*Just a disclaimer: I’ve edited this post while slightly tipsy on the bf’s home brew, so I am not responsible for any errors that happen below. Also, isn’t it amazing that we can make alcohol out of living organisms? That puts my sourdough starter to shame.
I’ve traveled a fair bit over the last few years. I’ve lived abroad in France, trotted around Europe and North America, but Southeast Asia was another kettle of fish entirely. And the thing is, Southeast Asia is one of the easiest areas of the world for travelers. There’s a learning curve everywhere you go, sure. But there are cultural differences that I couldn’t have anticipated, ones that made me more than a scosh paranoid in the moment.
This is what you can expect may make your uninitiated, weird westerner mind leery from a first-time foray on the ground in Cambodia and Thailand.
Paying upfront in cash
I’m big into cash on delivery. Or even the power struggle of holding cash in one hand and presenting the other hand for the goods. Then when each person involved in the transaction has a good grip on each, we tussle for who will let go of their half first.
Just kidding. I don’t live in a mob movie.
But still, to hand over my hard-earned cold, hard cash without knowing that the other person will hold up their end of the bargain—like giving me my food or dress or hotel room—that’s some serious trust. That pretty much sums up traveling in Asia: trust.
Paying in cash, period.
My generation apparently isn’t very well-suited to living with cash. At least that’s what this New Yorker article says, since we’re apparently moving away from a world of paper money and into a plastic future.
And this makes sense—the savings advice that recommends only using cash in order to keep from overspending has never resonated with me. To me, cash is the stuff that sometimes you have to have in your wallet when businesses don’t accept anything else, but is usually an annoying liability. Credit is more secure, gains rewards, and is easier to track.
So going to Asia was a bit of an adjustment. Whether Baht in Thailand or US Dollars in Cambodia, cash is king over my beloved credit. Which is why I have no idea what I spent my money on while I was there. I’m not used to having to remember to stop at the ATM so often, either. I did get adjusted, but my budgeting skills are much better suited to a monthly statement.
Handing my unlocked phone to a stranger
This is a thing that I just would never ever ever do in my normal life. I hesitate handing my unlocked phone to people I have known for YEARS. This may be because I have friends who will eagerly spam my Facebook info if I let my guard down, but still.
So to pass my unprotected phone across a glass barrier to strangers who are messing around with the settings where I can’t see it, now that made me go a little insane. What are they doing to it? What are they looking at? Why is this taking so long?
But here’s the thing: yes, my life is on that device. Directions, passwords, bank accounts, photos. But if something happened, how quickly could I contact my banks and change the most important passwords? Probably pretty quickly. And how much do I need a SIM card? Well, rather urgently. I am dependent on data for its life-giving properties, after all.
Sometimes I need directions, and the bus driver or tuk tuk driver is the only person to ask. Since I can’t describe where I need to go, the only thing for it is to pass over my phone with the address loaded into Google Maps.
So while it made me cringe in the moment, maybe it was ultimately good for me to have to hand over my phone and take a deep breath. At least, it seemed worth it at the time. Maybe I should go call my bank…
Crossing the road
Here is how to cross the street in Cambodia:
Step 1: Wait for the constant stream of cars and motos to briefly reduce to an intermittent stream.
Step 2: Start walking quickly
Step 3: Hope that the cars will part and go around you rather than leaving you reduced to a smashed stain on the pavement.
This isn’t so bad. It’s the same way to cross the street in Rome, and it’s how I cross the street most often at home. Still, it just feels more intense in a country that doesn’t really have stoplights or any traffic laws that I can pick up on.
At the same time, I guess I’m still alive. So that’s positive!
People hollering at you on the street
As a passive-aggressive Pacific Northwesterner raised by a mother with a New Yorker mentality, people talking to me on the streets makes me very uncomfortable. “That’s not how this is supposed to work!” my misanthropic brain screams. “I am supposed to be in my bubble of silence and anonymity.” Ha, silly brain. That’s not how Asia works.
Every store and stall and stand you pass comes with the sales call from staff. “Sir, lady, good food here.”
“Scarves, you want scarves? Elephant print!”
The barrage is constant, and it doesn’t end when you politely decline. I’m good with the silent, head-forward, ignore method. But it’s hard when you don’t want to culturally step on any toes. It’s also hard when you’re traveling with an aggressively polite person who finds it very difficult to look straight ahead and be silent when people are addressing him directly.
But to be honest, it doesn’t bother me anymore. It’s now just a part of the soundscape of Asia, one that can take me back to that moment quicker than blinking.