Serene monks on mobile phones and corrupt politicians in limousines. Stinking traffic jams and stunning deserted beaches. Ancient ruins and gleaming skyscrapers. Armani suits and subsistence farmers. Full moon parties and silent contemplation. No matter which way you look at it, South East Asia is one of the most interesting, vibrant, beautiful and complex areas in the world.
- There’s around 600 million people in South East Asia, with hundreds of languages, dozens of religions and uncountable different cultural beliefs. The dodgy watch salesman you meet on your first morning in Khao San Road is not representative of all of them, and neither is anybody else. Give everyone a chance, even when the last thing you want to do is talk to yet another persistent songthaew driver.
- Be alert for scams and danger, but not to the point of being unnecessarily rude or paranoid. The guy that asks you if he can practice his English may, in fact, just want to practice his English. The homeless kid that asks you for food may be genuinely hungry. The girl touting for business outside the massage parlour may just want to give you a massage. Of course none of this might be true either, so always be prepared to walk away when things start looking dicey.
- Be respectful of local beliefs. Take heed of the notices regarding removing your shoes, touching people’s heads or pointing your feet at them, covering up in temples, etc. If you’re not sure, pay attention to what other people are doing. Many people (especially in Buddhist countries) may not say anything if you are being offensive but that doesn’t make it acceptable. You are a guest in their country, after all.
- Most people are only too happy to help if they can. I was constantly amazed by just how far people would go just to give me, a total stranger, a hand. It would be nice if people were half as friendly and helpful in the Western world.
- Take the time to get to know the locals wherever you are. As much fun as it is to drink your own bodyweight in buckets with your fellow backpackers on Ko Phangan and wander round the temples of Angkor, I guarantee that some of your most abiding memories will be the interaction you had with the local fisherman, guesthouse owner, taxi driver or random stranger along the way. I know that mine are.
In the interests of not making this post longer than War and Peace, I’ve limited it to just 25 tips about backpacking around South East Asia. Please do feel free to add your own, though – it’s a vast, amazing part of the world and I always love to read more about it!