Southeast Asia in detail

Directory

Bargaining

Outside of shops with marked prices, haggling is the norm in most Southeast Asian countries. Remember that it is an art, not a battle of wills, and the trick is to find a price that makes everyone happy. Avoid letting anger or frustration enter into the bargaining process. Typically, the vendor starts high, the buyer starts low, and eventually you'll reach a price that adds up for both parties.

The Art of Haggling

Haggling is a way of life in Southeast Asia, but for newcomers to the game, here are the ground rules. Step one is to ask the price and then counter with a lower offer. Suggesting half the asked price is a reasonable starting point, but expect to go higher to reach a final agreed price. After a few offers and counter-offers, you should reach a price that works for everyone. If not, politely say the price is too high and walk away; another vendor may accept your price, or you may be trying to get something for less than the going rate.

Most importantly, haggling should be a good-natured rather than angry process. Being aggressive or rude while haggling will cause everyone present to lose face, something highly frowned upon in Southeast Asia. Don't start to haggle unless you're serious about buying. If you become angry or visibly frustrated, you've lost the game. At the end of the dance, you may end up paying a little more than a local would pay, but the difference is unlikely to make a serious dent in your wallet.

It is also customary (and mandatory) to bargain for chartered transport. Tourists are often taken advantage of by drivers so ask at your guesthouse how much a trip should cost before chartering a vehicle. Expect a bit of back and forth before you agree on a price. If the driver won't budge, then politely decline the service and move on.

Dangers & Annoyances

Southeast Asia is generally a safe place for travelers, but you still need to keep your wits about you to avoid scams and other problems on the road.

  • The most serious risk to travelers is from traffic accidents; take care if you rent a vehicle.
  • Theft is typically opportunistic; keep your belongings secure and your valuables out of sight.
  • Political violence is a risk across the region; monitor the local news and avoid political rallies and demonstrations.
  • Southeast Asia is prone to earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, severe storms and other environmental hazards; follow local advice in the event of a disaster.

Assaults

Violent assaults in Southeast Asia are not common, but attacks on foreigners generate media attention and corresponding anxiety. Travelers should exercise basic street smarts: avoid quiet areas at night, avoid excessive drinking and avoid getting into angry arguments with locals.

Police enforcement of local laws and investigations into crimes are often inadequate, and police have been known to collude with criminals, so don't assume that a country's general friendliness equates to a crime-free zone.

Avoid confrontations with locals, especially when alcohol is involved. What might seem like harmless verbal sparring to you might provoke disproportionately violent acts of retribution thanks to the complicated concept of 'saving face'.

Special caution should be exercised at big parties like Thailand's Full Moon raves, where criminal gangs with political connections take advantage of intoxicated revellers. Other party places such as Manila, Sihanoukville and Bali also have seedy underbellies that should be avoided.

Drugs

Drugs such as marijuana, MDMA and heroin are widely available in Southeast Asia, but these are illegal, even if the authorities appear on the surface to turn a blind eye. The penalties for possession are severe: large numbers of foreigners are languishing in local prisons for petty drug offenses, and the penalty for trafficking is typically death. Fake or impure drugs are another risk – there have been deaths from dangerous cocktails sold as less harmful intoxicants.

Motorcycle Safety

Traffic accidents are a leading cause of death in Southeast Asia, especially in Thailand, and motorcycles riders are among the most vulnerable road users, in part because of poorly enforced helmet laws, reckless driving, poor road conditions and inadequate emergency health care. The World Health Organization (WHO) has begun a region-wide campaign trying to reduce these accidental deaths.

Foreigners who rent motorbikes in the region expose themselves to greater risk because they lack experience of local driving conditions, and many tourists are injured in motorcycle accidents every year, particularly in Thailand and Indonesia.

If you accept the risks, be sure to take the following precautions:

  • Always wear a helmet and appropriate clothing (long pants and long shirts, and shoes rather than flip-flops/thongs).
  • Drive carefully and defensively; beware of oncoming vehicles in the middle of the road.
  • Yield to bigger vehicles; 'might is right' here.
  • Slow down in rainy conditions, and watch for loose gravel, potholes and debris on the road.
  • Remember to retract your stand before riding off; a stand left in the down position can tip the bike over when turning.
  • Get into the habit of climbing off a moto to your left, stepping clear of the scorching hot exhaust pipe.

