Exploring SE Asia
November 19, 2017 5:22 PM   Subscribe

Planning a getaway to SE Asia this Spring. Not experienced with international travel. How do I begin?

Including travel time (flying out of the PNW, USA), this should be a quick 7 day trip. I'm vegetarian, partner is not. We'd like to experience culture, rather than a resort-style experience, and we don't have a gazillion dollars to spend. Since travel will cut the trip down to about 4-5 days of actual vacationing, we would like a little variety in how we spend those days, but we are not looking to do All of The Things. Here's what interests us:

-Museums (history/art)
-Guided tours
-City life

In a way, we're so easy-going that this should be so easy to plan. OTOH, we literally don't know what to do: book a flight to some city, and a nearby hotel, and go from there?

I'm happy to wing it. My partner will have major anxiety if we don't have a rock solid itinerary with contingency plans; for example, how will we get from the airport to our hotel? "You can probably catch a taxi" is too loosey-goosey for my partner's peace of mind!

I've looked at some guided tour packages and considered going through a travel agent, but I think planning can be accomplished without all that.

I was leaning toward Thailand only because I've heard it's easy to find vegetarian Thai food. More than anything, we just want a new experience together. SE Asia is a huge region neither of us have explored.

Thank you for any pointers you may have! It's very appreciated!
posted by little_dog_laughing to Travel & Transportation (21 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
4-5 days? You know, spring is the start of the hot season. That and jet lag are going to be a big factor. I'd spend it in one place and that's why I'm suggesting Singapore. It's super organized with plenty of sights and museums and touristy things to do. Transport is a breeze, the MRT goes from the airport to downtown. Lots of food options. The beach part, I'm not sure about, having never tried--maybe at Sentosa (which is kind of like Disneyland)? Singapore is a good first experience for SE Asia.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 5:53 PM on November 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

It's going to be somewhat challenging to see much of non-resort style places in a short time frame because out of the way places tend to have very slow and pretty tiring transport mechanisms. There are some Thai beaches that you can fly to from. Bangkok and I believe that some are not too touristy. The south of Vietnam can be fun-you can fly to Phu Quoc Island though I was there a long time ago so not sure if it's dominated by resorts now. The Thai beaches are Not my area of expertise; I'm sure someone else can narrow it down. You may also want to be more specific/narrow things down a bit yourself. A remote Thai beach is a massively different experience to Sentosa. Somewhere like the Lonely Planet site is a good place to start, I usually find.
posted by jojobobo at 6:18 PM on November 19, 2017

Bali fits the bill perfectly. Hindu culture so lots of veg food, cheap accommodation, good beaches (stay away from Kuta) and most nice hotels have airport transfers which you can book when you book the hotel. I stayed in Ubud on my last visit, but check out places like Seminyak if you want beach front. Bali is a small and very beautiful island that you can tour via motorbike, bicycle or taxi - all hireable by the day.
posted by Thella at 6:20 PM on November 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

Singapore is a good experience, and an easy experience, but it's quite expensive to many of the other options in the area.

I'll say, from my experience (we've been to Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Cambodia a few times, with a small child in tow) that it's really not *that* hard to get around at all. We almost universally found people to be friendly and wanting to please. Thailand is probably a good choice - there is not much in the way of beaches in Bangkok itself, sure, but it certainly ticks all your other boxes. It's a great city, with some amazing shrines, museums, and incredible food. It's relatively inexpensive. There is good public transport (rail), and taxis are good as well. Again, we arrived in Thailand with a 7-year-old and not knowing much of anything and managed to quite easily bus/train/taxi our way across the country.
posted by Jimbob at 6:20 PM on November 19, 2017

Be aware that the humidity in many of these places is intense, and that Bali's beaches are black sand/stone except down Nusa Dua/Uluwatu way. And that area is pretty light on authentic Balinese culture. Bali is a very easy first SEAsian trip though, and I would second a vote for Ubud if you're not too fussed about the beach (there isn't one).
posted by jojobobo at 6:24 PM on November 19, 2017

Singapore would be easy, but honestly it's not a particularly fascinating place until you start delving into its history and the (totally compelling) questions around how its national identity has been developed. If you only have 4-5 days, I'd go somewhere more interesting. Bali is neat, but if you don't have the time/means to get off the beaten track, it may feel very much like any other tourist town worldwide, but Hindu. It's also a bit more of a logistical hassle since the transport infrastructure within towns is mostly informal taxis, and you have to bargain with the drivers for every single ride. It's a drag.

