5 Cultural Considerations for Living in Southeast Asia

Thumbs up on Southeast Asia: Bali Stone God.



After spending about 4 years of the past 6 years of my life in Southeast Asia I have a decent idea of how this fascinating, respected, intriguing culture compares to the rest of the world.


I adore SE Asia. From the mesmerizing beaches to the hectic cities, to the mountains, to the countryside, this region is one of earth’s true gems.


Before you book a flight to Bangkok or decide to head to Denpasar take these cultural considerations into account to more easily acclimate to this part of the world.


1: Save Face or Lose Your Marbles


In a place like Thailand, saving face is the name of the game.


In laymen’s terms, saving face simply means being nice and pleasant to folks no matter the circumstances, or more appropriately, never intentionally trying to embarrass or shame or humiliate someone.


At best, it leads to awkwardness and an unpleasant situation. At worst, it could get you shot. Folks here take saving face very seriously.


Even if you are a traveler who is proud to express ALL their feelings – if you come from, say, America, where this is a national past time – doing so (negative application of course) in SE Asia is a particularly unattractive custom.


The testing aspect of saving face is when people lie to you for fear of hurting your feelings or disappointing you. Someone may promise to stop by your house to render service in a promised 2 hours – to make you happy – but made the promise knowing that they can’t show up that day, but feel bad telling you the truth, so they’d rather lie and avoid the truth versus being clear, truthful and risking your disappointment.


This is not a negative thing at all; as with every trip, anywhere in the world, you simply learn a different way of doing things, or a different way of living, by immersing yourself in a new culture.


2: Slow and Easy Does it


I recall my 2nd day in Bali, during my first trip to the Island of the Gods.


The restaurant owner talked to us about Bali and the USA for some 35 minutes before I finally asked for the check. I felt uncomfortable asking before that point because he genuinely wanted to talk to us about his beautiful island and our home state of New Jersey.


I soon learned how things move more slowly and easily throughout much of SE Asia.


Big cities are exceptions; Bangkok, Hanoi and Phnom Penh are bustling beehives of activity. But if you venture away from hectic urban centers and tourist hubs you should prepare for a relaxed, slow pace of living. Meaning, you better be patient.


My New Jersey impatience dissolved into SE Asian calm about 3 weeks into my trip through the region. I eventually learned that service would be heartfully offered, and often exemplary, but not prompt. My patience has expanded by leaps and bounds over the past 6 years of traveling to Southeast Asia on and off.


3: The Customer Is Sometimes Wrong


I find this refreshing, being raised in America.


In SE Asia the customer is sometimes wrong. Meaning that although service folks or business owners will smile and be pleasant 99% of the time, you will not get your way if you are rude, boorish or nasty.


This ties into the face-saving aspect of SE Asian culture. Trying to embarrass someone ensures you won’t get what you want, which is the exact opposite of business in the USA and other Western countries.


Accept that if things don’t work out for you or if a business transaction seems disappointing to your eyes that this is simply life, unfolding before you. Taking this attitude has helped me attain a smidge of enlightening because when you accept what is you open up to peace, love and happiness despite any outside circumstances.


4: Respect Thy Elders….and Monks


In SE Asia – especially Thailand – elders are to be respected. If an older person hops onto a bus you should vacate your seat if none are available.


Ditto for monks. Make way for men of the cloth in countries like Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. Respect these holy men as SE Asians revere monks in their culture.


Dragons in Chiang Mai, Thailand.


If you do bow to a Buddhist monk after offering a money or food gift, remember to place hands together in the traditional wai but raise the hands to in front of your face – eye level – to show the appropriate respect. When wai-ing lay people, a simple placing of hands at chest level will do.


5: Acceptance Varies among Nations


I love Thailand so much. Thai people are genuinely among the nicest people I have ever encountered during my world travels.


But I will always be farang, or a foreigner.


Thai folks are kind, loving and generous people. They are also a proud folk whose country has never been colonized by Western nations like neighboring Cambodia and Myanmar. Because of this and an intense devotion to their land there may be a little bit of a guard or barrier placed up between Thai and farang versus a country like Indonesia, where the Balinese almost instantly accept you with a warm, open heart and genuinely see you as Balinese the moment you get off the plane.


We were invited to a Balinese wedding – a sacred event – 4 days after renting from a kind village couple. Bali is one of those islands in SE Asia where you are *in* as soon as you open up to locals. Other SE Asian countries, although equally generous in their own right, may more guarded. Not a good or bad thing, it just is.


I love SE Asia and strongly suggest you visit this region of the world. Learning how to acclimate to local culture will simply enrich your experience.