10 Unexpected Things I Learned On My First Trip to Southeast Asia

by on August 27, 2014 · 53 comments

in Asia, Destinations, Lifestyle, TPG Contributors

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Foreign correspondent Lori Zaino just returned from an incredible five week trip through Southeast Asia. Here, she recounts the most surprising encounters from her journey, packed with travel tips you can use.

Fully vaccinated and backpack in tow, I embarked on my first journey through Southeast Asia for five weeks. In Thailand I visited Bangkok, Koh Samui and Koh Phangan. In Cambodia I ventured to Siem Reap and Angkor Watt. And in Vietnam I traveled to Hanoi and Halong Bay.

Having previously been to Japan and South Korea, I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect when I arrived. Needless to say, those five weeks may have been some of the most astonishing and wonderful of my life. I had many unexpected, eye-opening moments that made me smile, laugh and occasionally blush. I hope these moments of surprise will entertain you, but also prepare and inspire you for a trip to South East Asia–tips included!

1. Respect Buddha

If you plan on paying your respects to Buddha, don't dress like a Kardashian

If you plan on paying your respects to Buddha, don’t dress like a Kardashian

I am decidedly agnostic, but one can’t help but appreciate the abundance of magnificent temples all over Southeast Asia. I knew I’d have to take off my shoes and cover my shoulders and legs while inside the temples, so I took great care finding lightweight linen pants as part of my “temple exploring outfit.”

Upon entering the main temple in the Grand Palace in Bangkok, I stretched out my legs, enjoying a moment of relaxation after a morning of walking, when a guard rushed over and sternly said, “Don’t point legs at Buddha”. Oops. Shame on me for disrespecting Buddha! I didn’t do my homework, and I was mildly embarrassed.

Avoid these awkward moments if you plan on visiting any temple by wearing long pants, a shirt with sleeves, shoes you can easily take on and off, and by no means should you point any appendages at Buddha. Ever. Namaste.

2. No Credit Cards Accepted. Anywhere.

Make sure to have plenty of cash in the local currency--they'll accept it, I promise!

Make sure to have plenty of cash in the local currency–they’ll accept it, I promise!

As avid TPG acolytes, we are all here for the same reason, points and miles! The constant opportunity to swipe that card and avoid cash at all times to get more points is ever present. Unfortunately, that won’t get you far in this part of the world.

Obviously, most large hotels will take credit cards, but beyond that, many restaurants and shops won’t, and neither will night or street market vendors. During my trip, I used cash almost exclusively. Be prepared with local currency. There are plenty of places to change money once you arrive, so either bring cash and change it there, or plan on using the ATM.

3. So. Many. Motorcycles (Very. Few. Helmets)

Motorcycles house pretty much everything, including a mini restaurant side car!

Many locals use their motorcycles for more than just transport like this guy, who runs his mini restaurant from his scooter!

Luckily, after living in Europe for several years, I’m well versed in the laws of the scooter, but driving on the opposite side of the road can be rather stressful as they do in Thailand. It’s crazy to simply watch the scooters drive by, sometimes with items such as ladders, huge packages or boxes, or entire families of five, baby included.

Although locals rarely wear helmets, I highly suggest you wear one if you plan on renting a scooter. And only rent one if you truly feel 100% comfortable maneuvering it–ohand driving it on the wrong side of the road. In Hanoi, I wouldn’t even dare brave the scooter-filled, traffic signal-less streets on a motorbike.

4. Barter. They Love It.

Barter, bargain, haggle away! Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Barter, bargain, haggle away! Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Not going to lie, I was a little nervous to barter. I’ve done it in Mexico, but it seemed easier for me there, as a rubia spitting out rapid fire Spanish and surprising the locals. I was worried about the language barrier across Southeast Asia, getting cheated (which of course happened at times–such is life) and bartering over such small amounts of money.

Once I arrived, I realized: they love it! They haggle with a smile, and it’s almost like a game . In fact, they seem to respect you more if you can drive a sharp bargain. Just don’t offend them by shooting too low. Who cares if you’re haggling over 20 cents? It’s a fun way to interact (almost all sales people spoke excellent English) and if you can’t come to an agreement, simply move on, no big deal. Or suck it up, and pay that extra 50 cents with a smile.

5. Pack Nothing, Buy Everything

I'd advise against packing the six kimonos.

I’d advise against packing the six kimonos.

All women overpack. It’s just a fact. I tried to take as little as possible for my five week trip, but alas, I packed too much. And when I wanted to buy all those cute tank tops on the street that cost $2, well, I didn’t have enough space to bring them back. Two pairs of gym shoes? Way too much. I wore flip flops everywhere (When in Southeast Asia, do as the Southeast Asians do–no one wears close toed shoes, and for good reason, it’s 105 degrees outside.)

