South East Asia these days is an absolute paradise for travellers. Rich in culture, beautiful scenery and now it’s even easier to get around than ever before. Buses, trains, boats and planes are all at your finger tips and a travel agent at every street and hostel imaginable, particularly in Thailand and Vietnam.
There are also thousands of us blogger types writing about what we’ve learnt, places to go, places to avoid, and all that jazz, it seems almost impossible that there could be anything that’s been missed out. Or, so I thought.
Despite all the people, blog posts and pretty pictures plastered all over Instagram, there are a few golden nuggets of info I still wish someone had blessed me with to prepare me physically and emotionally for all the things I thought I was well equipped for. These little pointers of my own, while some may not consider them all ‘life savers’, definitely would have made my experience in South East Asia just that little bit easier from the offset.
Let me know if you agree or have any useful tips for others as well, I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences – especially the strange ones.
First of all: Before arriving/leaving home
Tip 1. Accept that for the next however long you will be a sweaty mess.
There is absolutely no avoiding it. Nope, not ever. If, like me, you hail from colder, more mixed climate corners of our lovely planet, this is something you have to accept immediately or, more importantly, before you step off the plane into humidity you could slice with a butter knife.
Honestly, no matter how many layers of deodorant you put on, how much water you drink or whatever other witchcraft you have on your person will not work. So just embrace it, and don’t be embarrassed – everyone is in the same position.
Air con is now your true bae.
Tip 2. Download the Maps.me app
For me, this was an absolute life saver while travelling in South East Asia and I’m still using it here in Australia.
Maps.me is, as the title suggests, a map app, but the key thing is that it works offline. You simply download each country you need while connected to wifi and boom you’re good to go. By some magic it can calculate routes and show you where you are so you’ll never be lost – particularly helpful when you’re completely new to a city and need to get to your hostel!
Tip 3. Be prepared to just go with the flow
This was the thing I was least prepared for actually to be quite honest and this comes in two parts.
Firstly, don’t plan too much. We didn’t plan anything at all and it was great. It means you haven’t given yourself strict deadlines and you can truly relax and immerse yourself. It also means that you don’t miss out on amazing spots you hadn’t heard of before, but you pick up on it from other travellers. For us, this was Pai in Northern Thailand.
Secondly, and more importantly, this is a completely different culture and lifestyle than ours. Respect it. Do not expect anything to be on time, it won’t be. Don’t excpect one journey to mean one vehicle, and definitely don’t expect EU health and safety standards.
If you think any of these things, expect to be thoroughly disappointed. Instead, just go with it, stay calm and just be aware and use your street smarts. You will know when something’s really up, but for 99% it’s fine.
And finally, some things will just be down right strange. Again, just go with it.
Tip 4. Try not to over pack
This is incredibly easy to do and I definitely know this from personal experience.
There are so many minimalist packing lists for South East Asia out there and believe them when they say you don’t need much at all! If you’re not sure you’re going to wear it/use it, just leave it behind – you can pick up pretty much anything (apart from prescription medicines obvs) on the road.
Tip 5. If you know you’re going to drive a moped – practice beforehand!
Mopeds/scooters are the most common mode of transport in South East Asia (apart from feet obviously) and there are some amazing routes you’re going to want to get involved in, like the route from Chiang Mai to Pai in Thailand or the Hai Van Pass and the Ha Giang Loop in Vietnam.
I cannot stress this enough though: if you have never driven one before, do not drive for the first time in Asia. Not only are you putting yourself at risk (roads and traffic in Asia are mental), but Moped rental people can be difficult at best if you find a dodgy one and they’re not afraid to charge you the earth for a minor scratch.
Practice first, be aware, check the moped and always, always wear a helmet.
So, you’ve arrived. What else?
Tip 6. Temples and Attractions are almost always open.
A very easy trap to get caught in is the friendly local passerby stopping and offering you tourist information. While there are very nice locals who are genuinely trying to help you, there are many who just want your money or your time.
Never agree to tours/attractions from locals on the streets straight away, always say you’ll come back and go away and do your research.
A popular tactic in Bangkok (which we narrowly avoided) is the so called ‘Lucky Buddha day’ which doesn’t exist, but supposedly means loads of the temples are closed at certain times. The tuk tuk driver will take you to some, but will mainly take you to tailors and restaurants as they get vouchers even if you don’t buy anything.
If you are worried and someone offers you a tour, just tell them you’ve already been there even if you haven’t. It confuses them a little, but it’s guaranteed to stop any further sales pitches.
Tip 6a. Don’t feel like you have to visit all of those temples.
