South East Asia Crash Course

Hello and thank you for choosing That Blonde Vagabond as your trusted travel guide!

Hands down South East Asia (SEA) is the region I get the most questions about… or 0318171503_HDRmaybe I should say hands raised this is the region I get asked the most questions about. Since my departure I’ve guided two friends through these lands which captivated my heart. I am happy to report I have 100% success rates. So if you are on the cusp of clicking “confirm” on that one way (ehh ehh) plane ticket, here is some motivation to get you off the fence and falling head-first into wanderland: Sign up for South East Asia’s (endless) Summer Camp

Now that you have decided to do the darn thing, and bought your ticket consider this a crash course on what to expect while perusing and cruising around SEA. For starters there’s a decent chance you will get in a (minor?) motor bike accident, but! more on that later. (Ooops hope y’all aren’t regretting not shelling out something like $12 to insure your ticket… oh wait is it just me who does that?) Well no going back now, so sit back, buckle up, and shift the mental gears towards a place that lies beyond the sunrise.

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To Pack or Not to Pack; (Ham)let’s begin

*For a full guide on the gambit of necessities to pack and the menagerie of novelties to leave behind, check out my “Tips N’ Links” tab under the “Tales & Tips” header*

  • Pack less than you think you will need:
    • SEA is hot & humid 25/8. Everyone sweats like crazy & re-wears their clothes to the point of questionability, yet no one questions it.
    • Seriously y’all if you sweat through a shirt on Monday, forget about it for at least three days, by Friday it is magically “clean” enough to wear again.
      • As a born and bred, beach-residing North Carolinian who’s curly locks gets at least one inch closer to Jesus when the summer months are in full swelt, it was humorous to hear Europeans (or any other dry-climate dweller) complain about the humidity. Meanwhile, I felt right at home walking through a bowl of atmospheric pho commonly known as humidity.
    • I roughly washed my full wardrobe once every two weeks
      • Many guests houses or shops in town offer laundry service. The average price is $1 per KG of clothes.
      • Expect laundry to take 24-48 hours (aka don’t do what I did the first time and give them everything but a bathing suit and sun dress)
  •  Pack even less than what you thought you needed:
    • I recommend; pack your bag, UN-pack, remove some items, repack, unpack, remove one more thing, then do your final pack because:
      • 1. Souvenirs 2. Save yourself some weight off the shoulders and 3. Clothes in SEA are ridiculously cheap, so make sure to have room to add to the wardrobe. I mean if you go to SEA and don’t buy at least one pair of elephant pants did you really go to SEA!?
    • My wardrobe consisted of two t-shirts, two tank tops, three pairs of shorts, one sundress, one rain jacket, two pairs of elephant pants and a long sleeve t-shirt
  •  Don’t pack anything you would be upset if you lost
    • Believe it or not it is entirely, mind-boggling-will-make-you-believe-in-a-vortex-in-the-back-of-your-dryer-where-all-your-socks-go, possible to lose clothes even when all your world-possessions fit neatly on your back.
      • Anyone who read my home page bio is probably giving me the “yeah right” side eye right now, but mark my words losing clothes is a phenomenon that happens to even the least scatter-brained backpacker.
    • Same goes for shoes. Don’t bring your expensive boots made for walking, because they just may walk away from you!
      • Bring a pair of shoes you can trek in, (if you are into such endeavors,) and ~cheap~ rubber flip flops
      • It is customary to take off your shoes before entering a building whether it be a restaurant or hostel. Shoes end up in a massive, unkempt, pile that is easy to mis(take) one pair for another.
    • **Hot insider info: I’m repeated asked, “how do you possibly pack enough for an eight month trip?” Wellll the smelly cat is out of the bag, YOU DON’T. As the wardrobe ebb n’ flows, becomes tatters n’ left scattered, as weather fares and waist line slims, I buy new clothes and donate the old or give to other backpackers.
      • Don’t match? No problem! The attitude of most people you’ll meet is Cheech and Chong meet Phoebe Buffet aka laid back, uber chill, and a little twirly
    • Make up is truly a non-essential.
      • During the four months I spent in Asia babies would have been self-conscience about their bottoms, because my face was so buttery smooth after being bathed in the glorious sunshine and lack of makeup for so long.
  •  Keep in mind when visiting temples some will require women to wear a long skirt or pants. Always throw a sarong in your day pack to wrap around yourself because LORD FORBID YOU SHOW CALVES IN PUBLIC