So when you’re packing, get everything together that you think you need, then cut about 2/3 out. I promise, you can buy whatever you might have forgotten there (probably for an eighth of the price). Not to mention, it’s extremely cheap and convenient to do laundry there.

6. Water Taxi’s–Take ‘em!

Water taxi, anyone? I took this one from Chakolum to Bottle Beach in Koh Phangan. Price? $2.

Water taxi, anyone? I took this one from Chakolum to Bottle Beach in Koh Phangan. Price? $2.

I was pleasantly surprised at the simple concept of the water taxi. Fifteen bahts (that’s approximately $0.50) to go up the river to the Grand Palace? Yes, please. In Koh Phangan, there are beaches you can’t arrive to by road, and you must take a water taxi. DO THIS. It’s awesome–and for obvious reasons (see photo).

7. Delicious, Flavorful and CHEAP Food. And It Won’t Make You Sick!

Delectable food everywhere you look

Delectable food everywhere you look

I was ready for food to be cheap and yummy. I was also prepared for long, horrible stomach problems, lugging along enough Pepto, Immodium and Tums for an army. Luckily, the food was delicious and tummy issue were non-existant.

Daily fresh mango smoothies, local Chang beer and Paneang curry (served in a coconut, of course) so spicy my lips are still burning. All of that for under $3. In five weeks, I adventurously ate as much as possible and didn’t get sick once, though I do recommend some Tums if you plan on going the spicy route.

Just use your best judgement. If food looks like it’s been sitting out in the hot sun for awhile, or just plain looks gross, stay away. Other than that, eat everything you can find, and wash it down with a Singh beer or a fresh fruit smoothie.

8. Beware: Creepy Crawlies Everywhere

Expect to find lizards in unexpected places

Expect to find lizards in unexpected places

This is the jungle. There are bugs and lizards and spiders. Everywhere. Inside your hotel room, the bathroom–everywhere. You will get mosquito bites. Tons of them. I knew this was going to happen, but waking up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom and finding a frog in the toilet, well, that I was unprepared for. Stepping in armies of fire ants, probable. Bring your bug repellent, and just be ready. Those little lizards…they’re kinda cute, after all!

9. Elephants are the Most Amazing Creatures Ever


Elephants are smart and special creatures

There are plenty of tacky elephant shows and rides you can take. Avoid them at all costs. In many cases, the animals are mistreated.

If you want to do something meaningful with elephants, find a rescue camp to visit and go for a ride. Patara and Rantong are both notable centers that rescue abused elephants and treat them right. Elephants are sweet, intelligent and magnificent creatures, and being able to feed, ride and play with them is an unforgettable experience that you should definitely do if you find yourself in Northern Thailand. Just do your homework and try to find a place that treats them well.

10. Zen, Peace and Tranquility

So many peaceful spots in South East Asia...ohm...

So many peaceful spots in Southeast Asia…ohm…

Although the larger cities in Southeast Asia are busy and hectic, something I found surprisingly special is a sense of inner peace that seems to come from simply being in this part of the world. Perhaps it’s the temples or the Buddha, or perhaps it’s the connection that Southeast Asian culture seems to have with nature. Something I decided to take home from my travels, inspired by this zen connection, was to try and find time each day to channel some inner peace. I think it will make the daily grind just a little… happier.

Ok maybe becoming friends with a rock is a little extreme, but I love that it's part of the Asian culture to respect nature

Maybe becoming friends with a rock is a little extreme, but I love how it’s part of the Southeast Asian culture to respect nature

Anyone else have similar experiences while in Asia? Anything unexpected or something that surprised you? Please share your tips and thoughts below in the comments section.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

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  • Have Child, Still Travel

    I spent 3 weeks in Thailand earlier this year. I was able to use my credit card quite a bit actually. I had more trouble using it in Europe!

    The elephants were amazing! And everywhere! I loved it! We spent a day at Patara Elephant Camp in Chiang Mai and it was incredible!

    I also agree about overpacking! Wow…I totally did. I think you could get away with just packing a couple days worth! Tshirts are cheap and so is laundry service!

    I miss SE Asia…..

  • RakSiam

    If you are a small woman you might be able to clothes shop easily. If you’re an average-sized man, forget it. A Thai medium tshirt might fit an 8 year old American.

    In many trips to this part of the world I don’t recall a single mosquito bite. Use repellant. Dress intelligently. Avoid their main feeding time if you can. And you should be fine.

