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If you’re planning your first trip to Southeast Asia, be prepared to experience a world of culture shock and a few other strange things that’ll throw you off! Here’s a little list of 15 things that SHOCKED me on my first backpacking trip to Southeast Asia.

Psst. This post contains affiliate links. Read our disclosure.

During the months leading up to my first ever backpacking trip to Southeast Asia, I tried to prepare the best I could for the things I would see, do, and experience…

But truth be told, no matter how many blogs I read (and how many you will read!) or how many YouTube videos I watched of others traveling around the infamous “Banana Pancake Trail“, nothing could have really prepared me.

Now, I know what you might be thinking… then why the F am I writing this blog post?

Because while I say nothing really prepare you for what to come, it’s always helpful and handy to be aware of what you might experience!

Also, although it sounds like this list is going to be packed with a bunch of god awful things, it’s really not!

Southeast Asia is one of the most incredible places on earth and a lot of amazing things will happen to you there (if you’re thinking of traveling to that corner of the world).

Whether it’s trying your first Thai curry (which is a MUST) or seeing your first wild elephant, Southeast Asia is a destination fit for those who want to experience something out of the ordinary.


(By the way, if you’re interested in learning more about traveling through Southeast Asia after reading this post, this book on planning your trip and this book on exploring SEA as a solo female traveler are incredibly helpful.)

Stinky A** Streets

Let’s start this list off with one I really wasn’t expecting… how stinky the streets are! Seriously, OMG.

While you do get some nice whiffs of fried rice or fresh produce that makes your mouth water, the majority of smells in Southeast Asia streets are of rotten food, garbage, and (I hate to say it but) piss.

Truth be told, the waste management system in Southeast Asia isn’t that great so all over you’ll see heaps of garbage and the stench of it really takes over.

Especially when mixed with the suffocating heat and humidity that comes along with this region of the world.

(My tried and true tip? To help keep this raunchy smell in check, I always travel with a couple bottles of essential oils! My favorite is lavender [also great for sleeping!], jasmine, and tea tree. I keep ’em on me and sniff when it gets too overwhelming.)

Everyone Speaks English

This cutie entertained us by “dabbing” and burping on command! It’s a weird world.

What really shocked me when backpacking Southeast Asia was how well everyone either spoke or understood English.

Unless I was in a really remote place, getting by with not knowing the local language was pretty darn easy.

That said, you should definitely invest some time into learning a few phrases of the local language. Such as thank you, please, and any other words/phrases you might need (for me it was telling locals that I don’t eat meat, fish, eggs, dairy, or fish sauce).

I recommend getting the Google Translate app and downloading offline language files so you can have access to a translation tool even when there’s no service or wifi.

How Nice Locals Are

But for reallll, everyone here is so damn nice!

After reading some other blogs on Southeast Asia, I half expected to be scammed at every turn of my backpacking trip. Au Contraire! Nothing could have been further from the truth.

The locals here, whether you’re in Thailand, Laos, or Cambodia, go out of their way to help you in whatever way they can.

For example, while in Vietnam, a group of us rented a few motorbikes and headed out to find a waterfall in the countryside. As you might have expected, we couldn’t find it AT ALL! We were totally lost (even though Google said we were right by it).

A local lady in the small village spotted our confused group and said she could help us! Instead of just showing us on the map, she hopped on her motorbike and drove us to the waterfall!

Seriously. So nice.

Want to read another personal story about how nice these people are? Check out this post on the time I got stuck in the jungle and a Thai couple came to my rescue!

All the Different Currencies

The White Temple in Chiang Rai, Thailand.

Okay, okay, I might be a doofus for this one but can you blame me?

After traveling Europe, where a good majority of the countries use the Euro, I half expected a lot of the countries to use the same currency.

If this secretly surprises you, you’ll be happy to learn that these countries use these currencies…

  • Thailand – Baht
  • Vietnam – Dong
  • Cambodia – Riel
  • Laos – Kip
  • Myanmar – Kyat
  • Malaysia – Ringgit
  • Indonesia – Rupiah

You can also check all the exchange rates on this website.

I Didn’t Get Sick

This was from a vegan cooking class in Chiang Mai, Thailand!

One thing I definitely expected was getting sick or experiencing some sort of stomach bug.

To my relief, I didn’t get sick once! (At least not on my first Southeast Asia backpacking trip — the second trip is another story.)

Although, this might be because I follow a vegan lifestyle and didn’t opt for eating any weird meats or street food! Sure, I ate my weight in pad thai but when you go for tofu, your chances of getting a weird foodborne illness is slim!

(On a side note, if you do happen to get sick, I recommend stocking up on some Imodium beforehand! This’ll help manage your… uh… not so solid poos.)

Poverty is Everywhere

Even with run down homes, broken bikes, and little money, you’ll find everyone in Southeast Asia has a smile on their face.

Sure, I knew that countries in Southeast Asia were considered “developing countries” but it was just a big surprise of how much development they still happening.

Imma just be real with you here: poverty is everywhere.


There’s literally truck fulls of garbage in the streets, seeing homeless people with missing limbs is a pretty regular occurrence, children begging to feed their families, houses with missing walls and doors (with people still living in them), and more.

Thinking back now, I shouldn’t have been so shocked by this but it was just at the level it’s at is what really shocked me.

