Everything You Need to Know Before Traveling to Southeast Asia

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Hello Buddha-ful

Even though I’ve been to Asia three times before this trip, Southeast Asia was a whole new world for me (cue Aladdin song). It was hectic, HOT (not in a good way), and proved to be the most challenging part of the globe I’ve ever experienced in my life. Did I mention hot? 🔥

If you plan to go someday and aren’t sure what to expect, you’ll want to be as prepared as possible. Or at least learn a bit about what to expect.

Below are my best tips I’ve kept stored in my notes over the past couple months while making my way throughout SE Asia. I hope they help!

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The Ubers of island hopping in Thailand

Go with the flow.

Don’t plan too far ahead or try to plan every minute detail. Things change, and the unexpected will happen A LOT. However, if you plan to travel during the high season or surrounding very busy events, do your best to plan some higher demand accommodations ahead of time.

Exploring places simply by foot is a challenge.

I never realized how much I rely on public transport when I travel until I came to SE Asia. For the majority of places, there are no trains, trams, or bus system to get around once you have made it to a certain city/town.

Sure, traveling across a country from city to city is simple, but once you’ve actually arrived at your destination, you are basically stuck with taxi and tuk-tuk drivers as your main way of getting around. It is by far the most frustrating thing about coming to this part of the world.

The only way around this issue is if you…

Learn to drive a scooter/motorbike.

You would be AMAZED at how much money I could have saved had I only known how to ride a scooter or motorbike. However, if you truly can’t do it on your own or at all, don’t risk it. The consequences of a crash (which are very common) are not worth it.

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You can tell when I am a sweaty mess when I pose like this for photos, ha!

Prepare to SWEAT.

As soon as you step outside the comfort of your air con room, you’re gonna be drenched in sweat. It’s just a given. Simply accept your fate, wear loose clothing, don’t bother putting on makeup, and go about your day!

Most restaurants/cafes/bars don’t have air con by the way, so expect to sweat in those as well. Yes, it’s uncomfortable, but it’s just the way things are there.

If you want to book transport in advance…

12Go.Asia is a helpful website for reserving trains, busses, boats and flight tickets. Also, AirAsia is a great budget airline for cheap flights. Don’t be afraid to book just because it’s so inexpensive!

For the cheapest food, embrace local cuisine.

If you find a restaurant or cafe and it looks aesthetically pleasing or Instagram-worthy, prepare to pay more money for whatever you order. If you are wanting to find authentic food that the locals flock to, keep an eye out for hole-in-the-wall spots or indulge in food carts along most streets.

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Local Indonesian food never cost me more than $3 per meal

Traveling SE Asia is exhausting.

Don’t feel pressured to try to see every single thing in each place, and don’t be afraid to take days off and just do nothing. I would spend hours in my hostel room just soaking up the air con and watching Netflix, and I regret nothing.

Buy a local SIM card in each country you arrive in.

I can’t believe how long it took me to do this. Instead of hunting for wifi all the time, just buy a SIM card of what country’s local cell phone service and buy enough data to last you the length of your stay.

I’d get mine at the airport to get it over with as quickly as possible, but if you’re patient, you can buy them for cheaper in local shops in town. Just make sure your phone is “unlocked” and they will install the card for you.

Join some Facebook Travel Groups.

My favorite way of gathering info on where to go, places to avoid, hostels to stay at, or things to do was 100% the variety of travel Facebook groups. I joined separate ones for solo female travelers, backpackers in Thailand, New Zealand, Australia and all of SE Asia combined.

There are SO MANY. Simply do a quick search on Facebook, and join the groups that fit your niche and have the most members. Chatting to people before you travel and sharing your plans with others really helped to ease my nerves before heading to a new place.

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Can you spot the tourist?

Don’t worry about not being able to find what you need abroad.

You can shop for everything you need in Southeast Asia. They have it all. Yes, even many western brands that you think you can’t live without.

I packed so many “just in case” toiletries that I ended up never using. Side note: most hostels and hotels provide soap/shampoo/towels too!

