If you’re traveling to Southeast Asia, there’s a few things you need to expect when traveling around! Like how there’s bleaching chemicals in lotions. Or how toilet paper is sometimes hard to come by (dead serious). Keep reading to check out part 2 of 4 of my backpacking Southeast Asia travel guide: what to expect when there!
In my part 1 of my Southeast Asia travel guide, I went over everything you need to know when preparing for your trip! If you haven’t checked that out, make sure you head back to it to brush up on those handy dandy tips.
For part 2, we’re going to go over all the things you need to expect and what you need to do while actually in Southeast Asia!
Because, OMG, if you’ve never been to Southeast Asia before or anywhere like it, it’s going to be like another world.
(And hey, the culture shock might hit hard — like it did to me when I visited Bali for the first time — but it fades and then you’ll be on your merry way towards a spectacular adventure!)
Anywho, let’s get on with it, shall we?
Side Note: If you’re still on the hunt for a great backpacking pack, head over to this post on the best vegan travel backpacks and bags to find the perfect one!
WHAT TO EXPECT WHEN BACKPACKING SOUTHEAST ASIA
A world of its own, albeit a strange one, if you’re traveling Southeast Asia soon, here’s a handy dandy list of what you should expect when there, tips for handling the daily comings and goings of this region, what to do to stay on top of things, and more. First things first…
1. Weather is unpredictable
Unfortunately, it’s not all sunshine, rainbows, and perfect tanning days. Southeast Asia has pretty unpredictable weather, especially if its monsoon season (which isn’t terrible, BTW, unless you’re on an island).
Also, depending on where you’re traveling, do your research on the hottest month because holy heck, you will not stop sweating bullets. But on the upside, it can be cheaper if you travel during offseason.
2. Squat Toilets are the Norm
Whether you’re at a busy train station or in the rural countryside on a bus ride, squat toilets are everywhere.
I recommend you start doing some squats to prepare your legs for the rough road ahead… because hot damn, squat toilets are hard to sit over while doing your business while also simultaneously trying not to touch the thing (because, ew).
And because these things are abundant all throughout Southeast Asia…
(Since squat toilets and questionable pooing areas are the norm, I always keep a bit of hand sanitizer on me! Here’s my favorite natural hand sanitizer; it even comes in a reusable glass bottle!)
3. Always ALWAYS Carry Toilet Paper
Make you always have toilet paper on hand, because many toilets aren’t actually equipped with it! Not to mention, there’s no paper towels either (but surprisingly, many public toilets have soap), so you might want to dry your hands with it.
Plus, if you desperately need to do the dirty in the middle of nowhere (praying you never have to experience this) you’re gonna want TP.
4. Buses Will Always Be Late
If you like things that are on time… Southeast Asia isn’t the place for you! But if you’re A-Okay with things running on what’s creatively called “Thai Time” (as nothing’s on time in Thailand), then you’ll do great here!
On the other hand, if you book a bus through your hostel, the mini bus or car that’ll pick you up will likely be on time but the actual bus won’t… so keep that in mind!
5. Rent a Scooter
…but at your own risk! Scooters are thrilling and fun but with that fun comes the risk of having an accident.
With that said, most accidents in Southeast Asia are due to scooters and motorbikes (and foreigners not being able to drive them correctly). But hot damn, these things are fun!
So when traveling Southeast Asia, definitely give one a go. Just make sure to rent one in an easy to learn destination, such as a laid back island in Thailand or in the serene town of Vang Vieng, Laos.
One other thing regarding scooters…
6. Always Take Photos of Rental Scooters
This is a key tip for Southeast Asia! Always always always take photos of any motorbikes or scooters you rent before taking off from the rental place.
And make a big scene of it too — make sure they see you taking photos of it so they know they can’t scam you when you return it.
One major scam in this region of the world is making foreigners pay for scooter damage that was already on it beforehand. Thus, make sure you can prove that little dent or the teeny scratch was there when it was handed to you!
(While a cell phone does the trick, carrying a small, good quality camera works exceptionally well! Plus, you can take some beautiful photos your friends and family will drool over 😉. You can find the camera I use here.)
7. Learn the Language
Now, hear me out — I’m not telling you to go and learn the entire language but it’s helpful if you can learn a few phrases here and there.
Knowing how to say hello, thank you, and any dietary preferences you might have (such as being vegan) goes a long way and can really help you get by in a foreign country.
8. Watch Out for Bleaching Chemicals
If you run out of any lotion, body wash, sunscreen, and even deodorant, watch out for bleaching or skin-lightening agents. While so many travelers want to get their tan on, locals want to get paler.
