The ultimate guide to backpacking Southeast Asia
Southeast Asia has quickly become a hot spot for backpackers from around the world. Travellers come from every corner of the earth to meet the friendly people, experience unique cultures, and indulge in mouthwatering food. The clear blue water, breathtaking sunrises and sunsets, and uncommon landscapes are some of the most enticing sights you’ll ever come across; and the elaborate temples and historic structures will leave you in awe. With so much to do and see, it can be difficult to make sure you get the most of out your time backpacking Southeast Asia, so we put together a guide including everything you need to know while travelling through Southeast Asia.
[All photos provided by @backpackerswanderlust ]
- Best time to visit Southeast Asia
- Southeast Asia travel visa
- Best way to travel Southeast Asia
- Accommodation in Southeast Asia
- Travel Costs in Southeast Asia
- Places to visit in Southeast Asia
- Southeast Asia food
- Southeast Asia culture and customs
- Is Southeast Asia safe?
- Southeast Asia Travel advice
Best time to visit Southeast Asia
Recommended by Sari Gregory
Just as Southeast Asia is made up of a rich variety of food, languages and cultures, you’ll also discover a variety of climates when backpacking through this region. No matter what time of year you choose to backpack Southeast Asia, you’ll be able to find somewhere with good weather. Here are some of the key countries in the region that showcase this variety.
Wet season vs dry season
Monsoons happen throughout Southeast Asia from June through to September, though it’ll vary slightly depending on where you are. Unless an area is impacted by major rains, a typical day during monsoon season will be a day of sunshine followed by a few hours of rain. You’ll still be able to do some great sightseeing during monsoon season – just make sure you always keep a poncho or rain jacket ready and handy for any unsuspecting showers. You should also purchase a rain cover for your backpack if it doesn’t come with one, to keep it (and everything inside) nice and dry.
The high season for travellers is during the dry season (which can vary across the region, as detailed below), so you should expect to pay higher prices along with the many other tourists hoping for some sunshine. Travelling during the monsoon season does have its advantages with fewer crowds and cheaper prices. As the Southeast Asian region is near the equator, you generally won’t experience extremely cold weather.
Best time to visit Thailand
Thailand´s high season is from November to February, where you´ll experience dry sunny weather throughout most of the country.
In the north (such as Chiang Mai), the weather is dry from November till May, with the first few months – November to February – experiencing cooler temperatures. March, April, and May are when things really get hot. If you´re in northern Thailand in April, don’t miss the New Year festival of Songkran; it’s the biggest water fight in the world and is the best break from the heat. From June to October, you’ll find the weather much wetter in the north.
In the south, the west coast and east coasts have different weather patterns. The good news is that you can choose your islands according to when you visit. The west coast (including Phuket and Khao Lak) has the biggest downpour from May till October, while the wet season for the east coast (including Koh Samui and Ko Phangan) is from September to December. If you want to island hop and hang out on sunny beaches all day, just pick the coast that is dry during your trip.
Best time to visit Vietnam
Vietnam is best divided into three regions: north, south and central.
The north (such as Ha Giang and Sapa) has cool, dry temperatures from October to March. The hot, monsoon season stretches from late April to September. Overall, temperatures in the north are cooler than in the south, especially in the northern mountainous regions, where the weather is cool and comfortable year-round. So, bring a jacket on if you’re planning to trek Sapa from October to March.
Central Vietnam (such as Hue and Hoi An) is hot and dry from January to August and experiences the most rain from September to November.
The south (such as Ho Chi Minh City) has two seasons: wet and dry. The dry, hot season is from November to April, while most of the rain comes down in the summer months of June, July, and August. Be prepared to get your sweat on in Ho Chi Minh City pretty much all year long.
Best time to visit Indonesia
Indonesia doesn’t have four seasons, just two: a wet and a dry season. You’ll find Indonesia’s weather to be the opposite of rest of Southeast Asia. While rains are pouring in Thailand, you can be sipping Bintang on a sunny beach in Bali. Generally, the temperature remains similar throughout the year, with some regional exceptions. The high tourist season in Indonesia is from May to September, which is when you’ll experience dry, warm weather. From October to April, the wet season will see rain for a few hours at a time.
The best time to visit Bali is during the high seasons: the springtime Easter holidays (March/April), winter holidays (December/January) plus July and August. However, Bali sees a heavy flow of tourist traffic around these times so if you don’t like crowds, try the shoulder months: April, May, June and September. The island doesn’t see as much contrast between the wet and dry seasons, so it’s a great year-round destination.
Best time to visit Malaysia
The Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur, experiences warm weather all year round but is generally drier from June to August. Elsewhere, the country has a clear difference in east-west weather, just like the Gulf Coast of Thailand.
The west coast islands (like Penang, Langkawi and Pangkor) experience the best weather from December to April, while the rainy season occurs from April to October.
The east coast (including Kota Bharu and Mersing) enjoys drier days from April to October, while stormy monsoon weather occurs in November and December.
There are many micro-climates within the island of Borneo – so I recommend you don’t plan your trip around the weather here because it can be quite unpredictable. On the same day, Borneo’s weather will see warm, clear skies in one part of the island and a downpour in another part of the island. The least rain is from March to October, which also happens to be the best months to see orangutans.
