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26 Things I Have Learned While Travelling South East Asia

Six months in Travelling in South East Asia has taught me a lot. You have strange preconceptions about a place before you visit and it is often hard to make sense of them all until you find yourself there.

This is a list of 26 small details noticed from day to day life that I have noticed while living here. Of course some of them are slight generalisations, so try not to take them to heart.

1. Stray Animals Are Everywhere

Cats and dogs roam and laze around the streets all day and night. The first thing you notice about the cats is many don’t have tails. At first I wondered if there was a trade for cat tails in this part of the world but it turns out tails just are not that popular among kitties over here. The dogs are a lot more independent than our pet versions, they can be often seen rushing around the streets like they are late for a meeting.

2. There’s Always Room

No matter how small the mini bus looks, how many people there are and how much luggage there is, they will always manage to fit you in. I have looked on in amazement how people have piled in, sat on bags and contorted themselves into positions that look extremely uncomfortable. When I first heard a guy instructing all Asian girls to the back of the vehicle I thought it was a cultural thing, then I was told its because they were smaller and you can jam lots of them on the back seat. Kelly did not look to happy when I told her that her bum was worth 2 of the local girls.

3. There is Nothing Too Big To Be Transported by Moped

A family of four riding around on a scooter with their dog is not a rare sight in this part of the world. You can often see people managing to transport massive loads on tiny little scooters.

moped
Safe Enough…

4. Restaurants Work A Little Differently

This one took a little getting used to. The restaurants here will often serve you your food when it is ready, even if the food for the person you are dining with is not. I often think they cook one after the other. At first we would be polite and wait for each others meal to come before tucking in but after a few weeks of eating out 3 meals a day we decided we may as well tuck in while its hot. As eating out often works out cheaper than eating in, the novelty of the dining experience soon wears off. Luckily the amount of new food you get to try is seemingly endless.

5. There Is A Code That You Soon Figure Out

“Where are you going?” means I am a tuk tuk driver, the place you are going is impossible to walk to but I can take you very cheap. “Where are you from?” means I am a tailor and you look like you may need a suit. I’m sure you can figure out what the lady approaching you saying “Hello handsome” wants to sell you.

6. You Don’t Always Get More For Your Money

Some of the least satisfying meals and hotels I have paid for have been the more expensive ones. I often find myself surprised by the quality of cheaper restaurants and find that some places just have no real added value for your money. As price is not the best indicator of quality I tend to look at other things like how busy it is and how happy the other folk look tucking in. On the other hand I am not saying the cheapest is the best option. There is something for every budget here and the cheapest can be very lousy. Paying the extra $15 instead of $12 for a hotel room can give you a completely different experience so always look for value, not price.

7. Health And Safety Is Non Existent

Ladders resting on chairs, painters standing on ledges up high and mental people climbing huge bamboo scaffolding without a rope. The idea of health and safety does not seem to exist and watching builders work can be a scary experience. We accidentally locked ourselves out of our hotel room in a high rise in Batu Ferringhi, Malaysia. There was a window open but access to it was only from a tiny ledge along the side of the building overlooking a 8 story drop. When we called the hotel representative he did not even hesitate to jump over the railing, nimbly walk along the ledge and pull himself in through the window. Our jaws dropped.

8. Fake Is Fine

Nobody seems to care about the numerous stores that sell nothing but pirated DVDs. These include not just market stalls but convenience stores and many other businesses. Fake iPhones are everywhere as well as fake branded clothing and watches. You can even openly buy fake ID. A cinema we visited in Cambodia was showing obviously downloaded movies. There really does not seem to be a deterrent to businesses making a decent amount of cash illegally.

Khao San Road Is Shamless
Khao San Road Is Shamless

9. Spelling Is Not A Priority

Whether on menus or shop signs, spelling which is obviously wrong to people whose first language is English, is rampant and often hilarious. Milksnake, anyone?

10. Some People Just Can’t Help Being Sleazy

Them dirty old men just can’t help themselves sometimes. I have witnessed, with my jaw wide open, western guys openly groping the local girls and women. The old guys with the cute young Thai girlfriends is one thing but some people just cannot help but treat every Asian girl they encounter like a piece of meat. Its pretty sickly.

