A Little Musing… On the Art of Cultural Immersion in Travel

Last updated on September 29, 2023

indian chai tea
An Indian man enjoys a chai tea on the street-side in Udaipur, India

Moments and anecdotes from my travels flutter into my memory as I go about my day-to-day life. I’ve talked about this feeling in the past on A Little Adrift. In my post on “How Four Years Traveling the World Changed Me,” the most seemingly odd smell or sound triggers the memory of a conversation had over dish of Thai curry, or a bag of pumpkin seeds shared in the bed a bumpy pickup truck—many of these moments lacking a common language, but including many shared smiles.

Memories bubble to the surface every day, and looking back after 15 years of world travel,  it’s the small moments that I recall most often that would have surprised the Shannon of 2008, when I left on my round the world trip.

At the time, I had no idea these moments would be a result of what is now called “cultural immersion”—the act of deeply engaging with a foreign culture to enrich your understanding of the place and its people.

Before I left to travel, I had grand plans for the major wonders of the world I would see, and the adventurous activities I would do.

I would dive the Great Barrier Reef, see the Himalayas, teach English in a monastery, stand in awe of the Taj Mahal. I filled the list with incredible, bucket list worthy things to do—things I am so grateful to have now already done and seen some of the awe-inspiring things in this world.

cultural immersion anecdote at the Taj Mahal
I’ve ticked off my bucket list experiences during the past 15+ years of world travel, but even at the Taj Mahal, many of my favorite moments happened while interacting with locals—like the teen who danced a wacky Bollywood dance for us so that we would take a photo with him in front of the Taj. At that moment, I felt fully immersed in the culture of India.

But I had little concept at the time that the sites and activities were the backdrop to my travels. Living on the road for many years meant years of eating three meals a day at a restaurant or street food stall. It meant talking, reading, doing laundry, travel days, and thousands of hours of shared conversations as I immersed in a bevy of new and interesting cultures..

What Does Cultural Immersion Mean in Travel?

hoi an boat drivers part of the culture
Even in touristy cities like Hoi An, there are countless opportunities to engage with locals and learn more about their culture and way of life.

Cultural immersion is a term used to describe the process of fully engaging with and experiencing the culture of a particular community or region while traveling. It involves a deep level of participation in the local customs, traditions, language, and values of the community, with the goal of gaining a deeper understanding and appreciation of the culture.

At its core, cultural immersion is about more than simply visiting a place and taking a few pictures. It is about actively seeking out opportunities to engage with the people and customs of the culture, and allowing yourself to be fully open and receptive to the experiences and perspectives of others.

If you had asked me in 2008 what the term “cultural immersion” meant, I would have likely honed in on the fact that I planned to travel through countries and would thus meet locals, ask questions, and learn more about each culture’s nuances and peculiarities.

The reality of traveling comes down to much more than that. In many ways, my emphasis on doing things has now changed a bit. If you’re open to learning while traveling, you can’t escape cultural immersion—cultural immersion is embedded in facet of life while travel, down to the way people interact with you in even the most touristy of places.

My Favorite Moments of Cultural Immersion

san pancho mexico cultural immersion while living there
Snapshots from my weeks living in my tiny Mexican town—in this location, even though there were a good number expats in the town, it was impossible to avoid a full dose of immersion into Mexico’s unique culture and foods.

I travel to learn, to observe, and to experience the story of a new place, and many times this is easiest when I slip off the tourist trail, grab the local bus in the wrong direction and simply allow the travel experience to take over.

But that’s only one aspect of it.

It’s a bit of a romantic notion for me to say that my most enriching experiences happen in rural areas—on buses in the middle of nowhere. Because although I learn a lot during those parts of my travels, it’s oftentimes a country’s cities that add needed context to the cultural experience.

Antigua, Guatemala is one of my favorite little cities in all of the world. And as I thought about immersing in Guatemalan culture there, it called to mind my conversations over chai and the hilarity that ensued in the most touristy, backpacker-heavy part of Kathmandu.

volunteering in nepal meant full-on cultural immersion
I volunteered for a month in a small town deep in the Kathmandu Valley. Teaching the young monks English counts among my favorite and most illuminating travel experiences.

Though I would deeply love to know every language on earth, I barely know three. English is not always widely spoken in the rural areas of the world—in fact not a single restaurant owner or shop in my tiny volunteer town in Nepal spoke English.

This was fantastic for cultural immersion, but not so fantastic for answering questions about what I was seeing around me each day. And so, it’s both the immersive and the “touristy” experiences—the interplay of the two—that form my most memorable moments in travel.

How to Immerse Yourself in New Cultures

Explore the Local Cuisine

cooking class in Jordan for cultural immersion
When traveling in Jordan, I took a local cooking class as a way to more clearly understand the connection between Jordan’s culture and its food. Cooking classes are among my favorite ways to immerse in new cultures.