Southeast Asia travel visa
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Thinking of visiting Southeast Asia? Before you get too ahead of yourself and arrive unprepared, it’s important to do your research. You don’t want to be turned back at the border because you don’t have something as simple as an entry visa. Here’s a general guide for Southeast Asian visas for Australian, UK or US citizens. (Please note, visa requirements may differ if you are a citizen of another country).
Can I get a Cambodia visa on arrival?
You’ll need a visa to visit Cambodia. Most visitors will be able to obtain a 30-day tourist visa on arrival for USD $30. I would suggest that you bring exact money because they rarely give change. Also, have a passport photo ready, they will ask for one of these.
If you like being organised, you can arrange your visa in advance by applying for a tourist e-visa from www.evisa.gov.kh.
If 30 days isn’t enough, you can extend your visa for an additional 30 days (but only once) at many travel agencies in Phnom Penh. Again, the extra 30 days will cost you another USD $30. For longer stays, you’ll need to arrange a visa in advance through the nearest Embassy or Consulate of Cambodia.
Can I get a Laos visa on arrival?
You’ll need a visa to visit Laos. Australian, British and US travellers can obtain a 30-day tourist visa on arrival, so long as they have 6 months validity on their passports, two blank pages in their passport and two passport photos. Visa prices vary depending on your nationality. For US and UK citizens, it costs USD $35. If you’re Australian (like me), it’s only USD $30. I would recommend paying in USD to avoid a bad exchange rate.
If 30 days isn’t enough, you can apply for a visa in advance or extend a tourist visa twice (up to a total of 90 days) at the immigration office in Vientiane. Visas on arrival are not available at all entry ports so if you plan to enter through somewhere more obscure, it’s best to apply for a visa in advance from the Embassy of Laos.
Do I need a visa for Singapore?
Citizens of most countries won’t need a visa to visit Singapore for tourism for the first 30 days. In fact, UK, US and Australian citizens can stay for up to 90 days visa-free. All you will need is at least 6 months of validity on your passport and proof of onward ticket.
Do I need a visa for Thailand?
Most nationalities travelling to Thailand for tourism are eligible for visa exemption up to a certain number of days. For Australians, Brits and Americans, this is available for up to 30 days.
If you’re planning to stay longer, you can extend your visa once for up to 30 days for a fee of 1900 Thai Baht at an immigration office. Alternatively, you can do what is commonly called a “border run”. This involves exiting the country by land to a neighbouring country before crossing back in to get a new visa. However, keep in mind that you can only enter Thailand by land twice a year. The most practical option for longer stays is to get a visa in advance from a Thai Embassy or Consulate.
Do I need a visa for Vietnam?
Many nationalities visiting Vietnam are granted visa exemptions for up to 90 days. UK citizens are eligible for a 15-day visa exemption but US and Australian citizens do not get an exemption so must apply for a visa. UK citizens planning to stay longer than 15 days will also need a visa.
E-visas are available for up to 30 days for USD $25 from www.xuatnhapcanh.gov.vn/en. Alternatively, you can apply for a visa directly from the nearest Embassy or Consulate of Vietnam.
Fun fact – if you’re of Vietnamese descent like me and have parents who are technically nationals, or if your spouse is a Vietnamese national, you can apply for a 5-year visa exemption certificate which allows multiple entries into Vietnam for up to 6 months.
Southeast Asia visa tips
Being able to get a visa on arrival makes travelling more flexible and allows you to be more spontaneous with where you go. However, it’s important to be prepared to a certain extent.
My top tip for travelling without preparing visas in advance is to always carry multiple copies of your passport photo and spare USD. Often, these are required when applying for visas on arrival. Additionally, you should always have at least two copies of your important documents, just in case.
You should also make sure you have at least 6 months validity on your passport on the day you plan to arrive home. Being stranded overseas with an almost-expired passport is a nightmare.
Best way to travel Southeast Asia
Recommended by Sari Gregory
In terms of travel, backpacking southeast Asia is easier than many people expect. There are many transport options: flights, trains and buses can take you between cities and countries, plus tuk-tuks and motor taxis are great options for shorter trips. If you have time, keep your plans flexible – you never know where you’ll want to spend more time or who you will want to travel with.
Busses in Southeast Asia
By and large, the best form of transportation is the good ol’ classic bus. Buses in Southeast Asia are cheap and will take you where you want to go. You often can buy your bus tickets online (on a website such as 12go Asia), in person at the bus station, or through a travel agency. Talk to your hostel about whether your tickets need to be booked in advance. Usually, buses can be booked the day you want to leave, but popular routes and high seasons/holiday times may mean some routes are all booked up. You’ll meet plenty of other backpackers on these buses since it is the most economical and popular way of travelling around Southeast Asia.
Stray and Bamba bus in Southeast Asia
The Bamba Experience is a hop-on-hop-off bus that follows a set route throughout Southeast Asia. Stray Asia is another hop-on-hop-off bus and pre-booked itinerary option for backpackers. This could be a good alternative to traditional backpacking if you are concerned with booking activities and bus passes yourself and you are not on a tight budget. However, it’s so easy to book travel in Asia that buying this type of pass is generally unnecessary. You may find that you will want spontaneity and will want to book travel with friends you meet, and this pass may limit your ability to do so.
Flights in Southeast Asia
If you’re pressed on time, flying will be your best option. If you keep your dates flexible, you can get some pretty good prices for flights. Usually, domestic flights within a country can be found for USD $80 or less.
Budget airlines like AirAsia, TigerAir and Jetstar can be the cheapest option. Make sure to check the costs with a local computer as well, in case airline costs are inflated on your foreign phone.
