Travel Tips for Your First Time in South East Asia

It’s a common set-up. I’m grabbing a coffee in Singapore. Sitting on my patio in Bali. At a food stall in Bangkok. A first time traveler to South East Asia sits next to me. The conversation gets to:

“How long are you here for?”

“I’m here for 4 weeks.” 

“Amazing! What are you going to do?”

“Well I’m gonna spend 3 weeks in the south of Thailand, probably see the most of the beaches… we might be able to make it up to Angkor Wat or maybe Vang Vieng… but we’ll see.” 


Ugh. Southern Thailand strikes again! Today I Googled “first time travel tips to South East Asia” and I didn’t like what I saw. When I search for travel information, I want perspective. Not generic crap. So I’ll take it upon myself to put on my lawyer cap and let the blogosphere dialectic work out the truth. Or something.

Dear Google, this article is herby optimized for “TRAVEL TIPS FOR YOUR FIRST TIME IN SOUTH EAST ASIA.” It even has a few sensible qualifications, so your discerning users know this is responsible content:

  1. South East Asia is huge, and I’ve only been to parts of Thailand, Vietnam, Philippines, Singapore, Cambodia, and Indonesia. I haven’t stepped foot in Malaysia, Brunei, East Timor, Laos, or Burma.
  2. These are just my feelings. This is just a blog of some dude.

Don’t go to southern Thailand if it’s your first time to South East Asia.

Everybody goes to Thailand first. Many people even go there for their first 3 or 4 trips to Asia. I’ve never been to the north of Thailand, one of the most heralded spots in the region, and I’m sure it’s worth a visit (I’ll finally visit in October during our DC world summit), but most folks who go to Thailand can’t resist the urge to do the southern route.

I first visited Thailand in 2001. Some friends and I were planning our first big trip to Asia. I remember sitting back in Pennsylvania carefully planning our itinerary. One of my well traveled friends insisted that we visit Vietnam. To be honest, I didn’t want to go to Vietnam at all. It sounded too out there. Plus, I thought that if we didn’t go to Thailand, the full moon party, and do the whole backpacker scene we’d be missing out.

The majority of us insisted: we’d spend most  of our time in Thailand, and we’d do a quick 2 weeks in Vietnam. Remember, this was 10 years ago!

The Vietnam leg of our trip ended up overshadowing our Thailand experience. I can still remember those days we spent in Vietnam, and the crazy experiences we had. I have a difficult time remembering our time in Thailand. Some nice beaches. Some bars. Lots of backpackers that I didn’t seem to have much in common with.

Vietnam lingered in my memory for years after– I returned 9 years later to live there. It was just as good as I remembered it.

I sent this to David saying, asking if I’m off base here. He’s got more experience in Thailand than me (and he loves it)…

“My 2 weeks on the Thailand backpacker trail (Krabi, Phi Phi) are a lot less memorable then my 3 weeks in the Philippines before I met you.

It was such an awesome experience to rent a bike in Bohol and drive through remote villages, having cute girls invite me into their families’ house and giving me drinks and rice cakes, checking out the crazy nightlife and exploring Siquijor with local friends I met…

The best bit of advice I have for people going to Thailand is to hang out with expats (and perhaps locals) instead of backpackers, no matter where you go. You can go to Chiang Mai and hang out in the university area, having awesome experiences with locals and expats.

Same in Bangkok. Don’t stay in Khao San Road, stay somewhere near the BTS (e.g. Thong Lo) if you can…”

That brings me to…

Don’t fall for “getting off the beaten track” fallacy.

There’s a fallacy in backpacker thinking, it goes something like “I’ll go to x touristed place so I have amenities, so I don’t miss the ‘scene’ so it’s not too crazy, and then I’ll meet some people there and get off the beaten track.’ There’s a couple problems with this approach. First, there’s a reason why places attract people– they’re magnetic. You don’t want to avoid the beaten tracks, you want to find the good ones.

