This may surprise people who know me, but I probably inhale nearly a pack of cigarettes a day when I am in Southeast Asia. On the bus, in the restaurants, walking down the streets, I get my nicotine buzz from sunup to sundown each and every day. All without ever touching a cigarette to my banana pancake covered lips. Though I have never even once partaken in a cigarette, I still find myself at the center of a cancerous cloud, a woeful anomaly in this land of smoke and fire.
That’s right ladies and gentlemen, I think I am officially the only non-smoker currently populating the Southeast Asian region. It’s a lonely existence being the only person that isn’t obsessively sucking on a pre-rolled cancer stick at every possible moment. I feel as if I am standing alone in the center of the Sahara, ideologically and socially removed from the rest of the traveling populace standing somewhere behind the smokescreen. Except that in this desert, the sand keeps blowing up my nose and making me gag.
Seriously though, the prevalence of cigarette smoking in Southeast Asia is absolutely astounding. It is commonplace for me to see otherwise attractive young women topping off a nearly full ashtray whilst ordering their morning coffee. There technically are “No Smoking” signs on many buses and minibuses, however, the driver is usually the one to initially break the rule, thereby sending the knockoff Zippos flying throughout the smoke-free carriage. Restaurants or bars? Forget about it. I recently out of amusement asked a Bangkok waitress if there was a non-smoking section in her establishment, and she enthusiastically nodded her head and opened up the restaurant’s menu…to the page displaying the cigarette prices. After explaining I was looking for a place that didn’t allow any smoking, much less promote it, she looked at me as if I’d just explained relativity. In Finnish.
While I have accepted the fact that each and every traveling mortal in this much-trodden land will terminally toke up at every given moment, there have still been a few moments that have managed to give me pause: At my Koh Tao dive resort, the dive instructor while in the middle of certifying students in the pool, actually kept a lit cigarette poolside, ascending occasionally for an above water puff, only to casually descend to his waiting divers below. Similarly, on the 4,000m summit of Malaysia’s Mt. Kinabalu, the majority of the climbers—and guides—were casually propped atop the summit as if it was the smoker’s lounge in the Tokyo airport.
In between dive trips? On top of mountains? What happened to that whole lung capacity thing? Is pulmonary health simply a relic of the past, more forgotten than the temples of Angkor, or perhaps the French language in Laos?
A lot of people will reason that most only smoke when they drink, and seeing as you’re nearly always swilling cheap beer while in Asia the cigarettes are a foregone conclusion. But are there mysterious beers I don’t notice on the metrosystems? Are you secretly hiding a JagerBomb behind your bookstore desk as I try to pay you with a pocketful of coins? Don’t get me wrong, the cigarettes come out en masse when the booze starts flowing, but they also seem to make an appearance when other elements are present, say, for example, basic oxygen for breathing.
So for anyone considering a trip to the much fabled Orient, pack an iron lung along with your oversized rucksack. And for you Mr. Marlboro, while currently I submit to being massively outnumbered by an entire continent to one, perhaps next time when you’re going to burn down your 4th cigarette before the meal has arrived, consider the fact that maybe the person seated next to you is me. I’ll be the guy sitting alone, with a t-shirt over his nose, wondering where all my brethren have gone.