South-East Asia is one of the most popular travel destinations for Kiwi’s. Regardless of whether you want a relaxing beach escape, a solo backpacking adventure, a chance to 'find yourself' on a yoga retreat amidst the rice paddies, or just a cheap overseas holiday, South-East Asia has something to offer everyone.
We're up to our eyeballs in budget tips and travel hacks for your chosen country. No seriously, we've got you covered for the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, India and Malaysia. Our guides not only tell you how much to budget, but also where to go, what to eat and how to make the most of your travel money.
What our guides (or most travel guides for that matter) don't tell you, however, is how to survive the grittier side of Asia. Unless you're cooped up in a five-star luxury resort, chances are you'll have some less palatable experiences while in Asia. Said experiences are never mentioned on the glossy holiday brochures, despite almost everyone experiencing them.Trying food at a street market? Just make sure you know where the closest toilet is.
I've travelled a fair bit through Asia, and have friends that have explored countries that I have yet to visit. This blog is an amalgamation of our knowledge (and horror stories) to not only educate you on what can happen but also provide some tips on how to get through your trip relatively unscathed.
So, without further adieu, here is your gritty Asia travel guide.
Prepare for food and water poisoning
You've no doubt heard of the infamous 'Bali belly'. Well, newsflash, it's not just a Bali treat and can be picked up pretty much everywhere. You'll be exposed to foods outside your regular diet that sometimes aren't kept to the same fresh standards that we are used to.
Now, I'm not saying you don't try the street food; I'm just saying be careful. I ate tarantula, crickets and worms from a street vendor in Cambodia (surprisingly delicious) and was fine. I've also eaten a margarita pizza from a 'fancy' Italian restaurant in the Philippines and had to run home 10 minutes later for a hot date with the toilet. You win some, and you will lose some, just make sure you always have a spare pair of undies on hand.
Food aside, water poisoning is a far more prevalent issue throughout many South-East Asian countries. Your best bet is to avoid all tap water and stick to bottled water from the shops. It's cheap and will save you the hassle. With that in mind, my boyfriend drank nothing but bottled water in the Philippines but still managed to get water poisoning and two ear infections just from the shower.
Some places are safer than others, and often it can be the luck of the draw. Just keep your mouth shut in the shower, don't get ice in your drinks and check whether food vendors are washing their ingredients in the tap or bottled water. It might just save you from a few hours on the toilet, Gatorade bottle in hand, trying to rehydrate as you scream 'don't look at me' to your boyfriend every time he needs to use the bathroom. Been there, smelled that, never again.
It is so unbelievably hot
Do you know what the cherry on top of emptying the contents of your stomach in a run-down hostel toilet in the middle of The Philippines is? Doing it in 40+ degree heat with 70% humidity, so every part of your body is sweating. Oh boy, that is a fond memory of mine.
Asia is a very tropical climate, which means lots of humidity and plenty of sweat. Pack light, breathable clothes and more sunscreen than you think you will need. No seriously, I forgot to take sunscreen to Vietnam and had to buy some before my Halong Bay boat tour. It turns out I purchased tanning oil instead of sunscreen and ended up like the forgotten chip at the bottom of the fryer. Then, when you put moisturiser on it blocks your pores, making your even hotter and sweatier *screams internally as it hurts too much to scream externally*.
The heat means you always need to stay hydrated to avoid headaches and migraines. Also, shade is your best friend. It doesn't matter how much you love temples or stone or history when 50-degree heat is shooting at you like a laser in Angkor Wat; you will suddenly lose interest in the significance of your surroundings and instead beeline for the closest shade.Not pictured: my iPhone struggeling to recognise my sweaty fingers trying to take the picture.
Thankfully, there are plenty of stunning beaches and accommodation with pools to cool you down after a long hot day. Or just a cold shower, whatever works. Just remember to keep your mouth closed.
There are so, so many bugs
A fond memory of my time in the Philippines was walking up over 300 stairs in Coron to an incredible viewpoint at dusk, only to give up halfway because I was sick of the bugs getting stuck to my sweaty skin. I ended up going to a rooftop bar, sitting drink in hand next to the mosquito zapper and happily enjoying my view.