Koh Samui would be an example of a beaten track that I’d avoid. It’s a beautiful place, but the center of gravity is backpackers and gap-year partiers. Sure you can hop on a bike and find quiet villages on secluded beaches, but you won’t stay there for more than an afternoon. Eventually, you’ll get bored and head back to the action.

Bring a simple phone and use it.

Some cool guy that swung by my house the other day didn’t bother to get a cheap ass local phone and put a sim card in it. It prevented me from connecting with him during a Saturday night outing. It would have been great to invite him. For some reason I still see travelers neglecting to get telephones. It should be the first thing you do when you get off the plane, even if you are only here for 2 weeks.

When you meet somebody cool, useful, or cute, your first move is to smile and put your phone in their hand. “Can I get your number?” Barrier to entry for this kind of behavior is much lower in Asia. When they hand your phone back, fill in the “last name” field with the name of the place where met them, or what they do. FIRST NAME: “Wayan” LAST NAME: “Motorbike, Kuta.” Simple stuff, but it took me a few years to figure out the location trick.

Our of the places I’ve been so far, Vietnam has been the best all around travel experience.

Matt had a bad time, all the more reason for me to try and offer an alterative view point. Of all the places I’ve been in South East Asia so far, Vietnam was the most fun travel experience. I immensely enjoy Vietnamese food and believe it has the best cafe culture I’ve experienced to date (and I’ve been to Paris!). Vietnam has an amazing depth of culture, combined with a stunning variety of landscapes. Although there are many tourists there, it’s nothing like the packaged mega-holiday destination that much of much of Thailand has become.

Some might argue (and will!) that if you combine the southern beach craziness of the South of Thailand with the “realness” of the north you’ve got a winning combination that Vietnam can’t compete with. It’s true that Thailand’s beaches are more beautiful for the most part, but Phu Quoc can deliver on all your Robinson Curusoe fantasies and then some (plus has the best fish sauce in the world!), and Mui Nei and Nha Trang are charming, under-touristed, and a short drive to some amazing mountain resort towns and highland getaways like Dalat.

The magic numbers for slow travel are 3 and 1000.

“Slow travel” is the best way to be on the road. I find it takes about 3 months to start making real friends. It’s tough to for locals to get serious about you if you aren’t going to stick around for a little bit. I even notice it in myself, when people are ‘just passing through’ I’m much less likely to want to engage them. If you do find a place you love, consider trying to double down with an investment. An employee, a project, a relationships, a hobby or athletic goal. Anything works, just don’t buy a bar!

$1000 bucks in monthly income to either break even or at least not be a total stress on your savings. Who wants to travel while the clock is ticking?

There’s only a few preparations that matter.

FYI! …  there are hotels and bottled water in Asia. This girl brought a de-salinization plant.

  1. Connecting with people who can help you while on the road. Most of the preparations you are making right now won’t matter. There are few exceptions. One is scheduling meetings with people. I do that with people in the DC before I travel, for example. I’ve found Couchsurfing to work great as well, although I tend to stick to meeting with entrepreneurs.
  2. Not bringing a bunch of stuff. Bring two very small bags maximum. This simple idea has saved me a day of my life standing at luggage carousels, among tons of other benefits. If you arrive in South East Asia and decide you’d like to have a big stupid pack like other backpackers, you can get those things in Vietnam for 20% of the price they sell for in your home country. You know where they are made, right? If you don’t follow this advice, you are likely to become attached to your expensive gear and unwilling to part with it. You’ll feel like a turtle for months!

What you dream and what’s real.

If you do head to southern Thailand, don’t worry about it. You’ll have a blast. It’s hard to mess up. But if your imagination is like mine, when you are conjuring up visions of adventure in South East Asia, you probably aren’t dreaming of the southern Thailand of today. Things are pretty built up. The adventure you crave might be found, however, in places like Phu Quoc, Southwest Cambodia, Nha Trang, Bohoh, and further afield.



PS, thanks to David and Lewis for your thoughts on this. I didn’t get a chance to incorporate them all yet. It would be cool to pull in a bunch of perspectives from DCers on this topic.

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