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

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!

Oodles of Noodles – who can resist a Noodle Market?

My favourite Sydney festival is on at the moment  – the Sydney International food Festival!  Seriously can you think of a better festival?

  • No overpriced ticket
  • No standing in line for hours to get into VIP areas only to then have your view restricted by the overly large heads that are in front of you
  • No standing in the sun all day
  • Great food
  • Great wine
  • You can leave, and come back
  • Your ears don’t ring for days
  • There is a greater variety of activities/eating opportunities
  • And most importantly – clean port-a-loos!

My favourite part of the festival is the Noodle Markets, which are running at the moment through the middle of the week in Hyde Park. What’s involved is all of Sydney’s best Asian restaurants (it has to be mentioned some of it’s not so good) put on a stall and sell their specialty – whether that it is Dim Sum, Spring Rolls, Peking Duck or noodles.  The fifty odd medieval style tents sprawl through Hyde Park emitting delicious smells throughout the whole city centre.  I find myself absently meandering towards them even when I have a perfectly good dinner waiting for me at home – who can resist a noodle market?

Noodle Markets in Kuala Lumper – who can resist?

However, as I sit under the trees (which have multi coloured spot lights shone onto them in order to give them a ghostly eerie look – what happened to good old-fashioned fairy lights?) gorging on my third duck pancake I can’t help but feel it’s missing the mark.

In review its most definitely not the food that’s letting the team down (that’s spectacular!!) – it’s the atmosphere.  It’s a weak attempt to generate the excitement that could be had at a real noodle market.

My first complaint was with the lighting.  On my first trip to South East Asia I took at least half a role (this was before I had upgraded to digital – and as I haven’t yet scanned any of my analogue pictures I can’t supply the evidence) of pictures of the extreme wiring.  I needed evidence for people back home, who wouldn’t comprehend nearly a hundred wires crisscrossing across the street with lanterns hanging off of them. One of my favourite markets is in Ho Chi Minh (aka Saigon), where bustling streets are lit with the soft light of fluorescent once it has shone through paper-mache.  Now I am not saying that the city of Sydney should have branched out and created an obvious fire hazard, but I am sure it would have been possible to have more lines of lanterns and fairy lights flowing across the green other than the token few that lined the entrance.

My next point of order was with the entertainment. It was a strange mix of different themes that may have blended well if they weren’t all done at half-mast.  First, the stage, where a strange noise was erupting from, to quote my Irish friend “Oh God what is that… is she doing the Mariah Arms?” – it wasn’t pleasant or soothing, it was grating and, even I (tone-deaf and with no sense of rhythm) could hear that the performer was missing and loosing half of the notes.  What was worse was that this performer was followed by a guy with a guitar who morosely sang into the microphone only to be drowned out by the crowds that were now swarming in front of the food stands – he may as well not have been there.  As I stared at the stage I had a flash back to the food markets in Chang Rai on the northern Thai border.  At the time I was staying above a pub in a room that was costing no more than $2 a night on a mattress that had some very suspicious look stains (a sleeping sheet is the one thing I wont travel without!). Obviously I didn’t want to hang in my room all night and the pub downstairs was a little too loud and glary for the peace and quiet my body was craving. Instead I trundled over to the night markets, it was early so I was able to get a good table and pile my plates with a sample of everything.  As I sat there the night slowly got darker and crowds start appearing.  Unlike most markets it’s not dominated by the tourist crowd, this was somewhere the locals come to have a fun family night out as well – in fact in the square there are only a few other tourists dotted around.  Whole families would pull together tables, sitting around laughing while eating the biggest BBQ fish I have ever seen, or dropping noodles and meat into a sizzling pot that is reminisce of Macbeth’s witches.  Then, almost a hush, falls over the crowd as the stage at the front of the room lights up, I turn with everyone else towards the bright dazzling lights, chicken skewer still in hand.  Out walks a transvestite clad in more sequins than you would see in a 1950’s Vegas cancan! Her head is framed with giant yellow feathers, which move and dance as though they were a natural appendage.  As she begins to sing and dance the whole room is in a thrall.  After she finishes her two songs a cabaret style act comes out and the whole crowd bellows its applause – I look around and watch people eagerly stuffy food into their mouths and chat away with part of their attention always focused on the stage ahead.  This is what dinner entertainment should be – enthralling enough that a part of your mind is always drawn to it, but not so all-consuming that you forget the delicious food in front of you.

Entertainment in Chang Rai Noodle Markets

I actually breathed a great sigh of relief when the sounds of giant symbols and drums drowned out the stage music.  I turned towards the sound expecting to be able to easily spot the dragon that should be dancing in the wake of the drums.  It took me a good ten minutes to spot the dragon! It fell well below disappointment… it wasn’t a full dragon – it was a head and a tail, with no body. I know I shouldn’t compare but when faced with such a pathetic excuse for a dragon I was instantly reminded of Chinese New Year in Chang Mai (North Thailand again) where every few seconds the crowd would part to let through one of three brightly coloured dragons.  When the dragons would meet each other through the fray of bodies an intricate dance would take place pushing the swelling crowd out of the way for a few moments before they would separate and once again be lost. Considering how much space was in the designated park I do feel that they could have at least added in a few more legs to their dragon.

Dragons in Chang Mai

This was also the first Noodle Market that I have been to where I didn’t have the option of placing my feet in a giant tank of water with little fish who delight in eating the dead skin from the soles.  To make this a truly authentic experience there need to be a few stalls selling items such as slogan T-Shirts or porcelain bowls – and most importantly the fish!

