Is travel in Asia easy?

My first Asia travels were in 2003. Here are 8 ways visiting is easier now

For many people, visiting countries in East, South, or Southeast Asia can seem like it may be tricky. And it’s a fair question: Is travel in Asia easy?

As a somewhat young man in 2003 and 2004, I was fortunate to travel in Asian countries such as India, Thailand, Cambodia, China (including Tibet), and Nepal. My travels there went to my heart and soul, giving me everything from a love of Thai food and cooking, to a broader sense of Indian culture and history. I hiked to hilltop temples in Nepal, rode boats through the bayous of southwestern India, and saw Mt. Everest with my own eyes while camping at base camp on the Tibetan side.

What would it be like to go back… with kids?

Traveling in Asia also came with challenges. I got pretty gut sick in Thailand and Nepal. I struggled to communicate. Arranging taxis was a hassle, I couldn’t always figure out the bus schedule, and I had to walk around day to day with a fair amount of cash. All travel destinations comes with challenges, and these were simply a not uncommon facet of visiting this part of the world. The positives more than outweighed the negatives though. Not only are travels in Asia some of my life’s best memories, I also couldn’t wait for a time when I could return to Asia, but with my wife and children.

Fast forward to 2022, I got to travel Asia again. Visiting Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, and Japan with my wife and two children, I’ve reflected on what’s similar and what’s different from my first trips to Asia to my more recent ones.

Is travel in Asia easy? Here are 8 ways the answer is yes

I have no doubt that the difficulties I faced in 2003 pale compared to those faced by other people visiting the region in earlier decades. Everyone’s difficulties are their own. If you’ve been wondering about traveling to Asia or concerned about what challenges you might face, I suggest that you can confidently go—and you can be confident that you will have the time of your life.

Based on my own experiences as an American who’s traveled to parts of Asia solo and with a family, here are 8 ways visiting Asia now can be so much easier than it was in the early 2000s.

Food and water safety

There are many countries where we still filter tap water with our portable water filter, such as Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam, though when in Japan and Singapore, the water filter stays in the suitcase.

It is so much easier to make safe, non-bowel-destroying choices about where to eat and what to drink. Some of that is basic progress. More and more people practice safe food handling techniques; some societies also have stepped up their hygiene and enforcement game.

From my vantage, online reviews, sharing, and commenting makes the biggest difference. If the internet is shouting that eating somewhere is going to make you sick, that place is either going to quickly step up its game, or it’s going out of business. Whether visitor or local, nobody wants to get sick, and online tools make it easier than ever to avoid bad places.

Like I said, during 2003 and 2004 visits, I got belly sick in Thailand and Nepal. During six months in Asia with my wife and kids in 2022 and 2023 though, none of us got the slightest bit of belly sickness.

Making educated guesses about where to go and what to do

As much as I appreciate travel media, such as guidebooks, I love how easy it is to also compare and contrast that with the in-the-moment, more current info from sources such as Google Reviews, Instagram posts, travel blogs, and YouTube. Is travel in Asia easy? It certainly is much easier when you can draw on a range of guides, tourism board info, and experiences from other travelers who’ve been there.

In Japan, we make most of our decisions by pulling up Google Maps, looking for places in our area that look worth a try, and we see what the reviews are like. Plus, Jodie excels at cross-referencing social media for ideas and people’s perspectives. We can use more current information to make better choices, and we rarely have an issue.

Navigating language and communication

Whether learning languages through programs and apps such as Duolingo or Babbel, or simply using on-the-fly translation apps such as Google Translate, it is so much easier to communicate now than it was in 2003.

I can type in what I want to communicate, and show someone the words in their own language. We can hold our phones over menus and translate the text visually—albeit with sometimes hilarious results. The tools aren’t perfect, but they don’t need to be.

Language programs have helped us gain a stronger grounding in languages for countries we visit. Translation tools help us with about 80% of anything we struggle to translate.

It’s much, much easier to comprehend and communicate than it ever was before.

More options to pay with cards

Cash still dominates in countries such as Thailand, Vietnam, and Japan, but it is easier than ever in many places to pay with a card. We travel with a card that has no foreign transaction fees, plus we get reward points, which helps fund or offset more of our ongoing travel expenses. Anytime we can pay with a card, we keep the cash tucked away. Plus, Jodie and I both feel so much more secure not having to carry lots of cash on us. I never liked having to walk around with lots and lots of cash. Now I don’t have to.

