What I Learned About Southeast Asia

Dressed for the weather in Hoi An, Vietnam

How can this person even see?!

More than a year ago when I was packing for our trip, I decided to bring shorts and tank tops to wear in Southeast Asia. The region is known for its heat and humidity, so those outfits seemed like the obvious choice. But before we left, I was admittedly pretty ignorant to the habits of other cultures.

In America, we dress for the weather. If it is hot outside, you wear as little clothes as possible. If it’s cold, you bundle up. But I’ve come to learn that the East and West are very different when it comes to attire. When you get out of the bigger cities, such as Bangkok, you’ll notice that locals aren’t sporting miniskirts and spaghetti-string tops. Even though Thailand is known for its beaches, many locals do not wear bathing suits or revealing clothes in beach areas. Many dress conservatively no matter how hot it is and even swim fully clothed. This is especially true in Malaysia, where more than half the population is Muslim. Nude and topless sunbathing is completely taboo, though it’s done by some foreigners on the most touristic beaches.

Their conservative clothing choices are a result of their cultural behavior and religious views. But another reason you’ll find Vietnamese women, for example, walking down the street in pants, a jacket, hat, gloves and a facemask is because they adore light-colored skin. They are afraid to have the sun darken their complexion and damage their skin. Aside from protecting themselves from UV rays, they embrace the use of cosmetics that contain whitener.

Deodorant with whitener

Deodorant with whitener.

When I first made this discovery, it fell into the category of culture shock since Mike and I come from a nation of bronzers, tanning salons and Jersey Shore fanatics. The Southeast Asian mentality is completely opposite of our own. Mike and I protect our skin with sunblock and by no means go tanning for fun, but we do not want to actively whiten our skin either. This was a bit of a problem whenever we ran out of toiletries like deodorant, face wash and body soap. In some cities, it was impossible to find women’s deodorant that didn’t contain whitener. Eventually, I had to give in and buy it. (I’m happy to report that it hasn’t bleached my armpits.) Wanting whiter skin may not be the mentality throughout all of Southeast Asia, but our observations and shopping experiences suggest that it is quite common. When we asked a sales clerk whether they had soap without whitener, she replied, “Same same.” Not same same! Very, very different.

The phrases “same same” and “same same but different” are embraced from Thailand to Vietnam to describe anything from cultural views to food at competing restaurants. It is pretty much Southeast Asia’s catchphrase. English-speaking locals say it to foreigners, and it’s even so popular as to be featured on souvenir t-shirts. It originated from a misunderstanding of the way English versus Thai words are used. In Thai, เดียวกัน (meaning “same”) is sometimes said twice, depending on the situation. Therefore, they assume this can also be done in English.

We noticed a lot of things that fall into this “same same but different” category as we traveled overland from country to country for five months. For example: temple architecture, papaya salad and driving techniques. Some countries are more horn happy than others (ahem, Vietnam). Some motorcycles use the sidewalk as an extension of the road (oh hey, Thailand). And what we found to be most interesting is that these neighboring countries do not all drive on the same side of the road. Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand drive on the left side, while Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Myanmar drive on the right.

Even though we’ve visited plenty of countries that drive on the right side of the road, like in the United States, we never know which way to look first when crossing the street. Drivers will speed down whichever lane is most convenient and even disobey the rules of one-way streets. We now look both ways about five times before even stepping forward.

A case of Huda beer

Sometimes beer is brought to tables by the CASE. Less work for servers if you’re really thirsty, I guess. (We shared this one with three others in Dong Ha, Vietnam.)

One of the most disturbing things we have come to learn is that drunken driving is a way of life not frowned upon. We have watched locals get completely blitzed, hop on their scooter and swerve their way home. We even met police in a restaurant in Kampot, Cambodia, who drank all day and then drove home at night.

Alcoholism in general is a big problem too. Many locals drink beer with ice (to water it down, make it last longer), so drunkenness hits them slower than it would if they were having a high abv (alcohol by volume) beer without ice. Mike and I experienced this firsthand when we drank with locals in Vietnam (and in Cambodia, but without ice). For such petite people, they down a lot of booze in a short amount of time. Maybe they don’t feel drunk because of how they are drinking (consuming water-down beer), but every sober person can tell that they’re wasted. This problem means that you must be extra careful when crossing the road or trusting who may drive you back to your hotel.

These are the things, good and bad, that you don’t hear about from travel shows, magazine articles or maybe even your friends who have visited. Before Mike and I arrived in most of the countries on our trip, the only things we knew about them is what we read, heard or were told. This typically means the best and worst of each place, like:

Africa is full of exotic animals and crime. India has gorgeous architecture and shocking living conditions. Southeast Asia is full of bad drivers, pirated goods, clear waters, exotic fruit and dense jungles.

As is always the case, there is certainly more to every place than its surface description. One of the things I love about traveling is the discovery process. I never expected to sweat buckets in Cambodia while walking past a woman wearing jeans and a winter coat!

Many thanks to Beth, Dorothea and Tara F. for sending their thoughts on Southeast Asia!


16 responses to “What I Learned About Southeast Asia

  1. Nice post, thanks. Smiles all round. But tell me please where to find those clear waters in SE Asia. We’ve been saddened to find beach after beach of rubbish. Each time I come back here it’s worse than the time before, sadly.

    • That’s a shame. We definitely came upon some dirty, disappointing beaches as well. Our favorites were on Koh Lipe, Pulau Perhentian Kecil (though many people complain about the destroyed coral here, which is sadly real), Koh Tonsay and Koh Rong (but there are sandflies).

