My baby sister (she’s 25 but will always be my baby sister!), is about to head off on her first backpacking trip with her boyfriend. She has been to the Philippines with our Dad once, and visited Paris on a high school trip (what a trip hey! I was lucky to get a school excursion to a local theatre to see the play of a book we were studying!).
Last year, they went on a cruise together around some islands in the South Pacific, however they’ve never done “the proper backpacking, travelling thing”
Of course, I got excited and started dishing out advice! But I reigned myself in, and asked her to send me a list of questions and I will do my best to answer them.
So, without further ado…
1. Will tuk-tuk / taxi drivers try to rip me off and is it worth worrying too much about?
Tuk-tuk drivers, taxi drivers, street vendors, people walking their monkey down the street, ladyboys… They’ll all rip you off if you let them!
In saying that, no – it’s generally nothing worth worrying about too much. But you should be aware, and minimise the risk and the amount you get taken for.
The general rule for services such as tuk tuks, taxis, tour guides etc. is to negotiate the amount BEFORE you get in, or take the tour. Once they’ve completed the service, you can’t really argue the price. (perhaps talk to the reception at your hostel to get an idea of what a realistic price is)
Drivers will often take you to a shop “Best diamonds in Thailand” etc. – trying to make it sound like they’re doing you a favour by letting you in on a local secret. Do not feel pressured to go into this shop, and certainly not to buy anything! They get commission from any sale.
Similar with hotels/hostels… If you don’t have any accommodation pre-booked when you get to town, a tuk tuk driver will be more than happy to drive you to some. ALWAYS go in and inspect the place first, and feel free to say no. He’ll probably take you to the ones that pay him the highest commission first. This is actually a great way to keep your plans fluid, and I’ve done it many times – just don’t feel pressured to accept the first place… And tell him what you expect, and for what price.
“No, Mr Tuk Tuk driver, this one is dirty. Can you take me to one that’s cleaner?”
“I want good WiFi. Do you know somewhere with a private bathroom for about $XYZ?”
Remember – people being helpful usually want to get paid…
- The guy offering to carry your bag to the car at the airport
- The ladyboy posing for photos
- The man walking his monkey down the street for photos
It may sound cynical of me to say this, but in keep in mind they’re all doing this as a job – for money. They’re entrepreneurs who need to feed and house their family.
At the end of the day, if you pay $2 more than you had to, they could feed their family with that money today and you’ll hardly notice it. Put it down to part of the experience and move on. 🙂
Oooh, also… Be sure to clarify whether the price they said meant altogether, or per person! I got stung at Angkor Wat, thinking the price we were quoted for a tour was the price for the guide… No, no it was per person in the group. *ouch*
2. Will most people speak English if I struggle with the language?
This can depend on where you go… However, in general if you’re in areas with tourists, people will speak English. Everyone who works with tourists has to speak English – otherwise they wouldn’t be able to make much money.
In saying that though, the more rural you get the less English there will be. Also, even in Bangkok, once out of the tourists places many locals won’t speak English.
This is part of the fun though! Don’t travel for things to be the same as at home – travel for the experience, challenge and culture shock.
Learn key words such as ‘thank you’ and ‘toilet’ in the local language of everywhere you go. Also, if looking for something in particular, say your accommodation – try to have it written down in the local language. That way, if you get lost you can show it to somebody and they can point you in the right direction. (remember having an address written in the English alphabet means as much to them as words written in the Lao alphabet mean to you)
3. Is it difficult to get around?
South East Asia is one of the major backpacking trails of the world, and due to this there are heaps of ways to get around. Even the lesser visited areas have a way to get around – just remember that things are not always going to work as smoothly as you might hope.
Within cities/towns etc. I suggest walking wherever possible – it’s good for your health, cheaper, and you get to see more. I’ve found many things while travelling, just by walking around and getting lost.
You can also get an assortment of transport types – local busses, trains, etc. tuk tuks, taxis, motorbike taxis. They’re all usually pretty cheap. Each country and even city has its own forms of local transport and different costs. (note too, “tuktuk” means something slightly different in each place you visit! You never know quite what you’re going to get)
As for transport between cities and countries… It’s all very well connected too. There is a train network around most of the countries, including sleeper trains for long trips, which also saves a night of accommodation. For heaps of information on train travel around the world, check out www.seat61.com
Cambodia & Laos do not have trains… They only have busses. The bus network around SE Asia is very well connected – you can easily get a bus from Saigon, Vietnam (Ho Chi Min City) to Bangkok for quite cheap. Some also have very comfy recliner seats or even sleeper busses.
