What I Did Right (And Wrong) in Southeast Asia

This post was inspired by Adventurous Kate’s posts The Things I Did RIGHT in Southeast Asia and The Things I Did WRONG in Southeast Asia. I loved her posts and couldn’t resist reflecting on my Southeast Asia travels in a similar vein!

Ever since I returned from Asia, I’ve been reflecting a lot on my four-month trip.

Despite some rough moments, I had a fantastic time and cliché of clichés, I changed a lot (gag), returning home a braver, more independent and more self-confident person.

But I undoubtedly made a lot of novice mistakes on my trip… and of course, did one or two things right.

What I did right in Southeast Asia:

I skipped the Full Moon Party.

Instead of donning neon and sculling Red Bull buckets, I skipped the Full Moon Party to complete my Open Water Certification. And considering everyone came back moaning about the crowded beach and filthy, sand-ridden accommodation, I wasn’t too upset that I passed up the party.

I took it slow in Vietnam.

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Instead of rushing to see all of Vietnam in a month, I traveled slowly and focused only on the south. But I still covered a lot of ground, from the pine-covered mountains of the Central Highlands to the tropical marshland of the Mekong Delta. And as many say the best food in Vietnam is in the south, I think I made a good (and delicious) choice.

(Though I won’t lie- I am dying to head to the north of Vietnam at some point: Hanoi, Sapa, Hoi An and Halong Bay.)

I went on antidepressants when I needed them.

I haven’t written about this until now but when I was in Asia I started taking antidepressants for the first time in my life. And given my mental state at the time (basically a deep well of anxiety and depression), this was one of my smartest decisions.

Honestly if I hadn’t sought out help I would’ve gone home months early.

I took cooking classes in almost every country I visited.

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While in Asia I took cooking classes in Hong Kong, Bangkok, Bali and Gili Trawangan. They were all a ton of fun and now I know lots of delicious Asian recipes… yay!

Big misses? I didn’t take cooking classes in Vietnam and Singapore. (I also didn’t take a Cambodian cooking class which was fine because I don’t care for Khmer cooking.)

I kept my itinerary super flexible.

While I had a guideline of what I wanted to see in Asia, I kept my day-to-day itinerary very loose. I usually just met travelers on the bus and tagged along with them to the hostel they had picked.

By keeping my itinerary flexible I was able to go on impromptu trips to the Mekong Delta and a motorcycle journey across Vietnam, as well tack on an unplanned leg of the trip: Singapore, Bali and Gili Trawangan.

I pushed myself physically.

Mount Batur Bali

During my four months in Asia I climbed a volcano, enjoyed a month-long yoga retreat and completed a four-day open water certification. I also tried stand-up paddle boarding, Capoeira, Muay Thai and canyoning for the first time.

Staying active not only kept me happy and healthy, it also exposed me to new physical activities. I’m now a stand-up paddle boarding and canyoning convert! (But good luck getting me to climb another volcano.)

I carried US dollars and passport photos on me at all times.

If you learn anything from this post, learn this: When traveling Southeast Asia keep at least $100 USD and several passport photos in your backpack.

I kept an envelope of crisp $20 bills in my backpack and they were useful for paying visa fees which often required US dollars. My extra passport photos also came in handy for the same reason.

And while I never had to bribe anyone, US dollars are the best currency for bribery worldwide.

I budgeted- but not too much.

While I tried to stick to a budget of $20-30 a day, some days I went over, some I went under.  I also splurged for adventure activities like scuba-diving or the occasional night in a boutique hotel. #SorryImNotSorry

I packed lots of useful things.

I was so thankful to have bug-spray, an eye-mask, a Kindle, a million black tank tops, packing cubes, Imodium, the world’s best sunscreen, a mini flashlight, two adorable Victoria’s Secret bikinis and a gigantic quick-drying travel towel. I was grateful to have a rolling backpack 99% of the time. (Which I snagged on Amazon for $150!)

