Fifteen tips for a great holiday in Asia
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 Any travel guide -- on- or off-line -- will be out of date or inaccurate in one way or another.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So your guidebook's out of date and the newspapers are all in some funny language you don't understand.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.
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.
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.
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.
Related reading10 reasons to do an adventure tour
10 reasons to travel independently
Nine Asian upcountry hideaways
Beach hideaways in Asia
Do I need reservations for my holiday?
Read 6 comment(s)
Add your comment
Feature story quicklinks
- Giving back in Southeast Asia (16)
- All stories
- Angkor Hospital For Children
- COPE: Helping people move on
- Epic Arts
- Free the Bears Laos
- Helping Phuket's children in need
- Helping Siem Reap's rubbish dump families
- Helping Singapore's transient workers
- Helping the Karen of Burma
- Humanitarian Services for Children of Vietnam
- Lifestart Foundation, Hoi An
- MyME Yangon
- Soi Dog Foundation
- Swim Vietnam
- Thai Freedom House, Chiang Mai
- The Samui Prison Project
- The SET Foundation
- Burma (9)
- Cambodia (23)
- All stories
- A Cambodian Eco-lodge
- A honeymoon in Cambodia
- Angkorian traffic woes
- Battambang weekend
- Elephant riding in Cambodia: Should you?
- Great places to stay in Siem Reap
- Is Preah Vihear safe to visit?
- Kampot or Kep?
- Koh Rong: Trouble in paradise?
- Kompong Cham escape
- Northeast Cambodia in photos
- Oh Poipet!
- PEPY:Sustainable Cambodian tourism
- Phnom Tamao Wildlife Refuge
- Sihanoukville beaches lure expats
- Spas, shopping & seers in Siem Reap
- The best islands in Cambodia
- The best places to stay on Cambodia's islands
- The Death Highway
- Trekking in Virachey National Park
- Trekking the Cardamoms in Cambodia
- Which Cambodian island is right for you?
- Why you should go to Cambodia
- Indonesia (14)
- All stories
- A funeral in Toraja, Sulawesi
- Climbing Rinjani
- How to hire a boat in Indonesia: Without drowning
- Learn to surf in Bali
- Medewi: A great Bali getaway
- Mountain biking in Bali: A ride in the woods
- Pasola, Sumba
- The Gili islands: Which is the right one for you?
- Ubud bird watching: From waterhens to witchcraft
- Ubud shopping guide
- Village trekking in Tana Toraja
- Weekend in Nusa Penida
- Yogya's student scene
- Laos (18)
- All stories
- A breeze through Luang Prabang
- Best budget rooms in Luang Prabang 2013
- Elephant trekking in Laos
- Exploring Laos' Bolaven Plateau
- Huay Xai to Pak Tha by slowboat
- Is Lao Airlines safe to fly?
- Laos' vanishing elephants
- Luang Prabang escape
- Luang Prabang for kids
- Muang Ngoi Escape
- Photos of Luang Prabang, Laos
- Pi Mai Lao in Luang Prabang: In 1999
- Southern Laos by scooter
- Temples in Luang Prabang
- The Gibbon Experience
- The Phonsavan adventure
- Vientiane's Chinatown
- What to buy in Luang Prabang, Laos
- Malaysia (10)
- Singapore (10)
- All stories
- 10 great hostels in Singapore
- Singapore on a budget
- Singapore's best happy hours
- Singapore's Hip Haji
- Singapore: Escape the urban jungle
- The best hostels in Singapore: 2013
- The best places to stay in Singapore
- The Festivals of Singapore
- Top 10 Hawker Centres: Part 1
- Top 10 Hawker Centres: Part 2
- Thailand (80)
- All stories
- 10 Bangkok galleries worth a look-see
- 10 Thai treks aside from Chiang Mai
- 24 Hours in Bangkok: Sukhumvit to Siam Square
- 31 Thai islands
- 5 Southern Thai towns to lose time in
- A Thai homestay in Ayutthaya
- A weekend in Phra Phradaeng
- A weekend on Ko Samet, Thailand
- An extra day in Krabi
- Andaman Sea island hopper
- Are Thailand’s cheap guesthouses disappearing?
