The Stupid Myths We Believe as Western Travelers Time and Time Again

I’m narrowing in on accomplishing a major life goal on my bucket list. Before I turn 31 my aim is to have visited 50 countries…and yet, fresh back from my 45th, 46th, and 47th, I’ve just had a profoundly eye-opening and humbling experience. I had, once again, ignored the lesson I’ve learned time and time again, and bought into/believed the enormous pile of bullshit I’ve been fed by the western travel narrative about non-western destinations.

Worse than that, I realized quite vividly that I’d been gobbling down, consuming, and allowing myself to be poisoned by said bullshit for years. I always get annoyed when people tell me they can’t travel because it’s unsafe (my chances of getting robbed, stabbed, shot, or killed are far worse in Arizona than when wandering Europe) or when I read announcements like the US’s recent worldwide terror alert which only served to scare people while delivering virtually none of the context needed or adding any real value. But, the real truth highlighted for me time and time again is that I buy into my own version of this nonsense. The part that really pisses me off about the whole thing is that it keeps me from embracing amazing experiences, makes me stand-offish, much more conservative in my approach when I start, and adds bucket-loads of anxiety.


I’ve talked about misconceptions a few times in the past, such as how wrong my preconceptions about Turkey were, or my African travel fears series looking at how Africa wasn’t nearly the life-threatening-bodily traumatizing disaster adventure I had anticipated. But unfortunately, I still hadn’t learned my lesson.  I’m going to do my best after my latest trip to really finally internalize this lesson and hope you’ll all join me in identifying, acknowledging, and then utterly dismissing the stories and nonsense that we’re spoon fed. It’s also worth noting that I think travel bloggers, myself included, bear some of the responsibility for perpetuating these myths.

As some long-term readers will know, up until two weeks ago, I had never been to Eastern Asia. While this is a very common and popular region for many travelers, especially budget travelers, it has for a long time been my “dark region” in that I had never been. Why? There are a number of factors which range from simple fear, lack of interest, cost, and then desire to protect and cherish the novelty. What do I mean?

  • Fear: Simply put, the Asia I had built in my mind was a very alien place where getting around using English would be difficult, where everything would be deeply exotic, and where even the most basic of daily activities would be challenging. Add to that a fear of a large amount of human and animal suffering. It was a part of the world I always had very mixed feelings about.
  • Lack of Interest: When I was younger I had a very strong interest in Greco-Roman and Medieval history. I find for many young people, tend to be drawn in strongly by Asia or Europe, while others sort out to Latin America, or Africa to a lesser extent. There were elements of ancient history in these other regions that offered passing interest, but beyond that I felt minimal draw. I felt their history was somewhat uninteresting, was not enamored from a cultural dating perspective, and had only minimal interest in cultural creations like anime and food.  As I’ve traveled more, learned more history, been exposed to more culture, and pivoted more to an interest in food, much of this has changed and Asia has increasingly grown in appeal and draw.
  • Cost: This is an odd one, as SEA (Southeast Asia) has always been extremely popular because of its relatively low cost areas. It’s why regions such as Vietnam and Thailand are thick with travel bloggers and has been a major tourist draw for decades. But, the flights from the US were usually fairly significant and even once I got to Denmark, prices and availability when I looked at SEA as a destination never seemed to work out. In 2010 I almost booked a trip to Thailand but, at the last minute, opted for South America (Argentina) instead based on pricing. Had the other factors mentioned in this section not also been weighing on me, perhaps I would have prioritized it.  Never the less I didn’t and the rest is history.
  • Novelty: This is a tricky one to convey. I’ve written in the past about how important it is to travel and experience things NOW in THIS MOMENT because the destination will change and evolve just as you do. You will never see or experience a place the same way as you would have if you went now and the more we travel and are exposed to, the more our relationship with novelty and novel cultures evolves. Globally, if we stereotype regional cultures down to geo-cultural macro-groups there are regions that share some (albeit very limited) cultural characteristics. As my travels took me to different continents and exposed me to different cultures, I felt a shred of sadness as the fear, novelty, excitement and sense of pure discovery that came from exploring an entirely new culture faded away. As I got a taste of Europe, Central America, South America, the Middle East, and Africa, I felt as though the last great region to explore and discover became Asia and perhaps as a separate entity Eastern Eurasia and India. While I still have an enormous amount of exploration, discovery and novel cultural exploration to do in all of these areas, I found myself keeping Asia to the side as one of my quasi-last opportunities for that utter sense of the unknown.

But, this winter I decided it was time to explore. I opted for a teaser trip to SEA which started purely by coincidence in Ho Chi Mihn Vietnam. Somehow I would then touch base in Cambodia’s Siem Reap region to see Angkor Wat, and then terminate from Bangkok with a few days in either the north or south to explore. This was far too much ground to cover properly in 19 days, but the goal was to test the waters, explore a bit, see how I coped, and if I liked it/where I wanted to go back.


