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11 Travel Tips for South East Asia that Will Keep You Safe, Respectful and Enjoying Every Minute

If you get a chance take it, if it changes your life, then let it. No one said it would be easy, they just promised it would be worth it.

Jessie Maragoudakis

Why would anyone want to travel to South East Asia? Well, for starters there is the fact that prices are about as low as it gets anywhere on the planet; the diversity is such that one minute you can be getting up-close-and-personal with the local wildlife as you hike through a pristine jungle while the next minute could see you wandering ancient temples and ruins, bronzing yourself on a heart-achingly beautiful beach or surrounded by sparkling skyscrapers. South East Asia has it all – fantastic food, warm-hearted people, rainbow-colored culture and majestic nature. Being disappointed here is not an option, no matter what floats your personal boat.

The following tips will hopefully help you optimize you adventure ensuring you squeeze the last drop of fun out of your travels.

1. Avoid the Travelling Oops - Do Your Culture Homework

Part of the joy of travelling to far-flung places is to immerse yourself in new and fascinating cultures but with that comes some responsibilities. Things you wouldn't think twice about at home can be considered rude or even highly offensive in South East Asia and you will have a far better experience if you take some time not to just learn but understand the big no-nos.

In Buddhist culture – which is predominant in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam and Singapore - the head is the holiest part of the body while the feet are considered dirty. This means many things:

  • Taking off your shoes before you enter buildings including shops, hostels and homes.
  • Never pointing your feet at people or stepping over them.
  • Never propping your feet on seats and table.
  • Refraining from touching anyone on the head.
  • Showing respect for bank notes which bear the king's head.

and many more.

There are all sorts of other little things too -

  • Women are not allowed to touch or hand things to monks.
  • The 'come here' hand gesture with palm up is rude.
  • Turning your back on a sculpture of Buddha to have your photo taken is highly disrespectful.

and so the list goes on.

Blissful ignorance is exacerbated by the fact that, typically speaking, the cultural tendencies are such that it's very rare for a Westerner to be told if they are doing something culturally offensive and then add to this the fact that allowances are made for Westerners anyway. However, not getting pulled up is no excuse for doing it anyway but means you have even more responsibility to make sure you don't inadvertently do something offensive.

2. The Big Chill - Air-con Buses

The refreshing chilliness of the air-con as you step from scorching pavement to bus may seem like a god-send but might well lose its appeal after another five hours of travelling. Air-con on the buses in SE Asia – particularly Thailand – is Arctic icy so prepare for your journey with a blanket and an extra layer or two... or prepare to freeze.

3. Bikinis Are For the Beaches - Dress Appropriately

In many parts of SE Asia naked shoulders, tummies and knees are considered a sign of sexual promiscuity in women. If you must wear your strap tops and short shorts then go right ahead but don’t complain when you are treated accordingly. Also, be aware that this behavior gives Western women a bad name while also clearly demonstrating you are lacking in manners, respect or intelligence.

In the beach resorts and tourist-centered areas such as Phuket and Bali the locals are well used to seeing under-dressed females but they don't like it and topless sunbathing is truly shocking for them. In Indonesia, Malaysia, the Southern Philippines and Southern Thailand where Islam is the predominant religion inappropriate dress is even less tolerated and sometimes includes the beaches too.

In all restaurants and shops, in the countryside and while walking around town try and dress a little more modestly and this goes for men going shirtless as well. Local men may go shirtless in their own village/town but never in some-one else's village - it is considered rude.

In ALL temples you will be asked to cover shoulders and knees.

4. Toilet Topics - Learn to Squat

If you're staying in a hotel then most likely you'll be faced with Western style toilets otherwise expect a lot of squat toilets. Toilet paper is usually not provided (sometimes you can buy a square or two in public toilets) and instead the cleaning part comes via a type of water hose known affectionately by many travelers as 'the bum gun'. The 'flush' is a scoop or two of water from a bucket thrown down the hole.

You may sneer now but you'll be surprised how quickly this all starts to come naturally after a while and even seems cleaner.