Political Unrest

Political unrest is common in Southeast Asia, so keep an eye on local news reports and avoid political demonstrations, no matter how benign or celebratory they may appear. Mass rallies can quickly turn into violent clashes with rival factions or the military.

That said, unrest is normally localised, and a rally in one corner of a city does not mean that the whole country, or even the whole city, is off limits. Your home country's embassy will issue the safest possible travel warnings, which should be balanced with coverage in the local press in order to gauge the actual political temperature.

Areas experiencing low-scale independence wars exist in parts of eastern and northwestern Myanmar, southern Thailand and the southern Philippines. In the event of serious unrest, the safest thing to do is leave the country (by any route still open) until things calm down.

Scams

Every year we get emails from travelers reporting that they’ve been scammed in Southeast Asia. In most cases the scams are petty rip-offs, in which a naive traveller is tricked into paying too much for a ride to the bus station or a hotel room, short-changed while changing money, or conned into buying overpriced souvenirs.

Many scams exploit the gullibility of travelers. Any deal that sounds too good to be true, normally is. This applies to everything from gems that you can supposedly 'sell at a profit back home' to transport deals that seem unfeasibly cheap, and usually involve a trip to a commission-paying hotel or souvenir shop.

Rip-offs are in full force at border crossings, popular tourist attractions, bus and rail stations, and anywhere else where newly arrived travelers might be an easy target for con artists.

Here are some tips for avoiding common scams:

  • Be politely suspicious of over-friendly locals; these individuals are often touts.
  • Avoid super-cheap, inclusive transport packages, which often include extra commission-generating fees.
  • Don’t accept invitations to play cards or go shopping with a friendly stranger; this is a prelude to a well-rehearsed scam to strip you of your cash.
  • Understand that commissions are common business practices in the region and are levied whenever a third party is involved in a transaction.

Theft

Theft in Southeast Asia is usually by stealth rather than by force – bag and camera snatching and theft from backpacks being the most common forms. Violent theft is rare but it can occur late at night and often after the victim has been drinking. Travel in groups after a night of carousing, to ensure safety in numbers, and be wary of groups of friendly seeming locals gathering round if you have been drinking. Solo women travelers should be especially careful about returning home late at night from a bar.

Clandestine theft is a concern, especially on overnight buses, in communal dorms or in lodgings with inadequate locks. In Malaysia, petty thieves have been known to check into a guesthouse and then rob the other guests in the middle of the night.

Bag snatching is an increasing problem, especially in Vietnam and Cambodia. Typically, thieves aboard a motorcycle pull up alongside a tourist just long enough to grab a bag, phone or camera, and then speed away. This can happen when you are walking along the street or riding in a vehicle like a moto or túk-túk.

Here are some tips for keeping your possessions safe:

  • Keep your money and valuables in a money belt (worn underneath your clothes).
  • Don't carry valuables in a bag that can easily be grabbed and don't carry your camera by its strap.
  • Place your bag in between you and the driver when riding on a motorcycle or between your legs when riding in a túk-túk to deter bag snatchers.
  • Don’t store valuables in easily accessible places such as backpack pockets or packs that are stored in the luggage compartment of buses.
  • Don’t put valuables in the baskets of a motorcycle or bicycle, where they are easy pickings for bag snatchers.
  • Be especially careful about your belongings when sleeping in dorms.

Unexploded Ordnance & Landmines

The legacy of war lingers on in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. Laos suffers the fate of being the most heavily bombed country per capita in the world, while all three countries were on the receiving end of more bombs than were dropped by all sides during WWII.

There are still many undetonated bombs and explosives out there, so be careful walking off the trail in areas near the Laos/Vietnam border or around the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ). Cambodia suffers the additional affliction of landmines, some four to six million of them according to surveys. It pays to stick to marked paths anywhere in Cambodia.

