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7 Things I Wish I Knew Before Traveling to Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia is easily one of the most popular backpacking destinations in the world. For many travelers, the region is their first introduction to Asia which means facing a unique set of challenges as well as an undeniable culture shock. Here are a few things I wish I knew before traveling to Southeast Asia.

How Haggling Works

 

I knew haggling was standard practice in SE Asia, but I still thought it seemed rude. Like most Westerners, I’m used to accepting the sticker-price as the general value of an item and I couldn’t imagine arguing with that. From my perspective, haggling seemed like trying to coerce vendors into an unfair deal.

Of course, I later came to realize that I was the one getting an unfair deal if I didn’t haggle. Vendors in SE Asia expect to haggle, and therefore the first price they quote is usually much more than the item is really worth. If you don’t haggle, you’re almost always overpaying. Haggling still sends me into terror sweats because it feels like a confrontation (even though I know it’s not). But I push myself to do it anyway, and I’m even learning to see the fun in it.

You Don’t Need to Book Guesthouses in Advance

I wouldn’t try it at a 5-star hotel, but it’s generally acceptable to haggle over your room rate and you don’t get the opportunity to negotiate if you reserve the room online in advance.

Beyond saving money, I enjoy showing up in a city, exploring a little, and then deciding which area I want to stay in. Not booking rooms also keeps your schedule flexible, which you’ll be grateful for when you fall in love with a place and want to stay for a few more nights, or get a tip about a fantastic city you hadn’t even planned to visit.

There are exceptions – it’s usually a good idea to book a room if you’re visiting a destination during a major event like the Full Moon Party, for example. I also tend to reserve ahead of time if I know I’ll be coming off a long flight, bus, or train ride, because I know I won’t feel like wandering around and haggling over the best price.

Don’t Rush

 

I usually apply an additional 50% rule when estimating exactly how long it will take to get somewhere in SE Asia. If the bus is supposed to take 6 hours, I can reliably add an extra 50% and expect it to take closer to 9 hours. It’s not uncommon for buses to break down completely, and you simply sit on the side of the road until a new bus drives out to pick you up.

SE Asia gets frustrating really quickly if you expect to arrive on time or try to rush around, cramming dozens of attractions in a single day. You’ll have a much better experience if you give your inner control freak a break and let yourself get swept up in the region’s slow pace.

Always Carry Tissues

 

There’s nothing quite like the moment you’re faced with your first squat toilet. If you’re lucky, the stall includes a hose that you can use to clean-off; other times, you’ll find nothing but a literal hole in the ground. I learned pretty quickly to always carry a few tissues in my bag for these situations.

Also, as awkward as it sounds, if you’ve never used a squat toilet before, you might want to consider Googling exactly how to use one. If you’re not sure how to position yourself over the toilet or what to do with that big bucket of water found beside it, then it’s time for some research.

You’re Going to Sweat like Never Before

It varies a little depending on the season, but even during the coolest time of year, SE Asia is pretty damn hot. I stopped bothering with make-up, always wore my hair pulled back, and generally accepted that looking put-together was a losing battle. I often showered twice a day, but I still constantly felt like a sweaty slob.

It’s essential to stay hydrated, and not a bad idea to take a cue from the locals and find a shady place to relax for a few hours during the hottest time of day.

Street Food is Not Created Equal

I didn’t want to admit this at first but: Just because a plate of pad thai is cooked in Thailand, doesn’t mean it’s going to be amazing. I’ve eaten some fantastic meals in SE Asia, but I’ve also eaten an equal number of average or just plain terrible ones. A dish can vary dramatically depending on where you buy it, so just because you don’t like nasi lemak the first time you try it, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try it again somewhere else.

You can increase your odds of choosing a winning street food stall by targeting ones with a line-up. It’s a good indication that the food is decent, and probably hasn’t been sitting under a heater for hours waiting for someone to buy it.

Be Wary of Attractions Involving Animals

It’s easy to get caught up in the thrill of cuddling a baby tiger or riding an elephant, but the sad truth is that, in most cases, the animals involved in these attractions are not being well-treated. I made the mistake of riding elephants when I first arrived in SE Asia because I didn’t know any better.

But when you stop to think about, if an animal is being forced to do something that isn’t part of its natural behavior – like wear a heavy harness for carrying people on its back, or remain sedate for photos– then there’s something fundamentally wrong with the situation.

If you want to interact with animals in SE Asia, it’s important to do some thorough research into the program you’ll be participating in and ensure that you’re supporting an ethical organization.

38 Responses to 7 Things I Wish I Knew Before Traveling to Southeast Asia

  1. thetraveloguer December 10, 2014 at 8:27 AM #

    This is a perfect read for someone who has never been to South-East Asia! I actually have a really similar post drafted, you’ve beat me to it! It’s all so true though, great advice 🙂

  2. Anna December 10, 2014 at 10:28 AM #

    I learned the carrying tissues part when traveling in Morocco and now I always have a pack on hand! I’d be so stressed about arriving in a destination without a place to stay already arranged, so props to you for being able to do that.