Go to Bangkok. It's a sparkling world-class city with excellent transportation infrastructure, but behind all the major streets are narrow, winding lanes where old men sit around with their birds in cages, shooting the shit. It's a city full of cats sunning themselves in quiet lanes that run alongside the canals, excellent street food (you won't have to worry about getting sick -- eat whatever looks good), and even the public water taxis are on Google Maps, which makes navigating by bus/MRT/boat super easy.

Or go to Hong Kong, another sparkling, world-class city surrounded by gorgeous wild natural areas, excellent hiking, and secluded fishing villages.
posted by tapir-whorf at 6:57 PM on November 19, 2017

I would use a place like TripAdvisor to start narrowing down your search.

Looking at your list, City life is pretty easy. Most destination airports will land you in a city. Singapore is much different than Manila, is different than Bangkok. You might want to start there.

Festivals happen when they happen, so if you truly are looking to experience one, plug your dates into a place like this to help you decide where to go.

Tours are usually easy to arrange once you are in country. again read TA to help avoid scams (not that prevalent but they still exist) and to get price points and read about others experiences

Museums aren't really a thing tbh. many tours will take you to cultural sights that might have a visitors center of sorts, but that kind of cultural landmark is a western thing in my experience.

i have never had a problem eating vegetarian in asia, pescetarian is even easier.

sounds fun. good luck and enjoy!
posted by OHenryPacey at 7:09 PM on November 19, 2017

I have to second Bangkok. It's a delightful city, and there's no way you can even begin to scratch the surface of all it has to offer in five days. I may be biased, since I'm half-Thai, but you're better off trying to pick one place and really explore it than going for a "Southeast Asia," grand tour, so to speak.
posted by Alensin at 7:13 PM on November 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

4-5 days really isn't much time. I'd recommend either Bali, as above, or consider Hong Kong. Hong Kong is dense, easy to reach and has culture, nature and beaches.
posted by frumiousb at 7:14 PM on November 19, 2017

I'd suggest Thailand because it's culturally rich/very different from US culture while also being very easy for tourists to navigate. It was actually the first foreign country I went to on my own and I had a great experience for that reason. Also, if you like festivals, Thai new year (Songkran) is in the spring and it's a huge (and very messy) festival. Though it sounds like it will be toned-down this year to mourn the late King.

Bangkok is a good destination if you like big cities. I like it a lot and there's so much to do, plus amazing food, but a lot of Westerners find it overwhelming. You could spend 1/2 days sightseeing in the city (temples, huge markets), take a day trip to Ayuthaya, a sleepy city with really cool old Khmer temple ruins, and then fly south for 2 nights on the beach. It'd be pretty rushed but you'd get a good mix of culture and beach. Koh Samui and Phuket would be the easiest islands to fly to. Both are very developed (think Cancun) but I've heard both have quieter beaches that are less resort-y. You could theoretically fly directly out of either back to the US, though you might have to transfer through BKK.

If BKK is too much, Chiang Mai is a "gentler" city with a lot to see and do and a lot of great day trips. No beach, but instead of that part, you could spend a night or two in a mountain town like Mae Hong Son or Pai.

Is there any way you could go for a bit longer? Jet lag going to SE Asia can be really, really rough, and you should expect that your first day will be basically a blur.
posted by lunasol at 7:49 PM on November 19, 2017 [2 favorites]

Seconding Chiang Mai as a kinder, slower city for a firsttime SE Asia visitor. There is excellent food, it's cheap and you won't feel like you're in a ginormous mall. And yeah, that jetlag will seriously hit you like a ton of bricks. As in, you won't start to feel normal until it's time to get back on the plane.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 7:54 PM on November 19, 2017

I don't want to say that southeast Asia is a bad idea at that time, but I wonder if you'd have a better time somewhere that is culturally different but a bit with a direct flight from Seattle, like Taipei - EVA Air (flight 25/26) do the route nonstop overnight and it's only 10.5 hours, unlike Bangkok or Chiang Mai, which (with plane changes) are another 4-6 hours of travel away.

Taiwan is English-accessible (mostly), veggie friendly, culturally rich, not super touristy, highly developed, and has some gorgeous hot springs and canyons and beaches. April is a nice time to visit and Taipei Taoyuan airport is connected to the city by metro, which may make your partner more comfortable.
posted by mdonley at 8:42 PM on November 19, 2017 [4 favorites]

My first point is to question the idea of a trip that short; you lose 2 days for travel and at least one for jet lag and culture shock, especially if you haven't done a ton of international traffic. Culture shock takes time to recover from, in that it usually takes me a few days to feel comfortable doing all the basic things, like crossing the street and buying fruit and so on. If you could stretch the trip out even to 10 days by planning with a long weekend or even taking a couple of unpaid days, that makes a lot more sense. You lose the same amount of money and time to the flight/jet lag/culture shock no matter how long the trip is, so a longer trip spreads that cost out more.

