South East Asia is not a Western Country
For all you obsessives out there, yes, I know South East Asia is not a country. It just sounds better than saying “The Countries in South East Asia are not Western Countries”. If this title upsets you so much that you don’t want to keep reading, please carry on with your life. Delete your browser history and you can forget you ever clicked on this link.
For everyone else, this is an on going list of the differences I see between western countries and the aforementioned ones. Keep in mind, I started this list when I was a mere 2 1/2 months into my travels, still very much a noob. Some points might seem obvious, or not that important, but they probably shocked this early traveler. The later ones may seem more relevant, and will probably show how a traveler matures over the course of their trip.
You can work out in your flip flops
Safety is not a priority. This goes for little things like the gym, which is convenient because you rarely wear shoes for anything so you can walk in on a whim, as well as big things like road and construction safety and animal control. I’ve seen workers handling open cables and scale shaky scaffolding with no straps. I was also bitten by a monkey because it wasn’t properly chained to a street cart. I’m not saying it should have been chained in the first place, and don’t get me started on the animal cruelty I’ve seen out there, but if an animal is chained up, it’s going to be angry. I didn’t see it as I approached and it probably decided to use me to get revenge on the human race. Couple rabies shots later and I’m still alive.
No vendor expects to get the price they first ask for
A Westerner can be spotted a mile away. Yes, even Asian Westerners, you’re not special. To street vendors, we’re all walking ATM’s, and they’ll see how much they can withdraw. Never take the first price they offer, even if it’s written down somewhere. Don’t feel bad about haggling. I’ve noticed that they’re just as friendly after the sale regardless of how hard I bargain, it’s not a disrespectful thing to do.
My approach: Think of the price you want to pay. Now offer something that puts that price as the halfway point between your initial offering and what they requested. They’ll slowly bargain with you, bringing their price down and expect you to bring yours up until you get to about the middle – aka what you wanted to pay.
Everyone has a different strategy though. I was traveling with a friend who refused to bargain on food. I’m not saying you always have to haggle, but learn to see what the item, be it food or goods, is actually worth in the area you’re in.
Note: Don’t try this in actual retail stores. If they have a credit card machine (which even retail stores sometimes don’t), you’re probably paying what they’re asking.
Scams are everywhere in South East Asia
And nothing is free. Accept a free tuk tuk and you’ll end up at a tailor shop or at a different bar than the one you asked for because “this one is so much better” – aka they get a cut for dropping you off there. If someone offers you some free seeds to feed the birds or fish, they won’t be free anymore by the time you’ve used them all up. People are generally friendly, but everyone needs to make a living.
Lower your food standards
I hate to say it, but I’ve eaten things in South East Asia that I knew were dirty, and that’s something you have to get used to. Street vendors will often handle money before, after, and while they handle your food. Utensils won’t always be clean (always wipe them down at street food restaurants and markets). Food and even soups are often served in plain plastic bags. Regular pieces of paper (often with printed ink) will be used to wrap take out, etc. You start to realize how sterile our countries are. Didn’t we start off eating food off the ground in caves? A little floor spice makes everything nice.
Here’s a fun anecdote. While in Thailand, after experiencing various types of Thai food everyday, we decided to just eat some good old burgers. We went to a market that we knew had a stand and ordered. I then walked away to find a drink and came back, still not ready. Walked away and came back again and saw a burger sitting there, assumed it was mine, and took it to our table to feast. After nothing but Thai food, that burger tasted amazing, no offence but sometimes you need a break. About half way through, the lady from the burger stand comes over offering me a burger, saying it’s mine. I told her that it couldn’t be because I’m already eating mine. So she says that I must have taken someone else’s because she just finished mine, but if I’m enjoying the one I have, there’s no problem. She then returns a few minutes later and says that there is no one waiting for their burger so the one I took could not be someone else’s, and that I must have taken the sample burger that was sitting there.
Had to walk that one off.
