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Saturday, February 25, 2012

Five Things You Must Know Before Traveling to Southeast Asia

Traveling to Southeast Asia

About three years ago, a friend who had never been out of the United States accompanied us on a trip from Singapore to Ho Chi Minh.  Having spent more than half of our adult lives in South and Southeast Asia, we'd forgotten many of the little things that we took for granted that turned into major hurdles for our friend.  There were some things he was prepared for--like mosquitoes and malaria.  However, there were some things that had just never crossed his mind.  They are little things, but if you are not prepared for them, they can really throw you for a loop.  Therefore, we put together this quick list of five "little things" that knowing can make a big difference.

1. Toilets & Toilet Paper in Southeast Asia (or lack thereof)

On our first morning in Singapore we went to have breakfast at a little spot I like on near the Lavender Street bus station.  My friend excused himself to go to the toilet--behind the restaurant--and in a few moments he reappeared with a puzzled look on his face.

"There is no toilet paper," he told me with a distressed look on his face.  I actually had to think for a long minute before I answered him.  I am pretty sure I was thinking, "Now, surely there is a bucket . . . "  Then it dawned on me--he's never gone to the bathroom in Southeast Asia before.  Now, I thought, how do I put this.

My nephew, who is now 13, once asked me if it was true that people "over there" used "their hand" to wipe their bottoms.  I explained that they used water.  He thought this was just disgusting, but I think I may have changed his mind.  I asked him if there were peanut butter smeared on the table did he think you could clean it up with just with a paper towel, or if you'd need water.  He saw the point.  I had to be a little more delicate with my friend, though, telling him to use the smaller bucket inside the water bucket and then use that and his left hand to clean his bum.

"Just wash your hands when you are done."  Of course, I had to come back in once he was done to show him how to flush--by pouring water into the toilet bowl with enough force to wash everything down.  He was still a little queasy about it all, but it didn't take long for him to get used to it and also realize why I was always packing a tiny bottle of hand sanitizer--along with toilet paper, soap isn't always in a Southeast Asian bathroom, either.  And by the way--for those of you who decide to pack your own toilet paper (insert seasoned traveler look of derision here), just be aware that those toilets are not made to flush toilet paper--so put it in tje waste basket if there is one. 

2. It's Called Chafing

Southeast Asia is hot.  It stays with the low 30s Celsius (that would be about the high 80s to low 90s if you are an American) and the humidity is generally high almost everywhere.  For example, today in Singapore and it will be 33 C/ 92 F with a relative humidity between 85-90%.  And while there are plenty of ways to beat the heat, no doubt you will be out and walking around quite a bit.  And this brings me back to the story of my friend . . .

At this point in time, we are in Melacca.  During the day, we are exploring the Museum of Enduring Beauty and the remnants of Dutch church or the Portuguese fort, A Famosa, and at night are running around with an aged Triad boss.  I notice my friend, who is wearing jeans, keeps tugging at his pant's bottom.

"Are you okay?" I finally asked.

He gave me a slightly embarrassed look and said, "My butt hurts."

The combination of clothes, heat and humidity often results in chafing, particularly on your butt and inner thighs.  For travelers who are a little heavier, it can particularly be a problem.  As the cloth rubs your skin, it literally rubs you raw, and as you keep going it just keeps getting worst and worst.  There are several ways to prevent it--smarter clothing choices for the environment, and liberal use of baby powder.   For more on how to pack smart, see our Southeast Asia Packing List.

3. Some Massage Parlors are Just Massage Parlors

Southeast Asia is the sex tourist capital of the world.  And it isn't just the unfortunately named Bangkok, but sex is for sale all over, especially Cambodia, Vietnam and the Philippines.  Most traditional Southeast Asian massage is great--imagine a combination of massage and chiropractic, where you not only get rubbed but also get bent, stretched and popped.   And just because there is a prevalence of seedy massage parlors doesn't mean you shouldn't treat yourself to a massage, and it is easy to find a place where you won't be offered a "happy ending."   Here are some very quick tips for finding a massage parlor that is just that--a massage parlor.  And, of course, if you are looking for your happy ending--just do the opposite of what is advised here.
  1. It doesn't have a name like "Love Teen Massage"
  2. It isn't open 24 hours.
  3. There are not "private rooms" for massages and it isn't based in a place that resembles a motel.
  4. It doesn't have a fish bowl of scantily clad women to pick your masseuse from
  5. It doesn't offer "soapy massage"
  6. It doesn't advertise erotic massages.

4. If You Are Paying Them, They Might Not Really be Your Friends

We all depend on people, but when we are in a foreign setting and don't know how much things might cost or don't know our way around, we depend on people even more. And our tour guides and drivers--taxis or tuk tuks--are often the folks we depend on most.  It is pretty common that the same driver will try to get you to use their services multiple days.  In highly touristed areas, like Siem Reap, Cambodia or Chang Mai, Thailand, competition is fierce and earnings are small.  That is in part why a plethora of not scams per se but "arrangements" are made by the drivers.  These mean commissions on shops, hotels, massage parlors, brothels, and more.  And while we often form bonds with our friendly tour guides, these are not enough for them not to take us for double-priced massages or to ridiculously overpriced souvenir stands.  In the end, we are customers, and their life is hard.  Every bit they can get out of us helps, and while we are often more than generous (especially when we've formed a "bond"), it is best not to forget that if we weren't paying them, they probably wouldn't be our friends.  There are exceptions--there are always exceptions--but it is something that is always best to keep in mind.

5. Tap Water (otherwise known as "Traveler Poison")

Most people know that you can't drink the water in Southeast Asia.  I see travelers requesting their drinks without ice (almost all ice is now commercially produced from filtered water--you don't have to worry about it except in really out-of-the-way places).  However, most people don't think about the fact that you do a lot more with water than just drink it--like brushing your teeth or rinsing out your mouth.  The stuff that comes out of the tap should be treated as poison.  Think about it as some deadly soap.  You can use to to wash your body off (usually), but you never want to ingest it.  That means you don't use it to rinse out your mouth, clean your toothbrush, and you certainly do not drink it.  Keep a bottle of filtered water in your bathroom to have for brushing your teeth and rinsing your brush. This also means avoiding foods that may have been washed in tap water.  Generally, travelers who have not spent a lot of time in this part of the world should avoid salads and raw vegetables that might have been washed in tap water.  On "safe water tips" see our article on "Is the Water Safe in Southeast Asia?" (short answer: no).


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