Heading for a trip to South East Asia and not sure what to expect? Trying to get your head around all the stories (good and bad) to work out what to do? You know to eat from the street stalls, and to always haggle but what about the little things, the things no one talks about until you are there? See below for a list of 25 backpacker tips for South East Asia on how to survive one of the most exciting, random and colourful regions in the world.
“Thai time” is any time except the specified time
Get used to waiting hours after your pick up time for anything from tours to airport transfers. Sometimes your pick up may have come and gone long before you arrived. To be on the safe side, always budget an extra hour either side. Oh and make sure you have a book handy, those waits can be tedious.
If you pay the actual price for ANYTHING – you’re being ripped off.
It can be quite a culture shock to start haggling for everything from meat on a stick to your accommodation. It is a lesson the savvy backpacker must learn fast because the savvy business person can pick out a newbie. I remember arriving in Bangkok for the second time during my 5 month backpacking adventure in South East Asia. I wanted to go to the famous floating markets the next day, so went in search of a tour company that could take me there. However, I had waited until the end of the day, when I knew (from experience) that the business owners would be wanting to fill their buses at any price. I talked to a couple of operators to get a general idea of the price before starting to haggle with one lady who quickly assessed me as someone who knew the ropes. It was a quick haggle, and I was happy with the price we settled on, it was approximately $15AUD.
The next day on the bus to the floating markets, I met a young English guy. It was his first-week travelling, and he looked very green. He didn’t yet have the SEA tan or the string bracelets that every backpacker accumulates. He was busy trying to get to know everyone, asking a million questions. In the process, he started asking how much others had paid for the tour. As soon as I found out he had paid the equivalent of $80AUD, I decided not to tell him what I had paid.
I do have to add in a caveat about haggling. I know it can become addictive and competitive, however, sometimes you need to remember the value of a dollar to the locals versus yourself. If you are haggling over the difference of a couple of dollars, consider what that can really buy you back home and what it could buy a whole family here. Yes, you should always haggle to get a better price, but that doesn’t mean the lowest price.
A “little hot” means – very very hot, so hot your eyes will water and your lips will go numb
Chilli has a whole other meaning in South East Asia. Whatever chilli stamina you thought you had when eating back home, will be put to the test. Especially in countries like Thailand and Vietnam. I strongly suggest working up to the hot dishes slowly. Because, even if you are able to swallow the mouth burning morsels, it is going to burn when it comes out the other end (TMI?). This is one of the reasons that I love doing cooking classes when I am travelling. It helps get a better understanding of the balance of flavours so that when I cook for myself I can experiment with how much chilli I put in. I am currently trying to increase my chilli stamina. What isn’t good for increasing your chilli stamina is a chilli eating contest with your fellow backpackers. Don’t get me wrong, they are fun… just make sure you have a large beer handy to numb the pain.
Prepare yourself for food poising so bad that you will wish you were dead – it will happen at least once
Food poising is a standard experience when you travel to South East Asia, some even call it Bangkok Belly. In the west, our food is highly regulated to reduce the number of parasites that we consume. This means that our immune system is not as robust as those who grow up in South East Asia. If you are lucky you will get away with a few upset stomach days after you have eaten. If you are unlucky (like I was) you will end up with full-blown salmonella poisoning. If that happens you may need to go to the hospital for antibiotics if it is really bad. The best thing you can do to treat it is sleep and hydrate… a lot. Also, remove any chilli or caffeine from your diet when you start to recover the ability to hold food down… trust me, it helps. I lived of chicken fried rice and strawberry smoothies for the week after my episode.
Don’t think about what the black stuff that soon covers your feet in sandals or thongs is as you tramp the city streets actually is
As I travel light, I had one pair of trainers and two pairs of Havaianas thongs (flip flops)… after my first week in South East Asia, I only had one pair left (the other pair mysteriously disappeared one night). They were bright yellow and so ugly. However, as it was hot and humid they were the best things to walk around in. What I started noticing was that at the end of the day my feet were covered in a black soot/grime. Each night I would diligently wash my feet to clean it off. I just assumed it was dirt or dried smog fumes. However, one evening I was walking down a back alleyway in Hue in Vietnam, when I saw a small boy run out of his home, take down his pants on the street and do a poo. Yep, a poo. It was so disgusting. Needless to say that I started scrubbing my feet with much more vigour after that.
Embrace the taste of pancakes and fruit shakes. They are amazing!
