I survived four months living in Asia.
Actually, “survived” is really the wrong word, because I absolutely loved the time I spent there. Going into it, though, I was terrified. I knew that it was going to be a big time culture shock, and thought that I would struggle daily with how different it was from the (rather glamorous, TBH) life I’d become accustomed to in New York. I had been to Asia in the past, and the biggest things I remembered about it were that I only ate white rice for three weeks, had to pee in a hole in the ground and slept on a mat on the floor…. Which didn’t exactly pump me up for my travels.
Even so, I knew the first four months of my remote year experience were going to be a HUGE growing experience in a lot of different ways, and I started the trip ready to face all of the obstacles (food, toilet and bed related, among others) head on.
Within the first few weeks, I was completely in love.
Everything about Asian culture, from the food to the people to the temples to the beauty products, absolutely fascinated me. I couldn’t get enough of it, and wanted to see it all — from the Buddhist monuments to the unicorn cafes to the ramen noodles spas (which, sadly, I never made it to). The cities I lived in (Kuala Lumpur, Ho Chi Minh City, Phnom Penh and Bangkok) were so, so much more developed than I had expected, and the many challenges I expected to face with culture shock turned out to be few and far between.
Still, though, it took some adjusting. Just because I had a flushable toilet and access to any sheet mask I could have ever dreamed of didn’t mean that it was smooth sailing at all times… especially at first. I had my meltdown moments, which resulted in a LOT of learning experiences.
After living in four Asian cities and visiting 18 others in the course of only a few months, I consider myself pretty much an expert when it comes to Asian travel. During that span of time, I read a zillion blog posts and city guides about “things you should know before you go to Asia,” none of which were all that helpful aside from telling you that you shouldn’t drink the water (which, duh.).
So, here are the things that I learned on the road that I think are worth sharing. You’re welcome.
- Elevator doors are vicious. They WILL close on you, and it is terrifying (take it from someone who knows). It may have something to do with wonky sensors, but make sure you hold down the “door open” button unlesss you want to risk losing a limb.
- If you find a clean toilet, use it. If you think the gas station bathrooms along I-95 are bad, you ain’t seen nothing. Toilets in Asia are a (w)hole other level of nasty… Pun intended, because most of them are literal holes in the ground. If you find a not-to tally-terrifying-one, use it. Either way, braving the bad ones will make you stronger, emotionally and physically… because of all the squatting.
- Carry your own toilet paper. Unless you’re down to drip dry, in which case, more power to ya. Keep hand sanitizer with you, too, becuase there is literally never any soap anywhere.
- If ice has a hole in it, it’s safe to drink. This is a very fun fact that no one ever seems to talk about! For the first few weeks in Asia, I asked for everything without ice because I was afraid it was going to give me cholera or something terrible (since the water generally isn’t safe to drink). BUT, I later found out that as long as ice has a hole in the center, it’s totally safe, because it means it came from a manufacturer instead of from tap water. Cool!
- Don’t pet the dogs. Stray dogs are all over the place in Asia, and it’s really, really sad. But no joke — I know someone who got bitten while trying to help one of them and ended up having to get 10 rabies shots in her stomach. AHHH! Plus, even if the dog is rabies-free, it still might have fleas, which is definitely not something you want to deal with while traveling.
- Flights never, ever leave on time. Asia to Asia flights (which are usually on small, local airlines) are always late. Even so, you still have to be at the airport an hour before your scheduled departure, otherwise they won’t let you on the plane. 1 minute later and you’ll be shit outta luck.
- Don’t be a baby about the food. For the first month I was in Asia, I was terrified to eat anything. I was literally too afraid to touch a salad, because I was convinced that anything I put in my mouth would make me sick. Slowly but surely, though, I got over it. While I wasn’t exactly ordering fried tarantulas or scarfing down crickets, I became a huge fan of mysterious meats and sauces I’d never heard of. Often, the foods I didn’t recognize were the most delicious. Don’t be afraid to try something new!!!
- Watch your step. I don’t know how or why, but there are random, unexpected steps all over Asia. I split my big toe open on multiple occasions simply by not watching where I was going. Wear closed toe shoes as much as possible (even though it’s flip flop weather all year round… and you have to take your shoes off to enter any important buildings) and look down while you’re walking. Honestly, my toes are never going to be the same.
