15 Things Everyone Should Know About Backpacking in Southeast Asia
We could have avoided obvious adages such as “Those who do not travel read only one page” or “To travel is to take a journey into yourself”, but why dispense with them when they’re the most powerful truisms you’ll ever hear? For many people, the Southeast Asia experience will go down as one of the greatest interludes of their lives.
Actually no, ‘interlude’ is the wrong word—it implies something absent from our everyday reality when—in actuality, these are the days we live for.
And while we’re certain you will absolutely treasure the backpacking trail, that’s not to say it’s necessarily easy or stress free. As with anything good in life, it is an imperfectly perfect experience, and practice makes perfect. Our intention is for you to avoid the traveller’s teething stage and hit the ground running. And so, here are 15 things everyone should know about backpacking in Southeast Asia:
1) The travel guide doesn’t always know best
We probably wouldn’t like to go away without our ‘Travel Bible’ as the cult-followers have so affectionately nicknamed it (and just to be clear, we are referring to Lonely Planet here, although you will encounter the occasional rogue with a copy of The Rough Guide instead), but you shouldn’t take everything in it as gospel. Oftentimes we had the impression its writers must’ve fallen into the nearest guesthouse from the dock or bus terminal (a strong temptation when you’re exhausted and haven’t planned ahead). We can offer some clemency on this point, as detailing everything in the rapidly emerging subcontinent must be an exhausting—not to mention impossible—task. But we didn’t feel the need to use Lonely Planet once for accommodation.
And it’s inconsistent. Sometimes it’ll mention well-known scams that operate in certain places, but not in others. The book champions a ‘Top 20’ list of unmissable places to visit near the start. which fails to match up with itineraries for the individual countries—though this, undoubtedly, is down to the myriad opinions of an entire team of writers and researchers. Expect all prices to be more expensive than quoted in the book, even if you’re travelling in low season.
2) When you arrive at a new destination, walk
The tuk-tuk drivers and taxis have learned to exploit weary travellers arriving at the bus/ferry/airport terminal with a predatory price. Ignore them and walk away. It’s almost certain you’ll find transportation around the corner, without the inflated fare.
3) TripAdvisor is your friend
If you’re looking for accommodation, or a restaurant, or anything for that matter, the trustworthy and up-to-date reviews of TripAdvisor will trump anything printed in a book. They’re written by others lucky (or unlucky) enough to have stayed there before. Be sure to leave a review yourself, to help others after.
4) Remember you can get everything you need out there (well, except for carrot oil)
Everything, including over-the-counter prescriptions, malaria tablets, blankets, anything you could possibly need. Except for carrot oil. And you’ll struggle to find really low factors of sun cream (not that we’d recommend using anything lower than 15 anyway). And a lot of the sun cream, you might be surprised to hear, contains whitener—because the trend amongst Southeast Asians is to look as white as possible, and not tanned. But if you search around you should be able to find sun cream without whitener in—though for some reason in Vietnam it was surprisingly expensive.
5) Skype credits are essential
Make sure you have some. For about £10 we made a seemingly limitless number of phone calls back home. You can even ring landlines using Skype. So, when something inevitably happens, something that rudely awakens you from your dream holiday and requires you to phone the car insurance company or the bank, Skype will spare you the astronomical fees associated with international calls.
6) Currency converting apps make life much easier
A good currency conversion app will spare you the complexities of attempting to figure out if 10,000 is in fact a bargain for an ice cream, or any blushes if you accidentally insult with a 300 note tip. We used ‘XE Currency’ ourselves and, with it, you can compare how different currencies are floating in real time. Never again will you have to scratch your head over fluctuating prices crossing the border (and just when you started to figure out Laotian kip, too!).
7) Get used to public transport. Lots of it.
