10 Things I Didn’t Know Until I Came to Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia has a learning curve. Being here for an extended period of time has educated our family on everything from transportation to hygiene practices. We’ve not only adapted to the ways of the local culture, but we’ve also learned a few things we’d like to change about ourselves.

Small town traffic can be crazier than big city traffic
In cities like Bangkok, stoplights and sometimes police officers direct the mass of traffic with precision. Small towns in Southeast Asia are a very different story. The rules of the road are minimal, or at least not well enforced. As lumbering behemoths in a river of swarming bicycles and motorbikes, the big cars and trucks slowly push their way through intersections without stopping. Bikes and tuk tuks turn into oncoming traffic and eventually slide over to the correct lane. Vendors with push carts bravely step into the mob, methodically making their way across the mayhem and getting to the other side miraculously unscathed. Standing at a busy intersection at rush hour in a small town is like watching a mob of ants. There’s seemingly no rhyme or reason to the chaos, and yet somehow it’s highly functional.

Pedestrians are invisible
In Europe and other parts of the world, cars screech to a halt in order to yield for pedestrians. People often don’t even look before walking across a street because they know every vehicle will most certainly stop for them. If you came to Southeast Asia with this idea of pedestrian right-of-way, you’d quickly be dead. Crossing a street here often feels like we’ve walked into a game of Frogger. Remember that old school video game where the frog hops from log to log? That’s us. Take three steps, wait for a scooter coming from the left. Take two steps, wait for a line of tuk tuks coming from the right. Your job as a pedestrian is to GET OUT OF THE WAY at all times.

Sidewalks are for parking
This unusual use of sidewalks wouldn’t be that big of a deal were it not for the whole “pedestrians are invisible” thing and the “small town scary traffic” thing. I have yet to go for a relaxing stroll through a Southeast Asian town.
Sidewalks as parking lots

What it’s like to be photographed by strangers
A family of tall, blonde people attracts a lot of attention in Southeast Asia, especially in areas heavily populated with tourists. It’s become completely normal to have strangers take our photo. Sometimes we catch them snapping their cameras at us from afar. Other times we wind up posing and smiling with random people. Most often this occurs when we’re attempting to take our own family photos and then someone jumps in the picture with us. It can even escalate to a full-blown photo shoot, with a tour group cycling through a dozen different cameras and position changes. It’s been a bizarre experience which has given us a tiny glimpse into what the life of famous people must be like. I have to say, I feel a little sorry for them.
Papparrazzi in Cambodia
Getting used to the papparazzi

Never take the first price
I can already see the scenario unfold the next time I go to an American mall. I’ll be standing there looking at a sweater I don’t need, and the sales associate will walk up and ask “Would you like to try that on?” I’ll inquire about the cost of this unneeded sweater, and no matter what price she gives me I’ll raise my eyebrows, shake my head and start to walk away. Then I’ll get really confused when she doesn’t stop me and say, “Okay, okay, okay! For you, special price!”

The western world is deprived of good fruit
After spending the equivalent of $8 at the market, I leave with ripe mangoes, pineapple, oranges, dragonfruit, passion fruit, limes and bananas. Honestly, I don’t think our family has ever been healthier. Good, healthy fruit is cheap here. Processed snack foods are crazy expensive. Isn’t that the way it should be?

Expensive car seats are overkill
I’m certainly all for enclosed vehicles, seat belts and car seats. However, having now spent several months toting my kids around in rusted out mini-buses, tuk tuks, and pickup truck taxis, our western world obsession with buying expensive, state-of-the-art child restraint devices for our kids until they’re preteens seems a bit much. Seeing families with young children all squeezed onto scooters for their morning commutes makes it a little harder to drop $75 on a booster seat for my 9-nine-year-old. I still believe in car seats and seat belts, but I’ll be a little cynical the next time some consumer report lists the latest high-tech, super-expensive car seat that will supposedly save my child’s life better than the others.
Happy mom and kid

Flushing toilet paper has its downsides
I hate to go into “TMI” territory here, but Southeast Asia has a bathroom process which I hated at first. In most places you can’t flush the toilet paper. Instead, there’s a little sprayer near the toilet and you’re expected to freshen yourself up, use the toilet paper to dry off and then deposit said toilet paper into the trash can. This was not an easy adjustment, especially with kids. However, I’ve come to see the logic of it all. Want to know the number of times we’ve dealt with a stopped up toilet here? Zero! How often we had to hassle with that disgusting problem in the U.S.? Um, more than I’m willing to admit. Not to mention the fact, it does leave you feeling quite fresh and clean. (Sorry…I think I crossed that TMI line.)

We need to think about trash more
The western world does a better job of hiding the garbage we create for ourselves. Every Wednesday we’d pull our heavy duty container to the curb and by the time I came home from work that evening our week’s worth of rubbish had magically disappeared. In the developing countries of Southeast Asia, trash doesn’t make such an easy exit. Makeshift mini-dumps pop up along roadways and in alleys. It overflows out of public trash cans and blows along busy streets. This has been a poignant lesson. Just because we can’t see it in the western world, doesn’t mean the trash isn’t there. Looking at rotting rubbish on a daily basis has really made our family think more about how much of it we put into the world. Sure, I may be depositing this used yogurt cup into a trash can where it will get thrown out with all the other product packaging I bought this week, but then what? It doesn’t just disappear. Just because it’s out of sight doesn’t mean it should be out of mind. Our family will be cognizant of minimizing the trash we create from now on.

We don’t need all this space and stuff
A family of five can live in 600 feet of space. We don’t need kitchen gadgets and cute knickknacks to be happy. We’ve experienced life in smaller, simpler quarters and realized it actually makes so many aspects of day-to-day living much easier. Less to clean, less to organize, less to worry about breaking. Being here has led us to put the materialistic side of ourselves under some serious scrutiny. When the person living in a thatch roof shack without electricity or plumbing greets you with an enormous smile and corrects your math when you give him too much money for fruit, you can’t help but see the disconnect. It’s the outlook you possess not the things you possess which determines your happiness in life.

Southeast Asia has been an eye opening experience for our family these past few months. Some lessons, like the slightly frightening traffic encounters and our new negotiation skills, will only really serve us while we’re here. Others will change our behavior and the way we look at the world from now on.

About the Author

Mom, wife, friend and change agent traveling the world with my family to learn our place in it. After spending a career in organizational change management and community initiative implementation, I put my career on hold for our family's trip around the world. In April of 2014 we sold almost everything we own, put the rest in a storage container, and departed on this journey. While my husband continued his software development work to financially support our trip, I planned and documented our adventure, homeschooled our three daughters, and found volunteer work opportunities for us to do in the communities we visit. Now that we've returned to the U.S., I'm completing book about our family's adventure and our lessons learned.

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  1. It is fascinating to hear about your trip and all your adventures. We are friends of Jim and Mary McDonald so have an opportunity to hear about your trip and all the amazing cultures and people you are encountering. We are the parents of Molly Brady who lived in Bangkok for 3 and 1/2 years working on the avian flu. She went to Vietnam, Cambodia, Mongolia, China, Laos,Indonesia, India,and the Philippines. It was such a rich experience for her. We visited her twice and our son, Tom, went with us. It certainly was the trip of a lifetime. So, enjoy this marvelous time in your lives. Phil and Millie Brady

    1. Millie, so nice to hear from you. Yes, the cultures are so different and amazing. We travel to see new places, but what we continue to take away from our journey is the people we meet. From our experience last month the Khmer are some of the friendliest and happiest on earth.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment, sounds like your family was able to experience much of it as well.

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