The Myths

I mentioned that for years I’d been very resistant to a visit to SEA because of different fear-based factors. Eventhough I ultimately found these to be greatly exaggerated, that is not to say that if you go into rural areas, have bad luck, or are in the heart of a heavy tourist area some of these won’t hold some truth, but they are far from the prevalent, unavoidable, and highly experientially potent experiences we’ve been led to believe.

Oops – Was That a Social Norm? Sorry Dubai!

The Burj Khalifa in Dubai

You know that moment when the doors close, the hustle/bustle/rush of getting on to or into somewhere passes and you you look around only to realize you’re not where you should be?  It’s an awkward moment.  One I generally try and avoid but tend to experience often while traveling.  Perhaps this says something about me, though I’ll go ahead and just attribute it to the nature of travel in general.

Dubai is an interesting city.  On the one hand it is saturated with everything new, flashy, and western you can image.  After all, where else can you get your skiing in, then turn around to snag lunch at an American Chinese food chain, before shopping for a Gucci burqa and then catching a cab through the 120 degree heat back to your hotel?   On the other hand the heavy hand of traditional conservative religious culture and theocracy is ever present and visible.

My story starts on the Dubai metro.  A beautiful set of raised facilities which sit perched over the desert sands, are heavily air conditioned and beautifully decorated.  My folks – still sticky from the heat and humidity outside – had just boarded one of the city’s tram cars.  It had been painless enough, though it did take us a moment to figure out that we wanted the general cars, not the 1st class “gold” metro cars or the cars reserved exclusively for women and children.  Slightly delirious from the residual heat we stared out the windows and floated along above the city enjoying the view and keeping our eyes peeled for the Burj Khalifa.  Our destination was the Dubai Mall, the world’s largest, and a sprawling complex located at the foot of the world’s tallest building – the Burj Khalifa.  As we drew closer to it, we noted the stop marked on the metro map associated with the Burj and mustered all our will power to descend into the heat once again.  Disembarking from our subway car we wound down a series of walkways that reminded me more of an airport than a metro, and then were spat out into the summer furnace.

As with many aspects of Dubai, the tram line connecting the Dubai Mall and Burj Khalifa to the main metro is under construction. In its place a free bus shuttle was available. So we aimlessly wandered around the small space near the bus stop looking for shade, snapping photos of the Burj, and complaining of the 110+ degree heat and 80+ percent humidity.  And then a small bus arrived. Well, not necessarily a small bus, just one that wasn’t big enough for all the people waiting.

Confident after a year of daily bus riding in Copenhagen, I fell into my automatic routine and lead the way:  Line up at the front of the bus…hope your ticket works…avoid eye contact with the bus driver and then stand with a blank stare on your face trying not to fall on top of anyone as the bus zig-zags its way to your destination.  All of which seemed to work fairly flawlessly.  We got on board, as did the three other tourists who had been standing near us. We were sandwiched in, standing room only, but it was a lot better than walking the mile or so to the Burj in the heat…so, I was hardly in the mood to complain.

…and then I started to look around.  I quickly noticed that there was a bar separating the front 1/3 of the bus from the back 2/3s.   The back 2/3 was – shoulder to shoulder – with men.  The front section on the other hand had three men in it.  My Dad, the other tourist, and myself.  The rest of the space was jam-packed with a mixture of women and children, most of whom were covered head to toe in black.  Then, as I continued to survey just where I’d led us, I quickly realized we were in the family/women and children only section.  To make matters worse, the Emiratees aren’t the world’s tallest people. Which meant that the three of us towered a good foot over all of the women and looked blatantly out of place.


So, there we are with half the women glaring at us, half smiling at us, and all the rest of the men – who are sandwiched  in the main part of the bus – looking at us with a mixture of “if you touch my wife I’ll beat you” and “you’re the a-hole that uses the turning lane to cut traffic jams, aren’t you?”.   Meanwhile, I start to worry we’re about to get fined, or somehow penalized for violating the purity of the women’s cabin.  After all, isn’t one of the cardinal rules in ultra conservative Muslim areas don’t touch the women?   But hey, we’d walked right by the driver who was busy issuing tickets at the time so I suppose it wasn’t ALL our fault.

Luckily the bus pulled into the mall parking lot a few awkward minutes later and we quickly disembarked making a quick exit and getting ourselves lost in the winding mega-maze of shops the locals casually call a mall.  We were no worse for wear, and short of accidentally ruffling a few feathers, hadn’t done too much harm.

So, that’s the story of how I manage the cultural equivalent of walking into the women’s restroom.   When you find yourself in Dubai, just remember that the front entrance to the buses aren’t like buses elsewhere. Make sure to read the signs and enjoy the adventure!