Travelling isn’t all beaches and sunsets. Well, yes, a lot of it is, and that’s brilliant, but there are bus journeys as well. Buses, trains, planes, sleeper trains, sleeper buses (God forbid), boats, ferries, and—if you’re feeling confident—motorbikes. Eventually you will become so travel-vetted that any journey under six hours will feel like luxury. A lot of the scams that come with transportation are unavoidable. Your VIP bus will be replaced with a shack resembling some sort of minivan with no functioning air condition and the driver will be a lunatic—and you can grumble all you want, but everyone will suddenly lose the ability to speak English. Travel agents will just smile and nod and tell you what you want to hear until you hand over your money. Crazy bus drivers may shout at you and refuse you a toilet break (maybe).
Don’t get us wrong, you will get where you are going. Eventually. It may just take an extra five hours—but only because some places in Southeast Asia don’t even have proper roads. There is an infamous ‘Bus from Hell’ that runs from Vientiane, Laos to Hanoi, Vietnam which can take anywhere between 16-36 hours and can involve everything from racial apartheid to the smuggling of drugs.
8) Backpacking is not “a holiday”
It’s much better than that. But sometimes you will check into social media and ogle pictures of a friend currently in Spain, dipping their toes into the pool of a five-star hotel, totally rich in comparison. A moment of madness will have you wishing you were there. But then you’ll shake your head and remember that, even though there’s another three hours on this bus—with dangerous roads and no seat belts or air conditioning—you’re on the journey of a lifetime.
9) Hand sanitizer is the unsung hero
There’s no soap at all those roadside toilets, by the way. Or if there is it’s likely incredibly watered-down and almost used up. Actually, you’ll be lucky if there’s even a basin to wash your hands. Oh and you’ll be eating by the roadside as well, so make sure you stock up!
10) Know the dates of the bank and national holidays
That sleeper train you wanted from Bangkok to Chiang Mai? It’s fully booked because there’s a massive national watergun fight raging across the country (we’re talking about Songkran—which is 13-15 April this year if you’re wondering). If there is a bed available, then you’ll be paying double for it. Prices jump and availability gets limited all over Southeast Asia during holidays, so keep an eye out and book in advance.
11) The weekends come around too fast
The great travelling interlude inverts everything—you’ll love getting up in the morning and, instead of pining for the weekend, you’ll be shooing them away! Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays almost always invite local tourists and extra crowds, and the prices are more expensive. Every time we wanted to book a flight into, say, Malaysian Borneo over the South China Sea, or over the Cambodian border to avoid waiting in line under the hot sun at Thai immigration, our plans had a nasty tendency to fall on a weekend date.
12) Hostels and other travellers know best
Not sure what to do next? Should you try to ascend Mount Rinjani? Spend three days exploring Angkor Thom? Chance an unplanned detour to Myanmar? Hostels are great places for people to mix and swap stories and experiences, and provide invaluable advice. We even changed our flight from Jakarta to Bali, because so many people told us to avoid the Indonesian capital.
13) Most people will help you out
It doesn’t matter if they barely speak a word of English, live in extreme poverty, or stare at you like they’ve just seen an alien (which does happen sometimes). Most people will be friendly and glad to help out if you are lost or stuck.
14) Asia is safer than you think
Looking up travel advice online is a bit like Googling your flu-like symptoms. It never ends well. And while it is helpful (and we would recommend) reading the information provided on the government’s website, too much caution would keep you locked inside the house forever. The older generations, in particular, will think you’re mad, and the media only serves to buttress their concerns. Asia, as with everywhere, requires a bit of common sense to navigate. Keep the same level of vigilance as you would in Britain. Don’t walk down dark alleyways at night; keep an eye on your possessions, and try not to openly and purposely disrespect local culture. Drugs are touted in Vang Vieng, the Gili islands, and Bali—but even minor offences can be punished with the death penalty (so don’t take any). But almost all of the time we felt perfectly safe and relaxed.
15) You can’t see everything
Yes, there’s a volcano over there that literally glows with blue fire at night, but you don’t have the time. Yes, komodo dragons are found nowhere else on the planet, but it’s just too far. Yes, Sri Lanka has just been voted one of the best travel destinations in the world, but it isn’t even on your itinerary. There will always be more to do and more you can see, but you’ve got to go there to come back.