Tips for Backpacking in Asia

Pro Tips From Backpackers in Asia

Backpacker in Asia
Paula Bronstein / Getty Images

Although the only real way to get experience is to hit the ground and start learning, there are a few tips for backpacking in Asia that haven’t changed. These veteran travel tips will save you some time, stress, and money in Asia as a budget traveler!

Know the Rules of the Road

Most countries in Asia follow an unspoken, unwritten road hierarchy upon which your very survival may depend -- at least whenever you are driving or crossing the street.

Unlike other parts of the world where pedestrians -- and sometimes cyclists -- are given default right-of-way concessions, the hierarchy in Asia is simple: the bigger the vehicle, the more priority. Don’t assume for a second that a slow, unwieldy truck will yield to you just because you’re on foot or driving a scooter

So many travelers have scooter accidents in Thailand that the scars have become known as “Thai tattoos.”

Leverage the Traveler Network

Without a doubt, smartphones and ubiquitous internet access have changed the way that travel works. But that doesn’t mean you should spend so much time with your nose stuck in a device that you miss out on really seeing a destination. Having a constant connection to home via social media may become a distraction from experiencing the place you spent good money to see.

Even worse, staring at a screen in silence is a terrible way to meet other travelers nearby! Of course, in-the-flesh meetups can be arranged online, but rather than asking social media for the best restaurant in your city, why not ask the person sat next to you?

The information you can receive from the traveler network is priceless -- and unlike potential suggestions from the internet, the recommendations you receive will be genuine and up to date.

You Don’t Need as Much Survival Gear as You Think

All those small, ultralight survival gadgets may seem like a great idea when running through potential what-if scenarios at home, but chances are you won’t need 75 percent of them to enjoy a safe trip. The same applies to a stuffed travel first aid kit; you probably won’t have to do field surgery anytime soon.

Unless you’re going to a remote jungle, you won’t need a fire-starter kit or multi-tool with 35 choices. The best way to survive any locale is to follow the lead of the people who live there, which means that they’ll probably already have everything you need.

Group Up With Other Travelers

Nothing is worse than seeing a taxi in a polluted, traffic-clogged Asian capital with only one traveler inside. And that taxi is often followed by another one with the same occupancy.

If you’re bound for a popular landmark or place that draws travelers, chances are that you can find someone willing to share a ride -- and the expense -- of getting there. Before you jump into the taxi queue in airports, try lurking around and asking where people are going. If they’re backpackers, they may be heading to the “traveler” areas such as Khao San Road in Bangkok or Pham Ngu Lao in Saigon.

Teaming up with other travelers can also save you money on tours and activities in Asia. Groups always have more leverage for negotiating a discount.

Know How to Hail a Ride

When standing on the road and trying to get a ride in Asia, don’t simply raise your hand in the air as if you’re waving; chances are, the driver will wave back as they speed past! The same applies for when holding a thumb out to hitchhike in Asia: you’ll probably get a smile and a thumbs-up, you’re-cool-too gesture in return as your ride continues down the road.

The right way to stop a bus, taxi, or any vehicle in Asia is to point at the street in front of you, making a sort of patting/scooping motion with your hand -- palm down.

Take Advantage of Discounted Medical Treatment

Don’t be too quick to disregard health and dental care in developing countries as substandard or painfully low tech. Many places in Asia, Thailand in particular, have evolved into medical-tourism destinations where quality procedures can be done for a fraction of the cost at home.

Don’t think you’ve got to wait until you get home to get that lost filling replaced. Many dentists in Asia are Western-trained and perform quality work. The same applies to eye care if you need new glasses, as well as dermatology and cosmetic procedures.

Hopefully, you won't need any medical treatment on your trip anyway. Here are a few ways to stay safe while traveling in Asia.

Have a Flexible Itinerary

The best-planned travel itineraries come to Asia to die, particularly rigid ones. From unforeseen circumstances to changes of heart, there’s a good chance that you’ll want to make tweaks to your travel plans soon after you arrive.

An aggressive travel itinerary is a sure recipe for stress. Build plenty of buffer time into your Asia plan, and remember that it’s better to see a few places well than to skim the surface of many places while always on the move. You don't have to hit every single suggestion in a guidebook to have a good trip.

Give a Destination Time

The first day of arrival in an unfamiliar place is almost always to most challenging. You’ll be tired from energy spent to travel and sort out a new setup. Culture shock can sneak up days later.

Before you make your mind up about a particular place, slow down, dig a little deeper, and see if it doesn’t grow on you more than expected. There will always be aspects to dislike about a place, but often they can be put aside to find the magic.

Tip: Adhering word for word to the opinions of guidebook authors is a sure way to install mental filters about a place before you really get to discover it on your own.

Learn a Few Words of the Language

Learning a bit of the language in a place is the surest way to connect to it. And although you probably won’t have the time to become proficient, knowing how to say hello, thank you, and do daily transactions will already make a positive impact on your visit.

Speaking a foreign language and being understood gives a great, rewarding feeling. Locals will often be patient with you and will appreciate the interest in their culture -- don't worry too much about poor pronunciation or embarrassing yourself.

Rather than study phrasebooks, simply ask locals about a few words each day to slowly expand your vocabulary.

Always Have in Mind the Concept of Face

The ideas of saving face, and fear of losing face, permeate daily life in Asia. There may be a reason that person just lied to you outright or refused to admit that they made a mistake. Age, honorifics, and status in society are important elements in Asian languages and culture.

The concept is simple: always maintain your cool and try not to put anyone into embarrassing situations.

Tip: Sometimes people will even give you wrong directions to a place simply because they don’t want to say that they don’t know the way!

Play the Currency Game

No, not gambling. At all times, you should be trying to accumulate smaller denominations of the local currency. Breaking large notes, even when new and crisp from the ATM, can be difficult in many places. Locals, particularly taxi drivers, will often say they don’t have change even when they do.

When paying, round up and make local establishments give you smaller change. If the currency is torn, faded, or damaged, don’t accept it unless you’re sure you’ll be able to spend it later. In some destinations, vendors may balk at accepting damaged currency -- you’ll have to take it home as a souvenir.

Tip: Hotels, busy bars, chain restaurants, and minimarts such as 7-Elevens may be the only way to break large denominations in some places. Giving a large denomination to a street vendor is simply bad form.

Making Your Own Way Isn’t Always the Cheapest

Intrepid travelers were once able to cut out the middlemen (usually travel agencies and hotel receptions) to save paying commissions for tours and transportation. They would piece together each leg of a journey themselves. But sometimes transportation packages are priced competitively because they group many travelers together to move in bulk.

For instance, if you wanted to make your own way from a city to an island, you’d have to pay a local taxi or tuk-tuk to go buy your ticket at the bus or train station (perhaps each way), then also get local transportation from the station to the ferry pier, then purchase a ferry ticket. All the legs of a journey may add up to more than you would have paid for group transportation to the same island.

Another bonus of paying the small commission to an agent is that you increase the chances of reaching your destination. If you make your own way and the bus or train is delayed, or you miss the last ferry, you’ll have to cover a guesthouse for the night and try the boat again in the morning.