35 Survival Tips for Southeast Asia
35 Survival Tips For Southeast Asia
So you’re headed to Southeast Asia…
You should be!
There’s a reason so many travellers flock here year after year. The beaches are beautiful, the culture is rich, the food, beer and pretty much everything else is dirt cheap, the locals are awesome, the parties are epic and the travel can be very rewarding. It doesn’t matter what kind of traveller you are, you can find what you’re looking for in Southeast Asia (SEA).
We spent almost an entire year travelling throughout all of SEA which was absolutely incredible. In our travels we learned and refined certain travel skills which ended up making our travels easier, less stressful, cheaper, safer and overwhelmingly more enjoyable. These skills combined with some valuable first hand knowledge learned from our own travel successes AND failures, lead us to this list of our ultimate survival tips.
Even if just one of these tips helps you out, please let us know – we love hearing from our readers!
35 Survival Tips For Southeast Asia
1) Use Lonely Planet as a guide, but learn to deviate from it: Yes, Lonely Planet is the traveller’s bible but keep in mind that almost everyone is using it and because of this the top rated guesthouses and restaurants are often times priced at a premium. Something else to keep in mind is, do you want to follow the exact same path as everyone else and have the same experiences? I know I don’t.
2) Practice squatting: You will not be able to get around using a squatter toilet at some point in SEA. Get good and practiced before you attempt to use one on a moving train….
3) Don’t let vendors get to you: The quicker you get over the fact the you are going to be hassled by vendors of every kind while in most major cities and towns, the faster you will begin to enjoy yourself in Southeast Asia. The vendors are by in large friendly people just doing their job, chat them up and have some fun.
4) If possible, walk a few blocks to hire a taxi after arriving: In most cases taxi drivers who hang around bus and train stops will try and charge crazy rates as they know the travellers aren’t sure what the going rate when they first get to a new city. Make sure to not only research ahead of time what you should expect to pay but walk a block or two away from the chaos to flag down a taxi.
5) Learn to love haggling: SEA runs on a bartering system, everything is negotiable from souvenirs to accommodations, to bike rentals, to even food. Check out my post to learn how you can “Haggle Like a Pro”.
5) Check, re-check and check again if you have your passport before leaving your guesthouse: Many guesthouses will want to keep your passport as collateral or make copies as a government requirement. We left ours at a guesthouse in Myanmar and had a really fun night trying to get them back in different city!
6) Never ever leave your bag on the bus during the stops: There’s just been too many incidences of stuff getting stolen to take any chances. Make sure to read about our post on “Scams in Southeast Asia” to learn about the most common scams happening in SEA now.
7) Girls – stockpile for your feminine hygiene needs: This stuff is very tough to come by/expensive in most SEA countries.
8) In major cities around SEA particularly Bangkok, taxis are often cheaper than tuk-tuks: I understand that people may want to take an iconic tuk-tuk ride in Bangkok if it’s their first stop in SEA, but taxis are generally much more comfortable, faster and if you are able to get them to turn on their meters, cheaper as well.
9) Buy LOTS of little hand sanitizers and always have one with you: Decent hand washing facilities are usually hard to find. Best to get them at home but if you need to find some on the road, your best bet to find them will be at a pharmacy/chemist.
10) Although it’s getting better, most WiFi is still spotty at best: If you are expecting to be able to work online while in SEA, you’ll find you’ll spend most of you time looking for somewhere with a strong(ish) connection. If you are looking to work under tight timelines while in SEA, make sure to purchase a wi-fi dongle for your laptop.
11) Negotiate tuk-tuk and taxis before you take off: Always, always, always, negotiate your tuk-tuk or taxi rides before you get to your destination or you may find yourself in a tough spot.
12) Do not bring expensive sunglasses on your trip: You will lose or break so many pairs that you will lose count. Sunglasses are dirt cheap in SEA. You can buy a snappy pair of fake Raybans for $2 or $3 just about anywhere.
13) Double check what airport you are flying into in Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur: Popular budget airlines such as AirAsia and Tiger Air fly out of Low Cost Terminals (LCTs) which are located a different locations than the regular airport. Important to keep in mind when you have connections!
14) Be careful about where you pull out your smartphones and electronics: In Vietnam, as well as other major tourist sites, it’s all too common for guys on motorbikes to snatch peoples phones and valuables right out of their hands as they walk down the road texting. I’ve seen a girl getting her iPhone snatched while in Ho Chi Minh City.
15) It’s a good idea to have ear plugs, night shades and even sleeping pills for night buses: They are often noisy, uncomfortable and the lights will be turned on and off all night. Just be sure to keep your valuables secure and out of view.
16) Learn to love street food: Eating the local food not only allows you to better experience the culture, its also dirt cheap and 99% of the time tastes better than the restaurants.
17) Don’t plan connecting bus trips too close together: Buses in SEA are notoriously late, like 2 or 3 hours sometimes. We even had a few buses leave a half hour early, so its best to give yourself a big window around bus travel.
