There are certain things I simply love about Southeast Asia. Even with the diversity among the various countries, and even though we have not seen it all (Philippines, Borneo, East Timor), there are things that I noticed during our time in Kuala Lumpur, Myanmar, and Bali, Indonesia, that reminded me of our past travels through this region. It made us pause and think….you know you’re in Southeast Asia when….
Most people will immediately think of beautiful beaches and spicy food, and I love both of those things. But, after all of our travels through Eastern Europe and Central America, I was thrilled to see these few little things that have come to mean so much to me. They may exist elsewhere in the world, but for me they combine as a symbol of the region I love.
Small Plastic Stools
I am convinced that every meal would taste better on a small, plastic stool, on the side of the road. Particularly if it is one that is too small for your weight, one where you worry whether you will break the stool if you shift the wrong way. I have broken at least one stool (Kuala Lumpur 2009). Of course Eric has too.
I especially love walking up to a food stall or tea stand where there seems to be no room, but suddenly the proprietor pulls a table and chairs out of thin air placing them somewhere on the street for you to sit down. I simply just love it.
Motos, Scooters, etc.
We tend to call motorbikes motos, like they do in Vietnam, even if that name does not stick elsewhere. Cities like Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are notorious for the number of motorbikes, whereas they are banned in Yangon (but not elsewhere in Myanmar).
Whatever you call them, they are a symbol of Southeast Asia. In the states, where everyone has a car, you see traditional motorcycles, and an occasional hipster on a Vespa. Here, you see everyone and everything transported on two wheels – a moto built for a family of 5 we say. I have seen them loaded with so much cargo it seems almost impossible for the moto to move. I have seen them loaded with chickens and even two crazy large pigs.
We are finally learning to drive a moto ourselves. With one rented for two months in Bali, Eric ripped off the bandaid and learned to drive a motorbike. I am still relegated to the back. Although I drove it for the first time in our little neighborhood, I have yet to make it out to the main street. I have a fear of hurting myself just before my yoga teacher training. But, I will get there eventually.
Whereas in Central America the suicide shower is prevalent, Southeast Asia is home to the wet bathroom. A shower head is placed on the wall, but no shower base is actually built. Sometimes you get the benefit of a shower curtain, but most often, not. This means that whenever you shower the bathroom becomes soaked. It generally does not dry for hours.
I just love it when I go to use the toilet in the middle of the night and the floor is still wet, or the toilet seat is wet from the shower splash. Even better – watch the placement of the toilet paper when you shower – it could turn to mush.
Religious Shrines in Southeast Asia
From my knowledge of western religions, most Christians attend church and Jews head to the synagogue. Growing up in the US it was unlikely you would find a shrine or altar in someone’s house – and if you did that person would probably be considered slightly off.
But in Southeast Asia, it’s the norm. Burmese Buddhists place sometimes elaborate shrines in their home, or at their business, making regular offerings to Buddha and to their ancestors. In Thailand, you can also find offerings outside of the home, at the edge of the property, where most Westerners would place their mailbox. The offerings may include items that their ancestors like, a favorite fruit or candy, soda, and even alcohol.
In Hindu Bali, shrines are everywhere – inside and outside of the home, with offerings placed on the shrines as well as the streets or ground – beautiful green banana leaves folded in a square with fruit, flowers, crackers, or candy. A stick of incense may be placed inside or nearby – I love the smell of incense on a Balinese morning, when women start to place the offerings around their homes or businesses. The staff at our villa in Bali even keep up the offerings outside our door.
I am not a religious person, but I love seeing offerings and shrines across Southeast Asia.
A necessary evil. Something I cringed at years ago, but now I often choose an Asian squat pot over a traditional western toilet, particularly when the western is not well maintained.
For those of you who have never had the pleasure, a squat pot is generally a plastic hole in the ground with two ribbed platforms on either side. Your feet go on either side, you squat down, and for the ladies, try to aim as best you can.
Traditionally, the locals will use water to clean themselves, and then clean the toilet – there will be a bucket with a scoop nearby. Its the flushing mechanism. I pray for a little garbage can nearby for the toilet paper (which often I carry with me), and then “flush” with water and walk out. Yep, the squat pot.
Garbage and the Accompanying Burning Smell
Garbage is a problem in the developing world, and Southeast Asia is not exempt. Places like Tonle Sap Lake in Cambodia are some of the dirtiest I have ever seen. It kills me to see so many plastic bags littering the landscape. The Bali beaches are not exempt.
In Hanoi, it is very common, like elsewhere in the region, to drop garbage on the ground, whether that is when you are walking down the street, or throwing trash under the table while eating. Women walk through the city each morning before dawn to clean up the trash on the streets. I am not sure where it goes once it is collected.
When arriving on the tarmac at Luang Pragang airport in 2006, the smell hit me immediately – a strong smell of fire, of burning. It was our first trip to Asia and I was not use to the burning smell. I still do not like it, but I am certainly more used to it.
While walking around Luang Prabang, it became clear that the primary way to dispose of garbage was burning it, including the plastic, which gives off a nasty smell. Even in Bali, burning is a method to dispose of trash.
This is not one of my favorite things about the region, but there is a particular odor to the burning smell that just reminds me of Southeast Asia.
Temples and Monks in Southeast Asia
Although I do get templed out, I still love seeing temples – Buddhist temples in Myanmar and Thailand, laden with gold and the Hindu Balinese temples with strange evil spirits etched in stone. A city like Kuala Lumpur also has its fair share of Chinese Confucian temples, in stark contrast with the Muslim mosques.
But, my favorite thing to see are the line of monks walking around for their offerings in places like Myanmar. I love the burgundy robes in Myanmar, and the saffron robes in Thailand. I love the novice monks with their closely shaved head. I even love when I see monks doing things that I don’t expect them to, like ride a moto, smoke, or use an ATM in Yangon!
Sandals at the Door
When I was young I remember going to a friend’s house to play and being asked to leave my shoes at the door. I could not understand why, but took them off to be polite. I realize now that my Indian friend was just following one of my favorite things about Asia – leave the shoes at the door.
I have now trained my feet to wear nothing but flip flops to make it easier to take my shoes off when I enter a home, the yoga studio, a temple, or even some stores. If I see the locals inside a store without shoes, I take mine off too – I generally get protests from the employees that it is okay to come in with shoes on, but I want to be as respectful as possible.
More than anything, I love walking up to a temple, a house, or even a preschool, and seeing all the flip flops and sandals lining the entryway.
Famous Asian Peace Symbol
I have taken more photos in Southeast Asia than I care to admit. But, one consistency is the two finger peace symbol. Most young people, and even adults, don’t hesitate to add their own character to any photo taking opportunities, but raising the two finger peace symbol. I have even found myself doing it in photos. Its contagious, and I think uniquely Asian and certainly a sign that you know you’re in Southeast Asia when…
And, I have not even started on the fantastic food . . .
Amber Hoffman, food and travel writer behind With Husband In Tow, is a recovering attorney and professional eater, with a passion for finding new food and drink destinations. She lives with her husband, Eric, in Girona, Catalonia, Spain. Together they have traveled to over 70 countries.