As I’ve been traveling through South East Asia for nearly 6 months, I’ve learned a few things on the road that I did not learn in my research ahead of time. I’ve been to Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos. These tips apply to visiting any of these countries.
1. Carry extra passport-sized photos with you
This is recommended anyways in case you lose your passport. But what I didn’t realize until I got here, is that many countries require a visa on arrival, which will require one of these photos. If you are an American citizen, you can enter some countries with no visa, AKA a visa exemption. Those countries include Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore. All the other countries will require some kind of visa to enter. And those visas require a picture. When you enter one of these countries, or if you apply for visa ahead of time at an embassy, you will be asked to fill out an arrival card, pay (usually in USD), and supply a visa photo. They create your visa on the spot for you using that photo. Take as many photos as you need to enter all the countries you plan on entering.
2. Take the bus!
If you are traveling for a while, and time isn’t that important, please take the bus! Night or day buses, but day buses are my favorite because you get to see the beautiful landscapes. A 10 hour bus ride honestly goes by so fast when you can look out the window. I get all my best ideas in these moments. I heard J.K. Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter on the train every day to work, and this makes total sense to me now.
Book buses 1 day ahead if possible. Even during low season, buses fill up quickly. And don’t string too many bus journeys together, because the buses are usually late to arrive. And if you have one shortly after another, chances are you will miss it. You can book your bus at the bus station (usually cheapest), through whatever hotel or hostel you are staying at (very convenient because they usually pick you up at your location), or through these three websites which I found very helpful: www.easybook.com, www.12go.asia, www.rome2rio.com. The tickets on here will be a bit more expensive because it’s online booking, but often it’s worth it.
Be aware, if you are in some countries, like Laos or Cambodia, a night bus is often a sleeper bus. Meaning you will be in a bed with whoever has the seat next to you! As a women traveling alone, I DO NOT recommend doing this, unless you have a friend to share the bed with. I’ve heard of women getting stolen from or groped on these night buses. The one time I accidentally took a sleeper bus alone, one of the bus workers got in bed with me in the middle of the night and I was extremely uncomfortable the entire time. The width of the bed is a twin! Not a double! I tried to tell him no, and to get another bed, but he refused. After 2 hours of laying with my eyes wide open, I finally decided to try and annoy him until he left – moving around, eating, unzipping my bag, pushing him onto his half of the bed. Which worked swimmingly, and he finally left!
3. Use apps like Grab for taxis or motorbikes
Grab is a popular app in many places in SE Asia. Another like it is GoJek, used for motorbikes in Bali. These are very useful in big cities, and if you have a SIM card so you can book anytime. You can see the drivers rating which made me feel very safe getting into a taxi alone. The prices are very fair, and often lower than if you just got someone on the street.
4. Share taxis when arriving in a city
Whether you arrive by bus or plane, you are usually a ways out from the city center, or wherever you plan to go. This is a good time to ask other travelers to share a taxi with you. It’s safer and cheaper. For example, if you land at the airport in Bali (in Denpasar), it’s about an hour drive to Ubud, which is where many of the tourists will be heading. Every time I landed at the airport, I walked out to the taxi area, and found other obvious tourist to share a ride with me, cutting the cost in half or thirds. And making friends along the way!
5. Expect fees
I have an international credit card through Chase that has 0 international transaction fees which is really wonderful. However, it’s a bit rare that I can actually use this card. Only in big cities, or sometimes when paying for a hotel. And in many places, if you use a credit card, they will ask if they can charge you a 3% fee. They ask…but you don’t really have a choice. The other way to get money is using a debit card at the ATM. This is usually what I do. But unfortunately, this comes with two fees. The ATM fee which is usually between $3-$5, and my bank’s fee which I believe is 5%. So it’s quite steep! I try to get out larger chunks of money, and do this as infrequently as possible. But you have to balance this of course, because you never want to carry too much cash.
6. To SIM or not to SIM
If you choose not to have a SIM card (maybe you are really cutting costs) definitely download the app Maps.me. Somehow I did not find out about this until 5 months in, but it is CRUCIAL. It’s a complete offline maps app and works very well. So when you are in your hotel, you’ll have wifi. And when you aren’t, you’ll have maps access which is really important for safety and fun.
Because I knew I was traveling long term, I chose to cancel my phone plan entirely back in the US, and buy a SIM card each time I entered a new country. I transferred my phone number to Google before cancelling, so that I would not lose my phone number that I’ve had for years. If you fly into a new country, getting a SIM card is very easy and convenient at the airport. They know what they are doing and usually speak English quite well. If you enter by bus, you’ll need to go to a convenience store and get a SIM. This is usually more challenging, but doable. Either way, have your passport ready. They need this to sell the SIM card to you. General cost for a SIM card that lasts 30 days with a reasonable amount of data is $10-$20. Pretty cheap!
I highly recommend including a workaway into your journey if you have enough time. Workaway.info is an amazing website that connects travelers with people all over the world who are looking for help. Any type of help you can think of! Animal care, painting, building, teaching, community work…whatever skills you have, someone will be glad to host you. You usually work for 4-5 hours a day, in exchange for a free place to stay and free food. It’s an amazing opportunity for both parties.
Many of my favorite travel experiences have been through workaway. Taking care of Poitou donkeys in France, insulating a house in Italy (that’s a story for another time haha), caring for horses in Malaysia, teaching English in rural Myanmar, painting signs for a jewelry store in Laos…the list goes on! It’s an amazing way to get a better understanding of local culture and lifestyles, and make life-long friends. And of course, it is the most affordable way to travel.
8. Don’t plan your trip using instagram
South East Asia is a wild place! In many ways, it’s so different than the Western world. And, of course, that’s why we are so attracted to it! But things do NOT look like they do on instagram (This is an important life lesson actually 😂). Anyways, some of the most beautiful spots I went to were very beautiful in one corner, or from one angle (the angle you see in photos), but the rest of it was covered in trash (trash is a real problem in SE Asia), overtaken by tourists, filled to the brim with shops and taxi drivers asking if you want a ride. It’s just different. Unless you really go deep into the jungle, things are always a bit dirty, dusty, noisy, and chaotic.
I have this photo of Little India in Singapore as the cover for this post because it is a perfect example. I saw someone post almost this exact photo on instagram a few weeks before I went, and I thought, “oh my gosh, I must go to Little India! It must be so beautiful.” Let me tell you, this was literally the one wall that was beautiful in Little India. The rest of little India was crowded shops and very dirty streets overflowing with trash.
Another example is the Gates of Heaven in Bali…an instagrammer’s dream right? Beautiful lake in front of those gates, right? Nope! It’s a tiny mirror, held up to the base of you camera, to create an entirely fake reflection after you stood in line for 3-4 hours. Moral of the story, I would not look to instagram photos to plan your trip because 99% of them are completely photoshopped or not encapsulating what is actually going on.