Thinking of Going to Southeast Asia? Here’s What to Expect. (2023)


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As the once tourist-dependent region reopens its borders, travelers should expect more paperwork, higher airfares and cheaper hotels — at least for the short-term.

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Thinking of Going to Southeast Asia? Here’s What to Expect. (1)

By Patrick Scott

Their flights were more expensive and took longer, their favorite restaurant was shuttered and they had to take coronavirus tests on the first and fifth days of their trip. But the biggest hassle for Brian Lamberty and Paola Laird, retirees from London, in their long-awaited return to Phuket Island in Thailand was the paperwork.

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Before their February trip, Ms. Laird spent nearly three hours uploading all the documents — vaccination records, hotel reservations, and proof of health insurance among them — needed for the Thailand Pass, an entry requirement instituted for international travelers during the pandemic. “For many people who are not computer literate, it’s going to be a problem,” Ms. Laird said.

After a long and painful hiatus, and despite rising cases of coronavirus in some Southeast Asian countries and lingering United States government warnings against travel to most of them, international tourism is now gradually returning to Southeast Asia. Mr. Lamberty and Ms. Laird are among the early waves of visitors since the pandemic restrictions turned the region’s tourism playgrounds into ghost towns in early 2020. More countries in recent weeks announced that they are ready to admit fully-vaccinated foreign tourists, or soon will be, though still within limits.

The rollout of vaccines in Southeast Asia and rollback of coronavirus restrictions around the world are prompting the reopening. Now, the war in Ukraine is complicating the travel picture everywhere, as the general unease could make people think twice about booking a big trip — or potentially opt for Southeast Asia, 4,500 miles from Ukraine, instead of Europe.

In November, Thailand and Cambodia were among the first countries in Southeast Asia to fully reopen to tourists. After an Omicron surge, Thailand in December suspended most tourist arrivals, but on Feb. 1 resumed its nationwide “Test & Go” program, which requires hotel isolation and a PCR test the first day and a rapid test the fifth day. Days later, Bali fully reopened to foreigners, though with a quarantine of three to seven days (then dropped the quarantine requirement this month). The Philippines followed Feb. 10, with no quarantine but with social distancing in some locations. Vietnam announced that it would open its borders March 15 to international tourists, with a one-day hotel isolation. And Malaysia on Tuesday announced it was reopening April 1 without a quarantine.

As the once tourist-dependent region reopens its borders, travelers should expect more paperwork, higher airfares, cheaper hotels (for the short-term) and less crowds — especially since China, the biggest single source of tourists in the region, has no plans to reopen its borders anytime soon.

Travel operators are grappling with a shortage of labor, lingering uncertainty over the virus and now the war in Ukraine, and impatience — they worry that those deeply missed tourists will go elsewhere in the region unless their own country is the first to fully reopen.

“I think for the next 12 months it’s going to be pretty complicated to travel in Asia,” said Adam Platt-Hepworth, whose Grasshopper Adventures cycling tour company worked with 30,000 travelers in 2019 and fewer than 50 in 2020. “The biggest challenge overall is just going to be restarting after so long, not just with our people but with hotels and restaurants and anyone in travel. It’s been a long time. People are rusty.”


Complications abound for travelers

Before the pandemic, Southeast Asia was one of the fastest-growing regions in the world for international tourism, with a record 139 million visitors in 2019, a jump of about 8 percent compared to 2018, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization. The emerald waters of Halong Bay in Vietnam were crowded with hundreds of cruise boats, rooftops bars in Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia teemed with partyers and walking on streets on Thai islands like Phuket meant enduring shoulder-to-shoulder crowds. Tourist attractions across the region were congested with package tours from China, the world’s biggest source of outbound tourism for the past decade. According to the U.N.W.T.O., about 150 million Chinese travelers spent $277 billion in 2018 alone.

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Countries like Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore and Cambodia were among favorite destinations of Chinese tourists. But as the coronavirus outbreak in China morphed into a global pandemic in early 2020, locations in the region that depended on foreign visitors were deserted. Last year, foreign arrivals to Southeast Asia plummeted to 3.3 million, or around 2 percent of the record number in 2019.

