Other than Myanmar, Singapore and maybe a few specific areas, decent accommodation in Southeast Asia can be very cheap. If you're lucky, you can even get your own room for about the same price as a dorm. In some areas the cheapest guesthouses are rarely online, so you have the choice of booking online (knowing you have a place to sleep but paying more) or waiting until you arrive and walking around to haggle for a good price. I do a bit of both. If I know the area and it's got lots of options then I'll usually wait until I arrive, but if it's an unknown area, a busy time (like Chinese New Year) or if I'm arriving late at night then I make sure I have at least one night booked. It's then easy to go looking for cheaper and/or better rooms the next day.
If you're not feeling particularly young and you're worried about staying in a hostel, then don't worry, there are plenty of dorms which are very clean and quiet - there are still party hostels but it's easy to avoid them. I use HostelWorld to find nice dorms when I want to save money - and I usually choose ones with pod-style beds with curtains for privacy (these are usually built-in units rather than flimsy bunkbeds).
It's worth emailing or sending a message on Facebook to a hostel/guesthouse directly to ask for deals, especially if you're planning on staying for a week or longer. Emailing helps avoid any language problems and gives you the price in writing. It also means you don't have to physically visit multiple locations and in my experience it puts you in a better position of getting the best deal. I would suggest not committing to multiple nights but still negotiating a deal for X nights to make it cheaper along with a single-night price - that way, if you hate the place you can leave after the first night and pay the single-night rate.
If booking online, I recommend taking screenshots of the type of room and facilities, just in case they try to give you a room without A/C when you arrive, for instance.
Couchsurfing is another option that's used by lots of backpackers on a tight budget. I've met many people who only use Couchsurfing and so never pay for any accommodation. Of course there are downsides, such as lots of the houses being out of the central areas, potential lack of privacy and your own space and safety concerns, but the Couchsurfing community is most filled with amazing people who are generously sharing they home with you and will probably also want to show you around. Note that if you are a single female traveller you will find it very easy to find hosts almost everywhere, but please be careful, unfortunately I've heard too many stories of inappropriate behaviour from hosts.
Local phone SIM
This is something I didn't do for the first couple of months and once I first got one, it changed so much and made travelling so much easier that I haven't been without a local SIM since. It's one of the first things I do when I get to a new country. Typically a SIM with one month of 3G/4G internet access costs about $5-15 USD depending on the country. It's worth the money alone just to access Google Maps, but you also get to look up local activities, attractions, bars and restaurants. Of course you can cope without it but I can't stress enough how much time you will save and how you will get more out of travelling with 3G/4G on your phone. Having the ability to make local phone calls can be handy too. Phoning ahead to see if places are open or booking a guesthouse, for instance.
Once I have mobile data, I use WhatsApp, Skype and Facebook Messenger to make phone calls to friends and family. I make sure I have Skype credit for making international phone calls.
If you're planning on travelling for at least a few months, I recommend switching your SIM card at home to be pay as you go. This will allow you to keep your phone number and receive SMS messages without paying anything. I carry my old phone and have my UK SIM in it, enabling me to easily receive messages that might be necessary for verifying accounts (such as Google, Uber, your bank, etc).
- Thailand: If you get a TrueMove sim card, you can get unlimited data for 89 baht per week by dialing *900*8934# once you have some credit.
Internet access & Wifi
All hotels and most restaurants, cafés and bars (especially the ones for tourists) will have free wifi. Speed and reliability vary massively depending on the business and area you're in. It's very rare that my accommodation wifi isn't fast enough to stream Netflix. If having access to the internet is important to you (for work, maybe) then it's worth researching the area you're going to. For instance, internet connections in Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam are generally fast but Myanmar had possibly the worst internet I've seen.
It's not unusual for wifi to be a bit broken in some locations, but often I find setting my DNS server or manually setting my IP address can make it work. This might be a bit technical for some people, so ignore it if it sounds confusing, but hopefully it might help some people.
Data & online security
I'm not particularly worried or paranoid about online security but I do take precautions.
- VPN: I sometimes use a VPN, especially when working on public wifi. The VPN I use gives me a choice of multiple countries which can be extremely useful for using services which only work in specific countries (such as the BBC iPlayer and certain YouTube videos). But mostly VPNs are important as they encrypt all of your online data.
- Encrpyted devices: My phone, laptop, external hard drives & USB drives are all encrypted. I may never be in a situation where the encryption is needed, but it's free and easy to do, so it's better to be safe than sorry. For instance if your laptop is stolen then at least your data is safe.
