Eleven Ways in Which Our Life in Southeast Asia Differs from Our Life in the United States

Some changes are obvious, such as no longer commuting to an office each day and not being able to speak the local language. But other changes are less apparent. So in the spirit of Buzzfeed and similar websites that have perfected the list-with-photos-masquerading-as-an-article, here’s our own “listicle” about life on the road.

1) Toilets Come with a Hose, but Don’t Flush the Paper

What happens in the bathroom isn’t a topic for polite conversation, but it’s part of daily life, so most people are probably a little curious about how it differs in different places. Almost everywhere we’ve visited in Southeast Asia, plumbing systems (even in newer buildings) aren’t designed to handle toilet paper, so it goes in a covered trash can rather than into the toilet bowl.

The good news is that you don’t need to use much paper here. Next to most toilets is a hose with a spray nozzle, exactly like the ones that many Americans have on their kitchen sinks. After taking care of business, you use the spray from the hose to clean your nether regions, then dry yourself off with a little paper (or, when in our own bathroom, with a towel).

2) Sometimes the Toilet Is a Hole in the Floor

Before we came to Asia, Chris was really intimidated by the thought of using “squatty potties.” But places here have developed at such a rapid pace that we’ve only encountered them about a dozen times. And with a little practice, they’re pretty easy to use (as long as your knees aren’t too bad). The hardest part is squatting low enough to keep your aim true while remembering to keep your pants or skirt safely around your knees and off the dirty floor.

The best squatty we’ve encountered: the one on the night train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, Thailand. Yes, it really is just a hole in the floor going right onto the tracks. That was a windy affair.

3) We Don’t Sing in the Shower or Rinse Our Toothbrushes Under the Tap

Our life doesn’t actually revolve around toilets. Other bathroom practices are pretty central too. Almost everywhere we’ve been, the tap water hasn’t been drinkable. It’s not simply a case of our having different constitutions; even local people (except the very poorest) drink only bottled water. That means we have to remember each day to keep our mouths shut in the shower and to use purified water to brush our teeth.

Many foreign travelers in Asia also try hard to avoid ice, but most ice these days seems to be made from purified water, so we haven’t worried about that. (Melissa is too big a fan of iced tea in hot weather to skip it.)

Avoiding tap water, however, can lead to using a lot of plastic bottles, which is hard on the environment. So we always buy the biggest bottles we can find and then look for places to refill them. A growing number of guesthouses, cafes, and libraries have water coolers where you can refill a bottle for a small price. Some towns in Malaysia, Thailand, and the Philippines also have machines on the street where you can put in a few coins and fill up your water bottles.

If we’re staying in a room or apartment with an electric kettle, we boil water to use for tooth brushing and dish washing. And in a pinch, we have a nifty device (called a Steripen) that purifies water using UV rays. It has a limited battery life, so we save it for situations where we don’t have other alternatives.

All of that seems to be working for us: During our five months in Asia, we’ve each come down with “traveler’s tummy” for only two or three days—a much lower percentage than when we were in Central America.

4) We Eat a Lot of Meals While Sitting on Little Plastic Stools on the Sidewalk

Just like at home, we still spend time in coffee shops working on our laptops and still go out to eat in nice restaurants sometimes. But here the cheapest—and often the freshest and most interesting—food generally comes from stalls set up in open-air markets or in little shop fronts that spill out onto the sidewalk.

Hygiene fanatics might not relish sitting on a low stool, inches above a dirty sidewalk, at a table with a metal top or an old plastic tablecloth that is swiped with a dubious rag between customers, while cars and motorbikes whiz past two feet away. But we’ve gradually gotten used to such places, and in the process we’ve eaten a lot of really good food, while seeing an authentic slice of local life.

Anyone who can manage to corner the market on small plastic stools in Southeast Asia will make a fortune. The things are everywhere! (And, for some reason, they’re almost always red or blue.)

5) We Hardly Ever Do Our Own Laundry Anymore

Our travel wardrobes include a week’s worth of underwear, so we need to do laundry once a week. When we traveled in Europe, that meant finding a laundromat or, more commonly, washing clothes in our bathroom sink and hanging them to dry in our room (hence our passion for finding clothes that can drip dry overnight).

Here in Southeast Asia, it’s an entirely different story. Laundromats are rare. Instead, every block or two includes an establishment that does laundry for you: Bring your bag of clothes in the morning, get them weighed on the scale, pay by the kilogram, and come back and get them at the end of the day (or maybe the next morning, if the place is busy or the day is cloudy, meaning that clothes hung outside take longer to dry).

