The region of Southeast Asia is one I’ve really enjoyed exploring, its a fantastically diverse area with many different things to enjoy. Whilst I have including bits of advice in other posts I feel its worth compiling all I can offer into one, hence I present to you my Southeast Asia backpacking tips. Here I will explain things I think will help those planning a trip to Southeast Asia, from transport tips to social advice and more. Its all based on my personal knowledge and experience of backpacking around Southeast Asia.
It is a really fun and easy area to backpack around, and a great choice for any first time backpacker as well as those more experienced. I’ve made sure to include a wide variety of things here, to help give a good idea of what to expect. So even if you encounter something that I haven’t included, you should have a good idea of how to cope with it from being prepared to understand the local situations.
There is no particular order to this list of Southeast Asia backpacking tips, they are all of equal usefulness in their own right. I also recommend using this post in conjunction with my Southeast Asia Backpacking Itinerary and Southeast Asia Highlights. This can help you plan your trip and make the most of your time in the region. I also end this post with a quickfire Southeast Asia FAQ, to further help you plan your trip.
Note on Myanmar
In this article I make references to Myanmar. The country was plunged into civil war after a military coup in 2021 and as such is not somewhere backpackers can or should go at present. Hopefully the people will succeed in their struggle for freedom and it will become somewhere peaceful to visit again.
Southeast Asia Backpacking Tips
Stay in hostels and research your accommodation
Hostels are a fantastic way to meet people, whether to socialise or explore with. An important thing to realise, especially when travelling solo, is that there will be many others in a similar situation too. And by staying in a hostel you can meet them! As long as your open to saying hi and chatting, hostels can be a great way to make friends and find activity buddy’s. Hostels are also great for booking activities and onward travel. Many hostels in Southeast Asia will offer a myriad of services in addition to just a bed. You can also ask staff members for advice and things to do.
Websites and apps like Booking.com and Hostelworld are great ways to book your accommodation whilst travelling around Southeast Asia. Significantly both of them feature reviews, which are a great way to figure out whether somewhere is a good fit for you or not. You can determine the kind of vibe for where you will stay, so can see whether you want somewhere to party, somewhere to relax or somewhere just to sleep. Please leave your own reviews too, so others can learn from your experiences.
Location is an important factor, both in terms of distance to the attractions and whether its good area to stay in. For example you might prefer to be near to bars and busy streets, or you might want to stay in quite areas to see local life better. Again reading reviews can really help you with deciding this.
When your looking for hostels remember too that beds with curtains offer extra privacy, and can help you get a good nights sleep. Whilst it’s not a requirement for me, its definitely a plus.
Be open to making different types of friends
One thing I don’t like about backpacking Southeast Asia is how often you see groups of friends who don’t really want to to mix with others. They tend to only frequent the party spots and continue drunken dramas from home. Suffice to say I don’t really interact with these people, instead hanging out with the more open minded. Southeast Asia attracts backpackers from all across the world, from different cultures, religions and backgrounds. If you keep an open mind about who you hang out with you can meet some really interesting people and enjoy their company.
Also its good to pick up Southeast Asia backpacking tips from other backpackers as you go. Keeping an open mind about people means you’ll be more likely to pay attention when they tell you about great spots and warn you about hazards.
When you can, keep your plans flexible
Speaking of making friends, when you’ve made some you may want to go off exploring with them. This of course will be problematic if you have decided upon a rigid schedule. Therefore it’s good to keep your plans flexible, so you can easily amend them if someone invites you on a great excursion and you want to join them. You will also hear about new places from people whilst you are travelling around. Be they other travellers, hostel works, tour guides or whoever. Therefore it’s also good to have the flexibility to go check out some of the suggestions you hear about, rather than sticking to a set itinerary. And I say this as someone who loves to write itinerates!
Obviously this might not always be possible, as you may have limited time or have had to book some experiences in advance and so forth. That’s why online research is key, so you can understand where you can have flexibility and where you can’t.
Check the weather
The weather of course plays a vital role in planning any trip. Generally the advice for Southeast Asia is avoid the rainy season! Essentially Southeast Asian countries have a dry season and a rainy season. However it’s not quiet this simple, as they dry period can feature some very hot months. And Malaysia for example has different monsoon seasons, depending on which coast you are on. Its west coast tends to experience rain from April until October. Whilst it’s east coast gets it from November to March.
