Boarding your plane bound for Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport, big backpack safely in the hold, you’ve finally set off on the adventure of your dreams. Visions of the next few months of your life fill your mind. Maybe you’re dreaming about wandering around Chiang Mai’s temples in floaty dresses, spiritual awakenings during sunrise yoga sessions amongst the Luang Prabang Mountains, and floating photogenically in infinity pools that look cracking with your pre-set. Or maybe you’re more of a shorts-and-t-shirt, trekking-deep-in-the-jungle, history-buff sort of explorer, keen to venture off-grid. Or maybe you’ll head straight through customs to the nearest Irish bar for a pint and a fry up before slathering yourself in rave paint and stumbling to the nearest knock-off full moon party, an ill-advised tattoo in your near future. Maybe – like me – you’re after a mix of all three. I’m not here to judge.
But after browsing all those #travelgoals posts, what you’re certainly not dreaming about is the stuff in between all this ‘finding yourself’ malarky- the slightly harder, less Instagrammable parts of travelling on this gorgeous, colourful, frustrating continent. Because, despite what some influencers seek to portray, travelling isn’t really about the individual.
Yes, of course extensive travelling can and will change you. But the diverse, beautiful and complex nations of the world do not exist to serve the narrative arc of travellers passing through. Surely, the point is to observe the country as it is. But this does mean that sometimes it can get a little tricky or sometimes just quite annoying. And that’s what I’m here to tell you about. The bus rides, the squat toilets, and the strange incarnations of Western cuisine. Not the sunsets, the waterfalls, and the beach parties. As you can probably tell, I’m a lot of fun.
But first, let me caveat the whingy list below by declaring Southeast Asia my favourite continent in the world. My current trip to the continent (I’m currently 3.5 out of seven months in) is the second long term trip I’ve taken to this part of the world, and before that I popped over on holiday a couple of times too. In fact, by April I will have spent roughly a year of my life in Southeast Asia.
So here’s what those #travelgoals accounts won’t tell you about travelling long-term in Southeast Asia:
1. There are no goddam Salt & Vinegar crisps anywhere; Western food is often bizarre
Okay, let’s start with the important stuff. There are no salt and vinegar crisps pretty much anywhere in Southeast Asia. Hearing this at the beginning of your journey, you might not give this a passing thought: “I’ll be fine without salt and vinegar crisps” you may well think, “it’s not even my favourite flavour”. Well, what is your favourite flavour? Because unless it’s ‘seaweed’, ‘crab’, or ‘sweet and sour’, you aren’t getting it here mate. Even the ‘salted’ crisps taste absolutely radged.
As a dedicated crisp enthusiast, this facet of Southeast Asian life has probably hit me harder than it would most. Monster Munch and McCoys are but a distant dream. Oh God, McCoys. HOWEVER, it is fair to say that you can generally end up a bit starved of your favourite flavourings and foods when travelling in Southeast Asia. You’ll – unsurprisingly – end up eating rice and noodles a lot, with chilli sauce being the main flavouring on offer. Even when you think you’re treating yourself to a favourite dish – whether it be a veggie burger, tomato tagliatelle, or margherita pizza, you will often end up with something else. After months without your favourite foods, the disappointment really hits when you’re presented instead with a salad sandwich, tomato noodles, and a Margherita pizza lovingly blanketed with basil.
2. Rock hard beds
When you’re booking a hotel or hostel in Southeast Asia, I strongly recommend you take a look at the reviews, specifically reviews pertaining to the comfort level of the bed. Due to the sizzling climate, locals traditionally sleep on flat wooden beds with just a straw mat underneath them. After a lifetime slumbering this way, hard beds may be comfortable for Southeast Asians but trust me – no matter how much you’ve found yourself – sleeping on beds that hard will leave you with nothing but bags under the eyes and lingering back pain. There are plenty of hotels with comfy beds to be had – you just have to seek them out. And remember, the price of the hotel is no guarantee of the softness of the bed.
3. There are a lot of impatient people
Either we’re just super slow, or we get unfairly rushed a lot in Southeast Asia. Whether its getting on or off buses, loading our luggage into cabs, paying in shops or for taxis, and ordering food in restaurants, we can never do it quickly enough to satisfy.
When it comes to the latter, you’ll find restaurant staff will often bring you an extensive menu and then just stand there as you read it, impatient to take your order.
The drivers, meanwhile, seem to use horns in place of brakes, and in many places, have abandoned to rules of the road entirely, often veering onto the pavement or running red lights. Watch your toes in Vietnam’s big cities in particular.
4. You’ll spend more time on social media than you expect
You’re meant to be getting away from it all, but you might end up spending more time than ever on social media – especially if you’re away for a while. No matter how gorgeous your surroundings, sometimes your eyes will be glued to your phone or laptop. And that’s okay.
While the culture shocks of travelling in a distant part of the world feel exciting and life-affirming, after a while you’re going to crave a bit of your own culture. It’s easier travelling with a fellow Brit, as I am now, but when I travelled solo I found that – as well as the food and my friends – I most missed the British sense of irony. This was not to be found amongst the people of Southeast Asia, and it wasn’t found among the non-British travellers I met. I’m sure this must occur no matter where you hail from. As a result you end up winding down some nights with shows made in your home country (this time round it’s been the IT Crowd, Peep Show, Spaced, and – just to get really effing English – The Crown).
