10 Don'ts in Southeast Asia

Avoid Doing These 10 Things to Be a Better Traveler

As a traveler to foreign countries, you serve as an underpaid, overworked ambassador for all future visitors who follow behind you. Your actions have the ability to make life harder or easier for others. Be kind: focus on leaving a positive legacy rather than a slime trail.

A good traveler doesn’t cause local residents to unnecessarily resent future visitors! You can avoid scams and minor annoyances simply by traveling smarter while in Southeast Asia.

  • 01 of 10

    Don't Give Large Denominations to Street Sellers

    Paying a street food vendor in Taiwan
    Tom Cockrem / Getty Images

    Outside of big businesses such as busy restaurants or hotels, small change is often a precious — even guarded — resource.

    Many vendors and hawkers will balk, or even completely refuse, to accept those large-denomination banknotes you just got from the ATM. Sure, they want your business, but being drained of small change to give other customers could affect them for a long time after you walk away.

    Trying to pay for street food, fruit, or trinkets with a large bill — sometimes the equivalent of several days worth of earnings for a vendor — is bad form.

    Learn to horde your small denominations, and wait to break big banknotes when paying for accommodation, meals in nice restaurants, or drinks in a busy bar. In a pinch, you can often get change in one of the ubiquitous chain minimarts found in Asia.

  • 02 of 10

    Don't Put Toilet Paper in the Toilet

    squat toilet in Asia
    Greg Rodgers

    Western travelers tend to have a serious problem with this one. Although putting toilet paper anywhere other than in the bowl may seem unsanitary, doing so is necessary in most places. Singapore is an exception.

    Ancient sewage systems aren’t capable of breaking down toilet paper properly. And while you may think that a little won’t hurt or that you're an exception, the accumulated paper always ends up needing to be cleared by the establishment later — at great trouble and expense. Many businesses have stopped offering toilet access to customers because travelers continue to throw paper and other products into the bowl.

    No matter if the toilet itself is a nightmarish squat toilet or a sit-down style, if a small bin or can is located near the toilet, put paper there.

    Some exceptions include Singapore, new shopping malls, airports, and a few other places with modernized septic systems.

  • 03 of 10

    Don't Ask Drivers for Recommendations

    Tuk-tuk in Thailand
    Greg Rodgers

    You can pretty much safely assume that your drivers in Southeast Asia will always have ulterior motives — particularly tuk-tuk drivers. Any suggestions offered are usually meant to benefit themselves more often than you.

    Hustling and upselling are the name of the game — and often essential to survival in countries where driver mafias and police need to be "tipped" from time to time.

    Using a driver for recommendations or as a personal concierge/travel guide to find bars, restaurants, or shops will inevitably result in being taken to an inferior place owned by his family or friend. If nothing else, the farthest destination will be chosen so that the fare can be increased.

    Drivers sometimes get commission for bringing tourists into shops and hotels. That additional cost is often passed on to the customer.

  • 04 of 10

    Don't Use Your Left Hand Too Much

    Monks eating in Thailand
    Religious Images/UIG/Getty Images

    Sorry, lefties, the left hand is often considered the "dirty" hand in Southeast Asia. In many countries, it's used for toilet functions or performing unhygienic tasks. For this reason, locals generally limit use of the left hand for eating or interacting.

    No matter if you use toilet paper or not, eating with your left hand is considered bad form. Try to use your right hand when paying and accepting items or change from locals.

    Continue to 5 of 10 below.
  • 05 of 10

    Don't Walk Away Without Checking Laundry First

    Laundry in Cambodia
    Tom Cockrem / Getty Images

    Laundry service in Southeast Asia is often very inexpensive, sometimes as little as $1 or less for two pounds. If you're traveling for longer than a week, you can safely pack less clothing and plan to get laundry washed at least once.

    But not all laundromats are equal. Electricity is often scarce, while sunshine is plentiful; line drying laundry outside just makes sense. Unfortunately, items often get swapped with other customers, or lost altogether.