In my Southeast Asia backpacking itinerary I recommend to start in Thailand in November. This is based on doing a six month trip in the region. Thailand tends to be dry from November until May, though gets a lot hotter from March. From June until October you can expect some heavy storms, which can cause flooding. Following my route in that itinerary, you should be able to avoid too much rain. The November until March period is also a good time to visit countries like Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Myanmar. When I went to Myanmar it during April and temperatures actually hit 48C whilst I was in Bagan. Very hot!
If you do start in Thailand in November and follow that route, then 6 months down the line you will get to Indonesia. Its dry season tends to be from April under the start of October.
Understand the ‘saving face’ concept
In Asian culture it is important not to loose ‘face’. For example this includes avoiding personal embarrassment and keeping your calm.
Practically, this has some implications for you. The first one being is that generally you should not ask someone in the street for directions. If they don’t know the answer that would be embarrassing for them, and they would loose face. Therefore they may give you any answer, to look like they know, even if they don’t. So you could end up being sent completely the wrong way. In my experience you should only ask for directions from people working in the travel industry, particularly hostel staff.
Its also vital you keep your calm, its considered a huge loss of face if you loose your temper. If you get angry with someone, for example someone is pestering you to buy something or a travel agent is being unreasonable with prices, then this will only have negative consequences for you. If you can, just try to get out of the situation. For example it might be good to say you’ll think about about it and walk away. Especially in terms of travel agents, you’ll quickly find out if they can make you a better offer.
Generally try not to embarrass anyone. For example if someone makes a small harmless mistake then you should likely just let it slide. Its probably better to protect their feelings than correct them.
Hands, Head and Feet
There are some Southeast Asia backpacking tips to follow which apply to your body.
Don’t touch anyone’s head. Its considered the most sacred part of the body, so touching someone’s head will cause upset.
Try to use your right hand when you can. The classic idea that the left hand is considered unclean applies across Southeast Asia. So use your right hand to eat, receive good’s etc. Obviously eating with utensils is fine, what I mean is don’t use your left hand to pick up food. You shouldn’t point at people with your hands either, it’s not appropriate in Southeast Asian culture.
In terms of feet, you will often be required to remove your shoes entering somewhere. Most temples require it, and in Myanmar you also need to remove your socks if you are wearing any. Many hostels require it too, and some bars as well. particularly those which have comfy seating areas. Look out for signs wherever you go. You should also never point at anything with your feet, or step over another person, as these are both considered rude.
Know the etiquette in the different areas
Knowing how to act and what to wear in the different parts of Southeast Asia is an important part of enjoying your experience.
In temples you need to follow the relevant dress code. Its therefore important that when heading to temple you wear clothing that covers your shoulders and to below you knee. Some temples will have further requirements but they normally have the clothes to offer to you. For example they might need you to wear a sarong and have some at the entrance to put on you.
You need to be aware of when beachwear is and isn’t appropriate too. For example too many backpackers upset local people by wearing beachwear when in town. A simple rule is that if the locals aren’t wearing beachwear in town then neither should you. This goes for men and women.
Some areas of Southeast Asia are more conservative than others, so you will need to understand the local rules where you are. For example in Thailand it is illegal to insult the monarchy, which is known as ‘Lèse-majesté’ laws. Another in example is that in Laos its illegal for a foreigner to have sex with a Laotian national, except if they are married under Lao law.
I’ve written some specific advice about travelling in Buddhist areas here. It includes the fact that you should never pose for photos with your back directly to an image of Buddha. Nor should you point at Buddha statues. Both acts are considered insulting.
Indonesia 2023 update – sex outside of marriage
In December 2022 Indonesia passed legislation criminalizing sex outside of marriage. So far it is claimed that tourists won’t be targeted by the law. But be aware should attitudes shift.
Stay away from Drugs
Drugs are very illegal across the whole Southeast Asia region, and anyone caught with drugs on them faces sever punishment. This can include the death penalty. So suffice to say, stay away from drugs.
Update 2023: Thailand has begun decriminalizing cannabis. The rules are quite confusing though, so be careful if you do want to partake. The Guardian have a helpful guide here.
Avoid the Scams and dodgy advice
One of the most important Southeast Asia backpacking tips is to be aware of potential scams. Generally listen to your fellow travellers and learn about what to expect. Try googling ‘scams in…’ whatever area your heading to before you go. If something seems off then be wary and avoid handing over money, and try to get out of the situation asap.
