Some call me the Research King. Before taking any trip, I spend hundreds of hours reading up on the destination. Trip Advisor is one of my best friends.
I had three months to plan a trip around Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia, and when it was finally time to leave I thought I knew everything there was to know. I purchased the Lonely Planet guides and read dozens of Travel Blogs and went through all of the travel forums.
I wasn’t going to get scammed and I was going to stick to a budget. HA! Seven weeks later, I have been conned, deceived, sick, exhausted, and broke. Here are the Top 12 tips I am happy to share with you so that you can avoid some of the unpleasantries that we have seen and/or lived so far.
Here are 12 Things I Wish I Had Known Before Coming To Southeast Asia:
Go With The Flow
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Planning is important but leave lots of room for flexibility. I am the ultimate planner! I even had copies of my itinerary, including flight and hotel confirmations, directions, highlights in each destination, copies of credit cards and passports, etc., professionally bound. Sure, it was handy, but a lot of it became useless after two weeks of traveling. We quickly realized that we wanted to spend more time in some places and less time in others!
Do your research, but be flexible! While you may have heard incredible things about a particular destination, it may not be your cup of tea (Mui Ne, Vietnam in my case). If you book hotels in advance (which I highly recommend; no one wants to walk around aimlessly on the beach or between psychotic motorists carrying all of their luggage looking for somewhere to sleep!), make sure there is no penalty to cut it short a few nights.
Being an A-Type personality, this was the most difficult thing for me to grasp and it actually caused me quite a bit of anxiety to not know exactly where I was going next or how I was going to get there. It becomes easier with time, and you will have exactly the trip YOU want!
I am the quintessential “over-packer” who brings 50+ lbs of luggage when spending a week away. I was determined to change my ways and (gasp!) bought a 55 L backpack! I prepared my packing list, cut it in half and cut it in half again. I was convinced that I had only packed the essentials.
The joke was on me because the backpack still weighed 12 kg and after one day of traveling, my back was already aching! The worst part is I haven’t even used half of what I’ve brought! This is not a fashion show and nobody cares what you are wearing or how you look; trust me! Also, just about everything you want to bring “just in case” can be purchased here, usually for less than what you pay back home.
Toiletries – Same-same but different
Pack plenty of deodorant, face wash, and moisturizer. Southeast Asians are obsessed with being as fair as possible so, while you will recognize the same brands of products you probably use back home, chances are they will be the “whitening” version (sometimes this is masked under the term “brightening” but make no mistake).
Since most of us Westerners are obsessed with getting tanned (and staying that way to make everyone jealous once we return home), I strongly recommend packing these essentials. Everything else such as soap, toothpaste, and shampoo can be purchased cheaply at local 7/11s and grocery stores (but you may have a hard time finding English labels for these products).
Bring large denominations of cash to exchange
The US Dollar is not as useful as you may think (except for in Cambodia where it is the primary currency used) and you will have to exchange it for local currency. Before leaving, I stupidly asked the bank for the smallest denominations possible and ended up with a lot of singles, fives and twenties. BIG mistake! There is a different exchange rate for each bill, usually categorized as “100s and 50s” with the highest rates, “20s and 10s” with a lower rate, and “5s and 1s” with ridiculously low rates.
When exchanging large sums of money over several months, this can really add up! Also, shop around as there is a wide variation of rates between exchange places, with hotels typically offering the lowest exchange rate. We also noticed a big difference from location to location. For example, the exchange in Phuket was over two dollars higher than the one in Krabi. When you work hard for your money (and paying a mortgage back home like I am), every penny counts!
Bring extra passport photos
This one is simple. Bring a couple of passport pictures with you if you plan on purchasing Visas on arrival. The cost of a Cambodian Visa on arrival is US$30, and we saw one couple charged an extra US$30 each because they did not have their own passport pictures!