- Secure passwords: Not really a travelling tip but something you should all be doing anyway. Make sure all of your devices have a password or passcode and that your important services have a secure password (not dictionary words). Your email account should have multi-factor verification (such as Google's 2-Step Verification). I use a password manager (LastPass) to make it easy to use unique secure passwords for each service.
Health, hygiene & medicine
Hygiene in Asia might be below your usual standards but you you shouldn't let it be a big deal. If you try to avoid the hygiene issues then you'll be missing out on some of the best places to eat! It's extremely rare for me to get ill in Asia (less so than back home), although it's quite common for travellers to have a few digestive issues during the first week or two while their bodies adjust.
Pharmacies are very common in most areas and I don't think I've ever been to one where they don't speak good English.
Remember that the sun is probably stronger than at home so make sure you have sunscreen to avoid being one of the many tourists with bad sunburn. You can get sun cream from most convenience stores and pharmacies but beware that many of them will contain whitening.
It's very easy to get dehydrated, especially if you're not used to the heat and humidity. Try to carry water with you and make sure you're drinking enough (probably more than you think).
Wildlife & Bugs
- You need to accept that you'll see plenty of cockroaches, rats, spiders and other bugs.
- Monkeys are a common sight in various areas, especially around tourist attractions where they can scavenge food and sweet drinks. But be careful because the monkeys can be very aggressive - I've literally been chased by them.
- Mosquitoes can be a big problem in certain areas. Using repellant will not only save you from annoying bites but it can help reduce the risk of catching malaria and other diseases. Whenever I'm in an area with lots of mosquitoes, I try to use an aerosol spray (rather than a useless squirter thing) with deet.
- Bed bugs are a possibility in dorms but it's not common.
I recommend checking the climate graphs for a new country or region before planning your next move. You don't want to end up in monsoon season through bad planning. Generally, I've had great weather throughout SE Asia and I've rarely needed more than shorts, t-shirt and flip-flops. If you're travelling for a while, rather than just a quick holiday, rain isn't such an issue as you can just accept it and choose those days to relax.
When I was living in Saigon, I owned a heavy-duty rain poncho specifically for wearing on a scooter and it was definitely needed during some of the heavy rain. I bought a ridiculously cheap paper-thin poncho from 7-Eleven in Thailand when I first arrived and only used it a couple of times as generally the rain is either too hard for the poncho to protect you, so it's best to find a cafe/bar and wait for it to stop.
Indonesia is responsible for haze in Singapore and parts of Malaysia for a few weeks/months every year, so it's worth checking that out before you plan.
I use Google Maps every day, almost without fail. I usually have phone data, so I don't always download an offline area (in the app) but it can be helpful if internet access is unreliable (although not all regions allow offline maps with Google). Many travellers (especially those who don't buy local sim cards) use Maps.me which is an offline maps app which has accommodation and tourist attractions. Remember that your phone's GPS will still work even without a local sim card or wifi.
I have my Android phone set up to record my GPS location with Google. It means that I can easily find places I've been to and look back over my travels. It also has other advantages such as improving Google Photos (see below).
You'd be amazed at how many people lose their photos while travelling. Don't be one of them! This is my method:
- Transfer all photos to an external hard drive regularly (daily if possible).
- Never delete photos. SD cards are very cheap, especially in Asia, so whenever I fill up a card, I buy a new one and keep the old one as another back-up.
- Use Google Photos! It's a free service (you don't need the paid version) which not only acts as a back-up for all your photos and videos, but it organises them and gives you easy access from your phone and computer. Set it up on your phone to automatically back-up photos you take on the phone and then use the app (or website) on your laptop to upload photos from your camera whenever you have good wifi. I highly recommend you use it.
Tip: Sync up your cameras & phones to all be on exactly the same time (to the second). This will mean that your photos are in the right order when you combine them from different devices. It may seem like a small thing but trust me, it can be really annoying. Also, don't forget to change the timezone of your devices every time you arrive in a new country!
If you have your GPS location history set up on Google (see above) and your cameras have their clocks synced with your phone then Google Photos will assume that photos taken on your non-GPS cameras were in the same location of your phone. This can be extremely useful, especially as it means they're all searchable by location.
Crime & Scams
I've hardly seen any crime during my year or two in Asia. Other than scams or overcharging (which can usually be avoided), you're likely to be safe as long as you're sensible.
- Tuk tuks: These get another mention here because quite often the drivers will take you to attractions, restaurants, shops or tailors where they get paid to take tourists. Some drivers are very open and honest about it but others will waste your time and it might not be a nice experience.