To give an example, a particularly well known tuk-tuk scam involves the Royal Palace in Bangkok. The driver swill approach you and tell you the palace is closed, and that they can take you on a city tour instead. Spoiler alert: the palace isn’t closed and the tour involve several jewellery shops where you will be pressured to buy high value items. Usually gems. So if a driver does start trying to tell you the palace is closed just say no thanks and keep on walking. Don’t stop, don’t engage with them.
Another thing to know is that in Buddhism, monks are not allowed to ask you for money. So if there is one asking for you money then its highly likely they are not a monk! Just say ‘no sorry’ and discreetly move away from them.
There are other common scams to watch for. One is kids asking you to buy them milk. This is particularly relevant to Cambodia. Its common these kids are just being used by the shopkeepers. Also if your taxi or tuk tuk driver ever claims the accommodation your heading for is bad or out of business then don’t believe them. They just want commission from another place for taking you there. Border scams are common too, especially getting in and out of Cambodia. You may be taken to an ‘office’ for paperwork. Don’t hand over anything, wait until the actual immigration point.
Don’t miss out out for the sake of a few quid
One thing I’ve noticed in Southeast Asia is the occasional person not doing something because it costs money. I think that people can get so set in the idea of saving money that they forget to take advantage of the opportunities presented. So one of my key Southeast Asia backpacking tips is if you fancy a tour or activity then go for it! Its better to spend the cash and maybe have go home a few days early then miss out on the experiences.
Don’t take photos with drugged up and mistreated animals
If there is an opportunity to have a picture taken with a ‘dangerous’ animal you 100% should not do this. It’s pretty much guaranteed they have been drugged, particularly if it’s a tiger. They are nearly always mistreated and abused. If you want details there’s plenty of journalist reports online. For example this in the Independent and this in National Geographic. You can also see reports in the Asean Post, New York Times and The Guardian. As you can see, the evidence is out there in the open, so there’s no excuse for contributing to these animals suffering.
Do Not Ride Elephants – Visit them ethically
Riding Elephants is animal abuse, it’s as simple as that. As with above, there really is no excuse not to know that. There’s plenty of articles online. Here’s a few for you to read if you want to know more:
You can however visit Elephants ethically, at sanctuary’s for rescued elephants. The Elephant Nature Park in Thailand is a well known sanctuary, popular with those who understand why riding is bad. If you want to see Elephants up close then I recommend this sanctuary. If you can’t go to there or they are fully booked, I advise checking their associated projects. You can also check out the Trunks Up project site, who are involved with park.
Admire the Monkeys, but beware of them too
Monkeys are fun. They run round, jump about, play, it’s great to watch. But they are also sneaky and yes they do know how to steal from you. Having seen people be robbed by monkeys many times I experienced it myself in Bali, having a monkey jump on me, unzip my bag and rummage though it as I waited haplessly. In the end it only stole a toilet roll, I think I got off lightly! So by all means watch them, but watch out for them too.
The key in most places is to have any food and water hidden away, or even better have no food on you at all. Generally monkeys will try to grab this if they see it. In some places though monkeys have learned to do more. My experience happened in the monkey forest in Ubud, where monkeys have learned to unzip bags. I watched many others experience it too. Another place in Bali to note is Uluwatu Temple, where they have learned to steal sunglasses. They then try and bargain them with you in exchange for food. And if you don’t meet the price they have been known to throw the sunglasses into the ocean. I’ve heard about someone loosing their mobile phone this way! So keep your possessions safe.
Note: whilst I was writing the article The Guardian published this about the Monkeys at Uluwatu!
Its always important to know the entry requirements of a country before you arrive. Some countries like Myanmar and Vietnam require you to get visa’s before you visit. For Myanmar this can be an e-visa, where you fill everything out online. For Vietnam there are online options or could visit a Vietnamese embassy or consulate. Personally I was in Laos before I travelled to Vietnam, so I went to the embassy in Vientiane to get it done there. I had to wait 2 days for the visa to be approved. Vietnam does have a visa on arrival for some nationalities but it’s limited to 15 days and really I think you need longer if you want to properly explore the country.
Other countries offer a visa on arrival. Its important to know the requirements for this, for example do they require you have outbound travel booked? Check how many days this gives you too. Somewhere like Thailand it might be worth getting a multi entry 60 day visa, so you won’t need to show any proof of outbound travel. This also doubles the amount of time you can spend in the country from 30 to 60 days, and means you can re-enter which is handy when travelling around Southeast Asia by land.
Remember to keep track of your visa end date too. Overstaying your visa can result in fines and possibly being banned from re-entry! Or worse. Just be sure to lave before it expires.
