Asia has beaches and buzzing cities, it’s home to some of the world’s most eye-wateringly wonderful natural sights, it bursts with interesting history and flavours and it’s got some of the nicest locals on the globe. Still, none of that helps with the culture shock experienced by first time travellers on an Asia tour. Those folk will still have to deal with the curious nuances and traditions that have grown up in this vast continent over the years, and get used to the fact that what may seem weird and crazy in the West is totally fair game in these parts! Check out some examples…
The overloaded scooter
Whole stacks of packed paddling pools and inflatable beach toys, plastic spades and buckets, body boards and novelty shorts with Hawaiian patterns rattle as one scooter whizzes by. Another follows, colossal cauldrons of pho noodle soup sloshing as the two-wheeler they’re attached to rumbles over Ho Chi Minh’s potholes. Then comes the classic full-family scooter, laden with everyone from the new-born in the basket to the oldest granny, clung tenuously to the back. Yep, over-packing scooters is an art form in these parts!
Spitting on the street in China
Spittle flies around the streets of China, from Beijing to Shanghai. Women and men alike relieve themselves of excess saliva in every drainpipe and gutter going. There’s simply no taboo about spitting in public in the People’s Republic (and even sometimes post-meal at the dinner table!). It’s one of the most striking cultural differences between this vast Asian country and the West (although Taiwan is not included), and something many first-time travelers will notice straight away.
The ridiculous translations
“No dogs allowed on the table without a flood of cocktail” read one sign dangling from the deck of my bamboo hut in Pai. “Please do not sit on crocodile” read another in one city’s jungle park. And while I’m sure my dog would’ve enjoyed a mojito or Long Island while sitting on the table, and I’m grateful for the authoritative reminder not to relax on the back of a man-killing reptile from the Jurassic period, I still think it’s more likely that these were just two examples of the classic ridiculous translation Asia does best.
Temples mixed with the new
Asia is a place transformed immensely in the last century. Once rustic and undeveloped, globalism has metamorphosed its cities into living, breathing business centers. But there’s still an underlay of cultural gems from centuries gone by, which can be found nestled between the shiny skyscrapers or hidden in the midst of a colossal shopping mall. In Thailand there are wats stuck between Bangkok’s sleepless, traffic-clogged streets. In Ho Chi Minh City you’ll spy out Gothic cathedrals like Notre Dame poking above the streams of scooters. Yep, you’ll almost certainly notice this crazy interplay between the new and the old on any Asia tour.
Petrol in vodka bottles
Don’t worry, we’re not talking in the bars. Still, scooter drivers eager to get on two wheels during their Asia tour will almost certainly come across the ad hoc petrol stations that pepper the roads in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand. They are typically manned by young lads and stocked with litres of petrol stored in old vodka bottles. It’s certainly not be the safest thing on the streets and there are even reports of the sellers climbing passing tankers to decant the liquid, but it sure is a common sight all around the Southeast!
Elephants strolling down the street
While you might be more used to seeing big taxis and trucks, there’s nothing to say that the odd elephant can’t take to the roadways of Asia. From Thailand to India, Sri Lanka to Indonesia, there’s a chance that you could end up sharing that pavement with one of the region’s most iconic animals. And in areas like Rajasthan these even come painted and revered like demigods, topped with a mahout who guides them through the urban maze to the temples and shrines!
The Laotian baguette
Just when you expected to be eating nothing but spicy noodle dishes and pork-laden curries, the Republic of Laos comes at you with a classic French baguette. In fact, these tasty treats are sold at street-side stalls all over the country, and throughout Vietnam and Cambodia; all places where the French colonial influence reached in former centuries. They are typically packed with a fried omelette and topped with fresh veg, mayonnaise and even chilli slices.
The singing wallah
Ah, the Indian wallah. These are street sellers, salt-of-the-earth types that wander trains and cities and pretty much everywhere in between selling the likes of bubbling pots of chai tea, tasty bhajis, aloo curries and cutlet sandwiches. And while their street food and wares are interesting, it’s the accompanying tunes that really caught my imagination. I often still hum “chai, chai, chai, ch ch chai” in the shower, or stroll around yelling “cutlet, breaaaaad cutlet” to a ditty”!
The Thai ping pong show
Although officially not allowed due to the country’s strict obscenity laws, the Thai ping pong show remains a mainstay of the Land of Smiles’ less-than-savoury spots. There are folk inviting travelers into hidden dives all along places like Khaosan Road and in Patong, selling shows of dart-flinging, ping pong-ball launching pelvic muscles and, well, you get the idea! Of course, money will be exacted at some point, and ping pongers are notorious scammers, whether that means bloated beer prices at the venue or phoney entrance fees of thousands of baht – you’ve been warned!
The robotic toilet
Now a veritable tourist attraction for travelers heading to Japan, the robotic toilet has made a real name for itself. They can be found all over the archipelago country and even have their own dedicated Wikipedia page – you know, to explain how to use that automated water jet, or the Sound Princess tool for women, which mimics the sound of a flushing toilet to cut out any embarrassing bowel noises that may come as collateral!
Whitening cosmetic products
Woe to the traveler in Asia who doesn’t read the label on that aloe vera gel or sun cream, that new shampoo or post-sun moisturiser. Why? Well, while you might be after that glowing tan, the locals of Asia subscribe to a different ideal of beauty. That’s usually to do with pale skin and light hair, which is why so many cosmetics products sold in the region come with in-built whitening chemicals. Too much of those and you’ll be heading home from Bali or the beaches of the Thai Gulf looking just the same as when you left!
Have you seen any other crazy, weird and wonderful things during your travels through Asia? We’d love to hear about them in the comments section below. And if you fancy getting back on the road, be sure to check out our offering of Asia tour options…
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