One of the best things about South East Asia are the fruit shakes. Sure, there are loads of delicious items on the menu, but it is the fruit shakes that stand out the strongest in my memory. Maybe because they were so cool and refreshing in the humidity. Or maybe because they were full of sugar disguised by fruit. Who knows, but I sure drank a lot of them and don’t regret it. The only thing better than a fruit shake was a Nutella and banana pancake. The best ones are bought from street carts on the Thai islands. A much better snack to consume on your way home from the bar than a donner kebab.
Sitting in a “friends bar” is the best way to cure a bucket hangover
When I travelled to South East Asia, all of the bars playing Friends and How I Met Your Mother during the day. I am not sure if they are still playing those specific sitcoms or if they have moved onto something else. But these places were the only way you could cure a bucket hangover. Usually, a hostel likes to clean during the hours of 10am-3pm, which means they either kick you our or start vacuuming right next to your head. Either way is uncomfortable in your hangover state. So you need a place to recover that doesn’t demand too much from you. “Friends bars” (or so they have been dubbed) usually have comfortable chairs for lounging in and several TVs positioned throughout the restaurant for maximum exposure to the 90s sitcoms. The best thing to do is to settle in, order a fruit smoothie (see point above) and tune out to the dulcet tones of Ross and Rachel.
It is impossible to have only 1 bucket…
On the subject of buckets. It really is impossible to have just one. It isn’t a beverage that is designed to consume slowly and gracefully. No, the bucket is designed to get you singing and dancing. The ingredients are often vodka or whisky with Thai Red Bull (Krating Daeng). It is very important to know that Krating Daeng is not the same as the Red Bull we get in the west, in fact, it is a very different company with very different ingredients. Therefore, your chances of sleeping after a night on buckets are slim to none… hence why it is impossible to have just one.
Have a few drinks with your fellow backpacker before you agree to spend the next few days travelling with them
Is there anything worse than spending a few days with someone you really don’t like, all because you said yes to spending the day with them over breakfast. I have a few fail-safe tests that I do to work out if I will click with someone, read this post to find out the sorts of questions you should ask your fellow traveller. It is always best to have a couple of drinks with a possible travel companion (or if they don’t drink, dinner is fine). You just need to spend a slightly bigger chunk of time with someone when they are more relaxed. When you are relaxed you let your annoying habits hang out for the world to see.
Motos are fun… and dangerous – pack Band-Aids… lots of Band-Aids
A cheap way to go off exploring for a day is to hire a moto (similar to a scooter). Especially if you want to go somewhere not easily accessed by public transport. However, driving in Asia can easily be a death-defying experience. Accidents and crashes happen often. If you ever see someone with a bandage on their legs and arms, there is a very good chance that they crashed their moto. It happens so much that these wounds are known as the South East Asian tattoo. So if you are thinking of hiring one, be careful. Here is a post which contains my top tips on how to be safe and have a great time.
Try to acclimatise yourself to the hot weather by not using air con; don’t be disappointed if you don’t succeed.
South East Asia is humid and hot. Nearly every guide book and TripAdvisor post will advise you to sleep without aircon in order to help you acclimatise. Definitely give it a go. Have several sweaty nights of no sleep and lots of tossing and turning. You need to before you understand that there is no acclimatisation. You are still going to be affected by the humidity throughout the day. It is going to sap your energy and make you sweat in places you didn’t even know had sweat glands. So you might as well get a good nights sleep and have the aircon on.
It is impossible to drown out the Cambodian/Vietnamese pop played on the local buses with your iPhone
A lot of the inter-country buses in Cambodia and Vietnam play videos while they drive. These videos are either local musicals or just local music. No matter how hard you try, it is actually impossible to drown out these songs with your own music. Trust me. Instead, embrace it and watch the visual stories unfold. You can learn a lot about a countries culture through their music videos… what that says about the USA and MTV is up to you.
Don’t expect Western food to taste anything like you have ever tasted before – give it up otherwise your taste buds will hate you
Of course, you will eat local you say. Why would you eat anything else when you are in an amazing country with great culinary delights. Because, after 4 months of delicious food you are craving cheese. Or a burger… a pizza would be the ultimate moment of happiness. You start to daydream about chocolate and French fries. Then comes the moment of weakness. You see a menu that is promising western style pizza… with pictures that have clearly been stolen from pizza hut. But you don’t care. You crave something that tastes like home, and nothing else will suffice. That is until the pizza turns up. The dough is pretty good, except its more like bread than pizza crust. The sauce is literally ketchup and the cheese on top is Kraft singles. And like that, you gleefully turn to the street vendor who is pushing a cart selling pho.
