25 Tips for Surviving South East Asia with your Sanity

Heading for a trip to South East Asia and not sure what to expect? Trying to get your head around all the stories (good and bad) to work out what to do? See below for a list of 25 tips on how to survive one of the most exciting, random and colourful regions in the world.

Night Noodle Markets

  1. “Thai time” is anytime except the specified time – no point getting angry that the bus is six hours late, pull up a piece of curb and get used to the wait.
  2. If you pay the actual price for ANYTHING – you’re being ripped off.  Having said that, sometimes think about what that last dollar you are haggling over means to you and what it will mean to the other person.

    Markets Luang Parbang

    Markets Luang Parbang

  3. A “little hot” means – very very hot, so hot your eyes will water and your lips will go numb. Chili eating contests are fun… just make sure you have a large beer handy to numb the pain.
  4. Prepare yourself for food poising so bad that you will wish you were dead – it will happen at least once.
  5. Don’t think about what the black stuff that soon covers your feet in sandals or thongs is as you tramp the city streets actually is.
  6. Embrace the taste of pancakes and fruit shakes. They are amazing!
  7. Sitting in a “friends bar” is the best way to cure a bucket hangover. Let the antics of Joey and Phoebe wash away the pain of the night before (Koh Phangan and Vang Vieng have the best ones complete with fruit shakes and pancakes)
  8. It is impossible to have only 1 bucket…Motos Saigon
  9. Have a few drinks with your fellow backpacker before you agree to spend the next few days travelling with them.
  10. Motos are fun… and dangerous – pack Band-Aids… lots of Band-Aids
  11. Try to acclimatise yourself to the hot weather by not using air con; don’t be disappointed if you don’t succeed.
  12. It is impossible to drown out the Cambodian/Vietnamese pop played on the local buses with your iPod.
  13. Don’t expect Western food to taste anything like you have ever tasted before – give it up otherwise your taste buds will hate you

    Cooking School Cambodia

    Cooking School Cambodia

  14. The longer you travel the less you use the hand sanitizer as you realise that it really makes no difference except in your head.
  15. Take a cooking class or three – best way to experience the local food, meet people and spend a pleasant evening.
  16. Don’t trust monkeys – they are cute and devious
  17. All material possessions are replaceable – repeat this to yourself as you realise something of yours has been stolen.
  18. Fire dancing is best left to the professionals if you care about your arm hair and dignity
  19. Nobody can get an audience moving and grooving like a Thai cover band.
  20. Careful when taking off your thongs (flip flops) when entering most shops and restaurants, someone else may mistake them as theirs and you will leave with mismatched thongs
  21. It is inevitable that your bus will break down… On a hill.Monkey Batu Caves
  22. Prepare to argue with other travelers about whether that girl, is in fact – a guy.
  23. All the good temples are at the top of hundreds of stairs… your thighs will burn baby burn!
  24. You will plot the DJ’s death once he has played the same song 6 times in the last two hours
  25. You are having the time of your life – don’t sweat the little things!
Paradise found: Langkawi

Paradise found: Langkawi

Too Old?? I Hope Not!

How old do you have to get before staying in a hostel becomes creepy? This is a thought that is worrying me as my age has moved from a number to be proud of (Dah, I am like 21 I can like do what I want!) to a number I choose not to name (How old am I? Gee, well… cough – run!).  Soon there will be a point where my presence will be viewed with raised eyebrows and askance sideways glances – ok well maybe not that soon, but one day definitely.

Now I know some of you are saying – “Seriously why would you want to stay in a hostel, ewwww” and don’t get me wrong, this is a very valid reaction to have.  Hostels can be over crowded, noisy, dirty, unsafe and uncomfortable…. But then so are some hotels. There is a huge difference between a bad hotel and a good hostel – but if you find a GREAT hostel then there are some massive plusses to staying there.

