SOUTHEAST Asia is one of the most culturally diverse and cheapest travel destinations in the world, but before you go here are some handy tips that I picked up after spending just over three months gallivanting around.
Top ten tips Southeast Asia
1: Embrace the bum bag
Yes, they look very dorky but they can become your best friend when travelling – honestly. I met quite a few bum bag converts on my travels who swore by their handiness, and no they weren’t middle-aged Americans. Keeping your money out of sight and close to you can keep you safe from thieves on the lookout. Bag snatching is known to happen and if you keep all your cash and cards in one place you might end up out-of-pocket. Ladies should be careful carrying a handbag, especially if it is crossed over your body as drive-by thefts do happen and you could end up being dragged onto the street and hit by a motorist. If you insist on a handbag or backpack why not wear a bum bag as well and split up your personal belongings between the two.
2: Look all around before crossing the road
Sounds pretty obvious but taking extra care could save you from being hit. Drivers in SEA drive everywhere and road rules always go out the window. It might be tempting to gun it across the road and hope for the best but walking across slow and steady will give drivers the chance to weave around you. One-way roads aren’t one-way, people will drive around roundabouts in the wrong direction, footpaths might as well be another lane and there usually aren’t any green men telling you when to cross (and when there is motorists still go). I was caught out on a one-way road in Siem Reap and got hit by a scooter going the wrong way (surprisingly I escaped with only a few scrapes, bruises and a bit of shock) so please be careful out there. The best tip I can offer is stick close to locals and cross with them.
3: When a deal is too good to be true a scam will usually follow
There are lots of scams going around, but don’t worry they aren’t contagious and you can avoid them. A common scam involves transport; travel shops and hotels can offer cheap transport around cities, between towns and neighbouring countries for next to nothing. If you do find a really good deal just be aware that it might involve a few stops to shops or restaurants along the way. Transport companies can have deals with shops to bring people there and you’ll be expected to buy something. I had a bus trip from Bangkok, Thailand to Siem Reap, Cambodia where we were taken to a restaurant and separated into groups before being taken into an office where they discretely bullied travelers to buy a Cambodian Visa from them. Luckily I already bought mine online so they left me alone. On the Cambodian side we were told to exchange money from a specific (their friend’s) exchange shop, taken to another restaurant, then locked on the bus while our luggage was unloaded (which gave taxi / tuk-tuk drivers the chance to get ready to pounce). So even though it was cheap, what should have been a six hour journey ended up taking around 12 hours in total. Also be aware that you can haggle down the price of a trip before booking it. On our bus some people had paid a lot to be scammed while others had paid very little. These scams can be very well orchestrated with many people involved, staff presenting themselves formally in suits and they can use psychological techniques to convince you that they are on your side. To my dismay I saw one traveler thanking the scammers and even giving them a tip! So it does work and they will continue doing it. I guess the old saying “If it’s too good to be true it probably is” really applies here so if you do end up in a situation similar to this just have your wits about you and even though you might be part of a scam you don’t have to be taken for a ride.
GET INVOLVED: Markets are the perfect place to try out your haggling skills. Photos: Sara Greig
4. Don’t be afraid to haggle
The first rule is never agree to the first price offered. Secondly, don’t feel cheeky and go low with your offer in reply. Markets are a great place try it out and retailers expect a good haggle as it is normal practice. They might look offended at your offer but this is all part of the haggling game. A Vietnamese woman who works in a market told me that she starts selling a T-shirt at US $24 but can go as low as US $2 and still make a profit. She suggests offering as low as 10% of the retailer’s initial price and come to an agreeable value from there. It’s also about finding a price that you and the seller are both happy with. At the end of the day you are most likely still getting a bargain and they are trying to make a living. Top tip for dealing with sellers that won’t budge on price is walk away! They will often drop their price dramatically. It’s all good fun!
5: Write down any allergies
A handy idea for those with allergies or intolerances is to write them down in the local language. I’m allergic to peanuts and carried a small card that simply said “No peanuts I’m allergic to peanuts.” So when the language barrier hits you can just show them the card. You can use Google Translator for this or ask your hotel staff to write it down for you when you are overseas. If it is a food allergy you should also learn the word(s) for your allergy so you can try spot the item on menus.
NO TEARS: Make sure your notes aren’t torn or you might not be able to use them.
6: Take some US currency
Vietnam and Cambodia deal in USD as well as Vietnamese Dong and Cambodian Riel respectively. Although local currencies are easily used, carrying a bit of USD is handy because it can be used in both countries (no need to withdraw money straight away) and when crossing borders in SEA fees can be paid in USD. You can get USD out at a bank while travelling but plan ahead as banks are usually closed on the weekend so if you are crossing a border during this time you will have to exchange money with a tout near the border for a less desirable rate. Bear in mind that there is the mentality that US bills and local notes in both Vietnam and Cambodia should be undamaged. Notes that are too creased or have been ripped may not be accepted. Some locals inspect notes thoroughly and simply won’t take them if there is any damage. Same goes for you if you are given a note in change that is ripped – don’t accept it as you might not be able to pass it on.
7: Bring medicines / treatments from home
If you are going away for a while you should think about taking any medicines / drugs from home. Chemists in SEA are everywhere and sell most common drugs and antibiotics (without prescription), however if there is a specific medication or treatment that you like I recommend bringing this from home. Most chemists in SEA will hand out drugs too easily and often without any advice as to whether it agrees with other medication you might be on. Also if you like more natural based medicines or take vitamins these can be very hard to come by so stock up before you leave. I had cystitis while away and asked the chemist whether they had any alkalising sachets (a common remedy in NZ) but they didn’t know what these were and suggested I take antibiotics. So even if you are usually well I recommend taking any medications / treatments that you have needed in the past just in case.
8. Buy a Swiss army knife
No need to become Bear Grylls and use every gadget in order to hunt and gather, but if you are away for a while it can be very helpful to have a Swiss Army knife (or something similar) to help with simple tasks while travelling. The possibilities are endless…
TOP ROOMS: Million dollar sunset bargained down to NZ $12 a night, Cat Ba island, Vietnam.
9. Don’t over plan
It can be tempting to make detailed plans before you leave and book accommodation or tours, but being open to change is a big part of travelling as it helps you to gain new experiences along the way. One tip is to not book accommodation ahead of time. You can still do a bit of research and find a couple of places you would like to stay in but it is best to turn up and look around. Choose a street where there are a few places to stay and pop in and look at the rooms. Some places can be very different from what they advertise online so if you do book online only book for one or two nights and if it’s up to standard extend your stay once you are there. Also an added bonus of booking in person is that you can ask for a discount or haggle the price down especially in off-peak season.
10. Don’t be overcautious
If you have been travelling in SEA for a while you can often get into the mind-frame that everyone is trying to scam you when in reality locals might just be friendly. Be aware of scams but also be open to chatting with people. Don’t worry too much about food hygiene. Try and embrace street food as it’s the best local food you’ll find and usually the most delicious. Get away from the tourist spots and explore surrounding towns – you’ll have a more authentic experience. Don’t be afraid to catch public buses – they are super cheap and you can often ask the ticket officer on board when you should get off. I caught public buses in Bangkok and there were never any other foreigners on-board as tourists usually get the more expensive tuk-tuks or taxis around the city. Locals waiting at the bus stop were more often than not willing to help if I didn’t know which bus to catch.
Top Ten Tips Southeast Asia…One final tip…
Always carry some toilet paper or tissues with you as it’s not common to see these in public toilets and always have some hand sanitiser on hand (you are your own worst enemy when it comes to catching stomach bugs).
Check out how to eat gluten free in Southeast Asia here.