This Southeast Asia backpacking itinerary covers the typical backpacking route of Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. Myanmar has been added now that the country has started to open up to tourists. There are a few stops in Peninsular Malaysia then Singapore to finish.
This Southeast Asia backpacking itinerary should take around 6 months to complete if you are travelling at a normal pace. This means where you can spend a few days here and a few days there. Do as feels right without any need to rush.
It covers a wide variety of places and is designed to show you not only the highlights of each country but some real local gems to. It is based on staying in hostels or guesthouses, and generally taking busses or minivans as the method of transport. Though you could catch trains in Thailand or Vietnam for some parts.
Bangkok is selected as the starting point as it’s a major transport hub. It’s an easy city to introduce you into the Southeast Asian way of life. From here you can start exploring the rest of Thailand. The country receives millions of tourists each year and is well set up for backpackers. This is great as you can settle into your rhythm and find out what works for you.
Singapore makes a natural end point. As with Bangkok it is a major transport hub, from which you can continue your travels elsewhere or head home.
I haven’t covered Indonesia, The Philippines or Borneo in this as that would extend it way past 6 months. I intend to visit them in the future and add an extension as a separate entry. (Update Winter 2018 – I have now visited Indonesia and will post articles on the country over the next few weeks!!)
Have a play around with the map to look at the route and the destinations. Hopefully you will feel inspired and it will help with planning your ultimate 6 month Southeast Asian backpacking itinerary!
Thailand (Round 1)
Start your journey by flying into Bangkok and taking a couple of days to explores its temples and acclimatise yourself to the region. It’s a great city to start any Southeast Asia backpacking itinerary as it’s well set up for backpackers. The Grand Palace and Wat Pho can be done together in a day. They make for a nice introduction to Buddhist culture. Khao San Road is big backpacker area so you can easily find people in hostels to go out there with. It’s a great place to make some new friends right away.
Before you head north go westwards, pop over by bus or minivan to Kanchanaburi. Here you can see some World War 2 history in the form of the infamous Bridge Over The River Kwai and the Death Railway. Take a day trip to the beautiful Erawan Waterfalls and view it’s 7 layers. Go early so you can bus it back into town as they stop running late afternoon.
Then it’s time to start your path up the country. It’s less than a dollar to catch a train from Bangkok to Ayutthaya and only takes a couple of hours. It and Sukhothai (you can take a train to Phitsanulok then bus it there) are both home to UNESCO world heritage sites. These are ancient ruined Thai cities and are well worth 3 or so days between them to explore. Both are former capitals of kingdoms that preceded Siam (which in turn became Thailand).
Embrace culture in Northern Thailand
Then it’s onto Chiang Mai with it’s many attractions. Spend up to a week in the area visiting temples, enjoying great food, trekking in Doi Inthanon National Park and visiting the Elephants at the Elephant Nature Park, a sanctuary which seeks to help and protect them. Take a minivan to Pai which is a backpacker town in the mountains. Chill out for a few days, visiting waterfalls, hot springs, caves and backpacker bars!
Next up is Chiang Rai, home to the famous Wat Rong Khun (The White Temple) and it’s effective counterpart Baan Dam (Black House).
Last stop for now in Thailand is the border town of Chiang Kong. Its easily reached by local bus where you can stay the night before crossing the border to Laos.
Once you’ve got your visa and headed into Houay Xay and secure your place on the 2 day, 1 night Slow Boat journey along the Mekong. It’s a fun way to enjoy the slow-paced river life and make new backpacker friends aboard the boat. You’ll stop for the night in Pak Beng where there will be a scramble for guesthouse rooms.
Once you arrive in Luang Prabang take your time to explore the laid back city and be sure to famous the famous Kuang Si waterfalls, renown for their natural beauty.
Then head north to Nong Khiaw. You can spend some time in the town if you like it, it’s very scenic, and then head by boat along to Muang Ngoi Neua where you can chill for a while and then do some trekking with a local guide to stay with a hill tribe.
Head back to Luang Parabang then onwards to the backpacker town of Vang Vieng, known for tubing and parties but also a nice place to chill out and appreciate life. Just pick your accommodation carefully if you want to be able to sleep! You can also spend hours just sat in a cafe watching Friends! The 90’s TV show is a popular one here with bars/cafes based around it’s viewing!
