BEGINNER’S GUIDE TO SOUTHEAST ASIA: What to expect when you arrive.

Another Beginner’s Guide to Southeast Asia on the internet?
That’s right.
But this guide isn’t gonna teach you how to prepare for Southeast Asia.
It’s going to tell you what to expect once you arrive.

It’s the Beginner’s Guide I wish I found before I traveled over there.
Let this post be your ultimate guide for the journey you’re about to embark on.

TRAVELING THROUGH SOUTHEAST ASIA:

BEING ON TIME.

Don’t expect transportation to be on time.
They don’t care how quickly you need to get somewhere.
You’ll get there when you get there.
If an estimated time is 5 hours, expect it to be 7.
That’s just how things are there.

ROAD CONDITIONS.

Roads are better than you might expect.
The days of long, bumpy, dirt roads aren’t completely gone.
There’s still a few of those areas around.
However, most drives between major cities are on bump-free paved roads.

WRONG TRANSPORTATION.

Your transportation won’t always be what you’re told.
I can’t even tell you how many times I was told I’d have a bus, but ended up in a van.
After a while I was just happy my transportation arrived at all.

Man sitting on top of a van before it drives off.

FURTHER THAN THEY APPEAR.

A lot of destinations look close and aren’t too far away in Kilometers.
BUT Google Maps and MapsMe doesn’t factor in mountainous jungles and winding roads.
So you obviously have to drive much slower.
Just to be safe always plan to arrive 2 hours after the time given.

FOOD AND BEVERAGES:

WHITE RICE.

I hope you enjoy white rice because you’re gonna to get it everywhere.
I ended up getting so sick of white rice that I’d ask for no rice with most of my dishes.
The look of shock on some people’s faces was priceless.
Rice is such a staple to Asian cuisine that people are surprised when you don’t want it.

Large Bucket of White Rice.

BEER.

All the beer is disgusting.
ALL of it.
If you’re from Germany or Belgium you’ll pray for the day you go back home and have a real beer.

Different brands of beer in Southeast Asia.

IS THE ICE SAFE?

Avoid Crushed Ice in your drinks.
Restaurants that serve crushed ice usually just use the water from the tap.
And you don’t want that in your drink.
I had it a few times, with no problems.
But I tried to avoid it as much as possible.

The ice cubes you’ll want are cubed or round with a hole in the middle.
Those ice cubes should be legit and made with clean water.

IS THE TAP WATER SAFE?

Using tap water to brush your teeth is safe.
I never used bottled water to brush my teeth.
I always used the water from the tap and had no problems.
As long as the water isn’t coming out discolored you should be OK.
I don’t recommend drinking the tap water though.

PEANUT SAUCE.

Peanut Sauce will blow your mind.
If you haven’t had it yet you’ll definitely come across it in Southeast Asia.
I immediately fell in love with it and I’d try to get it whenever I could.
It’s so delicious.

Sate covered in peanut sauce.

SPICY FOOD.

If you can’t handle spicy food, tread carefully.
I have a high spice tolerance so I could go bite for bite with the locals all throughout SEA.
A lot of them were quite impressed.
But I met a lot of travelers that would consider mustard too spicy.
If you’re one of those people you better watch yourself.
Tourists will ask for little to no spice and still be surprised when chopped chillies show up on their dish.

Extremely spicy chicken

DON’T EAT PRE-CUT FRUIT.

You should avoid pre-cut fruit sold on the streets.
These fruits have been cut open and exposed to the street elements.
They have a much better chance of having something on it that you don’t want in you.
If you’re going to buy fruit, buy fruit that still has it’s skin/peel on it.

MAINTAINING YOUR HEALTH:

VACCINATIONS.

You don’t need a bunch of shots or vaccinations.
I was there for 17 months and the worst thing that happened to me was a bit of food poisoning.
I talked with my doctor before I left and she said “as long as you’re not drinking river water you should be fine”.

I barely met any people that had vaccinations before arriving.
There’s the occasional case of Dengue Fever or Malaria, but it seems quite rare.
I was fine with mosquito repellent(when I remembered) and never had any issues.
But if you have a weak immune system and want an extra sense of security get whatever you want.

SAFETY.

