Life Lessons Learned While Traveling Through Asia

One of the things that is so great about traveling is that you get exposed to vastly different people than you’re used to. While I as living in Malaysia, I had the opportunity to meet and interact with so many more people than I had while growing up in my small town in Southern Utah. Sure, I’d lived in Virginia for two years and Oklahoma for four years and had visited several other states, but most of the people I’d interacted with had been American. There would be the random British person, a smattering of Hispanic people or an occasional Chinese person, but 99% of the people I’d interacted with in my life had been Americans. With as little knowledge of the world as I had, my year-long adventure of living in a foreign country and visiting the countries around Malaysia permanently, and dramatically, changed my perspective on life and the world.

  • I Didn’t Know As Much As I Thought I Did

Bagan, Myanmar, ruins, stupa, Burma, Pagan, temples, landscape

Bagan, Myanmar

Before I moved to Malaysia I wasn’t racist or given to the idea that Americans are the best in the world. I didn’t think that all other countries were inferior or backwards, I just didn’t know much about them at all. I thought I did, but I didn’t. I pride myself in being an extensive reader and a lover of history, so I felt like I had a fairly decent grasp on what was going on in other countries from the reading I had done and college classes I had taken. But actually being there, that makes you realize how little you really do know about a place. I’d read a lot about the countries we were going to visit, but nothing really prepares you for what it’s really like. Just being there and seeing the people interact with each other, experiencing the culture and being around the amazing cultural heritage sites really opens your mind to more than books can offer. I really learned to love the people of the countries we visited and to understand that no book can ever teach you as much as being there yourself.

  • I Have A Lot To Be Thankful For, Maybe More Than I Need

Kutisvara Oxcart Community, Siem Reap, Cambodia

Kutisvara Oxcart Community, Siem Reap, Cambodia

Before I moved to Asia I was living in Oklahoma and was fairly poor. I had a tiny apartment that was crammed with boxes (mostly books) because I couldn’t afford an apartment with a spare room or a storage unit. I was working 50-60 hours a week to pay bills and have a little bit extra to save in order to fly home for Christmas and Thanksgiving. I didn’t have a lot, but I had a job. A job with set hours, a set wage and a predictable paycheck. I had a home. A tiny home, but I had a home with running water, warm water, electricity, a refrigerator, a microwave, a dishwasher, air conditioning, a heater, an indoor toilet, a television, a computer, internet and carpet. I also had my own car, extra money to go to movies once in a while, TONS of clothes, boxes upon boxes of books, a cell phone, makeup and so many other things. I could afford to save up to visit my family once or twice a year for a week each time and have a great time with them. I have friends who make me happy and a boyfriend I truly adore. Traveling around Asia really opened my eyes to how different things can be. I was relatively poor by Western standards, but in the grand scheme of things, I had a lot. Now that I’m back in the US, I’ve gotten rid of several boxes of ‘stuff’ and my life hasn’t changed in the least. I still have my family, my friends, my amazingly wonderful boyfriend and his kind and loving family. I have a lot and I’m more thankful for it than I ever was before.

  • You Don’t Need Money To Be Happy

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Train Station Market, Yangon, Myanmar

Honestly, the poorest countries we went to seemed to have the happiest people. Outside of big cities, many didn’t have cell phones or electricity and rarely would you find computers or tablets. Most wore clothes fashion-forward Westerners would only wear on ‘lazy days’ or maybe not even at all. Many didn’t have shoes, or wore shoes made of soda bottles and twine. The typical kitchen was missing the extensive array of pots, pans, cutlery and dinnerware. But they were happy. They laughed, sang, smiled the brightest smiles and were as friendly as can be. We visited a couple of villages that didn’t have electricity, running water or enclosed homes. They didn’t have refrigerators, modern stoves, indoor toilets or real beds. Their houses were three-sided, one-roomed, made of bamboo and built on stilts to keep night-time critters out. But they were happy. They had fresh air, beautiful skies and each other. If they can be happy with the ‘little’ that they have, then I can be happy with the bounty that I possess.

  • Stereotypes Are For the Birds

Adilah's Wedding, Malacca, Malaysia

Adilah’s Wedding, Malacca, Malaysia

One of the things that is typical across country boundaries and cultural differences is stereotypes. We all have them and we all need to get rid of them. Sure, there are crazy Muslims out there, bad Catholic priests and a plethora of black gangsters, but really, those descriptors don’t even come close to describing the majority of those groups. I’ve met some wonderfully kind and compassionate Catholic priests and MANY intelligent, upstanding, honorable and law-abiding African-Americans. And, yes, I’ve met some devout, loving, accepting and very normal Muslims. Kinda happens when you’re living in a Muslim country.