Another unwanted side effect of being in the tropics is a large number of bugs. Little flying things that end up all over your body, in your bed and, even worse, in your drinks. Unlike New Zealand, some of the bugs, especially mosquitos, in South-East Asia carry some pretty gnarly diseases that you don't want to take home as a souvenir. No seriously, my friend came back from our Asia trip with Ross River Fever. This is not to mention the bed bugs that can wreak havoc in hostel and hotel rooms (though, in Asia's defence, bed bugs happen across the world).I lost count of the number of times my boyfriend fumbled under the net while I screamed "HURRY UP YOU IDIOT THE MOSQUITOS ARE GETTING IN!! Do you WANT me to get malaria in my sleep??"
Your best bet is to ensure you have some heavy-duty insect repellent on hand, and that you remain diligent at putting it on at regular intervals. In smaller towns or villages, be sure to book accommodation that has mosquito nets as well.
Two words: scooter crashes
One of the most convenient ways to get around Asia is by hiring a scooter or quad bike. It's not only super affordable, but it stops you from being weighed down by the need to catch public transport or join tours.
However, road rules are thought of more as guidelines in Asia, and their large populations mean there is a lot of people doing crazy things on the road. Quite often, this can lead to accidents where your singlet protected, and sunburned skin is scraping the asphalt.Skkrt Skkrt, just don't get hrrrt, hrrrt.
While I don't have tips for avoiding crashes, apart from ensuring you don't drink and drive, staying alert at all times and wearing a helmet, the biggest advice I can give is to ensure your travel insurance covers you for scooter crashes. Many policies have it as an added extra, and if you forget to include it in your cover, you could be fronting up more than expected in hospital bills.
Further to this, hospitals can often be few and far between, so keep a first aid kit handy to get you through until you can see a doctor. It's not ideal but is certainly better than nothing.
The healthcare can leave a lot to be desired
In New Zealand, we are incredibly lucky to have access to some of the best healthcare in the world. South-East Asia does not have this same privilege. On top of that, many hospitals, pharmacies and doctors surgeries will have limited English speakers and facilities.
I witnessed this first hand when I took my boyfriend to a Filipino hospital in Puerto Princesa with severe food poisoning, dehydration and an ear infection. I acknowledge that each country is different, and I'm sure there are some incredible medical facilities throughout Asia. This hospital, however, was not one of them.
As we sat in the waiting room, backpacks filled with three-months worth of our belongings in hand, I had a chance to take in my surroundings in-between my boyfriend's pained moans. First up, there were TV's everywhere and the doctors and nurses were very, very preoccupied with the NBA grand final taking place on the screens. So much so, that everyone stopped work in the final minutes of the game. Meanwhile, I'm somewhat forcefully pouring Gatorade down my boyfriend's throat while two poorly looking Filipino men coughed up phlegm next to me. Granted we didn't have to wait more than an hour, and the hospital bill was cheaper than the excess on our insurance, so we didn't have to make a claim, but I'll never forget my boyfriends face as the doctor shoved a metal rod into his infected ear to 'get a better look'. Sheesh.
Moral of the story, healthcare facilities are available and are generally affordable, though if you have something serious, I would recommend consulting your insurance. Many providers, such as CoverMore, have 24/7 doctors on hand that you can call for advice on what to do and where to go for help. Another reason why quality cover is incredibly important.Under that rubble is the local pharmacy. No, seriously, that's the pharmacy.
For less dire circumstances, you should be able to get some pain relief meds and antibiotics (with a prescription) from a supermarket or pharmacy. You might need to travel a few hours to a bigger town to find one, though.
Please drink responsibly, free pours ahead
In some places, beer was safer to drink than water, which is a win, in my opinion. Beer aside, though, Asian countries do not have to adhere to the same alcohol rules and regulations that we are accustomed to in New Zealand. This means a lot of free pouring, plenty of bootleg alcohol and one or two hangovers throughout your trip.10% juice, 90% alcohol, 100% regret the next morning.
I tried tarantula wine in a remote Cambodian village and survived. I mean it tasted like tarantula and goon, but I survived. I've also found myself vomiting on the side of the road while Chinese tourists filmed me (no, seriously they filmed me having a spew on the side of the road) after one too many 'buckets' in Vietnam.
Long story short, be mindful of what and how much you are drinking. Alcohol poisoning is common, and there is nothing worse than being hungover for your day trip to temples.
Beware of scammers
This is basic travel advice 101; however, scammers are prevalent throughout Asia. Taxis and tours are renowned for ripping tourists off as they 1. Don't know how far away something is, and 2. Can quickly get confused, converting NZD to the country's currency. You try converting 25,000 Cambodian riels to Kiwi dollars on the fly.
