10 Mistakes First Timers Make in Southeast Asia

Stray Asia - Tuk tuk in Siem Reap, Cambodia

You’ve booked flights to Southeast Asia? Awesome! This is quite possibly the best idea of your life. You’re going to have an amazing time, but in order to be a savvy traveller you need to avoid the most common mistakes that so many first timers visitors to Asia seem to make…

Mistake #1: Buying everything before you get there

There is absolutely no need to go on a big pre-travel shopping spree, buying up bottles of shampoo, books, paracetamol, and cute lightweight tops. You can get plenty of clothes, books and all the usual brands of toiletries and pharmacy medicine in Asia! Why pack a packet of Strepsils ‘just in case’ you get a sore throat when you can pick them up from a pharmacy when you’re there? (The exception of course is any regular medication prescribed by your doctor.)

Top tips: Support the locals by buying cheap as chips t-shirts, sarongs and shorts at the markets, and make new friends by swapping books with other travellers.

Mistake #2: Not researching travel insurance providers

First of all, don’t be foolish enough to think you’re young and you’ll never need travel insurance. Second, don’t just buy the cheapest travel insurance you can find. Do your research and always read the fine print to ensure it offers ‘backpacker friendly’ coverage. By that we mean be sure that your insurance doesn’t suddenly become void the second you take a sip of beer! Also check if it covers you for all the countries you might be visiting, as well as for adventure sports like scuba diving or for hiring a motorbike or jet ski. (World Nomads insurance is a good backpacker option and covers the widest range of activities and adventures sports.)

Stray Asia - Buckets with Friends, Full Moon Party

Mistake #3: Eating/drinking something dodgy

If you’re watching your food be cooked hot and fresh in front of you, chances are it’s going to be fine – and damn tasty! If you’re really worried, the best advice is to avoid chicken, but generally freshly cooked food is fine. Raw foods such as salad leaves can be a problem as they are often washed in local water which can cause grief to travellers’ tummies, so it’s best not to order salad unless you’re in a fancy restaurant or hotel! On a night out, it’s always better to drink beer and canned or bottled drinks, as cheap fluorescent coloured cocktails may be mixed with local spirits or mixers with unknown ingredients or contain dodgy ice made from local water.

Top tips: Stick to freshly cooked food and avoid anything that could be washed or made with local water.

Mistake #4: Hiring a motorbike (if you’ve never ridden one before)

If you wouldn’t feel confident riding a motorbike on the road at home, don’t hire one in Asia! You don’t know the road rules in the countries you’re visiting and there’s a good chance the other people hooning around the corner don’t either! Motorbike accidents are the most common reason why tourists find themselves in hospital (see Mistake #2 about insurance again). Crashing may not even be the worst of your worries – getting burnt on the leg by the exhaust pipe is so common it’s been dubbed the ‘Thai Tattoo’.  Stay safe and hire a bicycle instead!

Stray Asia - Cycling in Don Det, Southern Laos

Mistake #5: Paying too much for a taxi

Try to find the official taxi rank at airports and don’t accept a ride from a pretender. If someone approaches you at an airport offering you a ride, chances are they are not even a registered taxi driver. If you’re catching a taxi in the city, insist on using the meter or agree to a price before you ride if there is no meter. That way you won’t get a shock when you arrive at your destination.

Mistake #6: Not paying enough for a tuk tuk

This is a classic mistake that many first time visitors to Bangkok make – in fact, it’s almost a rite of passage.  If a tuk tuk driver is offering to take you anywhere in Bangkok for 20 Baht (less than $1) – they’re going to take you to every tailor and jewellery shop in the city, asking you to ‘please just have a look!’ before they take you anywhere you actually want to go. Three hours later you’ll be begging to get out of the tuk tuk. Riding in a tuk tuk is a great travel experience – just let the driver know upfront that you don’t want to visit any shops and you’re happy to pay more for the ride.

Top tip: Get an idea of how much your taxi or tuk tuk ride should cost – if an offer sounds too good to be true, it probably is!

Stray Asia - Tuk tuk in Siem Reap, Cambodia

Mistake #7: Unknowingly supporting unethical wildlife tourism

While stroking a baby tiger or riding an elephant may sound like an amazing up-close wildlife encounter on the surface, take a moment to really consider the situation. Why is this endangered, wild animal docile enough to be patted or ridden by tourists? Who is profiting from this encounter? How did this beautiful wild animal even get here? If people are making money off travellers from these types of experiences, animals will continue to be exploited and abused for human entertainment. Remember that you vote with your tourist dollars. Support animal rescue sanctuaries and animal welfare organisations instead.

Mistake #8: Buying souvenirs from children

There’s no mistaking how cute the kids are and how harmless it might seem to buy a couple of bracelets for a dollar or two, but the fact is these adorable local children should be in school. However, as long as they’re profitable to their parents, they’re likely to continue to be sent out to work instead of getting an education. Support the local people by buying handicrafts from local markets instead.

Top tip: How you spend your money has a big impact on supporting and shaping local enterprises, so spend wisely!

Stray Asia - Bracelet salesman, Battambang, Cambodia

Mistake #9: Getting soaked with the ‘bum gun’

Don’t know what this is? Well you’re about to find out! Next to many toilets in Southeast Asia you’ll find a hose with a spray nozzle on the end, aka the ‘bum gun’, and you won’t always find toilet paper provided. This nozzle may be your only hope for cleaning up after yourself, so embrace it. The big mistake is not testing the water pressure by spraying it into the toilet first. It can give you quite a shock and a good soaking! Test it in the toilet first, adjust the pressure accordingly, spray, then dry with toilet paper or wriggle dry. You’ll get the hang of it in no time. Good luck!

Mistake #10: Putting Thailand first and Laos last on the list of countries to visit

Yes, Thailand is a beautiful country. It’s fun, it’s crazy, it’s got great beaches, and the party never seems to stop! But it’s much harder to find those off the beaten track places that truly make you feel like an intrepid explorer, where you get a real insight into the local culture, not to mention taking different photos than everyone else who went before you! An increasingly common complaint is how touristy Thailand has become, and yet Thailand’s northern neighbour Laos is often overlooked. Those that have been know that Laos is one of the most enchanting countries in Southeast Asia. Laos boasts stunning scenery, friendly and relaxed locals, a strong commitment to its traditions and heritage and is truly a hidden gem. If you want a less touristy experience, be sure to fit Laos into your itinerary.

Stray Asia - Sunset over Mekong River, Laos

All that info made you a bit nervous about your first time in Southeast Asia? We’ve got even more travel tips here!

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