48 countries, 2197 languages, 4.5 billion people—Asia is a mystery waiting to be uncovered. Just like how peanut butter and jelly would seem ridiculous for an Asian breakfast, sprucing up coffee with a raw egg or a dollop of butter would seem absurd in the Western world.
When I first arrived in the city, responding to the how-are-yous, how’s your day, and how’s the weather proved to be a challenge. What was completely natural in everyday conversation turned out to be a game for me, with the goal of conjuring as many permutations of I’m good, I’m great, and it’s hot out today to last every day of the week. That’s until I finally embraced the saying that when in Rome, do as the Romans do.
And that’s precisely what you’ll have to do if you decide to stop by Asia. The stark differences between Eastern and Western cultures never stood out to me ‘til I moved to the West and ‘til a group of us spent a semester abroad in Asia. It was amusing that despite growing up in cosmopolitan cities, we were a bunch of same but different people.
Wonder what those tall overhead structures that stretch across roads are for? Want to know how to navigate through bustling cities and the noisy human traffic? Preparing your taste buds for all the quirky food to savor? Here’s a list of 20 tips you might want to keep in your pocket to make the most of your adventure to the East!
20 Stock Up On Bottles
Feel free to drink from the tap if you’re in Brunei, Hong Kong, Israel, Japan, Singapore, or South Korea. These places pride themselves for water cleanliness, infrastructure, and convenience for their residents. Otherwise, drink from the tap if you dare. Most accommodations in Asia would provide you with a complimentary bottle of water, but you’ll have to stock up from the convenience store if you’re nothing like a camel. Frankly speaking, the locals would tell you that mineral water brands don’t matter—just pick the cheapest one or something you vaguely recognize. You wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between water from the Alps or simply treated water from a local catchment. Just make sure the bottle you get is sealed.
So, between plastic waste and health, you’d have to choose. For the sake of enjoying your trip, we suggest sticking with the former. You’d never want to be stuck with traveler’s diarrhea that only heals when you’ve returned. Alternatively, filling empty bottles with boiled tap water works too. The heat should kill 100% of pathogens after the water boils for a minute.
A point to note: you might even want to keep your mouth shut in the shower and gargle with bottled water.
19 Make Music With Honks
The saying that “patience is a virtue” might fall on deaf ears, depending on which Asian country you set foot in. The sheer population size in the mega cities of India, Indonesia, and Thailand would make you think twice before you hail a cab. Imagine crazy taxi drivers zooming and slamming their brakes on the streets of Manhattan, then multiply that ten or more times. It is not that these drivers are innately impatient, but that they need to find ways to let loose if they cannot even budge an inch during peak hours. Plus they have to battle with the motorcycles, bicycles, scooters, and pedestrians maneuvering their way through the gridlock. Sometimes, it is a fight between who should give way first. But considering that graciousness hardly pays on these roads, be gentle on your ears. Hit the trains instead.
Even in countries with slightly more bearable traffic, such as Malaysia and Singapore, you might probably find Grab drivers swerving around town so that they can meet their targets. Let’s not even go near the North-South expressway in Malaysia. If you are travelling at the speed limit of 110km/h, please stick to the left lane for you are too slow for passing cars. Who’s looking anyway?
18 Equip Yourself With The Basics Of Asian Languages
Do not assume that everyone knows English. If you are headed to overhyped touristy areas, simple English would get you by. The locals are well-trained to spot your exploratory demeanor and may even approach you before vice versa.
But if you love traveling off the beaten path, at least learn how to say “Hello. Goodbye. Thank you. I cannot speak English. I need food. I need the toilet. I need a cab. How do you get there?” in the native language of the countries you are visiting. Google translate would do the trick or a pocket dictionary, if you prefer.
Most locals will try to make sense of your body language, and your feeble attempt to speak their language would set them giggling away only to be returned with an abundance of hospitality. Be warned, though, a few black sheep may use this chance to rip you off, just like a foreigner may be charged three times the price of a tuk-tuk ride compared to a local.
It is the characters that may confuse you. Just like how a greenhouse is different from “green” and “house,” individual characters can take on a whole new meaning when combined. Do your research first or prepare to be surprised by the unknown.