Government Travel Advice

Government advisories are often so general that they seem intended to provide bureaucratic cover for the government should trouble occur. However, the following sites have useful tips:

  • Australia (www.smartraveller.gov.au)
  • Canada (http://travel.gc.ca)
  • New Zealand (www.safetravel.govt.nz)
  • UK (www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice)
  • US (https://travel.state.gov)

Discount Cards

The International Student Identity Card (ISIC) is moderately useful in Southeast Asia, and can secure some discounts. Domestic and international airlines may provide discounts to ISIC cardholders, but many companies no longer honour the cards because fake cards are so widely available.

Electricity

Most countries work on a voltage of 220V to 240V at 50Hz (cycles); note that 240V appliances will happily run on 220V. Adaptors are available in electrical stops and markets in most Southeast Asian cities.

Embassies & Consulates

Most foreign governments maintain embassies, consulates or similar missions in the capital cities of Southeast Asia.

However, it’s important to realise what your own embassy – the embassy of the country of which you are a citizen – can and can’t do to help you if you get into trouble. Generally speaking, your embassy won’t be much help if you break the laws of the country you are in, even if your actions would be legal in your own country. The best you could hope for would be assistance finding a lawyer.

In genuine emergencies, an embassy may be able to provide assistance if other channels have been exhausted – for example, arranging evacuation for its citizens in the event of a coup. Do not expect financial assistance from your embassy. If you have all your money and documents stolen, staff may assist with getting a new passport, but a loan for onward travel is out of the question.

Most travellers should have no need to contact their embassy while in Southeast Asia. However, if you are travelling in unstable regions or going into remote areas, it may be worth letting your embassy know when you are leaving, where you are going and when you plan to return.

Emergency & Important Numbers

Each country in the region has its own emergency numbers. There is normally a single nationwide number for the police; ambulance services are often provided by individual hospitals and fire services may just have a local number.

Etiquette

  • Modesty Though fashions are changing in urban centres, modesty is still important in traditional areas, especially in Muslim-dominated countries. Avoid baring too much skin in general – avoid topless sunbathing and cover up when visiting religious buildings.
  • Taboos Politics and religion are often sensitive topics. Always treat both with deference and avoid being critical. Many Southeast Asian cultures are superstitious; it is wise to learn about these beliefs and act accordingly. Muslims don't drink alcohol or eat pork. Women shouldn't touch Buddhist monks or their belongings.
  • Save Face Southeast Asians, especially in Buddhist cultures, place a high value on harmonious social interactions. Don't get visibly angry, raise your voice or get into an argument – it will cause you and the other person embarrassment. When in doubt, smile.
  • Shoes Take them off when entering private homes, religious buildings and certain businesses. If there's a pile of shoes at the door, be sure to follow suit.

LGBTIQ+ Travelers

Some areas of Southeast Asia rank among the most progressive regions in the world regarding homosexuality; Thailand and the Philippines warrant special mention. However, attitudes are less tolerant in other regions, particularly in Muslim-dominated Indonesia, Brunei and Malaysia.

In general most urban centres have LGBTIQ+ communities, and attitudes towards same-sex relationships are tolerant, though travelers should still mind the region-wide prescription of refraining from public displays of affection. More caution is required in Muslim nations where homosexuality is a social taboo. Same-sex relationships between men are technically illegal in Brunei and Malaysia.

Utopia Asian Gay & Lesbian Resources (www.utopia-asia.com) has an excellent profile of each country’s record on acceptance, as well as short reviews on LGBTIQ+ nightspots and handy travel guides to the various Southeast Asian countries.

Insurance

A travel-insurance policy to cover theft, loss and medical problems is a necessity. If you can't afford travel insurance, you certainly can't afford the costs in the event of a crisis. There’s a wide variety of policies available; most insurance companies offer travel policies, and these are also available through travel agencies.

Always check the small print: some policies specifically exclude ‘dangerous activities’, which can include scuba diving, motorcycling and even trekking. Make sure any activities you plan to get involved in are covered. Ensure that your driving licence is valid for any vehicle you hire, or this may invalidate your insurance. Check that any insurance policy covers ambulance rides, emergency flights home and, in the case of death, repatriation of a body.

