I just came back to Australia after spending a couple of months traveling in Southeast Asia. To say it was unlike anywhere I’ve ever been before is an understatement. It was a whole other world to me. I learned so much during my time there, and I have some takeaways that I feel are important to share with first-timers heading over to SE Asia:
1.The culture shock is real. When my friend and I showed up in Bali (mind you, Bali is one of the most touristy places in SE Asia), we were completely in shock. What was happening? There were too many people everywhere, especially on the road. The scooters! Wow! Were there any rules here?
This cultural adjustment happened again in each country and even within countries (for example, Patong Beach in Phuket is one hell of a nightmare… avoid it if you can, but other parts of Thailand are much nicer), but at some point, you might start to love the chaos. By the time I got to Vietnam, I was actually quite comfortable. I really loved that country and the one I went to after (Cambodia). Once I was more mentally prepared, it wasn’t quite so shocking.
There’s no real way to prepare for the culture shock in general, though, so just expect to be surprised by what you see, and be open to it. Maybe you’ll end up loving it. There were a few times in Thailand when I felt so overwhelmed that I was about to fly back to Oz, but I stayed in SE Asia and ended up in other countries that I really loved, so I’m glad I didn’t go home early.
2. You won’t know what you’re eating… most of the time. If you’re a picky eater, then good luck! I guess you could just stick to restaurants that serve western food, but even then, do you really know what you’re getting? Eating in restaurants is okay, and once in awhile you may give into temptation to get some familiar food, but don’t miss out on all the delicious and cheap street food!
Seriously, if you have diet constraints, I imagine it would be very difficult getting around. I was with a vegetarian in Vietnam and even though she learned the words to say “no meat” and “vegetarian” in Vietnamese, there were several times when she was given meat in her takeaway container.
I was so proud of my bravery in eating mystery food. I was careful, though, when I saw meat covered in flies out on the street when it was 39 degrees Celsius and five in the afternoon. Who knows how long that had been sitting out in the sun?? Some of the meat and fish on the streets did scare me, but otherwise I found it really exciting to eat street food. Some people were scared to, but truthfully, is it much worse than what’s happening in a kitchen? At least on the street you can see how your food is being prepared. Do stay away from the meat that has been out in the sun, though. Proper refrigeration is still important to an extent.
The only time that I regretted my bravery of eating unknown food was when I got really ill for a few days. I still don’t know if that was a virus or food poisoning, but it made me question my choices a bit more. This brings me to my next point…
3. Chances are, you will get sick. Whether it’s a slight change in digestion or a full-on 32-hour puking fest (and hopefully nothing worse), you are likely to experience some discomfort as your body reacts to new surroundings such as new food, alcohol, and the occasional slip of an unfiltered ice cube. Bring stomach medicine like Pepto, Tums, and most importantly, Imodium.
4. Alcohol is very dangerous! Proceed with caution. There are many different types of “home-made” alcohol that is sold in bars around these countries and therefore you never really know what you’re getting. Any mixed drink that you order may not be what you think it is.
The biggest risk of all: BUCKETS. These are literally small buckets, like what you would take to the beach as a kid, but full of alcohol and mixers. It’s impossible to know exactly what is in them…. unless you come up with a genius plan like my friend and I did for the Full Moon Party. I will say that we were certainly not geniuses the first time we tried buckets. We still don’t know what happened to us that night in Bangkok, but we were scared to death of buckets afterward. For the Full Moon Party, we decided to try again, but we insisted that we make our buckets ourselves. When we ordered one, we wouldn’t let anyone pour anything for us. We made sure that everything was sealed (so that no one had refilled it with cheaper homemade alcohol) and then we mixed it ourselves.
The second part of our genius plan was after mixing the drink, we poured the contents of the bucket into a water bottle. This way, we were able to dance without spilling our bucket everywhere, and more importantly, we had a sealed drink, so no one could put anything in it.
Another thing to note: Red Bull is different in SE Asia, as in, even worse for you, so try to steer clear.
5. You may sleep with strangers….. on public transportation. I was very surprised on my first overnight sleeper bus in Cambodia when a 6’3″ Frenchman shared my bed with me. I had booked a bed and had no clue that it was connected with another as a double. Apparently, if you booked on the other side of the isle, you would have your own space, but I did not know that, so it was very awkward trying to keep the distance when the beds were hardly wide enough, even for me. For the next overnight bus trip, I knew where to book my space and thankfully had a bed to myself.
6. Safety is not cautioned. One day, I was supposed to take a boat from Ko Samui to Koh Tao, but there was a huge storm, so all the boats were canceled. The next day, I was told that I could take a boat, but I had to use another company because the company I originally booked with thought it was too dangerous to go out. You would think that if it was too dangerous for one company, it would be for all. I really wanted to go, though, so I switched companies and took my chances. After a two hour boat ride from hell, I safely made it, barely. People were given plastic bags and during the whole ride, most of the passengers were puking into them. The waves made the ride like a horrifying roller coaster, and I wondered what the possibility was that we could sink. My head was glued to my friend’s shoulder as I held my nose from the smell of the other passenger’s vomit and tried to focus on not getting sick myself. Sorry for the graphics, but that was what happened.
