Here are 14 travel tips I have compiled after 2 years travelling and working in South East Asia.
1) Prepare for a sensory overload!
If you have never been anywhere in Asia before, then it can be quite overwhelming when you first land. However, you will soon learn to love the organised chaos of life in South East Asia.
2) Learn a few basic phrases
It really is amazing how far a couple of words in the native language can get you, and the locals will very much appreciate the effort. I suggest nailing down ‘Hello’, ‘thank you’, ‘one beer please’, ‘the bill please’, and ‘goodbye’. Not sure of the pronunciation? Ask a local.
3) Don’t be afraid to sample the street food
Street food is often the most authentic and tasty fare to be found in South East Asian countries. Not to mention it’s also super cheap! Win win. Pick crowded stalls and watch them cook the food in front of you to ensure it’s all fresh.
4) Wear suncream
For the love of all that is good!
5) Say goodbye to personal space
This concept doesn’t exist here. If you find yourself on a local bus or train, expect them to cram as many people in as possible. I mean in the aisles, on the floor, on others laps. People may fall asleep on you (happened to me) or you may have someone’s child handed to you to hold (happened to my friend on the same journey). Just adopt the same attitude as the locals; accept it and relax.
6) Learn the art of haggling
Prices offered to travellers can easily be cut by 50% and sometimes even more. Go in low and come to a compromise. The language barrier can be overcome by the use of a calculator, so type in your offer and show the vendor. But please remember that, at the end of the day, a few dollars to you is nothing but to the seller it can be a substantial amount.
7) Suss out the taxis
Catching taxis in South East Asia can be frustrating. We’ve had everything from taxi drivers refusing to turn on their meter, fixed meters, and the ones who like to take you on a little detour to bump up your fare. You will likely get stung at least once so accept that. The best you can do is research which are the reputable taxi firms in your location, and always insist the meter is turned on. If they refuse, don’t get in and hail a new one.
8) Study the money
Familiarise yourself with the currency as early on as possible. In Vietnam for example, the 20,000vnd note ($0.90) and the 500,000vnd note ($22) look very similar, and scammers can take advantage of that. Also, when you first arrive is when you are most likely to be ripped off as you aren’t sure of the exchange rates. Work out roughly what each banknote is worth in your own currency.
9) Don’t over plan before you arrive
Obviously you will have an idea of where you want to go, but too much over planning means less freedom, say if you want to extend a stay somewhere, or change plans based on other travellers recommendations. Organising travel and activities is so easy to do when you arrive, so keep it more spontaneous.
10) Do take your time
South East Asia is a big place. You cannot visit 4 countries in a week, as it will just turn into a miserable, sleep deprived, never-ending cycle of planes, buses and trains with no time to actually explore or relax. Plan your route with your trip length in mind. Quality over quantity!
11) Embrace the bum gun!
You’re in Asia. You enter a toilet. You finish your business, and then discover there’s no toilet roll! Disaster! Or is it? Let me introduce the bum gun, that handy hose hanging from the wall next to you. Use it! It takes a little getting used to but trust, when you go home, you will be reminiscing of a cleaner behind.
12) Be patient
Timekeeping isn’t a top priority here. When you have been told that your bus will be here in ‘yes 5 minutes, is no problem’ 30 minutes ago, keep your chill and go with the flow. In general, they do arrive. Eventually…
13) Don’t get angry
Don’t let things get to you that you end up shouting at locals in the street. Losing face is a big deal in Asian culture.
14) Be respectful
If you visit a religious or sacred site then cover up your shoulders and knees. Make yourself aware of the etiquette rules to prevent accidentally causing any offence, for example, not speaking ill of the royal family in Thailand.
I hope you found these travel tips useful, and please add any tips of your own in the comment section.