Worldwide travel insurance is available at www.lonelyplanet.com/travel-insurance. You can buy, extend and claim online anytime – even if you’re already on the road.

Internet Access

Southeast Asia is incredibly well connected, with abundant wi-fi access, plentiful internet cafes, fast connections and low prices, though service dips outside of tourist resorts and cities. Internet connections normally mirror the destination’s road network: well-sealed highways usually mean speedy travel through the information superhighway. 3G and even 4G mobile access is available in large urban centres.

Censorship of some websites is in effect across the region, particularly in Vietnam and Myanmar. You may need to use proxy servers or other tricks to get around the censors.

Staying in Touch

Most of Southeast Asia is globally wired with modern communication technologies, including internet cafes, wi-fi networks and 3G and even 4G. Tourist centres have more options, better rates and faster connectivity than remote villages.

Mobile Phones International data roaming (ie on your home number) is prohibitively expensive, but local pre-paid SIM cards and mobile phones are available throughout the region.

Wi-fi & Internet Access Wi-fi is usually free in guesthouses, cafes and restaurants. Internet cafes are common in tourist centres. 3G networks are common in large cities.

Calling Home International calling rates are fairly affordable but internet cafes are often equipped with headsets and Skype as an alternative. With wi-fi you can also make Skype, Viber or FaceTime calls from a mobile phone.

Money

Each country has its own currency. Cash is king, but ATMs are widespread and credit cards are increasingly accepted in cities in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Exchange Rates

Exchange rates fluctuate around the region, and political crises can send rates plummeting. The US dollar is the most useful foreign currency to carry; it's easy to exchange, and in many areas, shops and hotels will accept US bills in place of the local currency, though change may be given in local notes.

ATMs

ATMs are widely available in most of Southeast Asia. ATMs are limited to major cities in Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar and Timor-Leste. Stock up on local currency or have a supply of US dollars or travellers cheques before travelling to small towns or remote areas. Check with your bank to determine international withdrawal fees and to notify them of your travel plans, to avoid a block being placed on your card when you use it overseas.

Tipping

  • Hotels Not expected, but a small tip for carrying bags is appreciated.
  • Restaurants Not essential but a tip of around 10% will help top up low wages for servers.
  • Chartered Transport Prices are usually agreed through haggling, but a tip for good service will always be appreciated.
  • Guides If you hire guides, tip a little extra at the end for good service; 10% is a good starting point.

Money Tips

  • Keep your cash in a money belt worn on your person.
  • You can withdraw notes in the local currency directly from your home account through local ATMs, but carry either cash or travellers cheques as backup. The easiest currencies to exchange are US dollars, Australian dollars, British pounds and euros.
  • Don't use your ATM card for point-of-sale purchases (ie in shops, restaurants etc) unless you are confident of the honesty of the establishment.
  • Be aware of the overseas banking fees for ATM withdrawals; taking out larger sums, less often, is usually cheaper than many small withdrawals.
  • Carry the 24-hour international customer-service phone number for your bank or credit-card issuer in case of card loss or theft.
  • Monitor credit-card activity to protect against fraudulent charges.
  • Bring cash in crisp, untorn bills. Some money changers will reject old or ripped bills (in Myanmar, many payments must be in US dollars, and only new, undamaged bills are accepted).
  • Though fading in popularity, travellers cheques are more secure than cash, and are easy to exchange; larger denomination cheques incur lower commission fees than changing many small-value cheques.
  • Telephone money transfer services such as Western Union are a practical way for relatives back home to send you money if needed while you're on the road.

Opening Hours

Opening hours vary from country to country; the following is an overview.

Banks & Government Offices Open Monday to Friday, from around 9am to about 5pm (most close for an hour for lunch).

Restaurants Open early morning to late at night; only expensive restaurants have separate lunch and dinner opening times.

Bar & Nightclubs Closing times depend on local licensing laws, but tend to be earlier than in Western countries.

Shops These often double as the proprietor's home, so they open early and stay open late into the night, seven days a week.