You can buy tickets at the bus stations, or usually just from your hostel/hotel reception desk. While in Cambodia I organised all my busses by talking to the hostel reception the night before…
“Tomorrow I would like to go to XYZ. Can you organise a bus ticket for me?” they get it all organised, you pay them and they give you a ticket. The cost will usually also include a tuk tuk or minibus to pick you up from the hostel and take you to the bus station.
Note: Cambodian busses seem to always play Cambodian karaoke on the bus TV. This is really amusing for the first, say… 25 minutes. Then… Well, bring headphones and listen to your own music! They also beep their horn… Constantly! They seem to think the bus is invisible and the only way anybody will know it’s there is by beeping. Funny for the first 20 mins… Annoying for the next 6 hours!!
Important Note: The distance may not look far on a map, but could take 24 hours in reality. Especially in Laos. The roads are not in good condition, and go up and down mountains…. Very slowly. Expect a slow, bumpy ride – but look at it as part of the adventure!
Another Note: You’ll often find that busses will not leave until they’re full. This is much less common with the long distance busses that you pre-pay for, have tickets etc. Many places with minivans that you just rock up and pay onboard for, will not go until full. This is because money is so tight that they do not make enough money unless each seat it paid for. This causes me to wait at the bus station for 3 hours in Nong Khiaw, Laos before the driver decided there was enough people to make it worth it!
4. Is it difficult to see a Dr / get medicine in SE Asia?
Number 1 rule of travelling – HAVE TRAVEL INSURANCE!! Check out World Nomads
If you need to see a doctor, contact your travel insurance provider straight away and they can advise the best thing to do.
Generally, if it’s just something minor then you can go to a pharmacy and they’ll be able to help you. Many things that you need a prescription for at home is over the counter in SE Asia.
For anything serious needing proper hospital attention, you’ll probably need to get to Bangkok. Again, your travel insurance company will help you with this and give you the advice you need. My friend had to have his appendix out in an emergency operation while travelling Cambodia a few years ago. Ideally he would have been rushed to Bangkok, however there was not time. He went to a Western hospital (I think it was in Siem Reap from memory) and he said the service was great and he never felt worried about anything.
Always travel with a basic first aid kit (and keep in your day pack)
- Imodium (to stop diarrhoea… Only stops the symptoms, not the cause)
- I also travel with laxatives these days, as sometimes the opposite problem can happen to your stomach!
- Bandaids & antiseptic
- Bug bite cream
- Any medications that you need to take regularly
Things that you will need in a rush, and won’t necessarily have time to get to a pharmacy.
5. What can I do to not be that (unknowingly) obnoxious white person?
oooh I could say so many un-PC things about drunk, racist bogans here.
Generally, remember you’re NOT in Australia… Things are different. That’s the adventure! Things are not going to be like at home, so don’t expect it to be.
Learn about their culture.
Try to learn a bit of their language.
Overall, just don’t be a dick! Treat their home with respect. Learn a bit about what that means in their culture, but overall the saying Mum said when we were kids stands – “Treat people how you’d like to be treated”
6. Is it worth doing tours or is it better to do things independently?
My knee-jerk reaction to this is INDEPENDENTLY! Always independently.
But, it’s really not that black and white. So… My answer is…
How’s that? Clear? Ready to go?
Ok, ok… Some more info.
Tours take away your independence and freedom to do what you want, when you want. Large tours can also affect your surroundings – nobody is going to act normal when a group of 52 noisy white people walk into their little village!
Although, tours can also get you to places and see things that you’d struggle to see on your own. Especially if you’re short on time, not confident and don’t speak the local language.
I pick and mix a bit. When I first travelled Europe, I did a Contiki tour for a few weeks. It was fun, and I saw a lot but I would NEVER do it again. However, I do still sometimes do tours – such as a week through the Gobi Desert, Mongolia… Totally would have struggled to do that myself! I also had a 2 day tour from Saigon, Vietnam to Phnom Penh, Cambodia via the Mekong Delta. A great trip, but not easy if you don’t know the area.