Check holiday dates
An important thing to do when visiting Southeast Asia is to check the dates of the public holidays, so you know when things will be closed.
For example Songkran in Thailand, along with Thingyan in Myanmar, is a really fun celebration for the Buddhist new year. People have big water fights in the street and generally you get drenched. But it also means lots of things are closed. For example if you need to go to an embassy to get a visa there’s a good chance it will be closed, so you will have to wait. Bus services, mini vans and so on will be in short supply to, or not running at all. And prior to the holiday they will often be booked up in advance by locals travelling home or to see family. So whilst both holidays are worth experiencing, be prepared to do so in one place, and move on afterwards.
Another example is Tết which is the Vietnamese Lunar New Year. It normally coincides with the Chinese New Year. This is time for holiday’s and seeing family in Vietnam and you will find many restaurants and shops are closed as their owners take a break. Its probably worth not visiting the country during this week as you will struggle to find things open.
If your an LGBT+ traveller I recommend looking for advice from specific LGTB+ websites before you go. As for instance in Malaysia and Singapore ‘homosexual acts’ are illegal. I’m sorry I can’t give more specific advice but it’s not something I have experience in. I think its best if you are an LGBT+ traveller to check the personal experiences of other LGBT+ travellers so you know what to expect.
Perhaps one of the most overlooked Southeast Asia backpacking tips, that I see mentioned often but forgotten, is that you should use cash when travelling the region. The Southeast Asian economy is very cash based, and even when you can pay by card you risk being hit by bank charges. Its best to use ATMs where you can and carry the cash you need for the time being. Pay attention to locals and other backpackers to learn when somewhere won’t have an ATM, for example there is no ATM in Taman Negara in Malaysia.
Get used to bartering – but understand when not to
Many things in Southeast Asia will not have a set price. Its expected if you to barter which the merchant to reach an agreement. For example if you are in a market and want to buy some clothes or a souvenir. Its totally normal and you shouldn’t feel worried about it. The key is just to be reasonable and decide your limit before you start.
However there are definitely occasions when you shouldn’t barter. For example food and drinks are generally a set price. It can be considered offensive if your trying to barter over the cost of street food.
When it comes to tours, sometimes they will have a set price, sometimes they won’t. If it’s the latter then it’s vital to try and get some guidance on how much they should cost first. Perhaps ask other backpackers or google reviews. That way you can ensure you get good value for money.
Be careful with your bag – always use both straps
A really vital Southeast Asia backpacking tip, particularly linked in with the recommendation to carry cash, is to make sure your bag is always secure. Violent crime in the region is rare but bag snatching can be a problem in some places. Normally this will be a motorcycle thief snatching your bag as they speed past you. I’ve seen the injuries someone sustained as they held onto their bag and were dragged along the floor, it was horrible. A simple but effective way to prevent this is to use a backpack that goes over both shoulders. Therefore it can not be snatched from you, so you won’t be targeted.
When it tuk tuks and alike keep your bag secured, again so it can’t be snatched by someone driving past. For example put the straps around your legs in a way that the bag can’t be moved. When sat down do this too, and in restaurants etc you can put the seat lets through the bag straps to secure your bag.
If you keep your money in a wallet never keep that wallet in your back pocket. Always keep it in a side or front pocket, secure as you can. If you have pockets that can zip up that’s a bonus. Be aware and on the look out for pickpockets in crowded areas.
Take some US Dollars
Across the Southeast Asia region it’s wise to have some US Dollars on you, but this is particularly relevant for buying visa’s. I purchased my visa on a arrival in Laos using US dollars, and purchased my Vietnamese visa in advance in the Laos capital using US dollars. I also purchased my visa on arrival in Cambodia using US dollars. In fact across Cambodia US dollars are used as currency. Officially the currency there is riel, and you may get small change in riel form shops, but otherwise everything is paid for in US Dollars. In Myanmar you can usually use US dollars to pay for accommodation. Take note that the dollar bills you have should be be new and crisp. Particularly in Myanmar, they are fussy about this.
You don’t need to take too many though, especially as you don’t want to risk having a large amount of money stolen. Perhaps it’s advisable to take a $100 to $150 with you, especially if you know you will buying some visas. You can always get some US dollars from money dealers if you need it, just make sure they are respectable and count the money they give you before you leave.
Be prepared for traffic chaos and difficulty crossing the road
To be honest, the first time you try and cross a busy city street in somewhere like Hanoi or Saigon can be pretty terrifying. There are bikes everywhere, none of them are stopping and the locals are just going for it. Truthfully you just have to learn a way to get across in these situations. Observing the locals to see how they do it is key.
