Top Ten Tips for Traveling in South East Asia

Tuesday, April 13th, 2010


If you’re a woman with a thirst for adventure, traveling in South East Asia will prove to be a thrilling, enlightening and rewarding experience. There are so many diverse cultures, languages, lifestyles and religions; there are buzzing cities, jungles, charming towns and traditional villages; there are opportunities for photographers, cultural anthropologists, shopaholics, thrill-seekers, nature lovers and beach bums. Based on my experiences lugging a backpack and jetting across this sublime part of the world, I present you with my Top Ten Tips for traveling in South East Asia:

1. Taste Everything

Asia_300_riverMarketI am a girl who likes my food. I love discovering new tastes and local delicacies, from stalls to cafes to fancy restaurants. That is why this tip has got to be number 1. South East Asian Food is vastly different from Western food; believe me, the Thai Curry takeaway you ordered back home is worlds away from the fresh green curry served at a smoky market stall in Bangkok. There are so many wonderful culinary adventures out there; from famous national dishes like Singapore’s fried noodles, to local delicacies such as Penang’s steamed lobster. Meat and seafood tend to be less “neat” than in the West – expect on-the-bone servings and shellfish you have to peel yourself- but don’t let that put you off. Check online and in guides to see what’s recommended in your area. I find that, wherever you’re heading in South East Asia, one of the best ways to get your teeth into the culture is by sampling the food of the locals in buzzing cafeterias and from the hawkers on the streets.

2. Pack Lightly

I know, I know; it can be difficult to only pack the “absolute essentials”, but if you’re heading to this part of the world, you’ll need a lot of space in your suitcase for the wonderful gifts you’ll be returning with. Items such as clothes and jewelry are far cheaper across South East Asia than they are in Europe or America, especially in vibrant street markets. These colorful stalls sell unique local handicrafts, precious stones, cloth and other unusual gifts, so be sure to visit them on your travels. Check out guidebooks or local newspapers for lists of the locations and opening hours of these markets. Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur are hot-spots for deals on handbags, shoes, belts and loads of other awesome items, so these cities are perfect for a day or two of serious bargaining and treasure hunting.

3. Learn about the Culture

Learning about culture isn’t all quiet museums and musty libraries. Aside from checking out guide books and googling “Culture in (insert location here)”, I find that a stroll through the place where you are staying really reveals a lot about a place; how people carry out their daily lives and interact with each other in cafeteria’s, bus stations and on the streets. Seeing how locals go about their day and taking in the surroundings can be fascinating and enlightening. As you leisurely scout-out the streets, you may discover gems like hidden temples behind busy shop-lots, a historical monument not mentioned in your guidebooks, or luscious farmland just around the corner, giving you a rare glimpse into the local culture you may have otherwise missed out on.

4. Be Assertive

In certain areas, particularly in the big cities, you may find taxi drivers taking you to a hotel that will offer them commission, not the hotel you requested. Hawkers may try quoting you high prices for fake jewelry. My advice is, always be aware and assertive. Don’t let a few characters looking to make some extra cash at your expense ruin your experience. Always insist any taxi driver puts the meter on, and insist that he or she takes you to the exact location you want to go to. Never part with large amounts of money for items that could be fake, faulty or poor quality. If you’re traveling alone, keep local emergency numbers at hand along with your hotel details. Follow your instincts; if you feel like something or someone is “off”, politely yet firmly remove yourself from the situation.

5. Take part in something Totally Different

Asia_300_HalongBayThroughout my travels, doing something I’ve never done before makes the trip a truly memorable one. Take the opportunity to try something fun, exciting, or just plain crazy! Why not enroll yourself in a day’s cooking course in Chiang Mai, Thailand; bask in Volcanic mud pools in Pulau Tiga, Malaysia; swim in the waters of the sublime Halong Bay, Vietnam? Wherever you are going in South East Asia, take part in activities that you’d never have the chance to back home. Do some research on the area where you are heading, online, in guides and through local tour companies, and you’ll soon discover there’s something totally different and right up your street to get involved in! Doing something extraordinary will make your trip unforgettable.