- Uber Works Pretty Much Everywhere. This, for some reason, shocked me. Nevertheless, it made my life exponentially easier, mainly because trying to communicate an address to a taxi driver who doesn’t speak English is impossible, so being able to put it in via the app is majorly helpful. There is also “Grab,” a ridesharing service that works in most cities where Uber isn’t available.
- Don’t worry about getting fat. Somehow, despite eating non-stop noodles and fried food for four straight months, I ended up losing five pounds living in Asia. This probably had something to do with the portion size and the lack of hydrogenated fats (or something), but serves as proof that you shouldn’t let calories scare you out of trying new things… Or eating Pad Thai for every meal.
- Agoda Is The Best Place To Book Hotels. Just trust me on this one. They have five-star hotels all over the place for $60-ish a night, and all of the photos and reviews are legit. So, so much better than Western hotel booking sites (though I think, somehow, Booking.com, Hotels.com and Agoda.com are all related?) and will let you live like a #queen for a fraction of what you’d expect it to cost.
- Become a backpacker. I never, ever thought I would consider myself a backpacker, but after realizing how hard it is to wheel a rolly suitcase around a remote Cambodian island I am officially a convert. For side trips (especially those involving sun and sand) pack the bare minimum, and carry it on your back. It will make your life a LOT easier. Hostels and shared bedrooms are not required, though.
- Don’t buy elephant pants. Or any other random crap that is poorly made, not that cute, and that you won’t wear once you leave Asia. I know this, because I am guilty of spending money on things that went straight into the garbage shortly before I boarded my flight home. When you’re at a market in Asia, keep an eye out for goods that seem special or one of a kind, and that really speak to you. It’s also best when the actual artisan is the one selling. You would be surprised how much stuff is mass produced and sold all over the place, and it tends to be totally overpriced. Hold out for the real deal.
- Be mindful of ferry schedules. Island hopping is amazing, but the boats fill up quickly and the schedules aren’t exactly what you’d call “reliable.” When you’re trying to do #allthethings in a short period of time, island time can get in the way. I once got stuck waiting for a boat for five hours on Koh Rong… Not a bad place to be stuck, but still. Boats fill up quickly, and always take longer than the websites say they will, so be sure to book ahead of time, and give yourself more time than you think you need.
- Check visa requirements before you get to the airport. I mean, this should be obvious, but I learned this lesson the really, really hard way when I forgot to get a visa for Australia (/didn’t know I needed one) and then wasn’t allowed on the flight. Better safe than sorry, for real.
- Get your ass on a motorbike. I tried driving, once, and ended up crashing in under a minute (which might actually be a record). Even if you are as ill-equipped at operating heavy machinery as I am, though, you can still experience the thrill of riding around on one with Uber Moto or one of the random guys on bikes who will inevitably offer you a ride. My favorite day in all of Asia was in Koh Samui, when James rented a motorbike and I got to ride on the back to beaches all over the island. It’s honestly a thrill like nothing else. Just make sure to wear a helmet!!
- Agree on a taxi price before you get in the cab. Otherwise you can, and will, wind up getting screwed.
- Watch out for “Whitening’ products. Asian women are into having light skin, so it’s pretty much impossible to find any sort of beauty product that doesn’t have a bleaching agent in it — everything from face wash to vaginal cream promises (/threatens) to make you whiter. Read the label, or ask for help if it’s in another language, unless you’re looking to fade your Southeast Asian island tan quickly.
- BYO sunscreen. Legit sunblock, for whatever reason, is really hard to find… Even on the islands. I found regular, 30 SPF spray sunscreen once during my travels, and then cried when airport security made me throw it out. Bring your own from the states, otherwise you’ll be stuck with a teeny, tiny bottle of SPF 70 with whitening cream.
- Pack appropriate clothes. Yes, it’s hot, but you’ll need to cover your knees and shoulders to go into any sort religious building… And there are a lot of those to see in Asia. Don’t worry about bringing a ton of stuff, though — clothing-wise, you can buy literally anything you could possibly need for much cheaper than you could get it in the states, and then you can ditch it before you fly home.
Do you have any tips to share? Let me know in the comments!