Don’t put tissue in the Toilet and learn to use the ‘bum gun’
You might not have expected to see toilets on this list of Southeast Asia backpacking tips. But if your used to western style ones then you’ll need to adapt for your travels in Southeast Asia. The drainage systems in the region is not built for tissue paper, therefore you can’t put paper in the toilets. So you need to get clean a different way! This is why they have ‘the bum gun’. Also known as a bidet shower. Basically, its a nozzle with a trigger that sprays water, and you use it to clean yourself instead of using toilet tissue. The paper that you find in the toilet is for drying only, and goes straight into a bin.
You would think reading these Southeast Asia backpacking tips that perhaps that would be obvious, that people would go into a toilet and see the ‘gun’ and the bin and figure it out. But alas no. I have explained it to someone myself, and it’s pretty obvious from others that this isn’t always understood. So please don’t put dirty tissue paper in the bin, wash yourself first!
Also be prepared for squat toilets. Whilst many toilets in Southeast Asia have seats, there are still plenty that don’t. So your going to have to squat from time to time.
Drink – know you limits, and the cost
Drink prices vary across the region, and if your not careful booze can suck up a large chunk of your budget. You might get used to cheap beers in countries like Vietnam, but they are much more expensive in Malaysia or Singapore. Other drinks like spirits and wine can be expensive too.
You should be careful how much you drinks around strangers too. I’ve seen a fair few people having a terrible time because they’ve gotten too wasted. Or people who have gotten lost and are wondering around strange places which aren’t always safe*. Its easy to let yourself go when your having fun on a tropical island but you don’t want to pay the costs if you end up sick or in trouble. The infamous ‘buckets’ that are synonymous with the Thai party spots can get you very drunk if your not careful.
I’m by no means saying don’t drink. Just don’t get wasted! And follow the rules like you would at home. Such as not accepting drinks from strangers and not getting wasted around people you can’t rely on to help you back to your accomodation. And even if they won’t harm you, it’s not nice to puke up on the locals doorsteps!
*Southeast Asia itself is generally very safe. But of course in any big city, if your drunk and down a back alley somewhere, you run the risk someone might rob you or worse. Just be sensible.
Food – Try new things, but understand what they are
Southeast Asia is full of amazing food, and trying new dishes is definitely part of the travel experience. Don’t just stick to what you know, be willing to try new things and you will be well rewarded. Plus the local food is always cheaper than ‘western food’. Its fine to treat yourself to a pizza or burger every now but you will really save a lot by eating local. Don’t just go for tourist restaurants either, the best food is often found on street stalls or local restaurants. Yes, there will be a lot of rice and noodles but remember the local chefs will know how to flavour them well and make the meals more interesting.
If your willing to explore local areas, you can get some really good value food too. For example the photo below shows a ‘thali’ which is a common meal in Indian communities throughout Malaysia and Singapore.
Chinese communities often offer good value too. Look out for the vegetarian restaurants, you can often get huge nutritious meals for very little money!
Its important to recognise when the ‘food’ comes at great ethical cost though. For example in some areas you will see places selling shark fin soup. The reality is that shark finning is a barbaric practise and I urge you not to eat shark fins. If you can I urge you not to eat anywhere that sells them either.
Drink bottled water – but try to reuse as much as you can
This particular Southeast Asia backpacking tip is a tough one, because you need to balance health with environmental concerns. The tap water isn’t drinkable therefore you have to drink bottled water. But plastic pollution is of course a great concern. Some hotels fortunately allow you to refill your bottles, and you really should so this at every opportunity. You might find other refill services available as you explore, I recommend taking advantage of them whenever you can.
I am aware that there has been great developments in water purifiers that some backpackers have started to use. If your interested I recommend checking out your local camping shops before you go, to see what they have and whether it will be practical for you.
Just to add, you may see other Southeast Asia backpacking tips telling you not to have ice with your drinks. Chances are your travel doctor/nurse will tell you this before you go to. When your actually there though you’ll see everyone having ice with their drinks. The reality is that most ice is actually factory made, using clean/sterilised water, and therefore fear of tap water don’t apply. So its up to you what you do, personally I just had ice when the drinks came with it. If your worried ask the person serving you where the ice comes from.
Interact with the locals
Sometimes backpackers can develop a bad reputation, because they congregate in ‘party’ areas and spend their time drinking and only hanging out with each other. I think this is a real shame, because they are missing out on exposure to other culture and language. Personally I think you will enjoy your trip better if you spend some time getting to know the local people.
