Saving face in Southeast Asia: Keep calm on Khao San Road

Kayaking in Vietnam’s turquoise Ha Long Bay, boating among colourful stalls at the floating markets in Bangkok, relaxing on the paradisiacal beaches of Bali. A yoga retreat in Laos’ leafy Luang Prabang, perhaps, or swimming in the waters of Kuang Si. When we think about a trip to Southeast Asia, we think tranquility, relaxation, connecting with ourselves – and all in beautiful surrounds.

Catcat waterfalls in Sapa, Vietnam

While this does accurately represent a large part of the Southeast Asia experience, don’t forget that this is also the region that is home to some of the busiest and most colourful cities in the world: Bangkok, Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh, Jakarta, to name but a few. There’s yelling, and there’s haggling, and there’s Khao San Road!

When you’re trying to get from A to B in a busy, unfamiliar city, and local shopkeepers or drivers are aggressively trying to sell you wares or services that you just don’t want, you’re unlikely achieve that inner calm you were so hoping for. Finding yourself has never felt so far off. 

In your home nation, you might be used to people respecting your personal space and your personal boundaries. On the streets of a large Southeast Asian city – where manners and politeness are not absent, they just mean something else entirely – this is just not going to happen.

The infamous Khao San Road

It’s not all bad, however!

Comments on your appearance are par for the course, and can get nasty if you don’t meet the beauty standards in that part of the world. “More white more beautiful”, is a common saying, backed up by the fact that skin lightening cream is ubiquitous. The local people I met were NOT a fan of my freckles – and by God did they let me know it! One Thai man just started pointing at each freckle on my arm while repeatedly exclaiming “No! No! No! No! No!”.

This outburst was not an anomaly by any means.

A woman in Hoi An once stopped her bicycle to shout at me about the state of my eyebrows. In my defence I’d been travelling for six months by that point, with no threading salons in sight. A saleswoman in the beautiful Vietnamese hill country of Sapa told me I looked very young for my age. I was about to take this as a rare compliment, when she followed it up with: “BIG EYES! BIG NOSE! LIKE BABY!”.

Refuse a tuk-tuk or taxi and you may well get called “crazy” or “stupid”. Travel solo as a female, and questions about the whereabouts of your husband will follow you wherever you go. A guide once asked me why I wasn’t at home “taking care of my parents”. I don’t think my parents would react particularly well if I attempted to “take care” of them, but there was no point attempting to communicate such an alien sentiment.

And then there are the arguments about money. You’ll get in a tuk-tuk, having agreed on a price, only to be taken to the driver’s friends’ shops in exchange for your lower fare. You’ll go on a tour, and end up seeing somewhere entirely different to the place you were promised. Your British politeness will absolutely be used against you to pressure you into buying things you neither want nor like.

In Vietnam’s Mui Ne, I was forced to pay a ‘guide’ I didn’t know I had. A young man was walking ahead of me on the relaxing hike to the town’s ‘fairy waterfall’, and every now and then would point out a plant or a rock to me. On the way back he demanded money for school, and when I refused his grandma jumped out from behind a tree! At that point I had to concede and hand over a few hundred dong.

The Mekong Delta’s huge floating market

The above situations would leave some people fuming, and others laughing. Most days, I was able to take such issues in my stride, but on this particular trip I spent four months straight in Southeast Asia, and I’d be lying if I said I never got annoyed. 

However, if you want to make the best of your time in Southeast Asia, and easily extract yourself from any difficult situations, there’s one golden rule: smile.

A market in Seminyak, Bali

While plastering a smile on your face might be the last thing you feel like doing in these circumstances, keeping your cool – and keeping your dignity intact – will not just make you feel better in the long run, it will mean the other person embroiled in the situation will feel more respect for you.

In Southeast Asia – Thailand in particular – ‘saving face’ is a taken seriously. If you lose your cool and become outwardly riled by a situation, local people will become very embarrassed. Not only will everyone leave the situation feeling upset, you will lose any respect you had previously, and are unlikely to end up getting whatever it is you want. 

So no matter how hard it seems, or how offended you get, take the comments and challenges thrown at you in the lighthearted manner in which they’re usually intended, and you’ll feel a lot better down the line. What’s more, you might even find that – as beautiful as Ha Long Bay is – some of your favourite memories of Southeast Asia will end up being your interactions with local people you take the time to get to know and understand.

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