18) If you have big feet, bring backup sandals: If you have large feet, I’m talking even size 10 and up, I’d advise that you bring a backup pair of sandals if you’re going to be in SEA for a while. I went through five pairs in 10 months and found that in big cities such as Bangkok and Hanoi, it wasn’t a problem to find a new pair but outside the major areas it can be very difficult as they only have sizes for locals. If you have feet larger than size 12, I’d bring even more backup pairs from home as I didn’t see any sandals over a size 12 outside of Bali. Same story for underwear!
19) Watch out for sunscreen, face wash and deodorant with whitening agents: Many of these products in Asia have whitening chemicals in them as many locals want lighter skin.
20) Take it easy on the zip off and khaki travel clothing unless you want to stand out in a bad way: Clothes are dirt cheap in SEA with most of the clothing industry having their stuff made here. For example, in Hanoi you can buy North Face clothing that has “fallen off the truck”.
21) You can find almost any medication you need in major SEA cities: You should be able to find any meds you need (anti-nausea, birth control, valium, pain killers, etc.) at the pharmacies throughout SEA at cheaper prices then back home WITHOUT a prescription.
22) Even if you don’t usually get car sick, it is a good idea to take anti-nausea pills/valium a half hour before long bus trips: The combination of windy roads, other travellers/locals barfing, and overused air freshener can be too much to handle. I never got car sick back home but found I have felt close to praying to the porcelain god on more than one occasion.
23) Be really careful with hard drugs in SEA: You’ll have no problems finding weed, “happy” pizzas and mushroom shakes throughout SEA all of which are natural and safe. When it comes to harder drugs though, be really careful. Just like home, there are lots of people out there just trying to make a quick buck with little concern for the consequences.
24) Buy your electronics in Kuala Lumpur: Its well known that Hong Kong, Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur are three of the cheapest places to buy electronics like cameras and tablets but based on our own first hand experiences, you cannot beat Kuala Lumpur. We found that they are much more likely to haggle with you in this city than in Bangkok or Hong Kong.
25) Always have toilet paper with you: This is especially true during bus and train travel. 98% of toilets in SEA will not have T.P and if they do they will charge you for it.
26) When in doubt, dress conservatively: Always be mindful of where you are and be respectful in how you dress. In many places in SEA men and women have their shoulders covered and their dress/sarong to or below the knees. It isn’t appropriate as a tourist to walk around any town in a bikini or swim trunks outside of being on an island and even then, use your discretion.
27) Try to travel in shoulder seasons or even low season if possible: There are far less crowds, cheaper prices, more selection of accommodations and the weather is totally fine in the shoulder seasons. Even in the rainy season, it usually only rains for one hour a day (usually).
28) Don’t expect Western safety measures: Be ready for the fact that there will be AT LEAST one occasion where you will be on a boat that does not have nearly enough life jackets for everyone. This is a guarantee.
29) Stay hydrated: It seems to go without saying but it gets very hot in SEA and this combined with the fact that alcohol is so cheap means that you need to keep pounding back that H20!
30) Dude, slow down on the motorbike: We saw sooooo many people with bad injuries from bailing on their bikes that I had to mention it. Not only does crashing your bike suck on the injury side, but you’ll have to pay the owner for the repairs and trying to heal your wounds in the tropical climate of SEA is next to impossible which means you’ll be on your way to the hospital to get some antibiotics.
31) Where sandals or slip on shoes while temple hopping: When it comes to visiting temples in SEA, a good rule of thumb is to make sure you wear long pants and shirt that covers your shoulders. Best to also wear slip-on shoes or flip flops as you’ll constantly be taking off your shoes.
32) Turn off your laptop and phone and get to know people at your hostel: Technology is great but I think we are all guilty of perhaps spending too much time online and this goes for travellers in SEA as well. One of the absolute best things about travelling through SEA is getting to meet awesome people from all over the world, some that will develop into lifelong friendships. So do yourself a favour, unplug and strike up a conversation.
33) Don’t be afraid to tell your tour guide or driver to change plans: Most tour guides and drivers will take you to where the “tourists usually like to go”. Usually this means big crowds, lots of vendors and an inauthentic experience. Don’t be afraid to speak up and tell them what you really want to see. We did this on many different occasions and were always happy said something.
34) Learn to say yes and trust things will be great: We found that the best experiences we had were often the ones where we said yes to things that we normally wouldn’t have. You may even end up in a multi-million dollar villa like we did in Bali!
35) Have a sense of humour: Travel through SEA is the perfect blend of excitement, wonder, fun and frustration all rolled into one. If you maintain a sense of humour throughout it all, no matter what comes your way, you will have an amazing time!
Well, I hope you found these survival tips for Southeast Asia helpful and that you are now better equipped to handle whatever comes your way as you travel through one of the greatest places on earth!
Ross & Alyse