A Little Discovery… 20 Neat Things I Learned By Traveling in Developing Countries

Last updated on September 1, 2023

I landed in Italy after six months of traveling in developing countries, and it was a shock to the senses in some regards. I remember having culture shock when I landed in Bangkok all those months ago. I didn’t expect the reverse culture shock of landing back in the Western world.

Having my bestie Jenn fly over for this leg of the trip gave me new perspectives about my months spent traveling in developing countries. After five months of backpacking around the world, I  had lost track of the delineation between my experiences and my life back home in the states.

The streets of Yangon, Myanmar
Late afternoon on the streets of Yangon, Myanmar.

Jenn, however, had no such confusion. She arrived with shiny-clean clothes and a backpack that smelled distinctly better than mine—what is that funk?! Jenn knew two things about herself when deciding to join a leg of the RTW trip: She definitely wanted to meet up somewhere, and she had no wish to travel in developing countries.

Props to her for knowing herself well enough to not embark on something she couldn’t handle. My experiences in South Asia and Southeast Asia are among my favorite, but there are many easier places to travel, and these places have equally beautiful sites and cultures.

Luang Prabang, Laos
A pretty temple in Luang Prabang, Laos.

Arriving in Milan, my cousin and I slogged off of the plane—we were sweaty, dirty, and I had a small sugar-ant infestation in my backpack. (Perhaps I should have left the half-eaten Snickers behind in Delhi?) Jenn took one look at me and started a list of all the crazy differences in my perspective and earlier travels compared to what we were about to face in Italy.

A Reason to Travel in the Developing World

Now, this list is not to be seen as a discouragement from travel in less developed countries—I had wonderful experience and it shifted my perspective in profound ways.

Although I love Europe, I know that it was only by adding Asia to my travels that I could build a deep and nuanced consideration of our global community. I count many of my experiences as the most transformative on my journey.

And also to note, I understand that some of these point to deep fundamental issues facing developing countries, such as lack of government stability, poor transportation infrastructure, systemic education issues, and more.

street food vendor in saigon
A street food vendor sets up his cart in the late afternoon light in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnam.

Consider reading up on why the developing world is developing before you travel there. It helps keep everything in perspective if you better understand root causes.

This is more of a brief look at some of the more endearing, hellacious, charming, and weird things I’ve contended throughout my months traveling in developing countries.

Jenn and I compiled this list throughout the three weeks we traveled together. We made a note every time Jenn exclaimed, “Are you serious! That happens?!”

Wait, What is the Developed vs Developing World? And How Do Third World Countries Fit Into This?

developing country of rural rwanda
Rather than paint all of the developing world with one brush, it does not always mean poverty, at least not for all. But usually it does mean a large swath of the population lives at or below the poverty line, or has little access to a life outside of subsistence farming.

The classification of a country as developing or developed is based on various factors and indicators. And the term “third world” isn’t used much now, both second and third world countries are generally lumped into the “developing” term.

Why? Well, the term “third world country” originated during the Cold War era and it classified countries based on their political alignment—over time though, it took on decidedly more negative stigmatization and perpetuated stereotypes.

While there is no universally accepted definition of a developing country, several key aspects are typically considered when assessing a country’s development status:

Economic Factors

The level of economic development is a crucial aspect. Developed countries generally have higher per capita income, stronger infrastructure, advanced technology, and a diverse range of industries. They often have well-established financial systems, stable economies, and higher levels of productivity. Developing countries, on the other hand, tend to have lower income levels, limited infrastructure, and reliance on specific industries or sectors.

Human Development Index (HDI)

The railroad tracks in the Kibera slums in Nairobi Kenya.
The railroad tracks in the Kibera slums in Nairobi Kenya.

The Human Development Index is a composite measure that takes into account factors like life expectancy, education, and income. Developed countries typically have higher HDI rankings, reflecting better healthcare systems, higher literacy rates, and overall well-being of their populations. Developing countries may face challenges related to access to quality education, healthcare, and basic services.

Industrialization and Infrastructure

Developed countries usually have advanced industrial sectors and well-developed infrastructure, including transportation, communication networks, and energy systems. They often have efficient and extensive roadways, railways, airports, and ports. Developing countries may still be in the process of expanding and modernizing their infrastructure to support economic growth.

