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Before our trip to Southeast Asia this year, we certainly did our research, from what to wear and pack to where to stay and go. However, traveling and being there for three weeks really taught us quite a few things on our own. So we’re here to talk to you about these key things to know before traveling to Southeast Asia.
1. You will lose a day going if you’re coming from the West.
Thanks to the International Date Line, and you know, the world is spherical and the way it rotates around the sun, when you fly to Southeast Asia, you can kiss a whole day goodbye. Yes, it will throw you off a little and it will feel strange talking to your family back home when you’re a day ahead of them.
2. Squat toilets are a thing, but you probably won’t have to use one.
Okay, unless you’re going really off the beaten path, or if you’re doing super-budget hostels and hotels, it is unlikely you’ll be using one these days. We went to several places and even hole in the wall restaurants outside of the main parts of cities still had western toilets. Even going to Elephant Nature Park we expected a squat toilet but they still had a western toilet. Most of the hotels, restaurants, malls, temples now have western toilets. We did see some squat toilets in more off the beaten path places, but there were stalls next to it with western toilets as well.
3. However, you may need to bring your own TP and hand sanitizer.
Much like frat house parties, toilet paper isn’t always supplied. Neither is soap. And these restrooms don’t exactly have body wash in their shower you can steal if needed. So my advice is to either bring a pack of tissues with you or take a stash of toilet paper from your hotel out for the day. Also, pack some hand sanitizer in case there isn’t soap.
4. Speaking of toilets, there are bum guns everywhere, and you’ll wish we had them at home.
Okay, on the topic of toilets, next to every single one will be what looks like the same water squirt gun that you have for washing dishes at your sink in the kitchen. It’s called a bum gun. And it’s used for, well, cleaning things up after you go. It may seem weird at first, but as soon as you start using it, you’ll wish you had one at home.
5. Don’t drink the tap water.
Most of the tap water isn’t safe for drinking here. A lot of hotels do provide bottled water for your room to use, but you can also head to a 7/11 and buy bottles of water for the day. Even for brushing your teeth I would recommend using bottled water. For washing hands and showering, though, the tap water is fine.
6. Bring a first aid kit.
We do this with every trip, but it’s always a good idea to pack a first aid kit with basics like band-aids, antibiotic ointment, alcohol pads, ibuprofen, cough meds, anti-diarrheal, exlax, antacids, Dramamine, etc. We ended up using everything but the cough meds on this trip so I highly recommend packing these items. Also, it may be hard to pick these up while there, or at least interpret what it is, so just bring some with you.
7. Get your vaccines!
Before big trips, always either talk to your doctor or visit a travel clinic. Some vaccines that we got were Typhoid, Hepatitis A, flu shot, and ensuring that we were up to date on our routine vaccines. The CDC also recommends rabies, so if you’re going to be dealing with a lot of animals, it may be a good idea to get. We did not as it was very expensive and we didn’t plan to touch many animals. Typically, you will get prescribed a round of antibiotics and anti-malarial too to take with you.
8. Pack Insect Repellant and Sunscreen.
While we didn’t encounter too many mosquitos while we were there in November, except for the islands, they can be pretty bad in some areas. Also, while you can take anti-malarials to prevent getting malaria, dengue fever is a mosquito-borne illness that is much more common there and very serious. And as there isn’t a medication to prevent catching it, the best you can do is to not get bit. We absolutely loved the Badger Balm because 1) It wasn’t liquid so great for a carry-on, 2) it’s made with all-natural ingredients like lemongrass and eucalyptus and no deet, and 3) it actually worked! We also recommend Sawyer’s Controlled Release Insect Repellant too. It does have deet but it is a lotion rather than a spray so it’s safer to apply and lasts all day.
9. Bring a scarf or pack a modest outfit.
Many of the temples throughout Southeast Asia require modest dress. This means covered shoulders and knees (and sometimes ankles). You can either pack a scarf or sarong to help cover up when needed, wear linen pants that keep you cool but cover you up, or wear a maxi dress.
