How Not To Write About Traveling In South-Asia

As a South-Asian born and raised in Sri Lanka, I’m thrilled to see so many traveling to this region of the world. Tourism has reached an all-time high in Sri Lanka, and continues to grow after the end of the civil war in 2009. Countries like Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam continue to enjoy waves of Western tourists every year – kudos to those travelers who want to see new places and experience cultures different to theirs! The difficulty arises when some of these travelers put pen to paper to write about their experience in “Asia.” This article was not written to rant about travelers who write about South-Asia, but to point you away from familiar tropes in your writing that can be insulting and ignorant towards the people in the regions you are writing about. I see the following types of sentences in articles/blogs way too often, and would like to help you side-step these mines as you write about your experiences in “my” part of the world (These “Western” – “Eastern” homogenizations are futile but more on that next time!)

“It’s incredible to see what my developed country has after traveling to this developing country.”

Try something with me. Just take a minute to imagine what it’s like reading this line as a person from a “developing” country. It’s not enough that it’s frustrating to deal with these classifications of countries themselves (and the histories behind them!) – add to that the sense of belittlement that is inherent within the above quote. It’s nice to hear that you now appreciate what your country has to offer. As an expat who has lived in the US and Germany, I understand what you’re trying to say here: I too am more thankful for certain things in my country after having lived in these “developed” ones. However, I wouldn’t put that to paper and insult all the Germans and (US) Americans I know. All countries have their pros and their cons. Some are more economically developed than others. We can discuss our appreciation for things without putting down other things. Direct comparisons usually get us into trouble.

“I loved traveling Asia.”

Unless you’ve been to Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan etc.), Russia, Japan, South/North Korea, China, South-Asia, and South-East Asia (and more, actually), you haven’t been to “Asia.” It’s a big continent. There are subdivisions like “South-Asia,” “South-East Asia,” “Central Asia,” etc. for a reason.

“What an under-developed country.”

There is no such thing as an under-developed country. There are developed countries and developing countries.

“It’s so cheap!”

A large chunk of travelers to South-Asia end up there because their dollar or euro travels a lot further in countries like Myanmar and Vietnam than say Finland, the United Kingdom, or Canada. That’s no reason to call the entire country “cheap.” People in Sri Lanka for example are aware of the low conversion rates and usually have to work twice as hard for half the pay that someone in the West would receive for the same job. They would have to work for several years to afford the same backpacking vacations that Westerners go on for months on end.

A simple alternative is saying that a country is “more affordable for Westerners” than others.

how not to write about south asia by a south-asian

“There are so many strange/weird things about it.”

The lack of bidet showers in the bathroom. Not taking your shoes off when you enter a home. Individualistic rat-races/attitudes towards family. There are so many things in Western countries that are also straight up weird to those from other countries. It makes no sense to call them “strange ways/customs.” Just understand that it is a different way of life and perhaps discuss it as “[this] is how they do it here.” Period.

It’s important to draw the distinction here that I am not talking about customs that may possibly threaten or discriminate against people: e.g. patriarchal societies/lack of gun laws etc. These things need to be criticized, wherever they are practiced.

“It’s the most beautiful place in the world.”

I’d love to grab this title, but unfortunately, no place can be the “most beautiful place in the world.” Have you seen Iceland? Hawaii? Ireland? Uzbekistan? Let’s stop using these superlatives and stick to “one of the most beautiful places I’ve seen.”

“It makes you want to be less wasteful.”

Being less wasteful is always a good thing, but saying that “seeing what people don’t have in South-Asia” makes you want to be less wasteful is again extremely belittling. Let’s call a spade a spade, there is poverty in certain parts of South-Asia. Let’s call a spade a spade, there is actually comparable poverty in certain parts of the West. I have seen it myself, having lived in the US. You can be less wasteful without citing the “traditionally” developing countries as your validation or crutch.

“You can bargain for everything.”

You can’t actually bargain for everything. There are department stores in South-Asian countries just like in the West. I used to smile whenever I saw Westerners haggling at the cash register in department stores around Colombo, Sri Lanka, until I spoke to a sales associate who told me how annoying it was for them (makes sense!) Look up where you can bargain for items and you can’t before you try it. A good rule of thumb is that you can usually haggle at street shops and markets – not actual department stores.

how not to write about south asia by a south-asian
Remember that for some people, this is the only source of income they have.

“It’s fine to break the rules in this part of the world.”

