Southeast Asia has a well-worn backpacker circuit and on the whole it can be quite easy to get around once you know the ropes. It’s an incredible place, but it can also be stressful at times. There were times when I just didn’t feel like being approached by street sellers, or felt exhausted from the overnight buses. There were occasions when I didn’t feel like haggling over a tuk tuk, or when I wanted to be able to cross the street without having to fight my way through a sea of bikes. BUT, it’s a very rewarding experience.
I spent 5 weeks traveling overland through Southeast Asia visiting Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Myanmar, and there are a few useful things I discovered that I thought I would share.
If you’re planning on backpacking Southeast Asia, here are some things you need to know:
Buses take longer than expected
Buses will always take longer than you think in Southeast Asia! Take my bus journey from Vietnam to Laos– it was supposed to take 24 hours but took 36! Always make sure you wear comfortable clothing for these long journeys and make sure that you have all the things you need, because you won’t be able to get anything out of your bag if it’s in the hold underneath. I always put a toothbrush and toothpaste in my smaller bag so that I can freshen up if there are any toilet stops. Speaking of toilet stops- carry toilet paper as most toilets in Asia don’t have paper! Remember to charge all your gadgets before you get on the bus so that they last you for at least part of the trip.
Make sure you have insurance
I saw so many injuries while I was backpacking Southeast Asia. In the party towns like Sihanoukville I would see people with drunken injuries covered in bandages. I also saw a lot of people who had wounds from scooter accidents, and I myself had a scooter accident in Bali a few years ago. If you’re traveling for an extended period of time you’ll need backpackers insurance to cover you for the entire duration of your trip. If you have any accidents, at least you are covered for medical emergencies!
Hand Sanitizer is your friend
I scoffed when my Mum tried to give me a bottle of hand sanitizer before I left home. It would add extra weight to my toiletries I thought, and I never use it when I’m at home. But it was actually one of the most useful things I possessed throughout my entire trip. I would stop at a lot of dodgy toilets where there was nowhere to wash your hands, so having the hand sanitizer was a great thing to have. When you’re on a long bus journey and you stop for food, you can quickly spray some on your hands before you eat.
And so is your sleeping bag…
Night buses can get cold because of the air conditioning, so I found it useful to carry my own sleeping bag to keep me warm. It’s also useful if you’re staying in a guesthouse where the sheets don’t look very clean, and for those nights when you’re stuck in an airport sleeping on the floor.
Always carry some emergency US dollars
When I was leaving a country I wanted to use up all the local currency, but I would often forget that I needed to pay for a visa at the border and perhaps a tuk tuk ride to get to my accommodation on the other side. Having some spare US dollars tucked away in your backpack comes in really useful in these situations. US dollars are widely accepted across southeast Asia, and in the case of Cambodia- the ATMs actually spit out money in US dollars. On that note, you might want to invest in a proper wallet from Joojoobs, who are based in Chiang Mai, SE Asia and make stylish handmade, leather wallets.
Learn how to use the squat toilets
If you’ve never seen a squat toilet then you’re in for a treat. The toilets in Asia stand only a few inches off the ground, and you’re not supposed to sit on the porcelain. Instead you stand on it and crouch down to pee into the bowl. See the hose next to you on the wall? That’s for cleaning your bum. There isn’t any toilet paper, and if you do use it, you must throw it in the bin. See the big bucket of water with a little scoop bowl? That’s for flushing the toilet with.