Social and Political Factors

streets of havana cuba and an old blue car glinting in the sun
Cuba is an example of a country that’s fascinating to visit, but has some deep problems politically and on a socio-economic level.

Developed countries often have stable political systems, well-functioning institutions, strong governance, and well-established legal frameworks. They also tend to have more advanced social welfare systems, social safety nets, and comprehensive policies addressing issues such as poverty, inequality, and social inclusion. Developing countries may face challenges related to political stability, governance, social disparities, and the provision of social services.

Global Rankings and International Indicators

yurt in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan
For some developing countries, ingrained cultural traditions may mark a country as less developed, but the people on the ground may have no desire to attain the Western ideals for development. Like the nomadic couple I met living a traditional Kyrgyz life in yurts.

Several global indices and indicators assess a country’s development status. These include the World Bank’s income classifications, the United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development Index, and the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index. These rankings consider multiple factors to provide a comprehensive assessment of a country’s development level.

What I Learned from Traveling in Less Developed Countries

Boudhanath Stupa in Kathmandu
Views of Boudhanath Stupa in Kathmandu, Nepal.

1. Shots.

Lots and lots of shots are needed. They poked me relentlessly for weeks to administer them all in time. And shots don’t guarantee that you won’t get sick.

You will get sick.

The shots simply offer up that you probably won’t die from your sickness. There are only a few shots you need when traveling in other developed countries, but far more when you venture off the path a bit.

2. Drinking the local water results in illness.

It just does. Sadly, I did it anyway once or twice and I came to Italy sporting a rockin’ case of giardia. Plus, I almost died in Laos of dysentery. This is a very real consideration.

Of note though, unlike the Western world, the medicine to fix my illness cost just 80 cents in Nepal.

What are we even doing with our healthcare system in the U.S.?

And also of note: I avoided getting sick from the water in India with my trusty SteriPen—it’s worth its weight in gold.

3. Squatting over a ceramic floor toilet is a luxury.

Langa Township in Cape Town, South Africa.
The idea of a bathroom in the U.S. is sometimes dramatically different than the best case scenario for a lot of communities in the developing world, like the Langa Township in Cape Town, South Africa.

In the U.S., we basically have just one style of toilet, and even going to Europe is a shock when you see a squat toilet. Boy, aren’t those the good days though.

These squat toilets are actually better for you though. Of note though, ceramic squats are the good ones—sometimes they’re just a hole!

4. Life is lived outside.

The air takes on a different quality. In India especially, it’s a smell I will never forget. It’s a country scented with a beautifully fragrant mingling of urine, cow dung, exhaust, incense, and humanity.

Sounds potentially gross, but makes me a bit nostalgic for that wacky place. And even in Europe and Cuba, the cafe culture has delighted and enchanted me.

5. It’s a crowded place out there.

tightly packed apartment block in Ho chi Minh city
Major cities in the developing world are crowded, like this tightly packed apartment block in Ho Chi Minh City.

Space is a Western luxury, by and large. In the cities of South Asia, people swarm you, watch you, talk to you, and possibly pet you.

In India, the women would stroke my hair and hand me babies, pretty much just because I am light-skinned.

Life is lived in close quarters so you will get up close and personal with each new country. But perhaps the best thing, eventually you become wholly accustomed to it and unfazed.

6. Pick your battles.

Every culture is different, and that’s not just in developing countries. Landing in Japan is like a slap in the face with different cultural practices. In developing countries though, that’s where to often find the starkest differences.

You can’t freak out over it all. Some seemingly unpleasant things will be a fact of life. Pull on your humanity and remember to keep perspective when it seems like shit is hitting the fan.

Sunset over Bagan, Myanmar..
Sunset over Bagan, Myanmar. Remarkable.

7. Chaos. Everywhere.

Sometimes it’s organized chaos. Often times it’s not. And while there are some notable exceptions to that, for a first-timer in a place like India, it feels like life is running at a frenetic pace.

