20 Things I Learnt In South East Asia


This post comes to you much later than planned, due to the difficulty I have had reminiscing over our time away since our return. Whilst there I experienced real homesickness. Now we have returned to the UK I long to be back. But as I process the aftermath of our month away and the reality of the world in which we have to live, here are 20 things I learnt during our trip.

1.Drench yourself in mosquito spray at all times.

Even if you are in a low risk malaria area, even if you’re one of those people who “doesn’t get bitten” (I hate you, by the way), even it’s during the day in the middle of an arid city… you are never safe from the mosquitos and it is just not worth the intense discomfort and desire to claw your skin off all the live long day!

2. There are no rules of the road.

Not in Bali, not in KL, not in Vietnam and not in Thailand. I can’t speak for the rest of south east Asia, but strongly suspect there to be a similar level of chaos and life threatening driving tactics. Balinese roads rarely have any markings and drivers never use indicators. Malaysian drivers undertake constantly and swing from lane to lane without looking. Vietnamese drivers are mostly moped users and tend to think anything is a road – a pavement, a field, an animal… Thai drivers were mildly more disciplined but seemed to like speed and to chat on the phone for the entirety of their journey. We were genuinely curious to know whether or not people undergo a driving test in this part of the world and if so what this test entails. I’m pretty certain it’s “can you turn the ignition on? Yes? Congratulations you’ve passed!”

3. Thieves operate in pairs and groups, very rarely alone.

Case in point, the phone incident in Bali. Beware not just of the individuals but look for whether they have companions. People, by and large, are desperate for money. Never underestimate that desperation.

4. Beware of the tourist trap.

There is a reason this part of the world is so well visited. It is exquisite. But it isn’t wealthy and the natives have twigged on to the fact that westerners are prepared to spend thousands of pounds, travel thousands of miles, often very uncomfortably, in order to see their beautiful land, which is populated by rolling, exotic landscape and extraordinary plants and creatures. Quite understandably they want to monopolise on this as much as possible, to the point where there are hundreds of tour operators, all offering the same deal at largely similar prices. Each one claims to have a better transfer car, a longer length of time with the monkeys or an ‘extra special stop off on the way’ (usually somewhere they have an agreement with to bring tourists to and blackmail them into buying something). It’s not their fault, it’s just an obvious way to make money that they so desperately need. But it is difficult to know how far natives will give you good value for money, or a cookie cutter, watered down, semi-experience and a few cheap tricks. Sometimes you need to do a little extra leg-work to find the best experiences on your own steam, but it’s absolutely worth it. See case in point with the Malaysian waterfalls.

5. I have quite a serious phobia of snakes.

I didn’t quite realise how serious this phobia was until I had an involuntary reaction upon seeing a python being offered to tourists to have a picture taken with it. We’re talking shaking, cowering, blubbering…quite annoying really, but strangely uncontrollable.

6. Beware of ‘white people’ pricing.

In Kuala Lumpur it’s a known fact that natives will inflate their standard rates for ‘white people’. You can expect made up prices on the spot anywhere you ask for a quote. The same seemed to be true for Bali, Vietnam and Thailand. Again though, why shouldn’t they charge what they can get away with, for us to have the privilege of sharing in their land, their culture, their hospitality? Very often I found myself getting cross with a seller for not being willing to part with their goods for a couple of pounds, grossly because I knew that they would be playing the same game with every tourist that crosses their path. When in reality, despite them definitely playing me for anything they can get out of me, they do it because they need to, and because they can. It’s a very fine line between being taken for a mug and throwing all of your money away on passing novelties that cost a few pence to make and robbing people of a livelihood they so utterly depend upon because privileged westerners like us steal the wealth of this world.

7. Never trust a taxi driver, unless it’s Uber Cars.

Point in case numbers 2 and 6. However, in Kuala Lumpur we were introduced to Uber Cars, which operates via phone app. It finds your location, you can choose to enter a destination or wait to tell the driver, then gives you estimated arrival times, a map with a mobile driver icon, your drivers picture name and identification number. We took 4 Uber cars in our time in KL, all roughly 15-20 minute trips, none of which cost over £2.50. And they charge directly to your card. I have to say it felt like an unnecessary luxury, ordering a private car with air conditioning and a driver who addresses you as “sir” and “madam”, but actually the system is just logical, efficient, safe and remarkably inexpensive. But even if it weren’t, sometimes you can’t put too great a cost on your safety.

