Southeast Asia is teeming with life 24-hours a day with its markets, busy waterways, hip cities, flavorful cuisine, spellbinding natural vistas and intriguing mix of cultural diversity. This is a region of the globe everyone should experience at least once in his or her lifetime, but not without being prepared. Here’s what you need to know before traveling there.
Visas rules are relatively lax for most countries in Southeast Asia, especially if you plan on going there for vacation. That said, it is wise to check for sure with the consulate of your destination as to whether or not you need to fly on a return ticket or pay a visa fee for a ticket upon arrival. If you're traveling to Vietnam of Myanmar, however, you may even need to apply for the tourist visa beforehand. It’s also wise to ensure that your passport is valid for at least six months after you touch down in your destination country to avoid any unforeseen administrative hassles.
The cost of living and traveling in each country varies, with Singapore being particularly more expensive than Laos of Cambodia and Malaysia falling somewhere in the middle. Stay aware of currency conversion rates as you spend so that you are not unpleasantly surprised when you check your bank balance. Many places are likely to accept cards, but street vendors, restaurants, and things in more remote locations are not. Keep some cash on you, and be sure to notify your bank before arrival. Note that you will also likely encounter better rates and fewer extra fees if you opt to pay with cash.
The approach you take to using your cell in Southeast Asia will vary depending on your carrier and the country to which you are traveling. While you might have some options for data roaming, the better bet is to purchase a prepaid SIM upon arrival. You can get these in many different convenience stores, shopping malls, and—most conveniently— at the airport. If you do opt for a prepaid SIM, however, make sure that your phone is unlocked so that you’re able to swap out your existing card for the new one. Do this simply by making a quick phone call to your service provider before you leave the country.
Trains, Planes, and Automobiles
From rickshaws to motorboats and taxis to tuk-tuks, expect to take a broader variety of modes of transportation than you are probably used to. This is a defining feature of Southeast Asian travel areas and is something to be embraced. Keep cash on hand to pay your drivers, bikers, and conductors and do a bit of research about going rates and what to expect in order to avoid getting ripped off. Most of these short trips can be arranged once you’re on the ground, and they are typically quite affordable.
The Itinerary, How Much to Prep Beforehand
Prepare yourself mentally and make peace with the fact that if you are not of Southeast Asian descent, you will stand out. Further, we recommend doing a bit of extra research beforehand to avoid major tourist traps. Not only can these be gimmicky and inauthentic, in some places they can be downright exploitive to the local population. Instead, try to get the local perspective as exciting things are happening in your destination. Did you know for instance that Bangkok and Chiang Mai are home to some astounding night markets, or that Kuching has a flourishing tattoo scene based on ancient techniques? Invest in more authentic local experiences, and embrace the ways that cultures are reinventing themselves with the times for a more enriching trip.
What to Pack and What to Leave at Home
Packing lighter will make moving from place to place a lot easier, which is especially key as you’re likely to encounter uneven sidewalks and the need to take myriad different modes of transportation under varying weather conditions. Therefore, a backpack is a better choice than a suitcase with wheels. Bring breathable clothing that can stand up against both heat and humidity. Note that most people, even in the hotter months, are not inclined to show much skin. Many areas have more conservative values than you might be accustomed to back home. Also, prepare to handle mosquitos and to bring medicine to handle any negative digestive reactions to new foods.
Language: a Little Goes a Long Way
Don’t assume that everyone will speak English, but just as importantly, it’s wise to not to draw the opposite conclusion. No matter the people’s English speaking abilities, it’s always a solid sign of respect to learn a few keywords and phrases in the language that people are speaking in your destination. Familiarizing yourself with the languages spoken in a given area will also help you to better understand the culture. In Malaysian Borneo or Penang, for instance, there is a wide array of cultural diversity with ethnic Chinese and Indigenous peoples making up a substantial portion of the population.