A pair of nice flip flops (thongs or slippers if you prefer) is a must. And not for the reason you think. Unless you are just a beach bum, you will end up going on a trek in the jungle, perhaps even a mountainous region of jungle. There you will encounter super slick clay….the soles on your fancy hiking boots won’t provide good traction and you will slip around. If you are unlucky or don’t have the best balance, you will fall a few times…if you are really unlucky, you may fall down a ravine and land on some rocks (thankfully I didn’t break anything) Meanwhile, the guide will likely be wearing flip flops and not slip one time. Eventually, I switched to flip flops for trekking and the difference was amazing.
I said nice flip flops because you put a lot of strain on them walking down steep surfaces and you don’t want them to break in mid-trek. I had a pair of OluKai flip flops and I abused the hell out of them for over a year before they finally gave out. Granted, that happened to be on the final ascent of Mt. Kinabalu which was rather inconvenient, but that doesn’t diminish how well they performed for so long. A pair of $2 flip flops from some vendor on the side of the road would have lasted less than one trek. If you insist on using hiking boots, then consider picking up a set of ice cleats. They don’t take up a lot of space and should help with traction issues on slick clay.
There are a lot of repetitive sights in SE Asia. For example every country in SE Asia has a highland region. In this region, they will grow either coffee or tea as well as “European vegetables” and strawberries. They are all very similar, so do some research and see if there is anything unique in a couple of them that you would want to see. After my third trip into a highlands area, the experience became rather blah. This advice goes for beaches, temples, and national parks as well.
It’s hard to know what your threshold for such places is if you haven’t done extended traveling before, but if you have a loose list of must see places, you can work it out so you arrive at a must see beach or jungle without thoughts bouncing around in your head of how nice it would be to see snowy mountains or a desert. Trust me it happens and then you have to seriously consider a change in geographic location…say Nepal, Northwest India or Central Asia.
There are lots of amazing travel clothes with all kinds of fancy fabrics and ventilation and the like….don’t buy any of it. Most men lose weight on extended trips (lots of women I met said they gained some weight during their extended trip so this advice is for men). So, if you have a bit of weight you could stand to lose, well soon enough all your expensive, fancy travel clothes won’t fit and you will have wasted your money. Getting new clothes in SE Asia is rather easy and cheap. At the worst you may have to get some cheesy t-shirt in a tourist ghetto or custom made pants, but it will still be very cheap. Think of it this way, if you were going to spend $300 dollars on travel clothes, you just wasted, at the least, a weeks worth of travel.
The best way to avoid malaria is to not get bitten by mosquitoes. So consider permethrin for your clothes as well as wearing long pants and a long sleeved shirt at night (bring along an extra bottle to treat your new clothes or to retreat old clothes). Also you might consider bringing some DEET based repellent because it’s not available in all areas. Malaria medication for an extended trip is expensive, takes up a lot of room, can have side effects that negatively effect your trip (sun sensitivity for example) and is not 100% effective. Additionally, the area where malaria is still present in SE Asia is pretty small. I met plenty of travelers who weren’t talking anti-malaria medicine…we all agreed the negatives of having/taking them outweighed the positives.
In line with that, bring the lightest sleeping bag liner you can find and make sure it’s sprayed with permithrin (some come pre-treated, but you may want to do it yourself). Once, I was on an overnight train and there were mosquitoes everywhere. My permithrin sprayed liner kept me from getting eaten up. On another occasion, the only room I could find after arriving in Jakarta at 3am was crawling with bed bugs. I was able to get in the liner, close up the top completely and sleep worry free. Seriously, it’s a life saver. On the other hand a mosquito net is a completely and utterly worthless thing to bring with you. I swear it must be like a secret way that travel writers make money. First, get a job at Lonely Planet. Second, buy stock in companies that make mosquito nets. Third, put it on the must have list in the guide. Fourth, profit. In theory, they are sensible to bring. In reality they are difficult to hang, especially in rooms with concrete walls, and those rooms where a net is easy to set up, well, they usually already have one.
I am sure I am forgetting some other important tips so I will add to this as I think of more….as for things to see/do
Favorite country: Myanmar there was a sense of adventure to the place. When I went, there were very few visitors even in a must-see tourist site like Bagan. You really felt like you were discovering something. But that said, after Hillary Clinton’s visit to the country, I have heard multiple stories that the damn has broken and visitors are pouring into the country. Even if that is the case, I will certainly go back. It’s the second largest country in SE Asia and there are plenty of areas that will take time to get onto the tourist radar. Next time I think I will combine some trekking in the easternmost part of the Himalayas with some diving around the northernmost Similan Islands.
Favorite nature activities (in no particular order): Paradise Cave, Vietnam; Mt Kinabalu, Malaysia; Sipidan & Mabul, Malaysia, Lembeh Strait, Indonesia; Raja Ampat, Indonesia; Mt. Ijen, Indonesia; Gibbon Experience, Lao PDR
Favorite historic sites (this time in order): Bagan, Myanmar; Siem Reap, Cambodia; Mrauk U, Myanmar; Si Sukhothai/Si Satchanalai, Thailand