Cultural immersion can mean a flavorful journey through a new place. It can take you from bustling markets filled with exotic fruits to aromatic local eateries. To truly immerse yourself in a culture, you need to relish its cuisine, not as a mere spectator but as an active participant.

That means rolling up your sleeves and actually engaging with the food culture in some way. Join a cooking class—I’ve learned everything from how to prepare Tibetan momos to the perfect technique to flip a makloubeh.

And more than that, I learned the stories behind the dishes in each new place—this has often said as much about a culture as any history book. When you taste a culture’s culinary heritage, you’re not just eating; you’re immersing, one bite at a time.

Engage in Volunteer Work

volunteering in Guatemala
I could wax poetic forever about how much I loved traveling in Guatemala, and a huge part of that was how much cultural immersion I managed in my two months there. Including several weeks volunteering at an after-school program for the children of single mothers.

While it might seem altruistic on the surface, volunteering is a two-way street of cultural exchange. Immerse yourself in local projects—be it teaching, construction, or environmental conservation. If you’ve made the effort to find an ethical volunteer placement then you’re on track for a non-exploitative volunteer experience.

Volunteering not only lets you contribute directly to the community, but it also gives you a unique vantage point to understand local needs, ethos, and aspirations. In return, you might find that you gain not just gratitude but a deeper insight into what makes this culture tick.

Use Home Stays and Local Lodging

Skip the all-inclusive resort—or even the multi-national hotel chains—and opt for a homestay or a local bed-and-breakfast. Living with a local family allows you to escape the sterile corridors of mass tourism and venture into the warm, sometimes chaotic, embrace of everyday life.

From morning rituals to bedtime stories, you become a part of the household narrative, and in the process, you’ll encounter a culture as it lives and breathes.

Take Local Language Lessons

Speaking the local language—even if it’s just a few phrases—creates a conduit for a richer, more nuanced cultural exchange. Locals are more likely to open up and share their world with you if you show a willingness to speak their tongue.

Whether it’s joining a local language exchange group, hiring a tutor, or just practicing with the vendor at the market, each conversation is a step closer to understanding the culture’s idioms, humor, and essence.

And you’d be surprised where you can use this tip. I live in Spain now, and the Catalan culture and language are substantially different than you’d expect if you’ve visited other regions of the country.

Attend Local Events and Festivals

During my first few years of round the world travel, a lot of my route and timeline were determined by local festivals. I planned my entire yearlong route for the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland, and along the way caught the Holi Festival in India, Songkran and Loy Krathong in Thailand, and Semana Santa in Guatemala.

The communal spirit that emerges during local festivals is like a cultural tapestry in motion. Whether it’s a religious ceremony, a traditional dance festival, or a local music event, these gatherings are a potent way to experience a culture in its most expressive form.

Do You Have to Travel Off the Beaten Path for True Immersion?

cultural immersion at a bedouin camp in Jordan
I enjoyed a magical sunrise in Wadi Rum, Jordan after sleeping in a Bedouin tent camp for the night. Talk about cultural immersion! Yes, we were in a tourist camp, but the Bedouins live in this camp as well, making it an incredible chance to observe the Bedouin way of life.

There are many ways to engage in cultural immersion while traveling, depending on the location and the specific culture you are seeking to explore. You might choose to stay with a host family, participate in local festivals and celebrations, take language classes, or volunteer with a local organization. Or maybe you just eat your face off at local street food stalls and get to know the locals who also frequent those places.

At its heart, cultural immersion is about actively engaging with the culture of a particular community, so you can gain a deeper understanding of the local way of life, history, and traditions.

I thought a lot about cultural immersion when I settled into a tiny expat town in Mexico. And I surprised myself with the decision to stay there for months. I had traveled to Mexico partly to polish off my Spanish—it was been years in the making and I was ready to dedicate the time and effort to feeling more fluent.

monastery in mandalay to find burmese culture
My niece and I visited a monastery in Mandalay, Myanmar to better understand how and why Buddhism has such a strong cultural link to Burmese culture.

But I didn’t need much Spanish there. The town was tiny—one main road that leads straight to the beach. And as I said, it’s full of expats. It’s so small in fact, that there is only one coffee shop in town. Yes, one. That was very nearly a deal-breaker, but it makes a kick-ass Americano and I was appeased on that front.

But for some reason I felt guilty when I first chose to stay here, I felt that I should “go more local,” and set up shop in a more “Mexican” town or city. As if that would make me more of a traveler maybe?

And since I did later move to Oaxaca, I can assure you I was just as fully immersed in the culture in both places since it’s a mindset more than a location.

So why did I stay in small-town Mexico for so many years? Well, I had friends in town, fellow travel bloggers Steve and Victoria from Bridges and Balloons, and an instant community of locals and expats alike because in a town that small, the divide between the two is almost negligible. 