8. When in Malaysia, it’s rude to finish your meal.

Apparently finishing everything on your plate is a sign that they didn’t give you enough food and therefore will keep topping you up until you finish with some leftovers. James and I struggled with this concept, having been raised to finish what we were given and to be grateful for what we had. I think leaving food for the sake of showing good manners was one behaviour that we didn’t adhere to.

9. Take a pair of closed toed shoes with you.

The fact I didn’t became a particular regret on our night train to Hoi An in Vietnam. I braved the train toilets with wet wipes and antiseptic gel in hand. The first trip wasn’t so bad but throughout the night the toilet basin had been filled over and over,  people were failing to flush and the train was rocking a lot. All I can say is that the floor was no longer dry when I made my 7th trip to the loo and I was too desperate to hold it in. Thank goodness for wet wipes!p.

10. I have personal space issues.

Queuing is an alien concept in SE Asia, particularly in airports. People are solely focused on reaching their destination and are oblivious to all manner of intrusions along the way. I found that people would stand as close as they could, often with physical contact, when we were queuing, which would bring on a strong, involuntary, desire in me to bat them off me. I would feel very invaded and suddenly irrationally angry. This is something I may need to address in my life.

11. Always begin bartering at a price lower than you think something is worth.

In contradiction to point 5, in the ‘game’ of bartering we quickly learnt that more often than not sellers would actually part with goods for far less than we anticipated but would also always try and get the highest price. Therefore, logic would state that if you offered a price you thought an item was worth, chances are that the seller will ask for vastly more and you will be tempted to succumb. Again, it’s a sad relationship between natives and westerners and uncomfortable political reality, but one that in the moment you find yourself playing along with.

12. Never barter with children.

Case in point (I’ve been given permission to tell this story) we met a British couple in Hoi An, with whom we have mutual friends. Whilst enjoying a bottle of red wine we were approached by a beautiful, young Vietnamese girl selling novelty dragonfly toys. They were mildly entertaining and a cute souvenir, but the real attraction was the girl selling them, who immediately set about charming us with the British idioms and ‘in’ jokes she had learnt along the way. What was shocking was that we asked her how long she had been selling for and she said since she was 7. She was now 13 (you do the maths). The lady of the couple we were with had an instant rapport with the girl and flirted with the idea of buying a couple of dragonflies for her nephews. A few figures were exchanged and when we realised how high her price was she tried to bring her down drastically. This did not bode well with the girl, whose bottom lip went out, began to huff and puff and feed us more sob stories of how she needed the money for schooling. The end of the story is that we caved and paid above the odds for the souvenirs, a conclusion which was reached uncomfortably, as if the girl had a knife to our throats. Heartless as it may have seemed, it may have been kinder of us to smile and wave her past. I have since read various articles about child sellers in South East Asia who take the money they earn from tourists back to drug barons who hold their lives in their hands.

13. I am navigationally incompetent.

Maps confuse me. Thank goodness for James. The end.

14. Playing cards for fun is hilarious to the Vietnamese.

When sat in KOTO in Hanoi playing our usual rounds of gin rummy the young staff were giggling relentlessly at us. We thought they were either rude or found small things hilarious. It turns out that card games in Vietnam are only played by gangsters in speakeasies for money or dirty favours. So to see a husband and wife playing freely and for no money was a concept so peculiar to them, they didn’t know what to do but laugh.

15. Boiled meat is NOT tasty.

More specifically boiled duck. Meat is not designed to be boiled. It is tough and flavourless. I wouldn’t recommend anyone to try it.