So just lookout for ingredients called sodium hypochlorite (which is a liquid form of bleach).
9. Learn to Love the Bum Gun
One thing is for sure — when traveling Southeast Asia, you’re going to learn to love the bum gun… a little spray device hooked up next to the toilet that helps you clean, ya know, your bum.
And my oh my, what a magical little device it is. I assure you, you won’t need to learn to love it, you just will.
When you have a stomach ache after some questionable street food and end up not having toilet paper, you will be thankful. Trust me.
10. Temple Burnout is Real
This is very common and it will probably happen to you. With the thousands (literally thousands) of temples throughout Southeast Asia, you’re going to see a lot. And after your 10th, 20th, and 30th temple, they’re all going to start looking the same.
To avoid this as much as possible, make sure to switch up your itinerary a bit. Go explore nature or head out on a hike. Come back to temple hopping another day if you’re not ready to see one again.
(To make entering temples seamless, make sure to always carry around a light, easy-to-pack cardigan or shawl! I like this one and this one.)
11. Brush Up on Your Bargaining Skills
Bargaining at markets and local street stalls is a common thing to do in Southeast Asia, so make sure you get good at it!
It’s both the norm and expected from travelers, and it can be really fun, too. You can even score some awesome souvenirs and local knick knacks for a good price!
12. Poverty is Everywhere
Unfortunately, since many Southeast Asian countries are not the richest, you will see poverty. Whether it’s an old man sitting on the side of the street asking for change or a cute kid begging you for money, poverty is abundant.
On that note, never — ever — give money to begging children. Why, you ask? Because when the children bring home more and more money everyday, their parents see them as a source of income and won’t send them to school.
Even worse, some mafia gangs hire kids to go around raking in the dollars and end up taking most of it anyways to buy drugs and shit like that.
13. Don’t Plan Things
Seriously. Now I might sound like a crazy person and those type A personalities are gaping at me, but hear me out.
When backpacking through Southeast Asia, you’ll likely meet a lot of other cool travelers… and you might want to hang out with them for more than just a couple days.
Thus, your plans will change. So instead of having to decide between canceling a hotel room or hanging out with that cool group of friends you just met, just plan things a few days in advance to stay flexible!
Plus, there are so many hostels in Southeast Asia that you won’t even need to book a bed or room in advance anyway! You just show up and book in then and there.
14. Watch Out for Bugs
Since Southeast Asia is so god damn hot and humid, there are tons of ugly, gross bugs. Mosquitos, spiders, beetles, cockroaches, and copious amounts of creepy crawlies are everywhere.
So make sure to pack enough bug balm! I like this one, which comes in a reusable tin container.
15. You Can’t Drink the Water
…unless you really want to get sick. Unlike the United States, UK, or Canada, water is not safe to drink when traveling Southeast Asia. In my opinion, brushing your teeth with it, but drinking it is another story.
And while others will tell you to buy only bottled water, I prefer to go the environmentally-friendly route by packing along a filtering water bottle, which I mentioned in part 1 of this backpacking Southeast Asia guide.
16. Get Ready to See Some Strange Things
This is one place in the world where you’ll see some strange ass things on the streets, in the shops, the countryside, and everywhere else.
On my first trip to Vietnam, I was greeted by a full on dead whole pig on the back of a scooter. Whoa.
But that’s totally normal. You’ll also see roasted bugs, rats scurrying through trash, people pissing (and shitting) in the street, full sized refrigerators on the backs of scooters, and more.
You’ll also likely experience vomit-inducing smells, especially in Bangkok. But hey, that’s Asia!
17. You’ll Need to Cover Up
Most countries in Southeast Asia follow pretty conservative religions, so make sure you either cover up or have the right clothing packed along to cover up, such as a kimono or sarong, so you can enter temples and whatnot.
This is especially true when traveling to Southeast Asia beaches. While it’s totally normal to sunbath or swim in a bikini, don’t go walking around in town with just that on.
And on that note, don’t go topless.
While traveling the Gili islands back in March, I saw two girls completely topless on Gili T. Now I’m all for body positivity but when this kind of behavior is happening on a primarily Muslim island where it’s totally disrespectful towards their religion, it makes me pretty upset.
So, don’t be a dick when traveling. Cover up when necessary.
18. Don’t Be Afraid of Street Food
While you might want to keep meat intake to a minimum (or none at all, as it’s more sustainable), due to its higher chances of not being fully cooked, street food is usually pretty safe to eat!
