5 Myths About Traveling in Southeast Asia

Myths about traveling in Southeast AsiaBefore traveling to another country or part of the globe, we already have preconceived notions about what it’s roughly going to be like. Whether it’s through films, travel articles, photographs, or even word of mouth, most people will think a place is a certain way before they even step foot there. But it’s not until you finally get there that many of your concerns will be squashed, or that it just might not be all it’s been made out to be. Southeast Asia was definitely one of those places that I’d heard so much about, and naturally thought would turn out to be a particular way. But after spending 5 months backpacking through the region, I’m about to go all Mythbusters on many of the popular thoughts about Southeast Asia, well, at least what I had thought before setting foot there. Here are our 5 myths about traveling in Southeast Asia.

You’ll lose weight

Ah yes, that good ‘ole analogy that being in hot tropical climates thinking you’ll be active every day, coupled with a change in diet, will naturally lead to you losing weight. Well unless you pick up a bad stomach bug (which I don’t wish upon anyone, it never happened to us!) I’m sorry to say that this is one myth I myself was hoping would be true. There’s two main reasons why this isn’t the case in Southeast Asia:

Part of the travel experience is sampling the local cuisine, and there’s no shortage of different things to try in Southeast Asia. The food is incredibly delicious and very easy on the wallet. Even the super budget, cash-strapped travelers will have no problems finding food options within their price range. But the one problem with Southeast Asian cuisine is it’s rooted in starchy carbohydrates, namely rice and noodles. And to top it all off, alcohol is just as cheap. You’ll probably find yourself having at least a bottle of beer a day (more if you’re in Laos where a 640mL of Beerlao goes for $1), whether socializing with other travelers or enjoying a peaceful afternoon beach side.

What to eat in Vietnam
How could you pass up on something as delicious looking as this?

Which brings me to the second reason why you won’t lose weight. You really won’t be as active as you think. Sure, there are those days where you’re walking all day long sightseeing, hiking through jungles, and swimming for hours. But for just as many of those active days you have, you’ll have the same number of days where you won’t be nearly as active. 12+ hours sitting on a bus, waiting at an airport, relaxing on a beach, or just taking a day off to recharge those travel batteries don’t burn any calories. But it’s all about the experience, not about going on a diet. If anything, you’ll probably average out over the course of your time in the region.

It’s only for young, 20-something budget backpackers

Southeast Asia is probably the best area in the world where our western dollars will go the farthest. It’s inexpensive to sleep, eat, and get around, without having to share a room with creepy crawlies or rely on instant noodle soup for nourishment. Because of this, it attracts a younger crowd who don’t have as much disposable income. But while it’s true that there are a lot of young travelers who will spend months at a time exploring Southeast Asia (hello, us!), there’s a large market for those whose travel style is different and want something a little more comfortable. In almost all the major cities you’ll find 3-5 star hotels and restaurants to go with them. It’s one of those places where you can spend as little as $20 a day per person or ten times that amount if you want to. But during our time in Southeast Asia, we actually came across a lot more travelers that were in their 30s or retired couples doing the Southeast Asian backpacking trail they didn’t have time to do earlier on. We met many travelers who weren’t into the party scene and found there were activities available for all age groups and fitness levels.

It’s dangerous

I was one of those people who thought that Southeast Asia would be rather dangerous. I was worried about our stuff being stolen, getting mugged on the street, and even possibly finding ourselves in not so desirable situations. But almost within our first few weeks in Southeast Asia, I realized that there was really no cause for my concerns. Sure, you need to be vigilant about your belongings both in transit and at your accommodation, making sure you’re valuables are secure in your room while you’re not there. And unfortunately, there are those who prey on distracted, intoxicated, and even seasoned travelers with well thought through scams. It can happen anywhere in the world. But in terms of danger lurking in the streets with guns and knives and gangs. Not so much. Most Southeast Asians are very kind and generous, and want you to enjoy your time in their country. The various governments throughout the region have also been ensuring traveler’s safety, because let’s face it, if there’s a lot of crime targeted towards tourists, we’ll think twice about wanting to go there, thus resulting in those countries loosing valuable tourist dollars.

How to keep your things safe while traveling
Get yourself a pacsafe so you can secure your valuables when you're not in your room.

While traveling through Southeast Asia, we adopted a buddy system between the two of us, always looking out for each other’s back. We never let anyone else carry our bags, and locked our valuables up in our room using a Pacsafe when we weren’t there. We never once had any problems and felt very safe exploring even off the beaten paths.

