Over the past year, we’ve lived in some of the most beautiful places in the world. We’ve visited dozens of UNESCO World Heritage sites, climbed the world’s most iconic mountain range, lazed around on pristine beaches, witnessed unforgettable sunsets, and explored ancient temples. These experiences are easy to share with our family, friends and readers. These are things everyone can enjoy vicariously.
However, the beaches, mountains, and temples are not our most profound impressions from our past year. In fact, after a dozen or so temples, they all start to run together. The things that really stay with us are the little things that make each place unique; the little cultural quirks that really reflect the foundation of a place.
About three months into our travels, we started reflecting on and documenting those little things from each place that we found genuinely endearing. These are things that you’ve probably never heard of, and that most of the casual tourists might miss.
We hope that you appreciate these as much as we do:
Super unique animals
These little guys were wandering all over the tiny, sparsely inhabited island of Gili Meno. Not sure if they’re cows or deer, but they’re adorable either way! Indonesia is truly a unique place when it comes to wildlife, and you don’t need to romp out into the jungle to find something unique.
Warungs, the Indonesian one-stop-shop
These little corner stands were everywhere and were outfitted with just about anything you could need. The Warung owners are notoriously helpful and can organize anything from a taxi to a hotel room for you. The freshly prepared food is delicious too, if you’ve got the guts to try it.
A traditional Indonesian food type made of soy, and is way better than tofu. It’s a slightly fermented and hardened soybean paste, which might sound gross, but I assure you it’s DELISH!
Drinks in a bag
If you’re in a hurry, but haven’t had your morning Teh Tarik (pulled chai tea), don’t fret! They’ll just pour it straight into a plastic bag and tie it off around a straw with a rubber band. To go cups are overrated anyways!
It actually means “same to you,” but this is the super adorable way of saying “you’re welcome” in Malay. It was fun to say and we loved hearing it from just about every service person we ever came across.
These old U.S. military jeeps left over from WWII have been converted into something in between a shared taxi and a bus. The old trucks have all been personalized and pimped out to each driver’s liking and the locals pile into (and on top of) them and zip around the city.
Unlike everywhere else in Asia, the Philippines somehow adopted basketball as their national sport. Even out in the villages you would find makeshift courts slapped together with a plastic trash bin rim and a particle board backboard. Most people even play in flip flops.
A street for each type of product
The Vietnamese have a very different commercial strategy than we do in the west. In Hanoi, for example, if you need a particular item or service, there is a neighborhood where all merchants of that one item are located. If you need motorbike parts, go to this one street and there’s twenty vendors, just take your pick. Need a haircut? There’s another street for that. There’s no such thing as a one-stop-shop, at least in Hanoi, so you better know exactly what you’re looking for and exactly where to find it. Oh, and the price is the same at all of them.
Bia Hoi is a very light “lager” style beer (similar to Miller, Bud or Coors Lite) that is brewed and distributed daily to little corner stands around the country. Bia Hoi is almost exclusively drank outside on a street corner on tiny tables and chairs, and you will find Vietnamese men having a grand old time at these Bia Hoi shops at all hours of the day. Because the beer doesn’t have much time to ferment, it’s only mildly alcoholic (~3%), but you can easily get a nice buzz when you’re out drinking a lot of it on a steamy Saigon night. The best part…it’s only about $0.15 a pint! We love Vietnam!
Tiny tables and chairs
Everything was noticeably smaller in Asia, but Vietnam definitely stood out with regard to the furniture. The chairs at a roadside food or coffee stand were never more than a foot tall. The tables weren’t much taller, and if you order a lot of food for a lot of people you really have to get creative with space. That said, there’s no better way to enjoy the Vietnam roadside action than from a tiny front row seat.
Yes, there were motorbikes EVERYWHERE in Asia, but Vietnam was really on another level. Slowing down or being a defensive driver makes you unpredictable and a hazard on the road. Drivers expect to be cut off, and people crossing the street expect to make it across safely. AND THEY ALWAYS DO! You could seriously close your eyes and cross the street in Vietnam and be perfectly safe, as long as you maintain your stride. The motorbike traffic just flows around a pedestrian like water. Driving in Hanoi might seem terrifying at first, but after a while you just need to embrace the chaos. Motorbikes rule the road in Vietnam.
