10 Things to Know Before Traveling to Southeast Asia

March 9, 2012 by

Asia, List Mania: Viator's Top Picks, Things to Do, Travel Advice & Inspiration

Many backpackers and globetrotters have flocked to the fertile and culturally rich Southeast Asia. Known for its pristine beaches, amazing historical sights and a touch of adventurousness, this comparatively inexpensive travel option baits thousands amongst thousands of people every year with landmarks like Angkor Wat, Cambodia; the city of Bangkok, Thailand; and the picturesque views of Ha Long Bay, Vietnam.

As much as we highly recommend you visit these places, the prudent traveler will do his/her homework as to abide the traditions and laws of these very different countries, as well as be prepared to face the risks, both financial and otherwise that could wind up ruining your vacation.

These are our top 10 things to know before traveling to Southeast Asia. And read more: Malaysia Travel Tips: What Not to Do.

1. Almost everything is negotiable, almost

Rickshaws in Penang

Rickshaws outside the Cheong Fatt Mansion in Penang, Malaysia

Haggling can be more beneficial in Southeast Asia than in most places in the world. Vendors at most malls and shops do not have price tags and it is common that when you ask for one, the price will be quite high because it looks like you have cash to burn. Don’t be afraid to ask for a lower price since another vendor just a few feet way is sure to be selling the same thing.

2. The food is great, just be careful

Thai vendor barbequing satay sticks

Thai vendor barbequing satay sticks

Renowned for its amazing cuisine, both on the street and in the restaurants, eating in SE Asia is one of the most exciting parts of going, but be cautious before eating just anything. One tip is to check if you see other patrons dining at a location before you go in.

Also, many of these countries have free English-written dining guides. Check them out.

3. Watch your pockets.

Be wary of pickpockets when walking on busy streets

Be wary of pickpockets when walking on busy streets

Whether you are on the back of a motorbike or walking down the street, muggings happen everywhere. Keep your personal belongings near to you at all times, perhaps consider a fanny pack or only bringing along essentials where you’re out of the hotel.

4. There is more to life than ‘backpacker street’

Mekong River in Vietnam

Mekong River in Vietnam

SE Asian countries have become very good at creating mini-tourism hubs of inexpensive hotels or hostels and surrounding them with vendors and bars and everything you need so that you don’t leave.

Granted, in places like Saigon and Bangkok, they are a lot of fun, but make a point to get out and explore other places. You’ll never know what’s waiting just around the corner.

Read more: [PHOTOS] 7 Southeast Asian Islands You’ve Probably Never Heard Of.

5. Check the local rags and mags

Make sure to have a good travel guide. Photo courtesy of Alpha via Flickr.

Make sure to have a good travel guide. Photo courtesy of Alpha via Flickr.

As I mentioned before, most SE Asian countries have English-written guides. That’s because in a number of countries there, there is already an established community of expatriates. If you are looking to just find your bearings and want a safe bet on places to go, pick one up.

6. Be prepared to be approached by strangers



Locals in Southeast Asia are often very nice toward westerners and truthfully enjoy telling you how nice you look. Whether it is coming from a man or woman, get ready for a swarm of compliments on your appearance. It may seem a little strange at first, but you will get used to it. I promise.

7. This scotch does not taste like scotch

Your favorite liquor might taste different.

Your favorite liquor might taste different.

Drinks are a quarter of the price than what you’d find in Europe or in the US, the reason being that many of the typical name brands are regionally produced and use local ingredients, so don’t be shocked when your beloved Grey Goose on ice tastes a little different from what you are used to. Use the opportunity to try some very interesting locally produced spirits.

8. Take the tour deals seriously

Take advantage of great tours in SE Asia

Take advantage of great tours in SE Asia

Pretty much anywhere you go (of the major tourist destinations) there are sure to be tour pamphlets sitting around with great deals. From boat rides to day trips, there are great tours around that will get you where you need to go.

9. Hire local transport for the day

Bangkok Grand Palace

Grand Palace in Bangkok

One great way to get around is to hire a tuk tuk or a moto-driver for the whole day to take you everywhere you want to go for a very nominal price. Your driver can also work as a de facto tour guide, getting you around to the spots you may not have though of and that you would regret not seeing.

10. When you can, take a bus or train

Traveling by bus or train is the cheapest option

Traveling by bus or train is the cheapest option

When it comes to budget traveling, this is the way. Night buses get you from one country to the next for next to nothing, although they do take longer, no doubt about that. Roads between many destinations are well enough to travel, although there are going to be bumpy rides. None the less, when you need to do it on the cheap, this is the best option.

Read more: Thailand Train Tips.

– Philip Heijmans


8 Responses to “10 Things to Know Before Traveling to Southeast Asia”

  1. Victor Says:

    I agree with Philip. While traveling to Southeast you must watch your pockets and personal belongings. Considering the population you might come across some pocket thieves.

    Also, in southeast countries you will get compliments from everyone if you are traveling from western countries. Overall they are fascinated with western people and culture.

    Overall, try to drink bottle water or boiled water. As you may get sick if you don’t be careful. Always avoid cold food as our system is not used to with certain kinds of bacteria on which local people have gained immune power.

    Good post.

  2. Scottrick Says:

    “This scotch does not taste like scotch.” Ha! I actually think it would be more interesting to try the local variants. Why travel halfway around the world to drink what I could get down the block?

  3. David Urmann Says:

    I would add – take your time in the places you like best rather then rushing from one destination to the next. If you hire local transport make sure you dont have any fun extra trips to suit shops where the local driver gets a commission. If you do this let your driver know that you know whats up.

  4. Mokigrand Says:

    This is absolutely correct. Wish I knew this one BEFORE we went to Asia. Discovered this very quickly with our tour guide/driver. don’t let them pressure you into buying stuff you don’t want.

  5. Robbie Says:

    I would just like to advise people to be careful when trying locally produced spirits. For example bad batches of Arak locally produced in Bali have killed tourists before and left others with brain damage due to methanol settling in the bottle, which is used to make it.

  6. Margaret Says:

    Not much need to worry about thieves if your visiting the Southeast Asian country of Singapore. Actually not much of this article would apply there at all except maybe the food and the public transit points.

  7. Liv Says:

    The scotch doesn’t taste much like scotch in Turkey either and don’t go near the ‘votka’! There is so much to discover and love while travelling though that I would only encourage people.

  8. Sabrina Carmen Says:

    I’ve never really noticed people coming up and talking to me in places like Vietnam, Cambodia, or Laos but I can say for sure that any Thai person who approaches you on the street is probably up to no good. Thais are very reserved and it’s very uncommon for them to approach a foreigner on the street and strike up a conversation.

    That said, they’re friendly as all heck if you talk to them but they rarely ever come up to you and begin a conversation unless it’s a scammer or someone trying to sell you something.