Travel like a local

Prepare for your trip Tips for preparing for Southeast Asia

Immunisations & Medication

Speak to your local nurse/doctor about immunisations, but be aware that it's their job to be over-cautious. Malaria isn't an issue in most regions of SE Asia, for instance. Do your research which plenty of time to spare and decide what you're most comfortable with.

If you need to bring prescription medication with you, there are various recommendations I've read about keeping all the boxes, prescriptions and such while travelling but I've never had any security or customs staff look twice at all of my medicine and I've been travelling for over two years without even keeping the original boxes.

Travel Insurance

If you're on a short trip then insurance your belongings is probably a good idea, especially if your schedule is hectic. However, if you're travelling for a long time, the cost of any worthwhile insurance would probably be higher than if you lost an expensive item. So my advice is just to be careful. Most hostels have lockers and some hotels have safes. I've never had anything stolen, luckily, but stories I've heard are usually about night buses or leaving items out in hostels or cafés. It's very rare to hear anything like this happening though. It's more common that items are lost or damaged.

Although I don't get insurance on my belongings, I always get medical insurance. It's a must! As long as you're covered for the major things like hospital visits, you should be fine. The cheapest medical insurance for travel is usually enough. You don't want to fall off a bike, break a few bones and then add an expensive insult to injury, costing you more than your entire trip!

I don't know about other countries, but it's hard to find UK travel insurance which allows you to apply once you've left the country. So make sure it's all done before you leave, including any medical background checks (always declare everything, otherwise the insurance might not pay up). There are some that allow you to cover for long-term, such as Go Walkabout which also allows you to extend while you're away as long as you do it before it expires.

Packing

As you might have read on many travel sites, it's highly recommended that you pack light. It might surprise you how little you need and anything you do need you can buy for cheaper in Asia anyway! If you only take a small bag (I have a 40L and 20L) then it restricts you with what you can take and you'll be thankful every time you have to carry your bags. If you're only planning on going to warm countries then there's no reason to have one of those huge backpacks full of stuff you'll never use.

You really don't need to bring many clothes. I don't have any shoes (I've borrowed some for hikes) or socks with me and only bought cheap jeans and a hoodie after a few months when I arrived somewhere cold - much better than carrying them everywhere with me! You also won't need a towel and you'd be crazy to use up valuable space with it (a travel towel might be useful but I never need one). Think carefully about whether you need each item and weigh up the pros and cons (size, weight, whether you can buy one out there, etc) as you don't want to carry something for 6 months if you only use it once.

I recommend you start making a packing list long before you leave and check it carefully before you leave home. If you haven't left home yet, here are a few items that you might not have thought about packing:

