The Challenges of Travelling South East Asia & How to Deal With Them

As you may well know, Miz and I are currently exploring South East Asia. This post was written on the coach between Singapore and Malaysia and completed whilst in Cameron Highlands. There’s plenty of information online about awesome things to eat, see and do whilst travelling South East Asia, but not so many posts about the negative or difficult sides of long-term, slow travel or the challenges of travel in Asia. You can read some of our travel guides as part of the Odd Odyssey series elsewhere on the site, but for now, we’re going to look at some of the tricky, challenging and nasty things that can happen whilst exploring Asia and most importantly, how to deal with them! Naturally, every place you’ll visit in the World has pros and cons, what you need to prepare for is how to ensure the cons don’t ruin your trip. Settle down and have a read, let’s hope we can help make your visit as enjoyable as possible!

How to Deal with Hot and Humid Weather

If it’s your first time in a tropical climate it is going to be difficult. Humid weather, blazing hot midday sun and on occasion intense monsoon-style downfalls of rain are all pretty challenging to adapt to. Luckily, there are a few things you can do to prepare. Much of South East Asia is religious, so if you want to be a respectful tourist, dressing for the beach 24/7 isn’t going to be the right choice all the time. Instead, choose clothes that are lightweight, loose and made of fabrics that allow you to breathe. Being covered up also decreases sun exposure and chances of bug bites too, whilst also ensuring you’re ready to integrate into local culture for visiting temples or places of historical significance.

Fans are also a great accessory to add to your travel kit for tackling the heat. Whether you choose an electric or traditional fan, both are cheap and easy to find in a variety of colours and shapes. Fans offer wonderful hot weather relief on the go or when sat in a hot restaurant, whilst doubling up as a bug deterrent. It’s quite normal to see people using fans too, so you won’t feel like a fool using one in public.

A good deodorant is essential as you will sweat more than normal, bring your favourite with you or nip into any local pharmacy or beauty store for an excellent selection when you get here. It’s likely that it’ll also be cheaper to buy in Asia than at home. The only thing you may want to avoid depending on your skin type are products with skin whitening ingredients, which are popular in many Asian countries. Apparently reducing your perspiration also helps to reduce the chance of being bitten by bugs, so that’s another reason to come prepared!

For extra comfort, you could add talcum powder to your routine. This clever fine powder absorbs excess moisture whilst providing a silky, smooth surface that reduces friction when moving, particularly useful for avoiding the dreaded friction burn and rubbing or if you’re doing something active like cycling or hiking. There are even special powders that have added cooling ingredients that are a great bonus in hot weather.

Luckily for us pasty Westerners, shopping malls and air conditioning are common in Asia so if you can’t cope with the heat anymore there are places to escape for a much needed temperature break. It’s wise to plan indoor activities during peak sunshine hours so that you don’t fry and can recover from excessive sweating. Always carry a bottle of water with you, as staying hydrated is even more essential in hot weather.

If you’re travelling in the wet season you can expect a daily downfall like you’ve never seen before. We got caught in a monsoon in the middle of Bangkok and although we came prepared with lightweight foldable raincoats, they really didn’t do much. Depending on where you are, rain is likely to be heavy but short-lived, so it’s often smarter to just take a break and head inside rather than attempting to race through it with insufficient clothing. If that’s not a choice,  you’ll need an umbrella or decent raincoat as well as shoes that are water resistant. Most locals just go undercover until the weather passes and take it as an opportunity to sit, rest and grab a drink.

How to Prepare for Risks with Insects and Wildlife

If you thought wasps were annoying, you’ve clearly never met a mosquito. There are many different types of bugs in Asia that will leave you itching and sometimes in some major discomfort. Whilst in Thailand I was bitten by something on my brow arch and my entire eye swelled up, it was pretty nasty looking. The best course of action is prevention, our Doctor recommended using a bug repellent containing the ingredient DEET. Depending on where you are, a herbal repellent may do the job, but for any adventures into nature (even a city park or beach) DEET is your best friend, although should be used cautiously and as per the instructions. Pick up your DEET bug repellent at your earliest convenience as it’s not readily available everywhere, many locals cope fine with herbal options so it can be tricky to find.

When you get to a beach it’s easy to be distracted by how beautiful everything looks and by the fact you’ve made it to a paradise like location and go full throttle into beach mode, unfortunately, that can cause serious issues. Sand flies can literally bite your legs to bits and although their not extremely dangerous, they are definitely itchy and irritating, so, shorts may seem like the best choice, but it may not be the wisest, maybe have something longer to slip on after your done going for a swim.


It’s also tempting to go find some shade and sit reading a book in the comfy sand, but if you don’t sit on a towel you may end up getting some incredibly nasty things crawling into, yes, INTO your skin, reason being that the cute dogs you’ll bump into find this a great spot to do their business. Again, worms aren’t actually dangerous, but not only is the idea of having worms crawling around under your skin absolutely gross, it will also leave you itching like mad and having to go to a doctor. P.s. We’re not saying that one from personal experience.