17 It Can Be Rude To Tip!
Tipping rules vary throughout Asia. Most of the time, you’d be safe not tipping and sparing the extra cash. In Japan, tipping is akin to tarnishing their reputation of providing excellent service without incentives. Neither would you need to tip in Singapore or South Korea, where a 10% service charge is built into your bill. In China, you might find yourself battling against the law when you tip. Tipping a server indicates that he or she has not enough money to make ends meet. However, small change is still acceptable for bellboys and cab drivers. The same applies to Malaysia.
Hong Kong, Thailand, and Indonesia embrace the idea of tipping, but do not chase you down the aisle if you walk out without the tip. Swanky restaurants would expect more for their service, while typical hotel staff and cab drivers would appreciate the thought.
The only exception would be the Philippines, where tips are expected. At eateries, you are expected to tip between 5 to 10% of the bill. Tipping the cab drivers and hotel staff are a given, especially if you’d like to enjoy some impeccable Filipino service.
At times, a simple thank you would suffice. If you’re unsure, check if the bill has a service charge included or approach the concierge for help.
16 Google Map Everywhere And Anywhere
All hail Google! Given that each country has its own app or journey planner tool, Google Map is the only constant that helps you traverse across countries. Spare yourself the agony of conversing in the native language ‘til you come close to your destination.
What if you don’t have data or WiFi? Fret not for you can always download an offline map in advance. Even if you’re not connected or on flight mode, your phone’s GPS will be indicated as a blue dot on the map so that you are never truly lost. Whenever you get connection, pre-load directions to your next destination. When you reach your destination, find WiFi to pre-load directions to the following destination. And the process goes on. You can even create your own maps so that the best restaurants and sights are marked out for you to conquer.
Plan your trip in advance, suss out the traffic in real time, take note of bus and train arrival timings, or explore the nooks and crannies of obscure streets. These days, you can even estimate the cost of a cab ride to your destination. All these are absolutely necessary, especially if you don’t intend to honk or get honked at (refer to no. 19 above).
15 Eat Under 10. Under 5’s Better
How quickly can you stuff down your lunch? With tons of office workers flooding nearby eateries during their one-hour lunch break, it would be difficult to savor long meals unless you hunt down food only during off-peak hours. Imagine gobbling down a plate of meat over rice in less than 5 minutes—some people do that so that they still have time left to run their errands or pick up caffeine on the way back. That is why turnover rates at eateries are expectedly high.
If you don’t seem to be chewing down your food fast enough, be prepared for stares or get takeout instead.
If you simply want to chill over a cup of local coffee and people-watch, head to an actual cafe rather than a coffee shop. The coffee shop culture in Asia is all about fast, cheap, noise, deliciously good food, with a tad of grime that you can easily look past. In Hong Kong, you are even expected to order the moment you plonk on your seat. There are menus given, but you might not be given enough time to peruse it.
Since you’re on a holiday, it’s best to beat the rush and dig in mid-morning or mid-afternoon. The most sumptuous food might run out by then, but you get some peace in return.
14 Get Ready To Eat Innards
This is Fear Factor Live. If an animal were to be sacrificed as food, no part of it should be wasted. Liver, heart, brain, eyeballs, and even testicles—there is always a way to dish out these food in an appetizing manner. You might not even know what you have eaten until you are told.
Grossed out? Why not try a blind taste test then? Your eyes and brain tend to trick your taste buds into thinking otherwise, before you actually get to taste what lies before you. Otherwise, place your faith in upscale restaurants that carefully decorate and sauce these organs. Perhaps, it takes one good Michelin restaurant to change your perception of what can or cannot be eaten.
If you can deal with the lack of cleanliness, street food is the best way to taste innards as it is locally cooked. There are the boiled and fried options, depending on how much you’d like to sin. Even scorpions would taste like snacks when fried, while duck blood may still feel a little slimy when boiled.
To the Asian, these are nutritious meals. The organs must have present in an animal to serve certain functions, so we should be open to devouring the whole animal if we’d like all the nutrients.
13 Shout - The Loudest Voice Wins
This skill applies most to China and Hong Kong and definitely does not apply in Japan. Diners often shout out huo ji, which means server, to grab his or her attention. This is because servers are so preoccupied with the fast-paced dishing out of food, order-taking, clearing tables, and just the general background noise that they may miss out on your table. Courtesy is appreciated, but not necessary.