Your best bet is to ask fellow travellers and your accommodation for advice on what to do. Review sites are also your best friend, so spend a little time shopping around to ensure you get the best deal.
When it comes to taxis and transport, be firm and agree on your price before getting in the car, or make sure the cab is metered. Common sense goes a long way, so trust your gut and do a little research to avoid paying more than necessary.
Think about your money, honey.
There are a few different layers to your travel money in South East Asia.
First up, a lot of their currencies are highly inflated, so one New Zealand dollar can equal a few hundred or thousand in the currency of your destination. I always try to remember how much $1, $5, $10 and $20 roughly is in the Asian currency and then work things out from there. Otherwise have an app, like the Travel Money NZ website, available on you to quickly figure out the exchange rate.
Cash is king throughout most of Asia, so you will always need to have notes on hand, preferably smaller denominations.
ATM's aren't always reliable, with some running out of cash, straight up not working or, heaven forbid, eating your travel card. With this in mind, stock up on money of varying denominations at Travel Money NZ before you leave. That way, you don't have to worry about counterfeit money or stress about always needing to find an ATM. Sometimes that can't be avoided, though, so avoid disaster by doing the following:
Don't wait until your last $20 to get cash out. That way, if you can't find an ATM or something goes wrong, you won't be stranded without money.
Withdraw more significant sums of money from ATMs. Not only will you avoid paying multiple transaction fees, but you won't have to stress about running out of money before you find another ATM.
Store your cash in different locations. That way, if you lose some or it gets stolen, you have back up options to keep you going.
Have some USD on hand as most South-East Asian countries will accept it, or it will be easy to exchange for the destination currency in an emergency. A lot of border fees also require payment in USD, so double check before you go.
Have a backup for emergencies, and by back up, we mean credit card. I generally don't touch my credit card when travelling, as I prefer to spend my own money and avoid the prospect of a huge credit card bill. However, I always have one handy in case of emergencies, like a huge hospital bill, or for hotel/ scooter money holds. I'd instead them put a hold on my credit card than my hard-earned travel money.
Terrible, terrible toilets
Outside of hotels and semi-decent hostels, you will often be faced with some rather unpleasant toilet situations. Lack of toilet paper is just the beginning. Think toilets without privacy, toilets that don't flush, toilets beside bins overflowing with dirty toilet paper, leaking toilets, toilets positioned directly under the shower in your hotel room (not as convenient as you would otherwise think), tiny toilets, squat toilets and, my favourite, no toilet at all.Now that's a poo with a view. Except the toilet is facing away from the ocean?
All I can say is be prepared for the worst. Have a roll of toilet paper, wet wipes and some hand sanitiser on you at all times and don't be afraid of a good old squat.
Tip for the gals - an empty pringles can may be your new best friend in dire situations. Thank me later.
Long journeys on terrible roads
If they don't have working toilets, chances are their roads won't be that flash either. When travelling between small towns and villages, your only form of transport will either be a private car (lucky you), or some type of local bus.
Beggars can't be choosers, and as long as it gets you from A to B, then you should be stoked. Just don't rely on public transport sticking to any schedule, and be ready to go without a seat for a little while.Not pictured: me doing a tactical vom out the side of the tuk tuk.
The public transport is crowded, and their idea of personal space is very different to that at home, so prepare to get friendly with those around you.
Finally, it will be hot as a lot of public transport doesn't have aircon. Aim for a seat up front near a window. This becomes extra important when you suffer from travel sickness and find yourself hurling out the bus window as it winds along Vietnamese roads. While terrifying, it can be quite liberating providing you have a drink and some mints to get rid of the taste out of your mouth (I've learned from experience).
Once again, pack plenty of liquids and snacks for public transport journeys, as well as a sick bag and pringles can. You never know when you'll need it.
Of course, these experiences did not define my Asian adventures, nor are they guaranteed to happen on yours. South-East Asia is an incredible group of countries that offer some of the most stunningly memorable travel experiences of my life. When travelling, you have to roll with whatever comes your way, expect the unexpected and try not to sweat the small stuff. You're already sweating enough, so there is no need to add to it.
One of my best tips for reducing stress-related sweat is to get your foreign currency sorted before you go at Travel Money NZ. With over 25 stores across New Zealand, our team of experts will ensure you are leaving with a personalised foreign currency solution. Who knows, they might even a pringles can tip of their own.
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