First Impressions Aren’t Everything

“First impressions are everything.” We hear it constantly. Whether meeting new people, going into job interviews—we’re reminded to make an excellent first impression. But what about the first impressions that we get when we’re traveling? Are those just as important?

After all, we’re taking in everything when we arrive at a destination. The sights, sounds, smells, people—we digest and dissect every bit in our minds.

But, are first impressions everything? Is it impossible to change our minds once we’ve formed an initial impression? I think it’s possible, and every time it’s happened to me has been a more positive experience.

First Impressions of Thailand

My girlfriend, Kaitlyn, and I traveled to Thailand in 2017 in what would be the beginning of our international travels. We arrived in Phuket at 3 am, weary from hours spent in airports and on planes, and a bit of a “What the f*ck did we just do?” feeling.

Were we even at our destination?

We walked out of the airport and began to look for our driver, no sign of him. Or rather, no sign for us.

Like the rookie travelers we were, we hadn’t gotten SIM cards before we left the airport—stupid mistake in hindsight—and didn’t have access to a phone.

Walking around aimlessly, we noticed a Thai man who looked like he worked at the airport. We stopped him and asked if he could help. Luckily, he spoke some English and was more than willing to help.

He rang our guesthouse owner, who, as we could hear through the phone, seemed agitated to be having to deal with travelers—despite this being his exact area of business.

We had booked a driver to pick us up before we came over through the guesthouse owner, and he told us he’d be waiting for us.

“He says that the driver waited, and you didn’t come, so…he left,” the Thai man said to us. “He says you’ll have to take a taxi to his guesthouse.”

Our flight had been delayed in Shanghai while we were sitting on the plane. It wasn’t announced, but we were sitting on the plane for over an hour and a half before it took off. And since we didn’t have wifi access, we could not message anyone to update them.

So, our driver had waited, didn’t see us, got tired of waiting, and left. I mean this in the most loving way possible, but this is such a classic Thai move. Instead of checking the board and seeing our flight was delayed, he just shrugged his shoulders, probably muttered “mai bpen rai,” then got in his car and left.

We were off to a hot start. Luckily, getting a taxi wasn’t hard.

Our taxi driver raced down a road that was dimly lit. The beaming LED lights shining out from 7/11s as we passed. The streetlights there were cast a dark, abandoned look on most of the buildings.

Did we enter a scene of Mad Max with 7/11s?

The driver, meanwhile, was completely immersed in a game of Mario Kart. He raced around turns, catching power-ups and slingin’ bananas.

Meanwhile, Kaitlyn and I attempted to keep our in-flight dinners inside our stomachs.

We arrived at our guesthouse, faces firmly implanted in the back of the headrests, and sphincters fully tightened.

We got out, gathered our bags from the taxi driver, and he raced off to catch up with the rest of the pack at Moo Moo Farm. I always hated those damn gophers.

Our guesthouse owner greeted us with glee. Skipping to open his gate and having freshly picked oranges with our names carved into them. A nice gesture.

The gate slammed open, knocking me out of my silly little dream. Before me stood a tall European man. He didn’t look happy to see me. Nor did he have any oranges.

He grunted at us, turned, and started walking inside, leading us to our room. We followed, unsure if we were supposed to grunt back or let out a neigh. We said hello.

The next day, we woke up. We were completely unsure of the decision we made. The trip to this guesthouse had looked awful, and we’d had—outside the Thai man at the airport—a pretty bad experience so far. We decided we were going home. No doubts about it. We’re booking our tickets.

But, before we did anything, we had to go on a hike.

Our first impressions of Thailand changed quickly after our hike to Big Buddha.
Kaitlyn and I, sweaty messes, on our first day in Phuket.

This hike would lead us up a mountain that sits above Karon on the west coast of Phuket, and it would take us to Big Buddha. This is the giant white statue of Buddha that sits perched high above Chalong, looking out at the bay.

We began the hike how every good hike starts by following a sketchy cardboard sign that had an arrow pointing up a trail and “Big Buddha” written in a permanent marker.

We met friendly locals who were always willing to point us in the right direction as we followed it. The beautiful winding trail and expansive views over the island slowly started making us rethink our decision.

By the time we had reached the top—dripping in sweat and looking like a couple of homeless people who had wandered onto this monument by chance—we knew we weren’t going home.

Arriving at night had affected our view of the island. Through my travels, I would come to learn a lesson that, I think, is essential for all travelers.

First Impressions of Malaysia

Fast-forward a few months from that Thailand experience, and you’d think we had learned our lesson about giving a place a chance. Alas, we were young and inexperienced.

Part One — Penang

We traveled to Penang, Malaysia, to do a visa run—our first one ever. To tell the truth, we didn’t know much of anything about Penang, nor Malaysia as a whole. We heard everyone mention it as the best place to visit to renew your visa, so it sounded good to us!

However, the trip had a dark cloud hanging over it from the beginning. On the way to Penang, we had received a call from my brother back home in the States. Kaitlyn’s cat, who my brother was taking care of, was dying. It was a painful experience for everyone—us, my brother, and saddest of all, for Hugo, the cat.

