Fifteen tips for a great holiday in Asia

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First published 26th December, 2007

In November 2007 we celebrated our 10-year anniversary of living and travelling in Southeast Asia. In that time we've had the good fortune to live in three of Southeast Asia's most interesting countries (Cambodia, Indonesia and Thailand) and to travel extensively throughout the region. We arrived from Sydney, Australia back in 1997 with just the two backpacks, and by the time we moved from Phnom Penh to Jakarta in 2005, the two rucksacks had bred -- giving birth to a 20-foot container. In the past decade, aside from accumulating enough flotsam to fill a very big metal box, we've collected the following 15 pieces of advice that we hope will help you get the most out of your trip.


The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry
Don't leave home with a plan cast in concrete. A too-detailed, too-rigid itinerary will go off the rails at some stage. By planning down to the hour, you're losing the flexibility to decide on a whim to do someting you hadn't even considered. Often the best trips are those least planned -- so don't plan too much. Our itinerary section should be a good starting point.

No means no
It's your holiday, so listen to other's suggestions, but decide for yourself. Don't be berated into doing things you don't feel you want or need to do. This is especially important when it comes to touts. While we'd like to think there's somewhere particularly warm reserved for touts in the next world, for now we just have to deal with them. A firm "No thank you" should be all that is required. If they persist, ignore them -- it's easier said than done, but believe us it's just about always in your interests to ignore a tout. Don't let them railroad you.

It's a guide not a gospel
Things change. Hotels burn down, restaurants go sour, sites disappear. Any travel guide -- on- or off-line -- will be out of date or inaccurate in one way or another. Don't let it bother you -- it's a guide not a gospel, and treat it as such. Talk to locals and other travellers to find out the latest.

Read the local rag
Local newspapers and magazines are commonly more up to date then many other sources. Looking for a fun Friday night in Saigon? Pick up a copy of Asialife to find out what's the hottest spot within walking distance -- it may have only opened last week. These type of sources can often fill the gap since your guide's author last blew through town.

Talk to locals
So your guidebook's out of date and the newspapers are all in some funny language you don't understand. Go ask somebody. Just because you're staying in Uncle Somchai's flophouse doesn't mean Somchai isn't the man when it comes to insider knowledge on what to do and what not to do. Check in, dump your stuff then wander down to front desk guidebookless and ask "So what's good around here?" If you luck-out they'll just tell you to go buy a guidebook, but if they're on the money, you could get a great inside angle on things the locals like to do -- chances are you'll have fun and may even make some local friends.

Learn the local lingo
If you're spending anything more than a few days in a country you've got no excuse for not learning at least the very basics of a language -- after all, you probably spent five to twenty hours on a plane to get there. Hello, thank you, one to 10 -- learning phrases like these aren't brain surgery and even the tiniest attempt to use local language will discern you from the crowd. If you're not going to try, at least ask "Excuse me, do you speak English?" rather than barrelling in with a "Hi luv, I'm just in from the outside world, can I have a double room with air, hot water, a tub, cable TV with the sports channel and a bar fridge stocked up with Tiger Beer?" You can start learning some Thai here.

No reservation? No problem
Outside of peak season in heavily touristed areas, you will not need a reservation -- especially if you're a budget traveller. If your heart's set on a special place, at a special time, then by all means reserve away, but if you're content in any old room, in any old place, you do not need a reservation. More importantly, don't totally freak out if you don't have one -- remember the majority of places can't be booked in advance anyway. You can read more about needing a reservation here.

They're not all scoundrels
It's true. Everyone is not a rip-off merchant destined for a hot place underground in the next world. Admittedly anyone remotely suave looking (with snake-hips and brandishing a mobile phone) standing out the front of Bangkok's Grand Palace or Saigon's War Crimes Museum probably is, but don't treat your host country's entire population as a collection of freaks bent on squeezing every last dong out of your wallet. Keep your wits about you and, with the little bit of languauge you've already learnt, you should be in a position to meet some really good people.

Pack light
You're going on a holiday in the tropics -- not a military mission in an Arctic winter -- so pack accordingly. Lay everything you want to take out on the floor -- put half of what you see back in the wardrobe. You do not need a sleeping bag, tent, portable cooking stove, hiking boots, 14 books, 20 CDs, 14 pairs of socks and underwear and four pairs of jeans. You do need light cotton clothing, one or two books, enough clothes for three days, a pen and a ball of string. For more information on what to pack, see here.

Pack big
Just because you followed the previous point to a tee, doesn't mean you should be taking nothing more than a handbag. Just as we accumulated a 20-foot container, you will accumulate stuff too. Take a pack big enough to fit in some of the collectibles you'll gather along the way -- including the umbrella from Bo Sang umbrella village you picked out for grandma, the fake Diesel outfit you scored on Khao San for your sister, and the empty M-16 cartridge you shot at Cu Chi for your crazy Uncle Ted... Just remember to check-in the cartridge for the flight home.

