14 things you’ll learn as a first-time traveler to Southeast Asia
1. Your “VIP Minibus” ride won’t make you feel very important.
When you’re offered a “VIP Minibus” ride to the Thailand border, what you’re actually getting is a 6-hour, overnight, high-speed, 12-passenger van ride manned by a driver who’s likely using some sort of stimulant. The ride will be cramped and the passengers will be terrified as the vehicle hits 130km/h while passing cars on dark and winding roads.
Every time you open your eyes (if you manage to fall asleep), your driver will be opening a different garage door and dropping off undisclosed packages. On the bright side, at least you’ll be able to stretch out once the packages are gone if you happen to be the unlucky one in the backseat.
2. Despite the online reviews, the happy pizza is pretty damn happy.
Sitting in your Siem Reap hostel after a long day visiting Angkor Wat and its neighboring temples, you’ll decide to see where you can find the best happy pizza. Using the rather spotty wifi, you’ll locate the appropriate literature. “We didn’t feel anything after eating the happy pizza,” you’ll read. You’ll give it a shot anyway, order three pizzas, and nudge the waiter to make it “very very happy.”
The pizza may turn out to be way happier than expected. The next 24 hours (which happen to include a six-hour bus ride and a plane ride to Singapore) will be spent feeling like you’re underwater.
3. You can indeed fit six people in a tuk-tuk with enough negotiation.
Your first time in Bangkok with five friends, you’ll be told that you can’t fit more than four people in a tuk-tuk. “Get two tuk-tuk” doesn’t sit well with you when you’re trying to hoard the few dollars you have left. You’ll offer the driver more baht in an attempt to fit everyone in one tuk-tuk. You’ll end up regretting using your bargaining prowess more and more with each sharp turn as all passengers lean with force to stop the vehicle from tipping.
4. That 12-year-old over there cooks the best pad Lao you’ve ever had.
“She’s 12. I couldn’t make mac and cheese at the age of 12.” Don’t be afraid of trying the food being prepared by the tween at the dingy food cart during your stop in Vientiane — she’s cooked that single dish 10 times more often than you’ve cooked total meals in your entire life. Just try it. It costs a dollar. Bellies full, you and your buddies will likely agree that you would have paid at least $10. It’s perfect.
5. Everyone gets sick once. Or four times.
You’re in Southeast Asia. There’s no way you’re not going to eat at a food stall, complete with miniature red and blue chairs and tables, for nearly every meal. You’re probably aware there’s a risk involved, but you don’t know when it’s going to happen. It could be any factor that’ll make your insides become your outsides within 20 minutes post-meal. Chalk it up to adventure. Besides, there’s a pharmacy on every corner — you’ll be fine.
6. Wet wipes or toilet paper on your person are indispensable.
After your first incident, which will be way too close for comfort, you’ll learn that carrying a daypack containing wet wipes or toilet paper isn’t exactly over-planning. That way, the next time you’re at a market and end up having to sprint to a bathroom as you feel your stomach flip upside down faster than a Six Flags roller coaster, you won’t be stuck wondering what in the hell you’re going to do as you look up to realize there’s no toilet paper or hose.
7. Go with the flow.
Planning ahead is responsible, but you’ll quickly learn it’s not worth the stress. Bus, flight, and train schedules in Southeast Asia change more often than a chameleon’s colors. After throwing your money away on a hostel stay that you never made it to, thanks to a cancelled flight to Kuala Lumpur, you’ll decide there’s no need to make important plans more than a couple days in advance.
8. But making some plans in advance is wise.
Despite your past resolution to not plan in advance, you’ll decide that planning ahead is actually really smart upon arriving at Koh Tao, when you discover it’s the week after Koh Pha Ngan’s Full Moon Party. Everyone happens to come down from his or her alcohol-and-drug-fueled island romp on Koh Tao, and accommodations will be fully booked. After finding a place to stay (don’t worry, the permanently clogged toilet is complimentary), you’ll decide that you should have planned ahead.
9. That driver you hire at a bargain isn’t going to take you anywhere you want to go.
As the taxi driver finally drops you off at your Chiang Mai hostel, he’ll proposition you about taking you around the area the next day. “I show you all good places,” he says. You’ll look left and right at your friends. They’ll nod. It’s a great deal.
You’ll give the driver a call the next day. He’ll show up. Everyone will slide into the car. Then he’ll hand you a map. “I take you to these places.” But you don’t want to see the tigers. You want to go to the temple. “For more money, I take you. For what you pay, I only take you here,” as he points to the tourist traps on the laminated map. You’ll sigh in defeat and tell him to take you home.
10. You’ll wash, buy, and ditch half a closet’s worth of clothing at least once.
You’ll do laundry several times, depending on the length of your trip. Items will have not so mysteriously disappeared from your wardrobe upon your laundry’s return. You’ll buy t-shirts, ill-fitting Havaiana seconds, and zip-up hoodies reading “Tubing in the Vang Vieng” to replace the missing items. Once your bags become hard to seal shut, you’ll ditch the cheap items.
Someone on your trip will inevitably tell you about their missing items, but their potentially fabricated story is much better, involving “sex with some bird at the beach” and “waves wash[ing] away [their] clothing.” It happens.
11. The mall food isn’t your average food-court fare.
After asking the hostel clerk where to eat in the area, you’re told to visit the mall. “The mall?” you ask. You’ll follow the suggestion, as it’s your first day in Southeast Asia. You’ll climb to the San Francisco-themed fifth floor of Bangkok’s Terminal 21 mall to find office-workers enjoying their 35-baht lunches. You’ll try to pay in cash, before being told to buy a card. Hungry, you’ll order the food, inhale it, and near the end of your trip, find that it rivals most food stalls and hawker centers in the region.
12. Alcohol is probably the most expensive part of your trip.
Lunches cost $1-2 dollars. Hostel stays cost $7-15 — maybe even 20 if you really splurge. You won’t be sure where your money is going, but you’ll also be trying to remember what happened the evening prior — then you’ll realize that the large bottle of Siam Sato you struggled to take down cost more than your lunch. And the bucket of Sang Som and soda cost as much as your hostel for the night. Then you’ll tell yourself you need to save money, before quickly forgetting and blacking out again the next night.
13. You’re going to do a lot of waiting.
You’ll get around on planes, trains, and automobiles, many of which will be cramped and/or not quite what you’re used to. You might cram into a sleeper bus bed, cover yourself with a Mickey Mouse blanket, pass out, and wake up to shouting in foreign tongues before being told to disembark. “Your stop!” someone yells.
You’ll get off, not knowing where you are. It’s 3am. A tuk-tuk will take you into town, where you’ll discover that Luang Prabang shuts down around 11pm. You’ll find a comfortable spot on the sidewalk, drop your bag down, and use it as a pillow until the sun begins to rise and a nearby coffeeshop opens.
14. “Hello” and “thank you” go a long way.
Upon arriving at your first hostel in Southeast Asia, you’ll ask seasoned veterans for tips while drinking “big Changs.” You’ll hear, “Learn to say ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ in each language” more than once. You’ll follow the advice. You might find that it leads to tea and fruits over conversation with a shopowner’s grandmother, or scarfing hotpot and downing rice wine poured from gasoline canisters with hotel staff members.
In the end, you’ll find that a welcoming smile and politeness can get you much further than a few extra dollars placed in someone’s palm.