by Nathan Fulham,
So you have the tickets, the visas, the injections, the cash and the backpack, all that’s left is South East Asia travel, we present the backpacker’s guide. Southeast Asia travel is an adventure from start to finish with many interesting challenges and cultural conundrums facing you. This backpacker’s guide will hopefully guide you on your way.
Language in Southeast Asia
Don’t worry about not speaking the local languages although trying (and probably failing!) to say a few words to the locals will earn you brownie points. You’ll find most people speak at least a little English and if not you can always gesture. Some of the more isolated places in Vietnam have had little exposure to English which may lead to problems communicating in English so you’ll just need to improvise.
Food in Southeast Asia
Always eat at the markets. In Singapore the Hawker markets offer great food for a fraction of the price of any restaurant. In Thailand, the standard of food everywhere is amazing, the only difference is the price can vary depending on where you eat. Go to the street markets for the cheapest food and best atmosphere. Vietnam has great street food too, but not on the scale of Thailand. Just be wary of the word “chuot” which means dog meat.
In general, most markets have a place to sit down outside. Some even have shows with dancers. You’ll find friendly people who (if none of the signs are in Western script) will ask you what you want and prepare it for you.
In terms of price, you’ll find that you’re paying more than locals but you can’t really complain about that when you consider their average wage. Everywhere in Asia has a “tourist price”. Just ask the price beforehand to avoid any big bills!
Nightlife in Southeast Asia
Depending on what kind of a night you want, I’d suggest the best atmosphere is to be found at the street markets. It also happens to be the cheapest option too. Failing that, in Thailand, you can go to one of the thousands of 7 Elevens they have for bottles of beer or to one of the many tourist bars. In Thailand you can pretty much drink all night whereas in somewhere like Laos everything closes at 11pm (unless you go to the bowling alley where they serve alcoholic drinks all night!!). Nightclubs can be found in the larger cities and tourist hotspots but in the smaller towns and villages the night tends to have a life all of its own and the adventure is you’ll never know where you’ll end up.
Transport in Southeast Asia
Just accept it – taxi drivers are going to rip you off. Just be firm when you hop in a túk túk and negotiate a price first. Never just wait until the end of the journey to negotiate price as the price will have soared. The túk túks in Bangkok are renowned for overcharging unsuspecting tourists. If they make any crazy demands, just stand your ground and say no. Always make sure the taxi turns the meter on. Sometimes they’ll refuse, just get out of the taxi and get another. if the driver can’t understand you (or pretends not to understand), just point at the meter.
Most drivers in Bangkok won’t speak very good English and can’t manage Western script very well, so a guidebook or map is essential with all the streets and names of places written in Thai script beside the English name. Hand that to the driver and there should be no problem.
Buses in Thailand are great. A VIP bus is expensive but a very comfortable way to travel. In Laos it’s more of a pain to travel around because of the poor quality of the roads, on the other hand you do make lots friends on those long uncomfortable trips!
In Vietnam the train is very comfortable especially the soft sleeper where you usually have your own room of four beds and it’s very clean.
Shopping in Southeast Asia
Haggling will become a way of life for you. It’s a well-respected custom in Asia and is expected. But at street stalls and in túk túks, not in restaurants or hotels which will have set prices. The general rule of thumb is that you’re being charged 3 times more than you should be. Start off significantly lower than you expect to pay and work your way up to an agreeable price during negotiations. Add in a bit of humor or local language and you’ll do fine. However don’t take things too far, if you’re not getting anywhere, just start to walk away. Suddenly the price will drop drastically and the seller may even come running after you down the street with a calculator shouting “how much you wanna pay?”. Don’t get too cheeky though – pay what you think is a right amount – don’t insult the person by bargaining too low.
Accommodation in Southeast Asia
Instead of having all your accommodation pre-booked you can take a chance and find a nice guesthouse on arrival at your destination. Lonely Planet’s recommendations aren’t always to be trusted as some of the places selected may cease with bothering to maintain the standard that got them into the guide. You could find a really cozy place around the corner for half the price. TripAdvisor reviews help, but they tend to have a lot of whiners and focus on the negative. Sometimes you can negotiate the price of a room, but only if you’re staying there for a few nights. Only then should you consider asking for a discount. There are rarely standard prices written anywhere in the local guesthouses and hostels, but you will obviously run into fellow backpackers in town and they may have some advice on where is worth staying.
It’s true that you won’t see very much crime in Souteast Asia, but it’s common sense to still be on your guard. Watch out for drive-by bag snatchings in Ho Chi Minh city, but Asia is generally a really safe place.
Money in Southeast Asia
In terms of money it’s advisable to wear a money belt under your shorts with your credit card (VISA) and ATM card. Just take money out in the local currency as you need it. In Laos, maybe take out a lump sum, because ATMs are harder to come by. Also carry a wallet with a little cash in your pocket, that way if you were pickpocketed or mugged you wouldn’t lose everything.
Also pack the mosquito repellent DEET, suncream, zip-lock bags, a general sense of merriment – but don’t pack too much and most importantly have a great time!