All the main tourist cities have airports. Bangkok, for example, has two airports; Suvarnabhumi Airport (Bankok’s international airport) is connected to the city by metro train and Don Mueang Airport (the local airport) is connected by bus. Don’t forget to check other airports in your destination country – there are airports around most big tourist attractions, not just in the sprawling metropolitan cities.
Trains in Southeast Asia
Train services in Southeast Asia are more limited than bus travel and are often more expensive. Many train rides need to be booked a few days in advance, as they are more likely to fill up than buses. The quality of the trains varies greatly by country, region and seat class, but some train journeys are worth the price for the experience itself. The journey from Jakarta to Jogjakarta in Indonesia is stunning and is comparatively inexpensive. Bangkok to Chiang Mai is another popular route, as the train network in Thailand is fairly extensive.
You’ll find city metro trains in Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Bangkok and Jakarta. If you visit these cities, make sure to use the metro as it’s the best way to beat traffic, inexpensive, and a good way to live life alongside the locals.
Taxis, tuk-tuks, and moto-taxis
For short distances, you’ll have plenty of options to get around Southeast Asia. Make sure you ask and negotiate the price before you get into the tuk-tuk or taxi – especially tuk-tuks, as drivers will double the prices for tourists. Simply, haggle down that price and hop in as you should have the tuk-tuk experience at least once in your trip.
Moto taxis are a particularly inexpensive way to get around. You can use Uber, Grab, or GoJek (in Indonesia) to hail a moto taxi in many cities in Southeast Asia. Hail one with your phone, pop on the helmet that is offered to you, hop on the back and enjoy the thrill.
Accommodation in Southeast Asia
Southeast Asia is renowned by backpackers from all around the globe; as much, there’s a MASSIVE selection of hostels for every price range, style of traveller, and destination. Hostels in Southeast Asia come in all shapes and sizes too; there’s everything form large, modern hostels that take luxury to the next level, to quaint, rustic hostels offering complete cultural immersion. The best part is that not matter where you stay you’ll be met with friendly people that are excited to share their home with you and give you the best experience you possible. With so many amazing hostels to choose from it can be difficult to decide which one is best for you, but have no fear, we’ve compiled the best hostels in Asia to make your booking a breeze!
Travel costs in Southeast Asia
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Southeast Asia is a very budget-friendly region to travel. However, there are certain countries that are friendlier on the wallet than others – and this is of great importance when planning your adventure and deciding which countries to visit.
Your budget certainly won’t last long exploring the bustling pricey city of Singapore, though Cambodia – home of USD $3 dorm beds and cheap street side meals – is thankfully a quick flight away. This price contrast can also occur within one country itself. Take Thailand for example: for the price of one week in Phuket you can travel for two weeks around Chiang Mai, ultimately causing confusion in how much money to take to Thailand.
As you can see, it can be quite difficult to figure out an exact Southeast Asia travel budget, so let’s look at things a bit more closely.
Cost of backpacking Southeast Asia
Southeast Asia is known as one of the most affordable regions to backpack in the world, thanks to cheap accommodation and food. Get ready for street side barbeque stalls, bunkbeds and overcrowded vans. Whilst these things may not seem so great in an everyday world, they are what make the experience in Southeast Asia and certainly help keep the costs down. Buses and trains between destinations generally cost around USD $10, much cheaper than a domestic flight. Hostels are abundant throughout Southeast Asia, providing a cheap place to rest your head and meet fellow travellers. Food options are plentiful – but if you want to stick to your budget, street food is your best friend (you really can’t go wrong with pad thai).
Even though food, transport and accommodation are extremely affordable, there are some more expensive experiences that shouldn’t be missed. While in Thailand, visiting an ethical elephant sanctuary, doing a PADI diving course on Koh Tao and ziplining through the jungles are just some of the pricey experiences you might want to do and will need to consider when figuring out how much money to take to Thailand.
As a rule, your ‘travelling Southeast Asia budget’ will need to be at least USD $1000 per month. You can certainly backpack cheaper by skimping on experiences, though the region is full of amazing moments you will not want to miss out on.
Cost of living in Southeast Asia
The cost of living in Southeast Asia when compared to many Western countries is extremely affordable, which has led to an influx of expat communities abroad. This is especially true these days with better internet connections resulting in numerous digital nomads.
One of the cheapest countries to live in Southeast Asia is Cambodia. There are some excellent expat communities throughout the country from Siem Reap to Sihanoukville. The low cost of living in Cambodia allows people to live a comfortable lifestyle at a minimal cost. Private rooms can be found from USD $100 per month and full apartments from USD $300, whilst meals cost just a couple dollars each. These cheap prices and great sense of community make living in Cambodia on a shoestring budget so appealing.
Average prices in Southeast Asia
Overall, Southeast Asia is a very budget friendly destination, leaving you and your wallet smiling at the end of each day, though this will depend on your travel style.
If you are an adventurous eater who will happily consume street food with the locals, you can find delicious meals from just USD $1-3. But, if you’d rather have table service at a basic eatery, you should expect to spend upwards of USD $3.5 with a soft drink. For foodies who like to make each meal an experience (eating at only the best and typically found at 5* restaurants), the cost to dinning at such places will be comparable to that of Western prices, running upwards of USD $20 for a main and a drink.
