Travelling through South-East Asia can sure seem daunting. Countless different currencies, languages and tastes are just some of the things a traveller needs to master. Sure you can plan ahead, book your accomodation, learn a few phrases and exchange your money in advance but nothing will get you ready for the cultural differences you will experience abroad.
Every country in South East Asia is different, and though I haven’t been to many (trust me, I’m already planning my next trip!), I feel like I experienced a good taste of what’s on offer in my travels over the last few years. While the days seemed to escape me faster than a motorbike in Vietnam, I recently spent three gorgeous weeks travelling wth my boyfriend across Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.
During those adventure-filled three weeks we desperately tried to eat like locals, travel like locals and even look like locals (although I must admit my fair skin, blonde hair and blue eyes failed me rather quickly). From this experience we learned some important things about culture, customs and respect through our personal adventures and by watching other travellers. If you are planning a trip abroad, I hope the following tips can help you master being the perfect visitor of South East Asia!
1. Etiquette in temples
Sunrise over Angkor Wat, Cambodia
No trip to South East Asia is complete without visiting some of their stunning temples; Angkor Wat, Big Buddha or Wat Phra Kaew are just a few of many. It may be easy to get overwhelmed with the ambiance of the temple but it’s VERY important to follow some etiquette and show respect to the Buddhist culture.
- Cover up your shoulders and knees. Men and women should cover their shoulders and have pants or skirts that go below their knees. Also it’s important to remove shoes, hats and sunglasses before entering a sacred area.
- Do not talk loudly or yell. Many locals are there to worship so keep your voice to a whisper.
- Do not disturb a monk, particularly when they are worshipping. Do not take their photo without premission and do not point at them. When talking to a monk never sit higher than them and show respect by greeting them with a wai.
Koh Panyi (Floating Muslim Village), Thailand
No trip to South East Asia is complete without visiting some of their amazing markets. I guarantee you will indulge every single one of your senses while walking around their busy alleys. You will smell and taste their freshly cooked market meals, see the locals eagerly welcome customers to their stall, touch amazing fabrics and local crafts and hear the bustling market noise take over. Bartering at asian markets is a tradition and is expected by locals. In most cases, the first quoted price isn’t the one you should be paying so see the tips below to become a bartering expert!
- Do some research. Know what you want to buy and figure out the price you want to pay. It’s easy to get overwhelmed when browsing through so have a goal and a price you are happy with in mind.
- Don’t try and get an absolute bargain, as this may insult the sellers. As mentioned above, figure out a price you are comfortable with BEFORE bargaining. Start slightly lower than what you actually want to pay and ‘meet in the middle’.
- Smile and have fun! Bartering can feel uncomfortable, especially for Westerners but they key is to treat it as a game. If you get aggressive the seller won’t deal with you, so smile and enjoy the process!
- Speak their language. Learn how to say simple terms like ‘Hello’, ‘Thank you’, ‘Yes’, ‘No’, ‘Too expensive’ and ‘Good price’. This is certainly is a must for a great deal! This worked especially well in Vietnam where the sellers instantly dropped their ‘foreigner’ fees once I showed effort in trying to speak on their terms.
- Buy in bulk. If you are after a few items, try and get them from one store. This is highly attractive to the seller and they may drop the price by as much as 60% without you even trying! This is especially handy when buying souvenirs and small items like gifts.
Exploring the outskirts of Phuket, Thailand
While I never felt unsafe on my trip, there are certainly some important things to be weary of, particularly tourist scams. Unfortunately many locals try and take advantage of unaware tourists and aim to overcharge, set up or under -service foreign travellers. Fortunately all of these scams are mainly to do with money, and no one really get’s too hurt. Nonetheless, be aware and keep the money in your pocket with these tips!
- I highly recommend renting bikes or scooters when travelling around Thailand. It’s perfect to avoid getting overcharged on tuk tuks, explore tucked away beaches, see the nature and just getting away from all the tourist hype! However, renting these needs to be done with caution. When renting a bike, your passport will be taken and kept on hold. This is a normal practice in South East Asia but also gives vendors leverage if you damage it, or worse, get set up. The best way to avoid this is pay a little extra to stay in a credible resort and rent a bike from there. In my experience the bikes are the same price as the street vendors or in some cases even cheaper!
- Water sports are a must in Thailand. There are countless vendors renting out jet skis, kayaks and banana boats. Speaking to other travellers, I’ve heard countless stories of scams involving set ups that result in travellers paying big bucks for damage that they never did. Do a bit of research on places like TripAdvisor to find out the reputable rental stores. This may be slightly more expensive but at least you have peace of mind knowing that you won’t get ripped off.
- Taxis in Vietnam are a challenge! The entire industry is not regulated therefore meters are dodgy and more often that not you will get ripped off if you are unaware. It’s extremely valuable to do a bit of research and find out the most reputable companies in the area and approximate fair prices. In Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh we found that Mai Linh or Vinasun are generally reputable but be careful of fakes! Some drives simply copy their stickers and branding so choose carefully.
I hope you have a fantastic time in South East Asia. I can’t recommend it more!