When I first moved to Malaysia, I wasn’t really sure what to expect. Ever since 9/11 there have been a lot of negative portrayals of Muslims and I was nervous about what life would be like there. I needn’t have worried, though, because I had mostly positive experiences with the Muslims I interacted with. I think the worst things that happened in the entire year that I was in Malaysia were that some men wouldn’t talk to me, some random guy on a scooter smacked my butt as he was driving by (really ticked off my boyfriend)…………………..and I think that’s about it. Same stuff that happens in America. Overall, most people were friendly and helpful. We only had one serious religious discussion regarding Islam and that was because we were at a mosque. Most conversations were about what America was like, how I liked Malaysia, interesting places we could go see, the best places to get the best food, where I went to school, my family and what I liked to do for fun. Normal stuff. I really learned that Muslims are an amazing group of people who have been given a really bad rap by the few zealots who do dumb stuff. Overall, Muslims are good people.

  • The World Isn’t As Dangerous As People Think

Kompong Pluk Floating Village, Cambodia

Kompong Pluk Floating Village, Cambodia

Before I moved to Malaysia I worked for a law firm and had the pleasure of going to the courthouse every day. At the courthouse I made friends with many of the deputies that worked as guards. When they found out I was moving to Malaysia, they began regaling me with stories of how I was going to get kidnapped and sold into the sex trade. It was either that or I was going to be gang-raped, attacked by an anti-American zealot or die from some horrid disease. One of those nights, I watched the movie, Taken, and kinda psyched myself out about it. By the time I left for Malaysia, I was really rethinking my decision. I was nervous and quite a bit apprehensive about going anywhere alone. My boyfriend was pretty nervous, too, and really really REALLY freaked out when I got in a car with a stranger on my first day in Malaysia. That’s a whole story by itself and I’ll be writing a blog about that soon.

Anywho, after several weeks of adjusting and getting used to my new environment, I realized that things weren’t as bad as everyone, myself included, had assumed. I began going off on my own and exploring new places. By the end of our year there, I was spending entire days riding trains by myself to different places or driving to new areas to explore and see what was there. The only weird thing that happened was the guy smacking my butt. And that was with my boyfriend there. haha.

Mostly, people looked out for me. Several times I got stopped by men and women to recommend that I take my phone out of my back pocket so it didn’t get stolen. One time an Indian man thought I looked too pale when out reading at the park (i was fine) and insisted I go join some women at a nearby shaded pavilion and walked me over there to make sure I made it okay because he was “very worried” about me. But I never got mugged, I never got attacked, nobody tried to scare me and nobody was mean to me. If you take proper precautions and use common sense, you will be fine. Sure, bad things do happen and there are unexpected situations, but if you use common sense you can avoid a lot of the dangerous situations that can arise.

  • Things Don’t Always Go According to Plan, And That’s Okay

Riding in a Tuk-Tuk, Bangkok, Thailand

Riding in a Tuk-Tuk, Bangkok, Thailand

I cannot tell you how many times we planned a trip or were in the middle of an adventure when things took a sharp turn in another direction and we ended up having to change plans. Sometimes it was frustrating and a little scary, like the time we blew a tire on our scooter on a rural road an hour from our hotel at 2am and couldn’t get cell service. Or the time we got scammed out of a few hundred dollars in Thailand. And other times it was just a much-hyped walking tour through a historic district that ended up being a bunch of rundown and decayed buildings. Or the tuk-tuk driver who didn’t want to take us where we wanted to go and we ended up on a wild ride around Bangkok. Or the tour guide who tried to extort us in China and we ended up having to run out of the cab on the side of the freeway in the middle of Beijing without a clue where we were while they were screaming after us. Things aren’t always going to go 100% as planned and that’s seriously okay. We learned when to roll with the punches and when we needed to get ready to punch back. We also learned to accept the difficult detours and laugh at them later. Things can get scary and seem pretty awful in the moment, but keeping a level head and making sure we always had a map and our hotel’s contact info with us made it so we could regroup and press on. Some things turned out okay, some ended with a result we weren’t happy with, but all of those things turn into some really great stories.

  • Comfort Doesn’t Equal Happiness

Nobody told me this was the goofy shot

Kachin Refugee School, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Most people who know me know that I’m an extreme introvert with social anxiety. I really struggle with talking to people and going places alone. There were so many things I wanted to do, but anxiety would always get the better of me, so I stayed in my bubble and was content. But not happy. Moving to Malaysia took me way out of my comfort zone and forced me out of my little bubble. I was forced to talk to strangers, whether to ask for help or they just wanted to talk to a Westerner. I was forced to go new places by myself, try new things by myself and live in a way that was very different than I had before. I was so far outside my comfort zone and I was loving every minute of it. Sure, I got anxious, stressed out and scared from time to time, but I was finally doing what I’d always wanted to do: travel and see the world. I was uncomfortable a lot and thrown into some really strange situations (like the time a taxi driver refused to take me home because it was too close and I ended up lost in the middle of a construction zone because his directions were so bad), but I am so much more happy and confident than I ever was before. 6 months into our trip I began teaching Biology at a refugee school. One of my biggest anxiety triggers is getting up in front of people, so teaching those kids was really hard for me, but I had the most amazing time and made some really great friends. So go outside your comfort zone. Try something different. It SUCKS at first, but it ends up being an amazing experience that makes you wonder why you waited so long to break out.

