By Jenny Dorsey
Southeast Asia travel has seen a surge in popularity in recent years, but practical travel advice for first-timers is surprisingly scarce. My husband and I just spent 30 days traveling around SE Asia for our honeymoon and compiled a list of things we learned to help future explorers come visit this beautiful, emerging landscape.
Advice for Southeast Asia Travel
1A. Get a credit card without foreign transaction fees and a checking account without ATM fees. You’ll still be charged $5 per transaction from the ATM, but at least your bank won’t charge you again for the same withdrawal!
1B. Bring enough USD to convert to get your trip started, but it’s better to withdraw larger sums of cash at your destination country rather than converting currency – you will pay terrible exchange rates. On average, our withdrawals resulted in $20USD more in final cash.
2A. Prepay for luggage (by weight) and meals online if you are flying economy airlines like AirAsia; add-ons at the gate result in punitive charges. Baggage costs and food are usually 50% off if booked in advance.
2B. If you are traveling multiple places in SE Asia, the AirAsia Asean pass may be a good option for you. We used it to book 7 flights for $160USD!
3A. Check if water is potable in the country you’re visiting (most likely it’s not). If no, bring a water backpack to fill with bottled water so you can keep hydrated throughout the day. We used this one and it was one of the best decisions we made the entire trip.
3B. Bring electrolyte pills for your water. This is a hot climate and you will sweat much more than usual.
4A. Check what vaccines you need (usually typhoid and malaria) and get started on your vaccine regime early – just in case you have any allergic reactions that need to be addressed.
4B. Bring fiber powder and vitamins. The cuisine in SE Asia is heavy in simple carbohydrates without a lot of emphasis on vegetables and only mild portions of protein. It is very different from the diet in the U.S. and you may find yourself in need of a ‘helping hand’.
4C. Laxatives and anti-diarrhea pills are a must. While many restaurants and street stalls are very clean, the truth is refrigeration is scarce in this area of the world and some things simply won’t bode well in your stomach. If you do find yourself with food poisoning and without any medicine, purchase charcoal pills at the local pharmacy (they usually speak English). They are the widespread remedy here to help remove toxins from the body and very effective.
5. The culture of street stall food (“hawker fare”) is strong in Asia and very much part of the locals’ normal routine. You’d be remiss to not try any street food at all, but it is important to observe the stalls carefully. What you’re looking for is high-volume turnover (in addition to general cleanliness and sanitation), usually indicated by one or more of the following: A) throngs or queues of customers B) limited hours of operation C) simple menu of 1-5 items. In poorer countries (i.e. Cambodia) it’s even more important to watch for all of these points in addition to literally seeing them wash hands or use gloves.
6A. Opt for a large backpack instead of a large suitcase (Osprey packs are the industry leader among travelers). The roads are generally not well-paved or very wide and the suitcase makes it extra hard to navigate.
6B. Learn to jaywalk a street with traffic going both directions with a reasonable amount of comfort. The key is to be assertive with your presence (even if you’re very nervous). Traffic signals are commonly viewed as “optional” and there will be a surprising number of motorbikes, tuk-tuks, and cars driving the wrong way on a one-way or on the sidewalk. They will not stop for you when you cross the street but instead will weave around you.
7A. Double check your global coverage on your phone. Most countries are now included (for an extra charge). If not, purchase a SIM card at the airport at your destination for easy internet access in that country. However, make sure your phone is unlocked or this will not work. Take your phone to your carrier’s service desk and ask them if it can be unlocked.
7B. Turn your phone on airplane mode unless you are actively using it. Note that Google Maps will pinpoint your GPS location even on airplane mode. If you don’t, you will guzzle your expensive data in no time and kill your battery.
8. Know your available modes of transportation in each market. Many major cities will have subways with English directions. Uber is a good option if available as rates are set and you can input the address easily in English. If taxis and tuk-tuks are your only option, have your hotel call you taxis when they can (to avoid being ripped off) and write down addresses of places you would like to go in the local language in case your driver can’t speak English. (editor’s note: See if the MyTeksi app works in your area, it’s outstanding and covers many SE Asian countries)
9. Remember your power converter. We used this one. This is a simple tool to get in the U.S. that’s harder to find once you land. Get one for your phone and one for your laptop/tablet.
10A. Don’t carry all your cash on you all the time. Bring enough for the day (and a credit card) and lock the rest in your safe. Carry cash in a discreet pouch under your shirt instead of a wallet. If traveling in pairs, split up the cash; if on your own, carry the cash in multiple places. Pickpockets are becoming less common, but it’s always best to be safe!
10B. Always carry a form of identification; ideally, copies of your passport. Also snap a photo of your passport and credit cards and e-mail it to yourself so you can access it from anywhere, even if your phone gets lost or stolen.
10C. Buy a big pack of tissue paper (there are great deals on Amazon) and keep a few packs with you at all times. Most bathrooms will not be equipped with toilet paper. Same goes for packs of wet wipes or hand sanitizing wet wipes.
11. Learn the key customs and a few words for each place you’re visiting. A few big ones are: how much to tip (if at all), how to order at a restaurant (order first or sit down first, when to pay), and how to say hello and thank you.
12A. A good way to pick a hotel in each location is to pin on a map (you can see our MyMaps with hotels starred in blue) the various places you want to see and eat at. Then, plug in your hotel address to determine its distance from your desired itineraries. This can save you a lot in taxi fares and time in transit.
12B. Cross reference multiple sources for addresses of restaurants/points of interest and use GPS coordinates if you can. Google Maps is not the most reliable in this part of the world and will sometimes place you far, far away.
12C. Check the hours of places you want to eat or drink at as well as holiday schedules (they don’t follow ours!). There’s nothing more of a bummer than arriving at a place to find it’s closed!
13A. Be prepared for a bit of culture shock. SE Asia is a vibrant place but it is developing area where haves and have nots are starkly visible. As a tourist and someone seen as a “have”, do your best to be respectful and polite. Most locals are happy to see tourists but some may not take that approach; understand their perspective, shrug it off and don’t let that affect your trip!
13B. Bargaining is widely accepted in most markets (for goods, not for food) and it’s wise to try and negotiate at least once (ask for ~60-75% of the first offer). However, recognize harsh bargaining tactics in these areas result in marginal differences in final USD prices so it’s best to focus your energies elsewhere.
14. Air quality is very poor here, especially in larger cities. If this affects you significantly, bring a mask to wear (or you can buy one from most pharmacies). This may seem silly in the U.S. but is very common here and you will not stand out in the least.
15A. Plan your day with consideration for the temperature outside. During peak hours of 12-3pm, try to work in a “break” or plan to sightsee in an area with some shade.
15B. Bring a few pairs of comfortable shoes. Sport sandals are especially useful here. Many times it’s easier (and faster!) to walk from point to point than to taxi/tuk-tuk due to traffic and congestion. Plus, you’ll get to see much more of the city that way!