After writing the post on questions about solo travel in Turkey, I decided to make this a series to answer your burning questions about what it’s really like to travel certain areas solo or as a female. In this case, I was traveling Southeast Asia with my sister, but many of the questions still apply. Southeast Asia is one of the most commonly visited places for backpackers, so there’s certainly a trodden trail for you to follow, but there are a few things ladies should know before going to make their trip more enjoyable.
Do I need to cover up?
As with in Turkey, many parts of Asia are conservative in dress for religious reasons. It’s never appropriate to wear shorts and tank tops into temples and many will have robes for you to borrow in order to cover up your shoulders and legs. It’s smart to always carry a scarf or sarong when you’re going out for the day, as I did above at the White Temple.
As it is a very hot and humid part of the world, you’ll see others, mostly foreigners, more scantily clad than locals. In Vietnam, most women cover up from head to toe to keep from getting too tan, but you won’t be expected to do the same in this mostly secular state. In beach areas, you won’t be expected to cover up as much, but it’s respectful to dress normally while walking around town, not just in your swimsuit.
What can I eat that won’t make me sick?
Before we left, the travel doctor warned us that we couldn’t have any lettuce or street food or ice in our water. I laughed it off because I knew it was a promise I couldn’t keep. From the first night in Chiang Mai, I was slurping down my cold beverage with ice. Avoiding street food in Asia is like avoiding carbs in Europe. It’s just not possible to understand the food culture without it.
I will say that it’s best to watch something being cooked than to grab something that has been sitting at a stand gathering flies. Make sure your water bottle has been sealed and wasn’t re-filled. Stick to fruit with a flesh, like oranges and mangosteen. Many times it’s just a gamble either way, as you never know what will make you sick, but you don’t want to miss out on the delicious food. Use your best judgment.
What about the murder on the train in Thailand, backpacker deaths on Koh Tao and poisonings in Southeast Asia?
I’ve heard some terrible things in the news since we got back. First, a young Thai girl was raped and thrown off a train to her death on the same route we took down to Koh Samui. Then two British backpackers were found murdered on Koh Tao. Then there have been poisonings over the last few years from bootlegged liquor or liquor mixed with other things. We got caught in the protests and government curfew enforced in Bangkok. You never know what’s going to happen, so it’s important to stay informed.
Truthfully, bad things happen just about everywhere. The best you can do is be careful and aware of your surroundings.
How can I avoid getting robbed or scammed?
Upon arriving in Phnom Penh, we were told not to carry around our cameras or anything valuable, as theft was a common problem. Purse snatchings and pickpocketing are common, especially in cities like Hanoi, Phnom Penh and Bangkok and especially in big markets. Watch out for motorbikes, which can speed off with your bag.
For this reason, Sammi and I both carried theft-proof products, specifically my PacSafe Slingsafe, which has clasps around the zippers and slash-proof fabric. I also got a Kenu Highline upon recommendation from Jodi, which I used to loop my iPhone around my belt loop.
Most scams are well documented online, so do research about your destination beforehand. Typically anything involving a popular tourist attraction being closed is a scam. Many also involve borders and buying visas at unofficial locations. Also be careful when renting motorbikes, as you may be given a faulty one and then told you must pay for repairs.
This should go without saying, but always be conscious of your drinks. Druggings happen throughout Southeast Asia, especially in buckets. Watch your beer be opened or insist on seeing your cocktail mixed. Watch your alcohol consumption in general, as getting too drunk makes you susceptible to theft, whether male or female. And definitely no using drugs.
What if I don’t speak the language?
Communication in Southeast Asia can be tricky, especially since there’s a different spoke and written language. In big cities, you can usually find someone who speaks English to give you directions. Otherwise, it’s good to have it written down somewhere. Have the front desk at your hotel write down the name of your next hotel or town to show someone.
Learn enough words to know which ones mean bus, train or taxi. Many times, we asked a local on a train about our destination (“Nha Trang?”) and they would tap us on the shoulder when it was time to get off. It’s also smart to have a map to your accommodation saved on your phone.
What do I do about beggars and street vendors?
One of the hardest parts about traveling in Southeast Asia is the bombardment by locals in any given city. “Hello lady, you buy! Motorbike?” You’ll experience it everywhere you go and it may take all your willpower not to yell back “LEAVE ME ALONE!” I started growling at aggressive vendors by the time we got to Vietnam. Keep your head down and avoid eye contact if you’re not interested. Ignore, ignore, ignore.
There are also plenty of beggars, especially children. If a child comes up to you to try to sell you something or ask for money, it probably means their parents have kept them out of school to provide money for the family. I kept my resolve at Angkor Wat and in Hanoi when they actually walked up to your table in a restaurant. It’s hard, but you’re doing the right thing.
Should I go with tours or independently?
Many tour companies run through the area, including BusAbout, Contiki, Stray and more, but it’s easy to do on your own. The backpacker path is well-tread, so you can find lots of resources online on how to see each of the countries by bus, train and plane. You can also search for which companies not to use. You’re almost guaranteed to meet fellow travelers no matter which way you go.
Should I stay in hotels or hostels?
Unlike in other parts of the world, specifically Europe and Australia, hostels aren’t commonplace in Southeast Asia. There are a few, particularly in big cities, but you’ll find more guesthouses and budget hotels. I found that when traveling with two people, they were just as cost effective as hostels would have been. In terms of safety, having your own room allows you to lock up your belongings and should prevent people from coming and going in your room. There’s also someone at the desk who can look out for you if you’re traveling alone. For booking hotels while in Southeast Asia, Agoda is your best option.
What’s your favorite place to eat and stay in Thailand? Chiang Mai is probably my favorite place, despite the fact that I wasn’t into Songkran. The north is super laid back and has so many things to do as day and weekend trips. I loved the dishes there the most, specifically khao soi, and was glad to revisit a Mexican restaurant I went to back in 2010.
What’s your favorite beach in Southeast Asia? Most of the beaches in Thailand and Vietnam disappointed me, as they were strewn with trash and rather dirty, but Koh Tao is the exception. The island takes so much care to keep up the beaches and remove trash that it’s easily the most beautiful beach I saw in Southeast Asia.