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6 Tips for Backpacking South East Asia

Over the past couple years I have done two trips to Asia, one of them being a four month long backpacking trip and over the two trips I have traveled Vietnam, Malaysia, Cambodia, Thailand and Indonesia. The first trip I took was about three weeks to Vietnam and Malaysia and the second trip I packed up my backpack and explored Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Indonesia. I had done a couple months backpacking in Europe so I knew I would enjoy the long trip but I quickly realized backpacking Asia was going to be a very different experience. I had the most wonderful time traveling, had the best food and met some people that I’m still great friends with now and I wouldn’t have changed anything about my experience. I definitely learned a lot while I was there and these are just a couple things I would’ve like to know before going!

Night buses and buses in general are a common way for travelers and locals to get around the area, make sure you’re prepared if you’re hopping on a bus. In my experience, most of the night buses don’t have toilets and they will just stop for the bathroom every couple hours. I didn’t realize there wouldn’t be a toilet on the bus until I took my first night bus and I definitely wouldn’t have drank so much water right before! The buses will also randomly stop for food but depending on how long you’re on the bus it can be a good few hours before they stop; definitely bring a snack with you. Depending on where you’re taking the bus, you might be cuddling up next to a stranger! All the night buses I took in Vietnam had individual beds but the night buses I took in Cambodia were a bit of a larger space shared between two people; I was also given a pillow and blanket in Cambodia but nothing in Vietnam.

Don’t be scared to negotiate. It’s very common to haggle with market vendors and tuktuk drivers and I learned even bus tickets are negotiable. Although I don’t love having to haggle for what I want it’s a very normal thing to do and the vendors expect it! One tip for haggling is make sure you’re still being polite; the first time I went to Vietnam our tour guide was very specific that although haggling is very normal you still have to be polite and respectful while doing it. If you’re not getting the price you want you can just walk away and sometimes they’ll give you the price you want and if not I guarantee you’ll find the same item at another market. Every market I went to had similar stuff to the market before.

This is going to sound so cheesy and cliché but get very comfortable with the idea of being uncomfortable. Southeast Asia is hot and humid and you will be hot and sweaty and sticky and although it feels a bit gross sometimes it’s absolutely worth it. The buses and trains and ferries can be hot and crowded and maybe even make you motion sick but usually you forget about it once you see how amazing the destination is. Taking public transit in SE Asia is not for the weak and it is a very different experience from traveling in Europe or the United States so just make sure you’re prepared.

This is going to sound like common sense but make sure you’re eating enough! After a couple weeks of traveling I realized that I definitely wasn’t eating enough because of how much I was doing in a day. I would have breakfast, head out for the day and then come home and have dinner. I had to start bringing snacks when I knew I might be out for a while and wouldn’t be able to eat lunch; walking around in the heat without eating enough was definitely not my smartest choice! If you’re getting onto a night bus make sure you bring water and a couple snacks with you. The buses always stop for food at some point but it’s not planned so make sure you’re prepared.

Be prepared that you might lose something in the laundry. When I was backpacking Asia I didn’t do my own laundry once, it was very common to take it to a launderette, someone weighs it, washes it and you come back and get it a day or two later. With most travelers doing their laundry this same way it was just inevitable that overtime something is going to get lost. Some launderettes have a form for you to fill out with what you’re dropping off to try and minimize anything getting mixed up.

Bring a rain jacket, remember that you have it and actually wear it! This might be very specific advice and something I personally need to work on but the amount of times I got soaking wet when it rained, even though I had a rain jacket sitting in my backpack, is too many to count! If you’re traveling during rainy season, this is especially important. When I was in Ha Giang I left my rain jacket at the hostel and didn’t bring it on the motorbike trip with me and then proceeded to get soaked every afternoon for four days.

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