Travelling Alone in Central & South East Asia
Central and South East Asia has long been an enigma to western travellers - a magnet for the more adventurous seekers of something that might just blow the mind. This region of the world holds a mystery that is unique and unparalleled - paradise, but with an edge of the unknown; unrivalled natural beauty punctuated by poverty; ancient cultures, yet so simplistic in lifestyle it's sometimes hard to believe that if you lived in such a place you'd ever be aware of the problems of the world, or ever want to come home. In fact, many people don't…
Why?Imagine a place where, if you wanted to, you could spend your entire life sitting on a white sandy beach in front of a light blue tropical sea without a care in the world - all for a fraction of the cost of living back home. Imagine a place where life is simple, where people find pleasure in the purest of things, where an indomitable innocence seems to survive a backdrop of narcotics and prostitution. This is the enigma of Central and South East Asia.
Despite being the destination of choice for generations of backpackers, and the seemingly impenetrable cultural division between the people who live there and the legions of western tourists, this almost surreal region of the world still does not lose its appeal. With so much to experience, the tour of Central and South East Asia has arguably become a requisite module in the university of life for young middle-class people in the first world today.
Visas, Documentation & HealthcareAt the time of writing, tourist visas for most of South East Asia can be obtained upon arrival, although it's advisable to apply via a travel agent beforehand if you already know where you're going and when. Visas usually cost very little, as does the cost of overstaying them. However, many countries may refuse you entry if you have less than six months remaining on your passport.
For China, Vietnam and Myanmar (formerly Burma) you need to apply for a visa in advance, which can take up to 5 days. For more specific requirements visit the embassy websites of the countries you intend to visit and/or the Foreign & Commonwealth Office.
You should always carry photocopies of your passport and several passport photographs, for visa applications. Onward travel tickets are, in theory, to be booked before you enter, but in reality you'll rarely be asked for them and it's cheaper to go through travel agents in the region for your onward journeys. This, crucially, allows you to be flexible with your itinerary.
Vaccinations are absolutely essential and should be organised ideally two months before you go - six weeks at the latest. Visit the Department of Health website for details of what you need in certain regions. Travel insurance is fundamental.
US Dollars tend to be the universally accepted currency for tourists but it's advisable to carry travellers' cheques, as ATM machines can sometimes be hard to come by. It's also worth noting that Visa is much more widely accepted than Mastercard.
Cultural DifferencesThere are so many cultural differences, it's fundamental that you read up before you go to each country, either on the internet or in guide books, preferably both. Here are one or two main points to give you an idea.
Don't go topless unless you're on a beach - men and women alike.
Do accept food when offered - it's rude not to.
Don't point your feet at any religious statue or shrine.
Do be prepared to be stared at like a zoo animal and be asked personal questions.
Don't touch monks if you're female.
Do be open and talkative - most people are thrilled to welcome you and deeply interested in you.
Don't point with your index finger - use a fist.
Do carry your own toilet paper if it matters to you - it's a rare commodity.
Don't offer food or drinks with your left hand - this is your hygiene hand in the absence of toilet paper.
- Laos - Luang Prabang - A relaxing and beautiful town offering great trekking, lively local culture, temples and markets.
- Thailand - Ko Chang - This popular spot on the east coast offers beautiful beaches, thrilling nightlife, waterfalls and stunning natural scenery.
- China - Yangshuo - A picturesque and very hospitable town, great for rock-climbing and mountain biking and one of the finest cuisines in southern China.
- Vietnam - Ho Chi Minh - Forget New York, this cosmopolitan city - the largest in Vietnam, truly is the city that never sleeps!
Whatever your chosen destination, it's best not to make too many plans. Keep your options open and work it out as you go along, as travel in this part of the world is cheap enough to allow you to be flexible.