Even if you use DEET effectively, there’s still the chance of being bitten, so what do you do tackle this? For big red, angry looking bites (like my poor eye) a good clean and an ice pack will help provide relief. If you’re worried that you’ve had an allergic reaction, head to the pharmacy and they will be happy to help you with advice and an anti-histamine. You should also do your research in relation to Malaria zones and other bug carried illnesses.

There are vaccinations available for Asia for many possible illnesses, but it’s good to know the symptoms ahead of your trip as well as the location of the nearest hospital or pharmacy, just in case. Vaccinations are not a requirement for many countries, so it’s up to you to decide what you need based on the length of your stay, the types of places you will visit and your personal stance on the ethics of it all. For example, if you’re mainly going to be in cities you may need less than if you are planning on trekking through jungles.

We also picked up a mini Tiger Balm White which has worked wonders at calming and soothing itching from bug bites. It has a multitude of other uses and since it’s of Chinese origin you’ll find this product is easy to find across Asia. Also, the travel size is super tiny and adorable so a lovely little addition to your travel kit without taking up much space.

In addition to bugs, there’s also some risk of disease or illness from other animals including dogs, cats, snakes, spiders and monkeys. Although, you can generally use your common sense in this category, be aware that rabies is a thing in Asia and there is no cure once symptoms set in, so approach any wildlife with respect and care. If you do get bitten or have a strange encounter that didn’t go well, seek medical advice, immediately. We’ve found local pharmacies to be very helpful and many towns have walk-in medical centres that welcome tourists in addition to hospitals. Not all answers are on Google, so sometimes you have to use your own brain.

Toilet Etiquette

Now, no one likes talking about toilets but you need to be prepared for some cultural changes in toilet etiquette in Asia otherwise you’re going to have a bad time. Generally, in cities and hotels, you will find Western style toilets with toilet paper and soap. However, in some you cannot flush anything other than bodily waste. Instead, do as locals do and use the provided water hose to clean down there and a little paper to dry off. Failing that, used toilet paper generally goes wrapped up in a bin instead. Check before you go as some cities don’t have this rule and you can enjoy home toilet comforts, this is the case in Singapore for example. There’s usually a sign to tell you what local custom is too, so be sure to read before you poop.

Toilet Etiquette in South East Asia - a Sign in Thailand - a Guide by Jayne Kitsch for CMK

If you get unlucky you may come across squatting toilets that are essentially a framed hole in the ground that you squat over. So, if this seems like too much of a challenge (especially for a number 2) you might want to try to hold it in until you find a shopping mall or hotel that has a Western style option. Some toilets provide both options, so always worth checking before you panic, particularly in areas with a large tourist appeal. Better still, if you’re feeling brave and can get accustomed to squatting toilets, theirs plenty of evidence to suggest it may be better for your health. We’d recommend always travelling with a packet of tissues in your bag, just in case you get unlucky on that front, or ensure you take some paper towels into the cubicle with you.

We haven’t found any toilets without soap and hand drying facilities just yet but if this is something you’re worried about its easily solved with the addition of wet wipes or anti-bac hand gel into your bag. Muslim culture in particular places high value on hand cleanliness, so it would be weird to not have this basic hygiene level covered in most places.

Coping with Jet Lag and Long Journeys

Arriving into Asia from the West is an unavoidably long journey, no matter how well prepared you are you’re still going to feel shit for a bit once you arrive. Time differences screw with your sleep, eating routines and even your menstrual cycle. So plan something chilled for your first 24 hours and take things slow, starting off in comfortable accommodation and chilling in air-conditioned shopping malls are a great way to ease yourself into the adventure.

If you can sleep on the plane, amazing! Try to go to sleep to compliment the local time you’re arriving into so that you’re giving your body a head start in syncing up. However, sleeping on a plane is a logistical nightmare and if you get unlucky with your neighbours it may be impossible. Earplugs (we’ve been using metal ones from Flare Audio) and an eye mask can help give you an advantage and failing that, binge watch films until you land and deal with the consequences.

Malacca in Malaysia has some awesome vibes and even better food, not what I expected at all but I absolutely love it! The Riverside is gorgeous and the old Portuguese quarter has some cool bits to see (amplified by tackiness that somehow manages to make it even cooler). Its super easy to get a coach from Singapore and the border crossing is stress free as long as you’ve done a bit of research, know what to expect and use the right coach company, better than flying by miles!! Definately stop off on the way to Kuala Lumpur if you ever have the chance <3 . . . . . . . . . . #top_portraits #life_portraits #postthepeople #quietthechaos #2instagood #way2ill #justgoshoot #artofvisuals #l0tsabraids #ftwotw #igPodium_portraits #ftmedd #backpacking #backpackeradventure #malacca #exploremalacca #hellokitty #imaginatones #streettogether #streetmagazine #streetmobs #peopleinsquare #moodygrams #illgrammers #instamagazine #twgrammers #shotaroundmag #illkillers #killergrams #superhubs

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Ensuring you eat and drink plenty and in a regular pattern that compliments the local time will also aid your recovery from jet lag. It’s tempting to get over excited and want to start sightseeing immediately but believe us, it’s not worth it. If you don’t feel like shit on day one it will catch up with you.

