I’ve had the pleasure of traveling throughout most of Southeast Asia. A vibrant and diverse land of friendly people, delicious cuisine, beautiful temples, and dizzying markets, it has been much exoticized yet still feels strikingly familiar at moments. After much reflection, I want to share the main lessons that I’ve learned from my explorations, because approaching any new culture with an open mind will make your travels infinitely more rewarding.
1. When bargaining in markets, always do so with a smile and a light heart. While you may be asked to pay twice the actual price of the product, step back and remember that the difference between 20,000 dong and 10,000 dong is actually only 50 cents, and isn’t it better to leave the vendor with a feeling of having had a good human interaction, than change in your pocket worth 1/10 of a Starbucks latte?
2. Museums may be lovely, but sometimes in order to really get to know the culture and the people, you should ditch the official government-promoted tourist stops and instead simply wander the streets, taking in the local smells, sounds, and sights with your own senses. How else would you find that roadside vendor selling steaming bowls of pho in the Old Quarter of Hanoi, or stumbled across a café in a floating village on Bintan island, outside of the resorts area?
3. Talk to all sorts of people. Young, old, foreign, local. The bookshop owner in Yangon who has been in business for 37 years, selling books that used to be banned in Myanmar. The Cambodian tuk tuk driver whose parents were murdered in the genocide under the Pol Pot regime. The intrepid Burmese woman who moved to the city to start a guesthouse and now has a world of friends. Everyone has a life that twists and turns, made up of the most incredible stories, yet somehow grounded on a familiar basis.
4. Try foods at local and unpretentious places, not only the dressed up and gaudy establishments that cater to tourists. When I went to Hanoi, we followed our eyes and noses, plopping down at crowded roadside congregations of stools, slurping down steaming bowls of pho with thin slices of fatty beef in a fragrant clear broth. Some of the most delicious food ends up being the simplest and cheapest. One caveat – always be aware of food hygiene concerns in the country.
5. It’s a trite but true saying: the best-laid plans go to waste. I find myself learning this over and over again. As much as you want to plan out your days perfectly so you can see everything and do everything, life will get in the way. Sometimes, it is for the worst: missing out on the last day in Yangon due to a sudden and severe case of food poisoning. Sometimes, it can be for the better: a traffic jam alongside the river in Phnom Penh leads to a perfect view of the fireworks celebrating Independence Day. Be flexible, be spontaneous, and always look on the bright side.
6. In sum, be humble. Don’t be that tourist that barges in and assumes knowledge of the history and culture of the place. Don’t expect people to all exist to be at your service. Go in with an open mind, understanding that we all carry the biases and peculiarities of our nations and their histories. Let go of your expectations each bright morning as you enter the streets, and watch the day unfold in the most unexpected ways.