Believe it or not, there are generations of people who would like to actually enforce the rules and bring about change in their countries which have been traditional lax with rule-following. It’s frustrating to see locals breaking rules – but more frustrating to see foreigners following suit. Christian (my German husband and counterpart to A Couple On A Budget if you’re on our site for the first time!) drives regularly in Sri Lanka, but he follows road rules as much as certain locals don’t. Don’t be part of the problem and just assume that it’s OK to walk on the grass when you’re told not to, or drive where you’re told you shouldn’t, when in South-Asia.

A prime example: Don’t set up your tripod and take pictures on the middle of railroads in Sri Lanka. It seems to be a new “thing”: locals are told not to walk on railway lines for a reason. It can be incredibly dangerous.

On a personal note, having lived in Germany, the US, and Greece, as well as spending months on end in Italy, there are many incongruences in referring to the “West” as a homogeneous mass of countries where everything works like clockwork. I’ve loved each and every place I’ve lived in, but let’s be real – driving in Greece is not like driving in Germany. Just like driving in Sri Lanka is not like driving in Germany.

South-Asia is a region full of beauty, frustrations, and crazy contradictions. As a Sri Lankan, I’m thrilled that you want to journey to this part of the world and hope that you enjoy the cultural experiences we have to offer. As an expat, I am also aware of the differences you will encounter in the ways of life in countries in South-Asia versus the “West.” I look forward to reading about your informed experiences – hopefully keeping out the quotes and pitfalls mentioned in this article.

As always, be a conscious traveler: Take nothing, and leave nothing behind. Be conscious, be welcome! Read more about conscious travel here.

how not to write about south asia by a south-asian

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7 Comments Add yours

  1. Recently got back from Sri Lanka and I adored it. The people, food, culture, beaches, weather was all amazing. I have written a blog post and encouraged many people to go. I enjoyed reading this blog you cover so many great points.

  2. Kim says:

    This is a very good post with much food for thought. I feel the same when I see people talk about Jamaica and African countries.

  3. Sarah says:

    Thank you for sharing your feelings and constructive criticism so thoughtfully and eloquently! Being culturally considerate and mindful of people’s feelings is so important as visitors to another country and also as writers about those experiences. There are so many different places out there in this world for us to enjoy, but more importantly learn from.

  4. Thank you so much for writing this!! It’s so important and true. I’ve never traveled in southeast Asia but I travel and write primarily in Latin America and a lot of the same can be said about the way people write about this region. I will do my best to keep all of this in mind in my travel blogging.

  5. Dani says:

    I read your post with great interest. I’m a travel blogger myself. One thing that was kind of strange to me though is that you mentioned not calling a Country cheap. Yet I clicked through to your article on Sri Lanka, and even though you are Sri Lankan you literally called it cheap there – Precisely what you asked other writers not to do. “Food and shopping tend to be really cheap in Sri Lanka“. Regardless, great advice

    1. acoupleonabudget says:

      You are so right! The info packet for Sri Lanka was originally put together as a welcome packet for our wedding guests (friends and family) from around the world as mentioned in the post itself, so I wasn’t tailoring it for a wider audience – coupled with the fact that it was written two weeks before our wedding, I didn’t do much editing 😉 But thanks so much for pointing that out, it will be edited accordingly now!

  6. I don’t blog, my primary is as a Photographer, illustrating the interesting places to go on this Planet, but I read many so identified with all your points and as a seasoned traveller. I think they call me an expat in Thailand (for a couple of years anyway, who knows where I will be after this). I wanted to say how well written this article is.

    I have travelled Central Asia- Iran (4ws),Turkmenistan(14 days),Uzbekistan(4wks),Tajikistan(4wks), Kyrgyzstan(8wks) then crossed the border to Kashgar in Western China and all the bits in between to Urumqi(4wks). Down to Singapore(10days), Malaysia(8wks),Thailand(8wks), Laos(4wks), Cambodia(4wks), Vietnam(4wks) and Hong Kong(2wks). That was in 2013, and took 14mths!!

    I have travelled 5mths in Southern India Late in 2015 (and four times in previous consecutive years) and Myanmar for 3weeks in early 2015 ended up settling(for now) in Thailand. Sri Lanka was on my list with India, but the timing was all wrong(real life commitments of work opps in Thailand).
    Indonesia is still also on my list, but now I am officially old enough to retire there- who knows?

    I wish you well and thank you for following, i hope you enjoy the Photography that i produce from my travels and I also have a you tube channel:

    Keep writing and I look forward to reading more of your blog! Enjoy as those that are wandering are not always lost!!