There are also day tours, like I recently did a day tour of the Great Barrier Reef… Again, not really something you can easily do alone.
So, to try to summarise myself…
When you’re able and comfortable, travel independently. It will give you more freedom, independence and flexibility while also saving A LOT of money. But, don’t worry if you decide to do a tour for part of your trip. My advice though is to aim to go with a tour that has a low amount of people – 5 to 10 is ideal (rather than 52 on Contiki), and ones that target the backpacker market. This will ensure it’s as cheap as possible, and inline with what you’re after – you don’t want to bump into your parents on the trip while you have to look at the antique dolls shop for an hour.
Last word of advice here – whenever you can, do a free city walking tour! They’re huge in Europe and are spreading to the rest of the world. They usually last 2 to 3 hours, and you walk around the city seeing the sights and hearing heaps of info. They don’t have a fixed price, they take tips only (I usually use 5 Euro as a base, and add or subtract depending on how much I liked the guide). Google these in every city you visit!
7. On a scale of 1-10, how likely is it that I’m going to get diarrhoea if I eat street food?
I’d say probably 8… Whether you eat street food or not!
Eat the damn street food! Honestly. Really do. It’s amazing! And so cheap. Street food has a bad reputation that it quite honestly does not deserve.
Think about it this way… In a place with poor food standards, would you prefer to eat in a restaurant that looks nice in the dining room, but you can’t see the kitchen? What are they doing back there? Are they cooking frozen chicken? Are they scratching their balls and then touching your food? Did they drop something on the dirty floor and then sell it to you?
How would you know?
Street food is generally a small stall right there. What you see is what you get. It’s cooked fresh in front of you! If it looks dodgy, then don’t buy there… There are other places to try.
A tip – if you see locals eating there, chances are it’s fine. If the food was dodgy, they’d get a bad reputation and the locals would know!
Ok, back to the start. Expect that you will get some form of diarrhoea/stomach upset along the way. Then, if you don’t it’s a nice bonus!
Always travel with Imodium (or similar, as it’s a brand name), as this can save you in an emergency. Note though, that these products do not fix the cause… Only the symptoms. Basically, it will help stop you from shitting yourself in public but will not get rid of the infection. It’s actually better for you to spend a day or two sitting on the toilet and get the infection out. This is not always an option though – think, if it hits while on a 10 hour bus trip!
Always keep your fluids up, especially if in a hot country. Rehydration electrolyte supplements can help, and can be a good idea to keep in your first aid kit when travelling, or can often be bought from pharmacies along the way.
If your symptoms persist for more than 2 days, best to try to see a doctor. I had to see a doctor in Bosnia for this. *gross* But they helped me get better after a week of wanting to die!! (I lost so much weight. I was hot! Maybe I need that again now?!)
Overall, you’re likely to get an upset stomach and never know what caused it, no matter how careful you are! It could be that fancy cocktail you had, that was made with ice from tap water and the awesome street food was fine.
I survived the Sahara Desert in Morocco and was fine, but got sick when I got to Barcelona, Spain. Whaaaat? You never know when or what may cause an upset stomach while travelling.
8. Will I be able to use my debit card places or will it mainly be cash only?
This, along with questions 4 & 7 make up one of my 3 golden rules of travelling!
- Always have travel insurance
- Always travel with Imodium
- Always have multiple ways to access money
Right now, I’m in Sweden during a 6 month trip through Europe. I have several debit cards, several credit cards, and several different currencies in cash on me. All in different places – so if my wallet or day pack gets stolen, or my big pack gets rummaged in the hostel while I’m out, or lost on a plane, I have back ups!
In SE Asia you’ll mainly be using cash. But how do you get Thai baht, Vietnamese Dong or Lao Kip out of your bank account and into your wallet? By either withdrawing from an ATM, or by exchanging cash.
My recommendation is that, at a minimum, you have a debit card, a credit card and some US dollars in cash on you at all times. And DO NOT keep them together! Say, debit card for withdrawing cash on you. Credit card hidden as well as you can in your luggage. And say US$50 hidden in 2 places.
I say USD, as it’s the most easily exchanged currency around the world. Taking AUD with you often won’t help, as it’s not so easily to exchange. Also, Cambodia uses USD as its main currency, and the Cambodian Riel as cents.
