12 Tips for Your First Trip to Southeast Asia
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Southeast Asia is one of the most magical regions on Earth. The countries here are full of stunning beaches, historic temples, thriving jungles and bustling cities … so how do you choose where to go while staying healthy and safe? TPG International Contributor Lori Zaino, who just returned from a two-month to the region, offers some tips to help you plan, pack for and enjoy your first journey to Southeast Asia. (All photos by the author, unless otherwise specified.)
1. Pick a few countries or cities and stick to them. While it’s tempting to visit many countries and cities on a single trip to Southeast Asia, it’s extremely worthwhile to slow down and dig into the culture of a single country and/or just a handful of places, rather than exhausting yourself by hopping all over what amounts to an enormous territory. For example, Bali, Indonesia and Hanoi, Vietnam are both set within Southeast Asia, but beware — they’re a seven-hour flight away from each other! Before you commit to flights and lodgings, pull out the map and choose countries/cities that are relatively close together or are easily accessible by nonstop flights or direct trains. Utilizing your travel time wisely will ensure that you can relax and actually enjoy your vacation to Southeast Asia.
2. Check visa requirements and be prepared. Several Southeast Asian countries require that your passport has at least six months’ worth of validity left, or a specific number of empty pages — and requirements seem to be constantly changing. For example, last year, e-visas weren’t available online for several entrance points in Myanmar, but this year they are. Meanwhile, Vietnam recently changed its visa rules, and now citizens from several European countries no longer need a visa to enter.
If you do end up needing a visa upon arrival at your chosen destination(s), be prepared with US dollars and small photos of yourself. Many airport visa offices have ATMs/exchange services (albeit with terrible rates) and photo booths, but this is a hassle that you can easily avoid by bringing the required items from home. Consider printing out online forms and filling them out ahead of time in order to sail quickly through an airport.
Also, be sure to grab a couple of extra entrance and exit forms each time you enter a country; if you end up leaving and re-entering that country by bus, boat or train, having the correct forms handy will enable you to save time you’d otherwise spend in line.
3. Pack light and right. When visiting Southeast Asia, try to pack light and do laundry wherever you go rather than trekking around with an overweight backpack or heavy roller suitcase. In most Southeast Asian countries, you can have your clothes washed, dried and ironed in under 24 hours for the equivalent of a couple of dollars, and at street markets, you can shop inexpensively for any extra clothes and toiletries you need.
What should you be sure to bring? For visiting temples, you’ll need modest clothing that covers your knees and shoulders. Also, arm yourself with a first aid kit, a small flashlight, all kinds of stomach medicines (e.g., Tums, Pepto, Immodium, etc.), earplugs, hand sanitizer and travel packs of tissues (note that squat toilets usually aren’t equipped with toilet paper). And because hotels never seem to have enough outlets, consider packing a multi-port plug that allows you to charge a few of your electronics at once.
4. Safeguard your health. Before you travel to individual countries, check their vaccine requirements and recommendations — and then actually get those vaccinations. If you’re worried about the expense, be aware that you can opt to get your vaccinations upon arrival in Bangkok, where they’re generally quite cheap at local health centers. When traveling to any Asian country, tetanus and rabies shots are a good idea, as it’s likely that you’ll come into contact with rusty objects and stray dogs. In addition to any necessary shots, seek out strong mosquito repellent, as this can help protect you from dengue fever and malaria.
5. Try alternate travel methods. Using trains, low-cost airlines and ferries is a great way to save money while moving from place to place. Buses are generally the cheapest method of transport in Southeast Asian countries, but stay aware of travel scams and know that you might be in for dirt, dust, unpleasant (or simply strange) smells, crowds, bumpy roads and more. Ferries can also be crowded, but are a quick, cheap and direct form of travel between islands, and though often slow, trains are a fun way to explore and see the lay of the land(s). Low-cost carriers such as Air Asia, Bangkok Airways, Nok Air, Tiger Air and more offer cheap flights to a variety of destinations — and some even have frequent flyer programs. Though often a splurge in comparison to bare-bones taxi-boat journeys, river cruises are luxurious, scenic adventures and a great mode of transportation.
