7 Tips For Travel In Southeast Asia
Southeast Asia is probably the best place in the world for your first extended backpacking trip. The food is delicious, the locals friendly, the beaches extraordinary, the accommodations well-established and the sites varied and unforgettable. You’re likely to return home with plenty of fond memories and incredible photos of Southeast Asia. If you’re considering setting off for Thailand, Malaysia, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, or any other country in the region, keep these tips in mind.
1) Stay Longer in Fewer Places
One of the biggest mistakes I saw was travelers rushing through an itinerary with too many places in too little time. No matter how long your trip is, it’s advantageous to go fewer places, while spending more time in each place. I would also encourage you to take more time than you think you need or want. Chances are you’ll wish you had more time.
On my recent trip to Southeast Asia, I saw one young backpacker who had begun to resent the region. He had been pushing too quickly to “see” whatever it was that he thought he had to see, ran into some unexpected difficulties and got extremely frustrated. Take it more slowly and you’ll have a better trip.
2) Don’t Plan Too Much
Leave room for spontaneity. That’s part of what makes traveling fun. You might want to plan a basic outline of the major places you want to visit. But give yourself plenty of time to absorb the atmosphere of the cities and villages and leave time in case you meet people and decide to do an impulsive side trip.
There’s no need to make reservations anywhere in Southeast Asia. You can just show up and shop around for your accommodation. I traveled for three months and never made one. I had a roof (and an inexpensive one I’ll add) over my head each night.
3) Travel With a Different Guidebook
Everybody has a Lonely Planet guidebook. Don’t buy one. Get a Rough Guide, Moon or Footprint. Lonely Planet channels everyone into the same guesthouses and hostels and that drives prices up. Plus, these guesthouses fill up more quickly. A good tactic is to check out a few guesthouses located around the ones listed in your guidebook. They are usually of the same standard and sometimes cheaper. I also always look at more than one place . Bargain friendly, and take the one that suits you best.
I generally choose my guidebook by the one that has been updated most recently. And remember, if at times of weakness, you are missing your LP, chances are the backpacker on the bus in the seat next to you has one.
4) Avoid Multi-Day Packages and Backpacker-Only Buses
These are designed to make traveling easier. Organizers facilitate border crossings, transportation connections, accommodation and sometimes visas. In my opinion, this takes the fun and challenge out of independent travel. Figuring out transportation logistics is half the battle of traveling. Our detailed guidebooks make it easy enough, anyway. The multi-day packages also keep backpackers together and discourage interaction locals.
Another reason to avoid these packages, as well as international buses and VIP buses, is that you become an easier target for scams. In general Thais are pretty honest people, except when it comes to the individuals running the foreigner-only long distance buses from Khaosan Road to the rest of Thailand. I’ve heard some nasty stories of long delays, stranded travelers and multiple accounts of theft. Best to keep to the normal buses that leave from the bus stations.
5) Travel With a friend; Travel Alone
If you are traveling alone, great, you will meet plenty of people, both local and fellow travelers. If you are traveling with a friend, you will get lots of quality time with that person. Try to structure time away from your travel companion for a couple of reasons.
First, it will give you the independence to experience traveling on your own: meeting new people, making your own mistakes and choosing your own adventures. Secondly, it will improve and strengthen your relationship with your friend/partner when you return to each other. I used this scenario during two different trips with a good friend and it worked well. I also noticed that I have different and richer travel experiences when I’m alone.
6) Pack Light
This is one of my universal travel truth tips. It is always a good idea to pack as light as possible. Remember, you’re carrying everything on your back. Carrying less will obviously be lighter and increase your mobility, but it will also make getting in and out of transport, and to and from your accommodation easier. There’s really no need to take more than three or four changes of clothes.
If you’ll be working from the road or are a serious photographer, you might have a decent amount of equipment (extra lenses, external storage devices and laptops). But, most of us can just hit the road with a medium-sized backpack and small personal bag for valuables. I generally put nothing of value in my backpack. Although crime and theft in Southeast Asia is very unusual, I still want peace of mind when I throw my bag under or on top of the bus. And if your backpack is small enough, you may be able to carry it on with you, including during your flight, which could also save you money.
7) Avoid Burnout
If you’re going to be traveling for more than two months, you’re going to need to recharge your batteries. Everybody does this in his or her own way. It could be alone with a book, a film, spending a day inside a nicer hotel room, eating comfort food, playing football — whatever.
Know yourself and know what you need to get a fresh perspective of where you are and what you’re doing. I’ve seen travelers get really frustrated and begin to develop animosity towards the country that they’re in at the time.
Author Paul Theroux, in his latest book, suggests bringing reading material unrelated to the country in which you’re traveling. At the end of a culturally intense day in Cambodia, you probably don’t want to wind down by reading a book that takes place in Southeast Asia. Rather, take one that will provide some relief through means of escape.
[All images via the author]
About the Author
Stephen Bugno has been traveling the world for more than a decade as both a volunteer and a wanderer, and is the editor and publisher of the online travel magazine GoMadNomad.com and his personal site BohemainTraveler.com. You can follow Stephen via twitter at @bohemiantrav or on Facebook.