 I didn’t commit any of the cardinal sins of Southeast Asia.

While in Asia I didn’t ride an elephant, give child street vendors money or buy a Thai wife. So there’s that.

 

And… What I did wrong in Southeast Asia.

 

I visited the Andaman Coast during low season.

IMG_6140                                                                     Right before a mini-monsoon…

It turns out September is a terrible time to visit the Andaman coast- it’s rainy, dead and depressing. The Gulf of Thailand (i.e. Koh Samui, Koh Phangan, Koh Tao) is a much better choice in September.

I got ridiculously burned in Southern Thailand. Multiple times.

One day I went snorkeling on Koh Tao at noon. And before jumping in the water I quickly sprayed on a bit of SPF30. Dumb.

My back was so burnt I had to sleep on my stomach for days and could only shower with cold water. Did I learn from this? No. Because I got horrifically burnt several more times in Asia.

Note to all my pale people out there- WEAR SUNSCREEN IN THAILAND.

I only spent a morning at the Temples of Angkor… with a bunch of drunk people.

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Sight-seeing with drunk people was kind of funny but mostly obnoxious. The Temples of Angkor were spectacular and I only got to spend three hours at them. Sigh.

I got stressed about nothing.

In life and in travel, I tend to sweat the small stuff at times. Note to past-Ashley- chill the eff out. You’ll live.

I banged my camera equipment around.

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On my trip I committed many sins against my beloved camera: I dropped my SLR out of a van (California), dropped it on the ground (Cambodia) and banged my 5omm lens into a tiled wall (Vietnam). I had to pay for my SLR to be fixed in Vietnam and spent about $25 on the repair, and completely ruined my 50mm.

I missed Kep and Kampot in Cambodia.

Due to traveling with a big group for much of Thailand and Cambodia, I missed out on places I wanted to see like as Kep and Kampot. I also missed out on a Khmer princess photo shoot in Phnom Penh which may have been the biggest disappointment of my trip. (Okay a slight exaggeration but the pictures would’ve been killer.)

I packed too much.

It turns out I did not need a rain jacket, a rain cover for my rolling backpack, playing cards or a gigantic sack of toiletries.

And it did turn out I should’ve brought tiny scissors, a black bra, a dirty laundry bag, a mini travel towel for washing my face and acne medication (Asian humidity gave me the worst acne of my life, ugh).

I worked too much sometimes.

I struggled to balance work and play; there were weeks when I hardly opened my laptop and there were days when I barely left my room. Overall I should’ve managed my time better.

I got complacent.

After a few months I started taking beaches and budget prices for granted. Note to self- always be grateful for what’s in front of you.

Have you ever backpacked Southeast Asia? What did you do wrong? What did you do right?

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About Ashley Fleckenstein

Ashley is a travel and lifestyle blogger who lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Since college she has au paired in Paris, backpacked the world solo, and lived in Uganda. Her work has been featured by Buzzfeed, Forbes, TripAdvisor, and Glamour Magazine.

32 thoughts on “What I Did Right (And Wrong) in Southeast Asia”

  1. AMAZING! This one and one of your other recent columns (mentioning some guy at the end) have been your best!!! The more we writers share, in vulnerability and honesty – laughing at ourselves and actually celebrating it – the better we do at what we’re doing! This was terrific! It’s all fantastic stuff! Cheers to you!

  2. Good on you for taking medication when you needed to. Sometimes the hardest thing to do is to accept you need help.

    I’m a month into my SE Asia trip and actually have some of your learnings built into my planning as well. I didn’t realise how bad the sun was here especially coming from Australia where it’s brutal. I’m black as night here after a days scootering around. Shame you didn’t get to Kep or Kampot. The seafood there is orgasmic. I ate a kilo of crab in one sitting for lunch.

    I’m with you on the cooking classes. I’m obsessed with the fish amok so have scheduled in a cooking class.

