21 Essential Travel Tips for Southeast Asia
So the time has come, after months of saving, planning and packing for your Southeast Asia trip, Its finally time to leave home and embark on what will undoubtedly be a trip of a life time that you wont soon forget.
Southeast Asia is a land of wonders filled with some of the most beautiful scenery on earth, centuries old monuments, amazing beaches, colourful and vibrant festivals and some of the nicest locals you’ll ever meet.
But before you head of for that trip of a life time its important to be prepared and not be an ignorant traveller when it comes to stuff like visas, local customs, scams and a multitude of things you might encounter on your travels. So here is our list of our essential travel tips for south East Asia.
Comprehensive travel insurance would have to be number one of this list. Anything can happen whilst on the road, be it cancelled flights, lost baggage, natural disasters situations, being robbed or god forbid a medical emergency. Getting comprehensive travel insurance is so important, you can get a basic cover for cheap which will cover you for just the basics, but think about spending a little more and get full cover which will leave you with peace of mind if something unexpected may happen.
Getting the appropriate visa for the country you are travelling to is also so important. We have seen it so many times while travelling in Southeast Asia, people arrive at the arrivals hall and haven’t realised they need a visa to travel there, get refused entry, have to return home and their trip is ruined.
Some places in Southeast Asia like Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore have a 30-day visa exemption/visa on arrival for most nationalities, but if you plan on staying longer you will have to apply for an extended stay visa from the consulate at home before you leave. Places like Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos require you to apply for a visa before you leave home. These can be done online from a multitude of visa websites. Most of these are 30-day tourist visas or multi entry visas. If you plan on staying longer though some of these can be extended whilst there, but some will require you to cross the boarder and re-enter on a new visa. So don’t get caught out and know what you need before you arrive.
It’s a cash economy
Going anywhere in Southeast Asia you will need to carry cash. Nowadays in some of the more popular tourist destinations credit card and eftpos facilities can be found, its still not common place and if they do you will be likely be charged a 2-3% surcharge on your bill. If you’re travelling anywhere outside of these areas or into more rural areas only cash will be accepted. It’s also important to not just carry big bills and to carry some smaller denominations. A lot of store keepers will refuse you service if your try paying for something really small with a big note.
Having USD will come in handy
You may think this is a strange one to add to the list but don’t get caught out. A lot of countries like Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos will only let you pay for your visa in USD at the airport and at boarder crossings. We recommend always having at least $50 USD on you in these situations. Also if you run out of local currency and there isn’t an exchange store close by some stores and hotels will let you pay in USD.
Know the local customs
There’s nothing worse than seeing travellers that don’t respect the local customs and beliefs. A lot of places in Southeast Asia are Buddhist, Hindu, Catholic or Muslim. While its ok for you ladies to wear a bikini while on the beach and guys to walk around shirtless, when you leave the beach cover up appropriately. These countries dress very modestly and see it as disrespectful when you don’t. This also goes for when visiting religious monuments like temples and shrines, no shoulders or chests are to be visible, knees should covered and always take off your shoes before you enter.
Always stay calm
This refers back to the local customs, but NEVER loose your cool and raise your voice. It is seen are highly disrespectful and a way of “loosing face” by the locals. Yes there will be times when you get frustrated but just count to ten and take a deep breath, yelling and getting all worked up isn’t going to get you anywhere here. Just speak calmly and work things out peacefully.
The drinking water
You can’t drink the tap water in Asia like back home. 7-11 is going to be your best friend with their giant fridges of ice-cold water, it’s cheap and can be found everywhere. But don’t fall for the trap of buying small bottles you can carry around in your bag. Buy the big 6 litre bottles they are way more economical and then just have a small refillable bottle that you can carry around with you while you’re out and about.
Wi-Fi and local sim cards
Never use global roaming whilst you’re travelling in Southeast Asia. The local sim cards are readily available from any convenience store with great-prepaid plans that include local and international call plus incredible data. The coverage is great and you can always be in touch with everyone.
