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Backpacking Southeast Asia: top 10 travel tips

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Southeast Asia is home to some of the most breathtaking scenery, mouthwatering cuisine and friendly people. Book a flight, pack a bag and get ready for the ride of your life. Before you set off on your adventure, here are a few tips to get you headed in the right direction.

1. Pack light
This might seem obvious, but when the time comes to lay everything out you want to take and soon realize it’s not all going to fit in your backpack, you’ll need to reevaluate the importance of each item. Keep in mind that each item you pack adds weight. Is the extra weight worth the shoulder and back pain you may endure? Also, most airlines have a maximum weight requirement if you’re checking your bag. Note: do pack more underwear than you think you’ll need.

2. Don’t plan too much
Toss out the itinerary. You’re in for a wild ride! You may have a general idea of some places you want to visit and activities you want to do, but don’t stick to hard dates and times. You’ll meet plenty of other travelers with a plethora of suggestions. Maybe you’ll end up in a cool city you’ve never even heard of. Perhaps you’ll end up staying an extra week somewhere, because you just can’t bear to leave yet or you met some travel buddies and will hop to the next destination with them.

3. Be flexible with your time
If the tour operator you’re buying your bus ticket from says it’s seven hours from point A to point B, then add approximately 3-6 hours on top of that. Extreme weather, poor road conditions and brutal traffic can add serious hours to your journey. Also, the locals aren’t known for being very punctual. Always allow extra time.

4. Load up on the sunscreen and insect repellant
Keep the UV rays at bay by loading on the SPF. With such high humidity levels, your skin stays moist, so skip the lotion and replace with a fresh layer of SPF each morning. And, don’t forget to reapply often. You don’t want to be one of those novice tourists sporting bright red burns at the beach.

Insect repellant is a must. Ever heard of Japanese encephalitis, dengue fever or malaria? Well, they’re not fun. Don’t freak out if you get bit (you will), but do what you can to prevent it by dousing yourself with deet. Loose, long and light-colored clothing also help to ward off mosquitoes.

5. Stay in budget accommodation
Southeast Asia offers many types of accommodation from backpacker hostiles to 5-star luxury hotels. Whether you’re traveling solo, with a significant other or a group of friends, staying in inexpensive accommodations is a smart way to stretch your wallet and may allow you to travel for an extended period of time. You can find $5-$10/night dorms with shared bathrooms or a private room with private bathroom at a hostel or guesthouse for $15-25/night. These are basic, no-frills accommodations that typically include a warm breakfast and are usually very clean.

6. Take sleeper busses
Travel through the night, sleep on the bus and you’ve just saved yourself from paying for a night’s stay somewhere. These busses have reclining seats to sleep on and a working toilet (most of the time). The drivers stop every so often for bathroom breaks and for food. Luggage is tossed in the storage compartment at the bottom of the bus, but keep your wallet, passport, etc. close by you on the bus. Buy a rain cover for your backpack and be sure to cover it prior to entering the bus. You never know what other cargo will be sitting next to your bag (e.g. a crate of fish). There’s nothing worse than pulling out your backpack soaked in fish juice.

7. Be wary of scams
Everyone is trying to make a buck and unfortunately many do this out of deceit. Don’t be naive or you may get taken advantage of. You’ve got to have your wits about you in Southeast Asia. If something seems fishy (no, not talking about the lingering smell of fish sauce) then it probably is. Scammers are on the prowl, especially around some of the main tourist attractions. They may tell you the place you want to see is closed and offer to take you for a ride around town instead. Don’t buy it. The place is most likely open. They’re simply trying to lure you in so they can take you to their buddy’s various shops until you’re nearly forced to purchase some “rare” gemstone that you don’t even want. The list of scams goes on. Brush up on your street smarts and you’ll be just fine.

8. Learn common phrases
No matter what country you’re in the locals always appreciate when a foreigner attempts to speak to them in their native tongue. Grab yourself a guide book and learn a few key phrases. Locals will smile and maybe even giggle if you don’t have the correct pronunciation, but they’ll be grateful that you tried. A little effort with this goes a long way. And, they may even teach you a few more common phrases.

9. Eat on the street
Southeast Asia is well-known for their mind-blowing delicious food. Much of the tasty cuisine is served right on the streets. From tiny food carts to hawker stalls you’re bound to end up eating streetside. You may be wary about eating food cooked where motorbikes stir up dust while zooming past, where there’s little to no refrigeration or where food sits out in the sun, but this food goes fast. Typically there’s a high turnover rate, so the food isn’t sitting for long. So, grab a snack and go or have a quick seat. Either way your taste buds will thank you.

10. Respect the conservative culture
In general Southeast Asian countries are fairly conservative. If you’re the type that likes to make out in public, you may want to give it a rest here. Keep the PDA to a minimum. Don’t kiss, hold hands or get all touchy feely in public. Save it for your hotel room.

Be sure to dress appropriately when visiting temples or any place of worship. Many temples won’t allow you in if not properly dressed. Sandals with a strap (no flip flops), long pants or a skirt below the knees and a shirt with sleeves (no tank tops) will do the trick. Also, in addition to the temples it’s never a good idea to let it all hang out while visiting these countries. A shirtless guy and a chick in butt-cheek-revealing shorts walking down the street is awkward for everyone. While this may be somewhat more acceptable in beach towns, don’t rock this look in a major city or rural area.

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