  • Good quality bags. Don't skimp on these as cheap ones will break if you're using them regularly. I really like my Osprey Farpoint 40 which is the maximum size of hand luggage and doubles up as both a backpack and over-the-shoulder holdall. It's extremely useful to have a bag which unzips all the way around and folds out so you can easily get to your belongings without unpacking. I also have a Lowe alpine AirZone Z 20L Backpack which I use as a day bag.
  • A credit/debit card with very low rates for withdrawing cash abroad (see section on ATMs and currency).
  • US Dollars. They're needed for quite a few visas and could come in handy as back-up money in an emergency.
  • Passport photos. Again, necessary for some visas. Bring plenty as it's not always easy or cheap to get new ones.
  • Laptop. This really depends on what you need. I initially had 2 months without a laptop (before buying one in Bangkok) and it was hard to organise my photos and do research. I was forced to use internet cafés and I lost some photos from a memory card because one of the computers had a virus. I also need a laptop for my work, so it's a non-brainer for me. If you don't want to take a laptop then a tablet can be useful for watching movies and researching your next destination (it gets frustrating on a phone screen).
  • TV, Movies, Music & Audiobooks. There are times when the wifi is down, useless or just not good enough to stream video. There can also be long journeys. Having some offline entertainment can be priceless.
  • Travel power adaptor, preferably with USB ports.
  • External Battery Pack for charging USB devices (such as your phone). This has helped me too many times to count. They're pretty cheap and I really recommend you carry one. I would suggest having one large on and a smaller one you can easily fit in your pocket.
  • A good camera which fits in your pocket or bag. I take my Canon G16 with me literally everywhere and use it every day. It's possibly the most-used item I brought with me. Bring a spare battery too.
  • A GoPro if you can afford it. Obviously it's not an essential, but you'll probably be doing so many activities that it will be worth every penny! You'll need at least one spare battery as they don't last long.
  • A spare phone just in case you lose or break your main one. If you still have an old phone, it's worth bringing it as you won't want to be without one.
  • Toilet roll. Always good to have in your bag.
  • Earplugs and eye mask. If you value your sleep. I prefer wax earplugs.
  • Rain covers for your bags. If yours doesn't have one built-in, you can buy them separately online for very cheap.
  • Good quality gaffa tape. I use Gorilla Tape. I might only use it about once a month, but when I do need it, it's extremely useful. Note: after about 30 flights with this tape in my hand luggage, I had one roll confiscated at Melbourne airport.
  • Sharpie pen. Very handy.
  • Padlocks. My main bag has zips that lock together. When I use transport where bags are stored in the back or on the roof, or if I leave my bag in storage somewhere, I always padlock the zips together just to stop any opportunists. My bag is heavy, so they're unlikely to run off with the whole thing! I use a combination padlock so I don't have to worry about the key.
  • Merino wool clothing. I bought three lightweight tops and some underwear from Icebreaker after reading lots of travel blogs recommending them and they've been amazing.
  • A rechargeable fan. Definitely not necessary but there are times when A/C is either not possible or too expensive. It can be too hot to sleep, so this could really save you if you're planning on spending as little as possible on accommodation.
  • Zip-lock bags (or similar) in various sizes. They can be unexpectedly useful.
  • Money belt or hidden pocket. It's common to withdraw the maximum allowed cash at an ATM to reduce the fees, which means you need to look after lots of money. Lots of hotel rooms come with a safe but I prefer to keep it in a hidden pocket in my shorts or a money belt. Then you can just keep small notes in your wallet.
  • Travel sewing kit could be very useful.

Guide books

A lot of travellers buy chunky guide books (usually Lonely Planet) for each country they plan to visit. From my experience, the best thing about these books is getting an overall sense of a country and each place. It can help you choose your next destination and plan a route through a region. It is also a great way to do some background reading of the country and culture before you arrive. However, there are enough negatives that mean I don't ever carry these books (not since a 3-month trip in 2006 where Lonely Planet guides probably doubled the weight of my luggage):

  • As I mention in another section, I highly recommend packing lightly. This is absolutely the main reason not to bring guide books.
  • There are a lot of great free online resources. Travelfish (specifically for SE Asia) and Wikitravel are fantastic and are always being updated. I often read the entries on those two sites, along with Wikipedia, before I get to a new place.
  • Most guide books are tailored to a certain type of traveller, looking for a specific type of experience. This is particularly noticeable when it comes to food, where the choices are often tourist-friendly (and I don't mean that in a good way). In fact, that's probably the main reason I decided to create my own food guides.
  • Once a business is featured in Lonely Planet, it quite often goes downhill. The prices go up and quality goes down.
  • By the time you're reading the guidebook, it's already out of date.

Visas & Borders

Always research the current visa situation before entering a new country. The rules can change regularly and they can vary depending on where/how you enter a country. Some countries you can just turn up but others you need to plan ahead and get a visa before entering. There may be restrictions such as needing proof of an outbound flight before being allowed on a flight.

Plan but don't have fixed plans

It's always good to be well-informed about a country or region and having a rough idea of a plan is great but try to be as flexible as possible. If you can, don't make bookings too far ahead as then you can stay longer in places you love, leave places you don't and just go with the flow. It can be great to meet new people and join forces to travel together for a little while which can totally change what you'd planned to do but usually for the best.

I always look up my new destination on Travelfish before I get there. It's gives great summaries of even really small towns in S.E. Asia. It's also well-suited to budget travellers so I often use their guesthouse recommendations and email ahead to get good deals.

And remember not to rush. It's not a competition to visit as many countries as possible or to see as many tourist attractions as you can, just so you can say you've done them. If possible, allow enough time in a region to get to know the people and culture. You'll be rewarded for it.

Last Updated: 24th July, 2017