Heading to Cambodia? Click here to read my post on what to know before going to make traveling there easier!

The Amount of Motorbikes

Yeah, yeah. This is probably another one of those “duh, Sophie” things I definitely should have expected.

Though I suppose it wasn’t necessarily the amount of motorbikes on the streets that shocked me but more so how chaotic everything is!

Wowza. Talk about a headache!

In Southeast Asia, the roads are a bit like a zoo. No one really knows whats going on but everyone abides by the chaotic, almost organizational, rules. It’s a strange world, lemme tell you.

Low Safety Standards

Sure, this bus doesn’t LOOK too bad but you didn’t see the inside…

Speaking of chaotic roads, safety standards are pretty much nonexistent here! I’m talking multiple moments of thinking “OMG I’M GOING TO DIE!”

Bus drivers don’t care about anyone else on the road, motorbikes swerve in and out of the traffic, helmets are pretty much optional, gaping holes in the sidewalk (that some drunk person will no doubt fall into), workers building houses and such with zero protective gear (actually saw a guy welding with no protective glasses), and more.

You get the point. Don’t expect much from safety if you’re backpacking in Southeast Asia. (But hey, it’s all part of the awesome experience!)

Female Sanitary Products are Hard to Find

Finding toilets in the middle of nowhere? Not a problem. Finding feminine products in a city? Surprisingly challenging.

This really shocked me! Things like pads and tampons are damn near impossible to find!

I think it’s getting better now but if your time of the month hit faster than expected and needed tampons ASAP, it’d be really hard to find anything in a jiffy!

(If you’re a female traveler heading to Southeast Asia, I recommend getting a menstrual cup and using that instead! Not only would you not have to worry about finding tampons, but it’s sustainable and produces SO much less waste! This is the one I use here. And you can read a full review here.)

Floor Toilets

Yep. You read that right. Floor f*cking toilets.

Not sure what those are? Well, lemme share it with you… at a lot of the road stop restrooms, you’ll find the toilets are literally just like a toilet seat kinda settled into the ground with a nice big hole and a complementary bucket that’s there to help you sort of “flush” all your excretions with.

Sounds great, right?!

If you’re a female, be prepared to get pee on your shoes (and feet) and maybe do some squats to ready your legs because holy heck, squatting over those toilets to poo is one heck of a leg buster!

How Easy it is to Get Around

This is a typical sleeper bus in Vietnam — surprisingly comfy!

This is a big one I was so shocked by — it’s SO easy to get around!

Whether you want to take a local bus from your hostel to a local landmark, a 5-hour bus from one city to another, or even a private 3-hour car ride, the options are abundant!

It’s also super duper easy to book transportation, too. Many times you can just do it right through your hostel or hotel!

Psst, in this post on spending a month in Vietnam, you can find out the best ways to get around!

ATMs are Abundant

Even in the mountainous town of Sapa, Vietnam, you can effortlessly find an ATM!

But for real, unless you’re heading out on a multi-day backpacking trip or going to an off-the-beaten path, remote destination (or sometimes an island), you’ll have a pretty easy time finding ATMs.

Thus, there’s no need to hoard cash like it’s going outta style.

Flights Aren’t That Cheap

Peek-a-boo, I see you Bangkok!

Unlike Europe, where flights can literally be a tenner (aka $10), flights to get around Southeast Asia aren’t that cheap! I think the cheapest I paid for a flight was around $60 for a one-way ticket.

So, if you’re planning on traveling Southeast Asia, make sure to factor flight prices into your budget! Because you’ll likely be surprised at what they actually cost.

(Psst, if you want to know what sites I personally use to book cheap flights, check out this post!)

There’s No Need to Plan in Advance

We booked this fantastic hostel in Ubud the day before we arrived!

One of my favorite things that shocked me in a good way about Southeast Asia was that there’s not really any need to plan things in advance!

Especially when it comes to accommodations. There are literally hundreds of homestays, hostels, hotels, guesthouses, and more in like every popular Southeast Asia destination.

Plus, one great thing about this aspect is that it gives you the freedom to stay or move one when you want! Cool, right?

Lots of People Get Hurt

Yep, I was one of those people. This was after a motorbiking accident (thank goodness I was wearing a helmet!).

… and it’s mostly backpackers.

After spending nearly 4 months in Southeast Asia on my first backpacking adventure (and now nearly 7 months collectively after this last SEA trip), I can wholeheartedly say that out of all the people I saw who were injured, they were pretty much all foreign backpackers.

That’s why it’s SUPER important to always:

  • Wear a helmet (!!!).
  • Stay alert and aware.
  • Don’t do anything stupid (like cliff jump in a weird place).

(While we’re on the topic of safety, in case you do get hurt, always get travel insurance. This’ll not only come in handy if something happens, but it’s also great if you lose your bags, have something stolen, a flight’s delayed, etc. My favorite travel insurance is World Nomads.)

If you’re thinking of traveling or planning a trip to Southeast Asia, I hope this little list of things that shocked me when backpacking here for the first time!

It’s a wildly incredible part of the world and you’ll no doubt love every aspect of it — craziness and all!

Are you backpacking Southeast Asia soon? Or would you like to backpack Southeast Asia? I’d love to hear any thoughts or questions from you! Stick ’em down in the comments section!

Sophie xx

Not sure what to read next? How about my post on spending one day exploring around Ubud, Bali?

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