Ive spent almost 2 months in Southeast Asia and I have learned a great deal about living and traveling in this area. Therefore, I’ve decided to compile my top 10 SEA tips and observations for those considering a visit, in order for you to survive and thrive:
1. Pack light: No more than a carryon bag and you can even make it with just a large backpack. Anything and everything in SEA is cheap to purchase and you can get whatever you need as you realize you need it. This includes clothes, shoes, toiletries, electronics and medicines. I do not recommend that you bring nice/expensive sandals or sunglasses as you will lose them, i guarantee it. I have already gone through at least 4 pairs of flip-flops and 4 sunglasses, the good thing is that they are insanely cheap to replace. As for your one bag of choice, I don’t recommend the typical backcountry backpack, you are immediately labeled as a tourist/backpacker and open yourself up to being taken advantage of by local scammers because you stick out like a sore thumb. Also, you get more than one sideways look when walking through nice parts of town or checking into the occasional 4 star hotel for a respite from camping or hostel life. I chose the bag made by Rick Steves. The bag is designed to the maximum dimensions of an airplane overhead compartment and while it may appear to be just a square shaped piece of luggage it does have hideable backpack straps and a waist strap that can be configured in a variety of ways for backpacking. As for handbags or a day-pack, you can get those for cheap in any mall or night market, and ladies you know you will want a souvenir handbag at some point anyway, so why bring one from home? While we’re on the subject of shoulder bags, the, “Hangover II”, movie did get one thing right; When Thai men (like Leslie Chow) are out and about or traveling, they do carry man purses, however they are probably not filled with lots of cash or skittles. For your clothes, I say; 1 pants, 1 shorts, 1 swimwear, 1 collared shirt, 3 t-shirts, low profile running shoes, and something like boat-shoes that can be worn out to dinner or to the beach. Remember: it’s hot and humid, so cotton is the devil, if you are wearing cotton and get wet or sweaty, you will stay that way. Invest in some dri-fit. Oh, and protect your electronic gadgetry with some high quality cases, I’ve seen far too many smashed cameras, iPhones and computers. And your life will be so much easier if you do bring an electronic device that accesses wifi, don’t depend on Internet cafes, wifi is everywhere and the glorious interwebs is the ultimate travel assistant.
2. Payment is in cash and is negotiable: since Internet and phone service are spotty at best, most establishments cannot accept credit cards for payment. Cash (Thai Baht) is a must, especially in the islands and on street level in the cities. Many a traveler is stuck when they depend on their credit cards or USD for getting around, eating or shopping. Luckily, ATMs are plentiful in most places and you can withdraw up to 15,000 Bhat at a time (of course there is a 150 bht surcharge for each withdrawal). Once you have your cash in hand, only a fool pays the sticker price. Everything from sandals to mouthwash to hotel rooms are negotiable. Most items do not even have a price listed, you just have to find out from the shop/stall owner. My favorite strategy is to inquire about the price of an item at one place, then go to the next and speak first to suggest a lower price to the vendor. The vendor will probably counter your offer so then I like to just stay silent for a while, the vendor may go ahead and drop their offer once more if you seem hesitant, without you having to haggle at all. In the end, don’t be afraid to walk away, even if you really want or need the item/service. Sometimes the bottom line price isn’t given to you until you make it five steps away from the storefront. Everything is still cheap in SEA so sometimes haggling over 2 or 3 dollars is pointless, unless you just like the sport of it. The bottom line is: only pay a much as you feel comfortable with for the particular item or service and don’t get duped into a high price before you are comfortable understanding the conversion rate. Luckily, Thai money is color coded and sized differently, making it easy to get a handle on the note denominations quickly.
NB – always make sure that you negotiate the price for a taxi or tuk-tuk before you get in, and in the case of the taxi make sure they turn the meter on.
