You can't travel all the way there and not go to at least an island or two. Before diving in, learn from expat Naomi Lindt, who stretched a tight budget into a 21-day adventure in Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia.
CHOOSING A HOTEL
Start by reading hotel reviews on tripadvisor.com. For more obscure destinations without dedicated pages, do a general site search, which can yield interesting tips and hotel recommendations from individual user postings. Travelfish.org is a great resource for all things Southeast Asia; it has a comprehensive islands guide, including accommodations at various price levels. If a hotel is too new, small, or out of the way to have reached a mass audience, Google it—you'll often pick up references or photos people have posted on blogs.
Prices for virtually anything, even rooms, can be negotiated. After finding a hotel's best online rate and comparing it with rates on sites like Expedia, e-mail the property directly for a price. (This also gives you the chance to ask questions about the island, boat schedules, and weather.) You'll often be communicating with the owner, who may be hoping to fill rooms. It's perfectly acceptable to reply: "This is a little out of my budget. Can you come down by $20?" or, "I'm staying three nights—can you give me a discount?" The trick is to be pushy and polite at the same time.
Prices vary greatly from low to high season, but the benchmark is $30–$50 for a stylish, air-conditioned room. You'll find basic bungalows for as low as $25 per night, while more upscale places with swimming pools start around $65.
Travelers often worry about getting sick in the developing world, but as long as you follow the crowds, you'll likely do fine. Ask around for recommendations, hitting up the hotel manager, your tour guide, and other travelers.
It's OK to brush your teeth with tap water, though many hotels provide complimentary bottled water to be on the safe side. The main concern is ice. Avoid ice that looks as though it's been chipped off a larger block; entire cubes (usually with a hole through the middle) are the factory-produced, safe variety.
The general rule for fruits and vegetables is to not eat them unless they have peels. Make sure meat is cooked all the way through (especially pork, as trichinellosis, or trichinosis, can be lethal). If you love your steak medium rare, opt for medium well unless you're at a really refined place.
If you do get sick, be sure to drink lots of water and clear liquids and follow the easy-on-your-stomach BRAT diet: bananas, rice, applesauce, toast. Pack some peppermint or chamomile tea and a little container of ginger balm or oil—rub a small amount on your temples to ward off nausea.
You might ask your doctor for a dose of ciprofloxacin so you're prepared in case you come down with a bad case of traveler's diarrhea, and start taking probiotics on a daily basis before your trip to build your digestive system.
Lots of people ask me whether malaria is concern, particularly on more deserted islands. I've never contracted malaria—nor have I met anyone who has—but it's a good idea to carry anti-malarial pills in case you do become sick.
PRACTICAL MATTERS & ETIQUETTE
Most of Southeast Asia's off-the-beaten-track islands won't have ATMs or be credit-card-friendly, so be sure to ask your hotel in advance what services are available. If you do have to carry a wad of cash, anticipate how you'll store it: Is there a safe in your room? A secret compartment in your luggage? Will the front-desk keep your valuables?
Major cities and towns have toiletries and personal items, but remote islands won't. You don't want to be scrambling for sunscreen, bug spray, or basic medical supplies on your vacation. Part of the allure of visiting these places is the sense of adventure, but it's not so great if you cut your foot on some coral and don't have any way to clean the wound.
It's culturally appropriate to cover up shoulders and knees, especially if you're a woman—and it's a good idea, because the sun is brutally strong. Covering up also keeps unwanted attention at bay and it's expected if you're visiting a temple. Always remove your shoes before entering a temple or a local home, and don't point your feet toward a Buddha figure or a person of high standing. Women cannot touch monks; if you want to hand a monk something, place it within his reach. Hand things like money over with your right hand and receive with both hands; the left hand is seen as unclean. If you want to beckon someone to come over, like a waiter or atuk-tukdriver, wave to that person with your palm down; don't use an index finger. Don't touch anyone on the head, and don't stick your chopsticks in a V shape in a bowl.
Skip online booking sites like Kayak and Expedia, and go straight to the airlines' websites. Major booking sites don't include the region's low-cost carriers, and typically charge higher fares. One example: A one-way flight from Bangkok to Trat for December 1, 2009, including taxes, came up as $53 on the Bangkok Airways website but was listed as $92 on Expedia.
Start your Thailandsearch with Air Asia, which offers one-way tickets to famous Thai beaches like Phuket and Krabi for as little as $29. Nok Air and One-Two-Go also offer great fares—sometimes as low as $7—but have limited schedules and fly into and out of Bangkok's secondary airport, Don Muang. To get to islands on Thailand's east coast, check Bangkok Airways. Advance booking can save you nearly 50 percent: One-way fares to Ko Samui start at $88 but go up to $127 as seats sell out. Flying is the way to go when traveling to Thai islands; using bus and ferry services from Bangkok to Ko Samui, for instance, takes at least 12 hours.
Flights within Vietnamare straightforward; there's often just one choice, Vietnam Airlines. It's usually possible to book trips to the island Phu Quoc (one way from $75) and the Con Dao Islands (one way from $90) a few days out, but advance planning is still a good idea. A good resource is ivivu.com, run by Hanoi-based Buffalo Tours—once you submit your flight request, it's answered by a staffer within 24 hours.
In Cambodia, travel is largely limited to the road. Buses travel from Phnom Penh, the capital, to the beach towns Sihanoukville (Mekong Express, 011-855/23-427-518, four hours, one-way ticket $6) and Kep (Phnom Penh Sorya, four hours, one-way ticket $4). The coaches are mostly in good condition—many have toilets and A/C— and pass through gorgeous countryside. If you're traveling along Cambodia's coast, bus service is infrequent, so it's often easier to book a private car. To get from Sihanoukville to Kep, I took a $30 shared taxi with another couple; it was arranged by my guesthouse. Per person, it was just $2.50 more than the bus would've cost.
Your island getaway will inevitably involve boats. Service to remote places tends to start early in the morning and end by early afternoon, with one or two boats per day, and schedules change by season. Contact your hotel well in advance for schedules or look online; many islands have set up their own tourism websites. Most piers aren't near the airports, so factor in travel time. Expect to pay about $10 to $20 for a boat transfer.