I know I may be asking a bit much in my complaints of the atmosphere but I feel that with such an excellent array of food that lifting up these somewhat smaller and insignificant details will expand the whole experience.  There is the potential here to really heighten the enjoyment of eating the amazing food with a great atmosphere.

If you disagree/agree with me please let me know your thoughts?

The Spirit of Things

With the Olympics on, I find that my friendship circle has been split into those who embrace and support this demonstration of extreme athletic achievement and those who, for whatever reason, just refuse to get into the spirit.  This is something that baffles me – how can people actively resist the surge in emotions that our whole society is channeling? More to the point, why would you want to, why would you actively try to be the person who is negative and judgmental of others excitement.

It’s not just in the Olympics that you find these people but also through everything.  Dress up parties – when 90% of people come all dressed up in their embarrassing gear ready to have a laugh at theirs and others expense, there are always those few who refuse to join in, sticking out like a sore thumb, in their jeans and t-shirt.

Then there are those who go to dance clubs and say I don’t dance, or dancing isn’t cool.  This just makes me want to shout “Why are you here”.  People who hate Christmas, or Easter, or birthdays – how can you hate holidays when you get presents and chocolate?

My favourite though, are those who refuse to get into the travel spirit.  You know the ones I mean, I am sure you have met them, and then wished you hadn’t. They are the ones who look at everything and say “Yeah but back home its better”. We are all guilty of it sometimes, but it’s those who actively try to ruin or mock others enjoyment that really niggles my Nelly, why do they need to always burst someone’s bubble.

I am often accused of the exact opposite – of getting too excited.  Currently at work I am turning every thing into an Olympic competition.  I am ten times worse when I travel, any excuse to build on the excitement of the activity and I run at it like a bull facing a London bus.

When I was in Thailand I decided to try white water rafting. Even though it was the dry season we had been promised level 4 rapids, what we were looking at could be best described as a 2 (though I didn’t know the difference, a fellow tourist informed me of this). A little disappointed we prepared for our lesson on how to stay within the raft.  It was then that I got a little bead of fear in the pit of my stomach as our instructor taught us how to stay afloat and to avoid rocks if we were thrown in… suddenly a helmet was slapped on my head, a life jacket thrust into my hands as I was pushed down to the awaiting rafts and our raft captain Sam.

First thing we learnt about Sam was that he liked a good laugh, second thing we learnt about Sam was that we would be the butt of most of his jokes as he sprayed us all with water. For all Sam’s jokes he took our safety very seriously, correcting and instructing us on how to sit in the raft.  Our raft was the only all girl team heading down the river; my Canadian travel friend and two Swedish girls joined me – this was the first challenge.

We headed off down stream picking up pace, with Sam’s brilliant skill we got through the first set of rapids so smoothly that our spirits soured and our confidence rose. This is when we took it to the next level.  This was no longer a slow meander down a river – this was now a race. Dropping our oars into the water we began our war chant  “one, two, faster, faster, one, two…”

Quickly we overtook most of the other boats giving us second place.  They had been taken by surprise by our ferocity and were now paddling hard to regain their place. Sam had laughed for only a moment at our chant, before realising how serious we were about winning.  He changed from being the laid back tiller man, to being a whip cracker, pushing us faster and faster, splashing us when we slacked off. We nearly lost him when we overtook another team; the cheaters grabbed Sam and pulled him into the water.  But quick as lightning he was back in our boat, and took his revenge – he rammed our boat against theirs jamming it against a rock.

As our laughter died away we hit another set of rapids, looking ahead we could see the lead boat stuck in between two rocks – we were heading right for them.  As our two boats collided our boat began to take on water, fast!  The ever-quick thinking Sam grabbed us by the life jackets and hauled us into the other boat.  He then went back for our sinking raft.  We, in the meanwhile endeavored to unstick our new boat.  As it became free and floated off down river without Sam we resigned ourselves to sitting eight people in a boat for another two hours.  We felt dejected, we had lost – race over.

Suddenly Sam was there with our re-inflated raft.  We jumped ship before you could even say ‘aye aye’.  Rapids were fast approaching.

After an hour of careening over rocks we finally hit a calm patch of river.  We were boat number 1 and exhausted. Victory was so close. Suddenly Sam calls “to the right” meaning, all to the right side of the boat, after the last hour we had learnt to follow Sam’s instructions instantly and without a second thought.  I flung my whole weight to the right side of the boat along with the others – it flipped right over.  We hit the water hard, emerging with identical expressions of shock on our faces, only to hear Sam’s laughter.  Soon we were all laughing and floating down stream alongside our boat.

Back in the boat we felt revived and full of energy, two boats had snuck up on us and were trying for first place.  We broke into our war chant and paddled harder and faster.  The captains of the other teams were playing dirty, splashing us, and pulling at our boat.

The final set of rapids appeared and we had slipped back to second, but the first boat had jammed in the rocks.  Sam steered our boat straight for it, we barged into the boat spinning it around as it was freed from the rocks, but we were out in front for a final push for the finish line.

We trudge up the hill glorifying in our victory as we sat down to eat, I devoured my food but nothing tasted better than the victory we had created.  Even if we hadn’t of won, the experience of the drama of the race, was worth the exhausting effort it took

Fish that Sam pulled out of the river – was there no end to his skills!?