The buses in the middle of the night are apparently not so safe. A lot of the roads are really dangerous, and I’ve heard of lots of crashes, but it is a cheap, easy way to get around, so I took my chances with this as well. The day buses try to pack on as many people as possible, so people will sit in aisles, and if they’re lucky, they’ll be given a lawn chair to sit on instead of on the floor. Hopefully the driver doesn’t go too fast, because lawn chairs certainly aren’t secure (and the driver most certainly is driving like a maniac).
Arriving at the airport in Cambodia, I needed a ride to my hostel. I was told I could get a motorbike ride for $2. I paid and got on the back of the bike with my huge backpack shoved between the driver and the handlebars. He put his helmet on and I asked him if he had one for me. He didn’t. I rode for a half hour on dirt roads and busy highways with no helmet on the back of a rickety motorbike. This is pretty commonplace. My Mom would not be pleased.
7. Bed bugs are common. I was lucky most of my trip, but Cambodia did me in. A friend kept warning that in Cambodia, bed bugs are everywhere, but it wasn’t until I had at least fifty (unfortunately, this is not an exaggeration) bites covering my whole body that I agreed that yes, Cambodia does in fact have a bed bug issue.
I had them once before in Australia, but this was a whole other breed. Even after covering my whole body in Benadryl cream and taking repeated antihistamines, I still woke up scratching at night for an entire week following. I still have marks on my body from the healed bites even now (and I have been back in Oz for two weeks). I really hope they go away soon. I’ll spare you a photo.
8. You’ll never want to hear the words “tuk tuk” again. Tuk tuks are actually a great way to get around if you’re not riding a motorbike and you are carrying your big ol’ backpack. The first time you do it is also really fun (especially in Bangkok). But, you’ll most likely be asked every single time you pass a tuk tuk driver if you want a tuk tuk. This is more of a joke of a point, but really, you’ll be sick of it.
As far as other forms of transportation, only drive a scooter if you know what you’re doing. I was too scared, and so I knew I shouldn’t. It’s really dangerous and many accidents happen, so it’s probably not the best place to try it for the first time. If you are going to do it, and you feel confident enough about it, then by all means, give it a try. If you don’t feel confident, though, then don’t let anyone pressure you into renting one. It’s not worth the risk of paying high fees for any damage or worse: the injuries.
9. Sanitation standards are very different. I really don’t know if many of these countries have proper ways of handling garbage. Most garbage is burned or left in a pile wherever. There’s clearly too much waste, largely because of tourists, but also because I just don’t think they have the means to get rid of it all.
One night in Kampot, Cambodia, after swimming in the Mekong River that morning, I noticed something floating in the water. Then I noticed a whole bunch of stuff floating in the water. “What is that?!” I asked my friend. “Trash” he said. We both gawked as, for the next hour, trash kept passing by the dock we were sitting on, floating on down the river. Needless to say, I wasn’t too interested in swimming there the next day.
As far as bathrooms, as you’ve probably heard, they are definitely different. CARRY HAND SANITIZER, TISSUES, AND WET WIPES. EVERYWHERE. You’ll thank me later.
10. It’s not as scary as you may think. I know I just listed a whole bunch of things that may have sounded horrible, but the truth is, Southeast Asia is a seriously amazing place to visit. It is absolutely gorgeous (parts of Vietnam top some of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen in my life, even better than some places in Europe, and I LOVE Europe).
Also, people are nice. Yes, there were many times (most times) that I felt I was being overcharged, but other than that, I don’t think anyone was trying to harm anyone else. I met some really incredible, generous, kind, and helpful people. Need directions? There’s about 100 people who will run up to help you, even if they can’t speak a word of your language.
I felt pretty safe leaving things on the beach to go in the water, and I think that people in general are very happy and lovely. Before I went, my parents were horrified at the idea of me going somewhere so unfamiliar to them. They were told horror stories and worried even more than usual about me. I was scared too. But, in the end, I realized, there is good and bad everywhere, and for the most part, I think Southeast Asia is good. After all, many people practice Buddhism which teaches “Not to do any evil, to cultivate good, to purify one’s mind.”
Once you spend some time traveling there, you’ll have periods where you both love and hate your experience. Sometimes you’ll really feign for what you consider normal, but when it comes time to leave, you may not want to go. I didn’t. In the end, I was so nostalgic. I had gotten used to this wacky way of life and going back to the rule-stricken, expensive island of Australia seemed less appealing than it had before.
I learned so much about the world during my time in Asia. I learned about so much history, especially in Cambodia and Vietnam, that I never learned properly or truthfully in school since my education was from an American point of view.
I learned the value of a dollar to people in these countries (when charging $2 for a tuk tuk ride is them ripping you off). It sure changes your perspective on what money can buy. These people live off of smaller amounts than we could ever comprehend as westerners.
All of the crazy and complicated daily tasks and adventures are what make traveling in SE Asia such an enthralling experience, so I hope I didn’t deter you from going. To me, it was worth all the difficulty that I endured, and I would go back again in a heartbeat (except maybe not to some parts of Southern Thailand).
I have lots more to tell about my trip, so check back soon for more 🙂