It’s a great place to do drugs

Now, segueing off of the last point about it not being dangerous, if you think Southeast Asia is a great place to do drugs, you’re absolutely wrong! This is one area in particular where you will likely find yourself in hot water. Let me rephrase: Southeast Asia is NOT a great place to do drugs. It is illegal in all Southeast Asian countries to do drugs, with many of them holding death penalties for those trying to smuggle drugs. I have read a number of recent events leading to travelers finding themselves in a Southeast Asian prison due to drugs that always makes me wonder why people think it’s a good idea in the first place. And even if you think smoking a single joint won’t get you in the slammer, I wouldn’t advise even taking the risk. That local “guy” you just bought some weed off of who seems cool and all? Yeah, he’s most likely working with the local police who have just photographed your entire exchange and will now be coming to you looking for a payout to make the “charges” go away. It’s really not worth the hassles.

Your experience going to the bathroom will be horrendous

Yes it’s true; you’re going to have to use a squat toilet at some point while traveling through Southeast Asia. But the chances of you having to squat in a bush or over two planks of wood strategically placed over a running stream, because there’s nothing else available, are slim. Washrooms will vary in cleanliness; it happens all over the world (I was actually more turned off and disgusted by the public campsite toilets while campervan-ing in New Zealand), but for the most part they were well maintained.

You’ll also be happy to hear that I was quite surprised with the number of western style toilets accessible in each country, and even the number of public toilets available for use. There seems to be an understanding now with many Southeast Asian countries about catering to western style toilet preferences. You’ll have to get used to carrying toilet paper or tissues with you (as most bathrooms will not offer them), and even the manual flushing system involving scooping a bucket of water and giving it the ‘ole heave-ho down the drain (crossing your fingers that everything goes down, ha!), plus some hand sanitizer in the absence of soap. But I’m here to tell you that you’ll have nothing to worry about when nature calls.

Do you have any myths about traveling in Southeast Asia? Anything you expected that just wasn’t the case? Share it below!

11 thoughts on “5 Myths About Traveling in Southeast Asia

  1. Great post and great tips, especially about the drugs.

    Everyone going to SE Asia and thinking about doing drugs should be sat down and forced to watch Brokedown Palace.

    And as for the food, I’m with you there. I’ve only ever come back slimmer from a trip once – and that was due to a nasty water-born bug that left me vomiting for 24 hours and then going to the toilet every 30-60 minutes for the rest of the week…

    1. Glad you enjoyed the post Tom! I myself watched Brokedown Palace a number of years ago and it stuck with me the entire time we were in Southeast Asia… And nasty bugs are awful! I got one while I was in Peru and I literally felt like I was going to die. Not fun.

  2. In my opinion, squat toilets really aren’t that bad! I’d much rather use a squatter in a dirty public bathroom than a western toilet.

    Good post!

    1. I’m with you on the squat toilets. Once you get the hang of them, they’re not so bad. And make a dirty bathroom usable. But trying to use one on a train that’s swaying side to side makes things a little more challenging 🙂

  3. Interesting list – we are starting our trip in Japan, then heading to South Korea, China and then off to South East Asia. I too have heard that it is not dangerous there — not as dangerous as traveling through South America. I was hoping to be losing weight but you’ve got a point — with 12 hour bus rides/travel days and oodles of noodles I’m sure it’s easier to gain a few pounds! 

    1. Sounds like you’ve got an exciting trip coming up! We’ve been to all those places plus lived in South Korea for 2 years. Get in touch if you have any questions. You’re going to have a great time, especially eating the food! 🙂

      1. I actually do have a question if you don’t mind answering. We’re planning on spending 10-14 days in South Korea and since you lived there for 2 years I thought you might have some insights into how to break those days up. I put together a rough itinerary but it’s difficult to figure out which places are worth going to in a limited time frame. The place I’ve picked out are Busan (ferry over from Japan), Gyeongyu, Seoul, DMZ, Suwon. I found a few other places that I thought would be interesting including Andong, Haeinsa, Seoraksan, Jirisan but am not sure which of these should make the cut. Any tips/recommendations/advice would be greatly appreciated!!! 

  4. Hi Arienne – I’m sure you probably realise this now, but SEA has long been a luxury travel destination. Siem Reap’s heyday as a luxe destination started in the 1960s although that was of course curtailed by the Khmer Rouge. But there would be as many 5 star hotels as backpacker joints.

    You’ll in fact find squat toilets right across Asia, the Middle East, parts of Eastern Europe, and Latin America. You’re right in that doing drugs is definitely not a good idea, but I think when people saying that they’re talking about the ease with which travellers can get hold of the stuff and how cheap it is, but regardless, I would not recommend it.

    I’ve never heard anyone think of it as a dangerous region. I hear about the occasional muggings or petty thefts in cities like Phnom Penh and Saigon, but it’s rare for anything to happen here in Siem Reap and cities popular with tourists like Hoi An and Luang Prabang. In Thailand, the taxi mafia are much more of a worry, but people don’t need to take any more precautions than they would anywhere else.

  5. Great tips, enjoyed reading, thanks!
    “You’ll lose weight” – definitely not about South-East Asia. However, such trips (when you’re losing weight) might have become popular 😉

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