This year, with the incremental revival of international tourism, visitors will encounter a raft of constraints as well as rewards, according to tourists and travel companies in the region.

Mr. Lamberty and Ms. Laird vacationed in Phuket 16 times before the pandemic. They were usually out and about on the island — fabled for its tropical beaches, fiery cuisine, hedonistic nightlife — and enjoyed visiting temples and taking Thai cooking classes. This time, they took it easy, visiting friends and relaxing at their go-to beachfront hotel, Dusit Thani Laguna Phuket on the Andaman Sea. They were sad to see that boutiques had closed in a nearby shopping center, now a Covid testing site.

“You have a memory of what’s happened before and what was here, but everybody has to compromise,” Ms. Laird said. “Be brave about travel and go for it; the prize is just being here.”

Travelers going after that prize should be prepared to endure virus tests and even quarantines, and purchase health and travel insurance before their arrival. Other suggestions: Be ready to download government travel apps, upload vaccination and travel documents, and acknowledge that a positive virus test result could send you into a quarantine or cause a missed flight. Don’t be surprised if service at hotels, restaurants and tour companies is spotty or if they are short staffed — or if the government rules change suddenly while you’re on holiday.

Higher flight costs are another unwanted change. Airfares from the United States to Southeast Asia last month were about 30 percent higher than before the pandemic, because fewer planes were flying to the region, averaging $1,150 round trip, according to an analysis for The Times by Hopper, the flight and hotel booking company.

“Generally, as airlines add capacity to these countries, airfares should drop,” said Adit Damodaran, an economist at Hopper.

However, it’s easy to find a bargain on a room as the region’s wide spectrum of accommodations, from hostels to luxury resorts, comes back. Popular tourist attractions and destinations that were suffering from overtourism, like Phi Phi Leh Island in Thailand, Angkor Wat in Cambodia and Boracay in the Philippines, will be less packed. And while many Western-style restaurants went bankrupt, the options for discovering local cuisines continue to be seemingly endless.

Online booking platforms like Hopper and say searches for flights and hotels are on the rise in Southeast Asia. According to Google’s Destinations Insights, searches on Vietnam grew the fastest of all countries from December to February, by 75 percent. International and regional airlines like Singapore Airlines, Thai Airways and Vietnam’s VietJet are returning mothballed planes to the skies.

Slow recovery predicted by operators

Despite these positive indications, most travel operators do not expect a return to the boom year of 2019 this year or even next.

“It may take two years more,” said Le Tuan Kiet, the operations manager for the cruise line Indochina Junk in Vietnam’s Halong Bay.

The company docked all but two of its 16 boats and focused on domestic tourism, which helped keep tourism alive in places like Dalat in the mountains and Vung Tau on the coast. Indochina Junk converted the two luxury cruise ships to domestic day tours with karaoke sound systems and Vietnamese fare, said Mr. Kiet. But those efforts brought only a relative trickle of guests, and most of the company’s 250 workers lost their jobs and went back to their families, he said, and some found work in factories.

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Luring them back will not be easy, he said. “They don’t want to move from their hometowns to the city again,” he said.

For Mr. Platt-Hepworth of Grasshopper Adventures, hiring staff is also difficult, as some of the company’s employees pivoted to other work during the pandemic, like opening a bakery in Taiwan and becoming a cycling coach in Vietnam, he said.

During the desolation, his remaining staff of seven, a decimated number from 140 permanent and casual workers, spent months revising an app for self-guided tours, with live-chat messaging, recommendations on restaurants and hotels, and a podcast about the next day’s ride. That was prescient, because as Grasshopper began to offer tours in a handful of destinations last year, “there’s been a surge in interest in self-guided tours, for obvious reasons,” he said.

Keeping tabs on the shifting travel directives for various countries is difficult too. Grasshopper started offering tours first in Sri Lanka, then Thailand, Uzbekistan and Cambodia, where the Nov. 15 reopening was one of Southeast Asia’s least restrictive, just a rapid coronavirus test on arrival.


Varying reopening plans

Despite Vietnam’s March 15 reopening date, Indochina Junk is holding off booking trips until September, mainly to make sure that international airlines restart enough flights, Mr. Kiet said. The company will reopen with only six boats and its three-day cruises will likely be cheaper, he said. If a quarantine is required, he said, guests can do it on the boats.