  • Being Kind And Respectful Goes A Long Way

Our Pakistani Friend at Kuala Lumpur's National Mosque, Malaysia

Our Pakistani Friend at Kuala Lumpur’s National Mosque, Malaysia

This one goes without saying, but it is something that was reiterated to me time and again on our journey. We are normally respectful people, but there are times when frustrations mount and tempers go off. Sure, yelling can get things moving sometimes, but people are more willing to go above and beyond when you are kind to them. I can’t tell you how many times we were able to get souvenir prices down really low because we sat and talked with the people, complimented them and answered questions they had about us. It wasn’t until the second or third day of our first trip outside Malaysia that we realized the magic of this. Sometimes they even threw in something extra and said they liked us and wanted to give us a gift. And it’s not just with getting discounts. We were on a bus that got delayed in China and wandered around for a while somewhat late at night trying to find somewhere to eat. We were very hungry and most restaurants were closed, but we did come upon one that was just putting their closed sign up. We talked with the girl at the door for a bit and practically begged her to let us in and have some food. We could tell the kitchen staff wasn’t very thrilled about having to stay late, but they set up a table for us and brought us food. Several employees came over to talk to us a few times and we talked with all of them. By the end of the meal, we were all talking and laughing and having a great time. We stayed talking with them past when we were done with our meal and they brought kittens over for us to play with. And then they gave us a discount on our meal. Another time, Troy’s camera broke in Vietnam and we went to a camera store to get it fixed. The guy there was so happy to talk to Troy about photography and they talked for quite a while. When he’d finished fixing Troy’s camera, he said he didn’t want to charge us because we were so nice. And he didn’t.

The biggest time being kind and polite made an impact is when we visited a mosque in Kuala Lumpur. We talked with a guy there for about an hour and he ended up taking pictures with us and said he couldn’t wait to tell his friends back in Pakistan that he’d met nice Americans (and Christians) who didn’t hate Muslims or Islam. He said he wasn’t sure his friends would believe him, but he wanted to tell them anyways. We talked for a bit about the misconceptions Americans and Muslims have of each other and were able to answer several questions he had. He said that he was very happy to find Americans who did not hate or fear Islam and were respectful towards his religion. He said it gave him hope and that he was sure it would give others hope. Being kind to people, even for a short while, can really have an impact.

  • I Need To Get Lost More Often

Children's School Bus, Yangon, Myanmar

Children’s School Bus, Yangon, Myanmar

On our first night in Myanmar, we decided we were going to walk to a restaurant that our hotel recommended. Being allergic to flour, Troy only feels comfortable eating Western food, so we went off in search of a Western establishment. Using the map the hotel provided, we wandered off and enjoyed ourselves. Until we realized that the map in no way could help us get where we needed to be. There were no street signs, the map was not to scale and the map didn’t even have names for most of the streets. We wandered and wandered, confident that if we walked in the general direction of the restaurant that we’d find it eventually. Fast forward a few hours and we had no idea where we were, but we were having such a wonderful time. We saw regular people living their regular lives, not the touristy version that the government promotes. I think the most fun part of the evening was running across a little acrobatic troupe that was practicing their routine on the roadway. It was fun. We don’t ever intentionally get lost, but every time we have, we’ve come across neat things that we never would have seen otherwise and gotten a better feel for the country we’re in. So, get lost. Go off the beaten path. That’s where you can find some real treasures.

  • The World Is A Big Place and So Many People Need Our Help

Donation Request Box

Donation Request Box, Siem Reap, Cambodia

Before traveling, I knew the world was big. I just didn’t realize how big. And it makes me realize how small a place I occupy in it. But I think the biggest thing I learned was how different people live from us in the US. So many people don’t have access to fresh water, they barely make enough money for food and they live in such sad conditions. There are so many people who live without running water or electricity, medical care is inadequate outside big cities, littering is a huge problem and hygiene is neglected in more rural areas. It’s so sad to see the conditions people live in. So many rural communities don’t have access to adequate medical care, schools or food. It was heartbreaking to see how much need there is. We donated to several groups and organizations while we were there, but there’s still so much more that needs to be done. It can be overwhelming to think about how much help the world needs and know that I can’t do much about it. I can’t do much, but I can do some. Donating to relief organizations, volunteering my time for those in need in my community, raising awareness, doing my part to take care of the environment and not being wasteful with what I have. I can’t get rid of all the sorrow and suffering in the world, but I can help ease it for a few people. Traveling really opened my eyes to how vast human suffering is and has given me a desire to do what I can to help. We all can do little things and if we all do a little bit, a while lot will get done.

