Tips for SE Asia

If you find yourself with too much money and a lot of time on your hands, why not tour SE Asia? It's expensive (if you're American) to get inoculated and fly out of the States, but once you're overseas travel is very cheap and you can cross most borders with minimal hassle. You can stay in inexpensive hotels that aren't total dives, you can eat delicious meals for around one to three bucks, and with a little negotiating you can find some amazing tour deals wherever you go.

That said, here are a few of my own notes on places I've been. Maybe some of them will be of use to you, future traveler.

SE Asia - General
  • While in the US, get an international driver's license. It's cheap and you don't have to test for it. In many countries you might not need it but if they catch you driving without one in Indonesia, the cops will milk you for a US$5 bribe every time.
  • Find a friend with a scooter and have him teach you how to drive it. If you can get a scooter license, you can get an int'l scooter license (see above), and scooters are everywhere in SE Asia. You'll save money on public transport, if you dare the city streets, as well as driving from town to town--and you can stop at your leisure for incredible photo opportunities.
  • At the very least, learn hello, thank you, how much? and delicious in each tongue. Most people will be flattered and pleased you're making the effort to be polite, and you'll get better service than some oaf stumbling around expecting everyone to accommodate him.
  • Everywhere you go: taxis, tuk-tuks, songthaews, and motos will hit you up for rides. Constantly. It will feel overwhelming and at times you'll want to scream. Instead, simply look them in the eye, smile, and say "no thanks." Most of them appreciate this better than being ignored and will smile back. Same with beggars.
  • Do not be afraid of the local food! Ask around to try the local favorite dish and it could become your favorite too.
  • Avoid giving money to begging children. They don't get to keep it, they're being exploited by an adult, and begging puts them in harm's way (like wandering through traffic in the middle of the night).
  • You won't need a power adapter for your electronics, but you will need an outlet adapter. Indonesia, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia all use the same outlet; Malaysia has its own design.
  • Bahasa Indonesia is a relatively easy-to-learn, modular language. Write your own glossary of words and phrases and in weeks you'll be able to have short conversations.
  • Tipping is not required or expected.
  • Haggling is a pleasant pastime for buyers and sellers, but if you state a price, it is extremely rude to leave without buying something.
  • Avoid the Western restaurants: they're expensive and the food's never quite right. Stick to the warungs--tiny street-side setups--where the food is delicious and cheap (US$0.85/meal, more or less).
  • Buy the street food you can see being made. Avoid the street food that's clearly been sitting out for a couple hours.
  • iTunes offers a couple excellent Thai language apps for free.
  • Tipping doesn't hurt.
  • In Bangkok, you should find reasonable hotels for around US$15--unless you're in the high season, when it's hard to find a place under US$20.
  • In Bangkok, do not accept unsolicited help from strangers. They're not going to physically harm you, but they work with tourist-trap businesses. They will steer you away from where you're trying to go ("Today's a Buddhist holiday, they're closed today.") and redirect you to somewhere lower in quality and higher in price. If you listen to them, you will find yourself thinking very darkly about Thai people in general within a week.
  • Tipping is a special favor met with real gratitude.
  • There is a lot of tragedy, what with the unexploded bombs throughout the countryside. People are friendly but you'll have to steel your soul for impact.
  • Some people will enjoy just practicing English with you. The better they speak it, the better they can run their own business.
  • Be prepared: no one's just practicing their English with you. Every conversation will end in a sales pitch. That sounds like a sweeping generalization but, in my experience, there were no exceptions to this rule.
  • Tipping is a friendly gesture.
  • Beggars are quite persistent. Looking them in the eye and politely declining may not work, so keep a couple 500 riel bills (US$0.125) in your pocket as a token offering if you want them to move on sooner rather than later.

  • There is a lot of internationality here: you will see so many Saudis, Chinese and Thai, you'll wonder what an indigenous Malay is supposed to look like. This diversity makes everyone fairly tolerant, and as you get away from the heavily tourist-trodden regions you'll find people friendlier. They definitely respond better to your attempts at Bahasa Malaysia than they will in Kuala Lumpur.
  • Tipping is not necessary.
  • Malaysia is more expensive than the other nations, with dodgy hotel rooms running around US$25/night and meals up to US$6/person unless you know how to look around.
  • In my experience, many people are quite fluent in English, so don't expect to use language as a shield for commentary between friends--people can overhear and understand you.

Money (check current rates) and Phrase Guide

US$1.00HelloThank You (Very Much)(Very) Delicious!
Indonesia8,700 rupiahselamat pagi (morning)
selamat siang (afternoon)
selamat sore (evening)
selamat malan (night)
terima kasi (banyak)enak (sekali)
Thailand30 bahtsawatdee
men add "krop"
women add "ka"
korp kun krop/ka (maak)aroi (maak)
Laos8,300 kipsabaideekop jai
(kokop jaithan rai-rai)
siep (lai lai)
Cambodia4,000 rielsua s'deiau kun (chraen)ch'ngain (nasa)
Malaysia3 ringgit(see Indonesia)terima kasi (banyak)enak (sekali)

These lists will be updated as long as I'm overseas.