Here’s a quick guide to average prices in Southeast Asia:
1L water: USD $0.50
Bed in dorm room: USD $3-9 per night
Basic double room: USD $10-30 per night
Large beer: USD $0.50-$2.00
1-hour massage: starting from USD $6
Motor bike rental: USD $6 -10 per day
Money saving tips
- Book hostels that include a free breakfast – that’s one less meal you need to purchase each day.
- Make sure taxi drivers use the meter or agree on a fixed price before getting into the vehicle. A great alternative is using the Grab App to get around (it is the Southeast Asian version of Uber). They also have a motorbike option, which is perfect for solo travellers.
- If you’re shopping at markets, remember to haggle when purchasing an item. It’s all a part of the Southeast Asian experience and a great way to interact with the locals.
- Make sure you have travel insurance. You can easily get into freak accidents and suddenly your budget will be blown on hospital bills – thankfully, travel insurance is your best friend in such situations.
Places to visit in Southeast Asia
Recommended by Natasha Nguyen
Deciding that you want to visit Southeast Asia is a simple task, but once you sit down and really think about where you want to go, this task can get very overwhelming. Southeast Asia is HUGE, consisting of so many countries, all with different attractions, cuisines and customs.
To hopefully make this difficult task a bit easier, here’s a crash course of Southeast Asia’s most popular countries and what they have to offer.
Worth visiting for: Angkor Wat, beautiful islands, fascinating (yet haunting) history.
Things to watch out for: average food, bag snatching is common.
Popular places to visit: Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, Sihanoukville, Koh Rong.
Cambodia hosts what is arguably the most beautiful attraction in Southeast Asia – Angkor Wat. I mean, Angelina Jolie filmed Tomb Raider here. It has a lot more to offer though: learn about the haunting Khmer Rouge regime in Phnom Penh or experience some of Asia’s most beautiful (and untouched) islands like Koh Rong Samloem and Sihanoukville.
Worth visiting for: rice terraces, remote beaches.
Things to watch out for: overcrowded and touristy parts.
Popular places to visit: Jakarta, Bali, Gili Islands, Lombok, Java, Sumatra.
Indonesia can accommodate both backpacking beginners and those after a more “off the beaten trail” experience. The popular Bali and Gili Islands are very tourist-friendly, and you are bound to meet heaps of fellow backpackers here. Alternatively, Indonesia is made up of so many islands that more “untouched” places like Sumatra or Java are aplenty.
Worth visiting for: chill lifestyle, beautiful waterfalls.
Things to watch out for: average food, poor quality roads, lack of nightlife.
Popular places to visit: Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng, Vientiane, Don Det.
Laos is very slow-paced which is refreshing compared to the hustle and bustle of most other Southeast Asian countries. Laos is known for its beautiful waterfalls, such as Kuang Si Falls in Luang Prabang and many backpackers flock to Vang Vieng to take part in the famous tubing.
Worth visiting for: temples of Bagan, beautiful hikes, not so touristy (yet).
Things to watch out for: average food, tourists banned from riding scooters/motorbikes.
Popular places to visit: Mandalay, Yangon, Bagan, Inle Lake, Hpa-An
Myanmar is relatively new to tourism which makes it quite “authentic” compared to other well-trodden Southeast Asian countries. Myanmar is perfect for hiking fans, with many different hiking routes to choose from but the highlight is watching hot air balloons float above the temples in Bagan during sunrise.
Worth visiting for: island hopping, beautiful clear water, water sports.
Things to watch out for: average food, can be difficult to travel from island to island.
Popular places to visit: Manila, Boracay, Cebu, Palawan, Coron.
The Philippines is the place to be for any big water fans. You can experience extreme water sports such as windsurfing and jet skiing, to once-in-a-lifetime experiences such as swimming with whale sharks. Every island in the Philippines has something unique to offer and you will never be at a loss for things to do.
Worth visiting for: extremely clean and modern, award-winning restaurants.
Things to watch out for: it’s expensive! Need I say more?
Popular places to visit: Singapore city, Sentosa Island.
Singapore is a small country with lots to offer. For all you foodies, Singapore hosts some of the world’s cheapest Michelin star restaurants and is also known for its hawker centres. Singapore is also the home of the famous Marina Bay Sands, the hotel with the iconic infinity pool 57 floors above the ground.
Worth visiting for: cheap street food, night markets, easy to travel around.
Things to watch out for: certain parts extremely touristy, haggling with locals.
Popular places to visit: Bangkok, Phuket, Koh Phi Phi, Koh Phangan, Chiang Mai, Pai.
Thailand has so much to offer. The south hosts hundreds of different islands, all with different vibes. Some are small and undeveloped, such as Koh Mak. Others pull huge crowds, such as Koh Phi Phi. Jungly Northern Thailand has a completely different feel, offering more attractions for nature lovers such as national parks, waterfalls and elephant sanctuaries.
Worth visiting for: Vietnamese food, war museums, Halong Bay.
Things to watch out for: average beaches, traffic can be horrendous.
Popular places to visit: Hanoi, Halong Bay, Sapa, Hoi An, Ho Chi Minh City.
Vietnam is full of rich experiences, good food and fascinating history. The north hosts sights that will appeal to nature fans, such as Halong Bay and Sapa Hills, while the south is the place to go to learn more about the devastating effects of the Vietnam War, as well as enjoy the country’s amazing cuisine of course.