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Airports, Flights, and all that jazz:

  • Suvarnabhumi Airport (Bangkok Airport) (BKK) is the largest hub in SEA and 9.9/10 where you’ll find the cheapest flight
    • Be mindful of the length of your layover. This airport is ‘UGE. It can take up to 30 minutes to walk from one gate to another.
  • Other airports in SEA include: IMG_1433
    • Thailand: Chiang Mai International Airports (CNK)
    • Malaysia: Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA)
    • Indonesia: Ngurah Rai International Airport (Denpasar, Bali) (DPS)
    • Laos: Luang Prabang International Airport (LPQ)
    • Cambodia: Siem Reap International Airport (REP) or Phnom Penh International Airport (PNH)
    • Singapore: Changi International Airport (SIN)
  • In addition to skyscanner.com Air Asia.com is a great flight search engine tool
  • Google ahead of time the specific visa requirements for your home country
    • No matter where you go your passport will need to be valid for 6 months after your entry date
    • For Americans (an array of Europeans and typically Canadians as well:)
      • Thailand: Free 30 day visa upon arrival
      • Indonesia: Free 30 day visa upon arrival
      • Laos: $30 for a 30 day visa upon arrival, make sure you have an entire blank passport page
      • Cambodia: $35 for a 30 day visa upon arrival. You’ll need a passport sized photo (only American dollars are accepted,) and one entire page of your passport is blank
      • Singapore: Free 30 day visa upon arrival
      • Malaysia: Free 90 day visa upon arrival
    • Online you’ll find some countries state you need to show proof of purchase for an exit ticket, but I was never asked to any such travel document.

 

Before you go:

  • Vaccines
    • Contact your local health department about getting properly vaccinated
    • The CDC’s website is a great tool in determining what vaccines you’ll need and the current health risks for every country
    • Depending on where you are planning to travel malaria pills could be necessary
      • Opt for the daily pills over the one week. The once a weekers are crazy strong and with that comes the possibility of intense side effects such as hallucinations and nausea
    • You will need to be up to date on your: Hep A, Hep B, Tetanus, and Typhoid
      • I did not need Yellow Fever, but hey your path very well may be different than mine. Kudos! If you think you are going to travel somewhere this vaccine is necessary keep in mind there is a shortage of it, so don’t wait until the last minute. You may have to travel a ways to obtain it.
      • Optional vaccines include Japanese Encephalitis and Rabies
  • A word of warning about rabies…
    • If you get the vaccine before traveling and you get bitten by a stray cat, dog, bat, monkey, etc. YOU STILL HAVE TO GET A RABIES SHOT IMMEDIATELY  AFTER. The pre-travel vaccine only buys you another 24 hours before you will need to receive the antidote and there will be one less round of shots.
    • DC brought us Batman, Marvel introduced the world to Spider-Man, and Ubud nearly gave us the Balinese Long-Tailed Monkey Women! I gave it a quick thought, then I decided, “ehh the world ain’t ready.” Also there was no clear sign the monkey who bit me was radioactive, and the doc insisted it was a good idea to get the anti-vaccine.
    • Confused? Got to get that monkey off my back & no I’m not quoting Aerosmith

$hmoney talk:

  • It is a good idea to contact your bank and credit card company to notify them of your travels before you leave the country
    • Sometime this will still fail you…
    • So this one time in Malaysia the ATM triggered a freeze on my debit card. And this second time I lost my debit card in Thailand, and this third time I lost both my credit and debit card in Swaziland.
    • Moral of these drastically condensed stories: Make sure to have a way to contact your bank abroad, ideally have more than one way to extract money and always have enough cash on hand for a cab ride / 1-2 night stay before trying to re-up at the ATM
  • Most restaurants, hostels, shops, etc. will be cash-based
  • In order to avoid racking up ATM transaction fee’s, it’s best to take out a large chunk of cash upon arriving in a new country then “divide your assets”
    • I keep a petite, daily sum of cash in my wallet then I divide the rest into small quantities and hide them in various places in my bag.
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My treasure chest aka a wooden salad bowl

For the times you want to pull an ET and phone home:

