Submitted by Alison Winward May 2004
This isn't intended to be a day-by-day itinerary or anything, just an insight into what I learned during 15-and-a-half months or so in south-east Asia between December 2001 and April 2003.
South-east Asia is unbelievably cheap for Westerners, so it's possible to have a good quality of life on not-very-much money. I travelled on a budget, but I wasn't a bare-bones traveller.
For example, I usually had a room of my own (preferably with a bathroom) rather than sleep in a dorm, and I was happy to fork out for Western 'treats' such as 'real' cheese and cakes. I don't drink alcohol and I'm vegetarian, both factors which might have helped keep my costs down, but I'm not sure.
For the most part, I used public transport or share taxis and the like, rather than chartering a vehicle of my own. I didn't buy many souvenirs, mainly because I couldn't face carting them round when I had quite enough luggage already; there are times when I regret not buying more mementoes, but I still have photographs and memories!
Everyone is different, of course, so things that I thought were great might not suit other people, but if my experiences are any help at all in planning your trip, it's good enough for me.
THE first thing I'd recommend, and this applies, I suppose, to the rest of the world as well as south-east Asia, is to take the 'scenic route', if at all possible. If, like most people, you are restricted by time and/or money, it's always a tough choice between cramming in as many places as possible and getting to know fewer places better. I'd always opt for the latter, because it gives you time to get a better understanding of the countries you visit, but that's also why I saw much less in 16-and-a-half months than most people see in six! Then again, I met someone who was travelling so fast he couldn't remember where he was on Christmas Day…
It's simple enough to do your research before you leave; don't try to save money and weight by not investing in a decent guide book, such as Lonely Planet, Rough Guide, Let's Go, whatever. However much you spend on an up-to-date guidebook, you'll probably save the money several times over when it helps you find cheaper accommodation or tells you what is a fair price to pay for things, for example.
A decent guidebook can save you time, too, because you won't have to spend ages trying to work out where to go and what to do.
There are Internet resources, such as Lonely Planet's thorntree message board (thorntree.lonelyplanet.com), which is great for global travel advice. For Thailand and Cambodia, it's hard to beat www.talesofasia.com, run by Gordon Sharpless, an American photojournalist who has spent many years in Thailand and Cambodia. He has pretty in-depth stuff on Thailand and Cambodia, but there's lots of useful information on other Asian countries too.
Once you arrive, well, if you want to get to know whatever county you are in better, I know for certain that there are English language newspapers in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Burma, Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei. Some are better than others; some are state controlled, some exercise self-censorship. Whatever their limitations, the papers can make interesting reading, as well as tip you off about tourist-friendly events.
The local food is pretty tremendous: cheap, healthy and fresh, but it's easy enough to get Western food too. Don't let fears about food poisoning put you off trying local fruit shakes - fresh fruit, ice, sugar syrup, occasionally evaporated milk - because they are delicious. In 16 and a half months, I spent just two days tied to a toilet, and in both cases, I think this was down to being too hot rather than being poisoned.
Early starts are pretty much the norm in most countries in south-east Asia, especially in poorer, more rural areas, so people can do as much as possible before it becomes impossibly hot. The temperature in most countries varies from very hot to intolerable, although parts of northern Vietnam and northern Laos are colder.
The higher the altitude, the lower the temperature tends to be. The Cameron Highlands in Malaysia, for example, are almost cool enough to be England, but you'll sweat like a pig in the lowlands that surround them.
When it comes to clothes, in general, the lighter the better, although a pair of warm trousers and a jacket would come in useful. Locals, especially in the poorer countries, usually dress quite modestly, and they appreciate it if visitors dress in a similar way.
No, you don't have to be covered from ankles to chin, but items such as short shorts are usually considered inappropriate, on men or women. If you don't dress modestly when visiting a wat, temple or whatever, then you won't get in…
As a woman, I didn't get much hassle from local men, even when I was travelling alone, but I can see how men who have had what we might regard as a sheltered upbringing (in that pre-marital sex is the exception rather than the norm) might 'mis-read' signals from scantily-clad Western women. Yes, I know you won't necessarily drop your cutaway shorts for every bloke you meet, but local men who see the sexual liberation enjoyed by backpackers could well expect them to be up for anything, especially if they're wearing next-to-nothing.
This seems to be more of a problem in Muslim areas in northern Malaysia (much as I hate to admit it). However, I was only ever treated with absolute courtesy and respect, and even when travelling without my (now ex) boyfriend in remote areas, I never felt vulnerable or threatened, either in terms of sexual assault or robbery and the like. When we travelled together, guesthouse staff and motorbike taxi drivers and the like, who were usually men, tended to talk to my ex rather than to me. I don't know whether this was because he is a man, or because he is more extrovert than I am, but being ignored did sometimes irritate me.