3. Take your shoes off: most of SEA and especially Thailand is predominantly Buddhist, and you never step foot into a temple with shoes on, heck, you aren’t even supposed to point your feet in the direction of the Buddha. Most stores and many hotels will require removal of shoes as well. Thais consider feet very dirty, so never put your feet up on something, touch someone or something with you feet and for gosh sakes, take your shoes off before entering anywhere indoors. The will usually be a pile of shoes and sandals to tip you off, but if you really value your footwear you may avoid the pile and toss them in a more discrete location. This probably goes without saying, but lace up shoes are a pain in the ass, wear slip-ons or sandals. The cheaper the shoes the better, my last pair of flip-flops lasted me 4 days before they dissapeared and an Aussie friend of my said his record was 5 pairs in a week. Luckily, flip-flops only run you about 100 baht (~$4). It’s worth noting that with all the shoelessness, you should still be very careful not to injure your feet on glass or other sharp objects, things tend to get infected very quickly and nastily in SEA.
4. Stay calm: in SEA it is very “uncool” to get angry or raise your voice. Your patience will get tested regularly, I can promise that. Thais are very relaxed and patient people so it’s best that you adapt the same attitude. Whether its your transportation being late, your food order being wrong or almost getting run over by a scooter, just take a deep breath and let the Buddhist philosophy take hold. Americans do have the worst reputation for breaking this rule and getting upset with the little things, so set a good example for the rest of us and take a very large chill pill. At times you will be constantly pestered by touts wanting to sell you everything from cheap suits to ping-pong shows, don’t get frustrated by their persistence, keep the blinders on and keep walking with a smile. There are never any fist fights at bars, even amongst the ludicrously intoxicated, and you never want to get into a fight with a local. Instigating a fight with a local will most certainly involve you defending yourself from multiple other locals, unfair fights, using bottles, pipes, knives, rocks and Muay Thai techniques. If you just keep your cool, everything little ting is gonna be alright. Your bus or boat will show up, your food order will get fixed (or whatever they gave you will taste great anyway), and your air-con and Internet will start working again.
5. Try new food: don’t miss out on some of the most tasty items in SEA due to the questionable cooking areas, strange smells, strange names or your utter cowardice. Thai people are especially we’ll known for their cleanliness in cooking. Most “kitchens” wouldn’t pass even the most basic inspection in the states, but the cooks themselves know what they are doing. Utensils and dishes are sanitized and the food is properly stored and cooked. Some people miss out on some really great food experiences because they only stick to what they know. Obviously don’t drink the water from the tap but bottled water and the ice in restaurants are ok, and it’s ok to brush your teeth with the tap water. I ate and drank everything I could and I never once got sick, not even a tummy ache. Try all the strange looking fruits, I haven’t found one I disliked yet, I especially love the Rambutan and Mangosteen. Sample the street-side insects (I recommend crickets) and go all out at the 7/11 with crab and basil flavored chips, strange looking yogurt drinks, seaweed jerky and for gosh sakes if you haven’t had a tuna toasty at 2am, first, punch yourself in the face, then do yourself a favor and go buy 2 of them.
6. Ask Travel Agents, but don’t always buy from them: since there is an increased requirement for travel by bus, boat, van, taxi, scooter, pack-mule etc., you will find yourself in need of some localized guidance. The wonderful interwebs can only get you so far in SEA because in second and third world countries most transportation methods do not list online and getting from place to place requires multiple modes of transportation. My last adventure from Siem Reap to Bangkok involved: tuk-tuk/mini bus/walking/tuk-tuk/tour bus/motorbike taxi/train, in that order. In SEA you have to get by the old fashioned way and that means using a travel agent…sometimes. I have been ripped off by an agent my fare share of times or mislead in a variety of ways, but I have always made it to my final destination. Many fiercely independent travelers will shy away from the many travel agencies all over SEA, but they really can be an invaluable resource for information and a discount on complicated travel arrangements. If you have time to do the research online, you can most likely figure out the rough idea of getting from point A to B, but don’t expect it to be smooth. Traveling from place to place is always an adventure and most often very exhausting, but some of my best moments and stories have come from these trying travel days.
