Expert Advice For Your First Time In Southeast Asia

First time backpackers in Southeast Asia

We’ve all been there. You’ve booked your trip to Asia, and then you start thinking about it as it’s fast becoming a reality. What will it be like there? Will I eat weird food? Will it be safe? Do I need to speak any of the language?

Well, fear not, we have the answers for you! We’ve travelled a little around Southeast Asia ourselves, as you can imagine, so we’ve had the same worries that you might be having. Part of travelling afar for the first time is having these anxious moments, but what this does is make the experiences even more incredible. So whilst you’re preparing for your set off date, packing your clothes in your backpack and arranging transport, take a quick 5 minutes or so to digest some of the best advice we have for first-timers.

In Asia, there is a thing called the ‘bum-gun’

Plumbing systems aren’t really up to Western standards in many parts of Asia. What that means is that ‘bum guns’ – small hoses by the toilet – are the preferred method to clean yourself after you…you know. Any paper tissues used aren’t thrown in the toilet, but in the basket to the side. You have multiple options, but in our experience the bum gun is the way to go.

Bum gun in Southeast Asia

Stick to bottled or filtered water

We would not recommend tap water to drink. It’s just not clean enough, so always stick to bottled water. You may see the locals drink from the tap, but it wouldn’t be a good idea for we foreigners to consume.

Learn some lingo, but it isn’t essential

Especially in the popular areas and at tourist attractions, lots of locals will speak some English. Really, you’ll be lucky if there are any other languages spoken. So don’t worry, you’ll get by fine if you can’t speak the local language. However, it’s always good to learn a couple words like ‘please’ or ‘thank you’ out of respect!

2_Noy explaining to Stray Asia traveller_CindyFan

You’ll definitely meet other travellers

You may think heading by into the realms of Southeast Asia that you’re visiting forgotten lands. That is definitely not the case. Asia has blown up in recent years so tourism is huge. You’ll meet travellers of all ages, and you’re bound to make lots of new international friends!

Stray Asia group in Sihanoukville, Cambodia

Tips for haggling at markets

Markets are everywhere in Asia and we love that. However, like any market, it is a game of to and fro. Food is normally a set price and it’s fairly cheap, but when it comes to gifts, haggling is accepted. Once you get the hang of the currency, you’ll have an idea what’s cheap and what not. A tip for lowering prices is to really show you’re interest in something, and then if you’re still not happy, walk away. Normally the seller will call you back.

Market in Luang Prabang, Laos

Keep in mind: You don’t need to haggle to the last cent. Some of the market traders are trying to make a living and may be significantly worse off than yourself. Haggle a bit, but not if you don’t need too.

Where to eat without getting sick

We cannot guarantee you won’t get sick in Asia. The different methods of cooking, all the different spices and unfamiliar strands of bacteria are enough to upset anyone’s stomach. What we can say is that Asia has amazing foods, and you should definitely try the local cuisine. Noodle soups and curries are always popular. If you are really concerned, a good rule of thumb is to check out where is busy and where is not. Honestly, everyone needs the toilet a little more so in Asia so you can expect that.

busy Hanoi street food place - photo by Paul Galow (Flikr)
(Photo: Paul Galow via Flikr)

But if you do get sick…

If you’re going to the toilet like no tomorrow, head to a pharmacy and explain this for some relevant medication. Drink plenty of water and if you do need to snack, eat packaged food like crackers, biscuits or chips.

The weather

Asia is generally hot and humid, so prepare for days where you’ll be sweating a lot. As for when you’re out in the open sun, bring plenty of sunscreen/sun lotion and water. If you do get hit with a bit of sun stroke or dizziness, stay out of the sun, drink lots of water, have a cold shower or two, eat plain yogurt, and put some aloe vera on your burnt forehead.

7-Eleven might be your saviour

Eat all you can eat from the local cuisine, but if you do want cheap snacks then 7-Eleven will definitely spring to mind. In Thailand for example, there are more 7-Elevens than temples (apparently)! 7-Eleven has everything and more as your local convenience store, including cheap and tasty toasties!

7-Eleven in Bangkok, Thailand

Getting around

Tuk-tuks are generally a novelty method of transport. Definitely experience them for short journeys, but metered taxis are usually cheaper if you can get the driver to put his meter on. Don’t agree a set price unless you’re really desperate; just wait for the next ride to arrive.

Tuk tuks in Bangkok, Thailand

Don’t forget: if you wanted everything to be the same as what you’re used to, you’d stay home! Enjoy the adventure!

Want even more travel tips for Southeast Asia? Read more here!


Tommy Walker (aka The Wandering Walker) originates from northeast England. He began his journey on the road back in 2012 throughout Asia, Oceania and Latin America. Now, nearly 5 years in, he is a freelance travel writer, content marketing specialist and founder of a popular collection of Backpacking groups on Facebook. Tommy goes by his own motto “every new place is a good place.” If you don’t see Tommy focused doing hot yoga, trailing through rainforests, ducking into the ocean or eating local street food, you’ll see him at a small bar drinking what the locals drink!

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  1. […] a great list of other general Southeast Asia travel tips here, and don’t forget to read our expert advice for first timers in […]

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