So often I’m asked to give advice about traveling in Asia.
Here is a response I sent by email to a query on where to go and what to do on the islands of Sumatra , Sumba, Lombok, and Java this week. But really it’s travel advice about everywhere; ( edited version)
My advice to everyone is the same, get a good guide book because it tells you where all the touristic places are. Then go as far as you can the other way. That’s where you find the culture.
Read the book for the history, language, and cultural information.
Rent a motorcycle to get around and then use your legs to walk
down a path with your day pack.
Find a place where there is no English, no restaurants, no spas, no yoga, nothing but villages and figure it out. Bring a week of clothing. People will invite a smiling face to stay.
Help people in the rice paddies, there is a lot of work to be done, and an infinite amount to learn. Play with babies, learn to cook local food over a fire in some hut.
Try to climb a coconut tree.
Build a wall with the young men, have a Tuak with the older men. Giggle with the girls. Leave the camera in your pocket. It’s a wall between you and another person, as solid as cement. It makes your subject a zoo animal.
If you need to use it, the best possible use is to show pictures of your children, your animals, your parents, your garden. We humans of every culture can relate to family.
Your memories are enough. If it’s not important enough to remember a photo doesn’t make it so.
Cars keep people out, so use them sparingly, they are only tools to get from one interesting experience to another. But looking from behind glass isn’t seeing at all.
Rains make you wet, but don’t worry for a moment you will dry out.
If you are carrying more then a day pack for 7 weeks you are carrying way to much. You can buy as you go if you need. There is soap and shampoo and sandals everywhere.
I carry only a day pack, customs always stops and asks how I can be gone so long and carry so little.
When you see a farmer, help with the pigs and cows.
Start a kitchen fire. Sit on the dirt floor of a dirty hut and never once make it look like it isn’t something you do at home everyday.
Walk into a school and ask the head person if you can teach the kids English the next day.
And if you see a sick child in a small village ask if you can bring them to a doctor, a local western style doctor. Most parents would be so very happy. Traditional Asian medicine sucks for everything but philosophical culture based illness, a little antibiotics are great. You can always afford the money and time to help.
Smile , a dictionary, and small local bills will be enough for a magnificent entrance to a different culture. Talking about children is always going to win hearts.
All the other ways of travel are just scratching the surface, while staying safe in international culture. Like watching National Geographic but with the local weather.
Restaurants that are for tourists are generally the quality you would never eat at home, why then when you travel would you eat at those places?
Eat Local food at local stalls with local people. It’s always the best. You can learn local cooking techniques right in front of you.
I know my advice sounds a little difficult, maybe even a little crazy, But if you ever are able to do it. You will wonder if you ever really traveled before.
Anyway you asked about Sumatra, I’ve traveled through Sumatra certainly… one time on an overcrowded broken wooden boat down a jungle river out into the open ocean. So crowded we all used strangers legs and stomachs as pillows. Great way to make friends sleeping with a sarong as a blanket and a stomach of someone you never met as a pillow! The toilet was a broken shack with sort of a door and a hole into the river. Made some lovely friends.
One time took over a three wheel pedicab in a city and drove it around with the driver in the back picking up fares. Locals who took my pedicab had a lovely story later at dinner to tell!
Been to a lot of mosques in Sumatra and churches too. My American Girlfriend at the time covered herself and prayed with the women, I with the men. If you haven’t prayed in a mosque try it. A billion people do it. Can’t understand it unless one has been there.
Go out after for a beer with the guys after the mosque. Most Muslims will be happy to have a beer with you. So their religion forbids it, hmmm and you were supposed to be in Church every Sunday….
Almost everybody everywhere on earth is wonderful, even the one that is following you trying to sell you something. Maybe if you ask about their kids you won’t be an object to sell to, but a person with kids too. A person interested in them. They have a story, find it out. Nice way to make friends really.
They are selling just trying to feed the family. They are working every day at a difficult thankless job. They are hard workers, respect them. They just want to feed their kids. How did they end up doing such a difficult job, if you can get past the seller/buyer roles, sit on the side of the road and have coffee. You will hear a story you never heard before.
Smiles are like a little free gift from one human to another. We can give them as visiting guests to our hosts in each country. To immigration, to every local, even to that guy selling you something.
We are their guests, we are there to learn and see and do what they do. Why spend time doing anything but making friends?