8. Amenities, toiletries, and creature comforts are very basic.

Chalk this up to quirks. Somehow I found a jar of Skippy peanut butter in Dharamsala, but I spent three months searching for Q-tips. What you take as a baseline normal part of life might not be normal at all where you’re visiting.

Usually they have a local work-around, though, so ask a bit about how to solve your dilemma if you can’t find something on the road.

9. They have public transport figured out.

trasnportation in the developing world at a bus station filled with a parking lot of cars in kampala, uganda
While this bus station in Kamapala, Uganda may not make a lot of sense to me, the locals are on top of it all. If you walk around asking for the right bus to get you where you need to go, they’ll point you there within moments.

So much of the world outside of the U.S. has taken public transportation as a key concern. Trains run through India, buses dart across Southeast Asia. And while transport can sometimes be amazingly on time, it also might never show up.

Learn to go with the flow and don’t pick this as a battle because you won’t win. Just embrace the experience and go with the flow.

10. Nothing will faze you, which is really not such a bad way to live.

I found that a result of traveling in Nepal was a total desensitization to boisterous political demonstrations that might lead to mayhem.

It’s not that I wanted it to happen, but that frenetic fear was gone. When you’re on the road, you’ll figure it out if it’s serious enough to call for it.

11. You’ll learn to be really comfortable talking about bodily functions.

Diarrheal illnesses are real. You will get one, it’s just a matter of time.

12. You’ll learn to be really comfortable talking about your travel companion’s bodily functions.

You will know as much about their bodily functions as you do your own. It’s just a fact of life on the road and an open topic for discussion. I’ve even broached the subject with random travelers because, hey, we’re all in this together.

13. Pop songs that normally make you sneer become the new favs.

Many songs that are a decade old have just hit it off in the places you’ll visit. And boy do they embrace them with enthusiasm. Once there’s a hit that seems to go over well, it plays incessantly.

These songs though, they’re another layer of nostalgia because they invariably link themselves to places, events and smells. Summer of ’69 reminds me of tubing in Laos. And I can’t begin to tell you how many times I have listened to Shaggy in the past three days—were nearing a dozen!

14. It doesn’t make sense.

If you didn’t grow up there, then some of the quirks will just not make sense. But it will be interesting, if you allow yourself to be open to curiosity in each new place.

15. A lot of unexpected things are just a bit harder to do.

Finding the right train takes a while. Using dial-up speeds in an internet café could be a half-day project. Finding that book you want to read may take months of combing tourist book swap shops. But there’s time, so what’s the hurry?

Streets of Bangkok, Thailand
The busy streets of Khao San Road in Bangkok, Thailand.

16. Outside of the US, some places just don’t queue … they just don’t.

The idea of a neat line of people waiting until their turn—sometimes that doesn’t exist! In India, a few times I had someone throw an elbow to advance toward the vendor. Those it’s weird, I learned to gently shove, and give a good push right back at them.

17. Traffic and cars.

motorbikes streets of saigon, vietnam
This dog didn’t flinch or think twice about chilling next to motorbikes racing by on the streets of Saigon.

Nothing I read prepared me for sheer amount of traffic—and that’s saying something, I lived in Los Angeles! Lines in the road are often nonexistent, and your mode of transportation will think nothing of dodging through oncoming traffic.

If it’s faster than waiting on the correct side of the road then it’s fair game. And helmets on motorcycles rarely exist. This is changing in many parts, but helmet laws are rare in a lot of places.

Oh, and motorcyclists can accomplish great feats—I’ve seen some talking on a cell phone, eating a sandwich, and safely transport an entire family. They keep it interesting, that’s for sure.

18. Oh, and really: It still doesn’t make sense.

You just have to roll with it.

19. Their idea of modesty is much different than ours.

my niece and i wore longyi at Shwedagon Pagoda in myanmar
My niece and I bought traditional longyi to wear in Myanmar—primarily as a way to respect the culture in general, as well as during visits to holy sites like this one, Shwedagon Pagoda.
My bestie Jodi and I were very conscious of how we dressed during our two week trip around Jordan. We were completely covered and wore lose clothing.

