We thought you might enjoy these 29 tips for traveling in Southeast Asia from one of our experienced travelers!
Having been to Southeast Asia four times now, I have a smidgen of experience on which to base the following travel tips and observations. However, I have to offer a major caveat: I’ve indulged myself rather a bit and have skewed toward the higher end of the luxury scale, and have not ever gone the backpack / hostel route. So I’ve undoubtedly missed many things, and some of my points below are in the mode of a pampered American who’s wondering why the local cable TV doesn’t carry English-language shows.
1) I’ve been to SE Asia in May, October, and December, and I haven’t had major problems with the weather. However, I live in Texas, and so I’m somewhat acclimated to heat and humidity. Caught a bit of rain in Laos in this most recent trip in early December, but nothing major. However, friends of mine who subsequently went onwards into Northern Vietnam later in the month encountered a LOT of rain.
2) It’s probably best to travel with some sun screen and bug repellent, but honestly, I’ve never had occasion to use either.
3) Don’t forget to bring an electrical adapter with multiple settings!
4) Never hurts to bring a couple of precautionary doses of Imodium AD or Pepto Bismol.
5) If you’re staying in a hotel, it may have a safe in your room. Don’t be afraid to use it. I generally do not wander around with my passport on my person. Some hotels will actually require that they hold it for you.
6) Usually, there is no need to take your room key with you. You can leave it at the front desk when going out, although be advised that the staff seems surprisingly casual about handing it back over with no I.D. check.
7) Plan ahead on how to manage changes of outfit. If taking the hotel route, do NOT be shy in using their laundry services. The prices range from roughly a dollar an item to maybe three bucks for larger pieces. However, there’s usually a 50% surcharge for express service. At any rate, you should count on your clothing getting pretty sweaty. You can also end up caked with dust or mud, depending on how trekking-happy you might be, or soaked from rafting or wading through creeks. Hostel types can usually find a retail laundry service nearby. Bring a large plastic bag with you so you can cram your soiled clothing in it and stow that in your luggage if you have no chance to get anything laundered for a while.
8) I’ve gotten by for the most part with just bringing the one pair of shoes on my feet, but if you intend to be fording rivers or careening about on rafts, you might want to bring a pair of sandals.
9) If you intend to go inside certain temples or pagodas, be sure to have at least one outfit that will get you pretty covered up from head to toe. A collared shirt (short sleeves okay) and slacks for guys, and for women, something that keeps legs and cleavage and midriffs concealed. Apparel like this may also be required for some museums. Take your hat off when visiting places with this type of dress code.
10) Depending upon your budget and particular needs, you might not need to ever use local currency. I’ve mostly gotten by with U.S. dollars, credit cards, and charging things to my hotel room (to be covered by my card). This is very likely not optimal, though, so you should swap over to kip or dong or baht or whatever as necessary. Some hotels have a money changing desk, but you’ll probably want to use the foreign exchange kiosks in your arrival and departure airports if traveling by air. Money changing storefronts can also generally be found pretty easily in your tourist-heavy districts. Very important: if you intend to use tuk-tuks or taxis a lot, or the bus, HAVE LOCAL CURRENCY. Finding out in the middle of the night in Seoul when you’re being dropped off at some place way far from your hotel that you do NOT, in fact, have enough won with you is not a great outcome. This may have happened to me once.
11) Convenience-type stores (including 7-11 outlets) are pretty common, although you’ll need either local currency or have to make a credit card purchase for a certain minimum amount. These places will generally carry drinks, crackers and chips (for which very few of the latter are in typical Western flavors), noodles, and such. Some toiletries and drugstore-type articles. Very little in the way of dairy.
12) Finding English-speakers is fairly easy, but don’t count on it! They will abound in standard tourist districts (such as the Old Quarter in Hanoi), but it can be hit and miss otherwise. Don’t count on finding them! And at least learn how to say hello and thank you in the local language.
13) If you are going to wander afar from your home base, be sure you actually remember the name and address of your hotel or hostel, and that ideally you have a map with you so you can retrace your steps. Even so, you should probably get someone at the front desk to write down that stuff in the local language on a scrap of paper for you. This will make return trips easier. A lot of cab drivers don’t speak English, so slowly and loudly telling them “No, the Hotel UPPER CLASS TWITTINGTON. Upper Class! Twittington!” may not prove effective.
14) Enjoy the markets, but be careful with your purchases of fish or meat or produce, of course, and you shouldn’t plan on bringing stuff like that back to the States with you. (I mean, if you’re planning on returning with some fresh Asian catfish filets with you, I’m not sure any of my advice is going to help you.) The U.S. Customs Service seems to take a dim view of this.
15) If you can get a visa in advance, DO IT. You’ll save yourself from having to stew in some bureaucratic line for an interminable time. The Landing Visa office in Saigon is the worst. You could end up trapped there for an hour or more. Also, keep in mind that you may have to pay your visa on arrival fee in American dollars, so have a few twenties handy. The fee will be somewhere in the neighborhood of $20 or $30.
16) Traveling by air? Use the luggage carts if you have a lot of stuff to wrangle as you try to hunt down a ticket counter or escape from baggage claim at the airport. They seem to be free in most places.
17) Lines. From time to time, you may need to board a bus or boat or plane. Sometimes, people will politely queue up in an orderly fashion and proceed in a calm and organized and fair manner. And by “sometimes”, I mean “none of the time”. Be prepared to fight your way through, or you’ll get run down.
