Leaving Asia (Hejsan Sverige!)

As I waited in the mostly blonde-haired line (some stereotypes are simply true!) at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport to check in to my flight to Stockholm, I have to admit that I was a little apprehensive about returning to the ”first world”. Having spent four and a half months traveling in developing countries, I had gotten used to the disorder, suspect cleanliness, and haphazard development in this part of the world. I’d also gotten used to the relatively low prices, and I knew I was about to arrive in a country where the running joke is ”well, at least it’s not as expensive as Norway*”.

An eleven-hour direct flight took me from Suvarnabhumi airport to Stockholm’s Arlanda flygplats. It’s a quick and easy connection made possible to the Swedes’ desire to escape the long, dark Scandinavian winter. However, in terms of culture, the distance between Thailand and Sweden is huge. Everything – language, architecture, climate, traffic, food, and so on – is vastly different in Sweden than in Southeast Asia. I suppose the reason I was apprehensive was because I wasn’t sure what kind of culture shock I would face (or ”reverse culture shock”, given that I’ve already spent considerable time in Sweden).

It turns out, though, that the biggest adjustments I faced when I arrived in Stockholm were more practical, starting from the moment I stepped out of the terminal. In Asia, I would be assaulted by taxi drivers hollering and scrambling over each other for my business. At Arlanda, I passed a whole row of taxi drivers on my way to the bus ticket machine who didn’t so much as look up from their smartphones. I can get used to this!

Coming from a region where eating out is cheap (by Western standards) and convenient (outdoor restaurants and food stalls line the streets of Southeast Asia and India), I have had to adjust my daily plans to accommodate grocery shopping and cooking. Eating out in Sweden is not particularly common, and is consequently not very wallet-friendly. Whereas a Thai hostel might offer a bottle opener and a refrigerator full of Chang beer, hostels in Sweden usually have fully-equipped kitchens for guests to use in order to cut down on dining costs.

Aside from changing my eating routine, I had to break a few developing-country habits I had developed over the previous months. The first is being afraid of the tap water. Despite knowing in the back of my mind that it is safe to drink in Sweden, I was so used to avoiding it that I found myself consulting Google just to be extra sure (fun fact: many people claim the tap water in Sweden is cleaner than bottled water!). It sure is nice not to have to deal with plastic bottles anymore!

Free Water Sign
A much-appreciated reminder!

The other habit I had to break was putting toilet paper in the trash can. In most of the developing world (and even in parts of Europe), the plumbing is not designed to handle toilet paper. In Asia in particular, the locals don’t even use toilet paper, preferring to use water instead, and most bathrooms are equipped with a spray hose in place of a toilet paper holder. So, toilet paper goes in the designated toilet paper trash can unless you want to incur extensive damage on the plumbing.

Please flush the paper in the toilet
I never thought I would find such a sign useful, but it was just what I needed to see on my first day in Sweden!
Laos Toilet
Just for comparison, this is a roadside toilet in Laos (note the bucket of water in place of toilet paper)…
Stockholm Toilet
…and this is an outhouse in Sweden…

Fortunately, the transition was not as jolting as I had feared. I’m now happily settled in Europe and ready for the next leg of the trip! Stay tuned for updates!

* A Big Mac costs over 6 USD in Norway, and gasoline is two and a half times as expensive compared with the US.

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