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

Aug. 27, 2014
9 min read
10 Unexpected Things I Learned On My First Trip to Southeast Asia
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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

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!

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.

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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)

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--oh, and 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.

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.

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

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.

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.
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