16 Oddball Observations from Traveling in Southeast Asia

SOMEWHERE IN SOUTHEAST ASIA- I was cleaning out some old papers today, and found a whole bunch of scribbles from a trip through Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand...a smattering of destinations, each with distinct cultural traits of their own, that we Westerners collectively refer to as Southeast Asia. None of this stuff was substantial enough for a feature-length article, but meshed together they become ...16 Oddball Observations from Traveling in Southeast Asia. Enjoy.

1) Try to eat vegetarian when you can. It's cheaper, it's food that you're familiar with, and it's less likely to make you, well, shit yourself.


2) With that being said, try the frog porridge if you have the chance. There are opportunities to eat things you've never dreamed of, and testing new local cuisine is all part of the experience. If you're lucky, you can even pick the frog you'd like in your porridge.


3) Driving in the West is a comforting, personal experience. In Southeast Asia, the open road affords you little personal space. Most people are on open-air motorbikes, snaking through traffic. The AC rarely works, so if you're in a car, the windows are down. Many cars aren't really cars, they're just motorbikes with extensions to carry enough people as a car. Everyone's restless, gesticulating and honking. There's far less privacy in Southeast Asia; commotion is the name of the game.

4) If you're driving a car or crossing a street, it's helpful to recognize that there is no distinction between foot traffic and road traffic. Motorbikes will drive on the sidewalk, people will ignore stoplights, and the rules of the road as we're familiar with them in the West simply don't apply. A cow might have the right of way. Beware.


5) The smell of burning trash is pervasive. You won't get used to it, and you might resent it. You won't forget it, and you will certainly never like it. But remember, many third-world countries lack the first-rate infrastructure that we are used to in order to dispose of their waste. It might be harmful to the environment to burn it at a street corner, but for them, there are few other options. Be considerate, and remember that we have street sweepers in New York. Those are pretty disgusting as well.

6) When traveling in the first world, one of the first phrases you'll learn in a new language is how to say "One beer, please." Ein bier, bitte...uno birre, per favore...una cerveza, por favor. In Europe, you've got to know how to order a beer at a bar. Everyone will speak English after that. When traveling in the third world, it's of the utmost importance to learn how to say "No, thank you" to the dozens of people that will endlessly solicit you to take their taxi, give them money, buy their fruit, or engage them in conversation as you walk down the street. Knowing how to politely decline in the local dialect is paramount.

7) That being said, understand that travelers such as yourself are an important stimulus to the local economy, and many people rely on your dollars to fund their businesses. I got a bit of this perspective when a young Cambodian tuk-tuk driver thanked me for giving him a job after I hailed him for a ride. I did not, however, "give a job" to the off-duty army compound he drove me to, which offered me the chance to fire a grenade launcher for $300. No joke.


8) You'll learn to appreciate the basic education we're given. Oscar, from Borneo, didn't know that London was in England. He was shocked to find out that the two places were so closely related. Khairol, also from Borneo, was asked if his name was pronounced like the Egyptian city, Cairo. He had no idea what we were talking about. Cairo? Never heard of it. A tour guide in Vietnam dutifully informed the crowd, in a summary of events leading up to the Vietnam War, that President Jacksonhower was assassinated on October 22. It took a great deal of restraint to not correct him in front of a large group of foreigners. President Jacksonhower?

9) You will appreciate a good shower, but you'll also feel like Buddy the Elf when you make it there. Everything is designed for folks smaller than you are.

10) Wear shoes to the toilet, wherever you are going. There's likely to be water on the floor, and the toilet might mean squatting over a small hole in the ground. You'll be grateful you don't have to stand in it. You'll never have a problem with a bathroom at Starbucks again, ever.

11) While we're at it, bring your own toilet paper with you, or at the very least, a small pack of tissues. Just do it.

12) Pack plastic shopping bags for your trip. You'll likely need them to dispose of trash, since there are few public wastebaskets. It's not like Disney World, where cans are placed every hundred feet. Remember, they burn their trash here. That's how that situation is handled.


13) You'll begin to appreciate the amenities we have in the first world. Sometimes the heat becomes so unbearable that you can't believe people sit in the shade and fan themselves. It's hard to fathom how a disadvantaged student can concentrate on studying to become a doctor or a lawyer under these conditions, without a comfortable environment to focus. Air conditioning is a modern miracle; few of us would have graduated from high school without it.

14) You'll realize that many people engage in physical labor on a daily basis. Whether it's farming, construction work, or food preparation, people are constantly moving. Many people don't have enough to eat. In our society, we go jogging for the sole purpose of exercising to lose weight. We have enough to eat...that we actively need to work...to burn off the extra calories from all the food that we can eat. This is a first-world conundrum, most other people in the world simply exercise as a part of their daily lives...because they have to. We're spoiled.

15) There's a noble focus on community that comes with having less money and opportunity, and at times we'd benefit from engaging a little bit more with those around us. Sure, in the end the locals are likely solicitous of your tourist dollars, but by and large they are friendly and welcoming. At home they rely on each other, as travelers will tend to do with each other. Abide by the golden rule in life, learned from my high school wrestling coach: Don't be a dick.


16) Any time we think that we are doing things the right way and look down upon another, less prosperous culture, it's worth it to remember that far less than half of the world lives at the standard that we do. Probably far less than that. So while traveling around Southeast Asia gives you the opportunity to do things you might not be able to afford back home, remember that these places are where all of your clothes are made, and that you are the one benefitting from their astoundingly low standard of comparative living.