South-East Asia is my favourite region of the world. I’ve spent a lot of time here over the years, both touring with bands (challenging) and for leisure and yoga (best ever), and along the way I’ve picked up some tips and tricks that make the whole experience easier and more enjoyable. I’ve written other articles about touring off the beaten track and surviving long-haul flights, and here I’d like to share with you some more general and leisure-oriented ideas that I’ve learnt in the course of my adventures!
– If you’re new to SE Asia, it can be daunting at first. A great way to ease yourself in is to break up the journey and acclimatise with a few days in one of the airline hubs which feel more ‘Asia-lite’. Singapore is absolutely perfect for this, Hong Kong is a good bet too, and Bangkok, whilst maybe more exciting and vibrant than Singers or HK, has plenty that feels just familiar enough to get you started on your Asian adventures.
– Prepare yourself for the fact that you’re going to get hassled by people wanting to sell you things. It doesn’t happen so much in Singapore, but elsewhere it’s just a fact of life. It can definitely be annoying, but simply be firm yet polite if you want to look around unaided – people are only trying to make a living.
– Check out the local food markets for the most delicious fruit that you probably never knew existed (I love having a snack stash in my room) and supermarkets for all kinds of interesting stuff that you won’t see back home.
– If you’re staying somewhere a bit rustic, be aware that having food in your room can attract pests, so use the fridge or even the safe to store it. I spent my first few nights in Bali being completely freaked out by a noise that got louder and louder every time I switched off the light but stopped when I turned it on. I became convinced I had a poltergeist – I actually sat up in bed and shouted ‘spirit, I mean you no harm, leave me be!’ – until I was finally quick enough with the light switch to spot a mouse wrestling with a snack bar wrapper before he ducked out of sight 🙂
– Eat local! Some of the best meals I’ve ever had have been Asian street food and cost less than a couple of dollars. A lot of people think that’s the fast road to grumbly-guts, but if you use your head and trust your instincts you’ll eat some of the best food of your life. It’s pretty simple – if it’s chicken that looks like it’s been sitting around unrefrigerated for hours and no-one else is eating there, that’s clearly not a smart move. But someone stir-frying a load of fresh delicious vegetables and noodles in front of you, on a hotter-than-the-sun wok that you have to queue up with locals for, means you’re very likely in for a cheap, healthy, safe meal that supports the local economy.
You may find your digestion mildly out of sorts irrespective of how careful you are, simply because different countries have different (harmless) unavoidable bacteria which you’re not used to. Long-haul flights can also upset things. I like to take a daily probiotic supplement to support my gut health when I’m travelling, and I’m a firm believer that there’s such a thing as too much hygiene – after all, exposure to different bacteria is how we build immunity.
(I should add here that the only time I’ve ever had food poisoning was in Surrey. Twice.)
– That said, if you drink alcohol beware of cocktails in shacks and dive bars. Some places have been known to refill legit spirit bottles with ethanol and unsuspecting tourists have been blinded as a result. If in doubt, stick to a local bottle of beer that you’ve seen opened in front of you.
– Grab some cash from an ATM and try to get change in reasonably small denominations – local vendors generally don’t have contactless or a big petty cash supply.
– LOOK at people when you interact with them! It’s staggering how many westerners mumble into a menu, gaze off into middle distance, or barely look up from their phones when they speak with locals. A smile and eye contact make all the difference to every interaction, no matter how minor, and very quickly help you to feel more comfortable and less like a outsider.
– Uber doesn’t work in SE Asia; instead there’s a very similar app called Grab which is just as easy and convenient to use. The only difference is that you top up via the app in advance rather than your card being debited for each trip.
– Depending on how far off the beaten track you’re going, pharmacies can be hit and miss. It’s a smart move to take a little kit of over-the-counter remedies with you. In mine I have:
Cold remedy sachets
Soluble aspirin (for gargling a sore throat)
Regular aspirin (for reducing DVT risk on long-haul flights)
Travel sickness pills (island-hopping on boats can get interesting…)
Ibuprofen (for pain relief)
Hydrocortisone cream (for itchy bites)
Imodium and rehydration salts (in case of sickness and/or diarrhoea)
Cystitis and thrush treatments (trust me, these are not fun to explain using sign language!)
– Stick some loo roll in your bag when you’re going out. Some places won’t have any in public bathrooms – China in particular tends not to offer a supply. Also be aware that you won’t be able to get tampons in some areas, or you’ll pay a very high price for them in places such as Bali.
– I love exploring local beauty products, but if you’re a fake-tanner like me, take it with you. Most Asian skin products focus on skin-lightening, not tanning. A perfect example of we humans always wanting something other than what we’ve got!
And some ideas for reducing your environmental impact wherever you go…
– Most airlines offer a carbon-offset program where you pay a little extra when you book, which goes towards planting trees.
– Save money and the environment by checking where it’s safe to drink the water (more places than you might think) and carrying a re-usable water bottle.
– Invest in a reusable coffee cup (and iced coffee cup too if that’s your thing – delicious on a hot day) and straw. Most coffee joints now give you a discount for bringing your own cup, and every time you ask for your drink without a straw or get a refill, that’s a single-use bit of trash you save from ending up in landfill or the oceans. A fresh coconut with your own straw is the ultimate biodegradable waste-free refresher!
– Carry a foldable linen shopping bag with you for picking up bits and bobs and ditching the plastic bags.
– Turn off the lights and TV when you leave your room – it’s a tiny saving on energy but the more of us do it the better off we’ll all be.
– Hang up your towels so they get re-used, and if there’s a ‘do not change’ option for your bed linen, take it! That said, I’m not a fan of the new initiative by some hotel chains to opt out of room cleaning altogther in exchange for reward points. It’s dressed up as a green initiative, but what it’s actually doing is putting local staff out of work.
I hope that gives you some useful ideas to help you make the most of your Asian adventures. Get out there, explore, and mix it up with the locals – and don’t forget to learn at least ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ in the local language – a little effort goes a long way. I wish you the trip of a lifetime in a region that may become as close to your heart as it is to mine!