It can also bring you face-to-face with a bunch of new customs and habits that can be a little bewildering. For example, touching a Monk, is considered extremely rude in Thailand, especially if you are a woman. So, what do you do if you get on a local bus or train and there is a Monk sitting next to the only available chair? It’s things like that that can make or break a holiday. Most people know to do a little research before they head away. Each country is different, but here are some tips that can help you anywhere in Asia.
Number one, shoes off please.
In all parts of Asia, the idea of wearing shoes inside the house is a little disgusting. The road outside is dirty, and many cultures gather on the floor to eat. The easiest way to get around this problem of cleanliness is to remove your shoes at the door.
Temples, homes and even some shops will have a no shoe policy. Some places provide inside slippers to wear, and you will even find footbaths near the shoe drop off point in order to ensure that your feet are clean. If you are worried about your shoes going missing, don’t. In nearly 29 years of living in Asia I have never heard of anyone’s shoes being stolen. If you are paranoid, however, you could always carry a bag to put them in and pop them inside your backpack. The real secret to this practice is to wear footwear that goes on and off easily. There is nothing worse than having to deal with laces or buckles as you enter or leave a building. In warm climates, this is easy. Any kind of sandal or flip-flop works. In cooler climates, however, try to think about elastic sided shoes, or easy approach boots.
If there is a shoe rack provided, use it. If you are wearing socks, you can keep them on if you wish, but taking them off is OK too. If the floor is hot, you may want the protection, but if it’s slippery it can be a bit awkward. Being barefoot is incredibly liberating, especially for feet that spend all day hidden away, so embracing this cultural habit even in your own home country can make a nice change, plus, it keeps your floors clean.
Number two, eating street food.
Everywhere you go in Asia you will discover people selling snacks and full on meals out of stalls and on the tiniest of tables. Some of it is fresh, like cut up fruit, some of it is fried, like dumplings, and some of it is on sticks, like the tarantulas sold at every night market in Cambodia. The question is, do you indulge, or will you end up bent double on a toilet all night if you dare. There is a very easy way to remain safe. Firstly, have a good look at turnover. If the seller has been standing there all day with the same stuff and the locals are not picking away at the goods with regularity, avoid. It is a myth that people in Asia do not get food poisoning, they do, just as badly as foreigners, and they don’t like it either. If locals are not buying it, don’t you buy it. Street food in Asia is truly amazing and cheap. Anything good will sell. Anything bad will not. It is a very simple and obvious test. Before you spend any money, spend 5 minutes watching the stalls. The most popular ones, or the most popular items, are the safe ones. They are turning over faster and are far less likely to have built up any bugs that will harm you.
I have friends who have travelled all through India eating anything from stalls, including a variety of meat and salads- supposedly a no-no- and the only time they got sick was in a hotel restaurant with very few guests.
Personally, my worst bouts of food poisoning came from some fried rice at the restaurant in the Science Museum in Singapore, and in the late afternoon at a sushi train in Hong Kong, well after the lunchtime rush. In both cases the food had been there for a while and the turnover was clearly slow. I had not followed my own advice. A BIG mistake.
On that topic, if the worst happens, charcoal tablets are a good place to start, you can buy them anywhere. With over a third of the world’s population living in the region, even the local Pharmacist has all you need to make the nightmare stop and if you are vomiting and have diarrhoea for more than two days, get to a clinic. Dehydration is your enemy. Do not suffer more than you need to.
Number three. Barter and bargain, but don’t be a douche.
Bartering and bargaining is a way of life for most traders throughout Asia. ‘Fixed price’ is a relatively new construct, but it does exist.
If you don’t see those words anywhere where you are shopping, go ahead and give negotiating a go. There are some rules though.
Firstly, stay friendly. It’s just stuff, so if you are not getting the price you want, don’t behave like someone has just spat on your mother. Sellers need to make a profit too, so don’t take it personally when you reach their limit. If they have stopped playing, you have won so now you need to accept this price or move on.
If you stand there demanding more, you are just now being a bit of a tool. The general rule of thumb is that you should pay about a third or just under half of what you were first offered it for. Remain happy, you are no doubt paying less than you would at home. The seller knows it, and you know it. Remain chilled. You are more likely to win this way anyway.
Aggressive behaviour is not going to make you any friends. If you can’t keep smiling, get someone else to do the bargaining for you. Yes, you probably are being ripped off somehow, but if you are buying it overseas on purpose, you know you are shopping in a cheaper place. Be cool with that.
Secondly, if you want it, but the price is still too high, walk away. Just walk on. If the seller is serious, they will follow you. You can bargain away from the shop too, that’s ok. If you get half way down the street and decide you MUST have it no matter what the price, walk back. It’s OK to lose a bit too. If you think you might see it somewhere else, you probably might. If you don’t and you didn’t buy it, well, you might have to make a second trip. Shopping in Asia is considered a sport, so if you are going to play, be prepared to sweat a little.
Now, back to what you should do if a monk is sitting next to a chair you need to take. Sit down, and try not to touch him. Don’t freak out and behave like he is poison, or that you are rubbing off his magic fairy dust. He knows you mean no offence, he’s a Monk, not The Buddha, and you are a tourist, not a crusader.
Nod politely and make it clear you are trying to keep away as best you can. Some busses and trains have seats especially for Monks, and they usually sit there anyway, but if they don’t, just don’t man-spread your legs, or allow your dress to fall all over him. Put you bag on your knees or on your feet in front of you. Keep your elbows tucked in. Most importantly of all, smile. In Thailand, many Monks speak good English as the Temples have schools. Try saying hello. Apologise if you do accidently touch him, but don’t panic. Like all people the world over, we are all just human beings trying to go about our day. Although our cultures and customs may set us apart, it’s our humanity that holds us together. If travel teaches us anything it’s that the farther away from home we travel, the closer we are to each other.