Tips for First-Time Travellers in South East Asia

Johnny Ward, founder of, has been on the road for 4 years through more than 50 countries. His blog shows you don’t have to BE rich to LIVE rich. He’s currently studying his Masters part-time in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and is semi-based in Bangkok, Thailand.

Flights booked, visa’s ready, but no idea what you’re letting yourself in for? Thoughts of island paradises, exotic cocktails and lazy hammocks may well represent a slice of what South East Asia has to offer, but in reality, there’s so much more.

Asia can be a daunting prospect for any first time visitor but as you ready yourself for the trip of a lifetime, take a couple of minutes to read up on a few tips that should keep you on the straight and narrow on your adventure…

1. Money

You don’t need to get any money changed into Asian currencies while your still at home. Just bring your wallet, at least 2 debit/credit cards and around $200 (about €140) in cash. No travellers cheques, no pre-paid credit cards, no local currency!

There are endless ATMs across the region and nearly all take foreign cards. You’ll have a spare card (preferably 2) in case you lose one and the $200 is there for emergencies or visa fees. Simple. There will be a bank charge for your card (normally around €3 or €4) so try not to take out less than €100 a time, preferably €200, to minimise the withdrawal fee.

You get a great rate on your cash if you bring your local currency to the country in question but you don’t want to be carrying more cash than you need to so keep this option to a minimum.

In terms of spending, a frugal traveler can get by on €20 a day across South East Asia, while flashpackers can easily break the €50 a day mark. Accommodation can cost as little as €3 in most South East Asian countries but don’t expect luxury for that. If you’re a budget traveller it’s awesome, but if you need a private bathroom, hot water etc then you may want to save a little more before you set off.

Hostels in Vietnam | Hostels in Thailand | Hostels in Malaysia | Hostels in Indonesia

2. Food

Ignore your guidebook warnings about street food, hygiene etc. Eating in a cheap restaurant merely means you don’t see the state of the kitchen, it doesn’t mean it’s hygienic! So eat on the street, embrace the chaos, save your money and enjoy. Also, avoid Western food – it’s overpriced and normally low quality, beside you haven’t come all the way to Vietnam to eat a cheeseburger have you?

The food varies dramatically from country to country, and generally speaking South East Asian cuisine isn’t as spicy as people say – sure Thailand may set your mouth on fire (SomTam/spicy salad anyone?!), but other than that you’ll be fine.

When your out and about try not to miss on these 3 local specialties:

Thailand – massaman curry, often only found in northern Thailand but it’s certainly something worth traveling for.

Malaysia – honey chicken, especially on Penang Island

Vietnam – make the most of the French influence and indulge in cheap and delicious baguettes at every opportunity!

3. Partying

Undoubtedly one of the biggest expenses a backpacker has to endure so be smart. Booze is often not as cheap as you think and drinking imported alcohol will cost you similar prices to home (tequila, Guinness, wine). Drink local alcohol, pre-drink in your hostel with your new friends, buy booze from the supermarket or 7/11 and your money will go a lot further.

NOTE: forget this point in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh where, in the city centre, you can drink ‘bia hoi’ (‘fresh beer’) for around €0.10 a glass!

Partying in South East Asia is a sight to behold and if you can stretch your trip to Jakarta Indonesia be sure to check out ‘Stadium’. The infamous club opens on a Friday night at 7pm and closes around lunchtime on a Monday – now that’s a party! Another landmark event on the backpacking calendar is the full-moon party on Koh Phangan each month.

For hardcore clubbing, most capitals offer a wide variety of options – there’s always the backpacker scene, which is full of foreigners, cheap drinks and flip-flops. However, if you want to don your gladrags and paint the town red, there are ‘real’ clubs in most cites, ones where you’ll get turned away in an instant if you’re wearing a vest and sandals. You’ll have to venture further from the backpacking circuit, head into the city centres, dress up smart and bring plenty of cash!

4. Transport

South East Asia is a transportation treat for backpackers. Due to the sheer number of fellow travelers there’s an endless stream of trains and buses from one spot to the next. Normally you can book your bus/train directly from the hostel you’re staying at so it’s stress free (there may be a small premium for this service).

If you want to rough it, you can take local transport – it’s cheaper but slower. Often, you’ll be travelling long distance so, where possible, book yourself on a sleeper train. It’ll save a night’s accommodation fees, you’ll still get some sleep and wake up in your new destination bright and early – perfect.

Trains are only common in Malaysia and Thailand, other than that and you’ll be on the bus. Transport is reasonably priced across the region so expect between €1 and €2 per hour of transports. For example, Bangkok to Chiang Mai by bus takes around 10 hours and will cost around €13. Any more expensive than €2 per hour and you should look for alternative modes of transport.

Each major town should have a main bus/train station. Check it out the day before you want to travel to see your options and buy your ticket early to avoid disappointment. Watch out for any local festivals, as transport can be fully booked for over a week.

5. Preparation

There’s no need to worry about booking trains, airport transfers, activities in advance – that can all be sorted out (cheaper) at your destination. However, take a while to think about the timing of your trip.

You know you’ll be in the region for a certain number of weeks but don’t know where or when exactly, right? Read up on the various festivals held in the countries you plan to visit and, where possible, try to coincide your visit with them. For example, Thai New Year (Songkran Festival) happens during mid-April each yeah – this is one of the craziest festivals in the world, basically a 3-day water fight, so the last thing you want is to be stuck in some Cambodian jungle while Songkran is in full flow in the neighbouring country.

Regardless of your plans, try to make sure you hit up the following 5 destinations:

Angkor Wat – Cambodia: The staple diet for backpackers in the region, one of the seven wonders of the world, Angkor Wat’s impressive temples can’t fail to impress even the least cultured of backpackers!

Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary– Borneo: Found in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo this centre rehabilitates rescued orangutans and tries to integrate them back into their society, a sight to behold

Chiang Mai – Thailand: My favourite place in the whole world! So much to do and feels a lot more like the real Thailand after a few weeks on Khao San road and Koh Pangan! Hill tribe treks, elephant rehabilitation centre, cookery classes, bungee – this has something for everyone. Not to mention the cheaper prices and nicer climate.

Boracay – The Philippines: 300 km south of the capital, Manilla, Boracay islands often features in the world’s best beaches awards and has some the best diving in the world.

Yogyakarta – Indonesia: On the island of Java, Yogyakarta is home to the two of the most impressive temples in Yogyakarta – Borobudur and Prambana, it will blow your mind.

Alright guys, I hope these tips should set you in good stead as you gallivant across this amazing continent. Enjoy it, stay safe and happy travels!

Thanks to giladr, hern42, Electrostatico, The Wandering Angel, Andrew-Hyde and amanderson2 for the excellent images from Flickr! Please note, all images were suitable for use at the time of publication according to the Creative Commons License.

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