Another thing is Wi-Fi is almost everywhere from restaurants, cafes, bars, hotels, airports, buses, trains and even some tourist towns have Wi-Fi on the streets. So never fear you’re never going to be out of touch.
Be aware of local scams
For the most part Southeast Asia is one of the safest places you can travel. But just like in the rest of the world there are those unfortunate few people who like to ruin it for the rest of us.
Some scams are common place in Southeast Asia like and they can be from anything from being overcharged for a taxi, being given the wrong change at a store, being sold a tour that isn’t what its made out to be, renting scooters, being told an attraction is closed and being coaxed into going somewhere else, being asked to pose with the locals and then being asked for payment afterwards and even being given fake money at exchange.
Our best advice is to firstly always do your research on where you are going, get to know the local currency and check your change twice, agree on the fare of your taxi before getting in and to just always have your whits about and not be complacent.
Get to know the local currency
It’s so important to get to know the local currency you’re using. A lot of Asian currencies are in either 100 or 1000 denominations and a lot of them look very similar. We have fallen into this trap early on in our travelling when we paid for something and get our change back, later to realise we had gotten short changed. This also falls into the scam category, but for the most part local shopkeepers are the loveliest of people and really honest and when you’ve given them to much money they will give you the proper change.
Its also a good idea to either have a currency exchange app on your phone like XE Currency or to simply have a rough idea of what the exchange rate is day to day so you don’t overpay for things.
Get used to bartering
Bartering for things are commonplace is Asia so don’t be afraid of it. It’s a weird thing to do at first but once you get the hang of it, its really fun and you’ll never get over charged again. You can do it almost everywhere from markets stalls, fruit vendors, tours, local taxis and even some hotels. Places like restaurants, cafes and proper stores in shopping malls its not allowed though.
When you get started the person giving the price will start of quite high, then it’s a game of cat and mouse with you returning with a lower amount and then usually meeting somewhere in the middle. If that doesn’t work and the price is still to high don’t be scared to just walk away. When you do the shop owner will usually run after you and agree on your price.
Don’t get stressed out and just go with the flow
If you travel through Southeast Asia enough you will notice that most things happen at their own pace. In places like Thailand the locals call it Thai time.
Things like buses and trains sometimes arrive hours late, delayed flights, slow restaurant service and a multitude of things that we in the west just expect to always happen promptly.
Just don’t get stressed out and let it ruin your time. Just go with the flow things will happen in good time and just let it be part of the adventure … you’ll laugh about it all later on.
To tip or not to tip
In most parts of Southeast Asia tipping isn’t mandatory. But one thing to remember is that people here are usually working 1 or 2 jobs with low pay and very long hours to support themselves and usually some other family members back in their home provinces, so if you do get good service be generous and leave a tip. Karma is a good thing.
One tip for tipping though is, we personally give the individual the tip and not the restaurant just to make sure that the tip goes all to them. They are usually very grateful and will remember you for next time.
AirAsia is the way to go
There are so many local airlines to choose from but from our experience AirAsia is our number 1. They’ve won best low cost carrier for 10 years running and for good reason. They are really cheap, hardly ever delayed, make regular flights to almost every area in Southeast Asia and the service is top notch.
A good tip when using Air Asia is to download the app and become an AirAsia Big Member. This way you will be given discounts on baggage fees, seat selection, meals and the best part is you will be alerted 24hours in advance and given first pick of all their sales. Their sales are amazing as well; we have gotten international flights back home to Sydney for as low as $190 and internal flights for $9.
Renting a scooter in Asia is usually at the top of so many people’s lists when they first arrive on holidays. They are a lot of fun, easy to get around, cheap to hire and you can run of your own time.
But just be aware that in countries like Thailand, Vietnam and Bali you are required to hold a motorcycle licence or at the least an international drivers permit. If you get caught you will usually have to pay a fine albeit small but we have heard of friends getting the scooter confiscated and good luck of ever getting it back. Another thing is some scooter hire places are known to scam people by saying you’ve damaged the bike or in some cases coming at night, taking the bike and making you think its stolen, then making you pay to replace it.