Then it’s onto Vientiane which s a good place to sort your visa for Vietnam, though you will have to know the dates of your visit. Whilst it is the capital of Laos I don’t think it’s that great for backpackers. So don’t plan to dwell long! I’d advise to get the visa sorted asap. However do be sure to stop by the COPE museum. Here you will learn about the horrors inflicted on the Laos people in the ‘secret war’. This was an American bombing campaign inflicted upon Laos in the Vietnam war.
Then it’s time to head off the beaten track again, and Konglor is a great place to get away from the traditional route as it has very few overnight tourists, just handful each day, though there is a steady stream to visit Konglor Cave. Some people also choose to do the (Motor) Bike Loop from Thakhek (which includes Konglor) and everyone I know who’s done it has enjoyed it.
Heading down the country will require at least passing through Savannakhet and given the sheer amount of time the bus journeys take it’s wise to stay in Pakse for the night, even though the town itself is nothing special. Although very backpackers go there I really recommend a day in Champasak as it has the largest Khmer ruins outside of Cambodia which are fun to explore for the afternoon, and you can spend the evening relaxing by the riverside in what is a very quiet peaceful little town.
The 4000 Islands are a wonderful place to spend a few days doing not a lot. Don Det is the main backpacker island here, turn up and grab yourself a bungalow (I recommend West facing for great views of sunset) and chill out in a hammock for a while. You can also head over to Don Khon to see the beautiful Somphamit Waterfalls. Consider a boat trip too around the islands for sunset. It’s a great spot on this Southeast Asia backpacking itinerary to recharge before journeying on.
Then it’s decision time – Vietnam or Cambodia?
Its easier to get to Cambodia, but personally when I made this trip I went for Vietnam. This required me to head back up to Savannakhet and then across to Dansavan. I crossed the border and somehow flagged down a minivan. They took me to Đông Hà and then put me onto another van which took me to my goal – Huế.
It wasn’t easy and if I had to do it again I would do it differently. I’d take a night bus from the 4000 islands back to Vientiane. Then I would either fly or long distance bus it to Hanoi from there.
Why Vietnam first? Because you can work your way from top to bottom of the country. Then head into Cambodia and from there into Thailand again with relative ease. You can see from the map points how it makes logistical sense once you’ve got from the 4000 islands to Hanoi. Of course you could skip the 4000 islands all together. Though they are an awesome place to relax for a few days! Do what feels right for you.
But if want to Cambodia before Vietnam simply swap the 2 countries around here. Then do Vietnam in reverse order, flying from Hanoi to Bangkok at the end.
The capital Hanoi is a great base for backpackers and there are plenty of museums to keep you occupied when you’re not wandering the streets of the old quarter dodging motorbikes or hanging out in backpacker bars.
Take the bus to SaPa and go trekking with a local hill tribe guide. The mountain scenery is superb and the area is famous for its rice terraces. You can stay overnight in a home stay which is a really worthwhile experience.
After passing back through Hanoi over to Cat Ba Island from which you can also take a tour of the scenic Halong Bay. If you’re feeling active Cat Ba is a good place to go rock climbing or Kayaking. The local operators will take you out to their own private islands which is very cool!
The Middle bit
Phong Nah has only opened up to tourists in the past few years. It’s home to the largest cave in the world, Hang Sơn Đoòng. Whilst you won’t be able to see that (only 400 people per year and a few thousand dollars in price) there are plenty of other caves to explore. Phong Nah Cave and Tien Son Cave are 2 you can reach by river boat. Join a tour of the park where you can do the longest zipline in Vietnam and experience the Paradise Cave and Dark Cave. Bring swimwear – to say it’s muddy is understatement of epic proportions! Don’t worry they have lockers.
Huế is home to the Imperial City. Whilst it was badly damaged by French bombing and fighting in the Vietnam-American war it’s still worth checking out. There are also some cool Pagoda’s and a good backpacking scene.
