These are some tips that are good for any trip, long or short. And probably for just going to the grocery store at home, too.
smile and say hello
We noticed in Laos, many people initially regard us warily or suspiciously. But as soon as we smiled and said, “Sabaidee!” (hello), people break into huge grins and wave at us. People are much more welcoming as soon as you demonstrate friendliness and a willingness to try to speak their language. Even something as simple as smiling helps people feel less threatened and breaks down walls, and it’s hard to resist smiling back at someone who is grinning like a fool at you.
Along those lines, always learn how to say: “hello,” “thank you,” “delicious,” “beautiful” and “very.” “Yes” and “no” are helpful but most people understand head shakes and nods or hand signals (be careful with hand signals as they vary greatly across borders!).
Make an effort to learn as many words as you can and people will love you. Even if your pronunciation is awful, people will appreciate the effort.
It’s very useful to have one other phrase up your sleeve, too. In Myanmar, Matt found that saying “See you later!” in Burmese (“nah mah twee may”) was a huge hit — it’s such a simple phrase, but no one had ever heard a foreigner say that! The reactions Matt got were hilarious; lots of gasps and laughs of excited surprise, and people often wanted to engage us even more afterwards. Having a phrase that is more casual or that is slang is a great way to endear yourself to the locals.
eat the street food
It’s insanely cheap and delicious, and it’s one of the best ways to get a taste of the local culture. Sit down with the locals at one of the many street-side stalls full of plastic chairs and tables, and order a plate! In several countries, it was a majority of our meals, and it helps keep the budget down — most street meals were less than $2. I know a lot of people are scared to eat street food, but I haven’t gotten sick at all (though Matt has a couple times). Just be smart about it!
walk or bike around
Exploring a place by foot or pedal gives you a much greater sense of the culture than through the windows of a bus or taxi or even from a tuk tuk. It’s a much slower way to absorb the vibe of a place. While walking, all your senses are engaged; you can hear the bustle of life around you, smell the plethora of flowers and aromas (not always pleasant…), taste the variety of food, and see the life of the locals. I’ll leave touch up to you…
I really enjoy wandering down a street in a new town. Even if I’m not super observant, I can innately get a feel for a place.
don’t wear white
It’s not gonna stay that color very long.
bring snacks and share them
This is another great ice breaker. While sitting on buses or trains or just at a park, you can make friends even if you don’t speak the same language by sharing snacks. I have a few vivid memories of people I encountered. I don’t know their names or where they’re from, but the kindness of this act spoke volumes to me. Also, it’s great for sharing with all the curious little kids who come running up to you!
talk to strangers
In America, there’s this phobia about talking to strangers or asking for help, but I’ve found the opposite to be true in Asia. People are not hesitant to ask for help from anyone, and conversations are often struck up with whoever happens to be standing next to you. There’s much less fear of appearing strange or lost, and people are very willing to help. Some of the most interesting conversations I’ve had on this trip were with random people who befriended us along our travels.
Out of habit, I now smile and greet almost everyone we cross paths with — this may also be because we attract quite a bit of attention by being foreigners. I hope this will continue on in America, but it’s such a different cultural norm that it will probably just seem bizarre that I say hello to everyone.
push your limits
You didn’t leave home and your comfort zone to do the same things you’ve always done. Eat new foods, try new activities, talk to people you wouldn’t normally, explore the world and your limits.
get lost (physically and existentially)
Isn’t that the purpose of travel? Getting lost and then found again? I think one of the main reasons I like to travel is because it is a challenge, and I want to prove to myself that I can do it. Travel takes us outside of our every day lives and puts us in situations we wouldn’t typically encounter. It makes us question everything that we thought to be true. And it is in these situations where we discover different pieces of ourselves and learn what we are truly capable of.