The longer you travel the less you use the hand sanitizer as you realise that it really makes no difference except in your head
After I had gotten sick for the second time in as many weeks, I came to the grudging conclusion. That using hand sanitizer doesn’t make any difference. When I first set out on my first trip to South East Asia, I packed a little bottle and would use it religiously throughout the day. Yet I still got sick. It made no difference, the only thing that would help would be to give my body time to adjust to the new bacteria that it had never experienced before. Now, I bother to travel with it. I usually have some baby wipes on me, to clean my hands if there isn’t a bathroom nearby before I eat, but that’s it.
Longtime followers of my blog will know that I am a big fan of cooking classes. But did you know that I did my first one in Cambodia? Siem Reap has more to offer than just temples and bars. My first cooking class experience was and still is one of the best ones I have ever done. It was a small class and we made everything, from the curry paste to the spring rolls. By the end of the night, we had made and eaten so much that I fell in love with Cambodian cuisine. I had learnt more about their culture and the Cambodian people through food than I had through days of exploring temples. I was hooked. Make sure you check out my cooking class page for some reviews of great classes you can do around the world (and one you should steer clear of)
Don’t trust monkeys – they are cute and devious
I have seen monkeys literally steal food out of someone’s hand. Jump on a backpack trying to pull out what’s inside. And once, I saw a monkey steal a tobacco pouch from someone’s back pocket. No matter how cute they are, they are smart and devious. Make sure your food is packed away where they can’t see or smell it.
All material possessions are replaceable – repeat this to yourself as you realise something of yours has been stolen
Having something stolen when you are so far away from home is never a nice feeling. Actually, it’s not a nice feeling when it happens at home either. Whether it’s a pair of black thongs (flip flops) or your iPod (I can’t believe these are now obsolete) it still cuts deep. However, before you look to blame the locals first take a good look at your fellow traveller’s. Twice I have stayed in hostels where after a number of thefts bag searches were committed only to find the culprit being a fellow backpacker. Be careful when leaving bags at your feet or above your head. I was on a sleeper bus from Chang Mai to Bangkok. I couldn’t sleep in the chair so I lay down on the ground while my seat buddy lay across our two seats. I was woken in the middle of the night by some guy (a really small guy it must be said) crawling under all of the seats and going through peoples bags. Needless to say, I alerted the other passengers who grabbed him, got back their valuables and had him kicked off the bus.
Fire dancing is best left to the professionals if you care about your arm hair and dignity
Enough said about this one the better
Nobody can get an audience moving and grooving like a Thai cover band
I kid you not. I have never danced and sung so much as I have when a Thai cover band has played the Red Hot Chilli Peppers. They can bring so much energy to songs that you thought you knew well. I guarantee you will get to know them in a whole new way once you hear them from a Thai cover band
Careful when taking off your thongs (flip flops) when entering most shops and restaurants, someone else may mistake them as theirs and you will leave with mismatched thongs
Did I mention that my thongs were stolen? It happened when I entered a friends bar that hung over the water in Kho Tao. As is tradition, I took my shoes off before going inside. When I got back, they were gone. I had to walk home barefoot.
It is inevitable that your bus will break down… On a hill
This has happened to me more times than I can count. Sometimes they get the bus restarted. Sometimes a replacement bus turns up. Sometimes you have to find another way, like grabbing a ride with a local expat who just happened to go past and didn’t want you to hitch with some random people (even though she herself was a random person). Was super nice!
That girl is actually a guy – get over it
Gawking at the beautiful women is so 2008. Be respectful.
All the good temples are at the top of hundreds of stairs… your thighs will burn baby burn
Why is every good temple at the top of a hundred stairs? My favourite one was in the Tam Coc national park in Vietnam. This place has become Instagram Famous in recent years as you can go in a local fishing boat on a river through caves. Quite a beautiful experience. However, when I was there 10 years ago there was just me and my two travel companions. After we had gone through the caves we were given the recommendation to climb to a pagoda on the top of the mountain to see the view. 500 stairs later and the view was amazing… however, I remember the stairs more.
You will plot the DJ’s death once he has played the same song 6 times in the last two hours
Doesn’t matter what year you go to South East Asia, as I have been many times over the last decade. Each time there will be a new hit song that every single DJ will play constantly, sometimes as every second song. It is almost soul destroying… if they weren’t such catchy tunes
It can be easy to worry about getting ripped off, or getting sick. What to do when your bus breaks down or when your thongs (flip flops) are stolen. My advice is to forget about all of those things. Put them in a small box in the back of your brain so that you can focus on just enjoying the amazing adventure that is South East Asia. You will get sick, but don’t let that stop you from trying new food. You may lose half an eyebrow and singe your pants while fire dancing, but I guarantee everyone else had a great laugh. South East Asia is one of the most vibrant and energetic parts of the world, make sure you enjoy every second.