After being asked a ton of small questions over the years by new travelers to the region, today we’re taking a step back for this episode, to share some of the base-level knowledge we’ve acquired via our three decades of collective travel in the region. Some items will be obvious to some, others not so much so, but we’ve had some fun thinking of little ins’ and outs’ of traveling in the region that we think are worth sharing. From navigating red tape to railroads, we’re set to tackle getting in and around Southeast Asia. Pour yourself a drink, sit back, and enjoy!
This is by no means a comprehensive list, but people email us questions all the time about the most random stuff. One of our listeners, Daniel just asked about an upcoming trip he and his wife are planning in Thailand and Cambodia. We think everyone has random preconceived notions, gaps in their knowledge, or are just unsure about having never traveled in the region. So we’ve decided to just blast out an array of knowledge on various subjects some of which might be more useful to you than other things.
Depends on your nationality: whether visa waivers (free 15, 30 or 60 days), including now Thailand and Indonesia for most countries, and visa on arrival in Cambodia and Laos for pretty much everyone and Vietnam for everyone but Americans it seems, or visas that you have to apply in advance for, including Myanmar China. Even Myanmar now has visa on arrival and apparently e-visa. Cambodia has a great online e-visa system as well..
Word of caution: situations and policies change often, so read up before you go – do not take our word as being definitive – some little spat happens between nations, or a general changes and visa rules change too. But, the point is, it’s getting easier and easier to travel the region, visa-wise.
- US Dollars are often useful to have to change into various local currencies.
- Passport-sized photos are essential (Trevor keeps extras in my wallet, passport, suitcase). Same with copies of passport and travel itinerary. They’re useful to have anyway but sometimes are needed. It’s good to have one or two when you arrive, or see if you don’t need them for your arrival country (eg. Thailand), then get much cheaper ones taken in-country when you’re here.
- It’s said you don’t need proof of onward travel when entering a country, but I’ve seen Immigration in Thailand turn one person after another away. As long as you have a return ticket back to where you came from you’re usually okay.
- Should you have some visa issue when you arrive, best to have a seat, calm down, then find someone who can help and remain calm. Losing your cool and getting upset/mad will not help your cause. Nothing will make locals happier than seeing a tourist/guest happy – people will try to help you.
- Ensure your passport has more than six-months validity before you leave home. Countries will often not let you in if it doesn’t.
- ATMs offer generall good exchange rates and cost about US$5 to use. Take out a reasonable amount at one time.
- Scott: It’s a good idea to change enough for a few days, rather than exchanging all the time. Keep some money on you, some in the safe, some in a bag – split it up.
- Trevor: I like five days worth of cahs. think in percentages and assess the risk of getting money stolen depending on how off the beaten track you are. At the same time, the more off the beaten track, the less likely to find an ATM, or to be able to use a credit card. It’s always good to top up on cash before you’re down to your last 24 or 48 hours.
- Ask locals about money and how easy it is to get more as you go along. Some areas may have no ATMS.
- Pristine bills: Myanmar is super picky about the quality of bills, Cambodia can be too. When you change into US$ – get perfect quality bills.
- Many countries in Asia have exchange counters readily available, others have black market counters in town. Bangkok for example has normal rate exchange at the airport, while Hong Kong charges commission and is a rip off.
- Travelers Cheques are a good safety precaution in case you lose your wallet but can be tricky to trade nowadays.
- Countries like Singapore have readily available exchange counters throughout the city.
- Read up before you go as some places need US Dollars to change and others don’t at all.
- Booking in advance will get you great rates on AirAsia but you can get flash deals sometimes less than a month in advance if you check back often. Booking in advance usually does yield the best deal.
- There are lots of regional options too: Nok Air, Bangkok Airways, Lao Aviation, Tiger Air, Jetstar Asia, and more seemingly popping up by the month.
- Once Trevor got a sweet deal on Lufthansa from Bangkok to Ho Chi Minh City. The flight was out of Hamburg with a stop in Bangkok and they sold seats on the last leg for really cheap. He actually found that one in the Bangkok Post classifieds.
- Some airlines add in tax, baggage, etc at the end of the booking process, while others have most costs built in at the start, so when you’re trying to decide which ticket to book, click through until the payment page to be sure of final amounts.
- Many budget airlines are very tricky with the upsells: baggage, travel insurance, seats, meals, etc, so be careful of what you are opting in and out for.
- Sometimes buying a meal if you know you’re flying during a dining period, is best done in advance – a bit cheaper, and even a bit cheaper than airport food. The local dishes are better than western ones on planes generally
It seems the shadiest people in every country hang out at the airport and have some sort of scam to flog.
