Those of you who are following along with my travel vlogs (And there aren’t many of you right now!) will know I’ve just got back from a big trip to South East Asia. Well, I learned a lot, and here’s a summary.
Firstly, South East Asia is a big term that I’m giving to essentially just a few places we visited. I didn’t tour the whole area, just a few places and they were:
That’s it. So make of that what you will. It just sounded better than saying ‘What I learned touring Cambodia, Vietnam, and Thailand’ so here we are. For me, those places are what I would class as the main countries for tourists in South East Asia, but that’s entirely subjective. That really depends on what you’re going there to see, and for me that was the following:
- Mountains and views
- Interesting little cafes and places
- A new culture
- Islands and beaches
Now, although I did see all of those things, I also learned lots of things that I never expected. I have to say that compared to what I was expecting of the area of the world, it was vastly different. But not in a bad way, actually. You see coming from a fairly normal life in boring old England, I had only other peoples stories and adventures to go on.
I really didn’t know what to expect and so I found myself relying on a few Trip Advisor forum posts and things like that. The trouble with that is that you get a very diluted opinion and view of what the area is really like. The people on the forums there don’t represent the majority of people who’ve been to a place, and it also doesn’t represent the locals as a majority.
Before I start waffling on, let’s just get started with sharing the main things I learned on my trip. I haven’t written for a while so I’m a little rusty, hopefully you still enjoy this article though! If however, you’d prefer to just watch a short summary of my trip in video format, I made that too!
What I learned in South East Asia
These things aren’t in any sort of order by the way, they’re just all being dumped onto this post! We did actually plan out our trip and we didn’t go to every area of each country, of course. So this is based on visiting certain areas of the countries, which I’ll explain at the end.
1: It’s just not as dangerous as you think
Now, I’ll admit when I was planning this trip I was worried about several things. I was terrified of wasps and hornets and other flying pests, and I was also scared of things like crime and personal safety in an area of the world that wasn’t as developed, economically.
But as I landed, do you know what happened? Nothing. I was greeted by the smiles of the ground staff, hotel staff, people on the streets or in the shops.. Everyone just seemed lovely, and there wasn’t a single moment where I remember walking around thinking ‘I don’t feel safe’.
In fact, there are several places in England that I just wouldn’t feel safe walking around, but in South East Asia, I felt safe everywhere I went. Everyone seemed so willing to help you if you just so much as looked slightly concerned about something or worried.
One of my fondest memories of the peoples kindness was when I felt a bout of diarrhea coming on in the middle of Bangkok and I frantically ran into a drug store to try and find some meds for it, fumbling around with my translator.
The shop staff guy quickly realised what I needed, shouted some words in Thai and grabbed me by the hand and ran with me down the street to another shop, and got me to the front of the line, and made sure I got what I needed. He didn’t need to do that at all and that’s so far beyond his responsibility as a shop staff, but he just did it. He could see I was stressed and needed help, and he just did it, happily.
There were a few other situations like that (not illness, but acts of kindness) where I was just shocked at how lovely people that didn’t know me could be, and how kind humans in general could be. It changed my outlook on the world, for the better.
2: Everything’s cheaper but be careful
It should come as no surprise that things in general, are cheaper in South East Asia than almost anywhere else. The cost of living is just lower. That being said, people aren’t stupid. They know that tourists usually have a lot more money than the average person, in most areas. People will try and charge you a little bit more if they think you’ll pay it, but to be honest, I only experienced that one time.
It was in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and I was just waiting for a Grab. Grab is an online ride sharing app like Uber which lets you pre book rides which are pre paid online using your card and the app. The driver pulled up, just at the top of a waterfall hike we’d just done.
He starts shouting that the fee is wrong and that we need to cancel the ride and pay him more (about 4 times more) than the app had previously said. We agreed but negotiated the price down to something more reasonable because we just wanted to get home. Later we realised that this is probably quite common among the less reputable drivers, and to be honest it probably works quite well.
So of COURSE there are people who are going to try and get a bit more money out of you, that could happen anywhere, but that being said it was rare. It happened once, and we pretty much used Grab at least twice a day every day for 3 months going all sorts of places, and that only happened once.