As you head downwards next stop is Hội An, with it’s beautiful old city which served as a trading port from the 15th to 19th centuries and has an interesting blend of cultural influence including Japanese and Chinese. Be sure to stay out by the beach for a day or 2 as well for some relaxation. An Bang has some good accommodation options right by the beach. This includes the wonderful ‘Under The Coconut Tree’ which has dorms and private bungalows.
There is a lot to see and do in and around Da Lat, and be sure to check out the 100 Roofs Café which blends a bar with a maze with a haunted house. Sound fun? It is! The designer also built the Crazy House which has to be experienced to be believed. Outside the city you will find the Dalanta Waterfall complete with one of the coolest roller coaster experiences. Then head to the mountains where you can get great views from LangBiang. Plus my all time favourite hostel, Cozy Nook, is located here!
When in Mui Ne take a tour of the fairy stream, fishing village and sand dunes (white and red), they are cheap and it’s worth it. The chill out on the beach, which has many kite surfers to watch (or join in if you fancy it!)
The frantic Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon) can be a bit much at times. Loads of traffic and people hassling you in the street (in the backpacking district). But still a trip to the Củ Chi tunnels used by the Viet Cong and a visit to the War Remnants museum will really hit home the horrors of war. Be picky when choosing a tour of the Mekong Delta, go for one which has good reviews online as they can be a bit hit and miss but are worth it for their look at local life on the waterways. Plus you can take one that includes border crossing by boat into Cambodia. Which is a lot quicker and easier than the bus routes!
Start your time here with a trip to the royal palace grounds in Phnom Penh before preparing yourself to learn about the genocide of the Khmer Rouge with visits to the S21 Prison and the Killing Fields. It is a harrowing experience.
Pop up to Kratie to see the endangered Irrawaddy river dolphins in the Mekong river. A lot of travel in Cambodia will require passing through Phnom Penh whichever way you’re going. The infrastructure here is understandably lacking given what happened under the Khmer Rouge.
Those famous ruins
Siem Reap is the base from which to see The Temples Of Angkor, including of course Angkor Wat and many others. You can buy a 3 day pass to the Temple zones. Unless you’re on a flying visit this is advised as there is a lot to see! Siem Reap itself is a bit of party town, it’s main street is named ‘Pub Street’ after all.
Head on over to Battambang where you can watch over a million Bats leave their cave in a stream that last for over half an hour as they head out hunting for the night. Visit the killing caves to learn about the horrors of the past.
The south coast
The riverside town of Kampot is a nice place to relax for a couple of days. Be sure to head up into the mountains to see the ruins of Bokor, a French colonial mansion and church. Kep is only 45 minutes drive away, with a pleasant beach and a national park you can wander around in. If you fancy it you can visit the secluded Rabbit island from here.
Sihanoukville is somewhat overrun with tourists whose main purpose is to drink, but venture away from town to the Otres beaches for some quite to be rewarded by beautiful sunsets. It’s also the gateways to the islands of Koh Rong, Koh Rong Sanloem and Koh Ta Kiev. Koh Rong’s main beach isn’t that pleasant but the others on the island are superb. Sok San’s white beach in particular where you can rent a bungalow for a while! Koh Rong Sanloem’s M’Pai Bay is a chilled out backpacker village.
Many people choose to cross back in Thailand at Poipet but this Southeast Asia backpacking itinerary recommends going via Koh Kong. You can take a night or 2 town and take a tour to visit the uninhabited island. It’s owned by the military and overnight stay is forbidden, which means empty beaches! The border crossing itself is easy. Take a Tuk Tuk to the border. Then once you’ve sorted your Thai entry you can take a minivan to Trat.
Thailand (Round 2)
Trat. Whether you stay a night here or not is up to you. There’s not a lot to see in truth, it’s really just a transit point. Go by ferry to get to the nearby islands, or head by road to Bangkok. The main island nearby is Koh Chang (Big) which has multiple beaches. Lonely beach is the popular party spot so you might want to stay elsewhere then head there in the evening. Pyjamas hostel is right by Klong Prao beach so is a good backpacker option.
If you fancy it you can always visit the islands of Koh Mak or Koh Kut whilst here too.
