As a traveler in a foreign country, you serve as an underpaid, overworked ambassador for all future visitors who follow behind you. Be kind, focus on leaving a positive legacy, and better connect with the place you are visiting.
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.
Don't Give Large Denominations to Street Sellers
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 by purchasing something in one of the ubiquitous chain mini-marts found in Asia.
Don't Put Toilet Paper in the Toilet
Western travelers tend to have more of a 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, but in general, you shouldn't flush toilet paper (or any other material) in Southeast Asia.
The ancient sewage systems aren’t capable of breaking down toilet paper properly. And while you may think that a little won’t hurt or you're an exception to the rule, 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 more familiar, put paper in the small can or bin located nearby.
Some exceptions include Singapore, newer shopping malls, airports, and a few other places with modernized processing systems.
Don't Ask Drivers for Recommendations
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 probably of more benefit to themselves than you.
Hustling and upselling are part 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 a place owned by his family or friend. If nothing else, the farthest destination will be chosen so that the fare can be increased, coming and going.
Drivers sometimes get commission for bringing tourists to shops and hotels. That additional cost is often passed on to the customer.
Don't Use Your Left Hand for Interactions
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 when eating or interacting.
Some countries are more adamant about hand use than others. In places such as West Sumatra, you should keep your left hand out of sight while eating. Other countries are slightly more relaxed, but you still shouldn't use the left hand for touching communal spoons or receiving items at the table.
No matter if you use toilet paper or not, eating with your left hand is considered bad form in many cultures. Try to use your right hand when paying, receiving change, and giving/receiving items from locals.
Don't Walk Away Without Checking Laundry First
Laundry service in Southeast Asia is often very inexpensive, sometimes as little as $1 – 2. If you're traveling for longer than a week, you can safely pack less clothing and plan to get laundry washed at least once. You'll need clean stuff anyway to survive Southeast Asia's tropical climate.
But not all laundromats are equal. Electricity is often expensive, but sunshine is plentiful; drying laundry outside on a line just makes sense. Unfortunately, items often get swapped with other customers. Sometimes, they get lost altogether.
The sooner you discover an article of clothing is missing, the better your chances of recovering it. 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 by businesses on the street, there's a much better chance of fixing mix-ups. Odds are that another guest at the hotel has your favorite shirt.
Don't Negotiate Fixed Prices
Although haggling for a better price is crucial and expected for nearly 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 put someone in a bad mood.
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 10 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 from the same vendor.
Don’t negotiate for consumable items such as water, drinks, snacks, sweets, tobacco, and street food. Instead, save your haggling for souvenir purchases or even to get better deals on accommodation.
Note: Many souvenir sellers have begun posting signs that say "fixed price," hoping to discourage tourists, but even these prices are subject to some wiggle room.
Don't Assume Tap Water Is Safe
With only a few exceptions (Singapore is one), the tap water is rarely safe to drink in Southeast Asia.
No matter if locals are drinking the water or not, you shouldn't. Even rainwater in rooftop collection systems can become contaminated by drowned insects and birds.
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 or thrown into the sea.
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.
Reusable bottles that filter water can help, but the filters alone can't filter out all viruses. Unfortunately, a combination of chemical/ultra-vilolet llight and filtering is required to make water completely trustworthy.
Don't Use Taxis Without Meters
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. You won't have to wait long: a queue of drivers may have formed behind the one you're talking with!
Keep in mind, just because you score a ride with a working meter doesn’t always mean you’ll receive an honest fare. Meters in some places are actually hacked to run faster. Some drivers will take the long route to your destination. Be attentive and alert while riding; following along with your smartphone GPS could possibly "encourage" a more direct route.
Not supporting driver mafias isn't just about saving money. The more these dishonest drivers are encouraged by tourists, the less likely they are to stop for locals who just need a ride in their hometown.
Don't Cause People to Lose Face
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.
Understanding the concept of face with help you to have more patience and better understand why things sometimes seem so odd in unfamiliar cultures.
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.
Don't Make Disparaging Comments About a Place
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 you may be 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 is probably made with mystery meat.” Another slightly offensive comment often heard when interacting and negotiating with locals is: "Well, whatever, that's only one dollar/pound/euro. It's nothing."