16. Make sure you get a full quote for a tattoo before undergoing the design process.

Anyone who has followed my previous posts will know about James and I’s penchant for body art. Of course we set out on our trip wholly intending on coming back with some new ink to boast of our adventure. We saved this venture until our last leg in Ko Phi Phi Islands, with is reputed for its numerous tattoo parlours. There is also a different type of needlework called bamboo tattooing in Thailand, which is literally a sharp piece of bamboo used to insert the ink onto your skin. It is a longer process but (apparently) less painful and more intricate. Being my organised self I already had a design in mind for my work. We asked a parlour for a rough idea of costs and were told prices started from 200 Thai Baht, £20. “Brilliant!” I thought. “We are going to get lovely authentic bamboo tattoos for 20 quid!” We were then told that the artists charged per design rather than per hour, as they felt that was fairer. After hours of phaffing about with emailing them my design, James trying to choose his, being told to go away and come back in an hour, then go away again and come back in half an hour, drawing, re-sizing and transferring the designs onto our skin, we were then given the actual quote. 11,000 Baht, equivalent of £200. I felt sick to the pit of my stomach at how drastic a mistake I had made. When they saw we couldn’t afford the quote they proceeded to try and barter with us, which made us feel even more backed into a corner. Suddenly the adventure and thrill of getting ink in a foreign country disappeared and we felt like foolish youths about to throw away the remainder of their money on some really bad tattoos. I craftily pulled the ‘female card’ and faked getting a little emotional, apologised profusely for their time spent, gave them the equivalent of £10 and yanked James out of the shop. We spent the next few hours reeling from our ignorance and close call, then the following hours laughing heartily at the mistake.

17. Don’t get henna in Thailand

After the disappointment of the Tattooing fiasco I went about finding somewhere that would do Henna. Henna is not a Thai tradition. Bamboo tattoos are (as per my previous story) but the Thai people know it is popular with westerners so sometimes advertise that they do it. The henna I asked for was drawn on first with a biro then inked over by a man who was clearly doing it for the first time. The results speak for themselves. It lasted less than 24 hours and cost me £6.


18. I don’t need anything except food, water and hugs but I struggle without comfort.

Comfort was above and beyond the thing I battled with most on our travels. The feeling of discomfort on planes (see the story of our outward journey), from the heat, carrying an 11kg rucksack, mosquito  bites, hunger, dehydration, showers over toilets, dreadful smells, paddling pools of urine, marked sheets, cigarette infused walls, the constant sound of traffic at night, roller-coaster-esque minivan trips, people standing too close for comfort… But none of these things threatened my life or safety, with the exception of hunger and dehydration. I say this, we were never so hungry that we were in danger, although we were worryingly dehydrated on occasion. But we have the privilege of money to buy water, when so many don’t. The only other thing I am uncertain whether I could have survived without was the companionship, contact and security I had in James. Through marriage, my needs have become intertwined in his that I sometimes doubt whether we could actually survive without one another. This is a frightening thought and most likely many will think it is irrational (and perhaps a little sad, lacking independence), but I find it is the power of our union and an indicator of how close this trip brought us. Despite its numerous challenges, I was stronger that I think I have ever been with James working with me every day, certainly stronger than I am in ‘normal’ life. Clearly I survived for 27 years pretty well before James came along! But as we have shared ourselves with one another we are bound to one another in a manner so deeply that I wonder if my body and soul would begin to shut down without him. Think of that what you will, but personally I am grateful for that connection with my husband. And for food and water.

19. We are not ‘young adults’ any more… We are adults.

To be truthful, I think both of us set out on this adventure expecting to feel like we did in our late teens/early twenties, which was the last time either of us did any significant traveling. But as we met various young backpackers we realised how much we have matured past certain tolerances but also how our bodies have in some ways weakened. This will partially be to do with general physical fitness, but there were several strong indicators that our bodies just do not want to do some of things they could do 10 years ago. We do not need to “find ourselves” because we have found each other and in that have found true selves. We have no desire to check off an endless list of thrill-seeking activities. We don’t need to stay in hostels with dormitories to demonstrate that we “roughed it””. We are growing old together and are ‘older’ and are ok with whatever than means and entails.

20. I am ready for the next adventure.

Here is the reason why I have been struggling to reflect, write and post anything for a number of weeks now. I wrote this list soon after we returned, feeling invigorated and inspired by our journey. Since then, the truth is, I have felt rather lost in a struggle to figure out the right next steps. I have little confidence in what I am capable of, including writing. But I guess this is what this blog was supposed to be, somewhere where I can use my own struggle to try and encourage others. So I am now endeavouring to press ‘Pause’ and talk about the less favourable repercussions of our great adventure…there just may be a little quiet with that pause for a time.





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