Vietnam’s reopening announcement came in the wake of a 2021 Delta variant surge that led to a monthslong nationwide lockdown, a switch in policy from zero-Covid to living with the virus, and a stepped-up government push to get the population vaccinated. Its rate of fully vaccinated citizens has reached 80 percent. Even though an Omicron surge in late February was generating a record number of cases, Mr. Kiet was confident the government would stick to the date.

“We need to get the economy going now before the other countries,” he said.

The economic upheaval for Russia brought on by its invasion of Ukraine could mean fewer tourists to Vietnam and Thailand, popular destinations for Russians. For now, “the impact isn’t that clear,” said Nantida Atiset, the vice president of the Phuket Tourist Association.

In Phuket these days, some 2,500 to 3,000 foreigners are arriving daily at the airport, though that’s less than a third of the traffic during prepandemic days, Ms. Atiset said.

“It’s not as packed and crowded as before,” she said. “Now, it’s high season, sunshine everyday, and on average hotels are 35 percent cheaper than before.”


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Lush countryside and local dishes still beckon

Ad and Patricia Ketelaars, semiretired Dutch entrepreneurs who moved to Singapore seven years ago, last month decided to take their first adventure trip in the region in two years. They wanted to cycle in Thailand on a self-guided tour, but it was “too complicated,” Mr. Ketelaars said.

They opted for Cambodia and booked a guided tour with Grasshopper Adventures, setting out on Feb. 28 from Phnom Penh and ending eight days later in Siem Reap.

They were most looking forward to returning to the lush countryside, said Mr. Ketelaars just before the trip and in between taking a coronavirus test in Singapore and researching the best hospitals in Cambodia.

“The anxiety of these types of things is, what if you test positive?” he said. “You want to make sure you wind up in a place that can deal with it.”

Michael Williams, a cargo pilot who lives in Wisconsin, plans to travel to Vietnam at the end of this month, to finally meet the woman from Hanoi he has been dating online for a year.

After talking daily for hours on WhatsApp, he and his girlfriend and her daughter will be together to start figuring out the future, Mr. Williams said. They hope to have time for a beach weekend in Danang, and he’s looking forward to trying local dishes and soaking up the history and culture.

He’ll get a booster before the flight, so he’s not worried about an outbreak, and he’s not concerned about Russia’s war on Ukraine as long as it’s contained to Eastern Europe.

“It’s just a matter of making it real and getting there,” he said.

Follow Patrick Scott on Instagram at @patrickrobertscott.

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Why would you like to visit Southeast Asia? ›

Southeast Asia is packed with ancient forts, historic cities, towering temples, and natural wonders. It is home to 37 wonderful UNESCO World Heritage sites. If you are looking for unique cultural experiences, Southeast Asia will not disappoint you.

What are the interesting things about Southeast Asia? ›

Here are some interesting facts:

The country of Indonesia has over 15,000 small to large islands. The population of South East Asia as a whole is close to 600 million people, where a fifth is living on the island of Java (Indonesia). The country of Brunei has the most vehicle ownership in all of Southeast Asia.

How would you describe Southeast Asia? ›

Southeast Asia, vast region of Asia situated east of the Indian subcontinent and south of China. It consists of two dissimilar portions: a continental projection (commonly called mainland Southeast Asia) and a string of archipelagoes to the south and east of the mainland (insular Southeast Asia).

Why would you want to visit Asia? ›

Home to some of the world's oldest cultures, fascinating architecture, beautiful natural landscapes, delicious foods and friendly locals; colorful Asia ticks all the right boxes for a top holiday destination.

Why do you want to visit other countries? ›

Purpose of Foreign Traveling

Some jobseekers want to get global jobs, adventurers want to get information and have different type of experience. Some patients travel to get the best medical treatment which is not provided in their home country.

What do you think the most beautiful country in the Southeast Asia? ›

The Philippines

The island of Palawan is one of the most picturesque spots, with azure waterways flowing between vast rocky cliffs that drop sheer to the water. For some otherworldly beauty, head to the “Chocolate Hills ” on Bohol, an undulating landscape of 40-metre-high grassy mounds.

