It’s a simple fact that travel is transformative. If you travel Southeast Asia with an open mind, there’s no doubt your journeys will affect you.
If you grew up in a Western country, you feel the effects even more. The contrast to what you’re used to back home can come as a shock, but, as travel experts in the region, and as residents and “insiders” ourselves, we can assure you that traveling Southeast Asia “like a local” can only change you for the better.
Here are just some of the ways you might find yourself transformed.
1.You stop fearing the rain
Most travelers try to avoid rainy season when they visit Southeast Asia, but when you’re an insider, you know the monsoon brings its own set of perks.
First of all, it scares the crowds away so you can experience your destination with fewer tourists.
Secondly, you learn how to identify the early signs of an incoming downpour and take cover before it hits.
Thirdly, you know that a bit of rain brings the temperature down and makes everything fresh and shiny.
And fourthly, if you’re traveling through rainforest jungles, rice fields or countryside, you can expect to see the greenest greens and the mightiest waterfalls. You also learn that most downpours only last an hour or so, giving you an excuse to regroup before heading out again.
2. You learn respect (for different things)
One of the biggest thrills of visiting Asia is that everything is just so different from what Westerners are used to. There are temples, shrines and mosques instead of churches and cathedrals. People dress more conservatively and groom more intently.
Thinking is collectivist rather than individualist. Food, art, etiquette – they’re all different. The insider traveler embraces these differences and understands where they come from, jumping at the chance to experience a different way of life. They even seek out the differences, taking local art tours, visiting local villages and going out of their way to see things from a new perspective.
As Mark Twain put it: “Travel is fatal to prejudice.”
3. You become a great bargainer
If you visit any one of Southeast Asia’s marketplaces, bargaining is a skill you pick up quick. As any insider will know, haggling effectively entails more than just naming your price.
Rather than seeing it as an awkward or stressful part of a retail transaction, the insider takes it as an opportunity to get to know their vendor and even have a laugh with them.
You also learn that a good sense of humor – and at the very least, a smile – is the best bargaining chip, and the secret to getting a pretty good deal.
4. You become aware of your feet
Never are you more acutely aware of the soles of your feet than when you travel through a Buddhist country.
As the dirtiest and least holy part of the body, feet must remain on the floor at all times, with toes pointed away from people and sacred objects. Putting your feet up and flaunting your soles is going to make everyone around you uncomfortable, and wearing your shoes into someone’s house or (heaven forbid) a temple is a cultural crime of the highest order (standing on a banknote or coin is an actual crime in Thailand).
Insiders know to keep their feet on the ground and to just generally be aware of what their feet are doing. They also scrub up on their temple etiquette before they head into one of their destination’s most revered sites.
5. Your taste buds get more adventurous
Fried rice, pad Thai, sushi, ramen, pho – what’s not to love about the cuisines of Asia? While you can probably find your favorite dish wherever you go across the continent, the insider’s taste buds want to go wandering too.
What are the locals eating? Are they snacking on ants? Crickets? Spiders? What is stinky tofu? How spicy is larb? Increasingly, the insider tries ever more unusual things, caring less about the exact ingredients of dishes and just enjoying the flavors as they come.
6. You know how to deal with the heat
The first thing that hits you when you exit the airport in a tropical country is the heat. Humidity that wraps you in a tired, sweaty blanket and sun that fries the top of your head. The lowland heat in Southeast Asia is something the insider learns how to work with.
They take their cues from the locals, staying inside during the hottest parts of the day, covering up with long sleeves and hats, and using sunscreen. They adjust their pace to preserve energy and make sure they get plenty of fluids.
For a local-style refreshment, insiders also know there are plenty of street vendors happy to refresh the parched traveler – milk tea in Thailand, sugar cane juice in Vietnam, coconut water across the region, tea in Myanmar or a freshly squeezed orange juice – there’s simply no need to go thirsty.
7. You gain a new appreciation for family
It’s an unfortunate truth that Western society has little patience for anyone that may pose an inconvenience. In Southeast Asia, family is everything – including elder people and babies.
Even in public, you’ll see families enjoying meals or an outing with great grandma. Babies are also ubiquitous. Strangers openly adore babies and small children, even if they’re doing something irritating.
Insiders lucky enough to experience a homestay or even a meal in a local family’s house, get to see what it’s like having the extended family under the same roof.
8. You get fruity
Travel through sub-tropical Asia and you’ll notice fruit everywhere. And not apples and oranges, but furry balls of rambutan, creamy, pungent mounds of durian and spiky pink dragonfruit. In most Southeast Asian countries you can find fruit sellers on the street – the locals know what’s up – that fruit is the perfect on-the-go snack when you need a little pick-me-up.
