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Six Steps to Tapping into Local Culture in Southeast Asia

Updated 28 May 2010

It’s often far too easy to fall into an expats-only social circle when you move to a new country.  But feeling like an insider rather than an outsider means befriending locals, trying new things and staying open to challenging ideas.  Braving such unfamiliar territories can be difficult, but it’s the most rewarding way to get to know a place.

Clue into the history

Viewing a culture only in the context of the here and now is like estimating the size of a glacier by what appears above water. That’s why, even before you arrive in Southeast Asia, it’s best to start cramming.

Guidebooks will contain a brief overview of your destination’s history; Footprint guides are particularly satisfying for their site-by-site background info. But reading a brief regional history, like  the Short History of Asia series printed by Allen & Unwin, or consulting information-dense sites like Expat Arrivals are even better ways to prepare to tackle your new destination. When you know the history and the local mythologies, the artistry becomes experience, and the aura of myth and of tradition hangs palpably in the air.

Too often travellers allow local people to become a part of the scenery, or remain in a category of the exotic, the non-interpretable.  Fight this tendency when you first arrive by visiting some art, history, and ethnology museums with a regional focus.  It’s also a great idea to visit local bookstores and find the brochures and local histories that your hometown Borders didn’t carry. And don’t forget that history is a living thing: check out the daily newspapers, and know what the big issues of the day are.

Talk to everyone

This means your taxi or tuk-tuk driver, your hotel busboy, the lady that sells scarves at the market, your tour guide.  Warmth and hospitality are easy to find in Southeast Asia, and it’s rare that you’ll be met with anything but a smile and an eagerness to help.  Locals know how much a taxi ride should cost and the cheapest places to shop.  Your waiter can tell stories about his hometown or local temple that exist only in the tales that parents tell their children.

And when you’re on a tour, don’t focus too much on your fellow travellers and ignore your guides.  They often know their surroundings intimately from childhood, and can answer all the questions your books could not.  Not to mention, if you get to know a little bit about them personally, many will be overjoyed to teach you some key phrases in the local language, or even invite you to their homes for a lunch of eggplant and sticky rice.

Eat as the locals eat

The closed-front restaurant is more or less an import to Southeast Asia, and therefore will almost always be more expensive and represent poorly how and what locals eat.  Open-air, cafeteria-style joints are common in Malaysia and almost always safe to eat in—and often packed, so you can bet something there is tasty.   Meanwhile, you’re sure to meet a few people who are delighted to see you enjoying a helping of Penang curry in their corner diner.

Street stalls can be a cheap, convenient, and delicious option, too, as long as you stick to booths where they stir fry your Pad Thai right in front of you.  Noodles and rice, as well as bread products like pancakes, are generally the safest options; avoid meats and be cautious about vegetables and fruits.  But don’t pass up the stalls completely—it’s hard to enjoy the night market without them.


Grab a good map and don’t use it.  After several days of visiting museums and touring temple sites, you’re beginning to learn your way around.  Take a day and don’t go anywhere: just go.  Peer into junk shops; study the intricate wood carvings on a row of houses.  Stop for a smoothie in the park.  Come upon a small market down a side street.  Listen to your surroundings.  Smell the air. There is no better way to get your bearings and come to feel at home in a new place.

Use local transport

Sometimes it pays to take the less-crowded tourist van.  But at least once, try the local bus.  The aisle may be stacked with ottomans, bedrolls, even chickens, but who ever made the rule that that’s not fun?

Packed in tight on a bus or train with people going about their daily lives, you’ll become better acquainted with local living conditions and how people make their living—and what you learn may surprise you.  When you see a half-dozen strangers—without complaint, without hesitation—help an elderly lady unload baskets and baskets of foodstuffs, clothes, and furniture off the top of a bus, you will have witnessed the generosity and grace that thrive in—or perhaps stem from—the most abject poverty. 

Don’t forget the holidays

Make sure you know both the national and local holidays. You can find out the what-and-when not only through your guidebook but by asking your newfound acquaintances. Most will be overjoyed to tell you about their local and national celebrations; these festivals are among the richest displays of culture you’ll come across.

Holidays are very often an occasion to spend time with family, so many Southeast Asians will sympathize powerfully with your distance from your own family, and invite you to join theirs for special occasions.  The pride people feel during big holidays tends to spill over and make you feel more welcome than ever—for instance, the month of Ramadan and the fast-breaking celebration Hari Raya Aidilfitri is a spectacular time in Malaysia for Muslims and non-Muslims to come together for open houses, eat massive quantities of cookies and Rendang, weave ketupat pulut, and meet tons of new people. 

The key is to be open to invitation.

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