12 Survival Tips for Traveling to South East Asia

From the mysterious Angkor Wat, to the lush rice fields of Bali, to the chaotic streets of Hanoi, making your way through the Banana Pancake Trail is part of the well-trodden path of traveling to South East Asia. The mix of trekking volcanoes, jumping off waterfalls, diving to see coral reefs, and seeing wildlife up close makes traveling to South East Asia a coveted region for solo-travelers. Although a well-traveled region, there are so many unknowns that can hinder you on your trip, so here are some of my top survival tips for traveling to South East Asia.

1. Pack the essentials

When traveling to South East Asia, these are the essentials that have saved my ass one way or another. It is a no-brainer that packing light will allow for easier travels, it is also crucial to make room for your shopping items. Besides the typical selection of toiletries and clothing, passports and visas (get them prior to arrival if possible), these are a list of things that I used the most.

-Charcoal pills/Probiotics
-Veggie/Fruit supplements
-Insect repellent wipes
-Universal adaptor
-Waterproof sandals

-Toilet roll
-Silk travel liner
-Trash bags
-Packing cubes
-Washable laundry net bag

2. Stay healthy

When traveling to South East Asia, taking some basic precautions is vital to staying healthy. Do research on the country you will be visiting before hand, and get the necessary vaccinations needed. Stay clear of tap water for most of the countries in South East Asia, and beware of the ice as well. Tap water can be contaminated and give you an upset stomach, or worse. It is important to keep bottles of water on hand to stay hydrated, and wash off your hands when there isn’t a sink available. 

Taking charcoal pills helped me get through most of my trip to help absorb any questionable food items I may have eaten, or quickly get over any food poisoning.. Incorporating fresh fruits and vegetables in my diet was necessary to staying healthy when everyone around me was catching a cold. I also took veggie and fruit supplements to make up for missed portions on my busy schedule. If you must eat the local street food, and you should, try to choose things that are clearly cooked through. When in Bali, my diet mostly included anything that was cooked in boiling hot soup. 

3. Wear the right shoes

When traveling to South East Asia, the last thing you want to worry about trekking halfway up a waterfall is your feet hurting, or worse, losing your shoes mid-jump. It is so important to find comfortable and strong waterproof trekking sandals that work for both indoor showers and outdoor activities. You want more than regular flip-flops, which does not hold on to your feet, so it would be of no use in water activities since you’d be struggling to hang on to it with your toes. You will already have so much on your plate, constantly bombarded with new faces, strange scents, different languages, completely foreign foods – worrying about foot wear should not be a part of this whole experience. Even if you don’t plan on trekking, or participating in any water activities, it will rain, and getting non-waterproof shoes wet will make them stink. You don’t want to be Stinky Feet McGee, do you?

4. Bring your own toilet paper

The first thing you will probably encounter when traveling to South East Asia are the squat toilets, which is essentially a hole in the ground, depending on where you are. So. Many. Questions. I know. You will learn to hover, squat, or come up with an entirely new way of handling your business. Some toilets are porcelain holes, with no plumbing, so you’d have to scoop water from the bucket provided, and somehow flush it yourself. The takeaway from this is to bring your own toilet paper since most places like these will not provide this luxury. I like carrying a small toilet roll on me at all times. Make sure to dispose of your toilet paper in the bins provided, because their non-flushing hole in the ground toilet will not be able to handle your trash. An alternative would be to do as the locals do, and use water to rinse yourself off without the need for any toilet paper.

5. Bring insect repellent wipes

I like to bring insect repellent wipes when traveling to South East Asia, because I know that I will otherwise be eaten alive. I also don’t want to bring heavy lotions or liquid sprays, because then I would have to take liquid capacity into consideration on my flights. As awful as this is, I have found that only DEET works. The natural remedies might work for locals, or even back home, but listen to me: You are fresh meat in a foreign land. Not only is your meat more delicious, your blood is too. With the DEET wipes, I find myself less of a target, and can spend less time itching miserably through my trip. 