10. Grab is better than Uber.
Grab is a service much like Uber, but it also includes tuk-tuks, scooters, and cars! It’s a great option to get a ride, especially if you don’t want to flag down a cab.
11. Be prepared to negotiate.
Whether it is for cab fare with a tuk-tuk or your souvenir, be prepared to negotiate. My advice is to cut the asking price in half and end up settling somewhere in the 75% range. Usually, prices are inexpensive anyway, so paying full price isn’t the worst either.
12. The food is SO good!
Okay, you were probably expecting this, but the food is amazing! I haven’t found a pho I’ve liked yet at home, but in Hanoi, it was fresh and delicious. The bahn mi is unparalleled with rice flour in the bread making it so soft and chewy. The fish amok in Cambodia is perfect in every way, and you can’t find good red, yellow, or green curry quite like they do it in Thailand. Also, khao soi! Why is it impossible to find this amazing dish outside of Thailand, especially Chiang Mai?! Okay, there is some, but not nearly as amazing.
13. You’re going to sweat… a LOT!
Okay, we went in November, which is almost their “winter” time. It literally snowed at home, while it was 90 degrees Fahrenheit throughout our trip. We washed our clothes twice because it was hard to re-wear shirts after sweating in them all day. Definitely pack light and airy clothing. And bring a lot of deodorant. I also highly recommend getting a hotel with A/C.
14. Chafing is real… no matter your size.
Okay, thigh chafing is a thing if you don’t have a thigh gap (so like a lot of people, including myself)… but also anywhere you sweat because it’s so f&@#$*ing hot outside and you have pieces of clothing that rub your skin (i.e. your bra). My advice is to bring more than one bra, place panty liners or toilet paper or anything absorbent against that part of your skin, and pack either body glide anti-chafing or extra deodorant. I know it’s a TMI but nobody talks about this and I wish I had known!
15. If you’re not on a beach or at the pool, cover it up.
Southeast Asia is not a place for topless beaches, and you shouldn’t be prancing around in only a bikini or swim trunks outside of places where you’d actually swim. I remember walking into the open-air restaurant right next to the beach in Koh Lipe, and one of the employees handed me a towel to subtly hint that I needed to cover up. Be respectful, and pack a cover-up or extra shirt to throw over your suit.
16. 7/11’s are everywhere, and they are great.
Yes, this is the same 7/11 we see here in the states. No, they aren’t gas stations. Instead, they have everything you could need from toiletries to coffee, to even cheap beers. Want to save money on alcohol? Head there and grab beers for less than a $1 and enjoy in your hotel.
17. Try the local beer!
Okay, wine here is not a thing. They do import wine, but it is super expensive, so I wouldn’t recommend it. Instead, try the local beers! We liked Singa in Thailand, Ha Noi beer in Hanoi, and Angkor Beer in Siem Reap. Yes, we tried Chang in Thailand but it wasn’t our favorite.
18. Food is cheap, like really cheap.
We’re talking like meals at a sit-down casual restaurant in the heart of the Old Quarter of Hanoi for $6 for two. This includes 2 beers, an appetizer, and two full entrees. It is also $1.50 for a big bowl of khao soi in northern Thailand. Yes, food is seriously so good, but seriously so inexpensive. During our food tour in Hanoi, the guide asked us how the pho was at home and if we go out to eat a lot (as many people do there since it’s so cheap). She was shocked that pho back home costs $10 at a restaurant when it’s only $1 in Hanoi. So eat up, and be surprised at how much money you’ll save.
19. Buddha is not a souvenir.
This is common sense, right? It’s a religious item that is to be respected. Not placed upon a bookshelf or stuck in a garden at home. Unless you’re Buddhist, having a Buddha around doesn’t really make sense. And in Thailand, it is actually illegal to ship or export Buddha out of the country. Trust me, airports will stop you. We purchased a wood carving from Cambodia that wasn’t Buddha and we got stopped at airports in Thailand to make sure it wasn’t that. Ironically enough, vendors do try to sell you them left and right. Don’t buy them. There are plenty of other souvenirs you could purchase here like Thai silk or wood carved elephants.
