So you’ve got your backpack, your guidebook, and a new swimsuit. You’re almost ready for your Southeast Asia backpacking adventure, but you’ve probably overlooked a few important things that will save you money and hassle during your trip. Before you leave for SEA, go out and get these five things:
No-Fee ATM Card
Southeast Asia is by and large a cash-only region. Very few businesses accept credit cards, so you’ll need to withdraw cash on a regular basis. I’ve never liked using currency exchanges, they reek of “scam” and I don’t have the patience or the energy to make sure I’m not getting fleeced every time I need some cash. ATMs are easier, more convenient, and more ubiquitous. Unfortunately, if you have an ordinary ATM card, the ATM fees can be brutal. So your best bet is to sign up for a checking account with no foreign transaction fees and no (or reimbursed) ATM fees. I got a Schwab High-Yield Investor Checking Account before I left for SEA, and it’s easily one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself as a traveler. No foreign transaction fees, no ATM fees, reimbursements for on-site ATM fees, and killer customer service. I’ve saved hundreds of dollars in fees by using this card, and I can withdraw money anytime, anywhere, and for any amount with no worries.
Basic Motorbike Training
Motorbikes are the primary means of conveyance in Southeast Asia, and you’ll almost definitely want to rent one at least once while you’re there. However, motorbikes are extremely dangerous even on well-maintained Western roads. On pitted, potholed, and unpaved SEA roads, they’re death traps for the inexperienced. Spend a few weeks in hostels in SEA and you’ll meet dozens of backpackers with skinned knees, shins, and elbows; pronounced limps; and nasty burns – all from motorbike accidents. If you’re going to climb on a motorbike in SEA, you owe it to yourself and other drivers to take a basic motorbike training course before you go. The Motorcycle Safety Foundation has a directory of courses all over the US. Find one, get trained, and ride around SEA in confidence and safety.
Getting a visa in many SEA countries can be a hassle. Poor technology, corrupt officials, and changing policies mean you have to jump through some hoops to be allowed into certain countries. One hoop some countries have is requiring a physical, passport-sized photo along with your visa application. They don’t advertise this requirement so they can charge you an extra fee during the application process when you fail to present a photo. It’s a shakedown, pure and simple. So don’t give the hustlers the satisfaction and carry around 4 to 6 passport-sized photos to dispense at border crossings. It’ll save you a few bucks each time and stick it to the border officials. Win-win.
Again, this is mostly for visa applications at border crossings. For whatever reason, several SEA countries prefer payment for visas in USD, and will charge a higher price if purchased using another currency – even their own native currency. So keep a stash of about $100 USD in small bills to use for visa payments. USD is also widely accepted around the world, so it can be handy to have some US dollars on hand for emergencies (though a backup debit card is a better option).
SEA countries don’t have the same safety standards for drinking water as Western countries. As a result, the water out of the tap is often contaminated with bacteria and viruses that our Western tummies don’t know how to handle. When in SEA you should always drink purified bottled water, which is available pretty much everywhere. Unfortunately, while cheap, the cost of constantly buying bottled water can add up. Also, you’re creating a huge amount of waste in the form of discarded plastic bottles. And sometimes it’s just really annoying to have to walk to the shop to get a bottle of water when you run out. To avoid all these issues, you can carry your own water purifier and get your drinking water straight from the tap. It’s cheaper, more convenient, and better for the environment. I didn’t buy a purifier before I came to SEA, and it hasn’t been a huge issue not having one. But if I were doing things over again, I’d probably buy a purifier for the reasons above. Check out this article by Too Many Adapters for product recommendations.
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