- Police: There is corruption in many places and they might be on the lookout for any excuse to give you a fine which goes straight in their pocket. I know this is definitely true when it comes to driving scooters in tourist destinations. I would recommend having a dummy wallet with only a small amount of money, so you can offer it all.
- Valuables: I've never heard first hand of anyone having anything stolen from a private room in Southeast Asia. Don't worry about leaving your laptop, passport, etc. If you're staying in a dorm then obviously it's different and usually because of opportunistic theft by other foreigners. Make sure you only stay in dorms with lockers or something similar. Some have large drawers where you can lock away your whole bag.
- Pickpockets & mugging: This is very rare but locals will often tell you to be careful, especially if you have your phone out. In Vietnam there are many stories of people having their bag or phone snatched by someone on a scooter, but I'm not sure how common it really is. Minimise the risks by being aware of your surroundings. I have zip pockets to avoid pickpockets and I'm careful about using my phone in certain situations. Don't be an easy target!
- Laundry is usually very cheap (approx. $1/kg) and easy. Most hostels and guesthouses have their own service or will send it off to another place for you for a good rate. Some people carry laundry powder and do their own washing but it's so cheap to be able to hand over a bag of clothes and have it come back the next day (or sometimes a few hours later), washed, ironed and folded.
- Haircuts: There are a lot of options for hairdressers, salons and barbers. Some are simple street setups, others are large westernised places where they speak English. In more rural areas you will probably be restricted to basic options and you may have to point at photos in a catalogue if they can't understand your instructions.
- Journal: It can be great to write a journal during your travels. If you are travelling for a long time then considering writing it on Google Docs or something similar, as carrying around months or years with of notebook journals isn't such a good idea. They're heavy and if you might lose them.
- Calendar: I use Google Calendar to keep a record of every accommodation I stay in. It can be very useful to keep track of which town you were in and remember the name of the hotel/hostel.
- Transport log: I keep a Google Docs spreadsheet of every plane, train, bus, etc that I take. I find it helpful as a reference.
Toilets & facilities
- All accommodation comes with a standard western toilet but local places can often have the squat toilets. Even airports are likely to have at least some like this. It can be hard to adjust and I try to avoid them whenever possible.
- Toilet paper isn't usually provided in local toilets and when it is, it's often accompanied by a sign telling you to place all paper in a bin rather than flushing it. The "bum gun" can be your saviour but carrying toilet paper is a good idea if you know you'll be in a less touristy area.
- Hot showers are common but water pressure can be terrible. Usually all I want is a cold shower anyway.
- Rooms either come with a fan or air conditioning and sometimes both but they only give you the A/C remote if you pay extra. I've found that if the fan is powerful, it's usually enough but during the hot season in some areas, it can be very draining to be in over 40°C every day without A/C.
In cities you're likely to be able to find anything you need to buy; whether it's electronics, clothing, cosmetics, English-language books, etc. It'll most likely be cheaper than your home country too.
If you're looking to buy something major like a laptop or camera, it's worth noting that you should be able to claim back the tax when you leave the country. If you're planning on buying something specific for your travels, consider waiting until you arrive as it could save you money.
In some areas there are cheap tailors such as Bangkok and Hoi An.
When you're visiting a city, use the Couchsurfing app (or website) to find any meet-up events. They're a perfect way to meet people and find out about the local area. Using the same app you can publish your itinerary and see when other travellers will be in the same location as you, then you can easily message them. The app also has a new feature called 'Hangouts' for meeting up with other people nearby.
Hostels are an obvious and easy way to meet other travellers. Day trips, tours and other organised activities can also be a really good way to make friends, especially if you're a solo traveller.
Making friends with locals can be harder, especially when there's a language barrier, but it's highly rewarding. There are some groups that you might be able to find online, such as Saigon's "Talking with the Tourist" who meet a few days a week in a park and meet foreigners in a mutual exchange of culture and friendship.
♀ Female travellers
Most countries that I travel in are safe for foreigners, including solo female travellers. However there are obviously differences and actions that can be taken to be even safer. There are also some female-specific tips and advice that I have gathered from friends.
- As mentioned in the packing section, carrying a doorstop is a good way to make sure that no one can enter your room at night. Of course things like this are extremely rare but even if it's just for peace of mind then it's worth it.
- Be careful when staying with a Couchsurfing host if you are by yourself. While the vast majority of hosts are lovely people, the review system on Couchsurfing means that you can never be sure that a host hasn't been inappropriate with previous guests.