In other cases, the Grab drivers were just as lovely as ever. Not taking a penny more than the fee unless we really encouraged them to take a small tip. In one case the driver shouted after us that I’d left my camera on the seat! And most memorably of all, on one trip my girlfriend left her entire purse with all her money, cards and things inside it, in the car.
The driver, the NEXT DAY drove back to our hotel just to give the purse back. That was just another example of how incredible people can be sometimes! The driver could easily have just taken the money or whatever, but he didn’t. Here’s the vlog from that day!
3: Traffic is crazy
You probably know this, but the traffic is actually insane in South East Asia, in most places. Now, it was fine in most places in Vietnam, and some other places but Bangkok in particular, was really bad.
On one occasion towards the start of the trip, we were trying to get to the airport for our flight to Cambodia, and the trip by road would take apparently, according to Google maps, 15 minutes.
Now, previously around Bangkok, it had only taken a few SECONDS to find a taxi using the Grab App and within minutes, the driver had arrived. This time however, was not quite the same. We tried the app, ‘no drivers available’. Ten minutes later, ‘no drivers’. this was getting stressful. We’d only allowed two hours to get to the airport, which was STILL a massive load of time for a 15 minute trip, we thought.
It took about an hour to find a taxi and we didn’t find it through the app, oh no. We actually had to ask for help in the hotel reception, which reminds me of yet another act of kindness. So we’re waiting for a taxi to show up on the Grab app, nothing happens.
We ask for help at the reception, and the guy looks at the app and says ‘no drivers at this time, only private taxis’ and tells us about how taxis are normally all booked up in what was apparently rush hour (3-4PM).
So the guy rushes to the busy road outside the hotel, in the pouring rain by the way, and stands there trying to get the attention of a taxi. He stands there for about ten minutes to no avail, while we sit in awe of how kind this person was being. He comes back only to grab an umbrella, and as the rain beats down even faster, he runs into the road to try and grab a taxi.
Eventually he gets one, and beckons us over. We get in, and I thank the man and shake his hand. What a lovely guy! Another act of kindness, but the journey isn’t over yet, oh no. At this point, after all the waiting around we only have 45 minutes until boarding of our flight. The taxi pulls away for all of about 4 second before hitting the traffic on the road. We stop.
And now we sit for what seems like all day but really was just an hour and a half of SOLID traffic for the entire journey. I desperately need the loo and have to hold it in, to the point where by the time we get to the airport (and the flights long gone) I RUN to the toilet! Close escape. But we’ve missed our flight, and it’s taken all in all, about two and a half hours to do a 15 minute journey just down the road. We could have probably walked it in 45 minutes but we had heavy bags, and it was POURING with rain.
Long story short, Bangkok traffic is CRAZY and you really can’t rely on anything google maps says for getting around the city. Take the trains if you’re near a station, but we weren’t sadly.
4: It’s the tropics, so there ARE bugs
Of course, there are going to be bugs if you visit the topics, but to be honest I only really felt scared about the bugs in Cambodia. We did a jungle zipline through the jungle of Ankgor Wat, and I have to say, yeah the bugs were scary there.
Centipedes, spiders, MASSIVE wasps and flying horrible things, huge jungle ants, the lot. Luckily I didn’t actually get bitten by anything but it could have happened. You can see a spider and a few things in my vlog of the zipline:
But my most vivid memory from that day was an enormous black and blue wasp fluttering around and then squeezing itself into a tiny wooden shelter, which the tour guide later reached into without looking, to fumble around for a bottle of water he’d left there. I stepped back only to see a giant black Millipede (harmless, but amazing) which you can see at the end of my vlog.
Now, that’s not to say I escaped Asia without harm from bugs, we’ll get into that later! But for the most part, the bugs and wildlife is amazing to look at, and it’s all fun and games until you get a bug ON you.
5: But not many wasps
Well, I’m shocked to be able to say that apart from the encounter with the black and blue bully in Cambodia, I actually saw VERY few wasps the entire time. There were a few things flying around, but most of the flying terrors were actually in Cambodia, and not in Thailand or Vietnam really. They tend to be only when you enter the jungles like we did for trips or hikes.
The only thing I really saw in the cities and centers was cockroaches (we’re getting to them!) and butterflies and things of that nature. The most bugs were just found in the jungles, but there WERE spiders. I hate to say this and I’d hate to discourage people from going there who are scared of spiders, but there were lots.
