12 Useful Southeast Asia Travel Tips

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A beach in El Nido, Philippines, one of the places I learned many Southeast Asia travel tips

Southeast Asia is one of the most popular areas in the world for extended travel, and for good reason! The region is comprised of Brunei, Cambodia, East Timor, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. Out of these 11 countries, I have visited 9.

Southeast Asia is big, diverse, and beautiful. I’ve actually done the majority of my travel in Southeast Asia, particularly backpacking and traveling solo. You can spend months in the region and still not see everything.

While the tourist infrastructure is quite good across much of the region, Southeast Asia travel can be a little tricky for first timers to this part of the world. So these tips are especially aimed at them, but will be useful for anyone needing a refresher before their next Southeast Asia trip.

This blog will cover my most useful Southeast Asia travel tips, all learned (sometimes the hard way) from my personal experiences traveling there.

1. Be careful about water (and ice)

Unless you’re a local/resident traveling in your own country, you will really want to watch what you eat and drink to minimize sickness. This is especially important for water. In general, don’t drink the tap water (except maybe someplace like Singapore). You can and will get sick.

Drink bottled water or purified water from machines at your accommodation. To minimize plastic bottle waste, bring your own water bottle.

To make that easier, make sure that your accommodation has a water machine so that you can refill your water bottle. But not every place has a water machine, even more expensive accommodation. You can also bring a giant water bottle so you have enough water while you’re out for the day.

When it comes to ice, some people avoid iced drinks. Others just make sure that the ice used in drinks is made with purified water.

It’s really hard to want to avoid iced drinks in the heat though. When it’s 90+ degrees Fahrenheit/32+ degrees Celsius out, base instincts kick in and you want that iced smoothie or coffee.

I don’t tend to go out of my way to avoid iced drinks, including at night markets and street stalls. I do sometimes ask about the provenance of the ice, but rarely.

If you have a very sensitive stomach, when in doubt, don’t drink it.

In addition, it can be a good idea to brush your teeth with bottled or purified water. Maybe that seems excessive. You do you. But if you want to minimize risk more, consider doing this. But definitely close your mouth in the shower so you don’t ingest the shower water.

2. Bring a sarong everywhere

Sarongs are about the most useful thing for Southeast Asia travel. Need a towel? Something to lounge upon on the beach? Need a blanket on the plane? Need a coverup for walking around the beach? Need to shroud your knees or shoulders at a temple?

All these problems can be solved with a sarong. They’re lightweight and easy to bring with you when you go out for the day.

I’d suggest normally taking your sarong with you when you go out, if there is a chance you might stop by someplace like a temple.

They also make a nice, affordable souvenir. So if you don’t already have one, pick one up at your destination!

3. Plan for getting sick

Because of the heat, differences in water and food, and lots of movement, it is likely that you will feel a bit sluggish/lethargic or have some stomach trouble at some point during your trip. This is particularly true if you’ll be traveling a few weeks or months on Southeast Asia trip.

And that’s if you don’t get seriously ill.

Build some extra time into your itinerary for rest in general, but also so you have enough time to visit your must-see places should you feel a bit unwell.

For example, I got a bad bout of food poisoning in Siem Reap and had to decrease my time in Phnom Penh by a day. One day isn’t that much time, but it is a lot of time when I had only planned 3 full days in the city.

Bring a few medications with you from your home country (such as a pain reliever and bismuth subsalicylate for your stomach). I can’t stress the importance of this enough if you’re traveling solo.

You don’t want to get hit hard by sickness and not be able to get to a pharmacy. There might not be anyone to go get you medicine.

And make sure you get any required vaccinations and medications for the areas you will be traveling. You may also want to consider getting the recommended travel vaccines, even if they’re not required.

4. Set your expectations on bathrooms

The bathroom setups in Southeast Asia may be different to what you’re used to in your country, both private and public. In much of the world, there is no dedicated, sectioned-off shower space in the bathroom. You just shower in the space that’s there, and there is a water drain in the floor.

This is a normal thing in the region. Don’t be surprised or angry if/when your hotel doesn’t have a bathroom like back home.

Hot water may not be available everywhere. This is more likely in cheaper accommodation. But it can also be quite common in certain regions or countries.

And in many places, you shouldn’t flush toilet paper. You should throw it in the garbage can in the stall/bathroom. There are often signs indicating this.

And yes, there might be squat toilets and yes, you might have to “manually” flush some of them by pouring water into them. It is usually obvious where to get this water from, like a bucket of water inside the stall with a ladle.

You might have to pay for some bathrooms. And they might not be that great still.

5. Research visas

Depending on what country you’re going to and what passport you’re carrying, you may need to apply for a visa in advance to visit a destination.

Also, the duration you’re allowed to stay in a country may be only a month or less, like it is for Americans in the Philippines, Laos, and Cambodia.

So research that before you start planning a months-long trip in one country. And factor that into your timing and your budget, too.

