Top tips & things we are learning during our 6-week SE Asia backpacking trip
I’ve been compiling a list of things we found useful for packing and preparing for the trip, as well as stuff we are leaning along the way*.
Practical & packing tips:
- Pack old clothes and wear them over and over. Being dirty and sweaty will have a whole another meaning after this trip. If you are traveling with your significant other it will only bring you closer :)
- Buy Lonely Planet guide books but also explore various travel blogs for tips from fellow travelers. These will often be more practical with most recent tips and logistics.
- Don’t bring a suitcase, just a backpack, and don’t over-pack. Doing laundry is cheap and you can buy clothes everywhere you go. Get a huge duffel bag to pack your backpacks in for the flights if you are checking it in — you don’t want to risk the straps getting cut off. We bought huge garbage bags and tape and packed the backpacks before each flight. It worked great! Ladies, don’t pack short dresses or too many tank tops (spaghetti straps are a no-no) — in all countries you will have to cover shoulders and knees and even if you are not at a religious site it’s nice to respect the culture and dress modestly (mainly in Myanmar).
- Bring old flip flops and good walking shoes.
- Some travel necessities we purchased before, based on our research and tips from travel blogs: travel adapters for different countries, extra battery packs to charge own devices, head lamps, quick dry towel, dry bags for electronics, packing cubes to organize clothes, US dollars in case of an emergency or no ATM, poncho big enough to fit us and our backpacks, Dramamine, Cipro and other common medicine, plenty of sun block and repellent.
- Ladies, don’t bring any make-up or expensive jewelry. Make-up will be useless in the heat. Before we left, I bought a cheap wedding band and that was the only piece of jewelry I brought.
- If you are coming from the US, sign up for a free checking account with Charles Schwabb, which will allow you to withdraw cash from any ATM anywhere around the world for free (they refund you the ATM withdrawal fees at the end of each month — this is the best!). And there are no foreign transaction fees.
- If you are doing a longer trip don’t over plan and overbook. We had booked our 1st week before we left, mainly because the Island didn’t have many budget friendly options. We had also gotten our Myanmar and Vietnam E-visa and thus the big flights between countries before we left. For Laos and Cambodia we are planning on doing the visa on arrival, as we didn’t firm up our plans. We booked our accommodation a day or two out on Booking.com or Agoda.com and never had any problem.
- When I first met my husband he taught me to always check for bedbugs wherever I travel and stay overnight. And that’s what we do as soon as we get into our hotel room. I’ve had many friends who had their wonderful travel ruined by bedbugs and we ain’t gonna be one of them.
Things we’ve learned
- You will get comfortable with a squat toilet very quickly.
- You are going to walk barefoot A LOT, so you better be OK with it.
- Rent a scooter to get around if you are comfortable with no road rules and have driven one before — SE Asia is not a place to learn it for the first time. Helmets may not be available in many places.
- No matter how poor or developing a country is, everyone will have a smartphone.
- You will spend more money than you think. Yes, SE Asia is cheap compared to other places, but all hotels, the entrance fees, tours, experiences, food, coffee, massages and souvenirs add up. Enjoy it while you can and don’t sweat over the few extra hundred dollars. You will make the money but when will you return to this part of the world?
- European backpackers and tourists are much more common than Americans. This may have to do with the distance proximity, as well as the length of vacation time?
- You will be surprised how many people locals fit onto 1 scooter — we often saw a family of 5, or even 2 men and 2 goats on a single scooter!
- There are absolutely no traffic and road safety rules, yet we have not seen an accident. Somehow, it works for the locals. Honking means someone is approaching and passing you. Crossing streets as a pedestrian can be often challenging.
- You will pay the tourist price and you just have to be OK with it.
- Don’t drink tap water — while the water may be good, the tubes are not. Bottled water is cheap everywhere you go.
- There are many stray animals, mainly dogs. Some are better taken care of than others, but none are hurt by the people. To the animal lovers this will be hard. But no matter how cute a stray dog is, I would not pet them.
Giving back to the communities
- You will see a lot of poor people who have almost nothing and it will be hard. But giving money to begging children will not be the best way to help them. Research local charities on ways supporting the communities, hire local guides for tours and treks, donate your clothing and dine at social enterprise establishments. We try to buy souvenirs at local markets and not argue over $0.50 or a dollar. I will also be planning on donating most of my clothes at the end of the trip (if anyone will take them!).
New perspective we are gaining
- There is no doubt that traveling gives you a new perspective. It makes you humble, grateful and you will appreciate what you have and where you come from. There are people working twice as hard as us just to get by.
- It will make you realize there are much more important things than all the material possessions we have and you will set different priorities. For our family, we know that traveling and new experiences is what we value and we put it as a priority for our relationship and life, and we will keep doing so.
*Will be updated as we go.