Mainly however, we saw these large, long legged jungle spiders sitting on large swaying webs at eye level in the jungles. If you watch even just a few of my vlogs from Thailand on youTube like the one below, you can see just how many spiders there are. The most I saw were in the zoo (not in the enclosures, just on the PATHS!) and when we went to a water fall in Chiang Mai.
I’ve since learned that these jungle spiders were not actually venomous, but that a bite would just sting like a wasp sting. I think though, the most scary thing about them is the idea that as you’re walking along you could get a huge yellow spider along with its web, IN YOUR MOUTH. Makes me shudder.
6: Plans never go 100%
Plans in life never really go right 100% of the time, and Asia is no different. We found that several things we tried to visit were closed when we got there, it rained when we didn’t want it to in some cases, and some things were just not open for the public at this time of year (we went September to December).
You just have to make do with what you have, and explore what’s there and what’s open. Sometimes the best things you can do, are actually the things you don’t plan or expect at all. You also can’t predict when you’re going to get ill. Luckily I actually got ill as soon as I got to Bangkok the first time. This was good because it was the one part of the trip that we didn’t really have anything planned for.
We sort of booked a few days in Bangkok at the very start to just get over jetlag and break up the journey a little bit. This was good as I got ill as soon as we landed, probably due to the questionable egg sandwiches I had at the airport. I was very hungry, and it was the only thing that didn’t contain meat. This brings me on to the Vegan section..
7: There’s lots of food for Vegans in certain areas
In most of the places we went to, there were LOTS of options for Vegans. The things that are most vivid in my mind were Cambodias Siem Reap, and Chiang Mai in Thailand. Those places always had Vegan options that were very tasty. In fact there were several cafes like the Peace Cafe in Siem Reap that we just kept going back to, because the Vegan food was so good.
Then as we got to places a bit more remote and less visited like Tuan Chau island we had to slip to Vegetarian and have things like noodles with egg and rice with egg. It seems impossible in certain places to get them to separate the rice or noodles from the egg, and they don’t understand when you ask them to do that.
That being said, I’m happy to eat egg every now and then, as long as there’s absolutely no meat in my food. For the most part, I would say about 90% of the time I was still completely Vegan throughout the entire trip to Asia, which is something I didn’t expect.
I thought it would be much harder to find good food, but it just wasn’t. There were lots of options, but the LEAST options were found in Bangkok, which is strange as it was the biggest city we went to.
8: It’s noisy so sleeping is.. different
One of the first nights we were in Bangkok, we almost called the police. I’m not joking, it was a very strange situation, we checked into the Airbnb room in this apartment complex and as night settled in, we heard a LOUD smashing sound and shouting coming from down the hallway.
Now, I don’t know if it was the jetlag or lack of proper food but it sounded exactly like people were going room to room, shouting, and then smashing the room up. We heard piercing smashing and crushing noises that seemed to be getting closer. We couldn’t see anything through the peep hole or looking down the corridor, but we panicked and messaged the Airbnb host.
They responded quickly and said they’d called the reception staff and confirmed it was probably roadworks. Slightly calmer, we venture out of the room and slowly walk down to the end of the never ending corridor. We see a small open window and look down to see a full on road works operation going on, literally outside the window. They’re ripping up the concrete and part of a building attached to the hotel.
Now, to assume people were going room to room sounds extreme, but that’s exactly what it sounded like. Never before have I been somewhere where they perform full volume, full scale construction works on a building, at 11 at night, with people inside the building. It’s just how they do things here, and I wasn’t prepared for that.
So yeah, sleep is an interesting one, it gets easier if you’re higher up, so if possible book hotels and request rooms higher than the 6th floor so you’re sheltered from the noises of the streets!
9: Vietnam is massive
On the map, Vietnam is big. In real life, Vietnam is big. So I don’t know why I expected it to be easy to navigate by bus or by walking, but it was ENORMOUS. We had to actually get a 4 hour flight just to get from one city to another, and when we got to that city (Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City), it was huge as well. Here’s a vlog of traveling through vietnam:
This isn’t actually much of a surprise, but it was still amazing to see just how vast Vietnam is. Don’t just assume you can rent a bike and drive around easily, this place is an absolutely enormous bit of land, and some seriously detailed planning is needed to properly see the sights and travel round sensibly! Especially when you combine that fact with the heavy traffic of the busy cities.