The rules of the road don’t apply to motorbikes
Any more than they apply to cars. Ok, cars are usually within the confines of the law. At least they stop at red lights. Motorbikes in South East Asia will go anytime, anywhere – against the flow of traffic, on the side walk, the wrong way on a one way, etc.
As a pedestrian, don’t expect to ever cross the street while a row of motorbikes is just patiently sitting there, waiting for you to get to the other side. Motorbikes are like the mail – they never stop! So you just have to go. Maintain a constant speed, and trust that they’ll avoid you. They do. Usually. As a motorbiker, learn to be inches away from other motorbikes at all times. Claim your space and maintain your speed, no one’s going to hit you. When turning left, just like with pedestrians, they never just sit and wait for you to do so. So just go and maintain a slow and constant speed through the turn. The motorbikes going straight in the opposite direction will avoid you. Usually.
Sleeper buses are the best!
Vietnam's bus game is strong. Sleeper buses ftw! Throw in some seaweed snacks and the deliciously sweet local fruit and you got one comfy ride. I should just drop the hostels and live in these! #travel #bus #buslife #travellife #vietnam #hochiminh #Saigon #hcmc #seaweed #snacks #fruit #tropical #pants #comfy
While at university in Montreal, I did the 10+ hour bus ride to New York City a few times, and it was miserable. Whether during the day, or over night, I sat in a chair, which soon was less comfortable than the wooden ones from MATH 110. The ones I’ve taken in South East Asia, on the other hand, have been a pleasure to ride in. They really are bed-like, so you can lie down, and unless you’re over 6 feet, you can fit in them quite nicely. I’ve managed to sleep in each one I’ve taken.
I’ve actually purposefully taken these buses overnight to avoid paying for a hostel room. They take you from A to B and offer a place to sleep for the night! Such a great deal!
Urinals are everywhere
Or at least people think there are. The world is a urinal. Now let’s be honest, we’ve all found a favorite bush or tree back home and made sure it’s not going thirsty. But in South East Asia, no cover is needed and any time is a good time. I’ve seen people watering the highway, the park, the city walls, etc. I walked into a bathroom where someone was pissing in a drain in the ground when there was a free urinal right next to him.
Don’t pet the dogs
Most of them are nice and friendly, but they are strays. One bite will earn you 5 rabies shots. Maybe some tetanus too if you’re lucky like me. My monkey bite was all that and a bag of antibiotics and I didn’t even approach it on purpose.
And! Enjoy your instant promotion to celebrity status
Sure, cities like Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh, and Hanoi are used to foreigners and they won’t bat an eyelash at you. Some will be very helpful, others will try to scam you, people are people. But in places a little bit more off the beaten path, like the smaller cities in the Mekong Delta and along the Ho Chi Minh Trail which backpackers often only cross if they’re traveling by motorbike, you might as well be the entire cast of The Beatles, alive and reunited. And the welcome you get is often heartwarming. Kids will giggle as you pass, yelling “Hello!” and offering high fives. People will want to shake your hand. I’ve even walked into restaurants in these parts of the country, been invited to sit at a table, was offered food and beer and they refused my money. The only way I could repay them is through an ernest effort to communicate, smiling and laughing, all while trying to not get too drunk!
So there you that’s my list. As I said, it’ll probably get longer, but that’s what I have so far. Any experienced travelers see anything I missed? Let me know!
BUT! Countries in South East Asia are not a barren wasteland
These points may confirm many unfounded assumptions made by Westerners and their friends or parents before coming here, and that is not the intent. Some things are different and I wanted to outline them, but I too made some very wrong assumptions before coming, and my dear parents, bless their hearts, were even more presumptuous.
The infrastructure and society is often better than you might expect. You don’t need to bring soap from home. You won’t use the same tooth brush for a year. Buses aren’t hours late and you don’t have to buy your produce exclusively at markets. South East Asia is very diverse, often within the same city. It’s up to you to experience it and make it as different from home, or as similar as you desire.