  •  It’s cheap – as I am yet to win the lotto this is a huge plus, but as I no longer work in retail and have a “real” job I can also afford to stay in the somewhat nicer versions as opposed to the ones with fleas.
  • If you are travelling alone –  it’s a great place to meet people due to the room sharing and communal areas – check out this great blog on “How to travel alone and not be a creep” for some more ideas on how to meet people.
  • Local Information – Those who work in hostels are usually backpackers themselves and so have gathered a wealth of information on what they think would be useful – they usually let you pick their brains for the price of a beer!
  • Location – there are always great hostels in the location you really want to stay at, usually two streets over from the 5 star hotel where as the budget hotel is generally about three bus rides away.

There is an art to choosing the right hostel, though it’s something that is learned from experience rather than a blog. Once you have stayed in a few you learn how to spot them and steer clear! I was procrastinating from writing this blog by reading other people’s blogs about hostels and came across the Bemused Backpacker who gives tips on how to choose a great hostel.  As I read through the list of things to note,l I realised that all of these seemed rather obvious to me (a hostel veteran) and yet, I couldn’t think how I would explain to someone how they would be able to make the same judgement as I would.

Location – One of my ABSOLUTE FAVOURITE hostels (big call I know) was Bumbles in Queenstown. When I looked at the map of where it’s located it appeared to be slightly out of town.  Indeed some of the reviews said that it was a little out of town which added to my anxiety that it would be a bad choice.  I was travelling on my own and so wanted to ensure that I wasn’t too far outside the thick of things. Well, I decided to chance it and trust my gut that it wasn’t that far and that those people who wrote the reviews were wusses! Ha – it paid off.  Less than a 2 minute walk from the centre of town (though Queenstown isn’t that big so most places are a 2 minute walk from the centre). As it wasnt in the middle though, it was a little quieter at night.  Best of all, it was on the opposite side of the town to big hotels and so had beautiful unrestricted views of the lake framed by ice capped mountains.

The view from my hostel room window at Bumbles Backpackers

The view from my hostel room window at Bumbles Backpackers

It’s Cheap – Cost is relative, decide what your safety and a good nights sleep is really worth.  I have stayed in some flea-bitten places – literally! What I have discovered is that no matter how much money you might be saving – if the place is uncomfortable or unsafe it isn’t worth it.  In Vang Vieng we stayed in a tree house style hostel called SpicyLaos.  Those we had met on the South East Asia circuit recommended it as a great place to get the full tubing experience… we stayed two nights there before we grabbed our stuff and splashed out on a hotel room.  It wasn’t the bugs, or the fact that your pack was sitting in the dust if you couldn’t lug it up to your bunk. Or even the makeshift bathrooms that reminded me of an old-fashioned Australian outhouse.  We didn’t feel safe. Vang Vieng hadn’t quite reached the infamy that it now has when I was there – but it wasn’t far off.  After a few red bull buckets you wanted a place where you could feel safe and secure – not have random people walking through at all hours in all states.

Tubing the Vang Vieng!

Tubing the Vang Vieng!

If you are travelling alone – is never easy but can be hugely rewarding.  When I was at university I participated in the Student Exchange program and headed to San Diego in Southern California – or SoCal. If there is one thing you should do at Uni – that’s it! My first week in Sunny SD was in Hostel USA – I chose it because everywhere else was booked out. Just my luck! Indeed it was – that first night I met two others who were participating in the same program as me and heading to SDSU, instant friends! Next I met one of the girls who worked on reception – who was also in charge of fun. And fun is what was had – there was a pub crawl, a beach trip, a sea world trip, a taco Tuesday and dress up party. When I left for my dorm room a week later I was no longer travelling on my own. Find a place with great staff, it can change everything!

Local Information – Generally those who run hostels are a travellers dream.  They are friendly, happy and fountains of knowledge. Whether you are looking for the best pancakes in Dubrovnik (thanks Hostel Villa Angelina) or want an authentic Vietnamese imperial feast  (cheers Hue Sport 2) having someone point out the way or give you that insiders tip can change a trip.