  3. Sunburn. I did alright when I backpacked but then when I settled in Saigon I didn’t need to use suncream (pollution? some kind of city magic? I don’t know). After which I forgot to use it whenever I left the city. Got burnt every time.

    Like you I kept things flexible which led to some awesome highlights, but I also found 4 months was too much and also got complacent. Lesson learnt – shorter trips are the way forward!

  4. This was comforting to read… I went on a two week trip in a carry on, thinking I had packed light, but ultimately started writing a list of the things I didn’t need to pack before the second day! It is vital to reflect on trips and what you did right and wrong, and I appreciate your willingness to point out your own mistakes for others to learn from. Thanks for sharing!

  5. Very interesting post. I’ve never been to Southeast Asia but so many of these things I can relate to during my travels in other parts of the world.

    And as a pale traveler, I never go anywhere without my sunblock. I have even spent $15 USD on a ridiculously small bottle of the stuff on Hawaii just b/c I didn’t want to be without for the day. But too many horrendous sunburns will do that to you :)

  6. So many great lessons. I will definitely keep that money and passport photo tip in mind. As cliche as it is, it’s always inspiring to learn about yourself and grow.

    I also treat my DSLR like crap. It got to spend 2 months with Canon repair because no one else could figure out what was wrong. Eek.

  7. These are great tips! I am in the beginning stages of planning for my trip to SEA and your post has made me so excited! I’ve just purchased a smaller 40: bag which I will use (In the past I traveled with 80L!), so hopefully I willl avoid overpacking!

    Thanks also for being honest about your emotional state while traveling. For me it was actually when I was home that I felt at my darkest, after being away for three years it was a very hard adjustment to be back. It wasn’t until I left again recently and was suddenly happy again that I realized how bad it really was.

  8. Really liked reading this practical and utterly honest post. Great!!! I appreciate you putting yourself out there and being real about having to take anti-depressant meds; it’s nothing to be ashamed of—mental health is just as important as any other aspect of your health.

    I studied abroad in Costa Rica (i.e., near the equator), and I, too, experienced *multiple* extreme sunburns in the month I was there…oof, I learned my lesson too (ouch)

  9. Well I’m proud of you for resisting the urge to buy a Thai wife! haha. This is all great stuff for me to keep in mind for my SE Asia trip next year! The link to your rolling backpack didn’t work, though, and I’m curious what kind you had? Did you really use the wheels often?

    • Oh shoot, thanks for letting me know about that! It’s actually the Osprey bag, the same one Adventurous Kate has. I really love it! And I almost always use the wheels- I only wore it on my back once or twice in Asia!

  10. It’s so sad to read about the antidepressant point, though your honesty is incredibly appreciable and this might be useful to help Others!
    I have had big issues with panic Attacks in the past, but luckily Always managed to avoid antidepressant, and actually travelling has been the only cure to that!
    I should write a post about it actually..
    It’s nice to read that you coped with that at the end, and thanks for all the valuable advices!!!
    I keep reading your blog, it’s so interesting and inspiring! :)
    xx Pam

  11. I loved this – as someone who is not a lover of the idea of full moon party fun I am glad to know the best thing was diving instead as that would definitely be my choice :)
    Thanks for sharing this post it really made me smile and definitely gave me some dos and donts for my travels next year!
    x

  12. I agree that I love these types of posts. Since I have never been to SEA, I really am following other travel bloggers for when I plan a trip there. These help me decide what to see and what to spend more time on. Cheers!

  13. Man, I’ve spent about 7 months in SE Asia and still haven’t seen half the stuff you have. It’s deceptively large. Need to go back again. And Again. Hope you’ll get the chance to visit the Philippines someday, I think it’s my new favourite country.

  14. Every time I read posts about SE Asia I get this tugging feeling and just want to book a flight there for tomorrow! But definitely pinning this post for when I finally do make it over there. Seems like some great advice – thanks!