  • smartcookie

    My absolute favorite part of the world. You have to make it to the north of Thailand where the food is completely different. Also, put smaller less touristy islands and the rest of Vietnam on your list.

    You can use a credit card in quite a few places, but you’ll usually get charged 3-5% extra to cover their fees, so it’s not worth it most of the time.

  • thepointsguy

    TPG chiming in here- agreed that shopping in Asia, especially for super tall guys, is nearly impossible!

  • marnie

    Unfortunately, I did get a little sick on my trip. The roach crawling on my table while I was eating at a restaurant in Bangkok didn’t help matters, nor the huge dead rat in the middle of an outdoor market in Bali, people just avoided by walking around it didn’t help me with my confidence when it came to the food. However, what I did have was good. The locals were incredibly nice, super inexpensive except for Singapore. Great memories, I would go back but not to Bangkok.

  • Lori

    Haha good point @RakSiam:disqus. I seem to forget I am 5’2. I finally felt like I was normal height somewhere in the world! Very true though–tall people may want to pack more!

  • Man

    just avoid bangkok famous Khaosan road .

    Explore other part of BKK by use sky train , Mrt or water taxi in Chaopraya.

    Next 5-6 years BKK will changed when many subway or train were complete. You can go easy from airport to old town like wat pho , Chinatown by use train.

  • C

    Elephant Nature Park in near Chiang Mai, Thailand is amazing!

  • Michelle

    Where can I find information about what vaccines I need? I will be going to Thailand at the end of the year.

  • Martin

    You didn’t mention prostitution and farang everywhere!

  • Martin

    Here are my thoughts on Southeast Asia:
    1. Traffic, motorcycles, noise, pollution, tourists…
    2. Beach, beach, beach, hot, hot, hot, party, tranquility scene
    3. Cheap food, transportation, cost of living
    4. Buddha, temples, temples
    5. Markets, bargains, bargains, cash, cash
    6. Prostitution, prostitution, farang, farang, cash, cash, cash…
    Did I miss anything?

  • Lori

    Michelle, check with your doctor and I am sure there are sites online that can help. I did mine through the official vaccine center in Spain, and I am sure the US has something similar where you can find out what you need. I got hepatitis and yellow fever vaccines and depending on where you are going, they may suggest malaria as well. Good luck!

  • Erik Van Dootingh

    Credit card acceptance varies a lot by location. In Bangkok at some of the more upscale malls etc, they are accepted but often have fairly high minimum spending requirements. To be honest though most stuff is so cheap in Thailand that you’re not missing out on many points anyway. Avoid electronics and imported alcohol, the tariffs make these things more expensive than in the US.

  • Moe

    Almost felt like you were describing my trip to Thailand last year. I hope the full moon party and the Ayutthaya ruins were part of your trip. I know… opposite ends of the spectrum as far as things to do but both bucket list-worthy. Spain is my next destination. Hala Madrid!

  • Mike K

    I disagree on skipping Khaosan Road. I wouldn’t want to stay there by any means, but spend the hour taking in the scene. It’s certainly unique.

  • Rob philip

    those animations are maximally irritating.

  • Lori

    Full moon party–epic! Watching the sun come up in Haad Rin was priceless. I didn’t get to those ruins unfortunately, I will add them to my list for my next SE Asia adventure. Thanks for the suggestion!

  • Asian or SEAsian or whatever

    I love that you use Asia and SouthEast Asia interchangeably. They’re all the same right, plus too long to spell? People seem to forget that Asia a freakin continent with MANY countries that many things you talk about here do not apply. I’m Asian and to me a rock is rock. Am i splitting hairs? If you think so, than you just proved my point.

  • RakSiam

    The CDC has a section on their website about travel medicine that includes recommended immunizations. My doctor essentially just looks it up there.

  • Famtravel

    My family (2 adults and 3 kids) spent almost a month in Thailand last summer, it was the best trip ever! Highly recommend it for families with kids. No, its not scary as one guy warned us on the airplane on the way over. Exciting different culture for the kids, they loved all the activities in the different temples. New yummy foods that are super cheap. Our family ate dinner at the street markets for $10 total. Super nice people. Where else can you hold tigers, ride elephants, zip line and still have money left over to take a boat and canoe around incredibly beautiful islands near Phuket. Amazing, life changing adventure.

  • ocvagabond

    Khao San Road is a complete waste IMO. A farang’s stereotypical vision of “freeing the mind in exotic SEA”. That’s my opinion anyway. I’ve been to BKK several times and wandered the world for awhile. I wouldn’t waste another moment in KSR.

  • Lita

    I am so glad you got to have this wonderful experience. :)

  • ocvagabond

    Nice trip. Glad you enjoyed yourself.

