6 ways to immerse yourself in the local culture of your travel destination

When I plan my travels, I try to include at least one activity that would give me a taste of local daily life, or a glimpse of the richness of the place’s culture.

Here are some of the things I do and would suggest to fellow travelers. I do at least one of these on a short weekend trip, and more on a longer trip. If you are traveling long-term, you can even do all of them!

Attend a festival.

This is probably the most obvious and easiest way to get acquainted with a place’s heritage. Festivals usually showcase the colors and vibrance of local culture, and the celebrations are usually fun!

Experiencing Holi was one of my more memorable experiences on my India trip this year. One of the most popular festivals in India, it is literally a festival of colors, where merrymakers throw colored powder into the sky, or even spray liquid colors at one another. (Fellow women, be alert if you are participating in Holi on the streets, though, as there have been incidents of harassment. I had local friends with me who kept a close eye on me and my travel companion that time.)

In my own country, the land of many festivals (we usually call them fiestas here), I have some favorites which I would recommend, too:

Masskara Festival in Bacolod, Negros Occidental –  With locals parading and dancing in colorful costumes and in even more elaborate masks. There is even a parade of brilliantly glowing masks at night!

Champion, First Place, Barangay 16, Barangay Street Dance, Arena Performance, Bacolod Masskara Festival 2013 Winners

Ati-Atihan Festival in Kalibo, Aklan – Arguably the oldest festival in the country, also calling for elaborate costumes and snappy dance steps. What I enjoyed about this festival is that you are not just a spectator but can also be a participant – you can walk, dance, and drink with local contingents parading in the streets.

Tribu Ilayanhon, Champion, first place, Balik-Ati category, native Ati costume, Kalibo Ati-atihan Festival 2014

Kaamulan Festival in Malaybalay, Bukidnon – For those who want a look at rich indigenous traditions like I do. The seven indigenous peoples in Bukidnon province – yes, tribes, as they also call themselves – participate in this “Kaamulan,” which literally means “gathering.” Elders lead a solemn ritual sacrifice prior to the merrymaking.

Idlantungun Manuvu tribe dancer, Pangantucan Municipality, Kaamulan Festival Street dance 2013, Malaybalay, Bukidnon, Mindanao, Philippines

Eat the local food.

When on a brief trip, especially on a work trip with a tight schedule with no time for sightseeing, this is what I always do to get a feel of the place. Everyone has to eat, right? The local food literally gives you a taste of the place’s culture.

I make an effort to try the food the destination is known for, and especially restaurants or street food stalls recommended by locals. If it’s recommended and frequented by a local, it’s usually good.

Sometimes, trying the local food can be as simple as heading to the nearest convenience store and picking some among the selections you don’t normally see in your own country. Yes, visit a local convenience store. You might be surprised on what you can find. I always am.

If I have more time, I wander around and try all kinds of food – especially street food! – that catch my eye. This is how I was able to “discover” what I consider the best pad thai in Bangkok, and which literally made me cry.

best pad thai in thailand, The Original Pad Thai at Tha Chang Pier, near grand palace, bangkok, cooked by Maneerust Phongprom

This is my favorite – a pad thai cooked with love, and with a recipe passed down through generations

Take the local transportation.

I try to do this even in the shortest trips, especially if the local transportation is convenient and accessible. I am particularly fascinated how the tuktuks vary in different countries. The tuktuk in Cambodia is the one I find most curious, as its body is similar to that of a horse-drawn carriage, or calesa, which is now rarely used in my country.

Tuktuk side-by-side or versus calesa or horse-drawn carriage, Siem Reap, Cambodia and Manila, Philippines

A tuktuk in Siem Reap side-by-side with a calesa in Manila

I also love taking trains, especially when they offer a view of the countryside. Despite the long and delayed train rides in India, I looked forward to the views.

Stay with a local.

Staying not at hotels but with locals is one of the best ways to get more immersed in the culture, even during a short trip. Staying with a local usually also means eating their food (so that covers my other suggestion!), going to places they recommend, and sometimes experiencing customs and traditions not usually known to tourists.

During Holi, I stayed with a friend in India. There, I was able to experience a low-key version of Holi at their home, too, as well as the ritual burning of cow dung, among other things I probably wouldn’t have experienced had I stayed at a hotel.

Holi, Festival of colors, local's home, smearing paint, Mathura, India.JPG

At my friend’s home, we all smear colors at each other’s faces for Holi in Mathura.

Ritual burning of cow dung, agni hotra, Holi Festival, Mathura, India.JPG

Ritual burning of cow dung during Holi

Meanwhile, on my seven-week backpacking trip around Visayas, I stayed mostly with friends, relatives of friends, or friends of friends, and even strangers-turned-friends! The entire trip became all the more memorable for it. I know we Filipinos are known for our hospitality and friendliness, but experiencing it on a daily basis during that trip amazes me even up to this day.

First light at one of Paruparong Bukid's nipa tree houses

At Paruparong Bukid, a wellness resort a friend owns and where she happened to be at during my visit to Leyte

On your next visit, stay with a friend or try Couchsurfing. Make sure to be a good guest!

Visit the usual tourist sights, but with a local, or alone, at your own pace.

Nothing beats seeing a place through a local’s eyes, especially if that local has a sense of deep connection and rootedness. My first day in India was made warmer and richer because of Preethi, our local guide around Kolkata. She took me and my friend on a tour around the city’s different religious traditions, and Jainism was especially enlightening as she was a Jainist herself. We watched her do her usual rituals when entering Jainist temples, and she taught us how to do those, too.

If I don’t have a local with me, I prefer to explore at my own unhurried pace and take time to read the text descriptions on the site, if available (I don’t always get to do this when on a quick guided group tour) and walk around and really feel the place. This is what I did when I walked around Angkor Wat in Cambodia and when I biked around Bagan’s old temples in Myanmar.

Angkor Wat Cambodia

Happily exploring Angkor Wat on my own

untouched unspoiled bagan myanmar temple

I first went on a guided tour around Bagan’s temples with a group, and then returned on a bike.

Learn the language, or some key phrases at least.

Learning a new language can be daunting, but at the very least, I make it a point to learn how to say “Thank you” even when I have no time to learn the key phrases. Saying a sincere “thank you” in their language can also be the start of building a real connection with a local.

There are also nuances in their culture that you only get to appreciate when you learn the language. Learning beginner’s Japanese as a language elective in college exposed me to different aspects of their culture, like the use of honorifics, of plain and polite language, as well as some contextual, untranslatable words. Though I have yet to visit Japan, I trust my little knowledge of the language can help.

In places where English is rarely spoken, learning key phrases is a survival skill. It’s a good thing that a local who could speak English came to my rescue when I found out I was in the wrong bus only when I was in the border between Vietnam and Laos. But she could only stay with me for so long, and learning some of the language would have helped me then.

bus hanoi to vientiane, vietnam to laos, nightmare bus ride, reclining seat

That nightmarish bus ride where familiarity with the language would have probably helped me in predicament

Sometimes, I also pick up the language so I could use it when I do volunteer work. I learned some key phrases of one of my country’s major languages, Hiligaynon, when I had to talk to students during a volunteer stint on my favorite island.

Facilitating a water activity at Danjugan Island

I spoke Tagalog with a smattering of Hiligaynon to students at an environmental awareness camp in Danjugan Island. Learning some Hiligaynon also helped me understand them.

Above are the things I usually do to immerse myself in the local culture, and which usually reward me with memorable experiences. If you have anything to add to the list, feel free to comment!

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