South-east Asia travel tips: The 15 things Australians are doing wrong in south-east Asia

Given the vast cultural differences between Australia and our Asian neighbours, it's no wonder we get certain things wrong when we pay them a visit. From insisting on chopsticks to riding in tuk-tuks, here are our most common mistakes.

Visiting the Tiger Temple

It might have made for a great photo op for your Tinder profile, but the Buddhist "tiger temple" in Thailand was shoddy at best, and guilty of severe animal cruelty at worst. The temple is currently closed, thankfully, after evidence was found of monks participating in the illegal trafficking of tigers and tiger parts. It should act as a lesson: not everything in South East Asia is as it seems.

A most popular profile picture on Tinder, for reasons unknown.

A most popular profile picture on Tinder, for reasons unknown. Photo: Alamy

See also: 20 things that will shock first time visitors to Thailand

Asking for chopsticks

Many's the Westerner who has sat down to their first Thai meal and been confused by the presence of a fork and a spoon. Is this because I'm a "farang", you think, and immediately ask for chopsticks. Thing is though, the Thais don't use chopsticks, unless they're eating noodle soup. The authentic way to eat – the way everybody else eats – is with a fork and spoon.

Tourists trying too hard to fit in with the locals at a restaurant.

Tourists trying too hard to fit in with the locals at a restaurant. Photo: iStock

Avoiding street food

Maybe you've heard horror stories from travellers who've had a bad experience, or been warned by someone who's never even been there. But plenty of travellers still seem to be street-food averse in South East Asia, even though that's where the best stuff is sold. Whether you're in Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore or Indonesia, just look for longest queue and join it.

Food vendor at the Damnoen Saduak Floating Market preparing Thai style noodles.

Food vendor at the Damnoen Saduak Floating Market preparing Thai style noodles. Photo: iStock

Getting drunk

Relax – South-East Asians like a drink. Particularly in countries like Thailand and Vietnam, you'll see plenty of people getting boozy, so it's not as if it's culturally insensitive to have a few beers. The trick, however, is not to go overboard, because pretty much anyone you'll ever talk to who has been robbed or scammed in South East Asia has had it happen while they were extremely drunk.

Not putting ice in your beer

It's a cultural quirk that you're just going to have to get used to: in countries like Thailand, Laos and Cambodia, not everyone has a fridge to keep beer cold. They do, however, have access to ice cubes, which get dropped in your beer to keep it nicely chilled. Weird to begin with, but it's the done thing – and it actually tastes pretty good.

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Ice in beer: A cultural quirk.

Ice in beer: A cultural quirk. Photo: iStock

Assuming it's safe

When you grow up in the West, you have a mindset that if people are doing something, it must be safe. Everything is regulated here; you wouldn't get away with a dodgy operation. But the same can't be said for South East Asia. If it looks dangerous to be riding in a rickety old ferry, or on a motorbike taxi with no helmet, or in a clapped out old tuk-tuk, then it probably is.

See also: Why Thai food tastes better in Thailand

Riding elephants

This relates to that first entry on the treatment of animals. Just because you're allowed to do something in South East Asia, doesn't make it a good idea. Captive elephants have to be "broken" to accept human control, and are often mistreated or abused. Intrepid Travel has stopped including elephant rides in its itineraries – you should too.

Not haggling

It might feel a little bit icky to have to haggle for things, to go toe-to-toe with some market vendor over a few baht or ringgits or dong, but that's the way things work in South-East Asia. If you're not haggling, you're paying too much. You just have to learn to enjoy it.

Haggling too hard

There's a limit, however, to how intense you have to be about this. If you find yourself going hammer and tongs over the equivalent of about 20 cents, then you've probably lost sight of what you're doing there.

See also: The best way to see Thailand's mesmerising hongs

Avoiding taxis

Here's a tip for first-time players in Bangkok: tuk-tuks, despite appearances, are usually more expensive than taxis. That's right, it will actually cost you less to take a nice, air-conditioned car than to ride in a battered old rickshaw. Reason being that taxis use meters (ahem – most of the time), whereas tuk-tuk prices are all down to haggling, and those drivers are absolute masters.

See also: Six of the best Thai islands you've never heard of

Assuming smiles mean everything is OK

In many Asian cultures, a smile might mean that you're happy, but it might also mean you're nervous, or embarrassed, or even upset. In other words, smiles are used to cover up all sorts of emotions, which gives Thailand being the "land of smiles" a whole new dimension. Don't assume that just because someone is smiling at you, everything is OK.

See also: Why tourists are the world's biggest whingers

Visiting orphanages

There are no doubt plenty of organisations doing some great work in South East Asia, but there are also those – particularly in Cambodia – that have turned underprivileged children into a tourism attraction. UNICEF estimates up to three in every four children in Cambodian orphanages have at least one living parent, but are being kept in these organisations because they can make money from well-meaning tourists. Don't play a part in that system.

Dissing the Thai king

You know that man you've seen in framed photographs in every Thai restaurant, and in every Thai home? That's King Bhumibol Adulyadej, and he is absolutely revered by young and old in his home country. Don't make jokes about him, and don't criticise him. It won't go down well.

Hiring a scooter

Hiring a scooter in South East Asia is fine if you actually know how to ride a scooter and have some experience; oh, and have a decent helmet. If you don't have any of those things then you're dicing with death.

Hiring a scooter is dicing with death.

Hiring a scooter is dicing with death. Photo: Alamy

See also: Why scooters are the best and worst form of transport

Not doing karaoke

Come on, you're in South East Asia! Karaoke is almost an obsession in these parts. It would be rude not to give it a go.

What do you think Western tourists are doing wrong in South East Asia?

Email: b.groundwater@fairfaxmedia.com.au

Instagram: instagram.com/bengroundwater

See also: Treat yourself to a night of royalty in Bangkok

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