IF you’ve not yet been to Asia, and you’re thinking of going, I’ve got some advice for you. Expect dogs.
You might think of it as a continent of tigers, monkeys and elephants, but take it from me, the dogs will linger longer in your memory. Whether you’re in India or Indonesia, at some point you’ll find an agitated canine stood between you and the place you really need to get to.
Few things in the life of a traveller are as maddeningly inconvenient as a surprise cameo from a noisy dog. Nothing will spoil that moonlight stroll quicker than returning home to find a testy mongrel getting ready to take on all comers just outside your beach hut.
Now, I don’t want to put anyone off. It really isn’t anything to worry about — just think of it as a traveller’s right of passage, like dysentery, sunburn or lost luggage. And don’t go thinking you can avoid it by throwing money around. There are millions of untamed dogs all over Asia and one of them has your name on its paw. He might be hidden down an alley in Hanoi or sat in a doorway in Delhi. And if you’re a sophisticated, sensitive urbanite like me, you’ll feel utterly ill-equipped to deal with him.
I remember the first time I was barked at by an irate Asian dog. My mind suddenly became a jumble of half-remembered instructions. Should I look it in the eye? Or would that just make it mad? Should I make myself tall? Or does that only work for bears? Dammit, what would Crocodile Dundee do?
As you’d expect, the internet is awash with contradictory advice. However, the consensus seems to be that you shouldn’t look an angry dog in the eye and, if you need to pass it, you should do so confidently but calmly. Other suggestions include turning side on, tilting your head, licking your lips or even yawning.
If you’ve got the presence of mind, why not put all this together? Try tilting your head and shuffling away sideways while yawning and sticking your tongue out. At the very least, this will confuse the animal. And hey, if you’re feeling really confident, why not pat your head and rub your stomach as well?
In truth, most Asian dogs are nine parts bark, one part bite — just lonely strays looking for a bit of attention. And before long, you’ll find your own unique way of bumbling past them without incurring anything more serious than a slight fraying of your nerves.
In fact, if you’re travelling for any length of time, dealing with dogs will eventually become second nature. You might even find yourself getting a little cocky, shushing them with your finger and stroking them afterwards.
Well before you get carried away, here’s a word of caution — getting too friendly with a stray dog can be just as fatal as fearing it. I once made the colossal mistake of feeding a sorry looking Thai dog. His name was Stinker, and in return for meals, he offered me a love so intense it pains me to think about it. Every night, he would sit guard outside my beach hut: every day he’d follow me around like a lovesick teenager. It was like having my own little hairy bodyguard.
The trouble was, Stinker was the most unpopular dog I’ve ever known. Other dogs detested him. The moment they spotted him, they’d pounce, snarling and bearing their teeth, and, like a coward, Stinker would hide behind my legs, leaving me to fend off packs of seething strays with nothing but a flip flop.
I began to dread leaving my hut, and when I did, I’d try to shake him off by running into the sea or darting suddenly into souvenir shops — nothing worked.
Then, one morning, I was offered a boat ride to a new beach. As I sailed away, I looked at Stinker, sat forlornly at the water’s edge, his doleful eyes growing smaller and smaller as we put distance between ourselves and the shore.
I’ve no idea what became of him after that, but I like to think he’s still there, utterly ruining someone else’s holiday.
The moral of the story is this: a dog’s bark may be worse than its bite, but a dog’s love can be catastrophic. Give me an elephant any day.
Published in the Jan/Feb 2011 issue of National Geographic Traveller