Asia is the largest continent on earth, and easily our most fascinating and irresistible neighbour. But it can also be a baffling place with seemingly impenetrable languages, distinct traditions and customs, and vastly different food cultures.
So who better to ask to solve some of the mysteries about what to see, what to eat, what to do and – most importantly – what not to do, in some of our favourite countries than seven of our best loved and most respected Asian-born Australians?
Where is the best place in Malaysia to visit orang-utans? What is there to see in Macau? Where is a good place to shop in Seoul? What is the number one topic of conversation in Taiwan?
How do most Australians manage to cause offence in Thailand? Where are the best dumplings in China? What should you buy to bring home from Sri Lanka?
This is truly the best of both worlds: people with a decidedly Australian perspective, but an intimate knowledge of their birth countries, giving us the inside running on how to get the most out of a trip to Asia.
Penny Wong, federal Labor politician and leader of the Opposition in the Senate
THE BACKSTORY “Dad was at the Uni of Adelaide when he met, and married, Mum who grew up on a farm in the Adelaide Hills. They returned to Malaysia where my brother and I were born in the town of Kota Kinabalu in Sabah on the island of Borneo. We children and Mum left in 1976 to live in Adelaide while Dad stayed. We’d go back most school holidays and, as an adult, I visit at least once a year. Australia is home but there’s always a sense of homecoming when I land in KK.”
THE ONE THING YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT VISITING SABAH IS It’s a diverse community, home to many different cultural groups and faiths. Ranau, near the foot of Mount Kinabalu, is known to many as the end point of the infamous Sandakan/Ranau death march.
SOME WORDS AND PHRASES WORTH KNOWING ARE “Boleh bah kalua kau” which is the local equivalent of “no problem” (literally, “sure can do for you”). And “Terima kasih”, thank you, is always appreciated.
THE THREE PLACES YOU MUST SEE Sipadan Island, a beautiful island; Mount Kinabalu, Malaysia’s highest peak; Sepilok for jungle treks, rainforest and orang-utans!
THE ONE DISH YOU MUST TRY IS I’m from a Malaysian Chinese family, so we tend to eat Chinese food. I love crab (pretty much any style!), but other favourites include Tuaran mee, a fried egg noodle dish, Sang myuk mien, noodles with thinly sliced pork, and Malay kueh, bite-sized snacks or desserts.
MY NEXT FAVOURITE ASIAN DESTINATION IS Hanoi. A fantastic city of both French and Vietnamese culture, with great food, wonderful old buildings and crowded streets.
Tony Ayres, award-winning screenwriter and TV and movie director whose credits include the film The Home Song Stories, producer of the TV series The Nowhere Boys and The Slap and the movie Cut Snake
THE BACKSTORY “My mother worked as a hostess in a nightclub and met and married an Australian sailor, so we came to Australia by boat when I was three years old. She’d been leading a pretty impoverished existence and saw it as an opportunity for a better life in a Western country. I told her story in my film Home Song Stories.”
THE ONE THING YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT VISITING MACAU IS that it’s incredibly beautiful. It’s a fascinating – and surprising – collision of cultures and time frames. There’s the Asian culture and the faded Portuguese colony’s pastel colour palette and 21st-century casinos, with holograms projected on to entire buildings, yet all in a very small geographical space.
SOME WORDS AND PHRASES WORTH KNOWING ARE “Do you speak English?” I don’t speak Cantonese and use the app on my phone to translate and show people …
THE THREE PLACES YOU MUST SEE ARE the beautiful Lou Lim Ieoc Garden by the city centre; the UNESCO World Heritage-listed historic centre itself with its great meeting of east and west with temples and churches and lovely architecture; and the largest casino in the world, The Venetian Macao.
THE ONE DISH YOU MUST TRY IS traditional Portuguese custard tarts made with an Asian kind of flavour that makes them simply divine.
MY NEXT FAVOURITE ASIAN DESTINATION IS Shanghai. It has such extraordinary architecture and it’s very friendly to westerners which makes it an easy city to be in.
Dami Im, singer-songwriter who won The X Factor Australia and came second in the 2016 Eurovision Song Contest for Australia
THE BACKSTORY “I was born in Seoul in South Korea and grew up in Inchon until I was nine. My parents thought we would have a better education and more opportunities in Australia so we moved to Brisbane with Mum while Dad stayed behind to make a living. I used to go back every summer to visit Dad and other relatives.”
THE ONE THING YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT VISITING KOREA IS that Seoul is a really unique place full of modern infrastructure, great food, and culture. The four seasons are quite extreme and have their own beauties so you will have a different experience depending on what time of the year you visit.
SOME WORDS AND PHRASES WORTH KNOWING ARE “Annyong haseyo” which is hello and “Kamsa hamnida” thank you. Remember to bow when you’re saying hello! And another phrase for starting conversations with locals is “Sam Hammington” – an Aussie who made it big as a comedian in Korea.
THE THREE PLACES YOU MUST SEE I love shopping so I’d recommend Dong-dae-moon which is packed with trendy clothing markets; Myoungdong where the young people hang out for cool shops and places to eat; while for a glimpse of the pre-modern era, visit Korea Gyeongbokgung Palace.