What is the most interesting fact about Asia that you have learned? ›

Asia is the most populated continent in the world, home to over 4.6 billion people. The country in Asia with the most people is China, with a population of 1.4 billion according to the July 2021 US Census Bureau. China is also the most populated country in the world.

What is an interesting fact about South Asia? ›

Home to 1.75 billion people, South Asia has the world's tallest mountains, and is the origin of some of the world's oldest civilizations and the wellspring of Hinduism, Buddhism, Sanamahism, Sikhism, and Jainism.

Can you describe about the people living in Southeast Asia? ›

Southeast Asians have a reputation for being fun loving, compassionate, gentle, hospitable, open-minded, laid-bank, smiling and friendly. There is a prevailing sentiment that life should be enjoyed at the moment, and problems should not be taken so seriously that disrupt enjoyment.

What is the culture like in Southeast Asia? ›

With more than 650 million people living in the region, majority of them follow Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam with other religions like Christianity, Confucionism, Taoism and Animism existing as minorities amongst a few countries.

What is South Asia Short answer? ›

South Asia, subregion of Asia, consisting of the Indo-Gangetic Plain and peninsular India. It includes the countries of Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Pakistan, Nepal, and Sri Lanka; Afghanistan and the Maldives are often considered part of South Asia as well.

Is Southeast Asia worth visiting? ›

Southeast Asia is the best tourist destination for both short and long-term travellers. For years, low-budget travellers have chosen countries like Cambodia, Vietnam or Thailand to discover the Asian culture. That's because the region is incredibly affordable for those travelling on a low budget.

Which part of the Southeast Asia would you like to visit? ›

For vibrant nightlife, don't miss Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh, or Phuket. For exotic food, Bangkok, Hanoi, Phuket, and Singapore are paradises. For unique floating markets, the Mekong Delta in south Vietnam is a must see.

What are the benefits of going to another country? ›

Top 7 benefits of living and working abroad
  • Better self-esteem. ...
  • New life skills. ...
  • New perspective on life. ...
  • Better communication skills. ...
  • Better foreign language skills. ...
  • Advantage over other jobseekers. ...
  • Expand your professional network. ...
  • Related links:
Dec 13, 2021

What is the best answer for purpose of your visit? ›

The best answer is always the honest one. In this case, reply “both” and tell both what kind of business you intend to perform and what kind our tourism/pleasure.

What are the benefits of visiting another country besides your own? ›

So, without further ado:
  • Traveling doesn't have to be expensive. ...
  • You learn without even trying. ...
  • You interact with different people. ...
  • You can practice or learn a new language. ...
  • You learn to get around in a new environment. ...
  • You are more likely to do things you wouldn't normally do at home. ...
  • You grow and become a better you.

What is the most interesting country in Southeast Asia? ›

Here is the list of 9 Best Countries To Visit in South-East Asia
  • Indonesia - Incredible Indonesia. ...
  • Cambodia - A Country Rich in Heritage & Natural Beauty. ...
  • Philippines - Gateway to hidden beaches and exotic islands. ...
  • Malaysia - Asia in true sense! ...
  • Laos - The Land of Serenity and Bountiful Nature. ...
  • Brunei.

Which country in Southeast Asia is the best to live in? ›

Thailand, Cambodia and Malaysia: Three Great Destinations to Live in Southeast Asia. Living in Southeast Asia is a lot easier than you probably think…it's easier to get around, to get what you need, to find a community that will welcome you.

Which country is the best in Southeast Asia? ›

Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia took the top spots in emerging Southeast Asia. Malaysia received the highest ranking in the region due to its strong performance across all categories measured. Vietnam and the Philippines rounded out the top five countries in emerging Southeast Asia, in that order.

Why do most tourists visit South Asia? ›

Most of the 11 Southeast Asian countries have been a magnet for tourists for years now. That's because they are safe to travel to, affordable and tourist-oriented. Most of the 11 Southeast Asian countries have simple & easy tourist visa requirements.

Which part of the Southeast Asia would you like to visit? ›

For vibrant nightlife, don't miss Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh, or Phuket. For exotic food, Bangkok, Hanoi, Phuket, and Singapore are paradises. For unique floating markets, the Mekong Delta in south Vietnam is a must see.