  3. Gemma TwoScotsAbroad December 10, 2014 at 10:30 AM #

    Good post, I like your point about go slow – we only had one month and wanted to see four countries (Singapore, Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand) so it was a mad dash at points. Would have loved to have seen Koh Tao but it was another mode of transport away so settled for one week in Koh Samui (settled, haha!) I would also advise get used to dancing girls early!

  4. Michelle December 10, 2014 at 10:47 AM #

    Love this list. I have never been to Asia (except for when I was super young), and these are all great things to keep in mind. I hope I can visit sometime soon!

  5. Ligeia and Mindy December 10, 2014 at 11:13 AM #

    Great list Jessica! Many of these can also be used for other places in the world. we’ve also hated haggling too, but there is definitely an art to it that I can’t say we’ve mastered yet.
    Especially as women, carrying tissues is the best advice!!!! This is great advice for South and Central America as well. And good on you for the advice regarding animals, again which extends itself worldwide. 🙂

  6. Rianne December 10, 2014 at 11:55 AM #

    Tissues, Yes! Haha I always carried them around whilst I was there! The bargaining is something you just have to learn by doing it I think!

  7. Carina Chung December 10, 2014 at 7:32 PM #

    Coming from south east asia (Singapore) i would say your post makes a lot of sense. The point about transport is largely true for the suburban areas of SEA. But visiting the cities/capital of the country (especially Singapore!), transport systems are a lot more efficient and developed.

    These 7 points are such an awesome pre-trip FYI for those planning to do a SEA tour! Haggling is always useful for shopping especially in Thailand! And the point about street food is so important! Many people don’t double check if street food is prepared properly, and end up with food poisoning. Its really common.

    X, Carina

    • Jessica Dawdy December 15, 2014 at 11:42 AM #

      Definitely! The metro systems, in particular, in big cities like Singapore or Bangkok are just as efficient as anywhere else in the world.

  8. Eden December 10, 2014 at 8:49 PM #

    Really good tips you shared, thanks! Whenever I see people traveling through SEA, I always see them with photos petting a baby tiger or riding an elephant — it seems like the big thing to do there for tourists. I agree though, I don’t like when animals are mistreated (that’s probably why I am a vegetarian).

  9. Andrea Anastasiou December 10, 2014 at 9:32 PM #

    Great tips. I’d add hand sanitiser with the tissue suggestion 😉

    • Jessica Dawdy December 10, 2014 at 10:22 PM #

      Good point! I actually usually do have a little hand sanitiser in my bag. Soap in washrooms is a rare thing, plus it’s great before meals.

  10. ustrasse December 10, 2014 at 9:50 PM #

    Thank you for adding the last one onto the list! While I think awareness is growing about animal exploitation in SE Asia, there are still enough people out there who want to have their photo taken with a drugged up tiger or watch elephants performs tricks that the industry thrives. I think that, while we as foreigners have to live with the fact that all animals are not necessarily going to be treated with the same humanity as we strive for in the West, we can also “vote with our dollar” when it comes to tourist attractions that cause unnecessary harm to animals.

  11. Justine of The Travel Lush December 10, 2014 at 11:20 PM #

    Ha, tissues are so key. I ALWAYS carry a pack with me when traveling in Southeast Asia. It took me forever to learn how to use a squat toilet. It definitely pays to look up a tutorial before traveling to the region!

  12. Amélie @ mostlyamelie.com December 11, 2014 at 1:55 AM #

    Great list!! I would add: embrace the bum gun! There is no fresher feeling! 🙂

  13. Melanie December 11, 2014 at 6:05 AM #

    Nice list! Thanks! Good to know about the guest houses as well.

  14. Susanna December 11, 2014 at 7:35 AM #

    I will definitely keep these things in mind. I never really thought about the animal activities before, but having read this I’ll be sure to do some research into what type of activities I go for.

  15. Desiree' December 11, 2014 at 7:49 AM #

    Haggling is a precious skill anywhere! 😉 Des

  16. emikoatherton December 11, 2014 at 11:14 AM #

    These are so spot on!!! The sweat thing – I will never forget that. I stayed in one guesthouse in Thailand with a hair dryer and I was so excited to finally have normal looking hair. That was, until I walked outside. I was back to Bozo the Clown (I have frizzy hair) in five minutes!

  17. becky hutner (@beckyhutner) December 11, 2014 at 12:16 PM #

    I relate to all of these! Except the street food, lol. Every dirty, fifty-cent pad thai I’ve had in Thailand has been amazing but maybe the next time I go, a mediocre one will bite me in the ass!