6. Bargain!

At markets across South East Asia, this is the only way to do business. Expect to be quoted around 50% more than you should pay for any given product. If you ask for a discount, the seller will look pained, make noises of protest, and insist that the products on offer are wonderful quality and worth a lot more. It can be tricky to get the hang of bargaining, but it can be fun; often, you will get some good banter with the seller, you can joke around, enjoy the experience, and feel free to give him or her pained looks when they quote you a price!

7. Be Sensitive

And I don’t mean emotionally. Clue yourself up about the culture of a particular place before you visit, to ensure you don’t make any faux pas that might offend locals. For example, in most of S.E.A, public displays of affection are frowned upon. Kissing your partner in front of a beautiful sunset may be romantic for the two of you, but in the context of Brunei, Thailand, Malaysia, Laos, Indonesia or the Philippines, it is a highly inappropriate thing to do in public. Similarly, revealing clothes are not appropriate in conservative areas – particularly parts of Indonesia and Brunei. Avoid talking about politics and religion when traveling, as these are often highly sensitive subjects that can cause a great deal of tension. Most importantly, appreciate cultural differences and have an awesome experience.

8. Make friends as you travel

Whether chatting with the staff at your hotel, exchanging stories with fellow travelers, or talking with locals as you wander through town, on your travels throughout South East Asia you are bound to meet other like-minded people and make some fast-friends. Not only are they good companions, but also they can often help you discover the best of an area, enriching your holiday no-end. With the internet, it is easy to keep in touch, and you may meet them again in another part of the world.

9. Choose your tours/itinerary wisely

When choosing to embark on tours, it’s important to ensure you go with the right company. Not only are there some bogus tour agents in South East Asia, but also there are many more without licenses, permits or appropriate equipment. Make sure the operators you are looking to travel with are registered by checking out the country or areas Tourism Website. Equip yourself with plenty of information about the itinerary of a tour beforehand, so you know what to bring and what to expect. All good tour operators will be happy to give you additional information and advice about the area, as well as recommending itineraries based on your interests.

10. The Golden Rule

What can turn an otherwise awesome holiday into a painful, itchy and uncomfortable one? Forgetting to bring insect repellent and sunscreen, that’s what. These two items will prove to be an absolute lifesaver in South East Asia’s tropical climate, saving your skin from the suns merciless rays and repelling those nasty mosquito’s that hover around hungrily. Never underestimate the importance of these two items!

Ally Maxwell has an insatiable hunger for adventure; a great food enthusiast, she is eating her way across the globe. She spent her childhood summers in Holland, before discovering parts of South East Asia as a young student. She soon landed in the good ol’ U.S.A as an exchange student, graduated in her Native Scotland, UK, before making her way to Malaysia, where she currently resides. There, she assists her good friends at Borneo Ultimate Sports Adventure Tours, writing for the site and designing awesome tours for clients. 

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What all the girls are saying:

  1. Catia says:

    Great tips that work pretty much anywhere!

    Packing lightly is one I keep having to remind myself and is probably the hardest part of travelling for a shopaholic like myself. I have a constant battle of trying to get rid of stuff each time I repack my backpack.

  2. Elspeth says:

    Fantastic advice, especially #10, the Golden Rule! I try to stock up on Tiger Balm or anything that soothes mosquito bites before traveling. Even with the best insect repellant, I always end up with a few bites after a week or two.

  3. Anne Mayer says:

    Ally, I can’t thank you enough for the blog. I am going to Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand in June and I think I’ll carry a copy of the great tips you’ve doled out on your blog. One thing I have always struggled with is packing light even after years of trying. So instead of a backpack, I usually go with a suitcase that can be parked at the hotel and a daypack for my trips around town.