10 things I wish I knew before traveling to asia
Updated: Apr 6
When I took my trip to Asia back in January, I had no idea what I was getting myself into! I had never been to that part of the world before and didn't really know what to expect. I ended up having a fantastic time in Hong Kong, Thailand and Singapore, I wish I had prepared a little bit differently for my trip. Here are some lessons that I learned that I hope will help you the next time you the next time you are traveling to Asia.
1. Take the extra time to plan what you’ll be bringing on your carry-on bag; in other words, don’t just throw everything in last minute!
If you’re anything like me, you probably throw everything into your carry-on bag last minute before catching a flight. After spending all that time planning outfits and packing your regular suitcase, planning out specific items to take with you in your carry-on can seem like an unnecessary extra step. However, if you are flying from the states, taking the extra time to carefully pack your carry-on. Believe me, it’s worth it! For example, my mom and I made sure to pack several snacks (sweet and salty!), travel beauty essentials such as moisturizer and face masks and several good books (especially if you are a fast reader). I even brought a change of clothes for myself to make sleeping on the plane more comfortable. I typically won’t even try to sleep on planes, but when you are boarding a long-haul flight, every minute of sleep is worth fighting for.
2. When packing, remember one thing: layers, layers, layers!
I made the mistake of not packing enough layers on my trip to Asia. Due to the fact that we visited Hong Kong, Thailand and Singapore, I should have done a better job at planning outfits for a wide range of climates. In Hong Kong, for example, the weather was incredibly rainy and overcast. In Thailand, however, it was hot and sunny. I think I would have been comfortable during my time in Asia if I had planned a few outfits that included multiple layers. An example of a functional outfit could include a short-sleeve shirt, a light jacket, a lightweight midi skirt and a pair of comfortable (but obviously fashionable) walking shoes!
3. If you visit the markets in a place like Hong Kong, start bartering at 50% of the seller’s asking price.
Oof. This one was a tough lesson to learn. When my mom and I visited the Ladies Market in Hong Kong, we made the big mistake of a) not starting our bartering at 50% of the asking price and b) showing the seller our money by accident. Typically, if you are going to a market where they are selling things like bags, jewelry and clothing items, start with a low price. Often times, sellers will try to mark-up their products if they think you are a naïve tourist. I was honestly too chicken to do my own bartering, so my mom did it on my behalf. She didn’t know that you were supposed to start off by offering half of what the seller wanted, so we ended up paying more than we should have for a bracelet that I wanted. Also, when she went to get out cash, she made the mistake of showing the seller how much money she had on her—which resulted in him trying to convince her to give him more money, because she had it. So, moral of the story is, learn from our mistakes if you want a good bargain in the markets!
4. If you will be in Asia for a while, bring an ample amount of medicine with you.
I can’t emphasize this one enough. It may seem like a no-brainer, but if you will be traveling for a long time, be sure to bring more medicine than you think you may need on your trip. In all of the cities we went to, it was incredibly humid, which caused me to have a migraine almost every other day. Fortunately, my mom and I take the same migraine medicine, so I was able to use some of her medicine when I ran out of my own. Looking back, I also wish I brought more cold medicine and Emergen-C packets, since we were traveling so often and both left Asia with slight colds. There’s nothing more inconvenient than having to try to purchase medication in a foreign country. One time I tried buying cold medicine in France with my dad’s broken French and let’s just say it’s a miracle we walked out of that pharmacy with any medicine at all.
5. If you are a foodie, plan ahead!
When people asked me what I was most excited about before my trip to Asia, I said the food. I love Chinese and Thai food, and I was hoping to have a lot of great meals on my trip with my mom. Unfortunately, we did not put a lot of thought into planning where we were going to eat and did not make any reservations, which left us with more than a few lackluster meals throughout our trip. We both regretted not thoroughly researching the best restaurants in each of the cities we went to. We often ended up settling for whatever was nearby, which was definitely not the way to go. The next time I am able to go to Asia, I will certainly plan ahead.
6. If you go to Hong Kong, you will be mainly eating Cantonese food—not your beloved Westernized Chinese take-out that you eat at home.
Photo Credit: Eater
Speaking of food, nothing braced me for Cantonese food. In my opinion, it’s a lot more…adventurous than your average Chinese take-out back home. For example, Cantonese cuisine often utilizes all parts of the animal—more than you are probably used to back in the states. Looking back, it was naïve to think I would find some bomb chicken fried rice or some solid egg rolls in Hong Kong. I laugh about it now, but plan on going out of your comfort zone if you want to try the local cuisine in Hong Kong.
7. On certain airlines (i.e. Hong Kong Express), you aren’t allowed to eat your own snacks on the plane.
On several of our flights, we were not allowed to eat outside food on our planes. If you wanted a snack on the plane, you most likely had to pay for it. Luckily our flights once we got to Asia were relatively short, but by the end of our stay, we learned to have a filling meal or snack before the plane in case we got hungry.
8. Avoid buying any sort of souvenir at the airport.
This one also kind of goes without saying, but some of the airport souvenir prices can be absolutely outlandish. As much as I wanted to buy a souvenir from Japan when I had a layover in the Narita airport, I refrained; I knew I would make it back there someday and could buy a souvenir that I really wanted. The best souvenirs you will find in Asia are probably ones from the market, where you can buy things in bulk for super cheap prices. Or, look for local artists to bring back something special for your home or apartment. Unless you buy a souvenir last-minute from the airport, I wouldn’t recommend it.
9. Apps like Citymapper and Grab will become your best friend.
Photo Credit: Citymapper via The Verge
In Southeast Asia, they do not have Uber...but they have Grab, which is pretty much the same thing. A friend of mine who lived in Singapore for a few months suggested I download Grab before I left. It definitely came in handy. I also already had Citymapper from living in London last spring, but it is personally my favorite app for navigating big cities. Citymapper can tell you the most efficient ways to get from one side of the city to the other, and will include routes ranging from subways to trains to even bikes. I personally think it’s way more accurate than Google Maps, too.
10. If you intend on visiting Thailand, do your research ahead of time when it comes to public transportation.
Speaking of public transportation, in Thailand, there are a lot of ways to get around. For example, you can either take the underground or over ground, depending on where you are going. Keep in mind, however, that the two systems are not connected, so you will have to buy a new pass if you plan on getting on the over ground from the underground. In addition to the rail systems, you can also use Thailand’s iconic Tuk Tuks or a moped, which appeared to be the most popular way for locals to get around. Keep in mind if you are adventurous enough to get on the back of a moped that you should a) only ask to get on one if the driver is wearing an orange vest and b) you are not allowed to touch them.