  • Whatsapp is a useful tool as long as you have internet.
    • The app is 100% free and allows you to text, call, send photos, “skype,” and have group chats
  • I imagine most phone providers offer some sort of international data/call plan. I have Verizon which offers “travel pass,” but it does not apply to most SEA countries
  • To stay connected while you’re biking on the far side of the moon, the most cost effective remedy to staying in, power-point, finger touch, with the homies is to purchase a local sim card
    • You will have to by a separate card every time you enter a new country. Most cost around $5 and come with enough minutes and pre-payed data to last you for all of your communication needs
    • The airport will be the easiest place to purchase a card, but you’ll be able to find them in most towns as well
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Or the better alternative convince your friends to come visit you

Life’s a Gas:

  • To the left, to the left…. Remember to channel your inner Beyoncé and drive on the left side of the road in Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore
  • Renting a motor bike
    • This is BEST way to get around… that is if you like to feel the freedom in your bones and wind in your hair. (Wait is this suddenly an Old Spice commercial?)
    • A motorbike is less than a motorcycle but more than a moped. IMG_1030
      • You can rent a bike from virtually any hostel, or at the least they will be able to tell where you can rent a bike.
      • All you need is a valid passport and to be able to see over the counter… Did I mention how chill SEA is??
    • Don’t be concerned if the bike company asks to keep your passport until you return the bike. This is normal, even overnight.
      • I did this multiple times in the north of Thailand and Indonesia. I never had an issue getting my passport back. It’s simply collateral to ensure you return the bike or subsequently repair any damages you cause to the bike
    • Crashing on a bike is common place, in fact it is almost a ride of passage the scraps that accompany a fall are euphemistically referred to as a “Thailand tattoo”
      • I fared well and only tipped, so I had to get an actually tattoo in Pai, Thailand…
      • So this one time driving up a steep dirt path Koh Rong my bike mate and I came upon a truck driving towards us, so I gingerly pulled to the side and gravity took hold of our strong side
  •  Like football to American football, driving in SEA is an all-around different ball game
    • There are a lot more bikes than cars, seemingly less order, and a lot more honking. Here honking doesn’t mean somebody is mad at you instead it’s the way that people say “hey watch out I’m about to pass you.”
    • Bangkok is sheer madness, I would not suggest renting a bike here. Get a tuk-tuk or use the metro instead
    • In most places crossing the road is like playing real-life Frogger
      • Traffic won’t stop, I repeat; if you wait for traffic to stop you will be standing on the curb for hours. Instead when you notice a small break in the action start walking across the street and the bikes and cars will veer around you. I know this sounds like a crazed system, but it works because everyone knows this is the way it’s done
  •  Private transport:
    • Google ahead of time the main means of transportation people take from the airport and the average price
    • If you ever decide to get around by taxi/ tuk tuk/ motorbike or any other form of non-metered transportation be sure you and the driver agree on the price before you get in the vehicle
    • It’s definitely a better deal to rent a bike when visiting attractions such or find a group of friends to share the price of a tuk tuk, instead of booking a tour

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  • Any time you need to know how to get to your next destination ask the hostel desk. The staff is my go to for the most accurate info. IMG_1084
  • In general you’ll be able to book your bus through your hostel
    • Night busses are the awesome bi-fecta of transportation and accommodation all in one. A true Stealers Wheels of a deal.
      • (This is where the long-sleeve tee shirt you haven’t worn yet, and begun to curse my name for telling you to pack will come into play.)
    • Be warned: the bunks are not made to accommodate the height of the average westerner, and what looks like is a bunk for one is actually for two. Clowns to the left, jokers to the right, you will be stuck in the middle with someone new.
      • You’ll begin to consider yourself lucky if there is no livestock on the bus.
    • It is a blue moon in the day time if a bus rolls before every seat is filled, so if you book alone you’ll be sharing with a stranger. Hey you might get lucky and get paired with a mega-chill Dutch guy who you later run into, become good friends with and share a room for three days.

