When I first went to Southeast Asia on a whim, I had only briefly browsed articles about the countries I was planning to visit. Nothing could have prepared me for what I experienced. A completely different world was opening up to me and, with it, a few culture shocks.

Culture shocks experienced

1. Kindness

Locals waving in Southeast Asia

My first trip in Southeast Asia taught me a lot and I mean a LOT. And one of the things that I always remember, recount or look forward to is the kindness of the locals.
I’ve never seen such selfless people who don’t have much but are willing to give you everything.
Whether they telling you about their lives, the history of their country or inviting you to sleep at their place when you’re stuck in the rain at night, their generosity is not myth.

I’d heard about it before I landed, of course, but I was surprised to experience it for myself.

2. Bargaining

As this trip was all about new experiences, I wasn’t disappointed. Haggling was another new and really confusing experience for me. By this I mean that I’m really bad at it and it was difficult for me to try to negotiate.
Fortunately, some local friends taught me the “rules”: pretend to walk away, ask for half the price and negotiate from there, use the local language (even if it’s only a few words)…
I have to admit, I’m still pretty bad at this!

In Southeast Asia, you can negotiate just about anything (food, clothes, gifts…).
That’s not to say you’ll get the same price as the locals, but I get it and it seems fair enough.

3. Do not touch the top of people’s head

One of my Laotian friends taught me this when talking about culture, history and traditions.
The head is a sacred place, since it is the highest and holiest part of the body.
The feet, on the other hand, are the dirtiest part, as they touch the ground. You shouldn’t point them at anyone, and showing the bottom of your feet is considered disrespectful.

4. Unusual food

Insects in a market in Southeast Asia

Don’t get me wrong, the street food in Southeast Asia is the best there is but you can sometimes come across some weird and surprising dishes.
Scorpions, spiders, grasshoppers, silkworms…, there’s something for everyone.
Although disconcerting at first, give it a try – it’s not as bad as you think!

5. Traffic

WOW was the first word out of my mouth when I saw the madness of traffic, especially in big cities.

Fun fact: some places like Bali don’t really have traffic laws, it’s more about knowing how to avoid others while driving safely.

One of my fondest memories is trying to cross the street, especially in parts of Ho Chi Minh City….
Once you’ve got the hang of it, you feel like a superhero!
Just don’t stop, walk at a steady pace, always keep an eye on the traffic and have confidence in yourself.
They really know how to avoid pedestrians and are more careful than they look, so you’ll be fine!

6. Spitting in the street

This one was pretty gross, but hey, it’s just a way to clean your body and it’s normal. Everyone does it, from the young to the old. I guess it just takes some getting used to, and soon we’ll be laughing about it.

Another fun fact: in many Asian cultures, sneezing or blowing your nose is considered unpleasant. I guess it all depends on your culture and opinions.

7. Sleeper buses/trains

Sleeper bus in culture shock post
Photo by Hobi industri on Unsplash

I loved taking the buses to get from one place to another, and sometimes chose the overnight ones to sleep and save a night in a hostel. They’re cheap and quite comfortable (even the basic ones, provided you’re not too tall…, glad I’m on the small side here! !!).

There are downsides though, everything will be fine as long as you don’t use the bathroom inside the bus, which isn’t usually the cleanest you’ll see.
What’s more, they often arrive much earlier than expected, sometimes 3 hours before the scheduled time, which can leave you stranded on the street in the middle of the night.

Night trains, on the other hand, are better, as they usually arrive on time and are just as comfortable as buses. In Thailand, you can even – for some of them – choose a women-only carriage, which is safer for women traveling alone.

8. Restrooms

At times only consisting of a hole in the ground, it makes for a whole new way of experiencing going to the restrooms.
I hope you practiced your squats because you’ll need some strength in your thighs to go to the toilet.
And don’t forget that you should not flush your toilet paper or you’ll block the drain. Nobody wants that, right?!?

9. Money

As a Westerner, I wasn’t really used to having money on me. At first, I felt like a piggy bank when I walked around, and I didn’t feel comfortable having money on me.

You will find places, especially in capitals, that accept credit cards but if you venture more on the countryside, you will definitely need cash.

10. The noise

Tuk tuks, cars, motorcycles… It was pretty impressive to be surrounded by so many people.
It’s a whole new world where honking is kind of a thing to do. They don’t do it because someone’s blocking traffic, they do it mainly to show that they’re there.
It makes sense, since the rules of the road aren’t really defined, and it makes for lively, rhythmic music!

And I’d rather hear them in Southeast Asia than in my own country, where people only honk when they’re angry.

Final thoughts

In the end, culture shocks or not, traveling in Southeast Asia was an eye-opener. It has allowed me to discover countries with rich histories and cultures, to meet people as extraordinary as they are welcoming, and above all, it made me grow a lot.

Keep in mind that you should always be respectful and find out about the habits and customs of the country you’re traveling in beforehand. And I guarantee you’ll fall in love with Southeast Asia too!

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