It has been a week since I arrived in Thailand – a country I have never been to before, on a continent I had never set foot on. What are my first impressions of Southeast Asia? Here are my observations from Thailand (some are only specific to Thailand but most of them should apply to Southeast Asia in general).
Alice in Wonderland
When I first walked the streets of Bangkok, I felt like Alice in Wonderland. There were strange smells of street food everywhere, traffic you can’t get your head around, stray dogs on every corner, weird looking cats, occasional mice, fruit you have never seen before, fried bugs, TV with Thai adverts on the train, dangerously hanging wires on the streets and simply the craziness of Bangkok.
Frankly, I was a bit overwhelmed.
Jet-lagged and tired after more than 24 hours of travelling and slightly nervous about checking into my first hostel ever, it was all a lot to take in. But don’t worry, I got used to this place quickly and you know what? I love Asia!
Hell for Pedestrians
If you are coming in from Europe, used to your convenient traffic lights and cars stopping at pedestrian crossings, be prepared for a bit of a shock. Yes, there are pedestrian crossings here. No, cars do not stop. There are traffic lights for cars everywhere but almost none for pedestrians. I have learnt pretty quickly that if you are going to wait for the perfectly safe moment to cross the road, you will never cross.
I know it sounds scary. I didn’t have a clue what to do at first. But my advice is: watch what the locals do. Wait for a sort-of or half-safe moment, then start walking – and whatever you do, DO NOT STOP. Just keep walking, motorbikes will go around you. From what I have seen, this is the best way to do it. Unless you enjoy standing by the road all day, of course.
And I have only experienced this in Thailand so far. From what I have heard, Vietnam is much worse. I am bracing myself already.
The Toilet Situation
Travelling necessarily comes with embracing different kind of toilets. Many places in Asia (especially all the big cities) have western toilets but don’t expect them to be everywhere. Sometimes you’ll just have to squat so get used to it.
Tip: ALWAYS carry toilet paper but NEVER throw it directly into the toilet, always the bin. I’m a westerner and I’m not even going to attempt to use the toilet hoses. (Yep, they have toilet hoses here. Nope, don’t ask me.)
Plastic, Plastic, Plastic 🙁
I hate to say this but Asia really needs some education about the impact of plastic bags on the environment. They use them A LOT. Everything is sold in plastic bags, wrapped in plastic bags, put in plastic bags… And individually wrapped bananas?? What’s the point in that?
I try to do my best to always say no to plastic bags and use my lunchbox for take-away food when possible. And because the tap water here is not to be trusted, everyone buys plastic water bottles all the time. I always carry my filter water bottle which I can safely refill with tap water. Read more about my eco-friendly travel tips here.
Oh and speaking of waste… the struggle to find bins on the street is real! Some recycling bins do exist but they are a miracle to find.
The rumours were true – Southeast Asia really is cheap! Just don’t be a tourist. Ignore the convenient restaurants with English signs and food that looks familiar. Find little Asian places with plastic chairs full of Thai people and eat some delicious noodles for 50 baht (around £1 / 30 CZK). Just be careful if you don’t eat spicy food – or even if you do, the Thais have a different tolerance level so it’s always better to ask the staff. (But you still aren’t guaranteed no spiciness…)
Respect the Religion
You come across temples everywhere you go. Not just temples, but many, many statues of Buddha – tiny, small, big, huge. And many Buddhist monks on top of that. Even if you are not religious, there are rules you should follow out of respect.
First of all, monks are highly respected in Thailand. They are pretty much superior to everyone else, they have priority seats on trains and special waiting areas at stations. One thing to remember is that women should never ever touch a monk. Observe them from a distance but remember, monks are sacred.
It goes without saying that you have to dress appropriately when visiting temples. Have your knees and shoulders covered but also take off your shoes. Feet are considered dirty in Thai culture and you should never put them up or point towards anyone when sitting (especially not a Buddha statue). On the other hand, head is sacred. Do not touch a Thai person on the head if you don’t want to offend them.
The king is very much loved in Thailand and there are pictures of him everywhere. His face also appears on the banknotes. Be careful not to step on banknotes with your foot because – did I mention? – feet are considered dirty.
What I personally find fascinating is playing of the Thai national anthem. It happens twice a day (8am and 6pm) in public spaces and when it does, everyone stops what they are doing and stands up until the music is over. I think you should be respectful and do the same even if you are not Thai.
I don’t know about other Asian nationalities yet but Thai people are so lovely! They are VERY polite, smiley and you just have to love the way they greet you. Putting their palms together (as if for prayer) and slightly bowing their head means hello/goodbye so don’t forget to reciprocate 🙂
Have you been to Thailand / Southeast Asia? What did you think?
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