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10 Lessons from Three Months in Southeast Asia

lessons from three months in southeast asia

The best sunset in Koh Tao

Anthony Bourdain related going to Asia for the first time like finding out there’s a new color you never knew existed and I feel the same way. It’s overwhelming and surprising and always a little bit stressful. There’s constantly something new to experience, from the bizarre looking fruits like dragon fruit and mangosteen to the first time you use a squat toilet. So here are my lessons from three months in Southeast Asia. I don’t know that I would have done it any differently knowing what I know now.

1. Always have toilet paper and hand sanitizer on hand. Otherwise you’ll have to use a bucket of water or hose, which takes a bit of learning. You also may have to pay for TP. Toilet paper doesn’t get flushed, but deposited in the trash. Squatty potties are standard. Learn to use them quickly, as you won’t have much of a choice.

2. Hostels aren’t always the cheapest accommodation. I’m used to staying in hostels as the cheapest option in Europe and Australia. But since there were two of us traveling together, it made more sense to stay in cheap hotels for $20 altogether than 2 dorm beds elsewhere. Some of the hostels cost almost $10 per night, which seemed high in comparison with other options in the region. Check out all your options before making a decision.

3. Take malaria pills at night. After a few weeks feeling nauseous at breakfast after taking my Malarone, I switched to taking them before bed. I also should have looked into which varieties of malaria tablets cause which side effects or interact with other drugs. Just be sure to remember to take them!

lessons from three months in southeast asia

Sharing the road with cows in Mui Ne

4. Nothing runs on time. Trains, planes, buses, the opening and closing times of embassies. It doesn’t matter. Everything runs at least 10 minutes behind schedule if you’re lucky. Don’t schedule close connections for anything during the high season because odds are you won’t be able to make it. We booked two flights in Bangkok airport within two hours of each other, which turned out not to be enough time even to get to immigration, so we were lucky our flight was delayed.

5. Slip on shoes are best. It’s what all the locals wear anyways, best for taking them off before entering homes or temples. I brought four pairs of shoes, but wore flip flops nearly every day for this reason.

6. Not everything is worth it, despite the hype. I’d heard so many things about what to do in Southeast Asia before we left, but didn’t end up doing a lot of them. While I knew other people had fun at the Full Moon Party, the Castaways Halong Bay party cruise and shooting guns and seeing tunnels at Cu Chi, I wasn’t interested in any of them. Be realistic about what you enjoy, not what you think you should do.

lessons from three months in southeast asia

Bun cha, my favorite Vietnamese meal

7. Ask locals where and what to eat. Some of our best meals all trip were in Hanoi, where we asked the young staff of our hotel where they like to eat. They directed us to the authentic places, not the restaurants with menus in four languages. Most people are excited to show you where they like to eat and especially what you should order. This is also how we got tipped off to bia hoi near our hotel, one of my favorite experiences.

8. People are looking out for you. While there are the occasional scammers and people trying to get something out of you, most locals want you to have a good experience in their city or country and will try to help you when possible. On an all day train, a Vietnamese man told us which stop was ours when the announcements weren’t in English. A group of women harvesting tobacco while we were cutting corn for the Elephant Nature Park offered us their extra green mango. Asia has taught me about the good in people.

lessons from three months in southeast asia

Tuk Tuk selfie in Siem Reap

9. Scams are easy to avoid if you prepare yourself. I read up on scams specifically in Vietnam and Cambodia and I was worried it would ruin my trip. Thankfully, I had done enough research that there were few times I was upcharged or scammed outright. Some people may try to give you a higher price or pull you into their tailor shop, but you can always say no. Learn the scams in advance to keep them from ruining your trip. Most of them concern tuk tuks and tourist attractions that are “closed.”

10. Comfort comes at a premium. You can easily live on less than $30 USD per day in Southeast Asia, as meals are less than $1, but you’ll pay more for higher quality things like hotels, meals, transportation and items. We quickly learned that the more expensive VIP bus was much more comfortable than the cheaper, cramped minibus and that we were happier at the $20 per night hotel over the dingy $3 per night guesthouses.

What travel lessons have you learned from where you’ve been?

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11 Responses to 10 Lessons from Three Months in Southeast Asia

  1. Oliver June 27, 2014 at 3:10 pm #

    Some interesting lessons indeed Caroline. Even though it’s only a tiny fragment of your post, but following words especially struck a chord with me: “Be realistic about what you enjoy, not what you think you should do.” I think it’s a great reminder of discovering places and people (including ourself) rather than “ticking of boxes”…

    • Caroline June 27, 2014 at 8:50 pm #

      It’s been a big lesson to learn for me! I’m glad I’ve finally figured it out though.

  2. Polly June 28, 2014 at 4:07 pm #

    Yes! Toilet paper forever and ever! I even carry some around in my bag in the States, purely out of habit :)

  3. Lauren June 28, 2014 at 6:53 pm #

    Thank you for the awesome tips! I don’t know the first thing about traveling in Asia, but hopefully I will need to know these tips at some point in the future :)

  4. Kt June 29, 2014 at 4:17 pm #

    Hi Caroline,
    Not a blogger, just a travel blog reader here. RE:#6, I applaud you for doing only what you want to do and not doing what everybody else is doing or feeling that since everybody does it you have to too. I am so sick of reading these travel blogs and every person doing the same exact thing. I get somethings that are popular are worth seeing, but I get the feeling that most travel bloggers do Full Moon party, Songkran, Holi Festival, tunnel tours, etc because everybody else did it, so kudos to you

    • Caroline June 29, 2014 at 8:55 pm #

      Thanks KT! I definitely agree!

  5. Nina July 6, 2014 at 6:34 am #

    Definitely agree with you on #6 – do what you like and don’t just follow the hype. That is a tricky one, especially when you meet other backpackers and you’re made to feel you’re missing out – even though for example, a rave on an island surrounded by people off their faces would never be your thing back home yet it should be when you’re travelling? Hmm:-). The scam thing is true too, a lot, and I mean a lot of these things can be avoided by just a bit of research and common sense.
    Great post Caroline (◕‿◕✿)

    • Caroline July 6, 2014 at 10:17 am #

      Thanks for the reply, Nina! I definitely “missed out” on a few things on purpose!

  6. agus February 7, 2016 at 4:31 am #

    Yes! Toilet paper forever and ever! I even carry some around in my bag in the States, purely out of habit :)

  7. Delia @ Asia Travel July 13, 2016 at 6:22 am #

    Some countries in Southeast Asia are more modest or conservative than others. So be aware that it’s often rude to wear shoes into temples, and you should always make sure to wear covered dresses when visiting temples.

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