- Ayutthaya temple tour
- Bangkok craft villages
- Bangkok for art lovers
- Bangkok's Charoen Krung Road
- Bangkok's Thonburi: exploring the west side
- Brilliant Bangkok
- Chiang Dao getaway
- Chiang Mai's temples
- Corruption in Thailand
- Eating on the edge
- Elephant's World Kanchanaburi
- Exploring Lamphun
- Exploring the Lungs of Bangkok
- Far southern Thailand: Go or not?
- Five days in Khao Lak, Thailand
- Floating markets around Bangkok
- Great Thai food blogs
- Highlights of Chanthaburi province
- How to do Khao Yai National Park
- Khao San Road safety and scams
- Ko Mun Nork: a nearby paradise
- Ko Pha Ngan 7-day detox:Colonic fast
- Ko Pha Ngan's best beaches in 2013
- Ko Phi Phi on a budget
- Ko Tao for non-divers guide
- Ko Yao Noi or Ko Yao Yai?
- Ko Yao: the islands you're looking for
- Learning Muay Thai in Bangkok
- Motorcycling the Chiang Rai loop
- Narathiwat: residence of good people
- Navigating Bangkok: The BTS Skytrain
- Phuket by night
- Phuket for Kids
- Phuket heritage walk: Car parts to saris
- Phuket's secret beaches
- Planning around Thailand's civil unrest
- Roll your own Kanchanaburi
- Should I book for the full moon party?
- Should I cancel my Thai holiday? No.
- Should I cancel my trip to Thailand? No.
- Soi Thong Lo, Bangkok
- Sorting out Suvarnabhumi Airport
- Staying at a Thai monastery
- Thai islands for nature lovers
- Thai islands to lose yourself on
- Thai visa FAQ
- Thailand tsunami wrap
- Thailand's Full Moon Party
- Thailand's Mae Khlong market
- Thailand: Where to from here?
- The best beach on Ko Samui
- The best places to stay on Ko Kut, Thailand
- The bridge over the River Kwai festival
- The road to Sangkhlaburi
- The road to Sangkhom
- Travelling through north-east Thailand
- Trekking in Thailand
- Trisara -- decadent luxury at its best
- Two days in Kamphaeng Phet
- What are the alternatives to Bangkok?
- What is the best beach on Ko Tao?
- What is the best island in Thailand?
- What's a good beach on Ko Pha Ngan?
- What's a good beach on Ko Samui?
- Where to stay at Railay Bay, Thailand
- Where to stay in Sukhothai?
- Where to stay on Ko Samet, Thailand
- Which beach on Ko Samui?
- Which island in Trang?
- Vietnam (33)
- All stories
- A short break in Nha Trang
- A Weekend in Can Tho
- Being fed Fido: Eating dog in Vietnam
- Buying a touring motorbike in Vietnam
- Con Dao escape
- Do nothing and see the best of Hanoi
- Doing the DMZ from Hue
- Exploring Kon Tum
- Exploring Vietnam's Mekong Delta
- Great Hanoi cafes to chill out in
- Ha Long Bay conclusions
- Ha Long Bay for backpackers
- Ha Long Bay for budget-busters
- Ha Long Bay for flashpackers
- Ha Long Bay or Sapa?
- Hanoi escape
- Hanoi or Saigon?
- Hoi An -- Walking over the dragon
- How to do the Dien Bien Phu loop
- How to enjoy your time in Vietnam
- How to pick a good Ha Long Bay cruise
- Is the Hoi An culture tour worth it?
- Motorbike Vietnam's Central Highlands
- One day in Hanoi
- Responsible shopping and eating in Hoi An
- Saigon's top 10 cafés
- Sapa or Bac Ha?
- Saving Vietnam's bears
- Street food safety
- The DMZ: Traveller tactical briefing
- Travel tips for Tet in Vietnam 2013
- Two Wheels & Ricefields: A review
- Which is the best street food tour in Hanoi?