Imperial food art

Imperial food art

I really hope that I am not too old to stay in hostels, as they offer so many different experiences that don’t quite reflect when in a hotel.  However, I am going to pick them more carefully now that I know what to expect – I have had bed bugs two times too many!

Cheap Seats – Not Worth the Savings!

Trip planning – my second favourite thing after actually travelling.  I am in the midst of planning a trip at the moment to the UK and with a quick sidestep to Croatia for a little sun and fun.

I am heading there with one of my oldest and closest friends who has been living in Europe for the last two years (lucky much!) and so I have been treating her as the authority on how best to travel through Europe (it’s been a while since I was last there).

We did all of this over Skype over the last few weekends and despite Skype’s best effort at disconnecting us at the most inconvenient points we managed to book our flights.

It was a work of art on her part it must be said!  As soon as we had narrowed the field of dates she pulled up three different flight websites. First she looked at which were the best airports to use from London, then she fiddled with dates, then we reversed the trip (Dubrovnik -> Split became Split->Dubrovnik), went back to the original dates, changed London airports one more time and came up with two relatively good deals (considering the time of year we are flying that is).

It then came down to decision time – here were the options

Flight one – Hard to get to London airport, 6am flight, cheapest

Flight two – Hard to get to London airport, 2pm flight, not as cheap.

Our natural bargain hunting instinct was to go for the cheaper option – cheaper is always better! However, we paused for a moment and thought about it. The 2pm flight would be a lot more convenient for me, as I would have only arrived the night before and was hoping to have breakfast with my cousin, not to mention the trek I was going to have to do across London to Luton – the question then became was the 20 pound saving worth losing the convenience? Quick answer was no – problem solved, flights booked!

It did get me thinking though of all the trips I have done how the backpacker thrift mentality takes hold, bargaining down to the last penny in spite of my own personal preference.

When I was travelling round South East Asia I was pretty skint and so did as much of the trip on the cheap as I possibly could – however, in reflection, there were a few times when I wished I had spent a little more money to enjoy the experience:

Beds V Bugs: Rocking into Chang Rai we began the usual hunt of looking for a place to place our heads for the night, the first two hostels we looked at were charging the equivalent of $8 a night – we had just come out of Laos so this was extraordinarily high for us.  Eventually we found a place that had a room above a pub for $4 a night… bargain! In retrospect I would have paid the extra $4 to avoid sleeping on the suspiciously stained mattress above a juke box that played Black Eyed Peas “Good Night” over and over again – wasn’t a good night.

Groomed V Gross: All through Asia you can get great pedicure or manicure for great prices. Trick is to make sure you don’t fall for the allure of having your nails done by those lovely smiling ladies who come round while you are on the beach.  Sounds like bliss – lying on a deck chair sipping a cocktail while having your nails done – and it is for all of five minutes! Then you realise that there is no way they could have sterilised the utensils between doing your nails and the German man’s down the beach… ewww factor. Don’t risk infection – head to one of the salons, there are loads of them, they are still cheap but what you pay for is a little bit more peace of mind.

Slow Boat V Fast Boat: There is a scam in Thailand run on tourists heading out to Koh Phanang for the full moon party. Everyone knows about the it and naturally tries to avoid falling for it.  Basically there are two tickets, slow boat or for $2 more fast boat – the scam is that they are the SAME boat!  We bought the slow boat tickets and transfer to the wharf. SCAMMED – we ended up sitting in a little booking office for three hours while being bullied/conned into buying the fast boat tickets.  We gave in.  Wish we had given in sooner – because as soon as we did we were taken to the wharf where all the other travellers were lolling about waiting for the boat sipping beers and eating great food – $2 for three hours of my life, sure!