6. Inspect bedding thoroughly upon entry

When traveling to South East Asia, whether you are in a hostel, a hotel, or even a guesthouse, make sure to thoroughly inspect every inch of your bed before laying, or putting your things on it. Getting woken up and bitten by bed bugs in the middle of the night is definitely not how you want to start your trip off. These buggers will burrow, and crawl into everything, and they will feast on you. They are also incredibly difficult to get rid of. You will feel the impulse to just set fire to your belongings at that point. Having a silk travel liner not only keeps your skin away from questionable bedding, it shields you from possible bed bug attacks. Silk travel liners are made so bed bugs are not able to burrow between the fabrics, and will not be able to get to you. You will feel like a mummy, and possibly slightly claustrophobic in there, but it will keep you warm on a chillier night, and it will keep the bugs out of biting the crap out of you.

7. Consider bringing your own utensils or equipment

When traveling to South East Asia, consider bringing your own spork, and snorkels. Many times, you will see that the locals wipe the utensils provided, for fear of uncleanliness. Even giving a can of soda a quick wipe at the mouth of  is typical. Sometimes you might even find yourself fashioning a spoon from a business card if you order take-out, and you’re outta luck, with no utensils are provided. When snorkeling, some companies do provide snorkel gear, but most are mold-ridden, and look about a hundred years old. If you see yourself snorkeling more than a couple times when traveling to South East Asia, I would say that it’s definitely worth bringing your own gear and not having to share all that mouth germs. 

8. Stock up on disposable bags

Plastic bags have to be purchased or are scarce in some countries, so I find it important to always keep a bag on me when traveling to South East Asia. They are multi-purpose, where you can either use them to keep your growing belongings from all the shopping you will do and keep from using more, then repurpose it after to keep all your trash in. It also made for a good way to separate my laundry from my clean clothes. Plastic bags were also useful to keep my wet bathing suit from the rest of my items. 

9. Organize your belongings

When traveling to South East Asia, I like to pack light and organize in a way where I can easily grab my things and go. Of course, this would require excellent organization skills, and I found that having packing cubes for my luggage compartmentalized everything, so I would not have to stress over misplaced items, or if my belongings will fit in my bag. When I am on the go, I like having multiple bags within a bag to avoid being a target for pick-picketers, and I know exactly where everything is. I also liked having my laundry done with my socks and undies in a washable laundry net bag, so no undies get snagged, and no socks are left behind. 

10. Withdraw money at your destination

Cash is king when traveling to South East Asia. Most places do not even have the capability to accept any card transactions. U.S. or European airport exchange rates are terrible, so I found that withdrawing from the ATM at my destination in South East Asia gave me the best rates. I used Charles Schwab to get around the withdrawal fees, and just budgeted to keep from over withdrawing for the time I will be there for. Keep in mind that Charles Schwab will not back your transactions up like a normal bank would, so use it only for withdrawing cash. Also, it is important to note that some ATMs in South East Asia simply will not accept your debit card because it is foreign, or for whatever reason. There are typically several ATMs in the area, so usually at least one would work for me. The biggest thing was getting my bank to understand that I will be jumping from country to country in the coming days. 

11. Don't get templed out

When traveling to South East Asia, you will notice temples seemingly on every corner and street. In Bali, I visited so many temples, that I eventually lost interest in seeing any further. Every guesthouse in Bali was a temple in itself, so as fabulous as they were in the beginning, they got old real quick. Even in Angkor Wat, I thought that a single day pass was enough, and that visiting these temples 3 days in a row would tire me out visually. Every temple, as different and unique as they were, started looking the same. It would be unfortunate to lose sight of this and cram too many temple visits in the beginning, and lose interest in other amazing ones towards the end. 

12. Understand that negotiating is a way of life

I have known travelers to get completely ripped off when traveling to South East Asia simply because they are too shy to negotiate, or feel that is wrong. The art of negotiating is simply a way of life for locals, and often times, you will find yourself literally arguing over 40 cents. Don’t take it too seriously, and have fun bargaining, as it is part of the cultural norm, and see how you fare. It’s a give and take, so start low, and go up from there. If you both feel that it is a fair price, then stop there. These people still have to make a living, but don’t pay much more than you have to just because you are a foreigner. 

Did you find this helpful? Do you have anything to add?
Relevant posts:
The Bangkok Checklist
The Golden Triangle: Three countries in one day
Traveling ethically in Thailand

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