If my last post inspired you to travel, then yayy, I’m so glad you’re taking the leap of faith! If you are planning a trip to SE Asia specifically, then I’ve got some tips so that you don’t feel completely blindsided, like I was, when you get there. Some of this you can find on the web but others you can’t. So take my word for it – unlike Europe, or Australia or Central America, Southeast Asia is a completely different beast.
- Probably the most important piece of advice I have for you: ALWAYS CROSS THE STREET WITH CONFIDENCE. I can’t emphasize this enough. The traffic there is madness. There are no rules. People not only drive like maniacs on the road but you can find motorbikes zipping up the sidewalks too. I like to compare crossing the street to a game of frogger. You’ll need to dodge motorbikes, cars, busses and tuk tuks from every direction.The only difference here is that you do not get a second life. When you walk with courage, it 1) it makes you appear like you know what you’re doing and 2) it puts the drivers at ease as well.
- When in doubt, the wifi password is most likely 12345678.
- When getting on a long bus ride, always empty your bladder first and make sure you have eaten or have food for the ride. One time, I was stuck on a bus for 8 hours with only oreos. Another time, we stopped on the side of a road for a potty break (there were no toilets (or even bushes for that matter)).
- In Vietnam, you must ALWAYS take your shoes off and put them in a plastic bag before stepping foot on a bus.
- If a bus ride is expected to be 6 hours, you can safely add an extra 3. Most likely, it will take you closer to 9. Plan your travel arrangements accordingly!
- In Vietnam, if choosing to buy a motorbike, make sure you know that it’s recently been inspected. There’s nothing worse than buying a bike off of another backpacker to find that it breaks down every 50km. And believe me, you don’t want to be stuck in the middle of nowhere, Vietnam when that happens.
- Learn how to say “hello and thank you” in the native language of every country you visit. Knowing these words make all the difference and will earn you respect from the locals.
- Download the “maps.me” app for your phone. It’s an offline map and will save your life when you’re lost and trying to navigate through a new city with no data plan.
- Always cover your shoulders & knees when visiting temples and in the presence of monks. If you’re not covered appropriately, you may need to pay to rent clothing.
- Learn to barter. Always make your first offer at least 1/3 of what they ask. This mostly goes for buying souvenirs at markets but also for tuk tuks too. Because you look different, they WILL try to rip you off.
- Know the difference between safe and unsafe street food. If there are tons of locals eating there and there is steam coming off the food, that’s a great sign! If its off-hours and the food looks like it’s been sitting out for a while, skip it. Your tummy will thank you later.
- In Vietnam, Pho is eaten for breakfast so don’t be surprised to see the locals eating this hot soup every morning (perhaps because it gets so hot later in the day).
- Make sure to always carry baby wipes or toilet paper with you. More likely than not, the toilets (or holes) you will be using won’t have TP.
- Check visa requirements in advance before crossing borders. Note: You cannot get a visa upon arrival in Vietnam. Their visa takes a few weeks to process. Also, carry extra copies of passport photos with you. Border control officers need a separate passport photo and they will charge you if you don’t have one.
- If a tuk tuk driver invites you to a party at someone’s house, politely decline. This is a common scam in Cambodia and they will try and take your money once you get there.
- ALWAYS negotiate a price with a tuk tuk driver before getting in. If taking a taxi, make sure the meter is on and working. Tuk tuk and taxi drivers will try to take advantage of your ignorance, don’t let them!
- Know what is appropriate to wear and what is not in each country you visit. Malaysia, for example, is a strictly Muslim country and the locals stay completely covered on the beach. Don’t make the same mistake I made by stripping down into a bikini. You’ll stick out like a sore thumb.
- Be prepared for the intense humidity, no matter what time of year you visit. This sometimes means showering 2 times a day. Don’t bring nice or expensive clothes with you because you’ll sweat through them in a matter of hours.
- When it rains, it POURS. Most of the time, it doesn’t last for long, but it comes down hard. If you want to always be prepared, carry a poncho around in your day-pack.
- It’s not a bad idea to wear a money belt (I strongly recommend them on overnight bus rides where you’ll fall asleep and won’t have an eye on your money). Pick-pocketing happens all the time and it’s better to look a little silly then have your money stolen faster than you can say “…but it was right here!”
- In larger cities where there is a lot of traffic, don’t have your phone out while walking on the sidewalk. People on motorbikes will snatch it out of your hands before you can say “wait, what?” I’ve seen it happen a couple of times and believe me, you don’t want to be stuck without a phone.
- Mentally prepare yourself to see and experience extreme poverty. If not, you will have a difficult time.
- Whatever you do, DO NOT RIDE ELEPHANTS. A lot of people want to cross this off their bucket list, but it is an extremely cruel Asian industry that just continues to be perpetuated by western tourists. Instead, consider volunteering or visiting an elephant sanctuary (preferably one with no riding) like https://www.elephantnaturepark.org/. Remember that not all elephant sanctuaries are created equal so do your research in advance!
- Don’t go on a trip without travel insurance. No matter if you’re traveling for a week or a year, you never know what can happen. You don’t want to be stuck footing a $350 hospital bill without knowing you’ll be reimbursed.
- CASH is king. Most everything is paid in cash. Credit cards are obsolete except for booking flights. Thankfully there are lots of ATM’s in bigger cities, so getting cash out is not a problem.
I’m sure there’s some things I’ve missed so I will come back and elaborate on things as I remember them. But for the most part, these are some of the most important bits of information you should know if you want to have a successful, safe and fun time in Southeast Asia. Lonely Planet has a great “Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Northern Thailand” book that turned into my bible! It covers each country’s history, people, main religion, cultural norms, etc and gives recommendations for accommodations, restaurants and activities based on your budget. I cannot recommend this book enough…in a lot of ways, it saved me.
I can talk about SE Asia for hours on end so if there’s any specific questions you have or something you’d like for me to elaborate on more, please shoot me a message!