Check with your bank, long before you go on your trip to check your cards will work in the countries you’re visiting. Also check what fees they’ll charge you over there… My NAB cards (debit & credit) charge a fortune! ATM fees, international fees, currency conversion fees… It’s never ending! Seriously… I paid about $30 in fees to withdraw some cash in Indonesia earlier this year! eek
I just opened a Citibank transactions account. It’s saved me a fortune! No ATM fees, no currency conversion fees, and the exchange rate is really good. The account has no standard fees either! I’m not a financial planner… But I reckon you should check it out.
Always tell your bank(s) where and when you’re going, otherwise they may think the transactions are dodgy and block your account. (my bank froze my account a few weeks ago, after I booked an Aeroflot flight from Bucharest to Bangkok via Moscow. Apparently that was an odd thing to buy!?)
9. Should we slum it or is it better to splurge and get a nice hotel?
Short answer… BOTH!
South East Asia is a place where accommodation can vary from as little as $1 per night right up to thousands of dollars per night. You need to think about your budget, your expectations and what you’ll enjoy.
Keep in mind, $1 is extremely cheap and not available everywhere! And you will hardly get a roof over your head for that… Expect a wooden shed, no running water, no electricity etc.
The cheapest I’ve stayed in is $5 per night in Laos in the small village of Nong Khiaw. It was a wooden bungalow on a river, it (sometimes) had electricity through only 1 socket on the wall that I had to tie up in a weird invention of my own design, to get it to work. There was a shower and toilet (bucket flush), and even a fan (when the electricity was working)… Most importantly though, it had a hammock on my balcony overlooking the river!
The most expensive I stayed in was a resort on the coast of Cambodia, with staff ready to bring you everything and anything, a room with a bed inside and a bed outside on your balcony with views of the ocean, a resort pool, buffet breakfast, cocktails… We felt like kings! This (from memory) was about $150 per night for the room, plus we spent an additional $60 per day each on food and drinks in the resort (plus what we had out of the resort)
My advice… Travel on a budget. Experience the fairly comfortable, yet cheap hotels along the SE Asia tourist trail. This will save your money, show you the real experience and also help you meet other backpackers.
Then, what I like to do is recover from travel with a holiday at the end! If you have, say 3 weeks for your whole trip… Spend the last 3 or 4 days somewhere nice, in a resort, relaxing by the pool with cocktails. Go home refreshed!
10. Do you have any personal tips and hints from your experience travelling through South East Asia?
Oooh personal tips? But this was so much easier when you were asking questions that probe an answer!
Ok, let’s see what comes to mind…
- Try not to do too much! If you only have a set amount of time, see places properly rather than everywhere at a fast pace
- Don’t forward plan in so much detail that you’re locked in. What if you don’t like somewhere and want to leave, even though your itinerary says 4 days? Or worse, what if somewhere is AWESOME, but you’ve committed to just a passing visit on the way to somewhere else?
- Have fun, take risks… But don’t be stupid – look after yourself!
- Lay in hammocks with a large beer and a good book, whenever you get the opportunity!
- Do the Dr Fish – put your feet in a fish tank and let the fish eat your dead skin (much better than it sounds! I did it in Seam Reap, Cambodia)
- Get massages ALL THE TIME
- Never be scared, but always be skeptical and have your wits about you
- Travel with a padlock, for lockets in hostels
- More things that I can’t think of right now. Most of the tips I can think of I’ve already worked into the rest of the post
Remember, mistakes happen… Things don’t go to plan, you make silly mistakes and get ripped off. How do I know these things?
- I had to leave my boyfriend in the custody of Thai ladyboys because I had to find an ATM when we didn’t have cash to pay for the photos we took that we didn’t know we had to pay for
- I had to act out ‘I’m constipated and need laxatives” in a busy Spanish pharmacy
- I got ripped off by a tour guide in Morocco because I didn’t agree on the price of our tour beforehand
- I had no money when my only bank card didn’t work in the country I was in
- I spent ages walking around the suburbs of Bangkok looking for my accommodation, the address I had written down was in English letters so nobody who spoke Thai knew what it said
- And many many more!!!
The point is – try to chill, have fun and learn from mistakes rather than dwell on them!
Do you have any questions to add to this list?
Do you have additional advice to give?
Do you agree or disagree with anything I’ve said in this post?
Let me know in the comments below!