Ya it’s totally a weird thing to stand out about a country, but have you tried the 7-11 food though?! It’s seriously on another level. In an American 7-11, you’re forced to pick between a slimy hotdog or stale taquito from the grimy hamster-wheel heater near the cashier. In Thailand, you can get straight gourmet frozen Thai food that they will microwave up for you at the register. The 7-11 food is seriously better than most Thai food I’ve ever had in the U.S. . We have to get some of that stuff here pronto!
Krap and Kaa!
These are the words that Thai men and women end all their sentences with as a sign of hospitality. The men end a sentence with “Krap” and the women end a sentence with “Kaa” and it’s seriously adorable. They even say it at the end of English sentences: “Thank you Kaaa!”, “You want massage Kaaaa?”, “Where you from Kaa?” We seriously couldn’t get enough of it and we wish there were an English equivalent.
In Thailand, the women run the show. This was actually true in much of Southeast Asia, but in Thailand it was most prevalent. When you pay your male waiter for your meal, he immediately takes the money over to his wife (or grandma) who’s in charge of all the finances. We encountered no exceptions to that rule. The men did most of the work and the women called most of the shots. It was a very refreshing departure from the gender roles adopted by most of the world.
Tibetan prayer flags
While we were in Nepal, we spent most of our time in the Himalayas, so naturally we encountered thousands of prayer flags left by pilgrims and villagers. These strings of five sequential colored flags (blue, white, red, green, yellow, in that order) are inscribed with numerous mantras and were meant to bless the surroundings; particularly in treacherous areas. They really made a unique impression on an already beautiful landscape.
Dai / Bai
The Nepalese call one another Dai or Bai (Sister or Brother), even to complete strangers, foreigners or guests. I believe it is this aspect of Nepalese culture that makes the Nepalese one of the most hospitable people on the planet. When we visited Nepal, it was less than a year after a huge earthquake demolished much of Kathmandu, and many people had lost everything: homes, businesses, family members, and more. Yet they embraced us as family, calling us Dai and Bai and inviting us into their homes. We only wish everyone in the world would view one another this way.
Yep, yaks are weird and funny-looking, but they are sacred in Nepal and vital to the villagers in the Himalayas. They burn yak dung to cook food and make cheese from yak milk. They’re so serious about it that a village woman once threw a rock at me because I was scaring one of her older yaks by standing too close to the road as she herded them through. Yaks are serious business up in the Himalayas.
Literally translating to “rice and beans,” Daal Bhat is the most ubiquitous food staple of Nepal. And it is just that: rice and beans (Lentil soup); as much of it as you can pile down your gullet in a sitting at the end of a long day hiking. One order of Daal Bhat (about $2) comes with unlimited refills, and while it might seem a little boring, each tea house cook has their own twist on this classic dish (sometimes including some curried vegetables or a spicy pickle, depending on what’s growing in the region). We ate it literally for two-weeks straight out on the trail, and it always filled us up and kept us warm.
Morning juniper offerings
There’s nothing quite like the smell of smoldering juniper offerings on a crisp Himalayan morning. The Tibetans burn juniper branches as a form of mountain worship, and just about every Himalayan teahouse performs this morning ritual. Since Himalayan Juniper establishes one of the highest tree lines in the world, the offerings are even made well above 16,000 ft. The most peaceful wake-up call imaginable!
Oh the infamous head bobble! Does it mean yes? Does it mean no? Who knows! All that matters is it’s hilarious, contagious and unbelievably endearing (as long as you’re not asking for help). I still catch myself bobbling my head at strangers from time to time when I’m feeling extra friendly.
Challo! Challo! India is so chaotic there’s always somewhere you need to be, something you need to accomplish. You will hear this a hundred times a day in India. Someone will ask “Challeh?” (should we go?), and invariably the group will exclaim “CHALLO CHALLO!” (LET’S GO! LET’S GO!). Multiply that enthusiasm by 1.3 billion and you have a basic idea of how chaotic India is.
There’s no question that communication is one of the most difficult obstacles to traveling in India. Here’s a fun fact: Hindi, Bengali, and Telugu are the three most widely spoken native languages in India with a total of about 580 million native speakers (more than the population of the USA, Canada and Mexico combined). However, there are 1.3 billion people in India, which means that over 700 million people (roughly the entire population of Europe) do not speak one of the top three Indian languages natively. Staggering! It’s no wonder they invented the head bobble to demonstrate their confusion!