20. If you’re doing carry-on only, be sure to pack light.
Throughout Southeast Asia, there are discount airlines like Vietjet, Nok Air, and Air Asia. Many of these have strict carry-on baggage limits. Most of the time, it is 7kg, or roughly 15pounds, for a carry-on AND personal item. So be sure to pack light or check your bag. I asked several people before our trip how strict these airlines were and many people said very. We had no trouble and they didn’t weigh our bags at all in Hanoi, Siem Reap, or various parts of Thailand, but I don’t know if this is the case for the rest of Southeast Asia. Therefore, pack light or be prepared to pay.
21. Be wary when choosing elephant sanctuaries.
Many places claim to be an elephant sanctuary, especially in Thailand. However, many are not. It is sad that this is still a problem, but riding elephants is bad for their delicate backs. Asian elephants are meant to have rounded backs and riding them actually flattens their back causing problems. Also, many elephants used in riding are abused. So be wary of places claiming to be sanctuaries. My advice: if it says you get to ride an elephant- stay away. They aren’t looking out for the elephant’s best interests.
22. Don’t fall for scams in Bangkok.
Throughout our travels to Hanoi, Siem Reap, Chiang Mai, Koh Lipe, and Bangkok, the only place we didn’t feel the safest and really had to watch our bags was Bangkok. Scams are everywhere. The biggest ones are “The Grand Palace is closed today,” where an overly friendly Thai person who speaks perfect English will chat you up and let you know this before convincing you to let him show you around for cheap, but then stop at a tour agency or jewel shop and push you to buy things. There are also tuk-tuk drivers trying to have you buy gems to get a kickback, taxis parked outside your hotel trying to charge outrageous prices, and more, especially if you’re going into the seedier parts of the city to do some seedy things.
We were almost scammed while in Bangkok and walking to the Grand Palace. We were about a half mile away when a guy with an army hat came out of one of the empty police stands and started chatting us up (overly friendly and spoke perfect English). He pulled out a map and started circling the places to go and gave us the map for free. While he was chatting, I was starting to feel like it was a scam and told him we were going to continue our way and thanks for the info when he tried to get us to take a cab. As we were so close to where we were going, and catching on to his antics, we firmly declined and went about our way.
23. The Grand Palace actually does close.
Ironically enough, while the“Grand Palace is closed” scheme is one of the most popular schemes in Bangkok, it does close occasionally. The day we ended up going we saw that it was in fact closed for the Royal Ceremony of Changing the Costume of the Emerald Buddha from Rainy Season to Winter. It closed at noon at we were there at 12:05 pm. Bummer. The palace does close 4 days a year and closes early a few select days too, so check the dates online for when you want to see it ahead of time to ensure it is open.
24. Go to Halong Bay now before they ban overnight cruises.
We have no idea when this will actually happen, but overnight cruises to Halong Bay may be banned eventually. It’s a shame, but with over-tourism, it’s probably for the best. If you want to see these beautiful mountains in the water, I suggest taking a cruise to the more remote part of the bay, Bai Tu Long Bay, and do it sooner rather than later.
25. The people are warm, friendly, and all-around amazing.
Other than the scammers of Bangkok being a little too friendly, the people overall are amazing! They seem so happy and smile a lot. And everyone tries to help you if they can. Chat some of them up! One of our best experiences of our whole trip was going to a hole in the wall bar in the middle of Koh Lipe’s jungle and hanging out with the owner for an evening. We were the only ones there, and he was the most interesting human we had ever met.
And a bonus just for fun: You’ll have the best time!
Yes, there are many things to remember, prepare for, and pack, but you will definitely have the time of your life! Southeast Asia is a gem from food, to people, to some of the most gorgeous scenery I’ve ever seen. So what are you waiting for?
Are you planning to visit this part of the world? Would you like to visit or have you already been? What did I miss on this list? Let me know in the comments!