This isn’t the usual list of what to do in Asia and where to go.
As travelers, we often end up swept away in the current of tourism -- drifting along the shallow surface like bits of flotsam that never really enjoyed a taste of the “real deal.” Getting beneath the surface of a place we are visiting takes mindful effort, but the reward is great. Don’t expect to ever understand Asia comprehensively, but an intimate glimpse will certainly enhance your life.
So what does it take to peel back a layer or two to reach the inner workings, the gears and cogs of daily life that keep the machine running?
As Rudyard Kipling said, “The first condition of understanding a foreign country is to smell it.” But once on the ground, what happens after is entirely up to you. Sure, you could fill a hard drive with the usual photos of landmarks to force upon family and friends on social media. Better yet, you could learn something about a place, fall in love, make memories, and earn your scars.
Integrating with a local culture takes years, if not a lifetime. If you don’t have that much time, these are the best ways that I’ve found to discover a little about a place.
Go to a University Campus
For some reason, we travelers have a tendency to put extra emphasis on sun-weathered farmers and indigenous tribes in Asia. If you really are serious about getting under the surface, go to where the students, the future of the place you are visiting, are hanging out.
While travelers are pointing cameras at water buffaloes and whatever leaning, bamboo structures they can find, friendly young people are filling eclectic cafes to talk about modern issues they face in daily life.
- For best results: sit somewhere. If you sit long enough on campus, you’ll find that curious students will come over to engage you and make contact. They’ll want to practice English, learn about life in your country, and become Facebook friends -- of course.
Learn One New Word a Day
Nothing brings you closer to learning more about a place than picking up a bit of the language. Begin with learning how to say hello and use it to greet people. You can then graduate up to learning your numbers and useful expressions such as “too expensive,” “thank you,” and “cheers.”
By negotiating playfully in the local language, you’ll immediately notice a jump in the number of smiles received and the amount of money saved.
No need to carry and study phrasebooks that may or may not give a realistic local pronunciation. You definitely get at least a couple of opportunities each day to learn useful words: when eating in restaurants. Every time you interact with a local resident, point to something and ask the word for it.
- For best results: don’t just nod your head and forget the new words an hour later. Write down what you learn and use it the next time you can.
Grab a card with the address of your hotel and then hit the streets! Genuine life is constantly unfolding just a couple blocks outside of the tourist zones. As travel writer Rolf Potts says, “Walk until the day becomes interesting.”
Great things often happen on the road while wandering aimlessly. Leave the smartphone, GPS, and map at the hotel -- just start putting one foot in front of the other and look around. Don’t even think of taking that surprise-ruining guidebook along.
- For best results: keep walking until you no longer see English on signs.
Use Public Transportation
Travelers often end up opting for efficient, less complicated options such as taxis rather than sorting out public transportation.
Locals certainly don’t take taxis to work and back. For a small sampling of daily life, squeeze onto that overcrowded bus or figure out the local metro system. You’ll save money and have an interesting travel experience at the same time.
- For best results: take a ride at rush hour.
Sit in a Park or Public Square
Take a book or your journal as a prop and find a bench in a park or public square to sit for a while. You can learn a lot about a place just by allocating a little time to sit still and pay attention.
In local parks throughout Asia, you’ll observe couples and families coming together to share food and laughs. You may even get to catch group calisthenics sessions or an impromptu breakdancing meet-up!
- For best results: opt for an open area away from famous monuments that draw the tourist crowd
Learn One New Skill or Hobby
Nothing enhances a trip like learning something new while there, particularly a fun hobby or interest that will persist for years to come. Stepping away from a busy daily routine allows us time and mental energy to try something new. Sign up for a class!
Southeast Asia is a great and affordable place to become scuba certified. Other options include yoga, dancing, snorkeling, climbing, trekking, photography, cooking classes, instruments, artistic pursuits -- you get the idea.
- For best results: go for something you’d probably not try at home. Or better yet, try something that is a regional specialty to where you are visiting
Try Food You Don't Recognize
Food is a big part of any journey and something that you’ll remember long after -- do your best not to squander a single meal on an unpleasant or unauthentic experience.
Eating in the hotel is a bad idea for many reasons. Local restaurants offer plenty of familiar favorites to snare travelers. But better yet, hit the streets and take advantage of those cheap, mysterious nibbles sold by the carts. No harm done if you don’t like something; toss it and try again. With the usual amount of diligence, street food is no riskier than eating in brick-and-mortar restaurants.
- For best results: patronize busy places where locals flock. The sprawling food courts in Asia where many types of local food can be found under one roof are great places to start.
Visit a Temple or Mosque
Religion is deeply integrated into daily life throughout much of Asia. Monks are assigned an extremely high status in society in countries such as Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, and others.
- For best results: be respectful; know temple etiquette before you go to avoid accidental offense.
Wander the Markets
In Asia, life practically revolves around the local markets. Markets aren’t just places to go when you need something; they often serve as the eating and socializing hubs for communities. Don’t let the frenetic energy in some markets be too intimidating. Dive right in and get caught up in the chaos.
With some negotiating, you’ll usually find items cheaper than in shops that cater to tourists. But keep in mind that many markets exist only to cater to tourists -- you’ll be able to tell right away when you see the clientèle and the prices.
- For best results: have your camera ready, sample some local treats, and keep your bag close at hand.
Visit a Local's Home
This one is trickier, as an invitation is required. But as Louis Pasteur said, “Chance favors a prepared mind.” If you’re lucky enough to be invited to someone’s home for tea, a chat, or even a meal -- go! Don’t balk or hesitate for fear of making a cultural mistake. Seize the opportunity to pull back the curtain and see how a local lives.
- For best results: don’t turn down any offers for tea or snacks. If you have time before the visit, pick up a small gift, trinket, or flowers to take with you. Remove your shoes at the door before going inside
Watch a Sports Match
It’s no secret: sports bring the world together. For most countries in Asia, soccer isn’t merely a sport, it’s a national passion.
Locals gather to cheer and chat in rowdy bars and cafes whenever a match is on. Go be a part of the madness. Whether or not you care about the team or sport, you’ll get to witness the energy, triumphs, and letdowns.
- For best results: ask to join a table of people cheering on their favorite team.
Disconnect and Meet People
Technology has certainly made getting information easier while on the road but perhaps at the expense of being mindfully present in a place. You’re certainly less approachable to people wanting to make new friends when you’re holding a smartphone or staring into a laptop.
Solo travelers are particularly guilty of eating meals with one hand while holding a phone in the other. Next time, consider asking to join someone else; the worst thing that can happen is that you share a meal and never speak again.
By leaving yourself open to new encounters, you could end up meeting a new friend, or at the least, receiving valuable, up-to-date information about a place (e.g., maybe they know about a great bar or restaurant) without having to dig for it online.
- For best results: take a journal and jot down observations rather than playing around on social media
Hands down, travelers who make time to help local communities often remember the time fondly as the best spent on the trip. Opportunities abound; just don’t get caught up in one of the various pay-to-volunteer scams popping up in Asia.
- For best results: don’t sign up to volunteer while doing online research at home. Go somewhere, find out about local needs and opportunities, and make a smart choice.