Travelling in Southeast Asia can easily go from one tourist attraction to the next. Little excitement and little learned. For this reason I always promote local immersion and independent travel in Southeast Asia; getting off the backpacker trail to find your own unique and local experiences. Admittedly not easy with fresh eyes for the region but in reality local experiences are all around. The simplest way to find them is by avoiding tourist focused hospitality and to do as locals do. While it is normal to feel apprehensive and awkward in unfamiliar locations and situations it will likely only take a few small interactions before this apprehension fades. People are friendly here… far from scary. When travelling in Southeast Asia I often follow similar routine and route to finding local life. By doing so I create many of the most valuable experiences I have to date found travelling in Southeast Asia. Being slightly food and booze obsessed they do top my list.
Eating local tops my to-do-list at any destination. Find a bustling shophouse restaurant, order local food, maybe a beer then sit back and climatize. The simplest way to feel comfortable in new surroundings. Eating local doesn’t mean pestering locals for small talk just do as they do and more than likely you’ll go unnoticed. Shophouse restaurants tend to be busy from early breakfast coffee and tea through to the big beers at night. Locals join from all walks of life. Find a corner restaurant, over a busy street and people watch. Some of my most memorable and satisfying experiences when travelling in Southeast Asia were sat at a roadside, doing little, with not much happening.
Interactions with street food vendors while generally quick are some of the more valuable. It helps to be curious. Go see what they’re cooking, ask about it, buy some, taste some, onto the next. Not only are street food interactions fun and friendly but you get some top notch eating in return (here for our guide to eating street food). For those intimidated by street food the incidence of actual street food contamination is no higher than restaurant foods. The ‘squirts’ generally comes from water; ice-cubes, brushing teeth, water washed fruits and salads etc. For the past 2 years I’ve eaten street food on a daily basis and have NEVER had a problem. Street food is a must when travelling in Southeast Asia.
There are few quicker routes to immersion than boozing with locals. Of course the stronger the faster. I first found this in Bangkok where I inadvertently gained local street cred with my love for Yaa Dong street liquor; a potent concoction only visited by local labourers and the neighbourhood’s motorbike taxi drivers. I later found the same is true travelling all over Southeast Asia. If locals are boozing roadside I stop to investigate, from drinking Arak in Sri Lanka or Lao-Lao in Laos, I am always befriended with a free shots and muddled banter. This does go the same for bars and nightclubs but unless your willing to bash through unfamiliar doors these experiences will be not so different to the west.
Fresh markets are often the best place to find authentic local life but I know for many they are not overly exciting. This is why I piqued interest in cooking and I now even get excited about morning fresh markets. Cooking gives the purpose for being there; to poke around, pick fresh ingredients, interact with locals and learn the language. Food and eating always makes good conversation in Southeast a region where everyone appears to be food obsessed. If you fail to feign interest in fresh markets; night markets, while slightly touristy, also bring a youthful local life. They are a place where both cultures meet. Local students are often drawn to night markets looking for random, unsuspecting foreigners to practice English with. You’ll find night markets in most towns and cities when travelling in Southeast Asia.
While I skip on the beauty treatments there always comes the time for a haircut and these days I hold off until I travel. An hour, stuck in a chair, with a complete stranger… small talk and awkward chit-chat is guaranteed. The perfect time to be curious. Local barbers and hair dressers have little interaction with tourists and foreigners so they’re always happy and excited to share. Note 2 back and sides, short on top, appears to be universal with haircuts. For meeting locals the same goes for other beauty treatments, spas, massage, acupuncture, shaves, ear syringing…
I am mixed on taxi driver and tuk-tuk chit-chat. While easy to talk to the conversation is often pushed towards tourist and servicey topics (many working for commissions). It is best to take recommendations with a pinch of salt; living in Bangkok I’d never follow the recommendations of a taxi or tuk-tuk driver. If you choose to travel by taxi it is better to talk about local life, family, politics, whatever floats your boat. As with everywhere taxi drivers are clued up on most topics; my usual chit-chat following the line of food, booze and local markets. When Travelling in Southeast Asia the more valuable experiences I feel come from travel on public transport, learning the location instead of relying on others to cart you around. The benefits of independent travel.
The centre of local culture. While tourists flock to the more famous / extravagant temples I find the smaller localised temples to be more valuable. Admittedly there is rarely social interaction at temples but the scenes are undoubtedly rich in culture. To create better interaction look for donation points where ceremonial bits ‘n’ bobs are offered and ask someone to guide the process for making offerings. Don’t be hesitant to approach monks as they will be happy to chat; you are always welcome. Of course the same goes for churches and mosques in Southeast Asia.
They don’t happen often so make the most of them and try schedule your calendar in advance. Take in as many of the bigger festivals as you can as well as localised celebrations of your interest. Festivals in Southeast Asia are like big parties, cheerful, many with booze and with great social appeal. People will be happy and at times even honoured to share these customs with outsiders so don’t be shy to get close. I’ll get round to sharing the best of them soon, for now a few of the more popular festivals include Songkran (Thailand), Thaipusam (Malaysia) and Loy Krathong (Thailand).
Skip the hostels and hotels and instead opt for home stays or family run bed and breakfasts. If above the budget try couch surfing with locals. There are few better routes to meeting locals than staying with them. While I’ve never experienced home stays myself I am always looking for the opportunity (Fanfan needs her privacy) and promise to create one in the next year. With close friends and now family in Thailand I have found similar opportunities and experiences to immerse in local family life. These experiences are hard to beat when Travelling in Southeast Asia.
You will undoubtedly learn more from locals than you will by backpacker banter. With online social media (or even dating sites) meeting locals has become increasingly simple and can easily be done before Travelling in Southeast Asia. Locals are happy to learn your culture while similarly happy to promote their own. Meet a cute girl (or guy) even better. Also learn a little local culture and custom in advance to help muddle past the faux pas. As a married man this is now a privilege lost and meeting locals has undoubtedly become harder. Fortunately there are many websites offering local guides and experiences at reasonable prices; religious ceremonies, food tours, home cooking etc. One of my more memorable experiences was my friend ordaining as a monk in North East Thailand.