- Accommodation guides (21)
- All stories
- 2005 Top guesthouses in Bangkok
- 2005 Top guesthouses in Chiang Mai
- 2006 Top guesthouses in Hanoi
- 2006 Top guesthouses in Phnom Penh
- 2006 Top guesthouses on Ko Phi Phi
- 2006 Top Luang Prabang guesthouses
- 2008 Top Bangkok airport guesthouses
- 2008 Top Luang Prabang guesthouses
- 2008 Top spots on Phu Quoc Island
- 2009 Top guesthouses in Bangkok
- 2009 Top Phnom Penh guesthouses
- 2011 Best places to stay in Kuala Lumpur
- 2011 Best places to stay on Ko Phi Phi
- Best places to stay in Hanoi 2012
- Cheap Phuket guesthouses & hotels
- Five special hotels in Cambodia
- Ko Lipe's best budget guesthouses 2012
- The best hostels in Bangkok 2014
- The best places to stay on Ko Chang, Thailand
- The changing face of Khao San Road
- Where to stay on Koh Rong Samloem
- Travel with kids (7)
- Opinion & advice (16)
- All stories
- 10 reasons to do an adventure tour
- 10 reasons to travel independently
- A year's worth of travel for 2013
- Beach hideaways in Asia
- Christmas and New Years in Southeast Asia
- Do I need reservations for my holiday?
- Evil man of Krabi
- Fifteen tips for a great holiday in Asia
- Getting a cheap airfare to Asia
- Hotels should never charge extra for WiFi
- Long distance buses in Southeast Asia
- Mass tourism in Southeast Asia
- Nine Asian upcountry hideaways
- Planning a Gap Year? Some advice.
- Ten Southeast Asian trips for 2008
- Ten thoughts on ten years with Travelfish
- How do I? (11)
- All stories
- Bangkok to Ko Samui, Pha Ngan & Tao
- Bangkok to Siem Reap
- Catching a train in Thailand
- Catching a train in Vietnam
- Cheap flights with Discovery Airpass
- Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang
- Crossing the Cambodia Laos border
- Ko Chang to Phu Quoc Island
- Siem Reap to Ko Chang
- Stops between Bangkok & Chiang Mai
- Visa run from Thailand to Burma
- Cycling Asia (13)
- All stories
- 24 hours in Bangkok
- An Angkor cycling guide
- An introduction
- Battambang, bamboo trains & guides
- Confessions of a "cheating cyclist"
- Cycles of all sorts
- Ha Long Bay independently
- Ko Samet Vs Pattaya
- Muay Thai night
- Phonsavan and Luang Prabang
- The hills of Vietnam
- The road less travelled
- Tubing in Vang Vieng
- Health and safety (6)
- Money and finance (4)
- Diving guides (6)
- Photo essay (3)
- Guest blog (2)
- General (15)
- All stories
- 10 Christmas days in Asia we're yet to have
- 10 dumb things I've done while travelling
- 34 ways to travel greener
- Asian animal experiences
- Call me Mr Massage Magic
- Chefs Without Borders
- Flying is fun!
- Mr Golden
- On being a travel writer
- Teaching ESL in Asia
- The 211 country honeymoon
- The Boxing Day Tsunami: 5 years on.
- To Teach or Not to Teach
- Travel writing scholarship 2012
- Tuk to the Road Charity ride
- Book reviews (5)
- Interviews (8)
- Explore Bangkok by BTS (18)
- All stories
- Bangkok by skytrain: Ari
- Bangkok by skytrain: Asok
- Bangkok by skytrain: Chid Lom
- Bangkok by skytrain: Chong Nonsi
- Bangkok by skytrain: Mo Chit
- Bangkok by skytrain: National Stadium
- Bangkok by skytrain: On Nut
- Bangkok by skytrain: Phaya Thai
- Bangkok by skytrain: Phloen Chit
- Bangkok by skytrain: Phrom Phong
- Bangkok by skytrain: Ratchadamri
- Bangkok by skytrain: Ratchathewi
- Bangkok by skytrain: Sala Daeng (S2)
- Bangkok by skytrain: Sanam Pao
- Bangkok by skytrain: Saphan Taksin
- Bangkok by skytrain: Siam
- Bangkok by skytrain: Surasak
- Bangkok by skytrain: Thong Lor
Sign up for Travelfish Burp!
Our weekly wrap on Southeast Asian travel.
Click here to see a recent newsletter.