What is the most interesting country in Southeast Asia? ›

Here is the list of 9 Best Countries To Visit in South-East Asia
  • Indonesia - Incredible Indonesia. ...
  • Cambodia - A Country Rich in Heritage & Natural Beauty. ...
  • Philippines - Gateway to hidden beaches and exotic islands. ...
  • Malaysia - Asia in true sense! ...
  • Laos - The Land of Serenity and Bountiful Nature. ...
  • Brunei.

What is South Asia popular for? ›

Home to 1.75 billion people, South Asia has the world's tallest mountains, and is the origin of some of the world's oldest civilizations and the wellspring of Hinduism, Buddhism, Sanamahism, Sikhism, and Jainism.

What is the most important country in South Asia? ›

India. India is the largest country of South Asia and the seventh-largest country in the world by area. Because of the vastness of the country and variety of culture within different states, there is no national language in India.

What is the biggest tourist attraction in Asia? ›

  • Agra, India: Taj Mahal. ...
  • Bali, Indonesia: Beaches Galore. ...
  • Bangkok, Thailand: Most Asian Arrivals. ...
  • Beijing, China: History on a Massive Scale. ...
  • Hong Kong, China: Victoria Peak. ...
  • Kyoto, Japan: Asia's World Heritage Leader. ...
  • Mount Everest, Nepal: Reaching the Peak. ...
  • Siem Reap, Cambodia: Temples of Angkor.

What is the best country to travel in Asia? ›

Top 8 Asian Travel Destinations with Travel Guide Videos
  • Phuket, Thailand. When you look at why people visit Thailand, three reasons usually top the list: beaches, nightlife, and food. ...
  • Singapore City, Singapore. ...
  • Shanghai, China. ...
  • Samarkand, Uzbekistan. ...
  • Kyoto, Japan. ...
  • Bali, Indonesia. ...
  • Rajathstan, India. ...
  • Busan, South Korea.

What is the best way to travel around Southeast Asia? ›

Bus – The easiest and cheapest way to travel around Southeast Asia is by bus. The backpacker trail is so worn that there is a very well-established tourist bus system to take you anywhere. Buses costs vary between $5-25 USD for a 5-6 hour journey.

When should I travel to Southeast Asia? ›

The best time to visit Southeast Asia is between November and February. There's drier, less humid and slightly cooler weather in most of the region, with average temperatures around 30°C. Bring a warm jacket for evenings, though.

What is the best place to live in Southeast Asia? ›

Top 10 Places to Live in South East Asia
  1. Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) The Best City to Live for Expats. ...
  2. Bangkok (Thailand) The Best City to Live for English Speakers. ...
  3. Ho Chi Minh (Vietnam) The Best City to Live for Solo Travelers. ...
  4. Manila (Philippines) ...
  5. Singapore. ...
  6. Chaing Mai (Thailand) ...
  7. Hong Kong. ...
  8. Phuket (Thailand)

Which country is smartest in Southeast Asia? ›

Today, we'll take a closer look at the 'most intelligent' Asian countries based on: IQ. Student test scores. Number of geniuses produced.
Smartest Asian Countries Based on IQ.
Asia RankingCountryIQ Score
1 (tied)Hong Kong108
3 (tied)South Korea106
4 more rows
Apr 21, 2022

What is the best country to live in South Asia? ›

6 best expat destinations in Southeast Asia
  1. Thailand. No list of the best expat destinations in Southeast Asia would be complete without mentioning Thailand. ...
  2. Vietnam. When it comes to Southeast Asia, Vietnam is an increasingly popular option for expats relocating to the region. ...
  3. The Philippines. ...
  4. Malaysia. ...
  5. Cambodia. ...
  6. Singapore.

What are the culture of Southeast Asia? ›

Southeast Asia includes Muslim majority nations such as Malaysia, Brunei, and Indonesia; Theravada Buddhist majority nations such as Thailand, Burma, Laos, and Cambodia; Christian majority nations such as the Philippines and East Timor; and Chinese Confucian-influenced nations as diverse as Singapore and Vietnam.


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