  18. Sharpey December 11, 2014 at 1:07 PM #

    Haha these are pretty spot on Stephanie. Pastel coloured shirts in Asia did not do me any favours…

  19. HannahontheMap December 11, 2014 at 1:40 PM #

    Nice tips, will keep that in mind for my future trip to SE Asia 🙂

  20. Jessica C. (A Wanderlust For Life) December 12, 2014 at 3:52 PM #

    Great tips! Can’t wait for my first trip to Asia hopefully in the next year. It’s always better to be prepared!

  21. Mohan December 13, 2014 at 8:32 AM #

    I was just planning to visit the South East Asia and was looking for some helpful information. The blog has feed a great stuff to me & will be of great help in my coming trip. Hope will also get some information following your blog about the other parts of the world

  22. Vanessa December 14, 2014 at 6:13 PM #

    This is a very helpful tip. For us travelers, its important that we travel prepared in mind, body and soul. Thank you for sharing.

  23. AJ December 14, 2014 at 6:25 PM #

    Hi Jessica. I’m sure there are a few bad apples, however not all of the animal encounters are bad in South East Asia. I’ve been to several and actually stayed for quite a while and really liked what I saw. The animals (a lot of which have been orphaned or injured in the wild) benefit socially and the conservation efforts gain a place to raise money while educating the general public about the amazing animals they’re protecting. Do you have a favorite “encounter” story?

    • Steph December 15, 2014 at 11:19 AM #

      The Elephant Nature Park has a great reputation, but they don’t make their animals perform or act unnaturally. I think that is an important distinction to make.

    • Jessica Dawdy December 15, 2014 at 11:39 AM #

      Yeah, the Elephant Nature Park is usually the example I give too, but there are certainly some others out there (although none that’s I’d be comfortable vouching for without further research).

      Sadly though, I wouldn’t say it’s a “few bad apples” – it’s the majority. I saw dozens (maybe even hundreds) of animal attractions advertised across SE Asia, and only a very small fraction of those seemed to be dedicated to conservation. Some even have names like “rescue center”, but then you’ll see the elephants giving rides with harnesses or performing tricks and the whole concept starts to seem questionable.

      Again, that’s why research is key; participating in an animal attraction should never be a spontaneous decision.

  24. Sky December 15, 2014 at 10:02 PM #

    Love the list! I feel like most of these could apply to anywhere, not just SEA. I love that you included animal attractions in the list – super important!

  25. Miles of Happiness December 16, 2014 at 7:20 AM #

    Ahahah! Yes South Asia is so special… I love this atmosphere. Your article reminds me great memories. Lovely to read.

  26. Wayfaring As One December 16, 2014 at 10:33 AM #

    Haggling is a strange concept back home and does seem rude. We wouldn’t go to a shop and tell them their price was wrong, but it is expected in SE Asia. I guess a balance of not getting ripped off and keeping the seller happy is what to aim for. Caroline carries tons of tissues everywhere we go! Lastly, it is such a shame that animals are treated they way that they are, and when they are endangered it is terrible. Luckily there are a few animal sancturies out there which truly look after them.

  27. breathingtravel00 December 17, 2014 at 11:38 PM #

    Smart advice, love the “if you’ve never used a squat toilet before, you might want to consider Googling exactly how to use one” – it’s true!! My sister is coming to visit me here in Thailand over Christmas, it’s her first time to SE Asia, hope she won’t be too shocked 😉

  28. theworldonmynecklace December 18, 2014 at 8:25 AM #

    Great tips! I’m going to be heading to SE Asia for the first time (other than a few days in Singapore) next year so will definitely keep these in mind!

  29. Alicia December 19, 2014 at 12:13 AM #

    Jessica, this is brilliant!! I’m actually writing a similar post at the moment for my travel blog, and I couldn’t agree more with what you’ve written!

    I’m not sure i’ll ever walk into a squat toilet without scrunching up my face and wincing!! Tissues are DEFINITELY a necessity!!

  30. Chanel | Cultural Xplorer December 24, 2014 at 5:59 PM #

    Yes! Yes! Yes! You hit all of the things that someone must know when traveling to SE Asia, especially about the tissues. I usually carried two packs on me 😀

  31. Iris Milton December 25, 2014 at 5:48 PM #

    Very useful information and tips, esp. about accomodation and rush! Thanks for sharing. I will bear it in mind till my trip to South-East Asia.

  32. Gezin op Reis (@GezinOpReis1) December 28, 2014 at 10:19 AM #

    Nice read, as a experienced traveller myself I often get asked by people about my tips. However because some things are so logical (like not booking a guesthouse or involving animals) I don’t even think about telling them anymore. Going to send this post to some newby travel friends!

  33. NZ Muse December 30, 2014 at 3:32 AM #

    All bang on!

  34. Victoria a.k.a Girl Tries Life December 31, 2014 at 12:10 AM #

    Oh man! Big time on the haggling – I equally suck at it. I also wish I knew that orderly line-ups just don’t exist. They don’t. I found in Vietnam that if you’re queuing up for a train ticket or something, it’s like going to a bar. Every man, woman and child for themselves!

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