So, they’re almost always open, but that also doesn’t mean that you have to feel pressured to visit every. single. temple. and. pagoda. in the whole of South East Asia.
They’re all so beautiful in their own way and if you’re going purely for temples and/or religious reasons you go ahead my love, but don’t feel ashamed or “not cultured” if you’ve seen enough and fancy a change.
I’m not saying don’t go at all, just that if you feel this way it’s ok; you will see A LOT of them and you’re not on your own.
Do make an effort for the important ones though – there’s a reason they’re important.
Tip 7. Ladies, bring tissues with you everywhere and don’t be afraid of squatting.
Between the cute pictures of local wildlife and the beach sunsets, this is a part of travelling no one really talks about.
If you have never seen a non-western toilet before, I will be quite frank with you, this is where the real shock lies for you, ladies: the squatting toilet.
No of course it’s not a massive deal, I know that, but it is very different and it does require some leg strength and balance that we aren’t used to. Don’t be scared to go for it, you get used to it and it’s perfectly fine – just bring tissues! Honestly, I could probably count the number of toilets I visited that had no paper at all on my fingers.
Oh, and don’t forget the hand sanitiser – you’ll thank me later.
Tip 8. Eat all the food, but Thailand, the cheese toasties from 7-Eleven can be a lifesaver.
Food in Thailand is amazing and there is so much you need to experience and try during your time there. Honestly, eat all the food, and I mean all of it. Don’t know what any of those words mean? Just go for it. It’ll probably be the most f*cking delicious thing you ever put in your mouth.
However, when you’re travelling on a budget and you need a quick fix before hanger strikes, can’t find somewhere you want to go, on your way home from a night out, or just simply have a craving for cheap melted cheese, 7-Eleven has your prayers answered.
For those of you a little lost here, 7-Eleven is the most common shop is Thailand (seriously, we saw two only one building apart once) and it sells everything from toothbrushes to noodles. While 7-Elevens in other countries are relatively expensive (like here in Australia for example), in Thailand its super cheap.
These infamous toasties are only around 30/35 Thai Baht and they will even toast them for you behind the counter free of charge. Toasties not your thing? There’s a variety of other items that can be also cooked for you for if you’re strapped for cash looking for a very cheap meal on the fly including rice meals and noodle pots.
Tip 9. A true lifesaver: 7-Eleven also sell motion sickness tablets.
Ok, so because the ubundance of amazing food in South East Asia toasties aren’t exactly a life saver, but these motion sickness tablets honestly saved my life and my dignity more times than I can count.
Don’t feel conscious about motion sickness; it’s not something you just have as a kid and it just magically goes away. During your travels, you’re going to be on a lot of different modes of transport for a length of time that would be absolutely unthinkable at home; not all of it’s going to be nice, not all of it’s going to be comfy and it’s definitely not going to be smooth.
Story time: I definitely thought this was something I was over. Then came the boats to the islands. Without going into too much detail, the toilets on those boats are not nice, especially if you’re in one for a two hour journey, and Thai people are not impressed when you pass out on top of all their fresh fish and vegetable deliveries.
Anyhow, I was completely ruined for a whole day and it could have been avoided. For 11 Thai Baht you get two tablets and you simply need to take one per journey around 30 minutes before travel.
They came in particularly handy later on for the longer sleeper buses.
Note: The bigger the bus, the more confident and crazy the driver. They don’t care about your sleep or the possibility of motion sickness.
Tip 10. Be careful with animal tourism and do some research.
Animal tourism is still massive in Asia; there are absolutely thousands of companies and so thousands of people making money from it.
It is a hugely contentious issue and one widely talked about not just in the blogosphere, but everywhere.
The fact is, is that people are still going to do it. I myself had the best time visiting the Elephants in Chiang Mai and I would recommend it to absolutely anyone, but the most important thing is to do your research.
As I said there are loads of people making money from this industry and not all of them have their animal welfare as their top priority. Research the company you’re considering as much as you can, read the reviews, see which other places people are going to. It’s definitely worth budgeting more money in ensuring a safe and good time for both you and the animals.
If you’re worried, don’t go. It’s better to stay away than to see any animal suffering.
Tip 11. Ending on a positive: get involved and don’t be scared to try new things.
No, I’m not talking about drugs (though no judgement if that is your thing). Travelling in this beautiful part of the world is an amazing opportunity so don’t hold yourself back and challenge your comfort zone a little.
Eat that strange looking food, don’t think about possible jellyfish in the sea (my own personal struggle) and just get stuck in to the amazing weirdness.
Travelling in South East Asia soon? Have a look at my other posts!
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