Staying cool

My 2003 flight to New Delhi, India, touched down in the middle of the night, and it was after two in the morning before I emerged from the international terminal. (I also immediately got ripped off by an unnecessary taxi to get to the domestic terminal, but we live, learn, and decide that there is a special, traffic-jammed circle of hell reserved for taxi drivers, where they drive and drive but nobody wants a ride).

It’s common for people to describe the wet heat of India along the lines of throwing a sodden towel into a blazing oven and then sticking your head inside. While cliched, it remains an accurate, visceral comparison. Similarly, my 2003 and 2004 visits to Thailand were blazing hot. I’ve always considered it pretty smart that the Thai celebrate their Songkran, or New Year, at the hottest time of year by chucking water at each other as much as possible.

Throughout these travels, air conditioning was a luxury. You’d find it in upper scale homes or lodgings, but not the hostels I was staying in at the time. In Bangkok, one hostel charged a small premium for an air-conditioned room (and on one of many visits I sprang for it, to cool skin bliss).

Returning to Asia in 2022 and 2023 though, I was delighted to see how much more prevalent climate control had become. The small exterior units of ductless heat pumps dotted just about every building facade, not just hotels but regular apartments. Throughout our family’s stays, we could be pleasantly, just-right cool inside our accommodation.

Rideshare apps instead of taxis

I am not a fan of taxis. Metered taxis typically are ridiculously priced. Drivers often try to ignore the meter, or claim it’s broken, or use a toolbox of excuses for why they are simply going to tell you a price, thinking that you have no idea what it actually should be. When I think about how is travel in Asia easy, the ability to use rideshare apps instead of negotiating taxis stands out.

If anything in a country puts me off, it’s having all this friction around the simple business of getting around. I don’t fault the driver for seeking a higher fare, especially since many visitors likely pay it without question. However, we question and we haggle.

In many countries, rideshare apps compete with or augment the taxi services. Not everywhere; strong taxi trade groups in Morocco, for example, have been able to shut down, hold off, or make illegal pretty much every attempt rideshare app companies have made. And as much as we loved Morocco, haggling for taxis was a nuisance made easier only with more experience in understanding what a decent range of fares should be.

However, whenever we can, we use rideshare apps instead of taxis. How they work varies. Bolt in Europe and Grab in Asia work the same as Uber, with driver details, car info, an agreed price (paid via saved credit card in the app), and a map you can follow on your phone so you can tell if you’re still going the way you should be.

We much, much prefer this. We’re down with haggling. But we’d rather just get where we want to go, without a bunch of nonsense. Sorry, taxi drivers of the world, but whenever possible, we’re skipping you and downloading the rideshare apps popular in your country.

Google Maps includes public transit info in directions and routes

This is going to vary by country, mind. For example, when traveling in Singapore, Thailand, and Japan, we could simply look up where we wanted to go, and Google Maps would populate with schedules and routes for the train and bus systems. Being able to track our routes and transit, along with walking routes, all from our phones, made it so much easier to get around, especially with the kids.

Booking accommodation

When I first visited Thailand in 2003, all I knew was that there was lots of cheap accommodation along the Khao San Road area. Fast forward to 2022, and Jodie found us an amazing, budget-friendly two-bedroom apartment in the heart of Bangkok’s Din Daeng area, all through online research. From Booking to Agoda, we love how easy it is to find and book accommodation online. We have found place after place that is clean, safe, roomy, and puts us in areas that are often more residential while close to sightseeing and attractions.

That said, some countries are a reminder that the internet isn’t everything. In Vietnam, for example, many accommodation places have little to no online presence (or at least an English-language one that we could find). When we visit cities such as Da Nang, we’ve learned that we can book something for a few nights, but a couple of days of legwork can turn up affordable accommodation that isn’t bookable online.

It’s never been easier to travel in Asia

Is travel in Asia easy today?

My travels in Asia are some of my dearest memories. However, I can unequivocally say that overall changes in societies, along with online tools, have made it so much easier as an American to travel throughout many countries in Asia. My days as a traveler are more enjoyable even than my first time in Southeast, South, and East Asia. I can’t wait for my family’s next trip to Asia, and I hope my travel tips help you feel all the more confident about your own.

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About the author
Anthony St. Clair
We are the St. Clair Family: Anthony, Jodie, Connor, and Aster. As Learners and Makers, our family of four slows down, connects, and enjoys the world and each other's company. We have been traveling full time since 2022.

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