Travelling to South East Asia on your holidays? Here's what you need to know

Thinking of visiting South East Asia during the long summer holiday? Hannah Al-Othman offers advice on where to go, what to see, and which attractions are best avoided…

Hannah Al-Othman
Tuesday 04 June 2013 10:34 BST

Take no notice of the rainy season

The rainy season in south-east Asia falls over the summer months, which, given that this is when we have three months free of studying to look forward to, is mildly inconvenient. However, mildly inconvenient is all it is, and don’t let the rain put you off.

For a start, hotels and internal flights are much cheaper, tourist attractions and beaches are less crowded, and you’re more likely to get a place in the most popular hostels and on the best tours.

Yes it does rain, but only for a couple of hours a day and it’s still warm enough to spend time on the beach.

Plus the scenery is much more picturesque than in the dry season – you can look forward to seeing luscious green paddy fields and crystal clear rivers, rather than barren expanses of starched farmland and dry riverbeds.

Support local social enterprises

Head to Northern Thailand and book yourself on to a hill tribe trek. Stay away from the trips that bus tourists into villages to gawp at the locals, but there are some excellent tours on offer where local guides take small groups on treks through the hills, which include one or two night stays in villages with indigenous tribes.

Sleeping and toilet facilities are very basic, but the tours are a great opportunity to learn about other cultures, make new friends, and meaningfully interact with local people, and they also support the tribes financially – indigenous people are often marginalised and rely on tourism for a large part of their income.

Another great social enterprise is SoksaBike in Battambang, Cambodia. The tours aim to promote the benefits of responsible tourism whilst giving backpackers an insight into rural Cambodian life.

The cycle tour passes through the Battambang countyside with stops along the way to meet local families and learn about their traditional livelihoods and cottage industries – highlights include the chance to have a go at making rice paper and sample the infamous local rice wine.

Respect the local culture

Remember that most cultures in Asia are really quite conservative so unless you’re on the beach or by the pool you should cover your shoulders and your knees, especially when visiting religious sites such as Angkor Wat in Cambodia or the Royal Palace in Bangkok. Not only is it disrespectful to walk around baring all, but many palaces and temples won’t let you in if you’re not appropriately dressed.

An integral part of the South East Asia backtracker trail is Vang Vieng in Laos, where backpackers congregate to go tubing on the Nam Song river. Tubing is great fun and it is definitely worth stopping off to give it a go, but do take notice of the signs asking tourists not to walk about in swimwear. Laotian people are very modest, and the vast numbers of half-naked tourists walking through the town are causing tensions - it doesn’t take much to put a t-shirt on.

There are also heaps of drugs on offer in Vang Vieng, but beware – restaurant and bar owners might tip you off to the police if you purchase any, and you’ll be faced with a night in jail and a hefty fine.

Make time for a history lesson

South East Asia has some beautiful ancient pagodas and palaces, which are very popular with tourists, but the region also has a rich and complex recent political history. Visit Toul Sleng prison museum in Phnom Penh and take a trip out of town to the Killing Fields, and head to the War Remnants Museum and the Cu Chi Tunnels whilst you’re in Ho Chi Minh City.

Some of the things you’ll encounter are really quite harrowing, but you shouldn’t miss out on the opportunity to see history brought to life.

Take a cooking course

Cooking courses are on offer throughout South East Asia and they’re well worth a try – just think how impressed your friends will be when you make them spring rolls or Thai green curry from scratch.

There are a wide variety on offer in all the big tourist towns, but in Cambodia they’re cheaper than most other places. The instructors also take you to visit the nearby market where they point out key ingredients and kitchen tools, and you’ll be given recipe cards to take home.

One word of warning though – don’t eat breakfast, you’ll end up with mountains of food by the end!

Don’t miss out on the once-in-a-lifetime experiences

Yes, it’s challenging to get yourself out of bed at 4.30am – especially if you’ve spent time on Pub Street the night before, but if you’re going to visit Angkor Wat you really mustn’t miss the sunrise. Time your visit to the Thai islands so that you’re there for a Full Moon Party on Koh Phangan. Make sure you’re in Bangkok on a Saturday or Sunday so that you can visit the weekend market.

Book tickets for a Water Puppet show as soon as you get to Hanoi – they sell out fast. Allow yourself enough time in Northern Vietnam to spend a night in Halong Bay. (But choose your trip carefully – all accommodation at this World Heritage Site is on boats, and some trips are very much ‘booze cruises’ and can be a bit intense, so do your research if that’s not what you’re after.)

Whilst it’s nice to be relaxed about your trip and take life as it comes, do plan a little so that you don’t miss out, and it is worth getting out of bed for those extra-special trips.

Leave room in your case

Don’t worry too much if you forget to pack something - South East Asia is a shopper’s paradise. There are so many lovely things on offer at very reasonable prices. Head to Koh San Road in Bangkok for good quality, one-of-a-kind and very cheap clothes, or try the Russian Market in Phnom Penh, Cambodia for beautiful fabrics and top-brand clothes ‘liberated’ from local factories – Diesel jeans or Abercrombie t-shirts for a fiver anyone?

The Night Markets in Chiang Mai in Thailand, Luang Prabang in Laos, and Siem Reap in Cambodia are great places to pick up souvenirs – silk scarves and cushion covers, silver jewellery, spices, traditional paintings, and local coffee will set you back mere pennies.

However, probably the best place to go shopping in South East Asia is Hoi An in Vietnam. This lovely, sleepy little seaside town has the highest concentration of tailors in the world. They will create made-to-measure clothes to your exact specifications in just a couple of days – and it will cost you hardly anything.

Hoi An is the one place in South East Asia that you really mustn’t miss out on, so make sure you factor in a good few days there. The town also has beautiful beaches and wonderful restaurants - head straight to Mango Rooms, probably the only one of Mick Jagger’s favourite restaurants that has student-friendly prices.

Don’t be afraid of street food

There is a lot of misinformation out there about street food, but don’t be afraid to try it. It’s mostly cooked piping hot and fresh to order, so there is considerably less risk of food poisoning than in many restaurants where food is left out all day.

No trip to Bangkok is complete without Pad Thai and spring rolls from a street stall, Chiang Mai’s night market has a mouth-watering array of treats on offer, Pho from the streets of Ho Chi Minh City is wonderful, and the sandwiches from Vientiane’s street vendors are nothing short of delicious.

If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, head to the bank of the Mekong River in Phnom Penh, where you’ll also be able to try fertilised chicken eggs, or deep fried crickets, snakes or spiders.

Stock up on toiletries before you go

Whilst you’ll be able to find almost everything on sale in South East Asia – anything from fake degree certificates to barbequed mice – mosquito repellent with a high DEET content is hard to come by, most moisturisers have whitening agents in, and sun cream is expensive, so leave some clothes behind and pack the essentials.

Don’t buy a round-the-world ticket

South East Asia is one of the most well-travelled backpacker routes in the world and there are good transport links throughout the region so there’s no need to fly between countries. In many places you’ll have a choice between trains and buses, and taxis are also affordable for shorter journeys.

If you’re not bothered about your carbon footprint, AirAsia is a safe, reliable carrier that offers good valuable flights across Asia. Fly in and out of Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur and arrange the rest of your transport once you get there – you’ll have more flexibility and it’ll save you loads of money.

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