11. Asia Makes You A Cheapskate

That cafe I just wandered away from because I felt it was too expensive? $3 a meal. In Cambodia any beer over $1 was just too much. The problem is you can get such great food and drink for so cheap that even though its just a dollar you sometimes feel you are paying double what you should be. I have become so cheap I cannot imagine paying the prices for things that I did back home. Although this doesn’t always mean you save money on beer, sometimes you just drink more.

12. You Get Used To The Strangest Things

When we first arrived the sight on lizards crawling around at eye level was amazing. I took so many photos then but now I barely even notice them. The temperature being above 30C is my new normal and cows wandering around the streets no longer phases me.

 

giant lizard
OK, The Ones This Size Still Catch My Eye

13. I’m Famous

This happened a lot in Malaysia. Random people running up to have their photo taken with me has happened more times than I can count. It shocked me at first because when someone asked for a photo I thought they wanted me to take a photo of them with their camera but no, they happily posed with me and gratefully thanked me. I must be all over peoples Facebook walls.

14.  Its OK To Eat Western Food And Even Fast Food While Abroad

When I first arrived here I feasted, I tried all the Thai food I could handle and fell in love with it. After about 4 weeks I looked at a Menu and I really wanted Spaghetti Bolognaise. I felt a slight guilt but soon realised that even at home I ate a large variety of foods. I would never have English food for 4 weeks in a row. A single week back home would be a mix of Indian, Mexican, English and Italian foods so eating a few different  kinds of foods here was not something to feel bad about.

Fast food is the same. People give travellers a hell of a hard time for eating KFC while abroad and while I’m not saying its the best of food having KFC or McDonalds abroad is exactly the same as having it at home, a guilty pleasure. I heard someone argue that you should never eat fast food whilst abroad and that you should always “eat where the locals eat.” These places are full of local people like any McDonalds in Western countries are and I am under no pretense that the locals don’t have some of the same unhealthy food weaknesses as we do.

15.  Travellers And Tourists Are The Same Damn Thing

You know when you enter a country and you enter on the tourist visa? That’s because you are not there on business, on a diplomatic mission or to play a concert. You are there to see the country, to explore the cities, to take pictures, try local food and maybe relax by a beach. Constantly bitching about tourists being a pain in the ass is weird because you are one of them. When talking to other people you refer to yourself as a traveller and you are quick to add you are living like a local because god forbid people think you are a tourist.

Now I get it, you want to see local things, eat local food, get to know a few local people and show respect, so do I. I also realise people have different priorities than me, different comfort zones and different goals than my own with their travels. I am not any better than these people, its just a different style of travel.

Tourist is what people use to differentiate between good travellers and bad travellers , a pretentious way to set yourself above the other folk to try to make yourself feel better or more of a local. The trouble is they are usually chatting to me in a bar, full of other travellers talking about their 1/2/3/6 month trip around 10 countries. Does that sound more like a local to you, or a tourist?

See that bloody tourist behind me ruining my photo!
See that bloody tourist behind me ruining my photo!

16. Fishermans Pants Only Look Good On Fishermen

I just don’t like them. It’s pretty amazing to see people’s transformation over a couple of days in South East Asia from smart casual westerner to scruffy looking slob. I admit I have been guilty of this myself but you will never find me in them pajama looking monstrosities.

17. People Can Sleep Anywhere And Everywhere

On their cars, on the floor, on benches you will see local people catching a few Z’s at any point of the day.

18. They Can Really Over Do It With The Air Conditioning

The worst culprit for this is malls and buses. A big mall will be colder than winter in Canada making me wish I had brought a big coat. The buses will have the air conditioning pumping through relentlessly even at night. The worst part of this is when my ears start to hurt. I can handle a bit of cold but the overzealous air conditioning gets Kelly whining like nothing else. I always thought Canadians could handle a bit of cold.

19. They Frickin Love Malls

Some of the biggest and most amazing malls I have ever seen are here in South East Asia. They build them huge and stack them on top of each other and they usually contain food courts, cinemas and even theme parks.

20. There’s Not Much That You Cannot Buy

You can really over think packing for Asia but in reality they have pretty much everything you can get back home. I see people listing bug spray on their packing list and paying much higher UK prices for things that you can easily buy at any shop when you get here.

