One of my first personal transformations when I started living and traveling around Southeast Asia was that of slowing down. Way, way down.
Southeast Asia lies in the tropics. It’s hot and humid year-round. Outside major cities, people tend to spend their days at a leisurely pace. There’s always plenty of time to relax, sit around and chat with friends, and attend religious ceremonies with family. Thais say, “Sabai, sabai.” Take it easy. While Indonesians use, “Pelan, pelan.” Go slowly.
Unlike Americans, Southeast Asians generally don’t consider work the end-all-be-all priority in life. Family, friends, religious customs and leisure time are truly just as important. Before arriving in SE Asia, I had always spent life in a mad, packed-in dash. I would jump up early every morning, dash off to work or classes or sports or errands then continue running until bed time.
After arriving in Bangkok to begin my new life exploring SE Asia by bicycle, it took a couple months, but soon enough I transformed my daily life into a much more leisurely affair. I continued getting up early and keeping myself occupied all day. But more of my daily hours became devoted to chatting with locals, reading books on my guest house verandas, and sipping espressos while over-looking the sea at Sanur, Bali or Langkawi Island, Malaysia. During the evenings I’d go see a movie at MBK in Bangkok or when I was in Kuala Lumpur, KLCC. And my afternoons were usually spent suntanning at my favorite beaches like Amed Beach in Bali or Tonsai Beach in Thailand.
At heart I am not a very patient person. I like efficiency, planning and having everything run smoothly. So I get particularly frustrated when I have to wait in a line. But waiting is an unavoidable part of daily life in Southeast Asia. Customers must wait in lines at banks, post offices, clinics and hospitals, train and bus stations, grocery stores, movie theaters — everybody waits, everywhere. Buses often don’t have set schedules. Journeys begin when the buses fill up.
Locals never bat an eye at any of this. They just wait patiently for as long as it takes. Sabai, sabai.
I, on the other hand, used to stand in lines with mounting internal aggravation. I’d want to tear my hair out, scream at the top of my lungs, demand faster service. Instead I’d quietly heave a heavy, frustrated sigh and squirm. After months of such self-induced drama, I finally found a way to keep my cool.
I started using all that empty time to focus on something fun, useful or productive. I started doing stretches, reading books, updating my daily budget, planning the next step of my trip, texting friends, daydreaming about recent adventures or figuring out my clubbing outfit for that evening in Bangkok.
Once I started creating things ‘to do,’ my emotional state greatly improved. Instead of lines being cesspools of negative aggro energy, lines became places where I enjoyed activities, got productive and put myself in a joyous mental state.
In America’s four-season climates, homes protect people from the continually-changing, often uncomfortable or even dangerous weather conditions. As Americans, our homes are our nests, our cocoons, our security blankets.
In tropical countries, there’s not nearly as much need for buildings to protect people from nature. Many traditional architecture styles are open-aired and more directly connected to the natural world. Open-air balconies, wall-less restaurants, non-glassed windows, open pavilions and other exposed building elements are common.
In SE Asia I spent most of my life outside, connected to nature. I ate at open-aired restaurants and drank at open-aired bars and cafes. I sat outside to read, work online and meet friends. I even got massages outside, in open salas (pavilions) set in gardens and on beaches. Sometimes I even showered while gazing up at trees, flowers or the bright blue sky.
I walked or cycled between stores, restaurants and my budget hotel. When using public transportation, I was often basically outside as well. I took songtaos (open-aired pick-up trucks), tuk-tuks, trishaws, rickshaws, open-window buses and trains.
The only time I was really surrounded by walls there was when sleeping.
Southeast Asian cuisines are exceptionally varied and delicious. They also tend to be healthier. Most warungs (local restaurants), talads (Thai markets), pasars (Malaysian & Indonesian markets) and street stalls serve food cooked on the spot, from scratch, using fresh, locally-grown produce and freshly butchered meats. Not fruits, vegetables and animal products that have been sitting in large grocery stores wrapped in plastic. Dairy products are pretty much absent, thus avoiding many heavy fats and cholesterol found in western cuisines.
Asian foods are so healthy, tasty and varied that I simply ate them all the time, for every meal, every day. I even preferred Asian breakfasts such as khao tom moo (rice soup with lean pork), soto ayam (rice and noodle soup with chicken), khao niao gai (sticky rice with chicken), mie goreng (stir-fried noodles), nasi lemak (rice with fish and veggies), roti canai with te tarik (pan-grilled bread and gravy with frothing milk tea) and Chinese dim sum.
One of the many wonderful aspects of life in Southeast Asia is the fact that all of those delicious Asian meals are available everywhere, and they’re cheap.
No matter where I traveled or lived in the region, I could quickly and easily find at least one great warung or street stall open. For the equivalent of $1 to $3 USD I could eat kao mun gai (chicken on rice), nasi campur (rice with mixed vegetables and meats to order), som tam (papaya salad), pad Thai goong (stir fried noodles with shrimp) or masakan padang (Sumatran-style mixed rice dishes) just about any time of day or night. And I could do so within a 5-10 minute walk from my house.
Habitually going out to eat freed up so much daily time and energy that it was mind-boggling. There was no need to plan meals, make a shopping list, go grocery shopping, bring food home, put it away, cook, pack up and put away leftovers or clean. No food scraps, dishes, counters, tables or silverware to clean. Nada.
Instead, I just walked down the street for a few minutes, selected a choice eatery, pointed out which dishes I wanted, sat down and dug in.
Living in Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines — countries with very different languages, customs and cultures than I was used to in America — I learned that there was often no choice but to embrace uncertainty and confusion. It was simply not always possible to know what the heck was going on.
For well over a decade I traveled, lived and worked around SE Asia. I made many local friends in Bali, Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia. I spoke conversational level Thai, Malay and Indonesian. Yet I still didn’t always understand what was happening around me.
Sometimes I got the basic gist of things, but didn’t catch the details. Other times I had absolutely no idea what was up. And the thing was, I really didn’t have any way of finding out, either.
Even with years of experience, there were still language barriers, lack of cultural knowledge and the tendency of people in SE Asian countries to not care about details, to not necessarily speak the truth and to not be concerned about the why’s and how’s of things. In many situations there was a good chance the locals didn’t actually know what was going on either. And I grew to find out, that that was all okay.