Don't forget to pack your brain
Sounds obvious, but it's amazing just how many people, in their excitement to get on the road, forget to pack their brain. Some of the stupidest things we've ever done have been while travelling -- despite what you may think, you are not immortal while travelling. Pack your brain, use your common sense, and chances are both you and your hosts will have a far better time.

Are you insured?
Following on from the sometimes brainless antics of travellers (ourselves included), travel insurance is a very, very good idea. If you're looking for the cheapest policy on the planet, don't be surprised when they don't pay up for anything. The details and exclusions of your policy may not make a big difference to you if you're dead, but they will make things far easier or far more difficult for your family as they try to get your body home -- an expensive and complicated undertaking. Having your mother's address tatooed under your armpit, with the caption "If found, please return to:" will not get your body far. If you're looking for comprehensive travel insurance, we recommend World Nomads.

Less is more
Just because you've 14 days in Vietnam doesn't mean you should go to 14 cities. If you're travelling more than every other day, you are trying to see too much in too little time. Slow down, see less -- save the rest for another trip and save yourself the need to have a holiday to get over your holiday. If you really must cram as much as possible into a trip, then an organised tour may be more up your alley as you'll need to spend less time finding hotels and restaurants -- which should leave you some time to decompress ... a little. Here are some reasons why an adventure tour may be the better option for you.

Don't skip the highlights
Less is more, but don't skip the higlights. If you've got seven days in Vietnam, then you should definitely see Ha Long Bay. It doesn't matter that it's heavily toutisted. It's unique and you'll never see anything quite like it again. Ignore travellers who steer you away from places saying they are "too touristy" -- they've seen it and so should you -- if you want to. We once had a traveller tell us not to bother with Angkor Wat because it was too touristed -- yes, Angkor has crowding issues, but everyone is there for a reason -- it's absolutely unbelievable!

It's a holiday -- not a horror story
It's easy to get caught up in the possible pitfalls of a holiday in Asia -- there are certainly no shortage of them -- but with a bit of common sense, some planning and a bit of effort, it's fairly straightforward to put yourself in a good position to, in all likelihood, have a trouble-free stay in Asia.

In summary:
Plan your trip out roughly -- plan in degrees of a couple of days rather than a couple of hours -- and leave yourself open for changes of plan.
Make the effort to learn a little of the language. This will help you engage with locals and hopefully dodge the con men.
By all means use a guidebook, but don't take it too literally and use other sources -- people are the best.
Pack sensibly and don't forget your brain.

The above sounds so obvious yet you'll be astonished at just how many travellers ignore the above and careen from disaster to debacle -- we hope your trip pans out better than theirs!

Have you got some useful advice for travelling in Asia? Tell us all about it on the Travelfish messageboard.


About the author:
Stuart McDonald co-founded Travelfish.org with Samantha Brown in 2004. He has lived in Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia, where he worked as an under-paid, under-skilled language teacher, an embassy staffer, a newspaper web-site developer and various other stuff. His favourite read is The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton and he spends most of his time in Bali, Indonesia.


Read 6 comment(s)

  • Some really great tips that most people ignore! I quoted you on Tripadvisor - Less is More and Don't skip the highlights under "Slow down to see more". Hope I didn't break the rules?

    Posted by John on 18th September, 2010

  • What great tips... I particularly like the "don't go there it is too touristy"one. There is a good reason places are touristy... its because they are good.

    The other thing I would say is read travel forums. If you are looking for a romantic getaway on a beach then the place that is rated as having the "best full moon parties ever" may not be for you.

    And if you are looking for party central then the "remote, rustic, natural beauty" spot may not be for you either.

    Posted by KazAussie on 23rd September, 2010

  • Excellent tips, and glad you didn't skip Angkor Wat!
    We've found cheaper/better insurance through MNUI/HCC Medical, World Nomads is pricey and doesn't offer the best comprehensive coverage yet everyone recommends them.........

    Posted by themuths on 24th September, 2010

  • @themuths you are right MNUI does offer cheaper insurance but it is purely medical/health cover.. it doesnt cover your personal belongings or if you miss a flight etc.

    Posted by tina on 24th September, 2010

  • Good advice, especially less is more. I find gaffer tape a very useful item to pack as well, mends almost everything and keeps curtains together covers holes in mosquito nets, and so on.

    My best advice would be to stay open to whatever happens and not compare everything with home; you're not at home, so it's irrelevant.

    Posted by violets on 24th September, 2010

  • Thanks for the comments all, & John no probs re giving it a plug on TA. As far as a ball of string is concerned, it has loads of uses:

    a) Impromptu lines for wet washing
    b) Tying up gaping holes in mozzie nets
    c) Tying stuff to the outside of your pack
    d) Securing a door or window that doesn't lock properly
    and, most importantly:
    e) Tying up annoying children :)

    Posted by somtam2000 on 24th September, 2010

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