I find a good way to do this is to stay in smaller friendlier hostels where you can chat with the staff members. As I mentioned earlier in my Southeast Asia backpacking tips you can use reviews to help find good hostels to stay in. Look out for ones that mention friendly and helpful staff.
Its also good to chat to local people whenever you get the chance. This might be in a shop or a tourist site where people are keen to practise their English. For example Mandalay Hill in Myanmar is a popular spot for Burmese students who will approach you to chat. As I previously mentioned though remember any monk asking for money is not to be trusted.
I have recommended some fantastic treks in Southeast Asia that are well worth doing. They really are bucket list experiences, I really want to emphasise that if you can do a trek then you should definitely take the opportunity. Its a great way to see the countryside in the country you are visiting, and to meet local people. As I said above it’s good to interact with the local’s, and a trek is a great way to do this.
Treks normally offer great value for money too. If you go overnight (or longer) accommodation and meals are generally included, so actually it works out really well. Plus you get a guide to tell you about what you are seeing, which can give you some local insights. You can learn more about the local culture and traditions as well a enjoying the hike.
Use DEET anti-mosquito spray
Unfortunately mosquitos of course carry diseases and always pose a risk when you are travelling in Southeast Asia. Therefore it’s important to use DEET anti-mosquito spray to try and stop yourself from being bitten. 50 to 40% DEET is recommended as anything less won’t be as efficient. Check the product you have to see it’s recommendations, especially in regards to children.
And remember, this isn’t just about stopping these diseases. Insect bites are horrible, particularly if they are from sand-fly’s which do inhabit some of Southeast Asia’s beaches. Having seen someone really struggling with a nasty sand-fly bite on their ankle it really sticks in my mind to ensure I spray them when I head to the beach!
Its also wise to get yourself some lightweight trousers that will cover your ankles. Understandably you might want to wear shorts all the time, but covering your ankles will reduce your bite risk. I think it’s a good idea to have one pair of lightweight trousers to wear in jungle areas at least.
Get vaccinated before you go – including rabies shots
Its really important to get the correct vaccinations before you travel, simply to protect yourself from disease. Its really as simple as that. Be sure to consult with a travel clinic/your local doctor before you go, as some vaccinations require more than one shot so will have to be done weeks in advance. I would recommend checking at least three months in advance.
As part of this, you will normally be asked if you want rabies vaccinations. I know it costs money but you absolutely should get them. If you get exposed to rabies having had these will give you longer to get to hospital. Obviously you must go as soon as you can after you’ve been potentially exposed, but if your in a remote area that extra time is vital. It also means you will require fewer additional vaccinations if bitten
Personally I have been chased by dogs twice in Southeast Asia, one of these times was a narrow escape. So whilst obviously you want to avoid being bitten in the first place, at least if you have a shot it gives you that additional time. I actually met someone travelling who had been bitten by a dog, and was having to get treatments. So it can happen! Monkeys are of course a risk too, as I talked about earlier they will often try to steal from you. If you try to battle with a monkey they will likely try and bite you, so bear that in mind!
Get Travel Insurance
Yes it can be expensive but it’s definitely worth getting travel insurance. As the old saying goes ‘its better to be safe that sorry’.
You will often people advising to ‘pack light’ when giving you their Southeast Asia backpacking tips. And whilst I don’t disagree, I prefer to advise you to ‘pack wisely’. Take into account the different weather conditions you will experience. For example you might envision warm sunny days but you may encounter rain, so take a raincoat. And it can get cold in some parts, particularly in northern Vietnam, so a decent hoody or jacket is advised. Its probably worth having 2 if they can be rolled up tightly, as if one gets wet you will want another.
Of course you may want to buy clothes when travelling the region. So make sure you have some space in your bag to fit them. I needed up buying quite a few t-shirts and a new hoody when first travelling Southeast Asia, which was for about 7 months. This is something I think can be overlooked but I really recommend thinking about.
Also don’t overload you bag with books. I’ve been guilty of that myself. there are many second hand bookshops in Southeast Asia as well as other travellers how are up for swapping. So only take ones you don’t need to keep, and make sure you get rid of them once you’ve finished reading. Yes, you could of course take an e-reader, but bear in mind you might not always be able to charge it.
