Surviving South-East Asia (with your sanity)

Travelling through an unfamiliar landscape and culture can be stressful. Read on for tips from experienced travellers on how they survive, and what keeps them going back!

After recently having travelled to South-East Asia for the third or fourth time, I found myself sat in an airport in a blur of what would be 3 countries, 1 motorbike, 2 boats, 2 planes, 1 bus, 2 cars, 1 hour sleep and leaving my passport at customs (all within 24 hours). My head was racing with the crazy wonderfulness that is Asia. There's nothing like it. And to appreciate it, and keep coming back, I realised that a few key tips could help keep one sane.

1. Patience

In every aspect of your day, go in expecting things to take three times longer than they would on your home turf. Whether it's checking in for a flight, boarding a ferry or ordering dinner, be patient. 

2. Embrace the Chaos

When all sense of efficiency seems to be lacking. When it seems that there are 4 people trying to do the job it should take just one person. When bags are being thrown from ferries. When passports are being collected, handed out then recollected. Embrace it. Have a giggle. It'll get done in the end and in the meantime you are being provided with free entertainment. We are all different and hence the ways we operate vary. And isn't that wonderful?

3. Toiletries

Pack insect repellent. Preferably one that contains a large percentage of deet. While you're at it, pack an anti-sting cream because, despite the deet, you will get bitten. Same goes for sunscreen. Pack more than you need, lather it on, accept that the UV50 stuff will never scrub off, reapply over the top the next day and, while you're at it, pack aloe vera. Chances are you'll still get burnt at some point.

4. Be prepared to work offline

Always assume that the wifi (and sometimes the electricity) will be poor, intermittent or nonexistent. That way, if you ever happen to stumble upon some decent stuff, you'll appreciate it. Download google maps for the country you'll be in so you can access it offline. Print your boarding passes and booking confirmations or, if you're like me and can't bring yourself to waste the paper, at least save them to iBooks (or your device's equivalent) so you're not left in a jam.

5. Learn the lingo

I know every travel book you read suggests it. I know every blog recommends it. I know we often still ignore it. Most places and people make it possible for you to get by easily as they choose to speak to you in English. But I can not suggest strongly enough learning a few words of the local language and actually using them at every possible opportunity! Hello, please, thank you, one, two, three and sorry are a great place to start. Even if you have them scrawled on a piece of paper and pull them out whenever you need them, it's better than nothing. And if you mispronounce them, stumble on them and use the wrong ones, even better. As long as you do it with a smile on your face (please try not to take yourself too seriously) the locals will generally laugh along with you and appreciate your efforts.

6. Get ready to be laughed at

This one is strongly connected to learning the lingo. Guaranteed, if you attempt the local language, you'll be laughed at. When you're trying to work out where your passport has been taken, you will be laughed at. When you poorly attempt to bargain, you will be laughed at. It's not sinister by any means but it will happen. Remember that as soon as you start laughing too, they are no longer laughing at you, you have forced them to be laughing with you.

7. Understand that not everyone will be happy to see you

Just like there are undesirable folk in your neck of the woods, there will be undesirable folk wherever you are going. Some will try to rip you off. Some will laugh at you rather than with you. Some will just look at you funny. Maybe they're judging you. Maybe that's just their face. Maybe it doesn't matter. For the most part, I have found the people of south-east Asia to be generous, helpful, kind and friendly and I can only hope you have the same experience.

8. Call it cultural difference

On the same note, I find it helpful to remind myself quite often while travelling how diverse our cultures truly are. When somebody stands in my personal space, when people mob rather than queue orderly, when there is no eye contact or smiles, call it cultural difference. Whether you're right or not, it somehow makes these occurrences more bearable knowing that perhaps it's just the way things are done.

9. Know that it will be fine

In the end, know that even if you forget your toiletries, have no wifi and fail to heed any of the other advice listed will be fine. Really. It will. Somebody will offer you a helping hand. The passport control office will give you their wifi code. A stranger will translate for you. You'll find a half-used bottle of sunscreen on the beach. You will be fine. And you'll keep going back because it's beautiful, culturally diverse, addictive and completely insane.

10. Just go

Don't think too much. Book your flight.

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

Theodore Kate

A boy and a girl out to get their feet dirty and their eyes widened.