In terms of sights, people brought up in a Western culture and with access to some of the world's greatest museums and classical art galleries might find the museums of Asia a bit disappointing. Much of the really good historical stuff has been 'appropriated' by colonial powers and the like, and locals haven't always been able to compete with richer Western institutions when items come up for sale.
When it comes to art, south-east Asian artists don't seem to have found their 'voices' yet, as Islamic, Chinese, Japanese and Western artists have done over the centuries, and they seem to prefer to follow Western styles, but not always successfully.
That said, there are more amazing Buddhas than you can shake a stick at, some atmospheric Chinese-inspired temples, and great Angkorean architecture. On the whole, though, there isn't as wide a selection of historic imposing buildings that there is in the West, possibly because important buildings were often built of wood rather than stone or brick.
I spent time in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore and there was internet access pretty much everywhere there was an electricity supply. It was usually quite cheap, especially where there was lots of competition. It was generally faster in cities (not as fast as broadband, but this was a couple of years ago) but was sometimes slow and unreliable elsewhere. I think access is censored in some way in some countries, such as Vietnam (and maybe Singapore), but that will affect locals more than tourists.
Mobile phone coverage was pretty good everywhere apart from Laos - I got a signal so long as I was within range of the masts on the Thai side of the Mekong - and the jungles of Borneo, although coverage might vary between different providers.
There are cashpoints/ATMs all over Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore and I had no problems using these, although I would recommend checking that this would be the case with your card. There are (or were) a couple of ATMs in Saigon and Hanoi, but they were quite expensive, if I remember rightly. In early 2003, there was one ATM in Cambodia, but that was in Phnom Penh and could be used only by customers of that one particular bank, but US dollar travellers' cheques can be cashed in banks in major cities. I think it's the same in Laos, but I just took US dollars and changed them into kip while I was there.
Like all places, there are bad things in Asia as well as good. One bad thing for me was the presence of so many rats. I have a massive, massive phobia and although I'm fully aware that in Britain you're supposed to be never more than six feet away from at least one rat, they aren't as visible here as they are in Asia. I reckon I saw on average one rat a day while I was in Asia. I wanted to do this trip so badly that I had no option but to try to manage my phobia, but a little part of me was on "Ratwatch" 24 hours a day, even in the most substantial buildings. I know I'm probably in a minority with my phobia, but I owe it to fellow musophobes to warn them now that they'll have to psyche themselves up before they arrive in Asia!
Touting and commission are facts of life in much of Asia, especially in the poorer countries. This means that as you step off the bus, boat or whatever, you could well be surrounded by people trying to drag you off to a particular guesthouse or whatever.
It also means that motorbike taxi drivers and the like may push you into visiting certain restaurants or shops, because they'll get commission for taking you there. OK, so it means that people who earn very little can top up their earnings, but it also means that you might end up going somewhere you don't want to go, or getting a worse deal than you otherwise would. When confronted by touts, just keep your cool and realise that they hassle locals too, and if a taxi driver or whatever takes you somewhere you don't want to go, don't co-operate, but be polite about it.
This is more likely to happen in Bangkok, where tuk-tuk drivers are notorious for offering you a cheap fare to somewhere, then diverting off to a tailor's shop, jeweller or whatever.
In terms of crime, well, the consensus is that you're more likely to suffer petty theft than violent robbery.
People tried to rob me a couple of times. Two men I suspect were Indonesian rather than Malaysian tried to sneak stuff out of my daypack on a bus in Malaysian Borneo, while a woman managed to open my moneybelt - which was under my clothes! - during a long bus journey in Vietnam.
Men on motorbikes tried to snatch my bag in the backpacker area of Saigon and in Nha Trang (I met several people who had had bags snatched in Nha Trang). My ex had a US$50 bill and 1,000 baht taken from his bag while it was in our guesthouse room in Phnom Penh, although he never reported this to the management.
After that, he took care to lock his cash in his bag rather than leave it clearly visible in an open bag. Mind you, locals get robbed too: I saw two men on a motorbike try to snatch a chain from the neck of a local woman in Can Tho in the Mekong Delta in Vietnam, while a young man who worked in a guesthouse in Saigon received a letter from a friend in the US, but minus the cheap silver bracelet included by the friend. The young man said the envelope must have been damaged by accident, and who was I to argue? I posted a couple of parcels home from Vietnam, from Bangkok and from Borneo and they all arrived back in the UK intact.