5 Tricks for Culture Shock



5 TRICKS FOR CULTURE SHOCK(Scroll to the bottom to get a quick glance at the tricks)

Bali, Indonesia

Bali, Indonesia

Many a-traveller will not admit to experiencing, or being really setback by culture shock. I was one of them. Europe was pretty easy, the culture was similar, I learned enough Spanish on the street to order my Tapas in Granada and Kebabs and Absinthe in Barcelona. I was getting the truly cultural experience. Even the short stint into Morocco wasn’t too bad, I spent my time trying to make sure that my sister and mother were alright, and never really had time to think of myself. A few years later, Germany was a breeze, English was everywhere, I couldn’t even attempt to learn German (I have few regrets in life, but that is one).

My shock came when I found myself in a brand new culture a few years later, travelling on my own and needing to make my own decisions. Namely it came in Thailand. I remember lying on my bed, at 2 O’clock in the morning, hoping I didn’t have to go outside because Khao San was to hectic… and I had eaten in almost 24 hours. There’s nothing quite like the primal urge to nourish yourself to get you off your ass.

It’s honestly almost an appalling slap-in-the-face to backpackers if I say I had culture shock on Khao San. I mean it’s in Thailand, but it’s coined as ‘the most touristic street in the world’… The vendors are Thai, but everyone else is white. The vendors ALL speak English, every single one of them. Hell, a good amount of them speak other languages as well. You don’t even have to make a decision, you just have to look at something interesting, and when they ask you, “you like? How much you pay? Sir, how much you pay?” you can just look at them, dumbfounded, and they will bargain themselves down to a decent price. (I don’t recommend this bargaining tactic, but it seemed to work there).

The room I was scared to leave, Bangkok, Thailand

The room I was scared to leave, Bangkok, Thailand

And yet that was the scene awaiting outside my dingy room that was scaring me into starvation. Sure, a rational mind might have been able to tell me that I was more likely to sacrifice my health much worse by staying in a ridiculously dingy room, surrounded by foreign bacteria, whilst compromising my immune system with lack of nutrition and over fatigue… But I wasn’t of a rational mind. I was of a scared little boy mind.

I eventually told myself that if I had found the room, which I discovered down a dark alley, with all my bags at midnight, armed merely with the lonely planet advice that ‘you’ll be more comfortable on a side street just off of Khao San, away from the noise’ and ‘Thais are more likely to finesse you out of your money, than force you out of it’, which is still a phrase that I coin often to impress the fact that Thais won’t rob you per se, but man do they run some great scams…

…Once I had told myself this, I got up, left with little cash, no bags, and went to find some food, it was that little, tiny step, that got me out the door and introduced me into a great new culture. And what I found was shocking… Thailand is easy. It has so many ignorant/drunk tourists, that having a little heart and your wits amongst you will get you around fantastically in that beautiful country.

I certainly didn’t stop travelling after Thailand, nor did I stop experiencing a culture shock the first time I would arrive after a stint back home in Canada. I learned a couple of tricks that might help others out there:


1. Enjoy the airport

The girls from Cianjur, Indonesia showing their poses

The girls from Cianjur, Indonesia showing their poses

The most culture shock you will experience will have to do with a complete difference in between the new culture and your home culture. The airport can be a great intermediary to help you deal with the changes. Airports tend to be safe, the restaurants typically have multiple languages so you can at least learn the names of food, and they are crawling with information desks used to having people completely lost. It’s a great way to get a taste of what it will be like outside, but still being surrounded by many of your home comforts. This works especially well for large airports, though they can be quite busy, find a place to sit, preferably the food court if there is one, and watch how people interact, you’ll learn a ton before you have to have your first interaction

My bags in Thailand... Don't pack like this

My bags in Thailand… Don’t pack like this

2. Find a place for your bags

Once you’ve left the airport the most important thing to do is figure out where you are going to stay. Visitor information desks at the airport will have suggestions. They will almost always be pricier than a place you would find if you wander around. This is totally your call. I personally wander into the areas that visitor information refers me to, and find my own place… But that can be stressful and not for everyone. If something looks like a great offer at the airport, no one will judge you for taking it. Try to find a place that is centrally located, and only take it for one night. The moment you put down your bags, you can head out with a bit of cash in your pocket, little to lose and you will feel so much less vulnerable as you wander the streets getting your bearings.

3. Learn from others

The sawdust carpets for Semana Santa in Comayagua, Guatemala

The sawdust carpets for Semana Santa in Comayagua, Guatemala

If you are extroverted enough to ask other travellers where they eat, or where they are staying, that’s fantastic… do it. Most of my peers think of me as an extrovert, but it’s a learned trait. The first few times I travelled, I would certainly find a place to sit, where I could watch passersby (preferably a restaurant where I could order about a drink an hour) and learn how interactions on the street take place. Asking is the best method, without a doubt… but even just watching will give you insight into how to get food, how to bargain, how to say no, how to walk away, and how forceful you have to be.4. Meet other travellers

If you are in a hostel, than hang out in the common room, open a conversation, you’ll find that fellow travellers are some of the most friendly people you’ll ever come upon. Everyone is looking for someone to tell their stories to, be that person and you’ll receive tons of unsolicited information that will help you on your way. You’ll probably even pick up a travel companion, someone heading your way that you can share rides/rooms with a significantly lower your expenditures. A big plus to having a travel companion, especially if they were an independent traveller, is that your load will be lightened, not only financially, but mentally as well.

River cruise, Sungai Kinabatangan, Borneo, Malaysia

River cruise, Sungai Kinabatangan, Borneo, Malaysia

5. Get out there

You’ll find as a basic rule, that locals get friendlier and friendlier the further you get from other tourists. If the other steps have provided you with information into a little known secret, with a travel companion that is willing, then by all means go for it. You’ll never regret getting off the tourist trail. Doing it alone takes a little more courage, but it can also be much more rewarding. The first time you end up miles away from the next white person, you’ll find that you learn heaps more about the culture and yourself, than you ever would’ve in the hubbub of the ‘things to do’ that everyone else is following.


What tricks do you use to overcome that initial culture shock… shh, I won’t tell the other travellers that you experienced it 😉




Jonny Jenkins

Jonny Jenkins

My name is Jonny, my friends call me Stef. I'm Canadian born, but don't find my identity based upon some borders that man drew hundreds of years ago. I have begun to make my way through the world, travelling and living in many different countries and cultures. I believe whole heartedly in staying longer and going deeper to get the best understanding possible of many different perspectives of life. In order to do so, you have to speak the language. I am no polyglot, but have started to put more emphasis on learning languages in the last few years. I have learned Spanish, relearned French, and started in on Portuguese, German, Indonesian and Malagasy. When it comes to the third world, I am willing to help where they (and not I) decide they need it... in the first world, I am hoping to inspire and motivate people to live more engaging lives.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

19 − 13 =

scroll to top