    1) You forgot to mention that you cannot disrespect the King of Thailand in any manner (even in front of red shirts) lest you put yourself in line for repercussions. And considering the man’s image is everywhere (as in look at your money) and I do mean everywhere, this is an important point to note. It’s not just Buddha you can’t disrespect in Thailand.

    2) I agree with your assessment regarding no CC. Unless you’re shopping in Siam Paragon or another high end mall or restaurant, then CC are nearly unheard of. Besides, you really are missing out on the uniqueness and differences in the cultures by confining yourself to upscale shops. There is very little difference between the Cartier, Hermes, or Rolex stores in BKK vs. LON or PAR, so why go so far to do the same at the same (or higher) prices.

    4) Don’t forget to do it with a grain of salt and always let them gain the extra $0.50 on you. Seriously, you won’t notice the difference and yet it helps them a bit more.

    5) Been covered. Thai sizes come in Slender and Emo. If that doesn’t describe your body type bring your clothes. That stated, bring 7 days worth MAX. And I’m not talking about 3 outfits per day. Do laundry. I usually pack 4 days of clothes when I’m traveling long term and can live out of a weekender bag. Adjust accordingly.

    7) Most interesting is the assumption that the street food will make you sick. Honestly, I’d rather eat somewhere that I can see all the food prep and all the cooking being done right in front of me than not. Street food has such high turnover that it rarely stays out long (for more intricate dishes or soups) and simple dishes are made fresh to order.

    Anyway, while SEA is not my personal favorite place in the world to travel it is an easy place to travel despite the language barrier. On a difficulty scale (long term travel) I’d rate it as AA, where Europe is A, South America is AAA and Africa is the big leagues. NAM doesn’t even play in the same sport since we have no long term travel infrastructure.

  • Monnette

    You haven’t dropped by the Philippines which doesn’t limit English speaking to salespeople. Almost everyone can understand and speak English, even those living in rural areas.

    Credit cards are also accepted in highly-urbanized centers, be they shops, restaurants or hotels and resorts but not in rural areas.

  • Kyle

    wonder how Yao Ming manages to live a clothed life there. LOL!

  • Klon

    Did you actually visit? If you did then you appear to have spent about 5 minutes creating this badly written and poorly reached article. Some of the gross errors are:
    - “No credit cards accepted. Anywhere”. Wrong: they are not accepted in markets and small shops but are widely accepted everywhere else.
    - “no one wears close toed shoes.” Wrong: sandals & flip-flops are common but so are shoes.
    - “Barter. they love it.” Wrong: barter is the exchange of good or services for other good or services. The correct word is either bargain or haggle.

  • KoziFanTuuti

    “Did I miss anything?” Yes, your bigotry and prejudice.

  • Drinkwater

    This is the WORLD Wide Web, and so the cost of goods in the US is irrelevant to most people.

  • disqus_EDVs0eRC2w

    By holding tigers and riding elephants you participated in and funded animal abuse. You should be ashamed of yourself.

  • James Pierce

    It sounds like you didn’t go at all… A list of 10 Asian travellers clichés you found on google. Its sad if your experience is typical.

  • James Pierce

    Leave it out. He probably has no idea the tiger was up to the eyeballs on drugs. The person doing the drugging should be ashamed not an innocent *victim of tourism gouging.

  • Nat. G.

    @James Pierce.

    You are wrong. This is not tourist gouging, this is animal abuse: it is not tourists who are being abused.

    A quick Google search in advance would have found information about these places. Also, common sense indicates that something is very wrong when tigers allow handling by inexperienced tourists.

    People who participate in such activities are guilty of cruelty.

  • Reeve

    KSS is not unique. However, it is the classic hang-out for immature teenagers away from their parents for the first time, and acting out their ‘The Beach’ fantasy and fooling themselves they are “travellers” and not tourists.

  • Dan

    - Bangkok
    - Koh Samui
    - Koh Phangan
    - Siem Reap
    - Angkor Wat
    - Hanoi
    - Halong Bay

    How long did you take to decide where to visit … 2 or 3 minutes? No wonder your 10 “unexpected” things is so flawed if you only bothered with such an unoriginal and obvious itinerary.

    But, it’s more likely your “visits” were taken in 10 minutes with Google.

  • James Pierce

    Leave it out, they went on holiday and enjoyed all the country had to offer. If they didn’t know and payed through the nose to pet a wild animal. They are as much victims as the animal. Its up to the gov to close it down. I’m sure they are aware now and won’t do it again. Its quite possible that the tigers life was spared. If I lived in an area where my families lives were threatened by a tiger, I would kill it. I survive, the tiger does not. Your attitude is as ignorent of a complex issue as the innocent holidayer

  • Nat. G.