My second tack - especially if the time is fixed - would be to look at places that are easiest to get to -- I'd start by looking at the two that have direct flights from Seattle, Hong Kong and Singapore. These are also the two most Westernized places, which might be good for a less experienced traveller with an order-loving partner; there's still a ton of culture in HK (haven't been to Singapore). I'd also consider the other places that are direct flights from Seattle, Seoul, Taipei, Beijing, etc. This way, you aren't losing a second half day for flying each way. In any case, a trip that short is in all likelihood a one-city trip, unless there's an appealing day trip, like Macau from Hong Kong.

In terms of actual planning, aside from the many destination suggestions being made -- I start flipping through a few travel websites (Lonely Planet, Wikitravel) and/or get a guide book or two from the library. The first questions I want to have a sense of are: - What are the must-sees, and areas that have a lot of points of interest or culture? - What ways do you get around; is there good transit, is it small enough to be walkable? Then pick a hotel; if everything's in walking distance, then ideally, your hotel should be too. If things are spread out but transit is good, then near a transit station serviced by lines that go to key areas. When I went to Hong Kong, for example, most of the stuff I wanted to see was in Kowloon or Central, so I picked a hotel in Tsim Sha Tsui and took the Star Ferry as many times as I could because it's awesome. From there, start looking into things in more detail; is it a full day or only a short stop? Does it close at 2 PM or is it a night market? Is it close to other stuff you're interested in? At that point, if you want, you can start pencilling in a schedule, but be flexible.

Your contingency plans when travelling are money, good humour and resourcefulness, in what ever order you have the most of. Try to remember that it'll make a great story when you get back home, and it's all a little silly anyway.

And given your constraints, the more I think about it, the more Hong Kong seems like the obvious answer -- it's quick to get to, there's still a ton of culture and nature, and enough things work like they're "supposed to" from a Western perspective that your partner will stay calm.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 9:28 PM on November 19, 2017 [4 favorites]

With little international travel experience and a limited time, I can really only recommend either Singapore or Hong Kong. (Or you can go with mdonley's suggestion for Taipei but not exactly SE Asia). Having lived in Hong Kong, I can say that that will hit most of what you're wanting (plus there's a big enough expat population and English skills among Hong Kongers that you won't really feel *too* lost. At the same time, my sister-in-law still had a complete meltdown by day 2 that was only calmed by a very British pub that served super strong gin and tonics.). With Hong Kong, you can also easily hop a ferry to Macau to experience that too. Singapore and Hong Kong are really cities where it's Asia for beginners. There's enough new cultural things that you'll feel like you're out of your comfort zone, but at the same time, it's easy enough to get around/talk to other people that you never really feel the full brunt of culture shock.

The reason I say this is that Southeast Asia (and East Asia) is very very very overwhelming. The culture shock and jet lag is beyond insane to try to do in a week's worth of time. In cities, there is a shitload of people everywhere all the time. Don't expect to have any personal space on public transportation during peak transit hours. Your senses are going to be completely overwhelmed too. Lots of neon lights, sounds, smells. If you're not used to being in very very crowded situations (think controlled mosh pit levels), it's really easy to lose track of where you are and where your belongings are.

Don't get me wrong. Thailand and Bali are wonderful places to visit, but it'll be really hard without prior traveling experience or just letting a resort/fancy hotel handle your logistics. For one, language issues. Another is getting around. Sure you might be able to get a reputable taxi easily enough from the airport, but what then? Are you comfortable enough to bargain for a private driver? What will you do when you run into a taxi driver with a dodgy meter or one who refuses to turn the meter on? Do you feel safe enough to hop on the back of a motorbike taxi? (I'd say never actually rent one yourself to get around because traffic rules? What traffic rules?) How do you feel about handsy street vendors? Also, some tour "operators" can be pretty sketchy despite putting on a nice front (Two friends and I found ourselves riding with some random guy in his car to cross into Malaysia from Thailand when a local travel company promised an actual bus with lots of other people. Said travel company was also recommended by multiple people.). Or even the little things! How do you feel about butt hoses and squatty potties instead of toilet paper and sitting toilets?