Southeast Asia itinerary
Overwhelmed with the choices available? Often, it’s easier to just follow a tried and true itinerary. A safe bet for any beginner is the famous Banana Pancake Trail. This isn’t a clear geographic route, it’s more a name that describes the most popular places in Southeast Asia. Some may call it overrated, but it’s popular for good reason. You are guaranteed to meet heaps of fellow travellers and the locals in these areas are used to seeing tourists, so you don’t have to worry too much about safety.
Four-week backpacking Southeast Asia route: Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos
If you’re after a “greatest hits” tour of this sub-continent, this is the itinerary for you. It hits most places listed on any Banana Pancake Trail list, so you’re guaranteed to see some beautiful sights and meet loads of backpacker friends.
How long: 3 days.
Must do/see: wander around the Old Quarter.
How to get here: fly into Noi Bai International Airport.
Start your trip off in the capital of Vietnam and immediately throw yourself into Vietnamese culture. Wander around the 36 streets in the Old Quarter and take in the French-Colonial architecture. Shop to your heart’s content at Dong Xuan market, then stop for a roadside bun cha for lunch before checking out a traditional water puppet show.
Halong Bay, Vietnam
How long: 2 days, 1 night.
Must do/see: kayaking in Halong Bay.
How to get there: cruise tour from Hanoi, private car, bus or train.
Halong Bay is a must-visit destination in Vietnam and is simply magical. Cruise through the iconic bay, explore the surrounding caves and kayak amongst the limestone pillars. Halong Bay can be done in a day, but I personally recommend staying at least one night. The easiest way to do this is to go with a tour, as most things such as transport and even meals are covered.
Hoi An, Vietnam
How long: 3 days.
Must do/see: Hoi An night market.
How to get there: fly to Da Nang and bus/taxi to Hoi An, train to Da Nang and bus/taxi to Hoi An, or direct sleeper bus.
This UNESCO Heritage site is one of my personal favourites in Vietnam. The little riverside town dotted with colourful lanterns is so architecturally beautiful. What Hoi An is most famous for is its tailor shops. You can easily get a cheap tailored suit, dress, or even tailored leather shoes.
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
How long: 3 days.
Must do/see: Cu Chi Tunnels.
How to get there: bus/taxi to Da Nang and fly to Ho Chi Minh, bus/taxi to Da Nang and train to Ho Chi Minh, direct sleeper bus.
Ho Chi Minh City is a bustling metropolis that offers plenty of culture and rich history. Haggle your way through the aisles of Cho Ben Thanh, the city’s biggest market, before polishing down a bowl of pho for lunch. Brush up on your history at the War Remnants Museum and immerse yourself in old guerrilla warfare tactics by crawling through the Chu Chi tunnels.
Phnom Penh, Cambodia
How long: 2 days.
Must do/see: Killing Fields.
How to get there: overnight bus or flight.
Phnom Penh is an eye-opening city. Though depressing, visiting the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek and the S21 Prison to learn about the Khmer Rouge regime is both powerful and moving. It makes you really appreciate the strength and resilience of the Cambodian locals. To end your day on a lighter note, ask your tuk-tuk driver to take you to a local Muay Thai fight.
Siem Reap, Cambodia
How long: 3 days.
Must do/see: Angkor Wat.
How to get there: flight, bus or minibus.
Siem Reap is famous for being the home of Angkor Wat. You could spend 3 whole days exploring the hundreds of temples and still not see them all. However, there are many other things to do in Siem Reap. Take a traditional pottery class or explore the outer villages and see how the locals live. Whatever you choose to do though, watching the sunrise over Angkor Wat is a must.
How long: 3 days.
Must do/see: Wat Arun.
How to get there: flight or bus.
Bangkok is a city of many choices. If sightseeing is your thing, explore the many beautiful temples. You could even do a day trip to historic Ayutthaya to see the spectacular temple ruins. If shopping is your thing, check out impressively large Chatuchak Market. If food is your thing, cheap street food is bountiful or the world’s 5th best restaurant, Gaggan, is in Bangkok. I can attest that the 25-course menu is amazing.
Koh Phangan, Thailand
How long: 2 days.
Must do/see: Full Moon Party.
How to get there: flight into Koh Samui or Surat Thani then ferry, night bus or train from Bangkok then ferry.
The Full Moon Party is a big drawcard for many visitors to Koh Phangan. Although the Full Moon Party gets mixed reviews, it is worth experiencing once in your life. Koh Phangan is one of three small islands within an hour ferry ride of each other so if you have some extra time, it is worth also visiting Koh Samui or, my personal favourite, Koh Tao.
Chiang Mai, Thailand
How long: 3 days.
Must do/see: visit an elephant sanctuary.
How to get there: flight (direct or through Bangkok) or ferry then bus.
The capital of northern Thailand is not as busy as Bangkok, but just as lively. Spend your days exploring the 300 temples, your nights exploring the huge night markets, witness a local Muay Thai fight, do a Thai cooking class or bathe some elephants at one of many elephant sanctuaries
How long: 3 days.
Must do/see: Pai Canyon.
How to get there: bus or minivan.
Pai used to be one of those “off the beaten path” hippie backpacker towns but has shot up in popularity over recent years. Nestled in the mountains, Pai is surrounded by beautiful canyons, natural hot springs and impressive waterfalls. On the other hand, the centre of town is lined with the comforts from home and an abundance of Western food. You can even get a decent steak.
Luang Prabang, Laos
How long: 2 days.
Must do/see: hike Mount Phousi for views.
How to get there: bus then slow boat or flight.
