Southeast Asia is one of the places where you arrive and immediately feel overwhelmed. People tell me they could never live the way I have for the last year, backpacking in Southeast Asia without the comforts of home. It’s definitely an experience, but if you learn to open your mind to everything, it makes one hell of a trip. Here are 14 things you are bound to do while you travel in Southeast Asia…
Leave your comfort zone
Traveling from a western country to Asia is bound to lead to some kind of culture shock. Whether you’re trying new foods, experiencing the culture, or just walking down a street in Asia, it’s all a grand adventure. Not only will you experience a touch of culture shock, but you’ll also be given the opportunity to try new things at a fraction of the price back home. While in Southeast Asia, I got to go bungee jumping, trekking, zip-lining, spelunking, scuba diving, paragliding, and more.There’s never a shortage of crazy things to try in Asia.
Be charmed by smiles
Coming from New York City where you never even look at strangers, this was such a welcome surprise. In Southeast Asia, I was smothered with kindness. Locals stopped and smiled at me. They asked where I was from. They’d help me when I was lost without asking for anything in return. I was offered tea in small villages. I met locals from cities and from rural areas. Everywhere I went, I was met with warm smiles and positive vibes.
Get an adrenaline rush crossing the street
There’s a funny saying in Vietnam. If you want to cross the street, just close your eyes and start walking. The idea is that if you go and don’t stop, bikes will maneuver around you. When my mom came to visit me in Indonesia, I had to grab her hand and yell run every time we crossed the street. After a week, she was practically a local, jumping in front of bikes and putting her hand in a stop position. In Vietnam, my friends and I yelled, “sticky rice” whenever it was time to cross to ensure we all jumped off the curb at the same time. Now, whenever someone asks if I’m scared to travel alone in Southeast Asia, I explain that the most dangerous thing is crossing the street.
Be a millionaire at least once
I was lucky enough to feel like a millionaire a few times. In Myanmar and Nepal, I had to take thousands out of the ATM because of the exchange rate. In Vietnam, I’d have to take out at least 2 million dong just to get through a few days. I have to say, the first time you type 1,000,000 into an ATM it feels like you’re about to have a panic attack or get robbed immediately. At the same time, it feels pretty awesome to roll around in money. Not that I’ve done that or anything *cough* in Myanmar *cough*
Feel slightly famous
People in Asia love taking photos with tourists. I don’t know why, but even if they don’t know you, they’ll want a photo. This happened to me the most in Myanmar. Every time I stepped foot outside it was time for a photoshoot. Me and some friends actually got stuck at the top of a pagoda taking family portraits for over an hour. My face started twitching from smiling for too long. I had a similar experience in India and Nepal. On the bright side, you get a chance to meet some cool locals, and it’s always funny to get to know someone after taking a hundred selfies together.
Learn to fall asleep anywhere
I used to be a light sleeper. A room had to be super dark for me to fall asleep, and I could never sleep in a moving vehicle. After a few months in Asia, I learned to sleep anywhere. I’ve slept in hostels with people getting up at all hours of the night and in cars on unpaved roads. I even slept through two small earthquakes in Nepal. I can sleep during the day, in the middle of a party, or on a piece of concrete with a wood pillow. Even roosters and barking dogs don’t wake me up anymore.
Learn NOT to be a backseat driver
Roads in Southeast Asia are an adventure in themselves. My top three car rides are 1. The road to Pai in Northern Thailand 2. The road from Bagan to Kalaw in Myanmar and 3. the road from Cochin to Munnar in India. I realized quickly that people in Southeast Asia drive in the middle of the road unless another car is coming. They honk instead of signaling and drive like they are constantly playing a game of chicken. The roads wind back and forth through hairpin turns and are only wide enough for one car even though they have two way traffic. Letting go of control can be hard, but in a car in Southeast Asia, you really don’t have a choice. Now, I just trust that I’ll make it wherever I’m going, and I try not to look out the front window.
Turn down at least 10 tuk-tuks, taxis, or motorbikes a day
This might not be the most fun on the list, but it’ll give you a reason to learn the word “no” in just about every language. If you don’t hear “Tuk-tuk? tuk-tuk? tuk-tuk?” at least 10 times a day, you’re not really in Asia. Also, riding in a tuk-tuk is quite the adventure. I even went off roading in one in Cambodia and got stuck in a mud puddle. Luckily, two locals helped free us from the muddy depths.
Learn to appreciate the little things
I swear, I’ll never take things for granted again. Drinking water from the tap is like a small miracle. Hot water in every shower, AMAZING. On high altitude treks in Nepal and Indonesia, I learned to appreciate oxygen. OXYGEN! And toilet paper. Don’t even get me started on toilet paper. It’s everywhere in the U.S. as if little elves replace it when no one is looking. Pure magic.
Learn to laugh when someone says, “Same, same, but different”
There’s a famous saying in Southeast Asia. “Same, same, but different.” It cracked me up when I would order food and get something totally different. “Same, same, but different.” My friends and I stayed on a cruise that was advertised as luxury, but ended up being below average. Therefore, we started saying this famous saying for everything.
One day, I was drying a pair of pants on the back of my backpack after going kayaking. My friend bumped into me and made an ewww sound. I asked if she bumped into my wet pants, and her reply was, “No, Pat tried to kiss me!” …”Same, same, but different.” You’ll learn to embrace this saying and just about every mishap that happens in Asia. Trust me, there’ll be more than a few.
Eat things you don’t recognize, or worse… you do
Sometimes you’ll order something without really knowing what it is. Sometimes it will turn out to be coagulated blood in soup. That may or may not have happened in a food stall in Cambodia. Some days you’ll order something weird, knowing it’s weird. Like a tarantula. Another delicacy of Cambodia. Turns out, I don’t like deep fried spider. Who knew?
Learn to love the bum gun
A “bum gun” is the term used to describe the small hose you’ll find next to toilets in Asia. Kind of like an inexpensive bidet, it allows you to wash off without the use of toilet paper. To this day, I am still trying to figure out how you dry off after using one, but I have to say, the bum gun is kind of nice. I was terrified to use it at first, but when you find yourself without toilet paper, it’s a savior. Plus, it helps the environment by saving trees.
Accept the unexplainable
At some point in your travels, people will tell you things that just won’t make sense to you. There have been times when I’ve learned to accept what I’m told and not ask questions. For instance, there are eight days in a week in Myanmar. Wednesday counts twice. In Nepal, it’s currently the year 2074. Sometimes, you just have to embrace the unexplainable.
Not want to leave
At the end of the day, you’ll learn to love all the quirky things that used to confuse you. Crossing the street will be like a real life game of Frogger. You’ll start smiling at strangers and starting conversations with everyone you make contact with. You’ll find yourself justifying things as being the “same, same, but different.” I bet you’ll even crave a tarantula when you’re hungry. Just kidding. Falling in love with Southeast Asia is easy. Once you let go and embrace the madness, you’ll never want to leave.
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Michelle Della Giovanna
Writer at Full Time Explorer
I’m just your average New Yorker who quit her job in the fashion industry to explore the world. Come find out what it’s like to trade in five-inch heels for squat toilets.