For example, I have to apply for an eVisa to visit Vietnam as an American. Meanwhile, some of my friends from other countries can visit Vietnam visa-free for up to 45 days (which has recently increased from 15 days).

So just be aware of what you need to do to enter which countries and how long you’re allowed to stay.

6. Bring tissues and hand sanitizer everywhere

I used to do this before the pandemic, thanks to my backpacking trips. And I still do, but make an even bigger point of it.

Not every bathroom will have toilet paper and/or soap, even ones you have to pay for. So always have hand sanitizer and toilet paper/tissues/wipes with you.

You’ll thank me later when you’re at a rural rest stop on your bus between destinations and you really have to go and there’s no soap or toilet paper.

7. There could be power outages

Power outages are common in some areas. Many businesses and accommodations will have backup generators for this, but not all do. And even then, it can take some time for the power to come back on.

So make sure you’re regularly charging your stuff, and have a power bank with you.

The power actually went out in my hotel in the Philippines as I was writing the first draft of this article.

That’s not to say that this will happen often, for long, or at all. During all my time in Southeast Asia, it’s only happened to me very briefly in the Philippines. Your experiences will probably vary.

8. Keep hydrated

Southeast Asia travel can be extremely hot, even unbearably so. And that’s not even considering the humidity. So it’s extremely important to stay hydrated. Drink (safe) water and keep drinking it.

You might even want to drink a sports drink like a Gatorade, Powerade, or Pocari Sweat on particularly hot days, or just every few days in general, to replenish electrolytes.

This may seem obvious, but you have to keep reminding yourself.

Bring a water bottle with you when you go out for the day so it’s easier to keep drinking.

9. Take a photo of your laundry before dropping it off

Often, your clothing will be washed with other people’s clothing when you get laundry services, which is fine. But it can lead to pieces of clothing getting mixed up. Your shirt could be given to someone else, you might have another person’s shorts.

So take a photo (or multiple photos) of all the clothing you’re giving over to be washed, and double check you have everything before you leave.

10. Be mindful of what you eat

Eating new and delicious foods is one of the best parts of traveling. Having diarrhea is not.

If you have a sensitive stomach or are prone to having digestive issues, you might want to consider not ordering any food that isn’t thoroughly cooked, like salads. You don’t know what kind of water fruit or vegetables have been washed in (if at all).

You will also want to think through your street food choices. Again, thoroughly cooked is best. In some areas, you might want to avoid street food altogether and only eat in restaurants.

But you can still become ill at restaurants. In Myanmar, I ate no street food. I only ate at restaurants or packaged snacks, and yet my stomach was still off every single day of the 10ish days I was there. I also didn’t drink tap water.

Of course, it can still be worth it to risk some street food now and again. Just make sure you have some of those medications I mentioned earlier handy.

This isn’t to say don’t eat street foods, don’t eat this or that. Just be aware of what I have mentioned, be prepared in case you get sick, and if something looks or smells very off, do not eat it.

Another example: I was served some extremely pink chicken on a tour this year, and I didn’t touch it and ate other foods instead. (Also side note: another guy on my tour group was color blind and was eating the chicken because he couldn’t see it was pink. I told him it was very pink. I guess if you’re red color blind and traveling solo…watch out?)

11. Think through your transportation

Sure, the flight that arrives at 11 PM is a great deal. But how can you get to your accommodation from the airport? Is public transportation open and also safe at that hour? Can you take a taxi?

Sure, that train leaving at 5 AM is cheap. But it probably won’t be light outside. Will there be other people around? Is there somewhere safe to wait?

Often, transportation that leaves super early or arrives super late is not worth the money you’ll save.
But if you’re really considering booking such transportation (or if it’s your only option), make sure you think through all these questions, do research, and plan a bit.

Make sure you’re able to get directly and safely to your final destination (such as via taxi, ride share, or private car).

Also, if you’re looking at taking the bus between cities, check out the bus stop location before you book it. Sometimes bus stops aren’t even at a bus station, they can be at in kind of random spots.

You probably don’t want to be waiting outside by yourself on a random road when it’s dark for a prolonged period.

12. Pad your timing

Things might not always happen at the exact time scheduled/stated. Your tour might say pick up is at 8 AM, but they arrive at 8:20. You were told the bus ride would take 4 hours, but it took 6 hours.

This can be due to any number of things, like other tourists delaying things, traffic, road conditions.

Yes, it can be a bit annoying for your planning. So I would not recommend planning too many scheduled things in one day.

Overall Thoughts

I love Southeast Asia. None of what I say here means you’ll be sick every day, everything will be terrible, and so on.

It’s simply to prepare you for the realities of Southeast Asia travel. If you’re from a country very different to the ones in Southeast Asia and you’ve never traveled much outside of countries like your own, you could be in for a bit (or a lot) of culture shock.

I’ve seen it in reviews for accommodations, tours, and more.

Just do some preparations before your trip (e.g. medication, visas), set your expectations accordingly, and do what you can to minimize risk during your trip. Traveling in Southeast Asia is amazing. There is a reason I keep going back!

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