Luang Prabang is a small and quaint town that is famous for the beautiful Kuang Si Falls. What I loved is that it’s so quiet, even the nightlife is tame. There’s one bar in town and everyone ends their night at the local bowling alley, drinking and bowling at the same time. Another Luang Prabang highlight for me was a zip lining through the jungle.
Vang Vieng, Laos
How long: 3 days.
Must do/see: tubing down Nam Song River.
How to get there: VIP bus or minivan.
Most people go to Vang Vieng to experience tubing down the Nam Song River (a rite of passage for any backpacker). Vang Vieng is also a great place to slow down and chill out. All the cafes around town play Friends reruns all day (so cool) and at night, hostels offer free whisky before everyone heads off to the famous Sakura bar.
How long: 1 day.
Must do/see: Phat That Luang.
How to get there: VIP bus or minivan.
There isn’t so much to do in Vientiane but as the capital of Laos, it’s the natural point to end your trip as you can catch a flight to wherever you are heading next. The slow and calm riverside city is also the perfect place to unwind after a long journey.
Southeast Asian food
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When it comes to the Asian diet, there’s so much more to enjoy than rice and noodles. Yes, these are a staple of this part of the world, but as you move through Southeast Asia you’ll realise there’s as much to discover in the region’s kitchens as there is in its beaches and historical sites. From the hawker centres of Singapore to the warungs of Indonesia, there’s a rich and diverse array on offer – just be willing to try something new.
There’s no denying that there are a few core dishes you’re likely to sniff out on many menus in most Southeast Asian countries. Pan Asian food will likely feature some form of rice or noodle dish, a soup or a curry as the most familiar option, but these will vary across the region. Rice is perhaps the staple that you’ll find to be most consistent. It tends to be eaten throughout the day, often served fried with vegetables, meat or an alternative such as tofu. Steamed, boiled or sticky rice (the latter packaged up nicely in a banana leaf for convenient transportation on the move) may also be a side accompaniment to other dishes such as Indonesian ayam goreng (fried chicken).
For an alternative carb fix, you’ll find noodles on offer almost everywhere too. The simplest dishes will again consist of fried noodles with vegetables, meat or a veggie alternative, and perhaps some sauce if you’re feeling fancy. In street stalls or food centres, you’ll sometimes find bottles of soy-style dressing or some kind of hot sauce you can help yourself to. Others will serve up a little side dish of dressing, often of a local variety, which it’s always worth trying. For example, in Myanmar, beware of the little pot of watery-looking sauce that they’ll bring you with noodles – the chillies really pack a punch, so don’t make the mistake of pouring the whole thing over your lunch before you’ve tasted it… Noodles are also widely available in soups in the more southern and eastern countries of the region, with vegetables or meat – and often a good amount of spice. In Myanmar, Malaysia, Cambodia and Indonesia you’re likely to find more egg noodles, whilst in Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and the Philippines, rice noodles will feature more prominently.
You’re also unlikely to leave Southeast Asia without having had your fair share of curries – particularly in the western fringes of the region where you can feel some influence from their Indian neighbours. In Myanmar, you’ll find both meat and vegetarian curries with lentils, chickpeas, a palata bread accompaniment and thicker bases made with ngapi fish paste. In Thailand, Cambodia and Laos, sauces tend to be richer, creamier and more coconut-based. The Cambodian fish amok was a favourite of mine. Laos and Thailand take home the award for the spiciest curries – so if you ask for ‘normal spicy’ rather than ‘tourist spicy’ here, have some cold water at the ready. Malaysian and Indonesian curry dishes, such as the delicious rendang, tend not to be as hot overall but are rich and flavoursome.
Core bases covered, I urge you to explore a little more of what Asian cuisine has to offer. Before you make a beeline for the pad thai or nasi goreng, look at the alternative options – often the best way to discover a particular area’s speciality is just to observe what and where the locals are eating, and follow suit. The Malaysian steamboat is as much of a cooking experience as it is an eating one: you’re served up a soup over a cooker, with raw vegetables, eggs, meat and sometimes seafood to add in, cooking it all yourself (to your taste) in the hot liquid. Indonesian gado gado makes a great lunch or light dinner; consisting of steamed vegetables, potato, boiled eggs, tofu or tempeh and a great peanut sauce. In the Philippines, the more adventurous amongst you can sink your teeth into something that might otherwise do the same to you: a speciality in Palawan is sizzling crocodile sisig – a delicious dish of minced meat with chilli and local calamansi fruit. Meanwhile, the Vietnamese know how to make a mean sandwich – a banh mi usually consists of some kind of meat or seafood, salad-style greens, sauce, and a large helping of coriander. If you come across a crab banh mi in a coastal area, order one up and enjoy with your sea view.
There’s plenty in Southeast Asia to satisfy a sweet tooth too. Most food stall centres in Laos will serve up little coconut pancakes cooked in what look like bubbles of batter. Warning: these are almost addictively tasty. The Indonesian version of these coconut treats, which you can find in local food markets, are called apem – they make a great snack for long journeys. Mango sticky rice is a favourite in Cambodia, whilst their Thai neighbours have perfected the crepe in the form of delicious rotis – fried pancakes often served with a combination of egg, banana, cheese or chocolate. Across the Philippines and Vietnam, you’ll stumble across local bakeries offering up some delicious pastries and desserts such as che troi nuoc (rice balls in ginger syrup). Just be aware that cheese and various beans often count as ‘sweets’ here, so you may get something of a surprise when you bite into your cake.
