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As a Practical Matter: Tips for Successful Travel in Southeast Asia

I don’t recommend doing this.

If my posts the last few weeks have piqued your interest in traveling to Southeast Asia (and I hope they have), then you might want to bookmark this post for future reference. To wrap up my series of posts about my travels in Cambodia and Vietnam, I’m offering my Top 10 Practical Tips for Traveling in Southeast Asia:

1. Plan to sweat. There’s no way to sugarcoat this: it’s really hot in Southeast Asia. Even after being in humidity “training” here in DC for three months, I was still taken aback by how sweltering it was in Cambodia and Vietnam. You would not believe the amount of sweat your body can produce in those conditions. So: wear lightweight, sweat-wicking clothes; drink lots and lots and lots of water (don’t worry about needing a bathroom; you’ll sweat most of it out); and pace yourself. After just a couple of hours outside, you’ll be tired. After 7 hours of touring the Angkor Wat temples, I was about to collapse. (When our guide suggested we make “just one more stop,” I could’ve cried – or punched him.) A hotel with a pool is an excellent investment, by the way. You will use it.

2. Block the sun. To state two obvious facts: First, the sun is powerful in this part of the world. And second, the pursuit of unattainable beauty is a universal condition. In Cambodia and Vietnam, fair skin is the beauty ideal, and women spend a great deal of money on chemical products to lighten their skin. (Apparently my skin tone is perfect, by their standards.) Then they have to completely cover themselves up (with gloves, long sleeves, long pants, and face masks) when they go outside. For those of us who can’t tolerate wearing all those clothes in 90-degree heat, sunscreen is essential. I also learned that an umbrella is much better than a hat for sun protection. An umbrella provides shade for more square inches of your skin and it allows cooling air to continue flowing around your head. It’s very common to see people walking around with umbrellas in the sun in Southeast Asia; it’s not so common in the US. But I’m now determined to make it “A Thing” here, too.

3. Let yourself go a little. Given the demands of Tips 1 and 2, trying to look spiffy all the time is a futile effort. Choose your clothes for practicality and comfort. And I recommend against mascara.

4. Count your dollars. In Cambodia, the US dollar is not only widely accepted, it’s often preferred. And I was surprised to discover that US money is accepted in Vietnam, too – pretty much everywhere except government-run facilities. Bring plenty of dollars with you, but only small bills (anything larger than a 5 is met with deep suspicion) and only bills in good condition. When you pay in US dollars, generally they’ll give you change in the local currency. With my stash of cash and my credit card, I went the entire trip without ever having to hit an ATM.

5. Be friendly…but not too friendly. The Cambodians and Vietnamese are incredibly friendly people. Showing anger and frustration is considered rude and will be unlikely to produce the result you want. On the other hand, public displays of affection are very much frowned upon.

6. Be modest. When they tell you that you must be covered up to visit monasteries and temples, they mean it. No sleeveless shirts (a shawl thrown around your shoulders won’t cut it), no plunging necklines, and no shorts – those scandalous knees have to be covered, too!

7. Shop considerately. A certain amount of polite haggling is acceptable when shopping at markets and with street vendors. (For example, if you offer to buy more than one of something, they’ll usually drop the price.) But don’t be a jerk about it. For one thing, most of the products are already incredibly cheap by Western standards. More importantly, many of the people who live in these countries are very poor. (Remember what I wrote last week, about the millions of Cambodians who live on the edge of poverty.) A few dollars can make a tremendous difference in their lives. You, on the other hand, spent thousands of dollars to travel to Asia and can surely spare a few more for a nice souvenir. Right?

8. Watch your intake. You know all that water I just told you to drink? Unfortunately, it needs to be bottled. Tap water isn’t safe for our delicate bellies in either Cambodia or Vietnam. Also, stay away from raw produce unless you peel it yourself and, in most cases, ice. (I did, however, have several iced Vietnamese coffees from restaurants and never had a problem. Did I mention that they put sweetened condensed milk in their iced coffee? Totally worth risking the ice for that.)

9. Watch your step. The traffic in Southeast Asia is mindboggling, as you can see for yourself in one of my earlier posts. Now imagine trying to cross the street in that traffic. It can be done, but you need to be vigilant. The key is to keep moving at a steady walking pace (don’t run!), and the motorbikes and cars and buses and tuk-tuks will always manage to veer around you. I wish I could trust US drivers to do the same.

10. Carry the essentials. The things you should have with you at all times: water, Purell, toilet paper, and an open mind. So armed, you can go forth and have an amazing adventure in Southeast Asia.

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