I’ve been fortunate enough to travel quite extensively from a young age. I’ve hopped the globe with family, friends, in tour groups and solo for both work and pleasure.
I love meeting people from different cultures, observing how they experience the world and adapt to its challenges. And, after many trips, I’ve realised one of the responsibilities I have as a traveller is understanding the destination I am travelling to.
Asia is the largest continent on Earth and for someone who calls Australia home it’s a fascinating neighbour, but it can also be a baffling place. Several trips spent navigating Asia’s foreign customs have transitioned me from a rookie tourist to responsible traveller. So, to help out first time Asia travellers, I want to share some of the biggest lessons I’ve learned.
Do your pre-trip research
Everyone has made a rookie travel mistake that could have been avoided with a quick Google search. Thanks to my mother, who ignored my teenage complaints of how unattractive I would look in photos, I’ve always been taught to dress conservatively when visiting holy temples and sacred forts.
But, as a young solo traveller, I created many awkward situations through my lack of research and awareness. I’ve forgotten to remove my shoes when walking into a family home in Malaysia, tried to shake hands in India, and walked through a Hanoi marketplace with my headphones in, which was considered rude by friendly locals who love to start a conversation with foreigners. Once embarrassment has passed, errors like these are fascinating in their teachings of how wonderfully diverse and rich our world is. Failed handshake attempts uncovered my love for greeting locals with hands in prayer and a gentle bow of the head.
Learn basic phrases in the local language
In the past, I’ve taken for granted that English is my first language. As one of the most widely spoken dialects I expected people to speak and understand it wherever I went. Despite this being true to some degree, in many countries I have visited it’s not a reasonable expectation to have. Nowadays I always learn the basics: “Please”, “Thank you”, “can I have…”, “where is the…”. The phrases may roll ungracefully off my tongue I’ve always found locals to take my attempts, as a token of respect.
Make an effort to understand the culture
Once I’ve educated myself about etiquette, language and dress code, I like to have a basic understanding of social or political challenges faced by communities, so I can be mindful of these when I visit. For example, if a community is fighting a war against plastic pollution, I’ll make sure I’ve packed my reusable bottle, shopping bags and Keep Cup so I am not contributing to the problem.
Understanding the cultural nuances of where you are going will reduce potential frustrations of cultural difference and allow for stronger connections with the people you interact with. It’s really rewarding to see how things change when you make the effort to understand the history, traditions and challenges faced by those around you.
Behave like a traveller, not a tourist
A recent trip to India helped me graduate from a tourist to traveller. Due to both intrigue and a desire to understand the chaos I anticipated, I made sure I understood Indian culture before I left. Some of the things that I learned that helped me connect with the locals were:
Do: Address strangers as Sir or Miss, dress conservatively and ask permission before taking photos of people.
Don’t: Eat or pass objects with your left hand, point at people, show public displays of affection, accuse others of ripping you off, ask shopkeepers “to hurry up” or be impatient (as India has its own concept of time).
I packed consciously, aware that India is a country of many faiths. While my modest attire was respectful of religious customs, India taught me that there is always more to learn. My black shawl may have covered my chest and shoulders but in Rajasthan where everyone wears bright colours, I was asked more than once whose death I was mourning. By no means do I believe I’ve aced the test of navigating different cultures, but I do feel I’m doing a much better job.
One of the many things I love about international travel is the way it challenges me. I think it’s important to open yourself up to unfamiliar situations so you can learn to make the most of them while you navigate your way through. Asia will provide you with plenty of these. It will allow you to discover that there is so much more to the world than what exists within the borders of your own country. And that’s a beautiful thing.
Do you want to immerse yourself in the vibrant range of cultures in Asia? On an Intrepid trip, you’ll have a leader that is local to the destination to help you navigate local traditions and etiquette. Book your place on a small group tour in Asia and experience it for yourself.
Hero image by Mirae Campbell.