Head out to the local wet market or the night market and the shouting continues. Stall owners shout to grab your attention. Some even get creative and turn their shouts into songs. It is not easy to stand out in a marketplace with multiple stalls that sell the same items.
Apart from glitzy lights, flashy banners, and stands plastered with newspaper cutouts, the next best way for stalls to differentiate themselves from others is through voice. Loudhailers are commonplace.
Even in supermarkets or shopping malls, emcees may be hired to generate some buzz at food demonstrations or roadshows. Then bring on the racecourse, where locals are fired up with enthusiasm to cheer for the horse that they have bet on. Winners shout in elation, and losers shout in despair. The race ends with tired horses...and hoarse voices.
12 Master The Art Of Rejection
You are not the one being rejected, but you will need to learn how to reject others. It is not uncommon to see people circulating on roads to sell their goods, coming by tables to ask for donations, or setting up stands along sidewalks to ask for change. Naturally, most of us would extend our kindness to others—if a dollar could go a long way for the lives of others, why not spend that dollar to help them? Don’t say that you have not been warned. Sparing some cash for an individual may invite a mob instead.
Learn how to reject, for there are always other ways to help these people through volunteer networks. In some countries, it may not even be legal to openly ask for money without a permit granted in partnership with a nonprofit or welfare organisation. This may be a way to ensure that people of need reach out for help, rather than suffer in silence or perpetually lead their lives on the goodwill of others.
Of course, if you see a local busker demonstrating his talent in exchange for some cash, go ahead and support him or her just like you would back home.
11 Ditch Personal Space And Share Tables
Sharing a table in public with strangers is no big deal in Japan, Hong Kong, and parts of Malaysia. The rapid pace of society and the small spaces that restaurants contend with make it almost a culture to partake in a meal with strangers.
No small talk needed, just a smile and permission to seat at best.
We are not talking about grand wooden sharing tables at cafes to welcome interaction. We are talking about snagging a space quickly, in often crowded and noisy environments where service staff may not have the time or bandwidth to ensure that you have a seat. Popular places tend to have many patrons waiting strategically at tables with diners who are finishing their food. These patrons are better known as sharks or hawks, ever ready to snap up seats when they are emptied. And if you do find a seat, never stay too long to warm it.
Hong Kongers are probably the most well-trained in this regard. Some of their eateries intentionally stock up on round tables and stools rather than invest on refined benches and fixed tables. Round tables can easily pack as many people as can be squeezed, while stools allow for great flexibility in seating arrangement.
10 Hop On And Ride Away
Heard of Ofo, Mobike, or oBike? These bike-sharing platforms have swept through Asian countries like China and Singapore, featuring dockless bikes that can be unlocked and locked with an app and a QR code. Cost? Just US$0.37 for a 30-minute ride. On promo days, you won’t even have to pay a cent. Who would have thought that one of the sunniest and most humid islands in the world hopped on the bikewagon? The convenience and cost clearly beat the perspiration as food delivery companies use these bikes to get around town.
Go-Jek is the next in thing. While Uber thrives in the United States, Go-Jek thrives in Indonesia on two wheels. Motorcycles are the main mode of transport in Indonesia, which incentivizes motorcyclists to turn their daily ride into a cash opportunity. They have even expanded to digital payments and logistics. Don’t be surprised if you see Go-Jek in Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore, and the Philippines next.
The scooter thrives in Taiwan and Vietnam, where you probably won’t even need a license to scoot away. A great way to explore hidden gems in these countries, it is the fastest mode of transport that gets you through tiny streets and car-laden traffic.
9 Stop For A Wefie!
Selfies are passé, Asians are now into wefies. Given the increasingly important role that social media plays in politics, even Asian political leaders have gamed up their wefie skills. There is a great deal of truth to the saying that millennials eat with their phones first and hang out with their phones last. Most social gatherings end off with a group shot to document the event, which then appears on Facebook or Instastory.
Here are some tips for a wefie. The person taking the wefie should ideally have the longest arms and should stand much further in front compared to fit everyone else in the shot. A selfie stick would help. Angle your camera high so that faces look smaller and sharper. Turn on the selfie mode on your camera, use the burst shot, set the timer, and the shutter work its magic. It is better to take multiple shots because there’d be that one person who shuts his eye at the perfect moment when the camera clicks.