Safety… What’s That?
When you go to Southeast Asia there will be many eye opening moments.
But the one that seems to shock foreigners the most is the lack of safety.
Especially when it comes to families riding motorbikes.
You will see a whole family of 5 all crammed onto a motorbike and not a single one will be wearing a helmet.

Other crazy ones I saw was:

  1. A child younger than 4 sitting on the back of a motorbike only holding on to the mothers shirt.
  2. Children just old enough to stand will be standing at the parents feet.
    While the rest of the family is packed onto the back.

EVERY DAY you’ll see that and be amazed that vehicular fatalities aren’t higher.

THAI MASSAGES.

Thailand really does have the best massages.
I’m talking about real massages too.
None of that happy ending stuff.
If you want to know about those you’ll have to ask the Brits or Aussies.
I’m sure they know all about that.

I had massages in other countries and they were usually good.
But Thailand really stood out among them all.
I had a deep tissue oil massage on a beach in Koh Phangan.
It didn’t cost more than $12 and it was worth every penny.

A weekly massage will make everything seem perfect in the world.

SMOKING.

People smoke EVERYWHERE!!
Smoking is huge in SEA.
In Indonesia over 75% of the male population are smokers.
When you’re traveling in transportation, always try to position yourself near a window.
Also, avoid sitting behind the driver.
There’s a good chance he’ll be smoking for most of the trip.
And it’ll probably be blowing back in your face.

THE BUM GUN.

The bum gun is your friend.
I loved the bum gun so much that I want to have one installed on my toilet at home.

What is the Bum Gun you ask?
It’s a small hose attached to the toilet with a spraying attachment on the end.
You use it to spray your ass clean after you eat too much spicy food.
In many parts of Asia toilet paper isn’t always around.
So the toilets have a bum gun.

Once you master the bum gun you really only need toilet paper for wiping yourself dry.
I like it more than a bidet because the bidet is too direct and (dare I say)aggressive.
With the bum gun it’s a less powerful spray and you have more control of the blast.
The bum gun is brilliant!

Toilet with a bum gun attachment.

WEATHER, NATURE, AND ANIMALS:

GORGEOUS BEACHES.

Finding perfect idyllic beaches is harder than you think.
Instagram makes you think there’s picturesque beaches all throughout Southeast Asia.
And while that might be true, there’s a lot of searching at the right time to find them.
What I mean by that is some beaches will look good only at certain times of the year.
Southeast Asia has a HUGE ocean pollution problem.
And with the changing tides a beach could look amazing in May but be covered in garbage in October.
This isn’t the case with all beaches; but a lot of them.

Indonesian beach covered in plastic and trash.

I heard the Philippines had the best beaches in Southeast Asia.
I can’t say for certain because I’ve never been.
I found that A LOT of beaches in Indonesia are not that good.
Which shouldn’t come as a surprise since Indonesia is the 2nd largest ocean polluter behind China.
Some of the beaches in Malaysia, Vietnam, and Cambodia seemed decent.
But Thailand had the nicest beaches I saw.

GREAT WEATHER ALL YEAR.

Anytime of the year is perfect to visit.
I was there for 17 months, so I experienced rainy seasons.
But the rain only seemed to last a few hours and then it was right back to sunny weather again.
If you’re from somewhere cold you’ll love the weather in SEA during any time of the year.

THE DRY SEASON.

Dry Season isn’t always the best time to visit.
This couldn’t have been more clear than when I was in Laos.
A lot of the waterfalls I wanted to visit were not nearly as impressive as they would have been in the wet season.
Another reason it’s not the best is because prices might be higher.

Dried up waterfall in Laos.

DON’T RIDE ELEPHANTS.

It’s as simple as that.
Don’t ride them.
Don’t be a dickhead.
I know they look like a big animal that can hold your weight.
But elephants are not meant to be ridden.

For your Beginner's Guide to Southeast Asia it's important to know that you shouldn't ride elephants.

MONKEYS ARE DICKHEADS.

Don’t get me wrong, I totally enjoy monkeys.
As a matter of fact I never realized much until I went to Asia.
They’re so entertaining to watch and take photos of.
BUT… never trust them.

Monkey watching another monkeys eat a corn cob.