The system is fast, efficient, and usually costs us only about $3 to $6 a week. So far, the only mishaps we’ve had are losing one pair of underwear and having one shirt shrink (but that was a cheap knockoff from the market rather than something from home, so it wasn’t a big loss).

6) Grocery Stores Are the Exception

Occasionally we run across an American-style grocery store, and its size, orderliness, and selection fill us with wide-eyed wonder (although the prepackaged produce looks awfully strange). More often, we buy fruits and vegetables from stalls on the street, and we buy toiletries, snacks, and drinks from little shops set into the front rooms of people’s homes. (Meat we make sure to get already cooked, as in item 4.)

7) Crossing the Street Takes a Lot More Concentration Than It Used To

Gone are the days when we could stand carelessly at a crosswalk waiting for the walk sign to come on and then amble across the street deep in conversation or lost in a daydream. In the cities of Southeast Asia that we’ve visited, small or large, pedestrian signals are uncommon. And where they do exist, vehicles largely ignore them.

As a result, making it safely across a street requires full attention and steady nerves. You wait for something resembling a gap in traffic in the lane closest to you and plow steadily across it; then you wait in the middle until you see a slight gap in the next lane and do the same thing; and so on until you’ve made it to the other side.

Nerve-wracking as it is to stand so close to speeding vehicles, you have to trust that they’re trying their best not to hit you. The key is that once you’re moving, you have proceed at a steady pace and in a predictable direction. It may go against every instinct in your body, but freezing in the path of an oncoming motorbike will just make it harder for the driver to swerve around you.

None of that applies, though, if you have the good fortune to be crossing the street next to a monk. For them, traffic parts like the Red Sea. No Buddhist wants to risk the negative spiritual consequences of hitting a holy man.

8) We Haven’t Driven a Car for Seven Months

In cities, traffic feels too crazy for outsiders like us to navigate. In rural areas, rental cars are often hard to find or are way beyond our budget. When we want to travel by car, it’s generally cheaper—and certainly easier—to hire a driver with a car than to rent a car ourselves. We’ve done that sometimes to visit out-of-the-way places. Usually, though, we travel between towns on buses (ranging from minivans to full-size buses), and we travel within towns on foot, by taxi, by tuk-tuk (above), or on the back of a motorcycle taxi.

We rented motorbikes for a day in a relatively quiet part of Bali, but we quickly decided that we needed a lot more practice to feel comfortable driving a motorbike elsewhere. We’re hoping to get some more practice this summer, whenever we can find somewhere with a bike to borrow and a nice big empty parking lot to practice in.

9) Rock-Hard Beds Feel Normal Now

For some reason, box springs haven’t made many inroads in Southeast Asia. Beds are usually a mattress sitting on the solid wood platform of a bedframe (no slats here). And we’re not talking the 8” tall pillow-top mattresses you encounter in the United States; these are half as high and pretty darn solid.

During our first few weeks in Asia, it was tough getting used to beds so much harder than our old one. If you threw yourself down on the mattress, it hurt! Now, though, rock-hard beds are so familiar that when we occasionally encounter a soft one (as we did in our apartment in Chiang Mai, Thailand), it feels strangely squishy. We both think we wake up less stiff and creaky when sleeping on a hard mattress than we did at home. And another bonus: Chris doesn’t snore in hard beds!

10) The Seasons Are a Jumble, but It Always Gets Dark Around the Same Time

Since coming to Southeast Asia, we’ve experienced a variety of weather: hot and rainless (though very humid), warm and rainy, cool and rainy, and slightly chilly and overcast. As we hop from country to country and from north to south, we’ve changed seasons in no particular order. We’ve seen dry, dust-covered vegetation, bare trees, and new, light-green leaves—basically, everything but a northern-latitudes winter.

Even as the weather has changed from country to country, the length of the day has stayed more or less the same. Everywhere we’ve been (while we’ve been there), the sun has risen sometime between 6 and 7 a.m. and set sometime between 6 and 7 p.m. That means we’ve always had 11 to 13 hours of daylight. With so little change over the months, it’s easy to lose a sense of time passing.

11) We Don’t Own Any Keys

This one will still be true when we come back to the United States for a visit, but it’s so freaky that we have to include it. After we let our lease in Virginia expire and sold our car, we no longer owned any keys. Relatives and friends are kindly storing our extra possessions, so we don’t even have a key to a storage unit. There’s a hook in Chris’s purse for a key ring, and the only thing she had to hang on it was a little compass with a whistle attached (until she lost it).

It feels profoundly strange to not have any keys that we don’t have to turn in when we leave wherever we’re currently staying. It’s such a tangible symbol of our tumbleweed life.

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