There was also a wonderful community center, EntreAmigos, which runs classes for local children, creates art from the town’s recyclables, and was located just outside my doorstep. I started volunteering there my first week in town and continued tutoring and doing after-school English lessons over the next several months.

Benefits of Cultural Immersion

local tour guide in Musanze, rwanda to experience this facet of the culture.
Friends and I hired a local guide to take us hiking into rural areas near Musanze, Rwanda. Locals from one village where we stopped for tea all wanted to see the photos we took on the digital screen on the back of the camera.

Cultural immersion is akin to a deep dive into an ocean of experiences, its layers revealing hues of human existence that surface-level interactions could never expose. At its core, this form of engagement fosters empathy, offering travelers an intimate look into the lives, struggles, and joys of people in foreign lands.

You’re not just a visitor, you’re a participant in a living tapestry that educates you on local values, customs, and traditions.

This educational aspect is invaluable, breaking stereotypes and deepening your understanding of the world. As you actively engage—whether through language, cuisine, or social customs—you become more adaptable and resourceful. Your cognitive horizons expand; your comfort zones stretch. You learn the art of effective communication, often without even speaking the same language.

Moreover, this immersion has a ripple effect, enhancing your sense of global citizenship. You’re more likely to act responsibly and sustainably, carrying a slice of each culture with you, and in turn, enriching your own. It’s a transformative journey, not just of miles traveled but of perspectives gained.

How to Define Cultural Immersion for Yourself

victoria falls zimbabwe
Cultural immersion never means skipping the touristy things—how silly would it have been for me to miss seeing Victoria Falls just because it’s popular?! Rather, it’s a mindset you take with you on the road and a purposeful intention to seek out experiences that will best lend you the chance to get to know locals.

Cultural immersion can mean so many things, and there are many travelers who think you have to abandon the mainstream tourism path to experience travel, but there are moments and opportunities everywhere to dive into local cultures.

I’m still learning this. And some places, albeit, are easier than others to really feel fully immersed in the culture, food, and history. I’m happy here in my small Spanish beach town, and after just two weeks the shop owners give me a wider smile when I walk in the door—the hello of recognition, that beginning sign of belonging somewhere, even if it’s just for a few months.

Through it all though, a key to full immersing in local cultures is to put aside your own preconceptions and biases, and be open to learning from the experiences and perspectives of others.

Chief among my concerns here in my new home is to be mindful of the potential impact of my actions on the local community—I strive to act in a way that is respectful, culturally sensitive, and humble.

A friend from Florida asked me last month why I have never shared on my blog some of the anecdotes and travel stories I tell over the dinner table when I am back home with friends, and his question struck me as true.

Sometimes in search of a good travel story, I forget to share some of the random moments on the road—my personal journey. But it’s always these moments that I use to regale my friends with stories. These are my favorite travel stories on the blog, most of which involve deep cultural immersion and transformative travel moments.

13 thoughts on “A Little Musing… On the Art of Cultural Immersion in Travel”

  1. I have been doing some thinking about this since I arrived in Thailand. I too enjoy getting immersed in the culture but in Bangkok the “mall culture” is very much a part of being there. I have eschewed things pop culture but I am starting to expand my thinking.

    • You do present a bit of a conundrum there that I understand — the prevalence of the huge malls as a central hub in Bangkok always seemed odd (though I was grateful for them on the super hot days!). Sometimes if you find a good coffee shop inside the mall you can people watch — that way you’re not joining in on the consumerism but still out there mixing. And, lots of little markets too though, my friend lived near Victory Market and I loved the bustle of life in that area when she showed me around. Hope your Bangkok travels go well (and include tasty food) :)

  2. This post struck a chord with me. Some of my best travel memories when I’ve meet locals because I had gotten completely lost. This are the moments I find that I cherish the most.

    • It’s so true, you can’t predict or plan what will resonate with you most. Sometimes it truly is the beautiful landscapes or natural wonders, but often it’s the unexpected and quiet conversations that make an impact.

    • He he he, he does doesn’t he — a shame that when I took that photo I was a much more shy traveler or I could have sidled up next to him for a chat! :)

  3. In my eyes, one of the best aspects of cultural immersion is internalizing a positive part of the culture to improve your own perspective, wherever you may go. I’ve especially found this to be true as I’ve lived in Turkey the past 8 months. The people are incredibly hospitable and warm, and I’ve noticed a significant change in my own personality as a result.

    • A really wonderful point Paul, and something I found true a lot in Thailand — because the culture has a hierarchy of respect (monks, teachers, elders, etc) it really allowed me to focus outside of myself and become more aware of respecting those around me on buses, at meals, and other times when there is a slight cultural divide. Thanks for sharing, I have yet to make it to Turkey but look forward to traveling there :)

  4. What’s the name of that little Mexican town? And where is it. I reminds me of Zipolite on the Oaxaca’s Pacific coast.


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