18) Taking a lengthy trip by train or by bus? Or the slow boat from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang? Be sure to bring some bottled water and snacks. And hope that you can be comfortable in your seat. A friend of mine noted that the seats on the bus from Luang Prabang to Hanoi were tilted at an exact angle so you couldn’t really sleep nor feel comfortable just sitting there. Note that you can get a small private compartment on the night train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai with a reasonably comfy bed.
19) If in Chiang Mai, visit Elephant Nature Park, and plan to be there the whole day. Or maybe several! DO NOT RIDE ELEPHANTS, anywhere or in any fashion. They do not like it (they have to be savagely beaten as calves and trained into submission), and it is a practice that many are trying to abolish.
20) A lot of the chairs at the cafes and restaurants are made for smaller and less bloated builds. If you have to acknowledge that you are a hefty hunk of steaming junk and that like Missy Elliott you crush everything you land on, use them with extreme caution.
21) I found that I liked both pumpkin and peanut-and-tamarind curries, and I hate everything.
22) If you want to buy art and/or handicrafts, you can find excellent stuff in Hanoi or in Hoi An, if you’re visiting Vietnam. Plenty of art galleries in the former (the good ones are not in the Old Quarter itself). Lots of lacquerware and paintings, plenty of wood or stone figurines and boxes and containers, many silk goods (wall hangings, place mats, table runners). Certainly there are many, many places to get general souvenirs (including gift shops in hotels or in airports), but be very careful and selective in your purchases of larger pieces, as you’ll see across a range of shops in any given city and even across several countries that a lot of items are extremely similar and I’m not sure that quite a few don’t just come from mass production factories in China or Korea. You can get some stuff shipped directly home, which I’ve done from Hanoi and Saigon, but be advised that a really large piece might have to go through some more formal import process, and you might have to pick it up from Customs at the international airport nearest to you. In Siem Reap in Cambodia, you can get some nice items at…uh…this place. I think it’s Artisans Angkor. There are also PLENTY of folks hawking souvenirs at Angkor Wat itself, and some of the rice paper prints are quite good. In Bangkok (and elsewhere in Thailand) you probably will want to pick up one or two talismans, which can be found in various locations, including sometimes being sold out the back of a pickup truck in the parking lot of a 7-11 along the road to Uthani Thai. For instance. Maybe read up in advance on the advisability of buying anything depicting Buddha? On my first trip, there were stern warnings in the Bangkok airport warning tourists that it’s disrespectful to buy Buddha-related tchotchkes, but on a subsequent trip my guide seemed to indicate that it’s not such a big deal.
23) Some places you stay at might have cable TV. Most often, none of the channels are in English. If they are, usually you’re getting CNN, HBO, and a range of Discovery-type outlets. Otherwise, lots of Thai soap operas and Korean dramas. I can recommend GUNMAN IN JOSEON (which actually *was* subtitled).
24) Your larger hotels will have a breakfast buffet, included in the cost of the stay. Generally, there will be various potato and rice and noodle dishes, perhaps an omelet station, maybe crepes or pancakes or French toast, lots of sliced bread and biscuits and rolls and mini-baguettes, cereals, yogurt (very popular in many places in SE Asia), perhaps a cheese platter, some sweet baked goods, and a whole lot of fruit, with pineapple and watermelon being staples. Not a lot of citrus or apples. Bananas come in pygmy form. Many other fruits, including pomelo and jackfruit, but you will be uniformly warned away from even trying to find the dreaded durian, the “stinky fruit” about which the locals will warn you that you’re not ready for it. Smaller hotels will have a fixed or limited breakfast menu. Always some fruit, rice, eggs, and bread, though. Fruit juices tend to be REAL fruit juices, and not laser-pumped with a super-saturation of concentrates and fructose and sugars.
25) If walking through the Old Quarter or around Angkor Wat, just become accustomed to automatically saying “No, thanks”, because there are many vendors eager to make sales and you will get hailed constantly.
26) Yangon in Myanmar (was Rangoon in Burma) is a big city. For comparison, it has got a population of 5.2 million people, while both Saigon and Bangkok have 8.2 million. So it is VERY LARGE. It is quite modernized to Western standards with its own particular flair. Many of the old original colonial buildings downtown are being restored and re-purposed. Be sure to see the Shwedagon Pagoda!
27) You want pagodas, Bagan in Myanmar has them! So…many…pagodas. Literally dozens…hundreds? All sizes and shapes and ages and conditions. Very much worth a visit. Roam about! You may find the countryside much different from many other areas in SE Asia. Drier and scrubbier and thornier.
28) In Bangkok, take the canal tour. Look for large monitor lizards just relaxing on the banks or the porches of the houses that overhang the waters. Be advised that your pilot may find it imperative to ram the boat alongside every obstacle. Also, there’s a puppet show at the Baan Silapin Artist’s House that is quite entertaining. If you attend and are an individual of a portly build, you might find yourself gently mocked by the Monkey King. I’m not saying that happened to me. I’ve just heard about it, probably.
29) In certain parts of SE Asia, you might stand out as a curiosity to some of the residents of the places you’re visiting. If you are in the shape and size of a Happy Buddha or perhaps are hirsute, there are some (mainly the children) who will outright gawk at you. Some people will comment directly to you about your unusual appearance or come forward and poke and prod you. Women with blonde hair or very fair complexions may also draw some attention. Some people will want to take pictures with you.