In terms of costs, it’s easy to eat cheap throughout Southeast Asia. Most meals will comfortably cost under USD $5 for a good portion – perhaps a bit less in cities where there’s a wider selection of street stalls to choose from, and often a little more in more touristy areas such as beach resorts. Street food, as a rule, tends to be cheaper than eating in restaurants – and is often the best way to sample food the local way. When you’re booking hostels, also look at whether breakfast is included as this is another good way of keeping costs down. Many hostel breakfasts will consist of toast, eggs or pancakes. The reference to the Banana Pancake Trail above is an apt description for backpacker breakfasting around the region.
If you’re a traveller with dietary requirements, some are admittedly easier to navigate than others in Southeast Asia. Though meat is often eaten daily throughout the region, vegetarian options are widespread. In more basic places this may just involve additional vegetables, but alternatives such as tofu and tempeh are also more common than you’d expect. A top tip here, where there is a language barrier with the word ‘vegetarian’, is to look for Buddhist eateries – or of course just learn the appropriate word in the respective language whenever you come across someone who can help. Eggs, peanuts and gluten (mostly in the form of soy or noodles) are two allergens you’ll find a lot in Pan Asian food, so if you suffer from intolerances it’s definitely worth learning a few key words – some travellers I met asked locals to translate and write down appropriate sentences for them to show when ordering food, which helped avoid misunderstandings. Food havens like Bali and cities like Singapore and Kuala Lumpur have more choice when it comes to free-from diets.
Before you tuck in, it’s worth a quick note on food safety. Hygiene standards in Southeast Asia can leave a lot to be desired, particularly with backpacker budget-friendly street food. This is often the tastiest and most authentic grub so should absolutely be enjoyed as part of your adventure, but wherever possible, try to avoid food likely to have been washed in tap water as this is often the culprit for the nastier illnesses. Make sure vegetables are well cooked, that meat and rice are piping hot, and only eat raw fruit you can peel – as well as washing your hands before you eat. If you’re recovering from a stomach upset, shopping mall food courts, whilst not the reason you visit Asia, can be a good place to get reliably sanitary yet still cheap and authentic meals.
So, there you have it. Asian cuisine is as diverse as the region itself and makes an important contribution to the culture – and the memories you’ll make – of each country in Southeast Asia. My advice: approach the food as you will the rest of your backpacking experience – there’s a world out there just waiting to be discovered.
Southeast Asian culture and customs
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The moments you have with the Southeast Asian people will be the ones you will cherish the most once your adventures are complete: the smiles and laughter used to communicate due to language barriers, the beers consumed at plastic tables shared with newfound friends and the endless recommendations as you speak to proud locals. Southeast Asian people are extremely friendly, and their kindness will be abundant throughout your travels.
While backpacking in Southeast Asia, I highly recommend interacting with the locals as much as possible. Whether this means just striking up a conversation or even staying with a family at a homestay. It will make your experiences that much richer, giving you a unique insight into the culture – and it may just lead to an incredible adventure.
Religion in Southeast Asia
Southeast Asian religion varies widely depending on the history of the country. There is not one major religion throughout the region and it’s known as one of the most religiously diverse places in the world today. Depending on the country you visit and the area of that country, you will find a variety of temples, churches and religious figures.
In Myanmar, Cambodia, Bali, Laos and Thailand, Buddhism is the most popular religion. Here, you’ll find many temples and practising monks. Vietnam was once a Buddhist nation, though nowadays the main belief is that of the Vietnamese folk religion. Buddhism is the commonly associated religion regarding Southeast Asia, though in reality there’s so much more.
While exploring Indonesia, Malaysia, parts of Myanmar and parts of southern Thailand it will become apparent that Islam is the widely practised religion. The call to prayer will become a regular soundtrack to your day and seeing some of the incredible mosques offer a different insight into Southeast Asian religion.
Even Catholicism is highly present by being the main belief of the Philippines and East Timor. This is the result of colonization from European countries. These days you can find Christianity widely practised throughout Southeast Asia and churches packed on a Sunday morning.
Overall, Southeast Asian people are extremely spiritual no matter their religion and it’s an important part of their daily lives. This will become obvious even in the most touristy areas. Religion plays a major part in the cultures of Southeast Asia and it should be embraced throughout your travels.
Southeast Asian art
Religion has widely impacted the Southeast Asian art produced by the locals. Depending on the country, you might find paintings of Buddha and monks in Thailand or Hindu gods in Cambodia, especially around the impressive Hindu temple complex of Angkor Wat.
Many locals become artisans to make a living. They will specialise in a particular technique or trade, and produce goods related to this. In some places, there are entire villages that will only produce a certain type of product. An example of this is Thanh Ha Village on the outskirts of Hoi An in Vietnam. Specialising in pottery, you can see the entire process from the locals throwing the clay on a wheel into a certain shape to the kiln where the item is heated, essentially turning it from clay to pottery. Partaking in experiences like these are an excellent way to interact with the locals, learn about Asian art and offer the chance to learn a new skill.
Customs in Southeast Asia
Southeast Asian people are very kind, polite and always seem composed. Their behaviour is greatly controlled by etiquette and oftentimes based on the Buddhist religion. These beliefs play a big part in their lives and as a visitor to Southeast Asia, you should respect this as well. Here are some customs you should be aware of and observe when travelling through the region:
- Raising your voice as a sign of anger is highly frowned upon. It’s viewed as threatening and a sign of weakness. Doing this will result in plenty of embarrassed looks and can leave a quite bad perception of foreigners.