6. That said, rent a scooter at your own risk. If I had a dollar for every 20-something I saw with a bandaged knee, chin or foot in Thailand, I would easily be rich. Renting scooters can be a great way to get around, but in some Southeast Asian countries you’ll need to drive on the left side of the road, and you may battle intense traffic, hills, curves, dirt or sand roads, crazy taxi drivers — and worst of all, other foreigners who are unfamiliar with these conditions, driving scooters, or some combination of both. Though most locals and tourists don’t wear helmets, I highly recommend that you do.
Before you head off with a rental scooter, be sure that your rental agent sees you taking detailed photos and/or videos of the bike, and actively point out any scratches or concerns to them. Though scooter rentals are often just a few dollars per day up front, scooter-return scams are common, wherein a rental agent will insist that you’ve scratched or otherwise damaged their scooter, and will charge you hundreds (or even thousands) of dollars in damages before they’ll return your passport to you.
7. Change money once you arrive, not in your home country or airport. US and European airports and banks often charge excessive fees to exchange money, but you’ll typically get a decent exchange rate if you wait to change money once you’re in Southeast Asia. However, know that Southeast Asian hotels generally offer terrible exchange rates, so stick to banks or other spots that advertise “Money Exchange.” Make sure to change plenty of cash, as street-market vendors, taxi drivers and smaller restaurants may not take credit cards.
Many hotels and larger restaurants will take credit cards, though, so make sure to use ones that charge no foreign transaction fees, such as the Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard, Chase Sapphire Preferred Card and Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card; to see more cards without these fees, check out Top Credit Cards With No Foreign Transaction Fees.
8. Avoid “temple burnout” by planning a range of activities. “Temple burnout” happens when you see so many ornate, fabulous temples that they all begin to look the same — and you lose interest in seeing any more, ever. To avoid this malady, arrange some non-temple-oriented excursions, or simply take a day (or two) off to relax and rest your eyes. After a bit of visual reboot, you’ll have a whole new appreciation for a region of the globe that has more amazing temples than you could possibly imagine.
9. Get travel insurance. Typically, I’m not an advocate of travel insurance, but since my Southeast Asia travels often include adventures like street-food eating, zip-lining, scuba diving, jungle treks and motorcycle rentals, I’ve found it wise to have a policy in place. On this latest trip, for instance, I developed an ear infection from snorkeling, and thanks to my travel insurance, I was in and out of a doctor’s office within an hour, complete with medicines and a special souvenir bag (see above) — all covered by my policy. Insurance policies can also cover non-health-related problems such as lost luggage or issues with flights and hotels.
10. Don’t be afraid to bargain. You should absolutely bargain with local street vendors — and with a smile on your face, because it’s both fun and a cultural norm in Southeast Asian countries. I’ve had some great times bargaining and laughing with street vendors, and even made friends with a few locals along the way, always scoring an awesome souvenir for my efforts.
11. Don’t give money to/buy souvenirs from begging children — order a meal, instead. I know it tugs at your heartstrings, but the more money that begging children earn from tourists, the more their parents see them as a source of monetary gain and the less inclined they are to send them to school — where they’d have a shot at a better future. If you want to lend real support to kids in Southeast Asia, dine at Tree Alliance restaurants. Located in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, these eateries train disadvantaged young locals as chefs and waiters, and also donate money to other programs that assist low-income children and adolescents. Offering local dishes, these restaurants provide a delicious way to help.
12. Be a responsible and ethical tourist in Southeast Asia. While exploring the region, absolutely look into cooking classes, scuba courses, elephant tourism, yoga retreats, jungle treks, hill tribe village visits and more, but be sure to research tour/activity/excursion companies before you book in order to ensure that your tourist dollars are being used in socially responsible ways, rather than inadvertently aiding in the mistreatment of animals or the environment. Plus, safety is also important, especially when trekking, zip-lining or scuba diving, so make sure to read reviews in order to confirm that they’re right for you.
Now that you’re armed with plenty of useful info, I wish you happy planning — and a wonderful first trip to Southeast Asia!
If you’ve been to any Southeast Asian countries, do you have any advice to add? Please share in the comments section below.