Get to Know Southeast Asia Before You Go

Are you thinking of making your first, second, or even your third trip to Southeast Asia? It’s a great decision and you won’t regret it. I’ve been to the area at least five times, but can’t wait to go again. Southeast Asia offers something for everyone; it is rich in history, culture, has interesting and precarious political situations, varying degrees of economic success, and of course amazing food. Choices are endless for all types of travelers; from budget to luxury, or package deals to “authentic travel.” Southeast Asia is one of the regions that’s small enough to travel across quickly, but the sheer diversity of sights, cultures, and food is mind-boggling.

Yet many travelers don’t appreciate the history and culture of this region. Travelers sign up in droves for an elephant trek, lay on the beach, drink all night, and then rinse and repeat. Perhaps if you’re younger, you’ll make it to a full moon party. That’s actually not a bad way to spend a trip (I know — I’ve done it), but there are ways to enrich your experience far beyond taking photos with the elephants. It’s all about context or as I call it, knowing the place.

Don’t worry, you can still ride an elephant.

An elephant tour guide greets travelers in Thailand. There are both good and bad services. Do your research to find humane tours.

Know the Place

What does it mean to know the place? And how you can you possibly achieve it, if you only have two weeks off from your life in the cube? Knowing the place simply means to take a deeper dive into your destination. How so?

History, Economics, Religion, and Politics

This means different things to different people, but it should always begin with their history. I highly recommend Southeast Asia: An Introductory History by Milton Osborne. It covers every country; their ancient history, struggles for independence from colonial powers, and current political and economic events. I purchased this book in preparation for a trip to Thailand and Cambodia. It helped put so many things I was witnessing into perspective, and it’s an understatement to say I learned a lot. It shed new light on topics such as Thailand’s political coups, and their admiration for the royal family. The section on the Khmer Rouge’s rise to power in Cambodia was particularly interesting, and displays how some of these issues are still unresolved today. We assume those atrocities will never happen again, yet the seeds of discontent (mainly government corruption) are still prevalent today. Having been to Vietnam several times, so I also found it interesting to read about the Chinese influence on Vietnam. This was explained in detail, as well as their fight for independence from modern colonialism. We tend to lump many of these countries’ histories and experiences into in the same pot, but there are many surprises. As a former resident of Indonesia (during childhood from 1988–91), I found a new perspective and greater appreciation for their history and culture.

If there’s just one book you want to read in preparation for your travels to Southeast Asia, then this one jumps to the top of the list. I found its review of this region’s history much more helpful than any guidebook, and highly recommend adding it to your library.

Southeast Asia represents a diverse set of histories, political systems, economic engines, and ethnic groups.

Guidebooks and Guides

You have a wealth of options, and most (if not all) of these books do an excellent job. For more information about choosing a guidebook, and what it should or shouldn’t be used for, you may click here. If you’re only going to one country, perhaps choose a country-specific guide. I had great experiences with Lonely Planet’s Philippines guidebook, The Rough Guide to Cambodia, and the Lonely Planet Indonesia book.

You may decide to stay in one place and opt for a city or region specific guidebook. This is a great idea as you can take a deeper dive into the city or area. For Thailand, I recommend the Lonely Planet Pocket Bangkok and Lonely Planet Pocket Phuket. Although the restaurant recommendations are questionable, the pullout maps are essential, particularly in Bangkok. Both books, and I would assume other Lonely Planet Pocket books, provide a great overview of activities and sights in the area. Most importantly, they’re lightweight and portable.

If you’re visiting multiple countries, check out Lonely Planet’s Southeast Asia on a Shoestring or The Rough Guide to Southeast Asia on a Budget. I wrote a review on these two books in a previous post. As I said in my reviews, whether you’re on a budget or not, these two books are must-haves.

In addition to guidebooks, hiring a certified guide may have a very positive impact on what you get out of your trip. Don’t be the guy or gal walking around the sights with absolutely no idea what you’re looking at, or what it all means. Invest the money in a qualified guide, and you will receive priceless memories in return. As a working professional, you shouldn’t think twice about spending $30-$50 on a guide to get the most out of your trip. The traveler who you hear say, “It’s not worth it” or “it’s a rip off,” is usually the only one being robbed of a great experience. Do your research in advance, ask for recommendations from fellow travelers, and be weary of guides not living up to your standard of excellence. If you’re heading to Siem Reap, Cambodia, I highly recommend reaching out to Sothik (

Almost all Eastern religions are represented in Southeast Asia. How did that happen? The “Introductory History” book will educate you on the region’s rich religious history.

Leisure, Arts, Culinary Delights

The next part is completely up to you, and should be tailored to fit your interests, wants, and needs. Perhaps you’re interested in a novel for an easy-going read, or research on local culinary traditions, military history, or perhaps you want to learn more about the local music and arts scene. Of course, I think the history book above could be a top priority, but not everyone may feel that way. For me, I’m partial to a good novel and learning more about any major wars or revolutions that occurred in that country. I also love seeing live music, but don’t necessarily feel that requires research in advance.

When my wife and I went to Cambodia in December, I read the books above, but also a really interesting memoir, Survival in the Killing Fields, written by Haing Ngor. He was a doctor at the time of the Khmer Rouge revolution, and spent years in a forced labor camp. It’s an incredible story that should be read by anyone going to Cambodia. It allowed me to connect with locals, ask more insightful questions, and have a better understanding and respect for their history. I was able to engage with them on a slightly deeper level, compared to superficial relationships many tourists form with the locals they meet.

Are you more of a hands-on person? Maybe you’re a martial arts enthusiast, an amateur chef, a painter, or musician. Let’s use cooking and food as an example. Chef Andy Ricker wrote a great book on Thai cooking called Pok Pok: Food and Stories from the Streets, Homes, and Roadside Restaurants of Thailand. It would be fun to learn more about Thai cooking and to do some yourself before you go. The same can be said for all interests and hobbies. Invest a little time to do some hands-on learning before you go. And of course once you arrive, it will be well worth it to take a local class on the same subject. Whether you’re learning to cook or kick, taking classes offers a great opportunity to learn more about the culture, both before and after you arrive.

The point is to find a topic that interests you and start learning more. You can do this through research, purchasing books/materials in advance, recommendations from fellow travelers, or hotel staff. There are some things you may want to book in advance, but other activities (if not most) may be better to schedule upon arrival.

The beautiful details on display at temples.

To Sum It Up

It’s all about context. You can walk around in a daze, seeing temple after temple, museum after museum, but it will mean a lot less to you if you don’t plan ahead. Do the work required before you arrive and make the most your time. Embrace the people of your destination country before you’ve even arrived, by researching the rich cultural history that distinguishes one country from another.

Look beyond their history too, and explore your own interests or hobbies. Learn about the local versions of those activities.

Don’t be afraid to invest in your trip. You only have 2–3 weeks of vacation, and it’s up to you to make it count. If that means spending additional money on certified guides or once-in-a-lifetime experiences, then the money is well spent.

There are a few simple rules for travel (and life) that you should never forget. You should get out more, know the place (as best you can), and always remember that life is best lived Outside the Cube.

A traffic scene in Cambodia.

All photos are original/unedited. © by Antonio Bovino.

This article was originally published on

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