21. Bargaining Is Fun or It’s Not Worth It

I have already admitted being cheap so the opportunity to save a few Baht by talking the price down can be appealing. The idea is not to get the price as low as possible (the guys have to make a wage) but to pay a price you are both comfortable with and happy to shake hands. I have seen people getting pretty stressed and agitated when bargaining and its really not worth it for a dollar or two if you do not enjoy it.

How about
How about 5 for a squid?

22. It Feels Very Safe

I was a little concerned before coming here about safety but I honestly feel safer here than I do walking the streets back home. Of course there is still crime and you do have to be careful as you be anywhere but there is a much hyped travel threat that I have just not witnessed. The main cause of injury I see here is stupidity. Drunkenly riding scooters topless down dusty roads is a common story told by backpackers looking a little worse off. I trust hotel cleaners as much as I would anywhere and people tend to be genuinely happy to help you if needed.

23. Laundry Magicians Exist

These guys are amazing. You take them 3 bags of laundry and they send back one, yet everything is still there. The people here are the best folders in the world and compact your clothes into the tiniest space all for about $1 per kg.

24. People Appreciate A Smile

While bargaining, booking into a hotel or just talking to locals I’ve found they really do respond well to a nice smile. Many of the people here can be seen wearing massive grins like they don’t have a care in the world and they like to see other happy people. I am a great believer that the more positive you are the more positive things happen to you. This can be difficult when my natural default mode is grumpy (especially in the mornings) but its always nice to be nice.

25. The Language Barrier Is Disappearing Fast

When I first arrived I was shocked at just how many people spoke English, from conversational to fluent. Language has not been a barrier at all in our trip. Then you talk to children who now often learn English in school from a very young age and realise that the language barrier is only going to be less of a problem in the future.

26. I am Rich

This was a hard one to admit coming from a relatively low income working class background. When I see the living wage in some places here and the amount of poverty I soon realised everything I took for granted. I am very rich, I am fortunate to have grown up with what I did. Yes, there will always be people worth more and less money than me but I now feel pretty high on that scale.

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About Lee Carter

Born and raised in Accrington, UK, Lee has ventured far beyond his hometown, traveling throughout Europe, Southeast Asia, North America and New Zealand. He is the co-founder of Global Goose and as well as writing the occasional rant he can be found tweaking the code and taking photos of amazing things around the world. Lee and Kelly are currently backpacking around Southeast Asia and they have no plans to stop their "Gap Decade" anytime soon.

31 comments

  1. Great post!! completely agree with it all – love the moped shot!

  2. Wow, there’s so many great things you have learned in South East Asia. I wish I can traveling and gain new experience like you Carter.
    It make me laugh when I read your caption “See that bloody tourist behind me ruining my photo!”. lol
    I wonder where is that bloody tourist come from? 😀

  3. helen & david Luck - Beach bums

    Hi Lee and Kelli . good to meet you both last night at the quiz, have enjoyed reading some of your Blog. Rich – All those who travel are rich, rich in time, rich in lifes adventures. My sister-in-law considers me cheap, i consider my brother to be poor, he can only have two weeks a year in the Maldives!

  4. In a couple months myself, my wife and another couple will be doing a 6 month+ long adventue acros Europe and Asia. This post has lifted my excitement levels about SE Asia by a tremendous amount. I’m so looking forward to the culture and the food and the sights! Thank you for giving us another reason to be excited!

  5. This is an amazing list… the squid stuff looks pretty nasty though! haha

  6. “Hello handsome” kidding, just like this from your points 🙂

    Nice post, I agree with a lot of the points too. We’ve been to Thailand 4 times and also visited Laos, the more we go we get attached with the culture and people. Amazing countries.

  7. What’s up to all, the contents present at this web page are actually awesome for people experience, well, keep up the nice work fellows.

  8. Wow – I could have written this! I think many of these same thoughts crossed my mind when I was in Asia last year – especially about my newfound fame.

    I was reminiscing the other day and felt compelled to jot down some (slightly odd) tips for travelling in India… enjoy: http://mtlandbeyond.wordpress.com/2013/06/29/land-of-confusion-9-slightly-odd-tips-for-savvy-travel-in-india/

    Cheers!

  9. I’m sure I haven’t traveled as extensively as you have (I’m a settled expat in Taiwan), but I agree with every single one of these points. The malls idea gave me pause, since here in Taiwan people definitely seem to prefer night markets, but then I remembered what passes for a mall here, and realized you’re absolutely right.

