I have been to Southeast Asia eight times – to Bali, Cambodia, Laos, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. I’ve visited Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Denpasar, Hanoi, Pakse, Phnom Penh, Saigon, and even Hong Kong. And, well, from all those experiences, there are some common things everyone should know before they go.
People Are Warm
In every country, every city I’ve been to, I’ve found the people warm and hospitable. Whenever I need help, or ask for directions, someone is able to guide me to the right place. People will go out of their way to ensure I am taken care of – and this is something that keeps me returning time after time. Even people in uniform one might be anxious asking – army personnel, police or security are usually willing to help. Sometimes, I’ve found folks seem to take an active interest in ensuring I’m on the right path. Examples of compassion and hospitality from my experience – In Bhutan, we got robbed on the trail. The King learned of it, and went out of his way to have us cared for and compensated. In Cambodia, when I was part of a volunteer crew building WCs for a village out in the rice paddies, the elders met and had all of us to the communal kitchen for dinner as thanks. In Bangkok, I had dropped my passport on a taxi seat. The driver chased me down to return it! And recently, in Vietnam, my friend Laura was sick. She found her hosts had made her special soup so she felt better.
English Is Spoken
If traveling in SE Asia, don’t be too concerned that nobody will understand your English. I’ve found pretty much everywhere I can find someone with some understanding of my language. If you can pick up a few phrases of the local language, you get bonus points! But locals won’t get upset if you cannot speak their tongue, for they understand their tonal languages are very challenging for outsiders! I’ve been to English classes for grade school kids on the River Kwai in Thailand, and outside Siem Reap, Cambodia. I’ve been approached by children just dying to try out their English on me!
Try To Save Face
Status and appearances are important. So if you discover your meal is not what you ordered, your hotel room isn’t quite right, or the Website you’re working on with someone in SE Asia isn’t in correct English, try to approach the situation diplomatically. Don’t berate a subordinate in front of their boss. Try not to raise your voice when pointing out something is wrong. Instead, gently approach the topic from their side, and use a win-win strategy. Raising voices and pumping fists won’t get you anywhere.
Transportation Is Adventurous – You’ll Need Understanding and Flexibility
Whether walking, taking a bus, a ferry, taxi, tuk tuk or motorbike, Westerners will find getting around an adventure! Traffic congestion can reach biblical proportions, road manners seem chaotic to Westerners, safety standards appear non-existant, and keeping a tight schedule might seem confounding. You’ve got to take it all in stride. At times, getting around seems like a scene from “Mad Max!”
The motorbike is the most ubiquitous mode by far. Especially in Vietnam and Cambodia, they swarm like locusts seemingly navigating in unison like schools of fish. They will often filter through cars and trucks to the front at a stop light. In Saigon at rush hour, they spill over onto the sidewalks. Got an appointment at 11:00 sharp? Your late arrival won’t be an insult; rather, an expected part of everyday life.
Pedestrian Strategies – How to cross the street in this seeming madness? The idea is to make up your mind where you want to cross, and cross slowly and deliberately. Believe it or not, the fish will swarm right around you. Even on the sidewalk. Keep going in one direction. Hesitation or quick changes in direction invite disaster.
For us Westerners, visiting SE Asia is fascinating. There is a lot of eye candy – everything from street food vendors, 4 people on bikes, to monks passing by. It is easy to get caught up in all the activity, watching. But when on the sidewalk, mind what’s immediately in front of you, because it might be a hole. This condition pretty much applies everywhere. And I also advise shoes with toe protection just in case.
Just be careful!
If your destination lies on a river, hiring a long-tail boat is one fun way to get there. But don’t expect the standards of safety you’re accustomed to at home! You will likely inhale some diesel fumes, get splashed by river water, and feel lucky if the boat has life preservers. And some captains are more interested in haste than simply arriving in one piece. Here, we’re heading from Cambodia into Laos when the Mekong was flooding. Helmet schmelmet.
Renting a motorbike – this is a fun way to get around. Or foolish, depending. Keep in mind that if you get in an accident, you may be required to pay the full cost for damage immediately. Better to try your luck in a rural setting than getting into the melee in a big city!
Pollution and Garbage
Air quality standards seem non existent. In the big, smoky, humid cities, exhaust and smoke can get stifling. Some can be seen wearing dust masks as an everyday affair. It’s part of life over there.
Garbage is another matter altogether. Unfortunately, the thin, black plastic bag is seen blowing around, clinging to whatever it can catch. Then, there are those whose idea of emptying the garbage is just dump the can over the nearest wall. Somehow, this needs to be changed. In Bali, setting out “disposable” offerings several times daily leads to epic “offering piles” of refuse.
leads to this
and then this
In Bhutan, not part of SE Asia, the King has stepped in to circumvent the garbage plague. There, plastic bags are banned entirely. Instead, reusable bags have been used for years.
The Authorities Might Be Out for Themselves
Cops, customs officers and immigration officials are paid paltry wages, and often make up for this at your expense. Literally. So don’t be surprised if you wind up being asked to pay for something you KNOW you shouldn’t have to. I was in a friend’s car in Bangkok when we encountered a traffic stop run by cops. When asked for his license, my friend couldn’t produce. The cop asked, “You can pay me now and I’ll let you go, or we’ll have to deal with this at the police station.” My friend paid on the spot. After when I asked about it, he said simply, “Oh that happens all the time.” In Cambodia I watched as a cop was trying to ticket an Australian on a rented motorbike with a Cambodian girl on the back. She got into this argument with the cop, and in the end, she convinced him to let them go for a price. And in Bali, where we were traveling on a 30-day visa, we were leaving on day 29. The customs officer says to my friend, eye brows raised, “Your visa is expired. It costs $20 to renew.” My friend began arguing, to no avail. She simply paid up. And on the Cambodia – Laos border, I was in this village where there was only one fisherman authorized to stamp my passport, and there was no fee required, according to the Laotian Website. I already had a government issued visa. But oh no. I had to pay him the extra $15 to get my “stamp.” So don’t be surprised if you need to shell out some extra to keep your trip going smoothly once in a while.
Things Might Not Be As They Appear
Fancy looking hotels, new developments, and sparkling restaurants are often not as they appear at first glance. Construction doesn’t seem to be on par with Western standards. A quick look at window casings even on late model buildings often reveals cracks or caulking to band-aid mistaken construction. A look out back behind the restaurant might reveal standards uncomfortable for the Western visitor. It all needs to be taken in stride. Highways may have less-than-smooth surfaces, necessitating slower travel speeds over bumpy pavement.
Have Fun! Miracles Happen, Magic Awaits, Things Work Out
For all the differences, a visit to SE Asia is worth the effort. Even when difficulties do arise, something magical always seems to happen to make up for it. And those unforseen challenges and successes make memories that last a lifetime.