Vibrant, colorful, exotic, and bustling with activity, Asia makes for an exciting travel destination if you’re looking for something a little different to your typical vacation and you want to give yourself the opportunity to venture outside of your comfort zone.
The important thing about traveling to Asia is to go with an open mind and embrace the new experiences as an opportunity to learn about another culture.
Granted, Asia is a huge continent and we cannot generalize all of the subcultures within it as being the same, but there are some similarities that you can expect to find in the majority of the countries which we have detailed below, to help to prepare you for your trip.
Street Food is King
A major highlight of Asia is the diverse variety of food and the countless markets and street food vendors that occupy the roadsides.
You will find foods that employ an array of spices and flavors that are completely different to anything you have tried at home. If you are new to traveling in Asia, it’s understandable that you may be nervous about the safety and hygiene of eating from a food cart but if you follow basic common sense then you will be ok – never eat meats that have been sitting out, and check that there are no flies around the stand. You can find some of the tastiest (and cheapest) delicacies from street food vendors, and experimenting with local delicacies is a great part of the travel experience.
Sharing Food Culture
At home when you go out to a restaurant, you’ll each order your own meals and stick to what you’ve got, perhaps glaring over to other people’s plates with food envy as you wish that you had ordered the prime rib instead of the Caprese salad. In Asia, there’ll be no food envy since you order a range of foods for your table and all dig in and share from the same plate. There’s no need to worry about hygiene as you’ll find that even when sharing with new local friends, people are typically pretty respectful about not putting a utensil in their mouth and then back on the plate.
Differences in What Constitutes Being “Polite”
Read up on the local customs of the particular destination before you go so as not to commit any cultural faux pas. For example, in the West we may greet new people with a handshake; in the Far East, this is replaced with a bow. In Thailand, “thank you” is gestured by putting palms together and a slight bow of the head, and in India, pretty much everything you ever learned about queuing etiquette and manners in the West goes out of the window!
Step aside knife and fork, you’ve been replaced with more adventurous options!
The main utensil that springs to mind when you think of Asia is the chopstick, and indeed this is used throughout the majority of East and Southeast Asian countries. If you struggle with this, most places will also have western cutlery that you can ask for instead, although it may not be appropriate for whatever dish you are eating (think being offered simply a spoon in order to eat a plate of meat!). Practice makes perfect and it’s quite fun to try! We recommend at least giving it a go once or twice during your trip. Who knows, you might become an expert!
Countries like India, Nepal and Sri Lanka are a little different. Don’t be alarmed if you visit a restaurant and they don’t give you anything to eat with – eating with your hands is commonplace here. Most dishes are rice based so the trick is to scoop up a little ball of rice with your hand and then venture to the messier section (sauces/curries) and top up the rice with that so as to minimize the mess. Wet wipes, tissues and hand sanitizer will be a welcome addition to your handbag here.
Chances are, you’re going to look pretty different to most of the people you encounter in Asia so don’t be alarmed if you find people starting, or coming over to say hello then running away and giggling. This simply happens because you are so different and interesting to them. Many people in these countries will have never seen a western person before…. Think of it like if you were out at the grocery store doing your weekly shop and you saw someone that was bright blue – you’d be looking on in fascination too, right? Stares are never negative and after a while, you probably won’t even notice.
A Difference in What Constitutes “Organised”
In the West, if you are catching a train that leaves at 3.30, you expect it to be rolling out of the station at 3.30, give or take the occasional minor issues.
In India and Southeast Asia, think of the schedule as more of an “indicative guide” so remember to pack your patience in your suitcase along with your sun cream. People may have more of a laid back approach to timings and it may all seem a little hectic at first, but go with it.
Bathroom Etiquette & The Squat Toilet
This is something that is pretty consistent throughout Asia, though understandably one significant variable is the hygiene standards and bathroom conditions carried by each country. A squat toilet is essentially a hole in the ground. The cubicles are not so pleasant so watch your step. People are often concerned about squat toilets and worry that they will be difficult to use but they are fine – just position your legs either side of the hole and squat like you’re doing a workout. Always carry toilet roll and hand sanitizer with you as they are rare finds. In fact, when you stumble upon a bathroom that actually has toilet paper you’ll feel so excited that it’ll be like you’ve discovered the holy grail.
When you are exploring exotic locations, you may find that there are some aspects of the culture that you don’t like, or can’t identify with, and some which you wish were commonplace back at home. The important thing to remember is that you are a guest in this country and this is only temporary, so even if you don’t resonate with something completely, you know that it is only for a short time until you go back to you own culture and customs and that this is an opportunity to learn about something new.