10: There’s a culture shock on both ends of the trip
When we first got there, there was the initial shock of everything being so very different to everything we’re used to. Then after I would say about a month we were completely used to it, and the people and culture seemed completely normal.
Everything was fine, but by the time it got to the 3rd month, we started to think about boring old England again. It took weeks of being back in England to get used to it again. You start to miss the bustle, the people, the heat and the culture. You start to wonder why you can’t negotiate the price of the things you buy, and why everything was so bloody expensive here (England).
You start to question why you’ve even come back, and why it costs £12.50 for a cinema ticket that would cost you $2 in Asia. This hit me HARD when I got back, and I started immediately planning my next travels.
11: People are lovely
I’ve already given examples of how lovely the people were, but there were so many examples that I didn’t share. People who were so willing to help, make friends, explain things, show you things, and make sure you were having a good time. I didn’t meet a single person who made me feel unsafe, unwelcome or at all uncomfortable, EXCEPT mr ‘I need more money from the Grab ride’.
There were just so many beautiful people there, and they all seemed to really enjoy being nice and making friends etc. Even the people who were trying to sell you things seemed to understand to some degree that you weren’t going to buy anything and they just start conversations with you!
That does remind me however, of the selling. If you stand still for too long in the busy cities, you’ll be approached by people trying to sell you all sorts of things from sunglasses to little cardboard ornaments. Even when you show them your existing sunglasses and insist that they’re better because they’re Ray Bans and you REALLY don’t need any more sunglasses, they still try and sell them. It became like a little game we would play to try and avoid getting sold something by dodging the vendors and standing in strategic places.
12: Cockroaches are insane
Probably one of the less enjoyable moments of my trip was the cockroaches. In one place we stayed in, in Ho Chi Minh city, there were cockroaches. They came entirely unexpected because the apartments were in a modern, new complex and everything all shiny and white, you wouldn’t expect this to house so many cockroaches, but they’re just as free as you are!
They nested everywhere, and in this apartment we stayed in for a MONTH (too long, I’ll get to that) they were also staying there with us. Most nights we didn’t notice anything but one particular week, they must have been mating or something because they were angry and loud.
Several nights, they crawled into the bed and over my girlfriend, one baby cockroach actually crawled up her nose and has now resulted in her having to have a minor nose operation to reduce the swelling and reaction it’s caused. Very annoying and at the time, scary!
I was woken by her screaming that there was something on her, and I have to say I’ve never seen a creature climb around so quickly! By the time I realised what it was, it had already ran up her back towards her hair and over her neck. Crazy little things, I eventually got it though and we flushed it down the kitchen drain.
We found several more and on a few days they crawled over her. Not over me at any point though, which I found strange. Maybe they preferred her perfume? Anyway they’re hard to kill, and harder to stop from entering the room to begin with. They climb in through tiny cracks. In the end we finally worked out how they were getting in.
The sliding doors in our apartment leading to a small balcony had a little gap in the middle which we later blocked with a t shirt. That sorted it out! no more cockroaches, but be careful, they can climb into a room through any crack, or even up through the sink or toilet!
13: Tattoos aren’t as common as other places
More times than I can remember, I was stopped by people wanting to look at my tattoos. Now, for English standards these days I don’t have that many, I mean I have one full sleeve on my arm, and a few around my wrist on the other arm, but that’s it. Nevertheless people would stop me in the streets to marvel at them!
14: There are lots of friendly tourists and expats
I made friends with several expats and tourists on the trip. Most of them are just like you and they just want to see the sights and make friends! There were of course a few people hellbent on just getting drunk and partying. One vivid memory I have is of a group or Russians loudly chanting along to their portable speaker as they marched into a tiny private beach in Catba Island in Vietnam. they seemed to be in a good mood and weren’t being too aggressive but they were visibly drunk and clumsy!
In fact, that was the only time I saw anyone drunk in the middle of the day, and other than that, everyone I met or saw was very polite, respectful and lovely! When we first arrived in Hanoi in Vietnam, it was night time and we’d been dropped off in this tiny dark street in the rain by the driver (don’t worry, he confirmed we were in the right place!).