Eat Your Heart Out 

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  • In SEA spice isn’t the variety of life, it’s the main flava flave. If you are not a fan of spicy food not to worry, you can always ask for your food mild.
    • Watch out for those papaya and mango salads in Thailand. These were the spiciest meals I ate while in SEA. One even brought a tear to my eye.
      • For reference, I like to eat jalapeños straight outta the jar topped with sriracha. To the suspicious server’s eye, I go “4 pepper hot” when I order Indian or Thai food in the homeland. It’s a miracle I have any tastes buds left.
    • Again if you don’t like spice and you hear someone mention “Lombok peppers” in Indonesia run for the hills
  • Street food = the best foods. Try one of everything 0214170814
    • Luang Prabang, Laos and Chiang Mai, Thailand have some of the best night markets this side of the Prime Meridian
      • Note: there is not much refridgeration, and the meat at the markets does sit out in the heat all day, so I recommend buying it first thing in the morning while it is still fresh
    • Try one of everything, then try it once more
      • Grilled sticky rice, mini coconut pancakes, banana-coconut balls, meat sticks, grilled fish (watch out for bones,) pork and fish ball soup… and so much more
    • The fruit! The fresh shakes!! Go for the avocado shake!!!
      • As I sit here typing I am practically drooling on my key board thinking back about the bananas, young coconuts, dragon fruit, berries, mangoes, lychees, and papaya that was nearly florescent due to being so ripe. The fruit in SEA is naturally sweet and oh SO divine
    • A word about mango sticky rice, I only found it in Thailand and sweet baby Jesus in his golden fleece diapers do I miss it
  • I was fortunate enough to never get sick, but the occasional bout of travelers’ diarrhea aka “Bangkok Belly” is known to happen. Not a bad idea to have your doctor write a prescription for something in case you get travelers’ diarrhea
  • Don’t drink the tap water. Always, always, always drink bottled water. Budget an extra $1 a day for buying bottles of water (A 2 liter bottle of water will range from about 17-50 cents)
    • Speaking of the water, people have different levels of sensitivity. I brushed my teeth with the tap water and never had a problem.
    • Some restaurants will use ice frozen from local water. If you are concerned just ask for drinks with no ice, (or when in doubt drink beer)

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Accommodation

  • I got to the point where I didn’t book ahead of time before moving on to a new city.
    • Most places you can ask to see the rooms before you commit to paying
    • There are a slew more options of guesthouses than those who advertise on hostelworld.com
    • Honestly the best is to go by word of mouth. Ask people who have been to where you are going where they stayed
  • Room sharing:
    • When backpacking in SEA social norms fly out the thatched-hut door.
    • It is not weird to meet people, instantly become friends, decide to share a room, and spend every waking second together for the following 2 days – 2 weeks
    • I know I sound like a stage-five clinger right now but I swear on, The Dice Man (or whatever book you consider holy) this is how it goes.
      • So this one time I “friend-poached” two guys from The Netherlands by inviting myself to have a beer with them at our hostel. They invited me to get dinner then to share a tuk-tuk with them to Angkor Wat the next morning and wouldn’t you know it, the three of us spent nearly the next three weeks traveling together.
  • Lunar New Year or  otherwise known as Chinese New Year is celebrated in much of SEA during his time period prices for accommodation will soar and places will be more fully booked, so this is one time period it’s actually best to plan ahead.
  • I reccomend getting as many mesages as you can while you are in SEA, we are talking around $6 for an hour long message so why the heck not treat yo self?
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Views from the hostel

And Remember..

  • Smiles go for miles, take the time to learn how to say, “Hello,” “Please,” thank you”, “good morning” you know the basics.
  • Communication is not hindered by language barrier, the local people are incredibly patient and kind. Don’t be afraid to order door from a street cart just because you can’t speak the language

Stay Tuned for in-depth guides to:

  • Thailand and Indonesia
  • Singapore and Malaysia
  • Laos and Cambodia

SEA surly has more shores to see, but these were the only nations I had the pleasure of traveling through. I visited them geographically illogically, starting in Cambodia then hopping down to Indonesia, after which I visited Singapore, Malaysia, then Laos and finally Thailand. Most people fly into Bangkok, head south the Thai islands, then head north, cross into Laos by slow boat, travel south, cross into Cambodia, then go to Vietnam. Personally I loved going counter-flow, however if you go with geography you can take more buses than planes and in turn save some money. There is no right or wrong, and remember everyone is on their own timeline. The trick is just taking the first step. As you meet people and get recommendations the next stepping stone will become clear.

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