Also if you do have an accident and you don’t hold a motorcycle licence back in your home country then your travel insurance will more than likely not honour the insurance, leaving you out of pocket for hospital bills and repairs to the bike.
Bring your own sunscreen and insect repellent
It might sound ridiculous but these two items are SO expensive in Southeast Asia. They can be found at all supermarket and convenience store if you run out but be prepared to pay through the nose for them. Be smart and bring your own from home.
Grab Taxis vs. Local Taxis
Grab taxis are going to be your best friend for getting around. They’re cheap, reliable and really safe. They work just the same as Uber back home; you download the app and put in your pick up point and destination. In some areas they even have Grab motorbikes and they are even cheaper. You can pay in app with a credit card or pay cash its up to you.
Local taxis are good as well but some have been known to scam tourists. If you are going to use a local taxi here are a few tips. If it’s a metered taxi make sure the meter is switched on and make sure its not ticking over to fast, if it’s a tuk tuk or unmetered taxi ALWAYS agree on the fare before getting in and lastly if your driver asks you if you’d like to see his friends shop on the way always say a firm no. Some drivers get commissions for taking tourists to gem stores or leather good shops.
Know what seasons you’re traveling in
Travelling through Southeast Asia can be done at all times of the year but just be aware of what season you are coming to. Asia isn’t always hot and humid, in some parts of Vietnam like Hanoi and Sapa it can be bitterly cold in December and January with temperatures dipping to as low as 5degrees.
Most travellers choose to come in the peak seasons which is usually the dry season and temperatures are pretty consistent, around 30 degrees. Most people are put off when travelling in the wet season though because they think it will be raining all day, but it’s quite the opposite most of the time.
Travelling in the wet season can be great. Prices are at their lowest and you can get some amazing deals on hotels and tours, everything is lush and green, and yes it will rain but only briefly with a big downpour around 3-5pm that never lasts long. Plus once everything has dried off its time for dinner and a drink and the rain has cooled everything down so you can enjoy the cool breeze at night.
Always eat local
You can’t have a trip in Southeast Asia without trying the local food you’d be a fool if you did. It’s cheap, it’s delicious, can be found anywhere at anytime of the day and one of the best way to get to know the local culture.
Don’t be scared of the street food and the local restaurant its some of the best food you’ll ever eat we promise. You might think their hygiene practices are questionable or that chicken has been out in the sun to long, but if you just eat where the locals are eating you’ll be fine. The locals know where is good and where is bad, so if you see a shop full of locals or a long line of people jostling to put their order in at a food cart then get amongst it and enjoy.
Don’t get stuck in the tourist areas
Yes by all means go and see all the things on your list of attractions you want to see. But after you’ve seen all the temples, pagodas and historical monuments go explore some of the not so popular places. These are often some of the best and most memorable places you’ll visit. It could be anything from seeing some local markets, walking around a local suburb away from the tourist hub, taking a bike out into the countryside or visiting a temple that’s not on the travel guides. These places will be quiet, relaxed and you will get to see the local life of where you’re visiting.
Get to know the locals
This has got to be our all time favourite thing to do when travelling in Southeast Asia. They are some of the warmest and welcoming people you will ever meet in your life, from hotel staff, taxi driver, restaurant workers, the cleaning lady and even kids on the streets.
A lot of locals like to talk to you to practice their English skills, especially the kids. Some are just curious about where you are from and what your life is like back home. But take some time out of your day and sit and have a chat even if the language barrier is a challenge. Sometimes you don’t even need to have a conversation; there are so many ways to communicate even without speaking.
We have made some lifelong friends from some of the people we have met travelling here and look forward to seeing them each time we return. So with all that being said go and enjoy your trip here in Southeast Asia, it is going to be one of the best times of your life and a trip you won’t soon forget. This place has something about it that will get you hooked and you will want to return to time and time again.