You also ending up spending intense periods of time on social media, reading the news and chatting to friends – especially as when you do have WiFi, you feel the need to make the most of it. Don’t feel guilty about it though – feeling connected with home can help you ‘recharge’ ready for your next day of sightseeing and help you remember how lucky you are to get to do this in the first place.
5. Customer service varies wildly
This morning, I woke up in Laos with a bit of a hangover, ordered an omelette and warm baguette at the hotel, ended up with scrambled egg and cold, preternaturally sweet bread, which the server then got annoyed about and did not replace. The breakfast was meant to be free, but we were told we had to pay for this particular menu, and also wash up ourselves. This kind of thing happens a lot here (the ordering one thing, getting another thing, not the hangovers…) – and after a couple of months, can begin to get wearing.
Another one: on New Year’s Eve, we grabbed a couple of seats outside a bar in Hanoi’s old town. There was barely anyone in the bar, but just to be on the safe side, I ordered a cocktail for the midnight moment at 11.30pm. Despite repeated assurances it was on its way, it arrived at 00.30am, and despite repeated assurances it did contain alcohol, it most certainly did not.
Buses tend to be terrible too. The night buses are the worst, with staff commonly shouting and prodding you around, but even the day buses can be frustrating. On a recent drive from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng in Laos, the driver stopped and got out of the bus to talk on his phone so many times that our three hour journey doubled in length. And he wouldn’t let us off the stuffy minibus during his phone calls either.
Despite all this, the customer service at hotels is often significantly better than what you would get at home. In many places we’ve stayed, the staff honestly cannot do enough for you, from laundry and travel advice to organising tours and transport (although you do have to check their rates are not extortionate before booking through them).
It can be a bit unnerving to go from being treated like a farm animal on the buses to feeling like a queen or king at a hotel – and you never know which to expect, although how much you’re paying is usually something of an indication.
6. You get SO many questions
This applies to some countries more than others: Vietnam is the worst by a long stretch, Thailand is somewhere in the middle, while we’ve gone largely unbothered in Laos. But in Vietnam, everyone from hotel staff members to street vendors wants to know your business. What is your name? How old are you? Where are you from? What is you relationship to one another? Are you married? Do you have children? Do you want to have children? How long are you travelling for? Did you go to university? What do you work as? Why are you not at home looking after your parents?
I’m all for having a good chat, but when faced with these questions constantly, it can get a bit invasive. On a tour in Phong Nha, our tour guide went around the whole bus asking the women if they had boyfriends and the men if they had girlfriends. When it turned out there were five single men and five single women on the bus he tried to set them all up with each other, despite the protestations of two girls who said they had girlfriends. Throughout the tour he then repeatedly, in front of the group, asked my boyfriend and I if we wanted children and when. This probably happened about 15 times. The whole thing was hideously awkward. A couple of days earlier, when we were rushing for an early morning train, a woman blocked our way into the train station, demanding to know if we were together. Stuff like this happened a lot in Vietnam, and it was a relief to get to Laos where people just let us live.
7. Getting off buses is a disorientating nightmare
Disembarking buses in popular tourist destinations is awful. Taxi drivers and tuk-tuk drivers surround the vehicle, making it hard to get off and find your bag. In some cases, they’ll already have hold of your bag, meaning you have to follow them to their cab. Sometimes they will pretend your hotel is much further away than it is, to drive up the price. The only way around this is to Google Map the distance between place you’re being dropped off with the place you’re staying ahead of time.
This whole experience is particularly jarring after a bumpy journey on a night bus, when you’re already feeling disorientated upon arrival.
8. The toilets
I’m not going to accompany this section with an image, because I don’t go around taking pictures of toilets. In Western restaurants and hotels, you’ll generally find the sort of toilets you’re used to, usually in decent condition, if not better. But the toilets in more local joints, or in the many stop-offs at bus stations are…a culture shock of the not-so-good kind.
Yes, they’re mostly squat toilets – if you’ve travelled a bit this won’t be a huge problem for you. But they’re also usually in pretty rank condition that will have you hosing your flip-flops down afterwards. At some local restaurants, the toilet will actually be in one of the staff-members’ homes, up to a five minute walk away, where you have to tip toe so as not to disturb sleeping family members. None of these toilets will have tissue, as the favoured method of cleaning off is a hose in the bathroom. So, yeah, bring tissues. And hand sanitiser.
Do NOT let any of this stuff put you off
Despite all the moaning I’ve done above, as far as continents go, Southeast Asia is actually super easy to travel around thanks to its well-worn backpacker trail which makes getting from A to B a cinch. Most people are lovely, the scenery is unreal, and the culture shocks thrilling. It’s like nowhere else on the planet, and the positive experiences vastly outweigh the niggles.
When you’re heading out this way, just be prepared for the tricky stuff in between the many highlights too. This way, when you get a shit breakfast on a hangover, you won’t be as upset as I was.