Known as a mecca for travelers, adventurers, and wanderers alike, Southeast Asia is more than just a region renowned for exotic destinations and experiences. Spending a couple of months navigating countries such as Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam is like a rite of passage for every backpacker. Those that are willing to go the extra mile even end up traveling to less touristy countries like Myanmar and the Philippines. Wherever the destination is, there is an art to traveling this part of the world and here are 5 tips and tricks to help you master the art of backpacking Southeast Asia.
Learn the Art of Crossing the Street
Unlike most Western countries, crossing the street in South East Asia is an art form that is necessary to your survival. Organized stop signs and red light crossings are none existent in this part of the world (apart from Singapore!). I stood there, absolutely petrified by the chaos in front of me. Cars, motorbikes, and tuk-tuks were coming from every direction. My Vietnamese friend looked at me with gleaming eyes and told me to just start walking. Don’t stop, don’t hesitate, they will do their best to avoid you. Great. That made me feel a lot better. After one big deep breath, I crossed the road and followed her advice, not knowing that this was my very first lesson on the Art of Crossing the Road.
All you have to do is turn a blind eye to the millions of motorbikes, tuk-tuks, cars, livestock, and bikes that weave around you. Whatever you do, especially in Vietnam, DO NOT STOP while you’re in the middle of the road. Just keep on walking and pray that these vehicles end up dodging you like intended. Initially, crossing streets will be like playing a game of chicken (except you play with cars), but once you have mastered the art of it, crossing the street is a piece of cake! While not all the countries in Southeast Asia are as bad, this is an important lesson to keep in mind.
Learn the Art of Haggling
In Asia, because you have so many street vendors, often things do not have price tags. The vendors are left to raise/lower their prices anytime they want. Automatically, if they see a foreigner, vendors tend to raise their prices by at least double. Whatever the initial price is, haggle it down to a reasonable price and remember to smile while doing it! It may not seem like a lot, but that dollar off that you get can buy you two beers later on! Admittedly, I am the queen of haggling, however, if the person has been lovely, or if I see that they can use the extra dollar more than me, I let them be. I only haggle to a price that I think is reasonable. Having a ballpark figure of what things cost will not just give you bargaining power but will also stop you from getting ripped off.
Do remember that this is their livelihood. Often, these vendors are supporting 4-5 people from whatever earnings they make so be reasonable when haggling.
Learn the Art of Avoiding Scams
Everywhere you go in the world, scams are present. In Asia, these scams are even more prevalent and creative. When we hiked Mt. Bromo, Indonesia, our minivan stopped at a certain point and someone came up handing us a printed (official looking) ticket, charging us a minimal fee claiming you can’t climb the mountain without paying. This, of course, was just one big scam! Everywhere you go, get in the habit of looking up common scams online or even just listening in to the grapevine as other backpackers talk. A popular scam around Asia is the gem scam, where they try to sell you precious gems which are supposedly worth “a lot”. Others include the taxi scam where the meter is broken and motorbike scam where they charge you an arm and a leg for every scratch if something happens. The trick is familiarizing yourself with these scams so you’re not left in a position where you have to think twice if you’re being ripped off or not.
In Thailand, the Karaoke scam is rather popular. You enter a karaoke bar, get a couple of girls, have one (or two) drinks then get charged an arm and a leg for it. Like literally. While there are loads of decent (and cheesy) karaoke spots, be weary and always be cautious.
Learn the Art of Eating Weird Street food
The food culture in Asia is truly a feast for the senses. For those that aren’t used to it, walking down streets with hawker stands can be both culturally eye opening and a horrific scene. Skewers of animal innards, plastic bags full of beetles, bugs, and worms, and a wide array weird “I would never eat that” delights. Throughout our travels, my partner Tom has eaten it all. Sheep’s balls, bbq starfish, tarantulas, bugs, and every imaginable animal part when he tried Filipino street food. Although I am not as adventurous as him when it comes to eating weird food, I have had my share of bugs. A lot of the time, although I had no real interest in eating a plateful of grasshoppers, if they are given by locals, I would at least try the dish in the spirit of not being respectful of their culture. You don’t have to love it, but at least try them. After all, when in Rome (or in this case, when in Asia).
Learn the Art of Letting Go
No, I don’t mean skipping showers and growing your body hair (please, do your fellow backpackers a favor and DON’T do this). One fact that I quickly learned while traveling is sometimes, things don’t go your way. Actually, most of the time, they won’t. In Asia, buses will often be late, trains will often be overbooked and packed to the brim. Schedules are mere suggestions and sometimes, people have zero regard for personal space. My word of advice? Take a deep breath and let it go. Laugh at the fact that there are livestock in your bus, make friends with locals while waiting for the transport, and let go of the need to control everything. Remember, after all, South East Asia is still mainly composed of third world countries. People here aren’t used to the same level of efficiency and hustle and bustle that Westerners are used to. Instead of stressing, just enjoy the experience.
Read: 20 Photos That Will Make You Go to Thailand
Despite the many things that you have to get used to, traveling around Asia can be a life changing experience. The variety in culture and tradition, the diversity in landscape, and the many kind souls that you will encounter along the way will make the experience worth it. While Southeast Asia is a common route amongst backpackers, you can also plan a honeymoon trip around the continent and have a blast! Have you mastered the Art of Traveling to South East Asia? Any other tips you would like to share?
Looking for more inspiration for traveling Southeast Asia? Check out our articles
- 20 Photos That Will Make You Pack Your Bags and Go to Cambodia
- 10 Awesome Things To Do in Thailand
- 20 Photos of Vietnam: Go Now!