17 Tips for Retirement in Southeast Asia

How to minimize culture shock in Thailand, Vietnam or Malaysia.

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Southeast Asia is emerging as a top choice for retirees with a sense of adventure and an interest in making their retirement nest eggs stretch as far as possible. This region, especially Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia, includes some of the most affordable places in the world to live well.

Kathleen Peddicord
Kathleen Peddicord
For an American retiree, Southeast Asia qualifies as seriously exotic. When you travel to this part of the world, the culture shock could be considerable. Here are 17 tips for spending time in Southeast Asia:

1. Don't underestimate the jet lag. When you arrive in Southeast Asia, you'll have flipped about 180 degrees on time, a good 50 degrees Fahrenheit in temperature and about 50 percent or more in humidity. It takes about one day to recover from each hour of time change, so you'll feel a bit foggy for several days. The first two or three days will be the hardest. Don't expect to accomplish a great deal on your first day.

2. Try to pick up a little local yogurt soon after you arrive. You'll probably get sick within a week of arriving. It's normal, and it will pass. It's just your body getting used to being exposed to a lot of unfamiliar stuff.

3. Eat at busy places. The locals know the best restaurants.

4. If you are served a beverage with ice in a restaurant, it is generally fine to drink it. It's been purified. If it wasn't, they wouldn't serve it to you. Enjoy discovering new foods without worry, as the quality is usually quite good.

5. Watch out for copies. Genuine Rolex watches and North Face backpacks never cost $20. If a vendor is selling a significantly under-priced English-language DVD or book or an inexpensive iPhone, it is probably a copy. If the photos and maps in the guidebook at the bookstore are in faded black and white, it's a copy.

6. Refunds are rarely given for anything. Once the money leaves your hands, even if just for a moment, it's gone.

7. If you buy something from a cute little old lady vendor, give her exact change. They have a habit of pocketing whatever money you give them and walking away, suddenly deaf to your protests. Who wants to get into an argument with a cute little old lady?

8. Never get into a tuk-tuk, taxi or songthaew without agreeing on a price (or the meter in the case of a taxi). When possible, ask a local first how much the fare should be, so you know if you're being overcharged. When we were in Chiang Mai last month, we negotiated the fare from the train station into the city with a songthaew driver. The price quickly went from 200 baht to 40 baht because we knew that it wasn't very far and the driver realized we knew the city.

9. Never agree to purchase anything without knowing the price beforehand.

10. Use humor and smiles to defuse disagreements. Arguing will get you nowhere.

11. Carry DEET-based mosquito repellant. You don't want to bring back a case of dengue fever for a souvenir.

12. Strangers don't want to be your best friend unless they want something from you. This holds true throughout Southeast Asia. If a local person seems overly friendly or helpful, be polite but don't accept the help.

A friend, Wendy Justice, tells a story of being in a pharmacy in Hanoi recently, when a helpful stranger insisted on translating for her and her husband. “This was a tip-off right away, as the pharmacist spoke English and we speak enough Vietnamese to complete the transaction,” Justice says. “We were quoted a high price for the medication, so we went to a different pharmacy with no ‘helpful strangers’ nearby. We paid less than half of the originally quoted price.”

13. Never trust a person who tells you that he or she loves you before learning your name. (This might be good advice anywhere in the world.)

14. Carry toilet paper or tissue paper wherever you go. Besides being necessary in public bathrooms, it can also substitute for a napkin, something that is often not supplied in restaurants.

15. In Vietnam, food is eaten with chopsticks. Soup comes with chopsticks and a spoon. Coffee is often served accompanied by a small glass of tea (the tea is free). However, if you are given a wet wipe in a sealed package or a dish of peanuts, this is usually added to your bill, even though you didn't request it. These items are generally very inexpensive, but, if you don't want any extras, just hand them back to the server and make sure they aren't added to your check.

16. Beef means "red meat" and chicken means "bird." Fish can be anything from anchovies or carp to grouper or cod. Pork means "pig meat." If you really want to know what you're being served, order pork. Otherwise, you may end up with some kind of red meat that definitely doesn't taste like cow or be served chicken legs that came from a "chicken" of monstrous proportions.

17. In Thailand, meals are served with a fork and tablespoon. The spoon holds the food and goes into your mouth. The fork is used only to push food onto the spoon. It's considered rude to put a fork in your mouth. When in doubt, mimic what other diners are doing and you'll be fine.

Kathleen Peddicord is the founder of the Live and Invest Overseas publishing group. With more than 28 years experience covering this beat, Kathleen reports daily on current opportunities for living, retiring and investing overseas in her free e-letter. Her newest book, How To Buy Real Estate Overseas, published by Wiley & Sons, is the culmination of decades of personal experience living and investing around the world.