Bed V Bells: Jumping off the bus ride from hell in Luang Parbang we bargain down with the scalpers who met the bus for a great deal – a room with TV and air-con, close to the city centre, five nights for the price of three! Score! Except that across the street was a very big and special Buddhist Wat that was celebrating a festival – that was going on for 8 days.  This involved little gongs being played constantly (which eventually you could drown ignore) and a big gong being played sporadically ever hour or so (no one could have drowned this one out) – wish we had packed our bags and gone somewhere else – missing sleep is never a good thing.

Sometimes paying a little bit extra can save you loads of hassle in the long run – note to self don’t be stingy!

Is that Vomit on your Toes?

Like many who work in the Sydney CBD every day I go through the painful and uncomfortable process of catching a bus into work.  Today it’s raining, which means the bus is more crowded than usual and everyone is wet, and cranky – me included.  On days like this you just want to be curled up on the couch with a good movie, not being sandwiched against a cold window by a guy who is too big for the seat with a wet leg – that he keeps pressed up against you no matter how many times you try to shift away.  Normally you can tune out the one annoying person who has their music up so loud that the whole bus feels like they are plugged into this persons iPod, but today the dulcet tones of Keith Urban grate on my nerves, and along with the others, I shoot the offending girl filthy looks.  Every time the man behind me coughs, I feel a patch of moist air brush my neck, which makes me jump forward in an effort to get out of the germ firing line.  All of this is compounded when I realise that the rain has also bought out a larger than normal amount of stupid drivers clogging up the bus lanes.  As we inch through the traffic I lean back in my seat (though not too far in case moist air man coughs again) and try to tell myself I have been on worse bus journeys, and I really have!

Hanging onto a Tuk Tuk

The worst bus journey of my life was on the road from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang in Laos.  Like all who travel through Laos these days, my travel buddy and I had stopped off at Vang Vieng to go tubing – though this was before it was a major tourist trap, the snippet in Lonely Planet wrote was less than a page.  After a couple of days we realised how addictive the life style is – getting up late, lying in a tube while sipping drinks that are poured into easy-to-hold buckets, hanging out in sunlit bars meeting new people, eating dinner in a restaurant that is constantly playing re-runs of Friends, hanging out in another bar until midnight, then sleeping in late… We met more than a few people who could boast of being there for 150+ days and although, we mocked them for being there for so long, we too, kept extending our stay.  We met a guy from Australia who was 38, he had worked in the mines and was taking a year off traveling and hadn’t got any further – he was the one who taught me that a Tuk Tuk is never full, you can always hang onto the roof, side, back or driver’s door.

Eventually though we woke up and said enough! Before our resolve weakened we had packed our bags and headed to the bus stop to get to Luang Prabang.  Luang Prabang was the place everyone had told us to visit – even Lonely Planet – a beautiful French Colonial town nestled between the river and the mountains that are filled with crystal waterfalls and pools.

The route is meant to be amazing, some say legendary, with spectacular views – and I am sure it was, but I couldn’t appreciate it. Now, in all fairness we had been warned that the route was dangerous and the road uncomfortable, we had splurged and spent the extra 50c to upgrade our tickets… the upgrade was the still same minivan – we just got the whole back seat for our packs and us!  The rest of the bus was full, there were some fellow backpackers sitting up front, but they didn’t speak much English and had the same slightly yellow tinged skin as those who had spent too much time at Vang Vieng developed. In the middle was a local family, a mother with her son and daughter.

At first the road and the view was nice and I enjoyed reclining and relaxing – this only lasted about ten minutes.  The bus then started climbing, winding back and forth up the mountain. The road jack-knifed back on its self so quickly that you hardly had a second to see the view before you were facing the other way.  Our driver seemed to relish throwing the bus round every corner.  As we rose higher into the mountains the bends became more elaborate, so did the sheer drop that I could glimpse every few minutes, which intensified the horror.  We opened our windows slightly to let the air into the stuffy van to alleviate the building nausea.  With each turn I could feel myself turning green but resolutely plugged in my headphones and let the music drown out any thoughts of my breakfast.

