Each country has its own language in Southeast Asia:
- Thai in Thailand
- Cambodian in Cambodia
- Lao in Laos
- Vietnamese in Vietnam
- Burmese in Myanmar
English is the most widely used language in the whole region for tourism, followed by French in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.
Your AWR local guides speak excellent English. Many private drivers know a little English, but their vocabulary can be pretty limited. Most hotel and airline staff will know enough English to communicate with our travelers. Interestingly, many youths in the wider region do learn English in school, so there are a lot of younger people who have a very limited, basic understanding of English. Most guidebooks have an index of common phrases and words in the local language. Bringing one or two guidebooks along and trying your hand at a few key phrases in the native tongue will surely bring a smile to locals.
Money in General: In addition to some US cash and a credit card, be sure to bring an ATM card. ATMs (automatic teller machines) have become increasingly popular in the region (especially in cities). Most ATM’s dispense local currency, though some, especially in Cambodia, do give out US$. Unique mostly to Cambodia and touristy parts of Thailand, US Dollars are widely accepted and even preferred in larger stores and supermarkets. Make sure you also have small Dollar and Riel/Thai Baht notes, since these are more practical and economical for day-to-day items.
Using local cash is the most common method of payment in the region. But remember to bring at least one Visa or Mastercard credit card with you, as these 2 cards are the most commonly accepted. Remember that most small shops, local restaurants and markets usually do not accept any other payment than cash – especially in rural areas. Credit cards are increasingly being used, mostly in big cities, international shopping centers, tourist curio shops and hotels; be prepared for a transaction fee (often about 3%-5%).
Check your AWR itinerary closely, but generally most dinners and many lunches are not included in your tour fees. If dining in, allocate around US$8-20/person for any lunches and dinners not included in your tour rates. You will also want a little carry-around cash to sample less expensive street foods, snacks, water and other items of interest at local markets.
- Thailand: The currency is the Thai Baht (TBH). Most hotels and many restaurants accept major credit cards. ATMs are widely available in large cities like Bangkok. US$1 is equivalent to about 30 TBH.
- Cambodia: The currency is the Cambodian Riel. The US dollar is also widely accepted. US$1 is equivalent to about 4000 Riel. In major cities you’ll find ATMs and currency exchanges.
- Vietnam: The currency is the Vietnamese Dong (VND). US$1 is equivalent to about 21,000 Dong. In major cities you’ll find ATMs and currency exchanges.
- Laos: The currency is the Lao Kip (LAK). US dollars and Thai Baht are also widely accepted. US$1 is equivalent to about 8,000 Kip. In major cities you’ll find ATMs and currency exchanges.
- Myanmar: The currency is the Kyat (MMK). US$1 is equivalent to about 6.5 Kyat. In major cities you’ll find ATMs and currency exchanges, however we highly recommend bringing new and crisp US dollars.
Gratuities for good service are always appreciated, though it’s never mandatory. We encourage our travelers to tip your local tour guides, local drivers, local tuk tuk drivers, boat staff, hotel staff, waiters, and station porters, especially if the service exceeds expectations. Here is some advice on what to tip:
- There is no standard amount or percentage for tipping your AWR guides or private drivers. Use your best judgement. A fair tip for tour guides on a one-day tour is from US$5 to US$10/traveler, for drivers it is half of that. But it is up to you; you can give less or more if you like.
- Travelers seldom tip at street-food stands. At restaurants, first check to be sure there is or is not an automatic service charge added to the check. You can always ask the manager or your guide if you have any doubts. If there’s not a service charge already built in, plan on about a $1 – 2/traveler tip or otherwise a 10% to 15% tip at higher end dining experiences.
- If you want to tip the hotel staff, that is wonderful! But first ask if there is a community tip box so all the staff can share equally. Tip what you feel is best, but hotels maybe plan around US$2-4/traveler/night or at lodges, US$3-5/traveler/night. Otherwise, plan on about US$1 for a bellboy, and about the same, per night, for chambermaid service.
- Giving a local Tuk Tuk driver an extra dollar or two at the end of a ride is always nice.
- If someone ever politely declines your tip, simply thank them, take your tip back, and don’t press the issue.
