THE INTERNET has loads of information for travel planning whether it be short term or long term, and in any part of the world. Whatever destination you are looking for, someone has been there and has written a blog about it. This is very helpful when planning a 7 month trip to Asia, as we were able to leverage others’ experiences including what to do and what not to do. If a rule or suggestion sounded like it had merit, I took note. Anything to keep us healthier, safer or save our budget was something to try. However, once we jumped into the life in Southeast Asia to experience things for ourselves, we learned that some of these rules are meant to be broken and some of the truths are only myths.
1. Don’t eat the ice
I often pictured my worst fear in Southeast Asia: feeling that gurgle in my stomach, rushing to the bathroom of our hot hostel room, trying to lock a door that is basically nothing more than a saloon door — my new(ish) boyfriend just a few feet away on the other side — and finding the dreaded squatty potty! Is there a polite way to handle extreme diarrhea? Thankfully I haven’t had to test that one out. But for about a month, I avoided ice like the plague because everyone said, don’t have ice in your drinks. What they don’t tell you is that the locals don’t drink the tap water or eat ice made from tap water either. So ice is almost always from filtered water and is safe to have in your drinks. If you’re still worried, just make sure it looks like it came from a factory (those cylinder “cubes” with the hole in the middle are a good indication someone didn’t freeze tap water in a plastic tray in their fridge). I’m to the point now that I don’t even blink an eye when I get ice in my drinks anymore. Although I suppose I should remain a little bit diligent to make sure that my worst bathroom fear does not come true!
2. Be wary of anything fresh, and while you’re at it, stay away from pastries, dairy and ice cream
Similar to the ice, we heard don’t eat anything fresh that you didn’t peel or wash yourself. And we followed that rule for about a month too. However, the little problem with that is not eating fresh fruits and vegetables causes the opposite problem as my fear in #1! So we had to the take the chance. Again, hotels, restaurants and even the small roadside stalls generally wash all their vegetables in potable water. As for pastries, a doctor told us the risk is eating something that’s been kneaded or handled by dirty hands and with dairy and ice cream, unpasteurized is a problem (ok I’ll agree with that), but in general, you shouldn’t limit yourself to enjoying the many amazing cuisines in order to follow these rules. You never know when food poisoning could hit but to give yourself the best chance, use common sense: eat at the stalls with the longest lines, make sure the food hasn’t been sitting out for hours and when in doubt, it’s fine to pass on one stall and move on to the next to find freshly prepared dishes.
3. You don’t need the rabies vaccine
People said, “Nah, you don’t need the rabies vaccine. It’s so expensive!” And “Stray dogs? I never saw any stray dogs in Thailand.” (side note: that’s just cuckoo bananas; there are loads). It’s true though that the rabies vaccine is expensive, painful (3 injections!) and fewer than 1% of the animals in Southeast Asia carries rabies. But bottom line, rabies is deadly and even if the animal does not have the disease, you do not want to take your chances. And the news gets worse — it’s not just a bite; a lick from an animal can be deadly too. So rabies or not, a bite or lick equals a dreaded trip to an unfamiliar hospital. If you’re already in Bangkok or another big city, this may not be so inconvenient, but if you haven’t been vaccinated many clinics and hospitals in smaller cities don’t have the entire series of injections required, so you’ll have to fly to the nearest big city. (If you have been vaccinated, you’ll only need part of the series…the part that is in greater supply and can probably be found in smaller cities).
So, this is one of the suggestions we didn’t follow….and even before we departed we both got vaccinated. It doesn’t seem like we’ve gone overboard to protect ourselves against this disease with little probability of contracting. We’ve met people who have had experiences with emergency evacuations: a guy who suddenly was traveling alone after his buddy was bitten IN THE FACE by a dog and had to fly from Laos to Thailand to get emergency rabies injections. And a girl who was bitten by a monkey in Koh Phi Phi and only later realized she could have the disease. And even Brian, who had a monkey jump on his back and I, myself, who was nipped on the ankle by a puppy. Luckily in our cases, the animals didn’t break skin or we too would have been heading to the hospital. But already having the rabies vaccination is an insurance policy worth the pain of the injections and the pain to our wallets. If nothing else, it saves us from having to make an emergency trip to a big city and gives us a bit of peace of mind.
4. Many people will try to scam you
The “broken” taxi meter, the ridiculously cheap tuk-tuk that takes you to gem shops instead of your requested destination, the “Ohh, I have cousins living in [your state], come with me”…
Every country has its scammers and the Lonely Planet highlights these so you know what you may possibly encounter. And while a bit of skepticism can keep you safe on and on your toes to identify these scams, you should not let it rule your entire vacation (which of course, I did in the beginning). Before leaving my dad said, “Don’t let anyone change your plans.” That is very good advice and I kept it in mind each time a stranger suggested we do something we weren’t already planning on doing. And I think Brian and I made good choices based on gut feeling. When a guy standing on the corner of the road in Bali gave us a scratch-off ticket and said after we scratched it, “Brother, you’ve won an iPad! Come get in this car with me and I’ll take you to claim it,” we turned and walked away. (I must say Brian really wanted that iPad though)! However, when a friendly Indonesian guy who Brian had talked to for more than an hour on the plane ride to Yogyakarta said he had rented a car and suggested we tag along with him and his brother, I of course, was hesitant, but Brian had a good feeling so we took a chance, and ended up doing amazing things like off-roading around a volcano and made new friends too. Similarly, a group of “strangers” that we met while diving ended up becoming like family and were my guardian angels when I had my bad accident. Again, moral of the story is, use your gut and don’t assume everyone is trying to scam you. Turning down an offer could cost you an experience of a lifetime.
Let it be noted, though, that in general, Manila cab drivers are crooks.
5. It will be really difficult if you don’t know the language
Ok, it’s true that not EVERYONE knows English in this part of the world. But don’t let that stop you from diving into experiences headfirst. Imagine this scene: we walk into a restaurant knowing only that it’s a chicken restaurant, and the menu is in Indonesian. I want wings and Brian wants thighs. How do we ask the waitress? Brian points his own thighs and arms and immediately the waitress knows what we want (good thing we didn’t want breasts or that could have gotten awkward)!
So in general, we did not feel at a disadvantage if we couldn’t immediately communicate. If someone didn’t know English, we either attempted to find the word in their language (via google or our guidebook) or got creative. In fact, being in another country has helped me find alternative ways of communicating when someone doesn’t understand what I’m saying, and this is not only useful in another language but in English as well….knowing that our communications styles are completely different, it’s helped me communicate a lot better with Brian (added bonus)!