    Hope you make it to the north of Vietnam too!

  15. We spent less than a full day at Angkor and honestly, that was enough for us. Temple fatigue, and it was just too dang hot and dry (we’re Aucklanders and spoiled with crazy mild weather at home).

    Not party people so we stuck to the quiet Koh Lanta based on Kate’s writing :) and it was fab. We also took it slow in Vietnam (figured for the price of visas we should make the most of it!) and it was a good choice esp. as my partner was sick for most of the time so taking it slow was a good thing for us.

    We drank a lot of delicious fruit drinks and indulged in a lot of good food. I guess my one regret is we didn’ tmake it up to Chiang Mai.

  16. After being in SE Asia for two years and now traveling around Italy solo I’m well aware of how com placement and spoiled I’ve been with prices and accessibility to places and activities…next week I’ll be paying 35 euro for a massive for room :/ Crazy!

  17. Thank you so much for sharing Ashley. You have done enormously well and I love the fact that you have put yourself out there even though there would have been OMG moments and “whaaaaat” situations!
    I have backpacked in SEA.
    What did I do right? I had £’s which went a very long way in those days. I was very open to new situations and that was amazing. I listened to the advice of other travellers and the locals. I went “slightly” after the Monsoon. I went solo. I ate stuff that I didn’t recognise. I gate-crashed random parties. I strapped up my money and passport in my trousers next to my knickers. I drank moderately. I rode a motorbike with a driver in front and a helmet.

    What did I do wrong? I didn’t stay longer and go to Laos. I still had “an open book” of time but I had promised my boyfriend that I would be back six months later so….I waited for people that I had met who didn’t turn up and thus I missed what I wanted to see. I was too chicken to go to a ping-pong bar. I didn’t “experience” Khao San Road for myself. I missed out on Chaing Mai (I’m going there this year!). I took travellers cheques?! It wasn’t prepared for the heat and dust so I was unwell for quite some time in Thailand. I got sick in Vietnam too but I lived with it! As expected, I took too much.

  18. While I’m not a backpacker, I certainly learned a few of these lessons the hard way as well. The humidity in Shanghai coupled with the pollution gave me terrible acne and I couldn’t find anything to treat it there. I ended up buying something on Amazon and paying an arm and a leg for shipping. I also got complacent while I was living there and wish I’d taken advantage of more opportunities. Hopefully these lessons will benefit us in our next adventures!

  19. What are your recommendations for acne? My husband and I will be backpacking Asia for about 3 years or more next year. I have cystic acne with very dry skin, even in high humidity, and prefer to treat it as naturally as possible. With my current routine of ACV and hemp seed oil in the AM/PM, I still get broken out, but at least it doesn’t cause me pain any longer. I don’t wear makeup which is helpful but I still become self conscience. I can’t seem to figure out a routine that will be light in my pack and easy to find over there. We will be doing a lot camping as well staying in hostels. What are your thoughts? Any advice is appreciated!

    Thank You!!

    • No worries! So a few things have cleared my face up dramatically. The first is giving up dairy and peanuts. Both have androgens which lead to hormonal acne- I can’t tell you how much this has helped! Also I take doxycycline, an antibiotic. Thirdly I take very fastidious care of my skin- cleanse with gentle cleanser like Cetaphil in the morning, use Elta MD SFP 42 sunscreen, take makeup off right when I get home, and then use glycolic acid and Differin every other night. I also use oils or moisturizer if my skin’s feeling dry, and toner sometimes in the morning to balance my pH. No I have a cyst once a month or so, not four at a time constantly :)

  20. Thank you for this wonderful post! It’s very enlightening. If you don’t mind answering one question though, I’d like to know if we can enter Southeast Asia with antidepressants. I’m going to Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Hong Kong. I take about 4 different kinds of medication (for depression/anxiety). Would I have any problems entering these countries? Thank you! ?

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