THE ONE DISH YOU MUST TRY IS Korean barbecue. It’s well-known in Australia now but it really is the culture of Korea. People sit around the table cooking sliced pork belly and pouring drinks for each other; I love it!
MY NEXT FAVOURITE ASIAN DESTINATION IS Thailand. I love the combination of relaxing beaches, great food and a busy city.
Ray Chen, internationally renowned violinist who tours the world constantly.
THE BACKSTORY “I was born in Taipei in 1989 and came to Australia at four months old. Each year we would go back to visit relatives during the Christmas holidays, which also provided an opportunity for my sister and I to be reacquainted with the culture of our heritage.”
THE ONE THING YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT VISITING TAIWAN IS that food is the number one topic of conversation. The food culture in Taiwan is so passionate, it’s actually borderline hysterical. You’ll often find people eating one meal while concurrently discussing what they’ll have next. Finding a good place to eat is never a problem, but losing weight while there is pretty much impossible.
SOME WORDS AND PHRASES WORTH KNOWING ARE “Wo xiang chi zhege” – I want to eat this, and point! And “Zhege hao chi” – this is tasty. People speak Taiwanese but also Mandarin which is far more useful because you can use it elsewhere.
THE THREE PLACES YOU MUST SEE ARE the National Palace Museum, filled with amazing treasures from 10,000 years of Chinese history; Shilin Night Market, the most famous night market with the best experience for foreigners for food and shopping; Alishan, a beautiful mountain resort area with a ride on a steam engine to visit the tea and wasabi plantations, and beautiful sunrises often on a sea of clouds, creating an amazing “heavenly” effect.
THE ONE DISH YOU MUST TRY IS the oyster omelette which is known locally as “O-ah jian” and is a popular street food in the many night markets of Taiwan. A good tip is to visit them with a friend where, instead of getting your own order per person, you can hit up a lot more food stands by sharing your food (usually about $3-$4 a dish).
MY NEXT FAVOURITE ASIAN DESTINATION IS Japan, which has a heavy influence on Taiwan. Many things in Taipei are much more similar to Tokyo than to Shanghai or Beijing, particularly when it comes to shopping malls, public transport, and general hospitality. See go2taiwan.net
Jane Barnes of the legendary Barnes rock family with husband Jimmy Barnes and their children Mahalia, Eliza-Jane, Elly-may and Jackie.
THE BACKSTORY “My mother married my stepfather, an Australian diplomat, and we came to Australia with him in 1963 when I was five. I go back to Thailand twice a year. I just love it. I have a lot of family there and I am very Thai in many ways even though I have grown up in Australia, and we have brought up our children to feel a connection to my country of birth.”
THE ONE THING YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT VISITING THAILAND IS that the Thai people are really, really beautiful, gentle and respectful. It’s called “The Land of Smiles” for a reason.
SOME WORDS AND PHRASES WORTH KNOWING ARE the Thai greeting “Sawasdee” (with “ka” on the end for ladies and “krup” on the end for gentlemen). “Kop-khun-ka” or “Kop-khun- krup” means thank you.
THE THREE PLACES YOU MUST SEE ARE The Floating Markets in Bangkok; along the Chao Phraya River for the Temple of the Emerald Buddha and Temple of Dawn; and the Temple of the Golden Buddha in Bangkok’s Chinatown. That buddha is made of seven tonnes of gold – the largest piece of solid gold in the world – which my grandfather found in a basement. He donated the statue to the temple and is buried there.
THE ONE DISH YOU MUST TRY IS mango sticky rice. The fruit in Thailand is so sweet and has so much flavour, it’s incredible. And the sticky rice with fresh coconut cream through it … delicious.
MY NEXT FAVOURITE ASIAN DESTINATION IS Japan. I love everything about it: great food, great culture, cleanliness, honesty, shopping. We like to ski Japan and lie by the sea in Thailand.
Wendy Wu, owner of global travel agency Wendy Wu Tours
THE BACKSTORY “I was born in Tibet when my parents, both Chinese medical doctors, went to work in a hospital in the capital Lhasa. I was there for seven years, then grew up in China. In 1998, aged 21, I came to Australia with my petroleum chemistry degree to work and found I could do anything I wanted to do, which was amazing.”
THE ONE THING YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT VISITING CHINA IS it is such a big country, and so different, with so much to see, you really need to plan before you visit. Decide what you want to see, whether it’s beautiful landscapes, amazing culture, friendly people, fascinating history, great food …
SOME WORDS AND PHRASES WORTH KNOWING “Knee How” how are you? “Zhao Shang How”, good morning! “Wan An”, good night! and “Zhai Jan”, goodbye. A mobile phone app will help your pronunciation and people are overjoyed to hear westerners speak their language.
THE THREE PLACES YOU MUST SEE are Shanghai, which everyone loves because it’s a little like New York or Hong Kong but much more colourful and so vibrant and interesting; Chengdu where people know how to live a good life with so many teahouses; and Jiuzhaigou, the most beautiful place on earth, and a combination of the Canadian Rocky Mountains, Swiss Alps, and the Turkish magic pool all in one.