If your travelling long term then leave room for rest days
Normally when I’m on a trip I try and cram loads of stuff in, to really maximise my time. But when your travelling for months at a time this can be exhausting. So make sure you have some time to relax, without any pressure on yourself to do things. This might mean spending some time in a hammock with a book or staying in bed with Netflix. Whatever it is, don’t feel guilty about it, your body and mid will appreciate the break.
You might think it strange that my Southeast Asia backpacking tips advises you to watch Netflix, but honestly if you push yourself too hard then you will get burnt out. Its good to recharge now and then, so you can enjoy your exploring more.
If you can its good to plan for a few extra days in a relaxing location. Some good examples are the 4000 islands in Laos and Tonsai in Thailand. These are places with a laid back vibe that are great for spending your time relaxing, with a enough activities to entertain you if you get bored.
Know your transport options around the region
There are variety of ways to get round Southeast Asia. This segment of my Southeast Asia backpacking tips will now go over your options and give some information about each one.
Flying is an obvious starting point. Personally I try to avoid when possible, but sometimes its required to visit somewhere. For example its difficult to cross from Thailand into Myanmar by land, so flying into Yangon and out of Mandalay is a good way to visit the country. Or you may need to get across large distance, for example from Vietnam to Thailand, so of course taking a plane will be a lot easier than having to pass through another country. There are a host of regional airlines offering good deals. Air Asia is a popular one that I’ve found useful. Many backpackers use apps like skyscanner to find what they need.
I would say if your pressed for time it might be tempting to get loads of flights to fit as many places as you can. I advise not doing this. Instead focus on seeing one or two areas more thoroughly, and plan to come back to see the rest in future. Southeast Asia is a region where you need to invest some time, so you can really explore the culture and history, rather than just skim the highlights.
Buses and Minivans
Long distance buses are the most common method of travel for backpackers in Southeast Asia. They are generally easy to book, ask either at your accommodation or a nearby travel agent. Usually hostels will be able to book these for you. When you can take a night bus. This will save you on time and money, as you can (try to) sleep whilst you travel. I used them a lot in Vietnam, where they are set up with beds rather than seats meaning you can generally get some rest whilst on the road. They are a good way to meet other travellers heading to the same destination as you too. I’ve had many a fun conversation with fellow travellers on the night bus!
In some areas you will find mini vans are an alternative option, and sometimes the only option. For example the long road from Chiang Mai to Pai in Northern Thailand is one done by minivans. They can be booked in the same way as buses, and both are normally reasonably priced. Just ask how to get to your destination and the person booking it for you will explain whether its bus or minivan. The only thing with these is that they can be quite cramped and aren’t great if you get carsick. So be sure to take some music you can listen to in headphones or whatever else it is you use to distract yourself.
There are some trains in Southeast Asia, and whilst they don’t cover everywhere they are worth using when you can. They are cheap and usually offer good views out of the window.
The areas where I have used the train were Thailand, Myanmar, Peninsular Malaysia and Java, Indonesia. The following are some journeys I think are worth highlighting as good examples.
In Thailand train is a great way to get between Bangkok and Ayutthaya. You could also catch the train from there to get all the way up to Chiang Mai. Its also a great way to head down the south from Bangkok. There are ferry’s to the islands from train stops such as Chumphon.
In Myanmar the train journey between Hsipaw and Pyin Oo Lwin is famous for taking you across the Gokteik Viaduct. This really is an awesome journey, the scenery is amazing and crossing the viaduct is something special.
On Java it’s a great way to get across the island. The particular journeys I did were to go from Yogyakarta to Probolinggo, from which you can visit Mount Bromo. I then took the train from there to Banyuwangi, from which you can take a ferry across to Bali.
There are also trains in Vietnam, that run up and down the country, but I haven’t used them. Generally they didn’t fit in with the route I did but they are an option for you to consider.
In some places, boat may also be a good option. It allows you to see some great scenery, avoid traffic and is often a quicker method. If your travelling into Cambodia from Vietnam then, as I recommend in my Vietnamese itinerary, its a good idea to take a Mekong Delta tour that includes a boat trip into Phnom Penh. This will help you skip the long lines at the border and potential scams. Another recommended boat trip is the slow boat in Laos. After crossing from Northern Thailand into Huay Xai you can take it all the way down to Luang Prabang. Read more about it in my Laos itinerary
Tuk-tuk’s and Songthaew’s
When travelling around a local area tuk-tuks and songthaew’s are a great ways to get from A to B. These are small vehicles/passenger carriers which can fit a few people. They are also known as known as rickshaws. You can negotiate a price with the driver to get you to your destination. Remember to haggle, it’s good to learn the standard pricing in the area by asking other backpackers.
