During my first trip to Saigon, the traffic stopped me in my tracks. I was absolutely astounded to watch a sea of motorcycles and scooters flowing past pedestrians who waited roadside for any hope of a break. There were no traffic lights to slow down the vehicles, so I moved to Plan B: I glommed onto a group of locals until we were a pack large enough to push our way across the busy city street in a relatively safe manner.
Just a dozen years ago, most people still rode bicycles on these roads, and I got the sense here and in other areas of Southeast Asia that technological change far outpaced the infrastructure improvements. WiFi is everywhere, but yet no street lights! Potholes are as abundant as the conical hats worn by so many locals. And though the food can be wonderful, why risk eating street food when sanitation standards for vendors aren't close to those in more developed countries?
Despite the many challenges of traveling to an emerging destination, there are even more reasons to pack your bags and go. In Southeast Asia alone, you can cruise along the Mekong River past colorful floating markets, step into some of the most beautiful temples in the world and slurp some of the best pho noodles ever. Just a word of caution: if you choose to travel independently rather than with a seasoned tour operator, be sure to do some serious homework and pack your sense of humor — it may come in handy, especially when trying to cross the street!
1. Three Words: Do Your Research. Visit the State Department's website travel section that lists all things travelers should know about visas, vaccinations and other topics that may be modified from day to day in emerging destinations like Southeast Asia. Be prepared for changes in fees or regulations, or make sure that the tour operator you're using is sending you updated information.
2. Plan Your Ground Travel. In Cambodia and other developing countries, don't assume you can get from point A to point B by using a Google map. It could take two hours to go 30 miles in many of these countries. On an Adventures by Disney Jewels of Southeast Asia adventure, there is an all-day excursion on the Mekong River Delta, taking a motor coach to get to the port, sailing on a nice river vessel and motor coaching back to the hotel. If you're considering a similar excursion while traveling on your own, plan ahead to seek out the nicest bus or taxi, and book a boat that you're certain will have life jackets and some semblance of cleanliness. And remember, if your bus or taxi comes to a stop for oxen on the road or farmers with chickens on their scooters, roll with it! Grab that camera and shoot away.
3. Book a Notch Up on Hotel Accommodations. I always tell people who are planning trips to emerging destinations to go up one category of hotel where they're usually comfortable. In a place like Vietnam, a three-star hotel may seem pretty rough to you if you're used to a three-or-four-star in the United States or Europe. It may not have hot water and amenities might be meager. So if you don't want to "rough it" in Vietnam, Laos or Cambodia, aim for a four- or five-star hotel.
4. Avoid Street Food, but Savor New Flavors. Be wary of eating from street vendors' carts in Southeast Asia because of the potential for bacterial contamination. Everything you can possibly imagine is sold on the streets here — you'll see women on bicycles selling fruit or even soup. Inside Vietnamese restaurants you can get some sensational food — I love the pho (noodle soups), and kids do, too. And the banana flower salad, usually with shrimp, pork and leafy greens, is a great dish. In Laos you'll find unusual tastes like sundried buffalo meat with lemongrass and sesame seeds — delicious! And my favorite salad there is the Luang Prabang — every restaurant has it — made with lettuce, watercress, egg, fried garlic, shallots, fresh herbs and secret dressing. In Cambodia, the Khmer soup is similar to pho, and the Amok fish is a yummy white fish steamed in coconut milk and herbs with steamed rice. In all three countries, sticky rice is a mainstay. Children love the satay on skewers, dumplings and fried rice dishes. If you're traveling on a shoestring budget and decide to chance the street food — just remember to buy well-cooked items (not raw vegetables) and fruit that can be peeled.
5. Dress for the Heat and Humidity. When planning your trip, pack clothing that you would take to Florida for a spring or summer visit. You can wear mostly casual clothing, but for a trip to the temples like those at Angkor Wat, men and women must cover shoulders and legs to at least an inch below the knee. Bring a light sweater or wrap if you'll be in a tank top for the rest of the day. Shoes must come off outside of temples, so pack a pair of socks to protect your tootsies inside.
6. Immerse Your Family in the Culture. Get up early one day to offer alms of sticky rice to the Buddhist monks of Luang Prabang. Visit a working rice farm in Laos. Find a local guide who can tell you personal stories behind the amazing recent history of these countries. In Hanoi there's a wonderful museum of ethnology on our itinerary with lots of programming for children. There are also beautiful water puppet performances with water as the stage to represent rice fields (see image above), and there's a live musical troupe that plays traditional Vietnamese music.
During my Southeast Asia travels, I was having special moments throughout each day — floating on the Mekong River past tiny little boat markets selling flowers, fruits and fish; watching the locals in their beautiful conical hats; seeing women with bamboo sticks across their shoulders balancing buckets of goods on each end. The entire destination feels like there's one foot in today's tech world and the other foot in a past generation steeped with tradition. I was left with the sense that, if you want to see this colorful, paradoxical scene, now is the time. Why wait any longer?
Heather Killingbeck is director of trip and program development for Adventures by Disney, a global leader in guided family travel, and has been helping families live their travel dreams for more than 25 years. She has traveled to 53 countries on six continents (some of her favorite destinations include South Africa, the Galapagos Islands, Italy, Alaska and Greece).