How to Plan (or rather not plan) Your Trip to South East Asia

I am a planner. I don’t like to be caught off guard. I like the expected. And I like when things go my way.

In Asia (and specifically South East Asia), planning almost never goes my way. I’ve had Uber drivers drive the same exact circle three times because they couldn’t found the right street and I’ve had them drop me off in the middle of nowhere because they were so lost. I often order what I think is chicken to get served fish (I don’t eat fish). In Malaysia, I have been on buses that have dropped me off in a completely different location then where I thought I was going. I have on many occasions checked the weather and saw no rain in the forecast only to have it downpour on me while walking without an umbrella. In Vietnam, I waited in the terminal for my flight to board only to find out that my flight had been completely cancelled and I had been automatically bumped to the next one without being informed. In China, I showed up 20 minutes early for a bus that ended up being completely full and had to an hour and a half for the next one. In Cambodia, I asked the women booking my bus ticket three times if the bus stopped in Kep (adding two hours to my trip) after assuring me it didn’t, I somehow ended up in Kep. In Singapore, I was dropped of in a really random part of the city, without any money. I tried to pull out money from the closest ATM but it wouldn’t take my Malaysian card. Turned out that none of the ATMs would take my card, and my American card didn’t have any money on it. I walked about a mile to the closest mall, converted all of the money I had on me (about $200 Sing) and hoped that it was enough cash for the weekend.

On the teaching side of things, I’ve had parents schedule meetings and never show up and never call. I’ve has students not show up for class three weeks in a row but never communicate to us what is going on even after we’ve called several times. And no, there was not an emergency.

There is only so much you can plan for in South East Asia. Unfortunately this doesn’t bode well for my planner personality. But travel is supposed to challenge and change you right? Well, it definitely is in this regard.

My friends and I joked around about it for the first few months I lived in Malaysia. Every time something went wrong we’d just say “It’s Malaysia” because really that explained away whatever was different from what we expected. But in reality, it’s not just Malaysia, most of South East Asia (and China)  is the same.

In Malay, the word “Boleh” technically translates to “can” but it’s most often used for when a situation isn’t working out the way you want to but you’re planning on going along with it anyways. “Boleh!” Yea, I can deal with this, it’s fine! While travelling it’s a saying that often comes to mind when dealing with an unexpected and stressful situation. “Boleh.”

Most of the time now, I plan on not planning. Why book a hostel weeks in advance when there’s always empty rooms?  Why book a flight months before, when flights prices hardly change in SEA and you can book a few days before you leave? Why book a tour when there’s always a ton of tour operators in every city begging for your business and willing to negotiate?

Now I’m not saying don’t do any research. It’s always important to at least learn a little bit about where you’re going. And I do tend to read a lot of blog posts before I go somewhere and bookmark a few things on TripAdvisor but I don’t spend as much time as I used to planning out every part of my trip. I actually plan on having a few unplanned days for me to be a little more spontaneous or just chill in a local spot for a few hours. Also, I often know that even if I don’t plan something well enough, things will typically work out. In most countries, you can usually book a bus ticket the day off. You can find a tour the day before it starts. You can book and start a cooking class on the spot. You can book almost anything through your hostel or hotel when you get there. Heck, I called the dentist today and they immediately asked “Do you want to come in today?” In the U.S. I would have to book a dental appointment a month in advance!

My biggest tip for planning your trip to South East Asia: Plan on something going very differently than you planned.

Sometimes, when things don’t go as I’ve planned, I just have to laugh, say “Boleh” and be thankful for being in this beautiful country.


What has been the most unexpected thing to happen on one of your trips?  I would love to hear about it in the comments below!!!

 

Read Next: How I Live Abroad with $100,000 in Student Loans

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Megan is from sunny California and is currently living in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. She funds her travels by teaching students with learning challenges and students applying to U.S. universities. She loves traveling like a local, eating amazing food and is always up for an adventure. Check out her about me section to learn more!

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