Then it’s time to head back through Bangkok before you head down south. Take your time to get supplies if you need them. Take the train to Chumphon as it’s pretty cheap. Stay there a night before heading to more islands by ferry. From here you can Koh Tao, famous for its diving and scenic viewpoint, Koh Phangan which hosts the Full Moon Party so is the big party spot once a month, but quieter other times, and Koh Samui which has both quiet and loud spots.
Then take a ferry to Surat Thani on the mainland, where you can catch a bus to your next stop on this Southeast Asia backpacking itinerary.
Stop for a night or two in Krabi Town and visit the Tiger Cave Temple (no actual Tigers). Here you can climb up a long flight of steps (1,237 steps to the summit) to get a great view of the surrounding area. Krabi is on the mainland but still has parts that can only be reached by boat. This is due to the area’s dense jungle. Head to Ao Nang to catch a boat to Tonsai which is backpacker village in the jungle, a haven for hippies and rock climbers. You can walk across the beach or through a small part of the jungle to reach Railay which has beautiful beaches (West Railay and Phranang) and is a very popular destination. Stay here if you don’t fancy a jungle bungalow, though the prices are significantly more.
The head back to Krabi town before deciding where to head next. If you’re enjoying the popular islands then Koh Lanta, Koh Phi Phi and Phuket are all nearby. The latter is the largest island in Thailand and a very popular holiday destination. Koh Phi Phi’s popularity soared after the film ‘The Beach’ was filmed there. If you fancy something more quiet, head up to Ranong and take a ferry to Koh Phayam. Its a quite paradise island with beautiful beaches and very few people on them. Nearby is the smaller Koh Chang which is of the same theme. Both are ideal for a few days away from it all!
Then it’s back to Bangkok to take a flight to Myanmar! Be sure to have sorted an e-visa online before you head to the next country on this Southeast Asia Backpacking itinerary!
Fly into Yangon and spend a couple of days here. There’s plenty of Buddhist sites here including the huge Shwedagon Paya. The downtown area is full of interesting colonial buildings and local life.
Myanmar’s central plains are home to the magnificent temples of Bagan. Over 2000 temples constructed between the 9th and 13th centuries still remain here, marking its legacy as the capital of the Kingdom Of Pagan.
The 3 day trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake is a popular highlight and it’s easy to see why, you stay with locals and get a really good insight into life in the area as well as trekking through it’s amazing scenery. Sort the trek when you arrive in Kalaw. Be sure to meet your guide beforehand and check other options if you’re not keen on them. There are usually groups going so you can join one (if you don’t have one yourself). It makes the journey more fun as you have people to chat with.
When you arrive at Inle stay in Nyaungshwe where the wonderful Song Of Travel hostel caters for backpackers, along with numerous guesthouses. You can take a boat tour of the lake to see local life on it.
Getting off the beaten track
If you’re feeling adventurous head down Loikaw. Not visited by many backpackers, you can take a guide to see local villages and the tribes that inhabit them. It may be worth trying to arrange this whilst in Nyaungshwe. These villages have only just opened up to tourists and there’s little infrastructure in place.
The bus journey to Hsipaw is a long and windy one but it’s worth it as it’s a friendly town with good trekking options to stay with local villages. Mr Charles is the big guesthouse in town and has good options but i’d recommend Lily The Home as the trek I did with them was great. Afterwards take the train across the Gokteik Viaduct, it’s a really scenic ride and crossing the viaduct is an experience you’ll remember! Get off at Pyin Oo Lwin and enjoy the beautiful National Kandawgyi Botanical Gardens for the afternoon.
Take a shared taxi to Mandalay where you can explore the religious sites and visit the famous U-Bein Bridge before your flight out of the country.
This segment of the Southeast Asia backpacking itinerary covers Peninsular Malaysia. You can explore what Kuala Lumpur has to offer in a couple of days, the Batu Caves and the Petronas Twin Towers are the 2 big ones here. Then take a bus to Cameron Highlands and see the impressive tea plantations, stay in Tanah Rata which is the biggest of the towns in this old British Colonial Hill Station.