Traveling and living outside the US really opened my eyes to the world and myself. I learned a lot about both and it has given me a great desire to improve both. I’m so thankful I had that opportunity and am glad I was able to learn and do a few things to help while I was there. If you haven’t had the chance or taken the opportunity to travel, I highly recommend it. But don’t just visit touristy places or stay in luxury hotels. Get a feel for the city and the people who live there and then you will love it as much as I love the places we’ve been. It will change your life and it will change your heart.

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15 thoughts on “Life Lessons Learned While Traveling Through Asia

  1. Lynndee

    Truly love your post and it’s not just because I’m an Asian, but because I totally agree with everything that you’ve said or the life lessons that you’ve learned. 🙂

    Reply
  2. Shonda

    Do we ever know as much as we think we do? No. And no, no we do not need money to be happy. Money is just a tool. Much to popular belief is does not yield the power to make one happy. Thank you for sharing your life experiences with us so candidly.

    Reply
  3. Christy Hoover

    I love everything about this post. First of all, thank you for the history lesson and amazing pictures of your time in Asia it looked like an amazing journey. How fun. There is so much to learn from people from all walks of life. We are travelling this summer and I can’t wait for the adventures that will find us.

    Reply
  4. Miranda (Myrabev)

    These are all such great life lessons to have and very glad you had them and been able to share with us. It is so true that we know very little about other countries and only appreciate that once we are there and see for ourselves for books can only give us so much. I have lived in a country where money was never the number top but family and friends, without them we are lost and our happiness is not tied to comfort nor to money. Great post

    Reply
  5. Cindy Ingalls

    Wow, what an amazing adventure and journey you went on. I so envy your experience. I think it is so great that you decided to explore other cultures and I’m happy to hear about all the lessons you learned. Thanks for a great read.

    Reply
  6. Melissa

    Loved reading about your life lessons through Asia. I have never been to Asia but you have inspired me to include this on my Bucket list. I loved reading about you teaching at the refugee school! Thanks so much for sharing your experience.

    Reply
  7. Melissa

    This is a great read! I love what you said about not having to have money to be happy, that is so true and so unrecognized as a part of our culture. People think their technology like smart phones are making them happier and they always need the best one but the truth is that is actually keeping us from connecting with everyone and everything else. Thanks for sharing!

    Reply
  8. Amanda

    I absolutely love this post because these life lessons are so incredibly important. So many things that people think aren’t good, such as needing money and getting lost, can truly be fun learning experiences. So glad that Asia has provided so much for you!

    Reply
  9. Kita Bryant

    Loved your life lessons. Things never go according to plan and as a person who likes to plan things I have to understand that sometimes things don’t need to go to my plan I just gotta let things happen.

    Reply
  10. Sandy SK

    I enjoyed reading your blog. I have always wanted to travel all over the world. I first want to start with the USA. As that is where I live. I have not seen half the states yet. I love to experience beauty, new foods and places.

    Reply
  11. carmyy

    Loved the being thankful bit. It’s SO true. I’ve had friends volunteer overseas and literally gave them all the shirts they brought with them because it means way more to them than to us and when they came home, they cleaned out all the “extra” things they didn’t need.

    Reply
    • Erin Post author

      That is so true. We (Westerners) have so much “stuff” that we don’t really need, but still feel like we’re lacking. Going overseas and seeing how people live without all the things we think we need sure does change a person’s perspective.

      Reply
  12. Nancy

    Swoon! Totally sharing your blog post about what you learned about your own life while traveling through Asia, on social media!! Love the part where you said you don’t need money to be happy – sure don’t, do we?! I also need to get lost more often… sometimes I panic, even in my own (big) new-to-me city. I mean, I’m still around. What’s the big deal 🙂

    Reply
    • Erin Post author

      Thank you! I’m so happy you enjoyed this post. 🙂 I used to get panic attacks all the time when I would get lost. It can be scary sometimes, but with a fully charged phone and a maps app on your phone it’s so much easier to get found again. 🙂

      Reply
  13. Jessica @ Green Global Travel

    This was such a joy to read! The life lessons you’ve listed are definitely great words to live by, and I absolutely loved hearing about your experiences in Asia. Also, congratulations on teaching at the refugee school! I can’t imagine how difficult that must have been, but I’m happy to hear that you made some great friends and had such a wonderful time.

    Reply

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