7. Don’t always be a “Pleasure Seeker”: many travelers envision the ideal SEA vacation to be all about sipping fruity alcoholic beverages on the beach all day,experimenting with the variety of unpoliced drugs, or getting ridiculously pampered with massages and cheap yet fancy hotels. I have done plenty of the aforementioned from time to time but I feel that you really have to find times to separate yourself from all that noise. Take time to just have a walk-about, go grocery shopping, find an adventurous local excursion for the day, or just relax somewhere outside the bounds of your hotel. Challenge yourself with a cooking class, meditation retreat or volunteer work. In my opinion the best way to enjoy another country is to experience some of the culture, uninhibited and un-inebriated. You may come to realize that laying out poolside or on the beach is quite the same anywhere you go, even in your backyard. Take time to communicate with the locals or go to a market. It feels good to get away from the touristy flash. Even as a backpacker through hostels and camps, take time to get away from the other sweaty backpackers and immerse yourself in both the locals and the upscale vacationers. Perspective comes from both directions.
(Anna, if you are reading this, I’m sorry for using this picture, but it was too perfect, hehe)
8. Common Sense Rules: there are a million ways to die, get seriously injured or hurt. There are no guardrails, handrails or danger signs. Police are seldom around and when they are, they are most likely not on the side of helping a westerner. Crazy drivers, no helmets, horrible pavement, and unintelligible road signs. Stupid people don’t last in SEA, so use your noggin. Don’t put yourself in dumb situations with silly people and trust your instincts with touts and other potential scammers. Putting blinders on and training yourself not to look at every tout who says, “hey sir”, will take you leagues. I see all too often the bandaged limping backpacker and the small cut that turned grossly infected. Use band-aids (plasters) and antibiotic ointment on any scratch. If something looks unsafe, unstable or broken it probably is and will be soon. You can’t trust the upkeep of things in Asia quite like you can in the good ol’ US of A. If you find yourself in SEA, do your life expectancy a favor and use your stupid brain with everything from crossing the road to rock climbing.
9. Get used to the Bathrooms: you will be faced with toilet challenges of all kinds. Usually the first is the noticeable absence of toilet paper. The sewers here just aren’t designed for anything but human waste, so most toilets come equipped with a handheld bidet. Don’t worry if you are washing the walls with it at first, with forced practice you will get used to it, I promise. If you are lucky enough to have TP, don’t throw it in the toilet, use the trash can, you don’t want an Asian plumbing problem. Secondly, it’s guaranteed that at some point you will have to use a, “squatter”. When you find yourself in the more local parts of town there are no western toilets to be found. Instead you have the more eastern style, “squatter”, toilet. So aptly named because that’s exactly what you do; stand on the porcelain rim and squat. It’s a strange and smelly experience, but some say it is a healthier way of taking the Cosbys to the pool. The “squatters” are also a manual flush operation, so when you are finished you dump a few bucketful’s of water down that drain and let gravity do the work. Lastly, in most hotel rooms, the bathroom and the shower are the same closet sized room and the showers are usually cold water, handheld, low pressure garbage. But I like to look on the bright side and consider the multi-tasking opportunities a toilet/shower brings.
10. Asians like a slim fit: when purchasing clothing in SEA, which I do highly reccomned since its cheap and allows you to pack light, remember that they are a small people in general. I think my first purchase was underwear, and I learned the hard way. Large was unwearable at the get-go, XL was unwearable after 1 wash, and XXL (the largest you will find, if you are even that lucky) are more nut-hugging than I am comfortable with. Same goes for shirts, shorts and pants. Just attempt to try things on before buying them, even though fitting rooms are nonexistent in SEA, you left your dignity back home, so drop trow and try it on right then and there.
So in closing: Have a freaking, bomb-ass, grandma slappin, helluva good time because you are not only smart and lucky, but brave enough to shun the traditional, “one weak”, vacation in Mexico and come to one of the greatest spots on the planet.