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Using a mobile phone in SE Asia can be quite simple. Major networks in the region include MobiFone, Vinaphone and Vietel. Contact us for more specifics if you like, but you can go to any mobile store advertising SIM cards and buy a pre-paid activated SIM card for about US$2-3. With a card like this, you can start using the local mobile network immediately with an existing balance of about US$5-8 in your account. When the card runs low on money, you can simply recharge by getting another pre-paid mobile card ranging from US$1 to $20 and continue using the service.
Roaming is available in general and the cost depends on your carrier, often the charge per minute is pricey. So instead of using roaming, use WiFi networks when possible. Using WiFi is easy, since networks are available at almost all hotels, restaurants, and coffee shops in bigger towns.
International country codes for dialing:
- Thailand: 66
- Cambodia: 855
- Vietnam: 84
- Laos: 856
- Myanmar: 95
The region’s culinary ingredients echo its wider geography and climate. Food can be deep-fried, stir-fried, boiled or steamed. Rice (grown in water paddies throughout the country) is the main starch used in everyday meals and is also used to make many different kinds of cakes and noodles. You’ll find dishes relying on fried rice noodles, fresh rice noodles, rice noodle soups, rice paper covered spring rolls, deserts like sticky rice cakes, and more. In addition to many vegetarian dishes catering to Buddhists diets, many meals include a mix of rice or noodles with vegetables, local seasonings and meats. Common seasonings include chiles, lemon grass, lime, curry or kaffir. Meats include pork, beef, chicken, and fish/seafoods. Lamb, duck, birds, and even dog or other wild animals are also used, although not very often, and in many cases, one has to specially search out specific venues to find the more unusual fare. Fish sauce and soy sauce are also common flavorings. Localized offerings then provide an even wider mix of options. For example, peanuts are also used widely in Vietnamese cuisine, and unlike the Chinese, Vietnamese cooks use a minimal amount of oil. The Vietnamese aim to preserve the freshness and natural taste of food as much as possible. For this reason, Vietnamese cuisine is often considered one of the healthiest in the world. This is true too for the inviting cuisine in the wider region as a whole: most food is tantalizingly fresh, local, healthy, and delightfully tasty.
It’s a great idea to bring a universal plug adapter, available at many hardware stores, with you on your trip, especially for multi-country tours.
Thailand: 220 V, primarily 2 and 3-pin sockets.
Cambodia: 220 V, primarily 2 and 3-pin sockets.
Vietnam: 220 V, primarily 2-pin sockets.
Laos: 220 V, primarily 2-pin sockets.
Myanmar: 220 V to 230 V, primarily 2-pin sockets.
Bringing Gifts or Donations
While encountering severe poverty is a real possibility in the region, and the experience can be bracing, it’s really important to remember some key do’s and don’ts:
- Please don’t give money to begging children. This would just say to these impressionable youths that begging is an acceptable way to earn a living. Conversely, it is considered okay to give to the elderly or disabled, as there is no social safety net around.
- Giving money and goods away to random individuals who ask you can result in whole local communities behaving like beggars. It empowers a negative, unequal relationship between locals and international travelers, with tourists being seen as money bags versus real people. You shouldn’t foster the creation of a society that connects every human action as a potential money making scheme – for example paying to take photographs.
- Do not give candies or other sweets to children in villages that you visit. Locals often have little or no access to dentists, nor could most afford them – and again there is the issue of turning children into beggars. Pens, toothbrushes, clothing or other ‘worthwhile’ items are best distributed via a local charity, schoolteacher or community leader. Ask us or your guide for help if you’d like.
- Always remember that the best giving can sometimes be shared interactions: a smile, a joke, a singsong, dance or playing a game. Giving friendship, time and interest to interact with locals can be the best gift of all.
When bargaining at local markets, which can be a really fun way of interacting with locals, please try to keep things in perspective. It can be a blast for us, all the back and forth, however the seller’s livelihood can depend on getting a fair price as well. Not bargaining at all is not good either, since you might risk damaging the structure of their way of life and economy. We try to practice the rule of thirds: offer 1/3 of the asking price and meet somewhere in the middle.
U.S. Department of State
- Information for Thailand
- Information for Cambodia
- Information for Vietnam
- Information for Laos
- Information for Myanmar
- All Travel Alerts & Warnings
- Traveler’s Checklist
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
- Health Information for Travelers to Thailand
- Health Information for Travelers to Cambodia
- Health Information for Travelers to Vietnam
- Health Information for Travelers to Laos
- Health Information for Travelers to Myanmar
- Travel to High Altitudes
- Common Travel Health Topics