5. Total Cultural Immersion - Consider Doing Some Voluntary Work

A spot of voluntary work will give you instant access to all kinds of things it would be impossible to experience simply as a tourist. You may find yourself living with a local family for instance and not just watching but becoming part of how day-to-day life unfolds for the folk in your chosen part of the world.

Voluntary projects come in all shapes and sizes allowing people of all ages and abilities to offer commitments of one day to several months. Try and avoid the come-and-volunteer-with-us-but-pay-us-lots-of-money-first type set-ups. The following websites offer genuine low cost or free placements all over the world –
True Travellers Society
Independant Volunteer

6. A Little Thanks Goes a Long Way - Learn How to Say 'Please', 'Thank you' & 'Hello'

No one is expecting you to be fluent in Vietnamese, Khmer, Bahasa Indonesian or any of the other languages you are likely to encounter in SE Asia but learn a few of the basics and watch as doors miraculously open up for you. Making an effort instantly marks you out as some-one with the right attitude and respect and almost always raises a smile. In Thailand, learning simply to say 'hello', 'please' and 'thank you' qualifies you as some-one who speaks Thai!

7. Essential Packing Item - A Sleeping Bag Liner

If you intend to travel around South East Asia on a budget the beds you will be sleeping in may not always appear the most tempting. Taking along a sleeping bag liner provides you with your own cocoon and a comforting barrier as well as coming in handy on sleeper trains and buses. There are still some hostels around too that don't provide bedding.

8. Scorpions On a Stick... Maybe - Street food... Definitely

Many Westerners have a strange abhorrence of street food, certain that they will be exposing themselves to all sorts of nasties. If this was truly the case then the South East Asians would be dropping like flies as this is where they eat if they eat out. Of course you do need to exercise some caution but if there's a line of locals standing at a certain stall the chances are it's good and it's safe.

Street food is typically the cheapest, always offers an authentic culinary experience and is often as good as it gets – if you avoid it you are going to be missing out.

And by the way – DON'T give yourself a hard time if you crave and have Western food from time to time. You are a Westerner - experiencing the local cuisine is all part of the fun but this isn't an endurance exercise despite what a certain sector of the travelling set would have you believe.

9. Exercising Caution without Excess Paranoia

It makes sense to stay alert while you are travelling but if you let this drift into paranoia and assume that every person approaching you is trying to rip you off you are going to miss out on all sorts of adventures and experiences – the reasons why you probably wanted to go travelling in the first place. Learn what are the most practiced scams at your destination, keep an open mind (perhaps the man who says he wants to sit with you and practice English really does.....maybe he doesn't) and accept that you will get ripped off a little from time to time.

10. Hiring Scooters is Lots of Fun........or Not!

All over South East Asia you can hire scooters and mopeds and all over are people who have had some of the best experiences of their travels in this way. However, also all over South East Asia are travelers with various portions of body skin scoured off, sporting fetching bandages and presenting bashed up faces.

It's your call but be aware that driving can be hazardous and that some hired scooters are death traps so choose your hire company and your driving destination carefully.

11. Don't Pack Your Impatience

If your world typically runs by tight time-keeping and schedules you may have to re-program your brain in South East Asia or risk dangerously high stress levels. Try and embrace this different approach to time – in Laos particularly this can be tricky at first - and lower your expectations with regard to time-tables and you'll be fine.

Everyone has their own personal essential tips for South East Asia – what will yours be? Have we missed something vital? Do you have some snippet which enhanced your experience which you can share? We're all ears.

About the author


In 2003, after a too-close-for-comfort brush with the Grim Reaper, I decided life was for living. So I sold my house, gave away my business as a professional gymnastics coach and divided most of my worldly possessions among family and friends. With my trusty surf board tucked under my arm and hefting my backpack I set out to explore the planet. I have been doing that ever since - the last few years as a go-it-alone female. My work as a freelance writer allows me to make my 'office' anywhere – from the middle of the jungle to a beach hut; sometimes I take on voluntary work too. No surprise that I now have a vast collection of adventures and travel experiences hard-wired into my memory bank. Hardly in the first flush of my youth I am often asked 'isn't it time to settle down?' That would be a resounding no! Never knowing what is around the next corner and choosing whichever nook of the planet I am in to call home, feeds the permanent nomad in me.