Monkeys are like parentless children that were raised by other misfit kids.
They’ll jump on you, chase you, and even steal from you.
And they’re really good at theft in particular.
I watched so many monkeys reach into bags and pockets.
I saw some of them take glasses and hats off peoples heads.
If you’re careless with any of your belongings they’ll snatch them up.

Tip of Advice: Don’t stare monkeys in the eyes.
They hate it!!
They’ll shriek at you and possibly run at you too.

STRAY DOGS.

There’s stray dogs everywhere.
Most of them are not crazy rabid beasts.
They’re usually chill around people and mind their own business.
Some of them are cute and some are downright disgusting inbred creatures.
But as cute as they might be I still don’t recommend petting any of them.

Stray dogs are also the main thing you have to keep your eyes open for when driving a motorbike.

stray dog sitting near my table at a restaurant.

TIPS OF ADVICE:

LEARN TO RIDE A MOTORBIKE.

Learning to ride a motorbike is a must…
unless you want to miss out on a lot or spend extra money having someone else take you around.
A lot of sites and adventures are best reached by doing them yourself on a motorbike.
For people that have never driven a motorbike before this might sound scary.
But they’re easier to ride than you might think.

Bikers riding into the mountains of Laos.

BEWARE OF CONS.

If you think someone is trying to con you, you’re probably right.
In Bangkok there’s many tuk tuk drivers that’ll tell you an attraction is closed.
Chances are it’s not.
They’ll make up holidays like “Buddha Day”.
They’ll tell you a place is closed and then recommend some other places instead.
The places he recommends are all places where he knows someone at.
And if you spend money there he’ll get a commission from it.
Know the hours of the attractions you want to visit and never believe them if you think you know better.

I wrote a post called 11 Scams you might not know about.
Read up on those to prepare yourself.

VISIT THE MALLS.

Malls are where you find real name brand stuff.
Any name brand item sold on the streets are fake.

Food courts in malls actually serve good food.
They’re usually not full of fast food garbage.
You can find some legit food stalls in Malls.

Malls are also a great way to escape the heat for a few hours too.

Inside of a mall.

WEAR A TOP.

Don’t walk around towns or villages shirtless or in bikinis.
Most countries in SEA are really conservative about showing too much skin in public.
Save that stuff for the rivers and beaches.

I was in Myanmar during the Thingyan Water Festival.
People from my hostel were walking around Yangon topless and in bikinis on the 1st day of the festival.
The next morning one of the hostel staff showed us a News article that was written about us.
Saying that the behavior was “lewd and disgraceful”.

Shirtless travelers walking through the streets of Yangon.

RANDOM OBSERVATIONS:

SUPERSTITIONS.

Asia has some of the most superstitious people I’ve ever met.
Everything from spirits in trees to certain foods making you unable to find a husband.
It is quite entertaining.

Ribbon wrapped around a tree to keep the spirits inside.

SANDALS – the best multi-purpose footwear.

Apparently you can do everything in sandals.
When I walk in sandals I feel like a kitten wearing mittens.
It just doesn’t work for me.
It’s a constant struggle.
But people in Southeast Asia can do anything and everything in sandals.
Run, work construction, hike mountains, play soccer, etc.
I was impressed.

A porter carrying a bunch of stuff up a mountain.

HORRIBLE SINGING.

There’s a lot of shitty singers in Asia.
But that doesn’t stop them from belting out their favorite songs.
People that can’t carry a tune or hold a note will be belting out vocal atrocities everywhere.
And they couldn’t look more happy.
If you’re a shitty singer and were always afraid to sing in public you can now join the locals and fit right in.

People singing karaoke in a bar.

ENJOY THE WILD RIDE.

If you’re traveling to Southeast Asia I hope this list prepares you for what to expect.
It’s a great experience and I hope you have a great time.

Have you been to Southeast Asia?
What are things you wish you knew before you arrived?
Leave the answers in the comments below.

Jeremiah Cooper

Welcome to Live Life Extreme, a travel blog about thrill-seeking travel through some of the largest cities to off the beaten path getaways.

My name is Jeremiah and I'm a photographer from Arizona.
I'm always in search of picturesque landscapes and adrenaline pumping adventure.
Follow me as I show you What and What Not to do when visiting new places in search of Cheap Travel and Cheap Thrills.
Jeremiah Cooper

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