Photography

You should always ask permission before taking a person’s photograph. Many hill-tribe villagers seriously object to being photographed, or they may ask for money in exchange; if you want the photo, you should honour their wishes. Also respect people's privacy even if they are in public; guesthouses and small restaurants serve double-duty as the owner's living space and they deserve to have family time without being a photo opportunity.

The best places to buy camera equipment or have repairs done are Singapore, Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur, and prices can be very low if you avail of duty-free-tax refund programs. However, remember that the more equipment you travel with, the more vulnerable you are to theft.

Before leaving home, check if your battery charger will require a power adapter. Camera memory cards are widely available and many photography shops still stock film for traditionalists.

Lonely Planet’s Guide to Travel Photography is full of helpful tips for photography while on the road.

Post

Government-run national postal services are generally reliable across the region, and most post offices have dedicated parcel-packing services. For cash or more valuable items, it's better to use a trusted international courier company such as DHL or TNT.

There’s always an element of risk in sending parcels home by sea, though as a rule they eventually reach their destination. If it’s something of value, you’re better off mailing home your dirty clothes to make room in your luggage for precious keepsakes.

Poste restante is widely available (although infrequently used) and is the best way of receiving mail.

Public Holidays

Every country has its own set of public holidays, marking religious festivals and key events in history (such as independence days and birthdays of royalty). Some events are based on lunar calendars and change date every year. Banks and government offices close for holidays; shops and public transport generally operate as normal. During religious holidays, additional restrictions may be in place, such as a ban on the sale of alcohol, or restrictions on the times during which food may be sold.

Smoking

Tobacco companies have targeted Southeast Asia hard, and most countries have high rates of smoking, and accordingly high rates of smoking-related diseases. Local governments have responded with gruesome packaging and bans on smoking on public transport, in offices, and often in restaurants, parks and other public places. Thailand has now banned smoking on major tourist beaches, and the Philippines is debating a ban on smoking in all public places.

Exact rules vary from country to country, but smoking is generally allowed outdoors in the street, but never on public transport. Note that smokers in Singapore also risk falling foul of expensive fines for littering – wherever you are, dispose of butts in a waste bin, not on the ground.

Telephone

Mobile-phone use is huge in Southeast Asia, and many people use a mobile in place of a landline, though networks are more limited in Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos. You can expect an excellent signal in cities, but coverage is patchy in rural areas.

Payphones (which may take cash or phonecards) and call offices with metered phones are also widespread, and in rural areas, shops may have a phone that customers can use for a fee. Dialling codes and international access numbers vary from country to country.

Local mobile-phone companies offer cheap pay-as-you-go SIM packages, and low-price local and international calls, often at much better rates than companies in the Western world. If your mobile from home is locked into a network, it may be better to buy a cheap handset locally, rather than risking damaging your phone by trying to have it unlocked by a phone shop.

Mobile Phones

All nations in the region have their own mobile phone companies and most have partnership deals with foreign operators, so roaming on your home phone package is easy, though expensive. It's usually cheaper to buy a local SIM.

Toilets

As tourism continues to grow in the region, Western-style sit-down toilets are becoming increasingly common. However, in rural areas, squat toilets are the norm. You'll also find the curious hybrid toilet – a Western-style sit-down toilet with optional foot rests on the seat for squatters.

If you encounter a squat toilet, here’s what you should do. Straddle the two footpads and face the door. To flush and for personal cleaning, use the plastic bowl to scoop water out of the adjacent basin and pour into the toilet bowl. Carry a small bar of soap to wash your hands afterwards.

For those who insist on paper, some loos offer toilet paper for purchase at the entrance; otherwise local pharmacies can provide supplies. Because of the narrow bore of local plumbing, toilet paper and other sanitary waste should be placed in the bin provided and never flushed.

Tourist Information

Most of the Southeast Asian countries have government-funded tourist offices of varying usefulness; the national tourist organisations of Thailand and Malaysia are better than average. Guesthouses and free traveller magazines often provide more useful information than tourist offices. Be aware that official tourist offices don't make accommodation and transport bookings. If a so-called tourist office provides this service, then they are a travel agency that charges a commission.