The one thing I’ll admit was scarce around Asia? Tampons. Ladies, I highly suggest you look into getting a menstrual cup instead of bringing a bunch of tampons with you on your trip. Plus, it’s WAY BETTER for the environment and your body! The Lunette cup is my preference.

Laundry is cheap, so don’t take too many clothes.

Laundry is so cheap to do in hostels (about $1 US per kilo), and most places do it FOR YOU. All of your clothes get washed and dried and folded all neatly within the day.

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Team Carry-On Only forever

Don’t bring a huge backpack.

I feel like a broken record repeating this, but I CAN’T STRESS THIS ENOUGH. I promise, 40 to 45 liters its enough for SE Asia where you’re going to want to wear as little clothing as possible. I have not met a single traveler with a giant 80L backpack who didn’t tell me they wish they had brought less stuff or invested in a smaller bag.

If you bring an actual suitcase with wheels as your luggage, you’re gonna have a bad time. Not sure if you can do it? Here are my 12 best tips for only packing in a carry-on.

You can check out my full packing list for my 5 month trip abroad here. (Keep in mind, it includes a couple clothing items I needed with me for colder countries like New Zealand.)

Don’t pack any clothes that you really care about.

Nice clothes are very likely to get ruined, and you will be tempted to ditch clothing behind just to get rid of unnecessary weight from your bag. I know this from personal experience!

Add a sarong to your packing list.

You’ll need one to cover your shoulders for temples and in religious places. It’s also a blanket, pillow, cover-up, skirt, and headscarf all in one!

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No knees allowed.

Take a small padlock.

You will need them to secure your backpack when in transit or if you happen to be at a hostel with no lockers. Combination padlocks are the best idea, just in case you lose the key!

Buy a filtered water bottle.

No surprise here, but you can’t drink the water in SE Asia. You can save on plastic as you travel and be able to drink from the tap without fear of getting sick when you invest in a good filtered water bottle.

Bring DEET mosquito repellent and sunscreen with you from home.

It can be difficult to buy mosquito repellent that has a high concentration of DEET in many parts of Southeast Asia, so definitely bring your own. The rare times you do find some in Asia, it’s always expensive (same goes for sunscreen)!

Buy a poncho.

Southeast Asia is prone to downpours. A poncho costs a dollar or two at 7-11, takes up very little space in your bag and will actually keep you dry! Or you can be stubborn like me and bring a rain jacket instead (which I simultaneously use to keep warm on cold flights).

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Welcome to rainy season in Asia!

Don’t set dates in stone.

You might not like certain destinations once you arrive (or certain hostels), so never book more than 2 or 3 nights at once at the same place.

Use Booking.com or Hostelworld.com to book accommodation.

All of the accommodation I booked is easy to cancel through Booking.com, but I found Hostelworld easier to navigate through their app and website. They are both suitable choices!

The main thing I cared about when booking was location, followed by price. As a solo traveler, I would also look for hostels that hosted group activities (like free yoga, trivia nights, a cooking class, or a pub crawl!) or had a great communal area. Always read the reviews!

Book accommodation that offers free breakfast.

Even if it’s just some toast or cereal. The ability to wake up and not feel pressure to go out and search for food right away will save you time and money! Free breakfast is more common than you think at hostels in SE Asia.

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Free yoga at my hostel in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Register for the GRAB App.

Southeast Asia’s equivalent of Uber was a lifesaver when I was trying to get from point A to point B and didn’t feel like searching for a driver and haggling over a price. You can also upload your credit card info, so you don’t have to pay cash!

Download MAPS.ME

This handy app allows you to view maps offline wherever you are in the world, which is perfect if you can’t get access to WIFI or 4G and don’t know where you’re going! Here’s a quick list of the other apps that help me the most while on-the-go.

Keep track of your money.

I did this by using Trail Wallet, a money-tracking app. Unless money is no issue for you, it can really be beneficial to see exactly where and on what you’re spending your money. 