This Southeast Asia backpacking itinerary ends with the 3 British Straits Settlements. Explore the streets of Georgetown on the island of Penang. Here you will find street art and Chinese temples, and can take a bus Penang Hill too for great views over the city. Then Malacca which has interesting blend of history and culture from in Chinese influences as a trading port. It also has some great street art to check out. It’s easy to get a bus from here to Singapore to end this 6 month Southeast Asia backpacking itinerary.
The city-state is major transport hub and therefore a natural end point for this Southeast Asia backpacking itinerary. A good stop whether you are planning to continue to Borneo or Indonesia, head home or go on elsewhere. But lets not focus on the end of the journey here, Singapore is worthy addition to any Southeast Asia backpacking itinerary in it’s own right! There’s plenty of attractions to keep you busy for a couple of days before you do! The Gardens By The Bay are awe inspiring modern construction, with an amazing light show every evening. China Town and Little India are well worth explore, especially for the food! And there are many museums including the Asian Civilisations Museum which has a huge detailed collection covering the region.
Planning the details
Before you head off there are of course somethings you need to consider.
When to go?
November is the ideal month to begin this Southeast Asia backpacking itinerary, should be able to pick as you please. This is so you can avoid ‘rainy season’ and acclimatize yourself to the heat. It won’t all be sun, you will come across some colder conditions in Northern Vietnam in December and January time. And Myanmar does get very hot in April. But on the whole, starting your 6 months in November should give you a good balance.
Of course this date might not be practical, so as a guide for planning bear in mind the following. March to August is generally going to be very hot. Rainy season generally starts around May, and the storms can be very big. There can be flooding, for example Bangkok has suffered much with this in the past. September and October are when raining season is at it’s most wettest.
Generally South East Asia is very cheap to travel. Of course how much you spend will vary depending on how many activities you wish to participate in. Things like rock climbing and kayaking are great fun but do add a big chunk to your daily spend. You don’t want to miss out though so always have some extra cash for activities! And of course alcohol adds a big chuck to your budget to, if you’re a big drinker! This Southeast Asia backpacking itinerary covers many spots where it’s easy to meet other backpackers. And whilst partying isn’t the focus on this Southeast Asia backpacking itinerary, there is plenty of opportunity to do so if you wish.
Treks however are great value for money when overnight accommodation and meals are included! Don’t forget that when negotiating a price, it might seem expensive but don’t forget about whats included!
In general i’d say plan for around 1000$ a month. This is including everything apart from your flights to and from the region. And your immunizations before you go of course! Don’t forget them.
You may be packing for many beach days but don’t forget that you will need to ‘cover up’ when you visit temples. This means covering your shoulders and your legs to below the knee. If you don’t you will cause offence in Buddhist temples and other holy sites. You would likely not be allowed entry if they have staff working there. Usually there are clothes available to rent to cover up but it’s better to wear your own. Note that this Southeast Asia backpacking itinerary mainly covers Buddhist countries but you will encounter various religions over the region. Especially in Malaysia, which is a Muslim country also home to many Hindus as well as Buddhists.
Make sure you check the visa requirements for your nationality before you enter a country. Whist many countries in South East Asia do offer ‘visa on arrival’ make sure you qualify for it. Check how much you will need to pay so you have the currency ready at the border post. It will be time limited too. Vietnam for example offers 14 days for some nationalities. I personally don’t think this enough time to really explore the country, so I got a visa in advance in Laos. Also before you fly out check your airline’s requirements. Sometimes ‘visa on arrival’ technically requires you to have outbound travel booked. Often airlines are much more concerned with this than border officials.
There are loads of people who travel solo and South East Asia is a popular place for it. Don’t worry about meeting people, you will come across loads who want to hang out! For some tips check out my Solo Travel Advice.
Making your own Southeast Asia backpacking itinerary
This Southeast Asia backpacking itinerary is of course not rigid! I have made it to help people plan their own journeys, not for it to be stuck to precisely. If you have your own particular interests then you will want to focus more on them. Research is of course fun but don’t be afraid to figure stuff out as you go. Other backpackers are a great source of information! The key is to be flexible, don’t book stuff too far in advance unless you absolutely you have to. Give yourself room to amend plans and you will be happier for it!