  2. The more I travel, the more I realize there is just so much that we cannot know about a culture or a country until actually being there. Can’t wait to experience it all! Also, thanks for the heads-up about the drunk driving, that’s definitely going to alter how I cross roads or look for drivers in the evening. Yikes!

    • It’s so true! We were shocked in good and bad ways everywhere we went. It’s even true when it comes to getting around within a country. There is only so much research you can do about how to get from A to B, but then once you’re in-country, you will more than likely find out about easier alternatives to what you’ve read about.

      Enjoy SE Asia, and be careful on the roads, especially if you rent a scooter or bicycle!

  3. Great post! I had no idea about the “whitening” products, even while traveling in Asia (I guess I never paid much attention). The driving will stick with me forever though. It seems that lines painted on the road in SE Asia are purely for decoration. People just drove whichever way was convenient – and I remember seeing 5 cars wide on a 2 lane road at one point between Poipet and Siem Reap Cambodia.


    • “Purely for decoration” lol I couldn’t agree more. They’re merely suggestions that everyone ignores. For such laid-back people, they always seem like they’re in such a rush once they’re on the road.

  4. I had heard about Asian’s obsessions with keeping their skin fair before we left so I was prepared for the crazy layering of clothing in intense heat (though I was still trying to figure out how they managed to be dressed for a snowstorm and not pass out from the heat as I was trying to not melt into a puddle). What I was actually really surprised by is how in most of the countries we visited, I didn’t find the locals dressed nearly so modestly as I had been led to believe. I purposefully did not pack any tank tops or shorts above the knees because I had heard that these would be offensive in most Asian countries, but even in places like Malaysia, we frequently saw people running around in teeny tiny shorts! Certainly we also witnessed modesty such as Thai people bathing in shorts & t-shirts rather than bathing suits, but it was also clear that they don’t expect tourists to do the same as they seem to think we’re crazy no matter what we do!

    • Yea, it was shocking to me mostly because I wasn’t prepared for it. When you expect to see most people in shorts and instead see them in conservative clothing, that’s all you notice. Though I agree that in Malaysia a lot of the ethnic Chinese dress however they want. Their dress style made me more comfortable wearing what I wanted. I also have no idea how the people who were layered up like it was winter weren’t fainting from heatstroke! But they also eat street cart snails that have been sitting in the sun all day!

  5. Great post! I still cannot believe and understand fully how people in SEA can wear jeans and heavy clothes when it’s super hot, honestly it’s beyond me.
    Also the fact that people over there want to whiten their skin constantly is very different to what I’m used to. I protect myself from the sunlight and I don’t particularly like to sunbathe (not anymore), but I wouldn’t use body products with whitener.
    Learning about so many different cultures and habits is all very interesting at the end.

  6. This was a great post and a really blog, Tara! I wish that you and your hubby could continue traveling. I am about to go back to SE Asia for another 6 months and the first thing I would like to do is to go into Burma. I’ve dipped in for visa runs before, but another trip we had planned there was thwarted when my partner got a fever the morning we were supposed to fly into Yangon. So, two years later we’ll try again. What was your favorite place to go in Burma? Did you have any troubles there or things to be aware of? Thanks!

    • Thanks, Mike. I really appreciate that! Six months in SE Asia. I’m jealous 🙂 We really enjoyed the route we took in Myanmar and would definitely recommend these cities: Bago, Hpa-an, Mawlamyine, Bagan and Inle Lake area. We also visited Mandalay and Yangon, but we enjoyed the other cities more. The Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon is amazing, but Bago has a very similar pagoda. We also went to see the Golden Rock. I thought it was neat and worth the visit, but Mike wouldn’t recommend it (his post on it: http://wp.me/p1Dtll-Zf). We didn’t have any troubles in-country. It was actually a fun and not-too-difficult place to travel in. That said, public transportation isn’t great. But if you’ve traveled in Laos, it’s similar. The only other thing is that there are many off-limit areas for foreign tourists, and hotels/transport tend to book up quickly. Just be flexible and have a back-up plan. Or plan ahead as much as possible. Safe travels and let me know if you have any other questions!

      • Thank you so much Tara! I appreciate your thoughtful insight and response. Bagan is on the top of my list. I wanted to see the Golden Rock, but I have already experience Wat fatigue so won’t be too disappointed if we don’t make it there. I’ll read Mike’s post about it.

        I was a little worried, because Burma is one place I would like to bring my fancier camera to travel with. But I haven’t heard of people having too much trouble there as far as theft, etc. I am aware of the off-limit zones in Burma and the tourist triangle. It’s really interesting, and I am looking forward to seeing it for myself.

        I’ve already been through the gauntlet of the Myanmar consulate in BKK and am not really looking forward to being back there. Look forward to reading more of your posts. You’ve got a great travel blog!

        I just launched a Kickstarter yesterday related to my volunteering work on the Thai-Burma border. If you know anyone who likes affordable art for a good cause please share… 🙂 Here’s the link:

        Happy travels,

        • Haha, the part about the bus fees being collected at random times in the middle of a trip made me laugh out loud. Why they prefer to do this I will never understand… My travel companions and I will definitely have to read all of your Burma posts. It sounds like a pretty miserable trip up the mountain to the Golden Rock. Did you take the train to Bagan? Anthony Bourdain has good footage of it– have you seen this episode of his in Burma? It’s actually really well done.


          Thanks again!

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