Likewise, if you’re planning on exploring various countries in South East Asia (or beyond) you could find yourself on some rather long coach journeys or flights. Go prepared with snacks, water and entertainment because even when a coach company says there’s WiFi and TV, it’s not always so. We’ve enjoyed taking coaches so far, it’s great to have a break from the high stresses of airport security and long waiting times, plus the seats on coaches are generally bigger and more comfortable.

Stomach Problems and Food Culture

You can start preparing for this problem ahead of your trip. Taking multivitamins, probiotics and looking after your body to ensure you’re in good health before travel will give you a head start. It’s very common to have diarrhoea or other stomach problems when first arriving in a  new country, it may take a few days to feel normal. Starting the day with a probiotic, small breakfast and a healthy supply of water will help you recover.

If you’re prone to stomach problems, it’s probably smart to allow yourself time to take it easy and keep things simple with the food over the first few days. Many people worry about eating fresh fruit and street food immediately,  but if you make intelligent choices you can still eat local whilst recovering. If things are chronic, head to a pharmacy or Doctor who can prescribe something to speed up recovery.

The food in Asia is brilliant and you can eat like royalty without spending much money at all. Use your brain and eat at places that are busy (even if you go off-peak you can recce the busy places beforehand) and if you’re worried, choose dishes that are made to order, that’s why fried noodles and rice are popular as the high heat cooking blitzes nasties. If you’re having a fussy day, 711 stores are your heroes offering a huge variety of ready meals, cup noodles and even dim sum that are simple, cheap and quick to eat.

Language Barriers, People and Religious Respect

If English is your first language, you’re in luck! A huge chunk of people in South East Asia speak very good English, so the language barrier isn’t something to worry about unless you’re travelling somewhere remote. Even if communicating is a challenge on occasion, it’s amazing how much can be achieved with a smile, friendly greeting and a mobile phone aid. We’ve found that people in South East Asia are generally very happy to chat, excited to share their local knowledge and pleased to help if you show them kindness and a pleasant nature. Even wandering down streets in Bangkok, it’s normal for strangers to say hello or at the very least smile and nod at each other, it’s kind of wonderful. Making eye contact with another European however, maybe a little more challenging ironically.

As with travel anywhere, it’s always interesting and polite to make some kind of attempt at the local dialect. Download Google Translate and you can do quick translations and scan writing to help yourself out. However, it’s part of the fun to learn the basics such as hello, please, thank you and where is the toilet? Even if you suck at speaking the local language, it’s always a great icebreaker and it’s great to show that you’ve made an effort, it’s appreciated by locals who can get tired of grumpy foreigners who don’t want to be respectful of their culture.

Honestly, though, the most annoying thing is other tourists! Popular attractions and spots get super busy and the magical vibe can quickly evaporate when a place is filled with grumpy white people in shorts and vest tops taking selfies. There’s not much you can do about this, but we should all do our best to be respectful and kind to each other and locals to ease the pain. It’s not always appropriate to be dressed in very little and it’s not always appropriate to be taking selfies, be aware and be sensitive to this.

Showing Respect to Religion in South East Asia - a Guide by Jayne Kitsch for CMK

Everyone wants to grab the perfect photo and none of us is more important than another, so take your time and be thoughtful of other visitors, regardless of where they’re from or what type of camera they’re shooting on, for some reason smartphone users in particular like to push past DSLR users. It’s really quite unbelievable the number of times we’ve had other tourists push in front, intentionally block a shot or just be downright rude to us on our travels so far. Cheer up everyone, you’re visiting somewhere amazing and if we share the experience instead of fighting for it, we’ll all have a better time!

Another key thing to be aware of in South East Asia are the various religious groups that are heavily represented here, we’re sure you already have some temples, shrines or mosques on your to visit list, but how much more research have you done so far? The majority of holy sites have dress codes and rules to show respect to the religion they represent, this varies from having legs and shoulders covered to having to wear a hijab if you’re a woman. Naturally, if you’re not of any of the represented religions, no one is going to get too annoyed at you for not being dressed appropriately at all times, but we think it’s polite to show respect whenever possible.

If you’re visiting a holy place, there will be clear explanations of the rules and dress code at the entrance and online to help you prepare and many places offer garments to borrow if you need to be more covered, although we’d rather wear our own clothes than some sweaty hand-me-down that hundreds of tourists have worn before you that day. However, the easiest and kindest thing you can do is to turn up already prepared! It’s really quite incredible how many people turn up at holy sites unprepared, only to then complain about the rules on TripAdvisor and it shows little respect to be clogging up entrances and pulling faces at having to borrow a cover-up, when if you spent 5 minutes researching before you left your hotel you can enter these places in comfort with a smile on your faces and the locals being happy that you came prepared. Basic respect is so often forgotten in Western culture.

Got a question? Let us know!

We will keep this guide updated with anything else we learn along the way, but if you’d like to know something specific or have any questions please leave us a comment below or contact us via Twitter or Instagram.


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