    The sooner you discover an article of clothing is missing, the better your chances of getting it back. If you notice days later, the traveler who got it may have already moved on to another place. Take a count of items before leaving the laundromat.

    Tip: Although laundry service offered by your accommodation may cost a little more than getting it done on the street, there's a much better chance of fixing mix-ups. Odds are that another guest has your favorite shirt.

  • 06 of 10

    Don't Negotiate Fixed Prices

    Malaysian Ringgit
    jayk7 / Getty Images

    Although negotiation is crucial for almost all purchases in Southeast Asia, especially in the markets, a few items are exempt. Trying to negotiate for these items is taboo and will definitely trigger a bad mood from someone.

    Unfortunately, sometimes you'll need a little time in a place to get a good feel for what things can and can't be haggled. If 20 identical carts are selling mangosteen fruit for the same price per kilogram, chances are that's the going rate in the area. You can, however, still ask for a discount if buying bulk or multiple items.

    Don’t ever negotiate for consumable items such as drinks, snacks, sweets, tobacco, and street food. Instead, save your haggling for souvenir purchases or even to get better deals on accommodation.

  • 07 of 10

    Don't Assume Tap Water Is Safe

    Glass of Water
    Michael Hamann / Creative Commons

    With only a few exceptions (Singapore is one), the tap water is rarely safe to drink in Southeast Asia.

    To lessen the chances of getting a bad stomach, fruit should be peeled rather than washed with tap water.

    Bottle water can be purchased nearly everywhere. Unfortunately, the empty bottles have piled into mountains of plastic waste in some places, or worse, they get burned.

    To cut down on the rampant problem of plastic bottles in Southeast Asia, purchase the largest bottles possible and use water-refill machines when you see them. Ask your accommodation about water refills.

  • 08 of 10

    Don't Use Taxis Without Meters

    Taxis in Bangkok
    Lonely Planet / Getty Images

    Getting into a taxi or tuk-tuk without establishing a price is a common-and-expensive newbie mistake. Always insist that taxi drivers turn on the meter before you get inside. If there is no meter, or the one there looks like it hasn't worked since 1978, negotiate the fare or find a better ride.

    If a driver refuses to use a meter that appears to be working, wait for an honest driver to come along.

    Tip: Just because you score a ride with a working meter doesn’t always mean that you’ll receive an honest fare. Meters are modified to run faster, and drivers will often take the long route to your destination. Be attentive and alert while riding; following along with your smartphone GPS can "encourage" a more direct route.

    Continue to 9 of 10 below.
  • 09 of 10

    Don't Cause People to Lose Face

    Protest in Thailand
    Paula Bronstein / Stringer / Getty Images

    The concept of face is widespread in Asian culture. Losing your cool, shouting in public, or embarrassing someone in front of others can cause them to "lose face" — a very bad thing, indeed.

    Understand the concept of face (it will also help you to connect better with a place) and then don't blow your top when the bus breaks down or your train pulls in three hours late.

    Learn to stay calm, smile, and avoid angry outbursts when you feel wronged. In Southeast Asia, maintaining a calm demeanor instead of throwing a tantrum is the difference between being a hero or zero.

  • 10 of 10

    Don't Make Offhand Comments About a Place

    Bali High Season People Under Tree
    Jim Holmes / Getty Images

    Travelers in Southeast Asia often commit the mistake of making offhand comments about the country in which they are traveling.

    Although little remarks may seem harmless or a fun way to bond with other travelers over local challenges and annoyances, remember that you are talking about someone’s home in a derogatory way.

    Traveling in Southeast Asia can be frustrating when things don't go as expected, but avoid spreading negativity about a place.

    Avoid disparaging comments such as “of course the train is late, this is Thailand” or “this burger is probably made from mystery meat.” Another slightly offensive comment often heard when interacting with locals: "Well, whatever, that's only one dollar/pound/euro. It's nothing."