Dress codes vary by country, and many are becoming more Western in style, but only a bit. Modest dress codes are in order in much of the developing parts of Asia, and of course conservative areas of Africa and the Middle. And it’s kinda nice. That said, I was also happy to don tank tops in Central America when the temperatures soared.

Once you embrace the modesty of the developing world it’s hard to go back. I love my Indian kurta with all of my heart. It was only after some distinctly strange looks in Milan that I shoved in deep into the recesses of my pack and pulled out other more fashionable items I had last used in Australia.

They are a bit obsessed with fashion there, I guess. But even then, I pulled it out for long travel days.

20. The people are generally incredibly and overwhelmingly warm.

Most people in the world want you to visit their country and enjoy it. To explore and have a good experience. The kindness if very real and countless people offered me meals, conversations, and friendship.

There is so much to love about these less-structured countries. Most people call them “developing,” but really that’s a term for the economists. These countries have developed cultures, food histories, and long histories that dates far back into history. I know that Jenn will never join me in many of these places, but I have a special place in my heart for the swath of countries I traveled on that part of my round the world trip.

Monks in Laos in the early morning.
Monks chat at a monastery in the early morning hours in Luang Prabang, Laos.

The best I advice I can offer to new travelers is this: Recognize that control and certainty don’t exist. Just surrender. As a Westerner, you have to abandon the preconceived notions.

And definitely abandon the need to control every moment and circumstance. You could try to force everything into a sanitized version of what you expected. But what is the fun in that? It’s all better when you are just floating along with it, adrift in the well-meaning chaos.

Jenn’s list began to balloon out of control by the end into the most minutely hilarious additions, but really these are just some of the top reasons to dig in and love every moment of traveling in developing countries!  :-)

If you’re planning a trip, why not head over to my travel planning resources page for the nitty-gritties on everything you need to plan the trip. And my country guides offer a great overview of what you should know before you go, as well as how to travel responsibly in each new place.

Essential Travel Planning Resources

Yes, you need travel insurance.
IMG Global is the travel insurance I’ve used for well over a decade of traveling solo, and with kids. Here’s why.

🧳 Smart packing can save your trip.
Shop my favorite travel gear, including all of the packing essentials for world travel, gear to keep you safe on the road, my favorite travel books, and more.

🛏️ Find great accommodation.
Booking.com is essentially the only hotel booking site that I use. It has a wide and affordable selection of traditional hotels, but also hostels and vacation rentals, too. Use these pro tips to find the best travel accommodation.

📍Navigate more effectively.
Rome2Rio is super handy to assess the full range of transport options between two cities—shows everything from flights to trains, buses, minibuses, and more. If you’re booking a rental car, I’ve always found the best deals on RentalCars.com.

✈️ Book affordable flights.
Expedia is one of the first places I look for low-cost flights.

Peruse all of my tips for round the world travel, or learn how to move and live abroad.

10 thoughts on “A Little Discovery… 20 Neat Things I Learned By Traveling in Developing Countries”

  1. did it ever occur to you guys that you guys may come out as benign racists to the people of, as you out it, the developing world? And hey, use water to wipe your posteriors, healthier than tons of paper!

    • You may well be right, but the term “developing world” is pretty accepted (NYTimes, US DoS) which is why I use the term; if you have a better term I am sincerely interested in knowing it – most of the advice here (and the blog in general) is designed for a Westerner who may have never traveled in this area of the world and is looking for a way to overcome the undeniable vast cultural differences I found (bathroom habits included) and the lack of sanitation that our Western bodies simply cannot handle. Thanks for the input – we could all certainly do with a reminder to use less tp and lessen our negative impact on the planet.

  2. I can relate to #17. Seeing a young toddler wedged between a father and mother on a moped is not something you forget.

    I also learned that if a roadside “store” in SouthEast Asia is selling toilet paper along with drinks and snacks, there is a reason the TP is there. Buy some!

    • Oh man, how true is is the TP! It didn’t take me long to figure out that I never, ever wanted to run out of it again :-)

  3. Don’t know where you were – in parts of Asia (Hong Kong and Singapore) not queuing correctly can result in bodily harm!
    Very good list. I’m sending it off to friends of mine who are traveling through Cambodia, Lagos and Vietnam for 3 months!


Leave a Comment