9. You go with the flow
Traveling through Asia as a Westerner upends most of your expectations.
Punishing heat? OK, fine. Monsoonal downpour? Whatever, it’s the tropics. Squat toilet? Sure, it’s part of the experience. Scooters trying to mow you down at every opportunity? At least you’re getting better at looking both ways.
The insider must adopt a flexible attitude, because traveling through Asia is one surprise after another. It’s a constant stream of unusual (to you) stimuli that can overwhelm, but for every frustration there’s a triumph. A heavenly foot massage. A warm welcome smile. A wonderful meal. A sunset on a paradise beach.
10. You become a linguist
Maybe not the greatest of all time, but the insider has at least mastered ‘hello/goodbye’, ‘how much’, ‘thank you’ and ‘toilet’ in the local language. Linguaphiles might even learn some numbers, or names of food and fruit, or even how to say ‘I don’t speak ____’.
Whatever the level of language knowledge, even the smallest amount makes a big difference when traveling through Asia. And when you get home, you have all these words to try out next time you’re at your local Chinese/Japanese/Thai/Vietnamese restaurant.
11. You come prepared
Traveling in general makes you more prepared for the unknown, but traveling in Asia requires a whole new level of preparedness.
Tissues and sterilizing wipes are imperative (and widely available throughout most countries), bottled water, an umbrella and/or rain poncho, small denominations of local currency, passport photos – a wide-ranging array of essentials “just in case.”
12. You become a history “expert”
Southeast Asia is a veritable trove of historical treasures, from the famous Angkor Wat and Borobudur to the lesser-known temples of Mrauk U, Myanmar and the Vat Phou in Southern Laos. Each site holds a history lesson – one of distant cultures, class divides, ancient “technologies”, wealth, religion and power.
By traveling across Myanmar, Thailand and Laos the intrepid insider can trace the shift of the region’s borders by visiting its ancient capitals. They see the different influences and impacts of British and French colonization, and see the effects of war from the other side.
They also become sensitive to local and regional tensions, learning when to ask questions and when to be quiet.
13. You relearn cutlery
While mastering chopsticks is indeed a useful skill while traveling through Southeast Asia, the insider will have to rewire their brain regarding the use of forks and spoons. Most mouthfuls in Southeast Asia are eaten from a spoon, after moving the food onto it with a fork, while knives remain conspicuously absent from the dining table.
While noodle dishes are eaten with round, Chinese-style chopsticks, soups require chopsticks and a ladle. If you’re eating “family-style” with friends, you will generally just take what you want from shared dishes with the spoon you’ve been eating from.
In Vietnam, you’ll mostly use chopsticks until someone takes pity on you and gives you a fork and spoon. In some rural places, you eat with your hand, using a banana leaf as a plate.
14. You get the travel bug
There’s a warmth and energy about Southeast Asia that makes you never want to leave, especially once you’ve seen the region as an insider.
It could be the proliferance of smiles, the great local food you’ve discovered, the warm weather, the monsoon, the slow and simple pace of provincial life, the cool cafes and clubs of the bigger cities, the spectacular landscapes, all those “undiscovered” islands, or the feeling that another adventure waits just around the corner – whatever it is, the region infects you with the sudden desire to quit your day job and pursue a nomadic lifestyle.
15. You get a different perspective
Wherever you’ve traveled from suddenly seems so… far away. Traveling in general expands your world, your bubble back home shrinking with each new stamp in your passport, even more so when you visit Southeast Asia and really try to experience it as a local.
Scooters can transport a family of five. Meals are better shared. Squid is an acceptable chip flavor. Bus journeys can take millennia. There are so many ways your normal way of thinking will be turned upside-down that you may forget what you used to think was “normal.”
16. You get tougher
Let’s face it, traveling Southeast Asia is no cake walk. Even on the smoothest, most well-planned tour – and one put together by experts, at that – the insider knows there are challenges inherent in any foray into the region.
Humid weather. Storms that come out of nowhere. Language barriers and miscommunications. Mosquitoes and sunburn. Cultural differences. Hectic traffic and unsealed roads. All of this makes you a better traveler, and a tougher, more flexible human being.
17. You learn real gratitude
Southeast Asia also makes you softer. If you have the privilege to enjoy some truly local experiences – a Buddhist ceremony, a village stay, a meal with a local family, a bicycle tour through the countryside, a visit to an elephant sanctuary, even a chat with a local guide – you will be humbled by what you encounter.
Simple lifestyles, developing communities and people making do with very little teach you a sense of gratitude you might not feel traveling through more affluent regions of the world.
Have you traveled through Southeast Asia? What was the most valuable lesson you learned?