- The head is considered the most sacred part of the body. Be careful to never pat a person on their head. Opposite to this is the feet, which are considered the dirtiest part of the body. Avoid putting your feet on tables and chairs, pointing with your feet and be careful when stepping over people.
- Always walk clockwise around Buddhist monuments. Locals will appreciate your awareness of their religion.
- Remove your shoes before entering a temple, as well as having your shoulders and knees covered.
- Before entering a house, make sure to remove your shoes. Oftentimes the same applies when staying in hostels and guesthouses. Though, the abundance of shoes outside the door will make it obvious that it is expected of you.
Is Southeast Asia safe?
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Southeast Asia, in general, is a safe, well-trodden place for backpackers. Of course, safety differs by country and city, but if you’re street smart and aware of your surroundings and careful with your valuables, you shouldn’t have too much difficulty.
Drugs and alcohol
Though they may seem readily available in parts of Asia, make no mistake: drugs are illegal throughout southeast Asia. In many Southeast Asian countries, penalties for drug possession can be severe. In Singapore and Indonesia, it can be punishable by death. Alcohol is generally legal throughout Southeast Asian countries, with exceptions in strictly religious parts of Malaysia, Indonesia, and in the small country of Brunei.
Safety in Indonesia
Indonesia is a country of over 17,000 islands with endless unique experiences to be had. It is cheap too – making it a backpacker’s dream. However, Indonesia has been experiencing both natural and terrorist disasters as of late, so it is advisable to research before determining your travel route.
In late July/early August 2018, Lombok was hit by a series of massive earthquakes that left hundreds dead. The airports in Bali and Lombok are operating flights like normal once again, but as of August 2018, the British foreign office is advising all but essential travel to western Lombok and the Gili islands. They also advise against travelling within 4km of the Mount Agung crater in Bali due to volcanic activity. Do check recent reports when going near a volcanic area and Google “is it safe to travel to Bali at the moment?”
There have also been terrorist attacks in Indonesia, though they are mostly concentrated in Java and Sumatra. Most attacks are in public places, so it’s always wise to be aware of your surroundings always.
In Bali and Gili islands, avoid buying local Arak. This is a local liquor that has caused alcohol poisoning and even death in recent years.
I felt safer travelling alone as a female in Southeast Asia than in many other parts of the world. However, females are bound to receive unwanted attention when they travel. It’s always best to go out with other people at night. If you’re staying in a hostel, it will be easy to find people to do activities with. Hostel travellers are a friendly breed.
As always, make sure to watch your drink. As for clothing, pay attention to how the locals are dressed. Especially in more conservative places such as Indonesia and Malaysia, be aware of local customs and bring a cover-up for when you leave the beach.
Southeast Asia travel advice
Recommended by Ellie Field
As with all adventures, a trip to Southeast Asia will require a bit of travel prep. Whilst planning your itinerary might be the more exciting part of it, you’ll also need to spend some time sorting your medical kit, so you can stay healthy whilst you’re away. Some of this is as simple as a trip to the chemist to grab some essentials, but other pieces will need a bit more organisation.
Vaccinations for Southeast Asia
First up, there are some vaccinations for Southeast Asia you’re likely to need. The most essential include diphtheria, tetanus, polio, hepatitis A and typhoid. In addition, it’s recommended you have hepatitis B, Japanese encephalitis and rabies. This might sound like a lot, but if you’re away for a while or are heading to more remote areas, it’s worth it for the peace of mind. Depending on your itinerary (or if you’ve travelled recently), you may not need them all – the best thing to do is to book a consultation with your doctor or travel clinic and talk through your plans. If possible, it’s a good idea to do this 2-3 month before you leave.
On top of vaccinations, there may be a malaria risk in countries you travel to, so you might need to take malaria tablets. There are a variety of anti-malarials; some taken daily, others weekly, and there are different time periods you’ll need to take them for before and after you enter the malaria zone. Again, talk this through at your travel health consultation and you’ll be prescribed the most appropriate solution for you.
Medicine and travel insurance
Whilst vaccinations are important to protect yourself when you’re off on your adventure, it’s worth noting they don’t make you invincible. You should still take adequate precautions such as drinking bottled water and commercially-made ice, wearing insect repellent, ensuring any cuts are thoroughly cleaned and seeking medical attention for any animal bites as soon as possible. You should also take a personal first aid kit with you, composed of items you can just buy from a local chemist. This will include basics such as plasters, painkillers, diarrhoea tablets, rehydration sachets, hand sanitiser and any regular medications you require. Also consider antiseptic, travel sickness pills, antihistamines, multivitamins and probiotics.
You may still find yourself in need of medical attention whilst you’re away. If you’re unsure where to go, speak to your hostel reception, or another useful source of advice is expat forums or websites specific to the country or city you’re in. I can’t stress enough here how important it is to have solid travel insurance, so make sure that’s sorted before you leave home.
This may all seem a little daunting as you’re preparing for your trip. Don’t let it kill your excitement; just get organised and be aware of the health challenges whilst you’re away. Almost everywhere you go you’ll encounter a community of like-minded travellers all looking out for each other, so you won’t be alone if you need help. Have a happy and healthy trip!
All photos by The Kiwi Couple (unless stated otherwise).
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