To plan this trip, I'd focus on just getting a round trip ticket to wherever it is that you're going. Jet lag is going to be beyond atrocious. You'll probably get getting up around 5am each morning and then dying by the time it's 7 or 8pm for most of your trip. And you'd be missing out on a lot of cool experiences with night markets and whatnot.

So TLDR: Go with Hong Kong or Singapore. Do Bali or Thailand after some travel experience OR if you've got more time to spare.
posted by astapasta24 at 10:02 PM on November 19, 2017 [2 favorites]

I was just in Taiwan for three weeks last month. We did a coastal tour of the Island going down the west coast and up the east. It was incredible. My second favorite beach town was just south of Donghe on the East Coast. It felt like we were in a surfing town in the middle of a jungle. Great swimmable beach where you can rent anything you want from beach floats to kayaks. Wonderful Thai food. We stayed at a very comfy BNB that offered a vegan dinner that was the best vegan food I have ever eaten. I want to go back without the kids which will probably never happen.

Getting there might take some time. I think it's a days drive from Taipei or you could take the train, I think Taitung, and then a taxi or maybe the bus to Donghe. We had a car so I am not sure how to do it without a one.

A week is not a long time after that flight. I recommend EVA over Air Canada. I flew from PDX to Vancouver to Taipei. Traveling another 8-10 hours after a minimum 10.5 hours flight may not be worth it.

Taiwan is a beautiful country that is often overlooked by travelers to SE Asia which makes it cheaper. Our 8 day trip for 2 adults and two kids came to $825 for housing, food, gas and miscellaneous expenses. Not a bad price.
posted by cairnoflore at 1:03 AM on November 20, 2017 [1 favorite]

Nthing Hong Kong. It was where I went my first visit to SE Asia (outside of airport stopovers) and it's very easy for westerners while at the same time being a very interesting place to visit.

And I'm like your partner.
posted by kitten magic at 1:17 AM on November 20, 2017 [1 favorite]

I’m not a very experienced traveler and I went to Bali for my first trip. Even figured out how to book a domestic flight to a smaller Indonesian island once I was there. And I had very little money to play around with. In my experience Bali is a great choice for a first time traveler.

I’ve also been to Thailand and although it was lovely, I think you’d want more time.
posted by pintapicasso at 4:22 AM on November 20, 2017

I was leaning toward Thailand only because I've heard it's easy to find vegetarian Thai food.

A bit of a warning that while it's relatively easy to find Thai dishes that seem to be meat-free, traditional Thai cooking makes extensive not-immediately-apparent use of animal products. In particular, fish sauce (the all-purpose Thai seasoning), oyster sauce (found in a lot of stir-fries) and shrimp paste (found in nearly all curry pastes) are the most common culprits.

Higher-end restaurants are more likely to be able to substitute out these ingredients, but your average street vendor or "hole in the wall" type place is unlikely to be able to -- the sauces and pastes, especially for street vendors, are often pre-mixed or pre-made (I don't necessarily mean "pre-made" in terms of an industrial product, but like a homemade sauce/paste they make in bulk each day), and you may run into difficulties communicating truly vegetarian needs.
posted by andrewesque at 4:24 AM on November 20, 2017

Also: even closer and easier is Tokyo.
posted by mdonley at 6:30 AM on November 20, 2017 [1 favorite]

If you're in SG, hit me up.

-Festivals - uhhh, ethnic stuff? when in Spring are you coming again?
-Museums (history/art) - I think we have this, but not my thing
-Guided tours
-City life - Singapore is a city-state.
posted by appleses at 7:08 AM on November 20, 2017 [1 favorite]

I am pretty sure that neither Hong Kong nor Taiwan is in SE Asia! But they would admittedly be good choices if you are willing to look beyond SE Asia - the frequent direct flights from Cathay Airways (HKG), Eva Air and China Airlines (TPE) will save you time and the potential anxieties involved with international flight connections.

But back to the brief...

Singapore isn't called the gateway to SE Asia for nothing - it's a much more orderly and saner (and English-speaking) experience compared to Bangkok or Ho Chi Minh City, and you still get a whopping dose of very good food at every price point and for every dietary need, multicultural experiences, very good history museums and art galleries, cafes, et al. It's extremely compact, roads are properly signposted and the tourist infrastructure is well-planned, so you don't waste too much time travelling from place to place. Possible downsides? It's probably the most expensive city in all of SE Asia (though affordable options are aplenty); you won't get pristine beaches with clear waters; and I think the only non-stop flights are from SF and LA.

Happy to give specific recommendations and itineraries once you've picked a place!
posted by hellopanda at 7:22 AM on November 20, 2017 [1 favorite]

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