    They are not victims, rather they are participants of animal cruelty.

    Making this solely an issue for governments is naive and irresponsible. Without tourists’ money these establishments would not continue. An individual with a conscious would not pay money to be party to such cruelty.

    Pleading ignorance of the cruelty is no excuse. People have to be either stupid or callous to the reality to think that apex predators allow multitudes of tourists to pet them everyday without something very unnatural and underhand being perpetrated.

    “Your attitude is as ignorent of a complex issue”. I am not ignorant, and it is childish to resort to such insults. However, your comments demonstrate you are wholly unaware of the facts as there is nothing complex about this issue, and these tigers are not animals taken from the wild because they were threatening people. These establishments breed & trade tigers solely to earn money: claims about rescuing them or conservation are lies, and this has be confirmed by many reputable organisations. Equally, the cruelty associated with providing tourists with their ‘experience’ is widely accepted.

  • James Pierce

    Really? Its not a government issue? You dont see bear dancing, tiger petting or predator doping entertaining Americans at Tower Bridge

  • Nat. G.

    Re-read my comment: “Making this SOLELY an issue for governments”

  • James Pierce

    Dont bother. The two things that will kill you Denge Fever and Malaria have no known effective immunisation. In fact many people have VERY bad and sometimes permanent reactions to the Malaria vaccination. Unless your going to be in the jungle I wouldnt bother.

  • James Pierce

    Gov intervention worked. Do you think that accusing a man of animal abuse and suggesting he should be ashamed of himself has helped your cause? Or do you just sound like an arse0 nobody wants to know

  • Nat. G.

    I did not suggest to anyone that they should be ashamed.

    That you resort to childish insults reflects on you and not me.

  • James Pierce

    It was a legitimate question. Do you think your aggressive confrontational attitude encourages or alienates people from your cause? #ProfoundRealization

  • Nat. G.

    Any legitimacy is lost when you make childish insults and false accusations.

    Also, I do not have a “cause”.

  • James Pierce

    Really, no cause? You seem hell bent on bullying people into your way of thinking. This morning I ran over a bunny rabbit, I smiled and thought of you #SenseOfHumour

  • Nat. G.

    No, no cause with me.

    Yet another childish comment from you: “This morning I ran over a bunny rabbit, I smiled and thought of you”.

    Quite an array of hypocrisy by you in just a few messages, including you accusing others of:
    - a “confrontational attitude” when it’s been you who has tried to amplify these messages into a confrontation.
    - a “confrontational attitude” when it’s been you who has resorted to name calling.
    - “bullying” when it’s been you who reacted to negatively when, what you decided was a “legitimate question”, was not answered.
    - “bullying” when it’s you who is trying to induce a reaction from me by claiming to have killed a rabbit.

  • James Pierce

    I did kill a rabbit. I hit 4 or 5 a year. Stupid things have the survival instincts of a panda.

  • Lori

    @klon These are simply my opinions/observations about my personal experience. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  • Lori

    @disqus_SULvmRLMO3:disqus Typical or not, I had a wonderful time during my trip, and wouldn’t have changed a thing. I actually aimed to stay away from big resorts and touristy spots and eat and enjoy as many local spots as I could. Thanks for your thoughts.

  • Lori

    @disqus_Y1oJBWYO8d:disqus I think for a first time SE Asia trip, I picked some great (though obviously more well known) spots. Spent quite awhile researching actually. Next trip will be slightly less touristy areas like Laos and Myanmar hopefully. Not sure I would be taking the time to have written this article if I didn’t take the trip! Thanks for sharing your opinions!

  • Lori

    @ocvagabond:disqus Thanks for sharing/commenting! Yes, after reading all of these comments, I realized that perhaps I wasn’t clear regarding the credit cards. As I chose to shop and eat mainly at very local places and buy street food and goods, that is what I was referring to about credit cards. I think it goes without saying that major stores and hotels would take them!

  • James Pierce

    Try finding the real Asia next time. Your blog post was a useless clone of a decade old Asian cliché trip.

  • Lori

    @disqus_SULvmRLMO3:disqus I would love to hear your suggestions James, feel free to share! I am planning another trip so any tips would be helpful.

  • James Pierce

    I would love to help out, where are you heading? Its not about going somewhere remote, its about finding those special places that a billion people before you havn’t already been. The easy to get to but rarely frequented spots tourists miss because the locals keep them secret, or because the same old places get publicized over the better more genuine spots which get overlooked and kept private. I am SURE there are many places in your home town that you wonder why are full, when amazing places are practically empty ;)

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