Cambodia

Solo travelers share the 5 biggest mistakes they make when traveling to Southeast Asia

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The author currently lives in Bali, Indonesia.
Marielle Decosta/Business Insider

  • I have traveled to nine countries in Southeast Asia on my own.
  • I’ve made a lot of mistakes, from traveling during the monsoon season to forgetting to bring enough cash.
  • Travelers should make sure to plan ahead and research each country’s culture.

Over the past two years, as a travel enthusiast in Singapore and a travel reporter for Business Insider, my journey has taken me to nearly every country in Southeast Asia.

There are a total of 10 countries in Southeast Asia, and I have been to 9 of them – Singapore, Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, Cambodia, Laos and Brunei. Myanmar remains the only country in the region that I have not visited, and while I would love to explore it, I have postponed my visit due to the country’s ongoing civil war.

I watched the sunrise at Angkor Wat in Cambodia and cared for elephants in Chiang Mai, Thailand. I’ve explored the jungles of Borneo in Brunei and crawled through the Cu Chi Tunnels in southern Vietnam.

But it’s not always easy. I’ve made some mistakes while traveling in the area, especially as a solo traveler. Here are five mistakes I’ve made and how to avoid them.

1. Go during the monsoon season regardless of weather conditions.

Bangkok during monsoon season.
Mariel Decosta

In July, I traveled to Thailand to report on the emerging cannabis industry. There, I encountered heavy rain almost every day. In Bangkok I stayed in a hotel in Chakkrawat, an area with narrow winding streets that made it difficult to walk anywhere in the pouring rain.

I didn’t take the weather conditions into consideration so I didn’t bring an umbrella or poncho and had to rush to get them at the last minute. I also had a packed schedule that required a lot of traveling between meetings, which was troublesome in the constant pouring rain.

There are two seasons to avoid before traveling to Southeast Asia: the monsoon season, when countries like the Philippines typically experience powerful typhoons, and the burning season, when farmers burn land to obtain fertile soil. This condition is common in countries such as Laos, Thailand and the island of Borneo (shared by Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia).

Last April, when I traveled to Laos during burning season, most of my plans (including a hot air balloon ride) were canceled due to thick fog. I also didn’t wear an N95 mask and ended up with a sore throat.

If you do plan to come during these seasons, be sure to pack accordingly and plan a flexible schedule.

2. Travel during Ramadan and expect the same everywhere.

Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque in Brunei.
Marielle Decosta/Business Insider

Growing up in Singapore, I was familiar with the Muslim practice of Ramadan, where they fast for most of the day. I studied Malay for seven years. In school, I often fasted with my Muslim classmates and only ate in private.

Still, in many cities in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, non-Muslims are free to eat in public places, as long as they do so respectfully. But on my trip to Brunei in April—at the height of burning season and in the middle of Ramadan—I needed to observe a few more practices.

Most restaurants are closed, and even if they are open, diners are not allowed to eat there — only takeout is allowed. Even for non-Muslims, eating in public is a serious faux pas, and if you want to drink some water, you can only do so when no one is around.

It’s not easy, especially with Brunei’s sweltering heat sometimes reaching 100 degrees Fahrenheit. I returned to the hotel for lunch and had a hearty dinner with the locals at the night market after they broke their fast.

3. Not bringing enough modest clothing when visiting temples and mosques.

The author is in Angkor Wat, Cambodia.
Marielle Decosta/Business Insider

Southeast Asia is very free, and in many places you can wear whatever you want. In popular destinations such as Phuket, Thailand, and Bali, Indonesia, many tourists walk around in bikini tops and shorts, which are mostly tolerated by locals.

But there are some places where you do need to cover up, such as places of worship, including temples and mosques. Last February, when I visited Angkor Wat, Cambodia’s famous temple complex, I noticed that some tourists were being scolded by local tour guides for wearing shorts and tank tops (“Tomb Raider” style).

I learned to play it safe and carry a sarong with me wherever I went. This is an easy way to cover up and make an outfit more modest when needed.

4. Forgetting my medication, especially when I plan on eating street food.

Thai food for sale in Bangkok.
Marielle Decosta/Business Insider

Southeast Asia has some of the most delicious food in the world. You can find cheap and delicious food in every country, including Singapore, the most expensive city in the world. In countries like Malaysia and Vietnam, street food can cost as little as a dollar.

I ate mostly street food while traveling in Southeast Asia, so medication for gastrointestinal issues was a must. I’ve only been sick twice from eating street food – and both times it was the same dish – and unfortunately those were the few times I didn’t bring my medication.

I’m a very adventurous eater. I’ve eaten everything from puffer fish stew to frog porridge to street dishes made with intestines. I learned to wash the provided utensils before eating and to make sure the food was cooked to order and heated before being served.

5. Relying on my cards and not carrying enough cash.

Coffee apartment in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
Marielle Decosta/Business Insider

In Singapore, I don’t use cash very much and I often use Apple Pay, mobile payments and bank cards. But I found that many stores in other Southeast Asian countries only accept cash.

For example, on my third trip to Vietnam, I spent an hour trying to pay via bank transfer because staff at a luxury perfume store selling merchandise costing over $200 told me at the last minute that they had not paid. Card or contactless payment.

I also found that most street vendors in the area only accept mobile payments (local banks only) or cash. I learned to exchange large sums of money before leaving the airport and keep the money I didn’t use for my next trip.

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