Quality control is a must, along with some editing. You could opt for an Insta filter or pick any beautifying app that the market has to offer. You’d never go wrong making dim photos look brighter, ironing out double chins, and slimming down waists. Just make the edits proportionally realistic.
8 Pinch Your Nose, Then Dig In!
As if innards aren’t crazy enough for your palette, welcome to the world of food with pungent smells. If you’re alright with truffle and blue cheese, you’d pass this test with flying colors.
The smelliest savory food award would go to stinky tofu. It’s easy to track these stalls down in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong night markets. The waft of what smells like baby poo will hit you before you see the actual stall. Have it served deep-fried or fluffily soft. Drench it with sweet sauce and chili if you’d like to mask the stench a little. Apparently invited since the Qing dynasty, the dish was renamed “imperial green cubes” by Empress Cixi in celebration of how surprisingly delicious something foul would taste.
Then comes the smelliest fruit, the durian. That’s a hit in Southeast Asian countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand where the experienced can tell between a sweet and bitter durian just by sniffing. The fruit may be cling-wrapped in styrofoam plates to tone down the smell, but you should share the joy in digging the fruit from the husk. Modern stalls have even gone experiential, allowing patrons to slurp down durian blends. Remember to soak your hands in soap right after!
7 Suck In Your Belly And Squeeze
How many Asians can you fit into a train? Start counting in hundreds because the typical Asian petite frame helps. Many developed Asian cities pride themselves on having efficient transport infrastructure, where train frequencies and capacities are high. The daily commute during peak hours and on last trains prove to be an experience you do not want to miss.
Train staff are positioned at platforms to direct traffic and specifically to push people into train carriages so that the next train is not delayed.
Unless you are getting off at a popular stop, you might find yourself stuck so deep within the carriage that you can’t get out. That’s when you should practice edging your way out because there are going to be more people who want to get in. If you’d like the best squeezing experience ever, try getting on any intercity train in China during the Chinese New Year period. You will not regret it.
On the other hand, dense developing Asian cities see their trains packed due to the sheer number of people they have. In India, passengers hang onto the railings of trains just so that they can catch a ride. For the risk-averse traveler, you might simply prefer to observe this on the side.
6 Get Yourself Fired Up
Do you prefer the numbing, the sweet-and-sour, the nasal-clearing, the burning, the fishy, or the milky? Enjoy the range of spices that Asia has to offer as you hop from one country to the next. Most people would have experienced the rush of wasabi, so that’s a given with every piece of sashimi that you savor. Then comes sweet Japanese curry that drenches over tonkatsu slices or omu rice—dip a piece of meat with the curry and top off the concoction with rice for some mega food coma after.
Next up, we have the tangy and fishy versions of the Thai curry and the Malaysian assam curry. Stay away from these curries if you don’t like fish or sour flavors, although they’re still worth a try for the first-timer. Alternative versions of Thai, Malaysian, Indonesian, and Singaporean curries include a whole lot of coconut milk, which dampens the spice but is extremely comforting. India probably has one of the largest diversity of curry across the nation. North India features thick, creamy, and rich curry cooked with ginger, onions, garlic, tomatoes, and nuts, while South INdia features tangy water curry cooked with roasted spices and coconut.
The worst of them all could possibly be mala hot pots, in which the Sichuanese peppercorn kills the taste of whatever goes into the pot. Skill is definitely needed to attempt this. Just make sure you have a carton of milk at the side.
5 Queue For Only The Best Stuff
The magic number is 10. The best way for stores to create hype is to generate a line. In fact, there have been reports of store owners paying people to stand in line just so that they can attract real customers. Apps have also been popping up where people can offer a price for others to stand in line for them—extremely useful for new iPhone releases. Be it clothing, merchandise, or food, people are willing to wait in line so that they get to taste or purchase the best or the trendiest.
That is why you should play the game right. Join the line or come back the next day at an odd hour to cut your wait time. Google these places beforehand, lest you join a ‘fake’ line or find yourself making a wasted trip. Food stalls can be the most unpredictable because they tend to close when they sell out. Note that stalls may have specific opening hours—some cash in during the mornings, others during the afternoons and evenings. A good number of stalls close on particular days of the week as well. As for merchandise or clothing, check if there are online options available. With the growing number of online shopping sites available, chances are you can score a promo code without even having to make a trip to the store.
