The culture rich region of SE Asia lies between China, India, New Guinea and Australia, with the equator running right through it. The 11 independent nation states that make up Southeast Asia consist of over 1,000 languages and is split among 4 religions, with Hindu and Buddhism taking the count for most popular.
The climate is split into rainy and dry season, though I promise you will sweat all year round. The tropical climate allows for heat and humidity throughout the region, with oceans surrounding the nations, and gorgeous rainforest inland.
The poverty rate is alarming, with 40% of individuals in Laos and Indonesia living off of $1.90- $3.00/day. The other countries follow right behind, leaving healthcare and contraception unattainable for millions of citizens.
Each nation is unique in its government, education, religion, infrastructure, cuisine, and natural wonder. I have had the opportunity to visit 6 out of the 11 countries, each one with incredible things to offer. SEA has officially skyrocketed to the top of my travel list.
Data and background aside, here are a few SEA travel tips:
- Pack Lightly- you will not regret it. If you plan to travel in SEA between 1-3 months, a 40-60L backpack will suffice. Any bigger than that, and it will become burdensome- we are talking alot of sweat and one stuffed tuk-tuks.
- Don’t book hotels or homestays ahead of time- Doing this will leave your itinerary tight and rigid. Give yourself a flexible schedule, incorporating plans as you visit new cities or towns. It is likely that one city may unexpectedly exceed expectations, leaving you to willing to opt out of something further ahead in your itinerary to compromise time. More on this in my Palawan Philippines post.
- Take Chances- If something sounds fun to you, do it. Locals or others may deter you for “safety concern”, but do what feels right for you. Much of this is to intimidate and get tourists to book through an agency for money. Traveling in a group with a tourist agency takes away autonomy and solitary time as well as limits what sights you see.
- Expand your Palate- Minus the mushrooms and Arak Arak on Gili T, the Scorpions in Siem Reap or maybe the “lao-lao” homemade whiskey in Laos. Each country is filled with traditional plates and tastes that are unique and absolutely delicious. I have been a vegetarian for 7 years, and will say that the frog legs in vietnam and fresh chicken in the mountains of Ha-Giang were well worth me breaking my 7 year commitment.
- Do Lots of Research- Put the work in, and give yourself options. The more you know, the more options you will have. There are so many activities, and sightseeing alone could take up days- I found reading personal blogs to be more helpful than big travel sites, though getting a small book with a map on the countries you are visiting doesn’t hurt. Especially when it comes to restaurants or hotels, it is good to have reviews.
- Google Maps- Though most U.S. data plans are not covered in SE Asia, Google Maps allows you to star places on wifi, and access the map off coverage. You can use landmarks and streets to navigate where you are in relation to your destination on the map. This is also a time saver as it allows you to get a visual in determining the proximity of your destinations, and planning an order for the day.
- Rent a Moped- but don’t give up your passport! Many of the countries require you to have a registered license to drive a moped. However, the likelihood of getting pulled over outside of a big city is slim to none. However, in the chance that you do get pulled over, they will just take your money if you bargain with them rather than your passport. In the last six weeks I spent in Asia, I spent around four of them on a moped. It made transportation easy and affordable, sightseeing more enjoyable, and allowed for more of a cultural experience.
- Take a Hike Off the Grid- Though the many bustling cities with great culture and history are wonderful, take some time to venture into the mountains and rainforest. Small villages, farming, caves, wild animals and the natural wonder of the countries will leave you breathless. Photos cannot even begin to capture the beauty of the inland rigid mountain terrain of Laos, smoke rising over the top of Mt. Batur volcano in Bali, or the northernmost terraced mountains in the clouds in Ha Giang. Nothing in the world beats the beauty and grounding of spending time in nature.
- Let Your History Nerd Loose – All of the nations in SEA have rich history. Recovering from genocide- creating government from war- breaking away from colonies- overturning leaders- each country has it’s own story and is well worth researching and knowing about. It will greatly enrich your understanding of the infrastructure and culture.
- Give Back- if nothing else, this is the utmost important. The majority of the countries rely on tourism as the main source of income. I have spent a total of twelve weeks in SE Asia, with half of that time teaching healthcare in Indonesia. Of course getting the chance to travel for pleasure was incredible, but nothing trumps the opportunity to teach in a country without a strong public health system the value of disease prevention and hygiene. Creating relationships and setting a foundation for education and health is one of the most empowering things I have ever done in my life. More on that in my Bali, Indonesia post to come. On my last trip, I did not have the opportunity to work through an organization or give back nearly to the same extent, but I took time to visit museums to learn about what is needed or lacking, and visit local markets to support individuals.
Needless to say, I have clearly had wonderful encounters with this region of the world, and am always more than excited to answer questions, share knowledge or talk about my experience