After a while a smell reached me that made the mental hold I had on my stomach quaver.  The Laos boy in the middle of the bus was vomiting into a little plastic bag.  I glanced at my travel mate in horror – she looked green and like me, using every inch of strength to hold it together.  We both retreated to our corners and private hells – staring out the window letting the fresh air blow away some of the nose-curdling stench.

After an hour my iPod died leaving me with no distractions – I turned to my friend and we played some road trip games and chatted in broken sentences.  I could see ahead of me on the ground, three plastic bags filled with the boys vomit.  He turned to his mother for another one, but she didn’t have any, the boy looked at her for a beat, before vomiting into his hands.  His mother looked at him for a second before launching at the window and heaving her own guts up.  We watched with horror as she hung her head out the window as we went round yet another bend.  Suddenly my friend realised what was about to happen and within a split second had slammed her own window shut – just in time – vomit splattered all over her window. She leant back and closed her eyes with hands desperately clenched in front.

The bus of horror

Suddenly she jerked her eyes open and pulled her legs up off the ground and tucked them to her chest – I looked at the bus floor trying to see what had scared her.  The vomit was now sliding down the back of the bus.  I pulled my own legs up fast.  The next two hours were cramped and uncomfortable having our legs tucked up under us as the vomit sloshed around beneath us.

Finally the bus reached the top of the mountains where there was a typical rest stop. We climbed over the boy who was slumped on the floor of the bus lying in a pool of his own vomit, completely drained and upset.  I wanted to help him, but thought that I would add to that pool if I stayed there for too long, instead his 12 year old sister cleaned him and his mother up.

Cat in a bucket

We grabbed some Cokes and crackers and went to admire the view.  It was amazing!  There was a cyclist group up there, they were cycling the famous route and said that the view along the route was spectacular – as steep as the hill was, I seriously considered joining their group just to get away from the bus. As is the way in South East Asia, these little pit stops can take 5 minutes or a couple of hours depending on what the driver feels like doing – this was a long wait.  We spent most of our time watching a stray cat try to drink water out of a bucket without getting its paws wet – but at last it was time to get back in the van.

Everyone appeared to be in better spirits as the bus started going downhill.  This only lasted a moment. The driver had an unreasonable hatred towards using the brakes, as we reached each corner he would touch them just enough to swing us around the bend.  There were more than a few occasions where we skidded on the gravel that marked the edge of the road and the cliff.  There was one occasion where I swear one of the wheels was hanging over the edge of the cliff – my heart dropped over the side of the cliff even if my body didn’t.

Then the poor boy started vomiting again into his hands… his mother flung her head out the window once more. Only good thing was that the bus was facing downwards, the vomit pooled in a different direction.

When we arrived in Luang Prabang we were so happy that we caught the first Tuk Tuk to the first hostel.  Sadly we were not able to rest once we arrived as there was a Buddhist festival being held at the temple next door – which involved chanting all night and using the giant gong every 15 minutes – something which would be culturally appealing in daylight, but painful at 3am.

Despite the lack of sleep and the memory of the horror bus ride we thoroughly enjoyed our time in Luang Prabang.  The town is just as beautiful as everyone had promised – we ate brunch at little French bakeries, swam with elephants, walked up waterfalls, sipped drinks while tourist watching and lost ourselves in the giant markets.

When it was time to leave we considered heading back to Vientiane but that would mean getting back on the bus route.  We decided to take the slow boat to the Thai border… we never realised how slow a slow boat could be… I guess the name was the giveaway.  It was beautiful for the first two hours and then it was just painful.  We were sitting on wooden seats for two long days. The only entertainment we had, was talking to an English couple that were clearly on the path to breaking up the minute they could get away from one another. At the end of day two I almost wished for the bus… almost.

After the Luang Prabang travel experience a bus ride on a rainy day is a piece of cake.