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Trail Wallet is my favorite money-tracking app!

Stash your money in different places.

Having all of the cash you just took out of the ATM in your bag or wallet is risky; what if your bag gets stolen? I keep about a third of my cash on me, and the rest locked up in my backpack back at my hostel while I’m out and about. I also have my passport locked up with my extra cash as well.

Remember to pick up your card from the ATM.

Unlike other countries around the world, when using an ATM machine in SE Asia, the cash comes out first and THEN your credit card. Lots of people are so used to getting their card first, so they forget about it and walk away, only to remember when it’s too late…

Avoid animal tourism.

Don’t ride elephants or go diving/snorkeling where they feed the marine life.I recommend looking into sanctuaries that provide volunteer opportunities to help animals instead of merely just using them for entertainment.

For example: I went to the Elephant Nature Park sanctuary in Chiang Mai, Thailand for old/injured elephants where no riding is allowed. We just observed them and fed them a snack; it was awesome!

Don’t worry too much about the weather.

I was freaking out a bit when I found out part of my trip would be happening during the rainy or “low season” in June. Turns out, it wasn’t so bad! The showers were scattered and usually brought about cooler temps afterward. A couple beach days were ended early, sure, but you just gotta deal with it and move on.

If you’d prefer to travel and avoid most rain, November though February is your best bet.

Don’t forget about the “proof of onward travel” rule!

Most countries in SE Asia will require that you prove you have transport booked leaving their country in the legal amount of time. This can make planning a bit difficult sometimes, but thankfully most flights in Asia can be booked last-minute and still be cheap.

Keep track of your visa end date.

If you stay past the legal amount of time you can spend in that country, prepare to pay a fine!

Treat yo self every once and while.

Whether it be a private room or a nice meal or a rooftop bar with pricey drinks, just do it… even if it’s only one time! It’s good for your sanity and the sanity of those around you. Plus, splurging in SE Asia isn’t THAT much anyway. It will still be cheaper than what you’d pay in the US.

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Rooftop bar in Bangkok complete with the most expensive glass of wine I’ve ever had.

Learn a bit of the local language.

“Hello” and “Thank you” will go a long way! However, the majority of people in touristy places do speak basic English, so don’t fret about communication problems.

Don’t be afraid to haggle.

When buying clothes or souvenirs at a small, local market, never pay the full price listed. They expect you to haggle which is why the prices seem a bit high in the first place!

Avoid traveling during festive seasons.

Your best bet for the cheapest prices is to go during the low season which is like June until November. At Christmas and New Year the prices for accommodation and tours can double, so try to avoid touristy places at this time.

You don’t have to see every single temple.

Trust me, getting “templed out” is a real thing, and there is no need to feel guilty about it. A quick Google search ahead of time will show you quickly which temples you’d like to see and which you’re prefer to skip.

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Ah yes, another temple!

Other random things to note:

 

  • Most of the beds are hard as rocks (not just in hostels).
  • “Bum guns” are a thing and come attached to every toilet.
  • No, you can’t drink the tap water.
  • Check your bed for bed bugs if the place looks sketchy.
  • Certain mosquito bites and bed bug bites can legit make you sick with a fever.
  • Cambodia uses US dollars as genuine currency in addition to their own.
  • The majority of hostels require you pay up front in cash.
  • There are information desks for tourists with tours and things to do literally along every street, so don’t worry about not knowing what to do.
  • In Thailand and Bali, locals are used to tourists, so you won’t be noticed much. Cambodia and Malaysia are another story.
  • If you own a good pair of walking sandals (like Chacos or Tevas), there is literally no need to bring sneakers or trainers (it’s too hot, haha).
  • What to pack in your day bag: cash, poncho, fan, sarong, sunscreen, mosquito repellent, snack, reusable water bottle.
  • If you have a gut feeling you’re being scammed, you’re more than likely right.

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If you’ve been to Southeast Asia, what’s your go-to travel tip?

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