Tuk-tuk tours are popular, in areas where there are a variety of sports to see. A good example of this is the Temples Of Angkor, where you can hire a a driver to take you around all the temples. You negotiate a price for the time and usually drivers will know the good local spots. Do a bit of research before you go so you can make sure the driver is taking you around all the places you want to see. Watch out for scams though, I’ll cover this later in these Southeast Asia backpacking tips.
Songthaew’s in particular offer great value for money. They are essentially a larger tuk tuk that you share with other passengers. They aren’t everywhere but it’s definitely recommended to take them when you can, you’ll save good amount of money.
Taxi wise, throughout Southeast Asia there are usually plenty available. They are normally parked up in tourist areas waiting for customers. Hostels and guesthouses will sometimes have drivers that either work for them or they have an agreement with. If ordering by app the local one to use is Grab, not Uber. In the cities there are normally motorcycle taxi’s available too, which are generally a quick and cheap option to get somewhere.
In Bangkok in particular, always make sure any car taxi you get is using a meter. Those who try to pre-arrange prices with you are always ripping you off, just say no and walk away. These prices will normally be double or triple what you will get charged by meter. Whilst on Bali, beware there are large areas where Grab taxi’s are not welcomed by the locals. They may be able to drop off but not pick up, for example in Ubud.
A quickfire Southeast Asia FAQ
If you really want to explore the area then 6 months is the ideal time for backpacking Southeast Asia. This will allow you to cover the different countries in Southeast Asia and experience all the highlights.
Given the time it takes to get between destinations, I would say you should spend at least 3 weeks per country in Southeast Asia. Bus rides between destinations can be long, often taking a whole day or night. So 3 weeks allows you to visit several places in a country.
This question really depends on what you want to do. If you want to participate in many activities and tours, the cost will of course go up. And drinking alcohol too effects your budget. I would say aim for at least $1200/£850 a month over a prolonged period. If your planning to take lots of flights and do diving lessons this will go up substantially.
Honestly the whole region is amazing, but if your pressed for time I’d say stick to Vietnam, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. They are very easy to get around, and have an amazing combination of history, nature and food.
I personally think Bali is overrated, but I still recommend visiting for the Balinese culture and great countryside (away from the beach resorts). If you want to visit I would combine it with a trip to other parts of Indonesia, particularly Java and the Komodo islands.
Thanks for reading these Southeast Asia backpacking tips
Southeast Asia is a wonderful region to explore and really worth investing your time in. Its a part of the world I hope to visit as much as I can in future, as I very much enjoy my time exploring the area. It brought back many good memoirs writing these Southeast Asia backpacking tips and I hope they help you plan your own trip to the area.
If you have been to region yourself feel free to post your own Southeast Asia backpacking tips in the comments below.
And to add one final thing to my Southeast Asia backpacking tips. Prepare for reverse culture shock when you go home! After spending so much time in Asia it can be a bit weird going back to your own country where cultures and traditions are very different.
The feature photo I have used for this post is of Padar Island in the Komodo National Park, Indonesia.
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Hi Dave, partly inspired by your posts I’m heading out to SE Asia for roughly six months at the end of January.
I’m currently doing my shopping for gear (a good rucksack etc.) and I was wondering could you point me in the direction of a good kit list to make sure I’m not missing anything?
Planning on staying in hostels and doing the occasional hike, and bumming around on some very quiet islands for a fair amount of time – so if it was geared towards that, that’d be extremely helpful!
Dave Does The Travel Thing
Thank for the comment Matt. To be honest I don’t really know any kit lists that would be particular of help. Most of the stuff I took is just the basics such as cloths, simple medicines, sunspray and Deet. The last one is particularly important to protect against insects and mosquitos, make sure sit’s 40-50% strong. Some people say to take a mosquito net and technically yeah it’s helpful but in practise it’s hard to put it up in a lot of places and annoying to lug around. I just used the spray before sleeping. Though if your planning to camp anywhere it would be a must. All the hikes I did were with tour guides and apart form a decent pair of walking shoes, you will be fine with loose fitting trousers (cover the ankles to protect against bugs) and a hoody/fleece for if you go into highland areas. Actually I would recommend taking a couple pairs of loose fitting trousers, helpful for temples too where you need to cover down to below the knee (as well as shoulders so take t-shirts rather than vests/tank tops).
The one thing I would say is leave room in your pack so you can buy stuff you need on the way.
Cheers, enjoy your trip!