4 Ordering Drinks
Kopi O, Teh, Kopi Gao, Teh C Siu Siu Dai, Tak Kiu, Teh Tarik, Yuan Yang. Good for you if you are able to make sense of these words. Throw lattes and mochas out of your mental frame and learn from the locals who’d be uttering these words to the cashier.
While international brews are available at cafes, coffee shops offer local brews that give you a stronger bang for your buck. These are often priced and sized at half or a third of international brews, making these drinks the typical go-to for breakfast or tea.
Takeouts are neatly designed with a sling so that you won’t have to worry about tipping the cup over. Vietnamese drip coffee, Thai iced tea and bubble tea offer modernized variants of the tried-and-tested. Nowadays, there are even cups designed with a split in the middle so that you can drink two types of drinks at once if you’d like or alternate sips between both drinks. The tapioca pearls itself have gone mini, transparent, or coated with brown sugar to give you that sugar rush.
For nutritional benefits, you might like to indulge in tea traditionally brewed from tea leaves instead. The mountainous landscapes of some Asian countries have produced a variety of tea blends to soothe your soul.
3 Sorry, Seat Taken!
It doesn’t matter if you’re traveling alone once you’ve learnt the art of reserving seats in Singapore’s crowded food centers. Always carry a tissue packet, an umbrella, a name card, or any other loose item with you when you venture into hawker centers. Place one of these items on the table and the seat is choped! Chope is the local equivalent of the term reserve, and can be used just like any other verb—choping, choped. Of course, leaving your phone or wallet on the table is not a wise option, as much as Singapore proves to be one of the safest countries in the world.
While this culture of hogging seats is seen as plain rude to some, others laud it as a uniquely Singaporean practice. Considering the long queues and short lunch hours, locals have got to be innovative so that they are fueled up for the second half of the day. If you’re uncomfortable with laying personal items so openly, then it’s best to eat with a partner so that one can guard the table while you queue for food. Otherwise, you might want to get a takeaway and feast at benches and standing tables in malls instead.
2 There’s No Shame To Haggling
As a foreigner, it’s easy to tell you apart from the locals. Even if you’re an Asian that has grown up elsewhere, your tone will give your cultural roots away. And that’s when prices get jacked up based on the assumption that you can afford way more than other Asian tourists.
Try this experiment the next time you’re at a local market. Ask for the price of a pair of shoes, then get a local to ask for the price of the same pair of shoes in their native language. Don’t be surprised that the price quoted to you doubles that quoted to locals. This applies to food at wet markets, merchandise at stalls, and even the cost of traveling on informal transport like tuk-tuks and black cabs.
Survey the stalls within the market before you zoom in on one. Say that you’ve seen a cheaper price at a stall elsewhere. Buy in bulk or quote any other reason that you think would work well with these owners. But never haggle unless you have the intention to buy. Or else, be prepared to receive some angry shouts. For the best prices, enter the store as the first customer of the day. It’s considered auspicious in Chinese culture to make the first sale so that the rest of the day will bode well.
You might have heard many stories of foreigners entering restrooms that do not have toilets and face huge difficulties relieving themselves without dropping items into the hole below. Sunglasses, cameras, and mobiles have their fair share of landing in goo. You might have heard other stories of people losing their balance as they stand up, causing one of their feet to stamp onto a pile of mess. Search YouTube and you’ll find videos showing how Asians can squat and their Western counterparts cannot, as if Westerners do not have the same muscles as Asians.
The skill of squatting was honed much earlier in the days where people squatted on streets as they eat. When toilets were not invented are were not affordable enough, people dug holes or relieved themselves in open canals. Even when toilets became more widely available, some parents are guilty of having their children squat on toilet seats.
Squatting can become tiring after a while, but it has become so ingrained in the Asian life that younger generations pick up the skill quickly. In fact, kids instinctively know how to squat as they lower themselves to the ground or as they stand, but they slowly lose the skill if they no longer use it when they grow up. So, if you’re heading to Asia, maybe you’d like to hit the gym first!