We tried to find the key safe that the Airbnb host had told us about to enter the building but just couldn’t seem to find it. It was hidden under a rusty letterbox box thing on the wall, and my girlfriend only realised it was rusty when she reached in to grab the key and cut her hand!
Anyway we finally work out how to open the sliding door that enters the apartment complex. It slowly goes up, and a huge rough looking guy walks out holding a huge aggressive looking dog on a metal chain. He stares right at me and then just smiles and says ‘Hey how’s it going! You’re trying to get into the complex?’. He turns out to just be a friendly expat living there and he helps me get into the room and shows me where everything is.
That seemed to be he recurring theme here, people just are more friendly than they first appear in Asia. That being said we did stay for the most part, in nice hotels, apartments of Airbnbs. We didn’t stay in any hostels and didn’t really go out at night or drinking, which I imagine would uncover a different layer of the society.
15: You can find pretty much anything there
As I found out towards the start of the trip, you can find anything here. We get to Cambodia and no sooner than we’ve stepped into the street market ( my first experience of a proper asian street market) but I’ve been sold a box of bugs.
It was one of those preserved trays of insects you can find online but it looked really good! So I bought it but then as soon as I got back to the hotel room in Cambodia I realised how stupid it was to buy a glass box on day 7 of the trip. I’m now going to have to carefully carry this thing around in my carry on luggage, for the rest of the trip.
I cut my losses, and binned it after taking a few photos of them. This leads me to my main tip for street markets in Asia, don’t buy things unless you KNOW you need or want them, and they’re easy to carry around with you!
16: Some things are just different
There is so much about South East Asia that’s just different from anything you can imagine in the UK or USA. Some things are just part of the culture and others are just things you could only see in Asia. From people weeing in the streets, to people taking showers in the rooftops, to people sleeping on raw bricks on construction sites.
It was eye opening and really interesting. Everywhere we went, there were new things and sights to take in, and new experiences. New smells, new everything.
17: It will inspire you to travel more
One massive change that this trip inspired in me, is just the desire to travel more, to see more and to DO more with my life. I’ve always been well travelled and inspired, but this really did it for me.
When I first went to China for 10 days I remember getting back to England and thinking ‘Wow, there’s so much of the world I need to see!’. Well, This longer trip to Asia did that too, just more.
I now can’t wait to see and experience new things and document them on my blog here and my YouTube channel. I really want to make my travel channel a big brand and share my experiences with lots more people. I think it would be good to inspire lots of people to travel more and open their eyes a bit to the world around them!
18: Toilets are different
Imagine my surprise when I enter a toilet and discover that instead of the smooth plastic or wooden toilet seat I’ve been so used to in England, the toilets in some places actually ARE just holes in the ground.
They’re known as ‘squats’ and much as the name suggests involve squatting down over a small hole on the floor to do your business. They’re often not very clean either so you’ve got to be very careful to not let your particulars dangle too far down and touch the ground. Especially as in a few toilets I saw massive red fire ants crawling around the same ground I was squatting on.
Now I noticed a few things about these sorts of toilets. Firstly, after using them, you actually do feel a bit better than if you’d used a traditional sitting toilet. After some research it turns out that the alignment of your body when squatting down over these toilets is a lot better and you get less digestive problems and less risk of piles and things like that. So there is a reason to the madness after all.
The other thing I noticed, was that in MOST places, there was NO toilet paper. That’s right, it seems they use water to wash their bits after using the toilet, and in many cases that ‘water’ is a dirty, stale pond like structure next to the toilet which you can scoop water from using a little bucket. So I very quickly started bringing a roll of toilet paper on my day trips with me, so that even if I do get stuck having to use a squat, I have something to wipe with!
19: Windows are really important!
This realisation didn’t actually set in until after about a week of staying in an apartment with no daylight. You see, for the most part, we take the sun for granted. We can’t really sleep in for the most part, because the sun beats into the room and daylight floods into your eyelids and tells you it’s time to wake up.
This wasn’t the case in one apartment we stayed in. For some reason, there was NO window or way for daylight to enter the room. That’s right, if you turned the lights off in the day time, it went pitch black. Bad design, but I didn’t realise just how bad until after a week.
