume they weren’t best of friends) was walking down the street near to them, to which the friend responded “urghh…why is she here? I thought that lot were supposed to be on Koh Phi Phi”. Looking around, ‘Pub Street’ was swarming with what seemed like white middle-class students all talking about uni and where else they had been on their travels. And the harem pants, which every westerner was wearing, and are sold as ‘culturally Asian’, were not worn by a single Asian that I saw…The whole thing came as quite a surprise to me, who had, until that moment, been going round naively feeling as though we were intrepid explorers travelling through some exotic and totally undiscovered place, far removed from home. The revelation that I was not alone in my experience continued to slap me in the face as I came across online blogs of others who’d seen, heard, tasted, smelt and felt almost exactly the same things as I did.

Nevertheless, whist that part of my trip was “same same” as that of most others’, the difference was that I was lucky enough to experience the ‘real’ Cambodia. Once you are out of the touristy ‘I Love Cambodia’, ‘No thank you, no massage, no tuk-tuk’ (as fun as tuk-tuks are!) region of the country, and you’re no longer being hassled for your money, the people there are some of the most friendly and charitable you will ever meet. They often say that the poorest people on earth are sometimes the most generous, and I believe that this is true; something that I learnt at the most unexpected of times; on a toilet stop between Poipet and Siem Reap. Having used our impeccable Khmer skills to tell our driver that we needed the loo (“Bon Tub Teuk”), we expected him to stop at the nearest petrol station. We were somewhat surprised when he pulled off the main road (there seems to be one main road through the whole of Cambodia) into what I can only describe as a shanty-town. We stopped outside a small wooden hut (which we later discovered to be his brother’s ‘house’) and immediately the villagers swarmed around us, obviously fascinated by the sight of white people (my tall lanky ginger friend Dave was a particular hit!). My friend and I were led through the trees to a little wooden shack, the toilet. Once I’d used the facilities myself I stood outside the hut waiting for my friend and observed the scene around me. These people were clearly very poor. A girl of about five wandered round on a drip closely followed by her mother who was holding up the bag of fluid. Two elderly women in ragged clothes sat in the mud at my feet, cutting up some eel-like creatures that were still squirming around in a bowl. Frustratingly, they tried to engage me in conversation, but my language skills didn’t stretch that far. They giggled in amusement as I used my limited Khmer knowledge to tell them my name. I suddenly felt a tap on my back and turned around to find a little boy holding out a plastic chair that he signalled for me to sit on. Luckily, just at that point, my friend emerged from the hut and so I was saved from the embarrassment of sitting on the chair whilst the locals around me sat in the mud. It was the sweetest gesture and one that I will never forget.

The Khmer people, and particularly the children, continued to amaze me. Their positivity and enthusiasm despite many of their situations was inspirational. I got the wonderful opportunity to spend two weeks teaching at the Safe Haven School for children vulnerable to trafficking. My expectations that the children might be nervous and scared were totally overturned; the children were obedient and constantly eager to learn, making my job as a teacher very easy, despite the language barrier. I will always remember the sweet little chant of “thank-you-tea-cher!” they did every time I entered or left the classroom; if only western schoolchildren could be as polite and well-trained!

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The children at the ‘school on a mat’ (a tarpaulin and a flipchart in the middle of a poor rural village) were not quite as engaged, and understandably; it was never going to be easy finding an English activity to entertain both four and twelve year-olds with chickens pecking around on the mat with them, especially when their current English vocabulary just about stretched to ‘hello’ and, strangely, ‘heads, shoulders, knees and toes’. We resorted to physical activities such as teaching them the Macarena. Simply standing caused us to break out in a sweat (I had never before experienced back sweat) and I most definitely sympathise with the poor children who had to hold our hands during the dances (I did notice one little boy subtly holding my wrist whilst he wiped his hand on his ‘Angry Birds’ t-shirt). By the end of the class we had taught the children to ceilidh, they had taught us some traditional Khmer dancing and we had even attempted some arts and crafts. Staring at the mat in front of us my friend memorably turned to me and asked if we should clear up after ourselves…it was then that we realised that the mat was in the middle of the village scrapheap.

It was the same classic Southeast Asia experience that everyone else has had; I did the same things, bought the same things, saw the same things…yet it was also different; not everyone was offered a plastic chair in the middle of a shanty town. In less than a month I saw huge poverty and experienced paradise, introduced ceilidh dancing to rural Cambodia, taught the Macarena to over 300 children, ate a cricket, experienced the most brutally bizarre Thai massage, survived cockroaches in the shower and swum with elephants; an unforgettable and eye-opening trip, and I left the country wishing I’d bought the “same same but different” t-shirt after all…

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