THE ONE DISH YOU MUST TRY IS Xiao long bao – yummy Shanghai steamed dumplings with meat soup in the middle, usually pork and sometimes with shrimp.
MY NEXT FAVOURITE ASIAN DESTINATION IS Mongolia. It’s so remote, wild and pristine, and the people are so friendly. I was eating dinner in a restaurant in the capital Ulaanbaatar one evening and people came over and invited me to join them, and then to stay at their home. So I did.
Keith Potger, one of the founding members of The Seekers, and the vocal and often instrumental arranger for the group, still touring with them today
THE BACKSTORY “I came to Australia at the age of six with my family from Ceylon, as Sri Lanka was known then, in February 1948, the year Britain handed back government. Any British Commonwealth country was available but my parents decided that Australia presented the best opportunities.”
THE ONE THING YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT VISITING SRI LANKA IS that it’s a hot monsoonal climate so pick your times to go.
SOME WORDS AND PHRASES WORTH KNOWING ARE “Ayubowan” gets round virtually any greeting from g’day to see ya later and everything in between. Sincere smiles and politeness without words or phrases gets you around practically anywhere.
THE THREE PLACES YOU MUST SEE are Sigiriya for its rock fortress, Polonnaruwa for its ancient rock sculptures and Anuradhapura, all fine examples of some of the best Buddhist sites in the world. The so-called Cultural Triangle covers many of them.
THE ONE DISH YOU MUST TRY IS eggplant (wambatu) curry, and also coconut (pol) sambol, gotu kola malung … I am a vegetarian and Sri Lanka is an easy place to find succulent and varied dishes. The selection of curries for breakfast is something to behold and well worth trying.
MY NEXT FAVOURITE ASIAN DESTINATION IS I’d like to spend some more time in Shanghai because I haven’t been there since 1997 when they were building the whole area across the river and I found the old colonial parts of the city, like the French and Russian quarters, fascinating.
THE ONE MISTAKE AUSTRALIANS ALWAYS MAKE IN…
Forgetting to remove shoes when entering someone’s home. And you get sunburnt even if it’s cloudy.
Spending too much time in the 30-plus casinos and losing all their money – unless your name is James Packer.
Not to show respect to people who are older. Age and respect is really important to Korean people.
Not knowing where to put their chopsticks in between dishes. Never stick your chopsticks into your rice as this symbolises burning incense and represents an offering to the dead, or cross them or drum them on your dish. Place them together beside the bowl, or balance them on the rim.
Being too tactile. It’s just not the culture to touch people. People don’t shake hands, we greet each other with our hands together as if in prayer and a bow of the head.
They expect the food to be the same as Chinese food in Australia. It’s not; it’s so much better. Be ready to try everything.
Being impolite in various ways, which includes not dressing appropriately when visiting religious places and not taking off caps and shoes when entering a building with religious monuments. They can also be condescending with a superiority complex.
SEVEN BEST KEPT ASIAN SECRETS
While many tourists visit Malaysia’s Sabah on Borneo for the rainforests, to climb Kinabalu, see the orang-utans and perhaps pay their respects at Sandakan, they may not be aware that Sipadan Island is rated as one of the world’s great dive spots.
The old docks area, possibly the most beautiful crumbling fairytale place in the world. Now it’s lined with new restaurants, cafes and bars, so it’s having a second life.
The Noryangjin Fish Market in Seoul. It’s a big, famous farmers’ fish market where you can find vast amounts of seafood. Locals come and examine the fish and, once they have decided which one they want, there is a restaurant above where you can take the chosen fish and have it cooked.
Penghu, a set of islands off the coast. These islands are largely unknown to foreigners yet the locals have been secretly enjoying the amazing outdoor activities, delicious food and beautiful scenery for years. The best time to go is in Australia’s winter when you can enjoy the best scuba diving/snorkelling, squid fishing, all-you-can-eat oysters, and fun water sports, all at a very reasonable price.
Breakfast at the fresh food markets. There are many stalls, each with their own specialty dish, like Khao mun gai (Thai Hainan chicken with rice cooked with chicken fat), Kanom jien (green chicken curry) and Kanom krok patongo (fried doughnut-like bread dipped in condensed milk or custard buns). And there’s nothing better to drink than freshly squeezed mandarin juice and Thai ice black coffee Olieng, with a good kick. It’s all so fresh, and it’s mostly locals there.
Xian. Everyone knows about the terracotta warriors but these days they have rebuilt a lot of it, modelled on what it was like 1000 years ago. It’s now a really beautiful city with the best preserved city wall and culture, a perfect ancient capital of China for more than 10 dynasties, kind of like Rome but with Chinese culture.
Gemstones. It’s still one of the few countries in the world where you can buy precious and semi-precious gemstones, like sapphires and amethysts, and leave the country – legally – with them. Kandy and the hill areas are great for that, as is Galle Fort.
The story Travel advice on Asia’s customs and culture first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.