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!
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.
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.
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.