Travel with Children

Southeast Asia can be a wonderful place to travel with children. Children are the focus of life for most people, and they're warmly welcomed in restaurants and other public places.

Dedicated children's menus are rarely available, but most countries offer simple dishes such as fried rice and grilled chicken that will appeal to less adventurous palates. Kids will also love Southeast Asia's abundant and varied tropical fruit.

Challenges include health concerns (particularly due to hygiene and mosquito bites), difficulties with public transport (long journeys and no safety features for children), and the climate, which can sap energy from younger travellers. It pays to be conservative about how much ground you can cover, and to stick close to water – the sea, hotel swimming pools or waterfalls – to give children somewhere to cool down. Bring plenty of sunscreen and mosquito repellent and put children to sleep under a mosquito net.

Thailand is far and away the most child-friendly destination in Southeast Asia, but Malaysia, Indonesia (particularly Bali) and the Philippines also have good family-friendly beach options. Cities tend to be less child-friendly, in part because of the high levels of atmospheric pollution. Be wary of travelling with children at times when forest fires are blowing smog across the region.

Be sure to investigate the health considerations for children, including any required immunisations. For more tips, see Lonely Planet’s Travel with Children.

Practicalities

  • Child seats are rarely available locally, so bring one from home.
  • Hotels can usually provide an extra bed, but cots for infants are harder to find. Consider bringing a travel 'pod' infant bed with an integrated mosquito screen.
  • Restaurants rarely have high chairs or children's menus, except in major cities.
  • As well as simple local dishes such as fried rice, Western-style fast food is easy to find in cities and tourist areas.
  • Disposable nappies are easy to find, but nappy-changing facilities are limited; however, no one will bat an eyelid if you do a change in public.
  • Sunscreen and mosquito repellent are easy to find. Carry an antiseptic cream and antihistamine cream to stop itching and prevent mosquito bites from becoming infected.

Accessible Travel

Travellers with serious disabilities will likely find Southeast Asia to be a challenging place to travel. Pavements are rarely wheelchair-friendly and public transport, hotels and public spaces are seldom designed with disabled patrons in mind. Even the more modern cities can be difficult to navigate for mobility- or vision-impaired people because of stairs, steps and narrow sidewalks. On the other hand, hiring a vehicle and a guide who can double as an assistant is inexpensive compared to most Western nations.

Download Lonely Planet's free Accessible Travel guides from http://lptravel.to/AccessibleTravel. Other international organisations that can provide information on mobility-impaired travel include the following:

Disability Alliance (www.disabilityrightsuk.org)

Mobility International USA (www.miusa.org)

Society for Accessible Travel & Hospitality (SATH) (www.sath.org)

Women Travelers

While travel in Southeast Asia for women is generally safe, solo women should exercise the usual caution when traveling at night alone. While assaults are rare, harassment is not. Be especially careful in party towns, particularly in Bali and the Thai islands.

Traveling in Muslim regions introduces additional challenges. In conservative areas, local women rarely go out unaccompanied and often wearing a hair-covering hijab or a face-covering burka, and with arms and legs also covered.Dressing in a similar way to local women is culturally appropriate in these locations.

Women with a male companion or women traveling together in a group will experience less unwanted attention than solo women travelers.

Work

Obtaining a work permit for a full-time job in Southeast Asia can be tricky, and typically involves sponsorship from the employing company. However, many travellers find casual work teaching English or working in the dive industry.

For short-term English-teaching gigs, Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Jakarta and Phnom Penh have language schools and a high turnover of staff. In the Philippines, English speakers are often needed as language trainers for call centres. A TEFL/TESOL qualification is useful; some schools offer teaching training for a fee, with a guarantee of paid work afterwards.

In Indonesia and Thailand you may be able to find some dive-school work. Some dive centres have programs where novice divers can train up to dive master level at a reduced cost, providing they commit to a period of paid work for the company afterwards.

Payaway (www.payaway.co.uk) Provides a handy online list of language schools and volunteer groups looking for recruits for its Southeast Asian programs.

Transitions Abroad (www.transitionsabroad.com) Web portal that covers all aspects of overseas life, including landing a job in a variety of fields.