We just started feeling fatigued and unable to work out what time it was naturally and we’d regularly sleep in until 12, or wake up at 3Am because our bodies had no way of getting aligned with the sun and natural patterns. It was like being constantly jet lagged!
We in the end, had to set a rigid series of alarms on our phones, and within 5 minutes of getting woken up, rush up to the roof and let the sunlight enter our eyes so our bodies could have a chance at waking up and working out what time of day or night it was! So always make sure your apartment has windows, it does matter!
20: Crossing roads is hard in some places
Crossing the road is another one of those things that’s just different in South East Asia. At first you think it’s just mad and there’s no way you’ll ever cross the road. If you’re standing there politely waiting for a gap before crossing you’ll literally never get across.
You have to at some point just step out into the traffic and pray it will slow down or go around you. And that’s the amazing thing, it does! They’re used to it and in fact, that’s what the locals do. They step out into the road and the traffic goes round them or slows down or both. The key here, is to slowly edge out while moving towards where you’re trying to get to. The traffic will in most cases see you and move around you almost like a stream.
When you see it working in full effect it’s quite amazing, the traffic moves seamlessly around itself, and weaves in and out of the roads and cars. It’s literally like water and if you’re careful you can easily weave in and out of the cars as well and just cross the road! But if you wait for the gap, it will never come.
21: You can’t really predict costs
Costs are the one thing that you can NEVER prepare for too much. You just don’t know what’s going to happen. You might get ill and need to pay for treatment, you might lose your laptop or phone or camera and need to buy another one. The best thing to do is to just take more than you think you’re going to need. Don’t be one of the budget travellers who sets sail with just $100 and hopes to just hitchhike or couchsurf, because the chances are you’ll need money, and lots of it.
22: There are LOTS of temples in South East Asia
Alright, this is a big one. If you’re going to Asia to see the temples, crack on. There are certainly enough of them, but it’s very possible to get to a point where you’ve seen so many that you just don’t want to see any more. You get ‘templed out’ and that’s terrible! It’s easy to avoid though.
Just ration them and don’t try and see all the temples around you as soon as you can. Take the time to do things that others might not, go slightly further to see things that aren’t just temples. Above all else though, if you’re going to Chiang Mai, DON’T see the famous WHITE TEMPLE first. We saw it last and I think if that was the first one we’d seen, all the other smaller temples would have seemed boring or nowhere near as good.
Save the best till last as much as you can, so it always feels like it’s getting better. There’s nothing worse than missing out on seeing a beautiful temple because you’re just not feeling it, because you’ve seen too many already.
23: Some of the best views are at sunrise
I learned this pretty much by accident. I knew that if you’re going to see temples in Asia it’s probably a cool thing to do to see them at sunrise or sunset. The pictures are better and they’re usually less busy. This was the case. In particular, I’m very glad I saw Angkor Wat temple at sunrise in Siem Reap, Cambodia.
It was so impressive, and I think if I’d seen it just in the daylight it wouldn’t have been as special. There was something quite magical about dozens of people all sitting on the cold stone steps as the sun slowly emerged behind the beautiful temple and we all stopped in silence and just absorbed it. Here’s the vlog showing more of Angkor Wat:
24: Traveling is FUN
Above all else, I learned that travel is fun. when it’s all done and you’re back home, you forget about the long waits at airports, the stresses and whatever went wrong and you only really remember the good times. I have hundreds of beautiful photos, memories and videos that will stay with me for life and that was only a short trip of 3 months. There’s so many more to come, and I really hope I’ve inspired you to want to travel more! If I have, please consider sharing this article on social media, or pass it along to someone you know who’s planning to travel to South East Asia!
If you’re interested in traveling to South East Asia and want to know how to get started with booking it all, feel free to watch some of my vlogs for inspiration. Here are some useful links for building a location independant lifestyle so you can travel whenever you want, and earn money remotely! Also if you want to see more pictures check out my Instagram!
- How to become a digital nomad (so you can work in places like SEA and stay there!)
- Passive income ideas (Passive income helps to support a travel based lifestyle and means you still get money even if you’re not near internet or can’t work for a while)
- Packing list for digital nomads; what to take on a trip like this if you plan on working AND traveling!