Hugo had recently had an operation to get him neutered. However, he was having complications from it—which is apparently common—and wouldn’t last much longer.

Unfortunately, on our layover in Kuala Lumpur, my brother phoned us to tell us that Hugo had died. The grey cloud turned into a storm.

We arrived in Penang, down in the dumps, and not even a new and exciting city was going to bring us out of it.

The highlight came when we arrived at our hotel and needed to charge our phones before we headed out to explore a bit.

However, we couldn’t quite figure out the outlets. These weren’t like an outlet I had seen before. It was three-pronged and similar to the ones I had seen in other countries. But, they wouldn’t allow anything to plug into them. You could see small covers over the outlet holes.

After 10-15 minutes of wanting to save ourselves from the embarrassment of being those stupid foreigners, I went to the reception desk for help. A friendly Malaysian man came strolling down the hall, no stranger to stupid foreigners, clearly.

He entered our room, crouched in front of the outlet, and, defying every rule that I learned about dealing with electrical outlets, he takes out a key and puts it in the top hole.

I waited to the side, jaw dropped, waiting for him to go up in sparks like a Tom and Jerry cartoon.

But this opened the covers of the bottom slots, and he grabbed our chargers and plugged them in with no problem. He smiled at us, nodded slightly, and walked out of the room as if what he had just done wasn’t completely insane.

This trip was off to an interesting start.

Mr. Bean street are in Penang, Malaysia.
Catch Mr. Bean out here cycling the streets of Penang.

We spent the rest of our time in Penang—only a couple of days—walking around the city. However, we never took a liking to it. It was okay, but we didn’t understand what so many people referenced when they talked glowing about it. Were we missing something?

Everyone had raved about the street art, the food, and the culture. But, we roamed around, looking at the street art. While cool, it wasn’t anything I hadn’t seen before.

And the food was good, but again, it didn’t stand out in any way. We didn’t get what the fascination with this place was.

This trip shaped our view of Malaysia in the future, and we avoided going back as much as we could. If there was another flight to a different country we could take for visa runs, we’d take those instead.

Part Two — Kuala Lumpur

Moving forward to our second time in Phuket, and yet another visa run knocking on our door. We had been to many of the usual places already and wanted a bit of variety.

As well, coronavirus was heavily knocking on the door, limiting the places we could visit. So, we settled on Kuala Lumpur. Maybe it could change our view of Malaysia.

And it did.

My girlfriend and I immediately took to Kuala Lumpur. It seemed like an exciting place. There was a vibrant community, and there were tons of things to do.

Usually not a fan of cities, I was making an exception for KL. We filled our time there—outside of Thai embassy visits—simply walking around the city.

We visited the massive Petronas Towers, the crown jewel of KL. I’ve seen loads of towers, and they usually don’t do anything for me. But, these towers astounded me. The architectural design was beautiful, and the way they were connected was unique to most buildings I had seen before.

A visit to the Menara Kuala Lumpur followed this, which offered never-ending views of the city (and a 360-degree rotating restaurant). The KL Eco Park also sat nearby, and we took a quick walk through it. This mainly consisted of me making stupid jokes about plants that my girlfriend would laugh at out of pity more than anything else.

Plus, a friend of mine named Ash was living and working in KL at the time. We had the opportunity to meet up with him and head to a semi-busy market, where we snagged some incredible food and shared some laughs with Ash.

Kuala Lumpur completely changed our first impressions of Malaysia.
Kaitlyn, Ash, and I moments before we got poured on by an incoming storm.

The natural beauty sitting just outside of KL is a can’t-miss opportunity for any nature lover. We went on a short trek called the “Dragon Back Trek.” It involves some climbing, but the views from the top were unmatched. On one side, you have KL extending out into the horizon.

On the other side, you have verdant green forests surrounding a sprawling Klang Gates dam. The area surrounding the dam is filled with unique plant life and wildlife. Hunting is not allowed in the area, so it has allowed flora and fauna to flourish.

This trek was the highlight of our trip. If you’re in the area, then look up Open Sky Unlimited. Amos was one of the best guides I’ve ever had on any trek/tour.

On our last night in the city, we strolled back from a market where we had just eaten with Ash. We laughed at our views of Malaysia before and how much they’d changed in the short time we were in KL. We realized the error we had committed by allowing our opinions from our time in Penang to influence our view of Malaysia.

What’s your point?

This may have been what most of you were wondering from the beginning of these long-winded stories. But, there’s a lesson to learn.

Don’t allow your initial impressions of a place to dictate the rest of your trip, nor your feelings toward a place—especially if you arrive at night.

Our initial impressions are often wrong. And allowing them to influence your view of a country/city/area can hold you back from experiencing all the things a place has to offer.

I can’t imagine how different my life would be had my girlfriend and I listened to our initial thoughts about Phuket. We would have left not long after arriving and never would have had any of the experiences we’ve had over the last five years. Nor would we have met all the fantastic people along the way.

The only thing that I can be sure of is that I wouldn’t be writing this post right now.