    The only one that doesn’t really apply here his the “you are rich” point. Taiwan is a pretty pricey place to live (though there’s a greater range… Way more budget options than the West). But I guess I’m sort of splitting hair because I”m not in SE Asia. It would be nice to see a few more backpackers come out this way, though. It’s a fantastic island, and I’d like to meet a few people who aren’t English teachers (or in the import/export business).

  10. It’s been a while since I have been in Asia, but this article brought memories flooding back, particularly about mini-vans never being quite full!

  11. Man this article brought me back to my trip last year…
    Great article.

  12. Agreed! Love the “I’m rich” even more in Vietnam, you’re a millionnaire! Ha ha
    And the laundry magicians… Oh I love them, and the smell of clean clothes!

  13. You’ve nailed it, the whole SE Asia thing! Totally agree with 14…I always feel guilty tucking into a burger or pizza, but sometimes you just need a change. Makes me want to go back again, my favourite continent!

  14. What a cool summary of impressions! We travelled in South East Asia for almost year in 2012-13 and I think I can’t disagree with any of the points you raised! Really entertaining post!

  15. I love this post, and cannot agree more with all the points you made. But you made me laugh really hard with the number 15. Really entertaining post!

  16. Let’s not forget the toilets! After two weeks in India, I have come to really appreciate the sink holes that require you to crouch. Why? They are the cleanest ones compared to having to seat in a very dirty looking WC!

  17. This is a superb post. Funny, yet really informative. I agree. Mopeds really can carry anything. ;P

  18. I enjoyed reading this and you really hit the nail on the head. Going by my recent experiences there, and the wonderful smiles we got from the people (particularly the children), I would add #27 You can still be happy even if you’re poor.

  19. haha funny post! I remember when I was over there, there was a black guy wearing a kobe bryant jersey and everyone ran up to him taking pictures because they thought he was actually Kobe!!

  20. This is an awesome post with some great tips especially given that we are considering hitting up SE Asia for the first time at the end of 2014 when we are planning a trip there along with then heading down to the Land of Oz and New Zealand.

  21. Wow, so many things I did not think about. But I must say fake is not fine. Damn that kae trade.

  22. What a great list!! I totally agree with #6!! I always dine where the locals eat in Thailand. If there is a crowd of happy customers, then it must be good!!

  23. Love this post! I’m heading to SEA for the first time in November so I really enjoyed reading this 🙂

  24. I so hate fisherman pants! I have never got the appeal of them at all lol.

    I heard a joke when I was in Honduras that I thought of when reading this – How many Hondurans fit in a pick up truck? Always one more!!! You can apply that to so many countries and forms of transportation around the world!!

  25. As I read this I am sitting in a hotel room in Cambodia and nodding realising every word you say is true. I have shared this on our page as I wish I had thought to explain things like you have. Safe travels

  26. I really enjoyed reading your post. Great comments and thoughts – love the comment about travellers v tourists! and sometimes there is nothing wrong with eating something familiar! 🙂

  27. I know it sounds bizarre, but I felt oddly at home reading this. And I’m from SYDNEY!

    Milksnake – yes I’ve heard of those. We also have Narls Bars for the ladies and be careful what you ask for when you want a brow wax.

    Geez I miss SE Asia and all the mystery that comes along with it!

  28. “nothing is too big to be carried by a moped” applies to south america, too. Haha.

  29. Geez! I just read through each point nodding and saying “Exactly!” to myself :))

    “I’m Famous” – it gotten so absurdish with me in India when I was surrounded with a group of like 30 locals demanding photos. I couldn’t see much for the Red Fort in Delhi, because of the crowd following each my step and snapping cameras. That felt really odd.

    “They Can Really Over Do It With The Air Conditioning” – so yes! I’ve caught a nasty cold on a flight from Manado to Jakarta, because it was just frezing in the salon. Around +14. As the flight attendant explained, it was done, so that the locals didn’t get sick while flying…

  30. I LOVE, love, LOVE your list!! Each and every thing you say is so true. I think these things are what make us travelers just adore being in SE Asia though. The point on making us cheapskates is so true, it is so hard to move on to a new area where things are priced higher after spending months in SE Asia! Talk about sticker shock.

  31. have to agree with everything… You have made a list of daily routines we see in our every day life 🙂

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