I never wear shorts in most places, because the local men don’t. The boys do, but I’m not a boy. Its a basic rule, look around and if the locals have a code of behavior, we can try to do that too. Of course we won’t be able to every time, but we can try!
Politeness is always the rule. Smile at everyone. Those very few people who are bad will kill you anyway might as well smile at them too!
Slept in one of those interesting Sumatran Minangkaubau houses, just guests of the family I met that day. Beautiful place, as long as we had made friends went to a family wedding later with them. A wonderful experience in another small village
Later had a Minang girlfriend, from this matrilineal Islamic culture, interesting mix..so very few matrilineal cultures in this big world. What a great way to understand such a fascinating place.
Love the Minang food! Try it.
Went to some of the slash and burn forests to see what slash and burn meant. To smell and feel it.
Can’t understand, really understand, unless you see it. Have the charcoal streaks on your pants from wading through it. Having tea with the small family turning a jungle into a small farm.
Same with the rubber plantations. Wanted to see the drop drop drop of the rubber. The slash in the tree, the trees from which my cars tires came from. The rubber workers doing what they do. Saw the whole picture.
Heard lake Toba is just great, every tourist and guide book says so. So we never ever went there. Great always means pretty before the hotels and restaurants were over built, and people serve you bad western food, or eastern food in a sort of crappy multicultural watered down way.
Tourists in those place sit around with each other and talk about their spas and yoga classes and have really delightful looking but seldom tasty meals. That is all very lovely! But you can do that at home. Why travel half way around the world and ignore the culture you are right in the middle of ?
Worked with park biologists with the Orangutans for a short bit in northern Sumatra. Cute little things, (the orangutans, not the biologists). Though the biologists were actually sort of cute too. I recommend dating both!
In Java I love Prambanen the temple- but more the hundreds of ruined temples at the side of it almost no one realizes are there. I love to jump on the trains in Java then get off in some tiny place for no particular reason and figure out what to do next. Where am I ? Then realize it doesn’t matter at all.
I’m right where I wanted to be.
I had a very devout Javanese girlfriend. We are still friends after so many years. She carried her prayer mat everywhere. Once I asked her since Islamic people cannot create art with a soul, so no depictions of animals or people, then what do kids do in art class in Islamic school. She was an intelligent girl of course and thought it was a funny question as of course they draw pictures of their families.
Stupid me knowing so much and so little at the same time.
I’ve been to Sumba and Lombok of course. Got a broken little motorcycle and traveled around both of them. Sumba was way off the track then. Crazy adventures with a girl as beautiful as a magnificent model. Don’t remember a single specific sight to tell you. (except the girl of course by oil lamp, there was no electricity on the island at that time). But had some interesting times roving around some megaliths and cutting boards using a two man saw for a day in a village. Harvesting tamarind, and trying to move some of those megaliths with the men using the boards we had cut as levers.
You ask about which beaches to go to in those islands.
Well about beaches I have absolutely no idea- they are hot places which lack culture for me. Fishing villages I like, a little rockier, a few more mangroves, usually not a tourist in sight!
Most tourists wouldn’t want to see people making a living from the sea, other then those bringing them frozen drinks, grilled fish and massages. You can come to my house for two of the three!
I had a job once pulling the fish out of the holds of the boats as they came in, New Zealand not here in Asia. The grit of a fishing town always seems so much more interesting then the golden sands.
But I’m always happy with the golden sands, it’s the magnet for tourists so strong that most villages a few miles inland are never touched by them.
But everything I said doesn’t help you much I think in terms of where to go. I have so few specific places to send people. Never a guide to suggest. Never a restaurant or hotel. The whole notion of them is just antithetical to what I travel for.
I’ve just tried to paint a picture for you of my answers to your questions. Of course many others have asked me about where I travel. Sometimes people have responded to what I tell them that I seem a bit over the edge. Sometimes they are interested, but not interested enough to jump into the picture I’ve painted. Sometime they are fascinated by the sound of it all. They love the picture, the taste and feel of the lifestyle. Like reading a beach novel to savor the romantic intrigue.
Only one young fellow who had never been to Asia actually followed my advice. He didn’t see it as a painting, he saw what I said as a lifestyle. It worked beautifully for him.
I guess like the photo, intimacy with a culture is more then just looking at it from passing cars window. Get as close as you can.
Best of luck