Everything is negotiable
You are expected to bargain. This is somewhat of a game with most vendors. They will quote you a ridiculously high price and you will laugh, smile and offer them slightly below what you actually think the product is worth. Be careful not to go too low as you may end up upsetting them! This is especially true in the night market in Patong Beach, where we felt prices were highly inflated and bargaining didn’t get you very far.
Don’t play too hard! Be firm with your price but smile as you walk away after bantering back and forth; 75% of the time they will chase you down and sell it at the price you are asking. It’s funny how cheap you become after a few weeks of traveling. I sometimes find myself getting upset over the equivalent of $0.50 (it’s the principal dammit!) Don’t forget to put things into perspective, and think that those $0.50 can probably go a lot further for them than for you!
Pictures are worth a thousand… dollars??
There are some great photo ops in this part of Asia, but many of them come with a price. We learned this the hard way when we were in Cambodia and came across our first street vendor selling fried snakes and tarantulas. Both totally grossed out and intrigued, we naturally starting taking pictures. The lady in charge was not happy and pointed to a sign above her that read “Pictures $1 USD” that we had missed.
She wasn’t kidding, either! We saw several people get kicked out of The Royal Palace in Phnom Penh for taking pictures of the Emerald Buddha. The security guards even went so far as to grab their cameras and delete the pictures before throwing them out! I suggest you be discreet or wait until the end of your visit to take any forbidden pictures if you absolutely must (like we did!)
Renting scooters In Southeast Asia
Licensed or not, pretty much anyone can rent a scooter here and we have witnessed one too many accidents resulting in bad injuries. 2 out of 5 tourists are walking (usually on crutches) proof of this, with bandaged arms, legs and/or heads. Many people we have seen have nasty burns on their calves from the moto’s exhaust.
There are no traffic rules here and locals drive like absolute maniacs! They have no regard for pedestrians and sometimes it feels like a real live game of chicken. On top of this, many rental companies rent you lemons and then charge you 5x the rental price it to fix it when it breaks down.
What to do if STOPPED by Police in Thailand?
Something typical for tourists visiting Thailand is renting a motorcycle, especially on the islands. And this is one area the Thai police use in exploiting visiting tourists compared to the locals, especially in the party areas where many young people get drunk and then drive back carelessly to their backpackers’ travelers’ hostels.
The risk of an impending danger looms because when there is much alcohol consumption in the body, including the risk of driving a motorcycle in such condition – an accident is imminent. This is where the Thai police come in.
That the tourist is drunk, wears a helmet, has a driver’s license, or is a danger to other people is not what is essential, but the money they carry with them is what matters the most to the Thai policemen.
Undoubtedly, this is a delicate situation that no one wants to go through, even without having drunk a drop of alcohol and having everything in order. Yet, you are still at the mercy of the police officers because they are corrupt and still have their badges and pistol to harass you.
What to do if the police stop you in Thailand?
Have everything in order:
This is something logical; you will always have to carry your passport, wear a helmet, and have your international driving license handy. (you can obtain the driving license at the traffic headquarters of your cities, paying a small amount for a cardboard card that is only valid for one year) and of course, wear your helmet.
Although it is very common to see that many young people do not wear these helmets on their heads, not wearing your helmet will increase the chances of being stopped by the police and being at greater risk of injury or accidents.
They are not dangerous people, so avoid being nervous when approached by them and treat them with respect, waiting calmly to see what the police want.
Carry little or hidden cash
In Thailand, this advice is key to everything since this will help you avoid being the victim of a robbery in other types of situations. It would be best to take a little more than the amount of money you think you will spend. Going with excessive amounts in the wallet is a bad idea. The best and most convenient thing is to separate the cash and carry it in different pockets.
Similarly, it is necessary to avoid having an ATM in sight since these policemen are so shameless that they suggest accompanying the tourist to get money to achieve their mission.
Have the right excuses and be vigilant
When you are (unfortunately) stopped by the corrupt Thai police, and they suddenly ask you for money as a form of a bribe and with the threat of going to prison. That is when you need to stand your ground and make sure you are not being intimidated in any way.
That is when to claim that you only took little money and say that you have a departure early in the morning.
