Ten tips for first time visitors to Southeast Asia
Ten tips for first time visitors to Southeast Asia
For its' size, Southeast Asia is an amazingly diverse place. First time visitors to the region often don't realise just how diverse it is -- until they're halfway through their trip, rapidly realising they've tried to do too much in too little time -- all in the wrong seasons.
So here are ten pointers to help you dodge the most common pitfalls.
1) Read up on the weather
Mainland Southeast Asia is affected by a number of different monsoon seasons. So in July, the sun is shining on the islands in the Gulf of Thailand, Phuket is awash with rain, Cambodia's coast is downright unpleasant and Vietnam's south coast isn't much better. The wet season isn't as bad as it sounds -- expect an hour or so of heavy to very heavy rain on most days. Don't expect all day torrential affairs (though they do happen). The rains also bring out the colours -- and the birds -- Cambodia's Angkor Wat is magnificent in wet season.
2) If your time is limited, do some planning
Asia lends itself to long, open-ended trips -- we came here on a two month trip but ended up hanging out for 12 years (and counting) -- but it's also good for short trips. That said, if your time is limited, do some planning. Your plan doesn't need to be laid out with military precision, but some degree of planning will help.
3) Be realistic with your planning
Mainland Southeast Asia is big and it will take you longer than expected to get around. Distances of as little as 100km can take hours -- and hours -- to cover. Read up online to get an idea of how long it's going to take you to get around. Remember Less is More. Focus on seeing fewer places at a more relaxed pace rather than trying to belt your way around the capitals in no time at all. Unlike Europe, Asia really doesn't lend itself to fast travel.
4) Don't discount flying
Southeast Asia has a bunch of low cost carriers flying a ridiculous number of routes throughout the region. Prices are often cheaper than the price of the cab to the airport. If you've got limited time, you'll often find yourself weighing up a 12-18 hour bus ride vs an hour in the air -- for many it's a no-brainer. AirAsia is the region's number one carrier, others include Nok Air, Tiger Airways and Jetstar. Also look into Bangkok Airway's Discovery Airpass -- but remember it can only be purchased overseas.
5) Don't be afraid of dropping a country
Got three weeks and want to see three countries? Drop one and see two in the same period. You'll see more, learn more and have a better stay -- and best of all you'll be able to save the other for your next trip.
6) Don't get freaked out
For the first time visitor, Asia can be a little intimidating, but don't fret -- it's one of the easiest, friendliest regions of the world to travel in. Use your common sense, make sure you have travel insurance and arrive with an open mind and chances are you'll have a ball. There is a tendency among some to forget to pack their brains when heading to Asia -- like anywhere in the world, an element of common sense goes a long way, so don't forget to pack your brain.
7) Read up on health and safety
That said, it's good to be prepared. Go to a travel doctor before you leave and check up on what jabs you'll be needing. Be wary of a doctor immediately telling you to take anti-malaria pills without asking exactly where you are going -- many parts of Southeast Asia do not have an endemic malaria problem. Do the research yourself if your doctor couldn't be bothered.
8) Pack light
One sixty to seventy litre pack is more than enough for an average traveller. Unless you're planning intensive trekking you do not need expensive jungle boots. Skip dealing with smelly wet socks and instead pick up some durable sandals -- Teva is a good brand. You will not need a sleeping bag, nor a tent (unless you're camping of course). Don't bring half your local library with you -- there are plenty of second hand book shops to stock up in.
9) Learn the lingo
If you're on anything more than a ten hour flight to reach Asia, you'll have plenty of time to get the basic of just about any language down. Aim for the numbers, hello, goodbye and, most importantly -- thank you. You'll be amazed at the difference even the smallest amount of language makes. Travel insurer World Nomads has a bunch of free iPod downloads you can grab for the region -- they include handy phrases like "Don't shoot, the drugs aren't mine!"
10) Remember you're on holiday
Even for repeat visitors, Asia can wear you down. There is an element of hassle -- especially in Vietnam -- that can get a bit overbearing. Don't let it get you down. If it's all getting a bit much, have a day off -- get a daylong massage session, lay on the beach, chill out in a cafe, or just, you know, take it easy. You're on holiday and often all you need is a holiday from a holiday for a day (or two) to get back on track.
It's a fascinating region and even the simplest steps taken beforehand -- be it in the planning, packing or general preparation -- can make all the difference in making your trip a fun and memorable experience.
One last point -- drink a lot of water once you get here -- your body will need it.
Interested in learning more about Southeast Asia?
Travelfish publishes a series of PDF travel guides for travel to Southeast
Stuart McDonald is the Southeast Asia Editor for Wandering Educators.