Not to mention it’s incredibly cheap and delicious!
In Thailand, try some pad Thai or papaya salad (my fav!); in Vietnam, give the Bahn Mi a go; and in Cambodia, order up some Kralan — which is sticky rice in a bamboo stick roasted over a grill!
19. Tuk-Tuks are Everywhere
And they are totally awesome! While many tuk-tuk drivers will try to scam you, they can be incredibly affordably and are really fun to ride around in.
So, when traveling Southeast Asia, make tuk-tuks your primary way to get around a city or destination (when cheaper than Uber or Grab).
Speaking of scams…
20. Agree on a Price BEFORE Getting into a Taxi
A popular scam in Southeast Asia is taxi drivers telling you to get in and that they have a “good price, good price” but then charging a ridiculous amount when you arrive.
Even worse, some taxi drivers will take you halfway to your destination and make you pay more to take you the full way! Crazy.
(Tip: if that happens, just get out! And go find a reputable taxi driver.)
21. Roads are Chaotic
I’ll never forget the first time I landed in Southeast Asia. I’d just arrived to Bali and hopped on the back of my couchsurfer’s motorbike… only to go head on into the wild, wild world of Southeast Asia traffic.
He fondly referred to it as “organized chaos.” And I’d have to agree.
While traffic laws are hardly followed and the roads are filled with motorbikes and cars flying by, these guys know what they’re doing!
22. Temple Etiquette
At most temples in Southeast Asia you’ll be required to take your shoes off. It’s common etiquette and gives you a taste of local life.
Additionally, as mentioned earlier, it’s required to dress appropriately; females need to have their knees and shoulders covered and guys should have their shoulders covered (because hey, females knees are totes seductive, right? JK! Be respectful.).
23. Stay Away from Animals
Stray animals like cats and dogs roam free throughout many Southeast Asian cities, as well as wild monkeys. Do not — seriously, do not — pet these animals (no matter how tempted you are!).
Many have dealt with physical abuse or torture in their lives and might get defensive if you come up to them with a hand wide open.
And don’t forget that monkeys are wild animals, too — they don’t want to be pet any more than you. Plus, they’re more vicious and scary than cute.
(Tip: Keep your possessions in check around monkeys, as they like to steal things!)
24. Be Prepared at Airports
Unfortunately, you will be swarmed by locals at the airports. Whether they’re wanting you to get in their taxi, stay at their homestay or hotel, or even go on a tour with them, you will be approached.
So, just be prepared to have this happen outside airports. Either have a game plan or be ready to stand your ground.
25. Stock Up on Azithromycin
Unlike many Western countries where you have to have a prescription for Azithromycin, it’s widely available to purchase in many Southeast Asia countries (check the local pharmacies).
Azithromycin, being an antibiotic that fights off any weird things that might be lurking in your gut, is a stronger version of Imodium. It doesn’t help with the watery poos as fast but it helps in the long run when things aren’t digesting right.
Personally, I had to take Azithromycin after traveling through Southeast Asia after about a month and a half. I ate something that wasn’t right and then consistently had painful cramps after eating any sort of meal — no matter what it was.
26. Toilet Paper Stays Above Ground
Contrary to great sewer systems in Wester countries, Southeast Asia doesn’t have the best. Things get clogged easily and thus, you can’t flush toilet paper down the loo.
Most of the time, there will be a small garbage basket next to the toilet where you put it after wiping (don’t forget to spray with the bum gun when you’re done!).
27. The Friendliest Locals
No matter where you turn, you’ll find smiling faces in Southeast Asia. They’re the nicest locals and will seriously go out of their way to help you!
Once a group I was with got lost on some motorbikes while trying to find a waterfall in the Vietnam countryside.
As we were parked on the side of the road looking at our Google Maps, a local walked up to us and asked where we were going. We said the waterfall and showed her the map… she then proceed to hop on her own motorbike and said she’d take us there! SO NICE.
28. Always Keep Your Calm
I know, I know. How cliche would it be for me to say “keep calm and travel on”? But seriously — always keep your calm.
In the handful of times I’ve traveled through Southeast Asia, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a local yelling or freaking out. They’re just genuinely placid and peaceful people.
So, if something doesn’t go your way — such as a bus is late, someone tries to scam you, or you get lost (which will happen) — just take a deep breath and move on.
Ready to read more of this awesome Southeast Asia backpacking travel guide? Head on to my part 3 of 4 — how to stick to your budget and save money while in Southeast Asia!
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