Southeast Asia Travel Tips
Christina and I left for Southeast Asia on March 6th. We flew back home on November 12th. At just over eight months of travelling you start picking up on what does and doesn’t work.
Pack light. No seriously pack very light. Budget airlines in Asia have very strict weight limits for baggage.
For men use underwear like these that are quick drying and can be washed and dried overnight in a hotel room. I survived on 3-4 of them.
Favor clothes made from a quick drying material. Cotton takes a long time to dry in a humid climate.
Bring a laundry bag to keep your dirty clothes in.
Bring gallon sized zip-lock bags. If some of your clothes do get wet, it helps keep the rest of them dry.
My backpack was a 70L Osprey Bag. It only just fit on an overhead bin. Consider a slightly smaller bag.
Laundry can be done on the road fairly inexpensively. On average we paid $1/kg. An average weekly load for the two of us was 3kg. Expect hand washing and hang drying. Dryers are exceedingly rare. Usually took 1-2 days for clothes.
I survived on one pair of trekking shoes and one pair of flip-flops.
Sarongs may not be the most manly things but they are invaluable. Mine has acted as a towel, a bed sheet, a scarf, padding for my camera to name a few. You can get them for cheap everywhere in Southeast Asia.
You can stay dirt cheap. Especially if you are OK with dorm style. Even if you are not a private room can be had for $10 or cheaper in most places.
You do however get what you pay for. Expect to pay more for each amenity such as hot water and air conditioner.
During a particular area’s high season finding a budget room can be stressful. Also more expensive. For example we were in Indonesia during high season and struggled to find anything for less than $20/night on the Gilis.
A lot of budget places do not provide top sheets or a blanket, towels, shampoo/soap or toilet paper. Which reminds me, always have a toilet paper roll in your day bag.
Many of the best options do not have a web presence. So don’t expect to be able to book everything on Agoda.com or booking.com. Sometimes you just have to show up and look at your options in person.
In general if we felt uncertain about a place (i.e there is no well known backpacker’s area in a big city) we would book the first two nights via Agoda.com and explore other options while there.
Squat toilets are common in muslim areas.
A tasting of some of our accommodations:
Obviously it varies from country to country, but in general it is very easy to get from place to place.
Buses are almost always the cheapest option. Buses vary in range from luxurious recliners to “oh my god get me off this thing”. Safety is not a top priority.
In general when booking with a large bus liner prices are non negotiable. When booking with small tourist agencies prices are always negotiable.
Budget airlines are WAY cheaper than flights in the USA. Jetstar/ValuAir is to be avoided at all costs. Tiger is hit or miss as is Lion Air. AirAsia is the by far the best.
Philippine Airlines deserves its own bullet point for being the very worst run airline I’ve ever been on. Seriously, get your act together guys.
Budget airlines will nickel and dime you to death. Sure the base price may be $30, but it costs another $30 to check a bag and $8/person to pay by credit card (no joke).
Most of the airlines have a combined weight limit of 7KG for carry on. On all but one flight (darn you Singapore Airport) we got away with bringing our 15KG/person of baggage on. Check in online, be friendly and act like your bags are light as a feather every time you see an employee.
We bought almost all of our flights 2-3 days prior. Some we bought the night before. Budget airlines seem to play less pricing games.
If you have time, sign up for a Charles Schwab Online Checking Account for no foreign ATM fees.
The best exchange rate is almost always via an ATM machine or via credit card (90% of places will not take credit cards though or will charge an additional 5%, so don’t count on it).
Unfortunately most smaller merchants won’t accept the large bills ATM machines spit out. Find a 7-eleven and buy a bottle of water to break your bills.
Some smaller locations (and all of Myanmar) do not have ATMs so plan accordingly.
Being overcharged simply because you are a westerner is common. Try to figure out (by talking to people, hotel staff are a good place to start) how much things should cost.
I always carried $100-200 in USD just in case I couldn’t get to an ATM or the only one on the entire island breaks (I’m looking at you Gili Air).
Smile. Be friendly. You will have a far more enjoyable time and people will be far more welcoming.
Do not lose your temper or show your frustration. There will be many, many times when it is easy to do both. Simply smile and walk away.
Very few prices are not negotiable. More often than not the same exact thing can be bought from 10+ vendors. Negotiate and shop around.
Be super friendly and joke around with the merchant when negotiating and remember they will tell you anything to get you to fork over you money. Be polite but take everything your told with a grain of salt.
Don’t buy from children. Doing so only encourages child labor and keeps them from school.
Embrace cultural differences rather than becoming irritated by them. It sounds easier than it is.
Customer service is non-existent so don’t expect much. Tipping is rare.
Try to space out your mainland and beach trips. Two months straight on a beach might sound appealing, but I promise you that after 3 weeks you will be begging for big city amenities.
Plan minimally. For each new location I briefly browse www.wikitravel.org. It helps to be aware of the scams of the day, the best transport options and where you are likely to find budget accommodations.
Try to get off the beaten path. If you stick to the touristy areas you will miss the best parts of travelling.
Be flexible. There are places we planned on staying one day but loved it and stayed 4. There are places we were disappointed with and left early.
Get travel health insurance with emergency evacuation coverage. Its cheap and worth every penny (hint: remove trip cancellation coverage and see your policy half in price).