For example, once they stopped us, they took away our motorcycle keys and passports (which they have no right to do so, by the way), and they searched the motorcycle. Then one of the policemen asked us to pay $500 or we had to go to prison! – for carrying some cash with us…
So we said we only had little money. The moment I took out my wallet a bit to show him the amount in my wallet, he covered it very quickly, saying, “Not here, not here, come with me.”
He took us to the opposite sidewalk, where there was more vegetation, and it was a more discreet place. I remember that my friend jokingly whispered to my ear “here comes the dreaded Thai man”
Indeed, we had only between the two of us about 300 baht (thank goodness), so he began to ask us if we wanted to go to prison. We told him no and that we were leaving the next morning.
This is quite important as they always play the card of the Thai prison. Obviously, they cannot hold you illegally, and if you also have to catch a flight the next day … it does not suit them.
“We are leaving tomorrow” “We only have 300 baht”
Although we know we have not committed any offense and we know these officers were trying to intimidate and then ask for a bribe, however, we also know that no one can detain a tourist illegally when it is obvious that such visitor has not violated the law of the land and has to take a flight out of the country the next day.
If they still did not give in to your reason of leaving the country the next day, it is time to drop the star phrase, and that is to tell them that your corresponding embassy will be called to find out what the procedure to follow is like.
“We are going to call the US embassy.”
When we mentioned the US embassy, we saw the reaction on the police officers face and he seem a bit taken aback with our response. So we know the policeman was already half cornered, so then again we released the star phrase. “Okay, I’m going to call the US embassy so they can talk to your authority and settle this once and for all”
The policeman backed off. So after checking our wallet and seeing that we had no more, he took what was there and let us go.
Keep Your Credit Card Hidden Safely
Sometimes, it is a good thing to hide your credit card when touring the city of Thailand because these police officers have a habit of stopping you and asking for your papers all in the name of looking for the flimsiest excuse to exploit you.
In our case, they couldn’t find our cards and therefore resulted in charging us with carrying too much cash with us.
Many tourists have complained that sometimes these officers accompany you to a discreet ATM terminal and demand that you make some withdrawal for them or they will threaten you with going to prison.
So do not fall for their threat and make sure you stand your ground!
With this, it is not intended to imply that all police in Thailand are corrupt, but rather, there is a number that, regretfully, has muddied that force’s uniform and of which tourists should beware.
If it’s too good to be true…
It probably is! A 20 Baht tuk-tuk ride? Sure, if you don’t mind stopping at the driver’s cousin’s tailor shop for an hour on the way when you have no intention of getting clothing made! Many tuk-tuk drivers get their gas paid by shop owners for bringing you to their stores, as well as a commission on anything you purchase.
These people rarely take no for an answer and it can be quit frustrating to argue with them. As soon as someone asks you where you are from or where you are going, expect that they want to sell you something or convince you to go somewhere where they will get a commission. I can’t tell you how many times we were told a tourist site was “closed”. The Grand Palace in Bangkok is notorious for this!
Uniformed “professional tour guides” will try to convince you that major tourist sites are closed (usually for “monk praying”) but that they can take you to another just as spectacular location instead. They are so good at this that they make it seem as though they are doing you a favor.
Not to say that everyone is out to get you, but everyone is definitely looking out for themselves and trying to make a dollar. Save yourself the headache and the time and just pay the extra $1 or $2 dollars to go directly to where you want to go and just ignore anyone who pretends that major sites are closed
Trust your gut – 12 Things I Wish I Had Known Before Coming To Southeast Asia
If something looks shady, then it probably is! Avoid deserted streets, don’t take the shortcut through dark alleys and certainly don’t buy any drugs! Getting high is simply not worth jail time in Southeast Asia!
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So there it is! 12 out of thousands of tips I wish I had known before coming here. If anything happens, just remember to laugh and say “it’s all part of the experience!” which seems to be everyone’s motto here!
Feel free to share your own personal advice and experiences below!