Updated: 9 April, 2017.
Serene monks on mobile phones and corrupt politicians in limousines. Stinking traffic jams and stunning deserted beaches. Ancient ruins and gleaming skyscrapers. Armani suits and subsistence farmers. Full moon parties and silent contemplation.
No matter which way you look at it, South East Asia is one of the most interesting, vibrant, beautiful and complex areas in the world.
For me, it’s utterly fascinating, achingly beautiful and one of the greatest places in the world to backpack, and somewhere I keep finding myself returning to year after year. Here’s a few things that I’ve figured out to help you enjoy your time in the region, and avoid a few of the pitfalls along the way.
- RELAX! This is Asia. Things don’t work the way you expect them to, and they certainly don’t operate on a timetable. Blowing your top only makes you raise your blood pressure, lose respect and look like an idiot — it will never help.
- Be flexible and give yourself plenty of time to allow for the unexpected. Trains will be delayed, hotels will be closed, tuk-tuks will break down, the minibus driver will stop for an hour to visit his mother enroute. Strict deadlines are rarely a part of local life here — they shouldn’t be part of yours either.
- English is widely spoken in some of the tourist areas, and not spoken at all in many others. Expect plenty of misunderstandings no matter where you are, and learn how to play charades. Knowing a few words of the local language will always get a positive reaction — nobody will be offended if you get it wrong.
- Expect to get ripped off now and again. No matter how experienced a traveller you are, you’ll be taken for a ride at some stage. God knows I did. From harmless things like overcharging for a t-shirt or rigging the taxi meter, to some much more sophisticated and dangerous scams, there’s no shortage of ways to separate tourists from their money. Keep your wits about you and avoid the more obvious ones, but don’t let losing a few bucks here and there ruin your trip. It’s really not the end of the world.
- Carry a backpack and travel light. That’s a good rule anywhere, but especially in SE Asia. Wheeled suitcases are a terrible idea when roads and footpaths are clogged and potholed, and carrying around a 20kg backpack for hours in the heat and humidity will leave you screaming for less.
- Booking ahead is highly overrated. You just don’t have to do it outside the peak tourist spots in the highest of high seasons. Accommodation is best found by walking around a new place and taking a look, while everything from tours, sightseeing, planes, trains and buses doesn’t need to be arranged more than a day in advance at the most. Less planning provides more flexibility and less stress. You’ll have a lot more fun with a blank itinerary.
Eating and Drinking
- There’s no need to rely on guide books or websites for recommendations on where to eat and drink. Just follow your nose. Much like accommodation, food prices and quality seem inversely proportional to a place’s popularity with other backpackers.
- For god’s sake please eat the local food. It will always be fresher, tastier, cheaper and just all round better than the cook’s attempt at anything Western. Don’t be afraid to buy it from street vendors either, especially busy ones or those that cook to order. Fast turnover = less risk of stomach problems!
- Drinking the local beer is always the right choice. When it’s hot and you’re sweaty and exhausted, a big frosted bottle of Saigon or Beer Lao is quite possibly a gift from the backpacker gods. Given it should only cost a dollar or two, it very well may be.
- Drinking the local water, on the other hand, may not be such a great idea. Do your research on the area you’re in, and use a filter or bottled water for everything from drinking to brushing your teeth if you’re in doubt. Or just see step 9 and use beer instead.
- Surprisingly enough, the ice is often made in factories using filtered water, and is therefore safe to have in your drink. Except when it isn’t. I gave up worrying about it after a week or two, but don’t blame me if you spend a week on the toilet after ordering an iced coffee.
- Banana pancakes and buckets of whiskey red bull are not the essence of a balanced diet.
- For when all the above goes horribly wrong, pack Imodium.
- There will always, always be someone around who will happily take you from one place to another for not much money by a random means of transport. It might not be fast, comfortable or particularly safe, but compared to wherever you come from, it will certainly be cheap.
- Don’t be afraid of saying yes to the moto (scooter) drivers who want to take you somewhere. Yes, even with your big backpack on. Let’s face it, if an entire family, half a dozen chickens and a tractor tyre can fit on a single Honda Wave, you and your bag don’t even register.
- Take a tuk-tuk several times in each country. They are such a definitive part of the South East Asian experience that you’d be crazy not to, and each area has a slightly different spin on them. Finding one won’t be difficult -– just stand still for half a second and at least three drivers will descend upon you. Unless you’re in Laos, in which case you may need to wake them up first.
- Overnight buses are a great way of maximising your time and minimising your accommodation budget. They’re also a great way of getting three hours of broken sleep, freezing to death due to an over-excited air conditioner, and becoming well acquainted with the sounds and smells of a few dozen other people and their chickens for twelve hours or more. Another definitive part of the backpacking experience.
- Renting scooters is a brilliant way of combining freedom, flexibility and appreciation for remaining alive in one easy step. I did it a few times in different places and absolutely loved it. Licenses and helmets are usually optional, but try not to crash if you don’t want a permanent nasty reminder of your time in South East Asia. Remember, travel insurance won’t cover you if you’re breaking the law, and that includes being drunk on a bike or not having a valid license.
- Flying is quite cheap even when booked only a day or two in advance, and varies between clean and safe (Air Asia and Vietnam Air, for instance) and life threatening (anything with wings in Indonesia). It’s also a really boring way of (not) seeing a country, so only consider it to cover distances that are impractical by other means.
- VIP buses will usually have a few extra conveniences (air conditioning, doors that close, less chickens, that kind of thing), be faster and cost more than mini buses or local transport options. It’s good fun to be the only Westerner among a sea of local faces, though, so for shorter trips or if you’re not in a hurry, give the other options a try.
- There are around 600 million people in South East Asia, with hundreds of languages, dozens of religions and uncountable different cultural beliefs. The dodgy watch salesman you meet on your first morning on Khao San Road is not representative of all of them, and neither is anybody else. Give everyone a chance, even when the last thing you want to do is talk to yet another persistent songthaew driver.
- Be alert for scams and danger, but not to the point of being unnecessarily rude or paranoid. The guy that asks you if he can practice his English may, in fact, just want to practice his English. The homeless kid that asks you for food may be genuinely hungry. The girl touting for business outside the massage parlour may just want to give you a massage. Of course none of this might be true either, so always be prepared to walk away when things start looking dicey.
- Be respectful of local beliefs. Take heed of notices regarding removing your shoes, touching people’s heads or pointing your feet at them, covering up in temples, etc. If you’re not sure, pay attention to what other people are doing. Many people (especially in Buddhist countries) may not say anything if you’re being offensive but that doesn’t make it acceptable.
- Most people are only too happy to help if they can. I was constantly amazed by just how far people would go just to give me, a total stranger, a hand. It would be nice if people were half as friendly and helpful in the Western world.
- Take the time to get to know the locals wherever you are. As much fun as it is to drink your own body weight in buckets with your fellow backpackers on Ko Phangan, I guarantee some of your most abiding memories will be the interactions you had with local fishermen, guesthouse owners, taxi drivers and random strangers along the way. I know that mine are.
Got any tips of your own? Leave ’em below!