The Chaiwallahs (tea vendors) are the heart and soul of India. These guys work their butts off carrying around a heavy canister of hot tea to sell on every corner of the country; every train car, every bus stop, every marketplace. You’re never more than a hundred feet from a Chaiwallah, and when the chai is only 5 rupees (about $0.07) a cup, it’s hard not to guzzle your weight in chai on a daily basis. Now, back in U.S.A., I just spent $5.00 for a bougie chai latte that wasn’t half as good. How I miss the Chaiwallahs!
We don’t actually miss the thousands of cows lumbering about the city streets causing traffic jams and pooping on your hostel doormat. In fact, it’s impossible to miss them. Literally. They’re everywhere. While we definitely don’t miss them, we will certainly never forget them!
No it’s not just for mother-nature worshipping hippies. Ayurvedic health practices are at least as common as western practices in India. In some ways it’s a good thing, promoting health treatment as primarily a lifestyle adjustment (diet, exercise, meditation, etc.). However, depending on your inherent energy type (your dosha), an Ayurvedic doctor might prescribe treatment of enema, induced vomiting, bleeding, or laxative treatment…YAY!
Lick your thumb, and transfer that cash one green smacker at a time from one hand to the next! Think there’s only one way to count a fresh stack of bills? Think again! Somehow the Burmese have adopted an alternative way to count their cash, and it’s something we haven’t seen anywhere else (even their neighboring countries!). They hold the stack of dough upright on its side, bend the nearest corner of the stack with the thumb of one hand, and with the index finger of the same hand pull individual bills from the bent corner to the gap in between the index and middle fingers. IT’S NUTS! Check it out here!
While it’s seen as extremely rude in most countries, making a kissing noise to get someone’s attention (e.g. a waiter) is encouraged in Myanmar. This took us a little while to get used to, but once we got it, it stuck. We even caught ourselves kissing at our waiter in Thailand a couple weeks later. He was not amused…
In Myanmar, most of the men (and women) wear a stylish long skirt known as a longyi. This is not entirely unique to Myanmar; longyis are also very common in south India (for men). However, where the Indian version is essentially a towel that the men wrap around their waist (and occasionally fold the bottom up to their waist, making it look like an adult diaper), the Burmese longyi is more like a woman’s skirt that is folded over itself at the waist and securely tucked in. People wear these everywhere and for all occasions. It was definitely one of the most unique fashion statements we experienced in Asia.
Car steering wheel both sides
Myanmar is a former British colony, and up until the 1970’s, they drove on the left hand side of the road as per British custom. However, in the 1970’s the government decided to switch to right-hand driving. Obviously this caused some problems at first, but over time most things worked themselves out. MOST things. One thing that still remains of the old ways is that at least half of the vehicles still have the driver on the right side.
This means when your bus pulls up alongside the road, you have to jump out into traffic instead of stepping right on from the curb. When you drive up to a toll and have to pay the teller on the left side, you have to reach your cash all the way across the car. Other than a few minor inconveniences, everyone seems to get along just fine and there doesn’t seem to be much motivation to change.
Definitely one of the most unique driving experiences of our trip!
One of the most well-known cultural icons of Myanmar, is the famous face paste, or Thanaka. Burmese women wear this paste primarily as makeup on their cheeks, nose and forehead, although it doubles as sun protection. The Thanaka is made from rubbing the wood of an endemic tree on a wet stone until the wood breaks down into a paste which is then applied to the face and left to dry. The most common application is two large circles on the cheeks, although many women get creative with unique patterns and colors.
A tuk-tuk is a three-wheeled motorized vehicle, also known as a motor rickshaw, that is commonly operated as a taxi. Tuk-tuks are not unique to Cambodia, but Cambodian tuk-tuks are certainly unique. Where tuk-tuks in India and Thailand are all one unit where the driver sits in the front seat and the passengers in the back, Tuk-tuks in Cambodia are more like a motorcycle towing a trailer. It felt a little like a horse-drawn carriage…sans horse. We hired a tuk-tuk in Siem Reap for multiple days and the driver took us through the famous temples of Angkor Wat. The temples were cool, but the highlight was definitely the tuk-tuk!