- Best to learn how to navigate an airport before traveling.
- Also check your airport as some, such as Bangkok have two that are 50km apart!
- I hate waiting in lines at airports, especially behind people who take 15 minutes to check in or don’t realize that they can’t bring their samurai sword through security. For the record there IS a gun check line at airports in the region, but otherwise, the airport can be a mess.
- In Bangkok, sometimes a foreigner can go through the Thai Immigration line if there isn’t anyone in it.
- It’s good to always start a trip somewhere feeling good about your ride. Better to pay a bit more upfront for something legit than feeling like you got ‘taken for a ride’.
- For going through security, best to take coins, metal objects and put them in a bag pocket until you’re at the gate. That way you’re set and keep things moving.
- Scott likes taking a couple 100ml plastic bottles with his favorite spirit to enjoy onboard the aircraft (can be purchased at most pharmacies).
- Trevor suggests in Cambodia the official taxi or tuk tuk queue at the airport, the taxi is a bit better in PP for the dust and heat; siem reap the tuk tuk is better. Airports in the region are also a good place to get a local sim card for your phone, and some money for the next 12 hours: usually around 5-10% worse than the official rate.
In Southeast Asia when you get off a bus or a train, it’s a lot more difficult to figure out what to do next than after you get off a plane. Unless that plane lands in a smaller city, which is another story (one with far fewer options), usually you’ll be accosted by dozens of guys trying to get you to take his tuk tuk, taxi, or pickup truck to take you to his favorite guesthouse. The crush of touts can be unbelievable. I like to ignore them, walk a block away and look around for someone with a little less intensity.
Scott says: I always like to find a spot to sit down and have a Coke/coffee/drink, let the dust settle for 15min after arrival and then catch a ride. UNLESS: you are in a very small town where the only ride is the truck that there is there at that time and there won’t be another one for a long time.
Trevor says: Some ground transport: minivans and open-air or covered pickup trucks in countries like Laos or Cambodia and/or Indonesia, don’t leave until they’re full. And it takes however long it takes to get there. Your best bet if you’re going to or from more remote areas is to put your watch away and enjoy the ride. You’re going to get there when you get there and the journey is part of your adventure so just try to enjoy it.
- Always buy your luggage allowance before flying. It’s way cheaper each and every time. When in doubt, buy a bit more.
- Read the fine print as some airlines don’t care how many bags you check and think in total weight, but others think in terms of pieces. Read the fine print and figure it out before heading to the airport.
- Carry-ons: you can have one bag and usually get away with a laptop bag as well, so saying your backpack is your laptop bag can help.
- Many discount airlines only allow one carry-on at 7kg, some weigh your bag, others not, but be prepared for what to do if you’re over.
- Know your baggage weight allowance and try to weigh your bag before at your hotel (many have scales if you ask). Pack a small fold-up bag in your luggage to be able to move some items out of a bag into another.
- Dress a bit better when you’re flying: appearances matter when getting a couple kg over the limit for free. Smile, be nice, create some conversation with the agent and it can often get you a long way.
- Most budget airlines do not have a closet for suits.
While this is SE Asia and the unexpected is part of the fun, it’s also worth considering a few safety points to keep in mind while on the road:
Try to avoid taking ferries or busses at night. Busses because there are a lot of drunk drivers even on remote roads and truck and bus drivers often take amphetamines to stay awake. If you’re taking a bus, spend the extra for a bus that has two bus drivers so they take shifts when driving to keep things safer.
Thailand particularly has the most dangerous roads in the world (after Libya). Holiday weekends in particular, don’t take busses at night. Some companies even have guys rifling through bags in the undercarriage while you’re sleeping up top, so don’t keep valuables in your bag.
When taking a boat to an island, have a look at them, as they are often literally overloaded with supplies for the island and are therefore more likely to sink on the way out. Don’t be on the sinking boat at night. You’re much more likely to survive by day. And have a look at where the life jackets are so you know in case you suddenly need one.
Links to some things we discussed in the episode:
- Air Asia: http://www.airasia.com/
- Bangkok Airways: http://www.bangkokair.com/eng
- Nok Air: http://www.nokair.com/
- Tiger Airways: http://www.tigerair.com/
- Jetstar: http://www.jetstar.com/
- Scoot: http://www.flyscoot.com/
- Viet Jet Air: http://www.vietjetair.com/
To learn more about Scott & Trevor:
- Follow Scott on Twitter: @scottcoates73
- Trevor’s Blog
- Scott’s Blog
- National Geographic Cambodia
- National Geographic Thailand
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- Theme Music by Jamie Ruben