Backpacking in Southeast Asia: A Beginner’s Guide

Travel tips, country summaries, and links to all my in-depth guides

Around the Pham Ngu Lao Southeast Asia Backpacker Area in Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Southeast Asia has long been known as a backpacker paradise. Most places are cheap, the travel logistics are easy, safety is rarely an issue, and the region is blessed with a wonderful tropical climate. If you have a few weeks to spare — or better yet, a few months! — you simply can’t go wrong with backpacking through Southeast Asia.

Not everyone travels the same way, though many travellers do end up following similar routes. A loosely-defined route runs through Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia, which is sometimes referred to as the Banana Pancake trail (it was originally named after the typical breakfast that many guesthouses serve to foreigners). Over time, this well-trodden trail also developed various tendrils into Malaysia, Indonesia, southern China, and even the Philippines and Myanmar. In my Southeast Asia itinerary suggestions, I describe this circular route through the first four countries, though it’s also entirely possible to simply sail with the wind and zig-zag through Asia.

While the region is full of amazing places to visit, keep in mind that not every place will feel like you’re on a mystical journey; some places are definitely just playgrounds for partying Westerners (particularly in Thailand and Bali), while others might be overrun by daytrippers and package tourists (the temples in Bangkok and Ha Long Bay in Vietnam come to mind). Fortunately, you can decide to embrace or steer clear of the more commercial places, so it’s always up to you. Be sure to keep your plans flexible so that you have plenty of opportunities to explore.

Southeast Asia is especially perfect for a first-time backpacking trip, as it’s ripe with adventure and relatively easy to get around. Like so many, I also did my first long-term trip in Asia, and it opened up a whole new world of travel that I didn’t know existed (and I have since come back to the region two more times). Approach your trip with an adventurous spirit and an open mind, and you might become a traveller for life…

Gili Trawangan island, Indonesia

Gili Trawangan island, Indonesia

The 3 most important tips

Before you head off to Asia, I want to tell you three things:

  1. Don’t over-plan. It’s good to research your trip and establish the contours of what you want to see and do. But… plans will inevitably change when you get there. Make some plans, but don’t get married to them. The magic happens when you improvise.
  2. Relax. Not everything runs perfectly on a timetable in Asia. But it’s okay. Sometimes you have to haggle with a taxi driver for 10 minutes just to make sure you aren’t being ripped off, but that’s just what comes with the territory. Always take it easy, and shrug off minor setbacks with a sense of humor. (Some frustrations or setbacks will inevitably happen…)
  3. Go local. Go for Asian food instead of hamburgers. Wean yourself off of air-conditioning; after a while you don’t need it, and you’ll save as much as 50% on your accommodation costs. Take local transportation instead of tourist ‘VIP buses’. Southeast Asia is best experienced close to the ground.

I’ve written destination guides for most countries in Southeast Asia, which can help you get a rough lay of the land. They’re all linked further down this page along with brief summaries of each country.

If you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed while planning your Southeast Asia backpacking trip, you can also make things easier by getting my step-by-step backpacking guide (available as e-book and in print).

The book helps you plan, pack, and prepare, but also gets you into the right mindset for getting the most out of your journey. Readers have said it feels like having a friend sit down with you to mull over your travel dreams and turn them into real plans. I wrote much of it while living on an island in Indonesia with many of my own trip planning struggles still fresh in mind, so it’s the perfect companion guide if you’re considering a trip or in the midst of planning yourself.

Rice terraces in northern Philippines

Rice terraces in northern Philippines

Recommended Reading

  • Southeast Asia Itinerary Suggestions

    Advice for creating your itinerary, plus some cautionary notes about biting off more than you can chew. If you read just one post, make it this one!

  • 6 Ways to Get Off the Beaten Track in Southeast Asia

    Some less-visited regions and countries you can consider adding to your Asia route.

  • Southeast Asia Cost of Travel & Budgeting

    While travelling the region is cheap overall, some places can still be expensive. I created this cost break-down to help others budget for their trip.

  • Packing Like a Pro and Traveling Light

    Rookie mistake no. 1: hauling a giant backpack around filled with stuff you don’t need. My guide goes into some of the main do’s and don’ts to avoid making this mistake. Get this stuff right and you’ll save yourself a lot of wasted energy!

  • How Hostels Work

    If you’re travelling on a budget, you’ll probably rely on hostels at least some of the time. These are my tips for finding good hostels and knowing what to expect.

  • How to Find the Best Places to Stay

    Booking ahead is not always necessary in Asia as there’s always some bed to sleep on somewhere. However, booking sites are still the best way to secure a place in the best hostels and guesthouses. This post goes into some of the sites and filters you can use to find the true gems.

  • Photo impressions: Thailand, Laos, Cambodia

    A brief visual tour of these countries, originally posted long ago but possibly still able to provide some inspiration.

  • My ultimate guide to preparing for a backpacking trip

    My 272-page backpacker’s guide, which goes into far more depth than would ever be possible on the blog!

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Chinatown in Pengang, Malaysia

Countries in a nutshell

Okay, so where should you go? The honest answer is: anywhere. Some regions in the world may have some obvious duds that hold little appeal to visitors, but I think every country in Southeast Asia is interesting in a different way.

The ones I personally fell in love with were the Philippines and Myanmar, followed closely by Indonesia, though everyone who has travelled the region is bound to have their own favourites. The following summaries are obviously very quick and inevitably include some generalisations — be sure to click any of the countries for in-depth guides!

Thailand

Think of this as the gateway to Southeast Asia. Since Bangkok has the most international flight connections, most people start here. The food is phenomenal, travel is easy, and there are heaps of interesting attractions. But… Thailand is also the most commercialised country with a huge focus on mass tourism and fly-and-flop holidays, particularly along the southern coasts. My Thailand guide has some pointers on how to avoid the crowds and focus on the more charming places.

Laos

In Laos you won’t always be offered a thousand activities on a platter as in Thailand, and it can feel a bit more adventurous and off-the-grid. Part of the attraction is just being in a remote part of the world where the pace of life is slower. A highlight for me was the old city of Luang Prabang with its Buddhist calm, Mekong river views, and stunning azure-colored waterfalls nearby. Vang Vieng was once just a party town but is now an excellent hub for caving, ballooning, and hiking adventures. The infrastructure in Laos is very poor, so expect to need some patience when travelling here. Not so many organised tours or holidayers go here, so it can feel more authentic or less crowded than its neighbors.

Vietnam

Vietnam is like a whole other world. Hanoi and Saigon (a.k.a. Ho Chi Minh City) are buzzing with seemingly infinite shoals of motorbikes, and the local food markets are dizzying beehives of activity. Bring your camera as the cities are amazing for street photography. The Mekong Delta in the south and the karst cliff islands of Ha Long Bay in the north are the most famous attractions, though they can also be rammed with tourists or subject to very standardised tours, which can take away from the experience somewhat. Vietnam also has mostly average beaches compared to neighbouring countries, and there’s a bit of a scam and rip-off culture that can leave a bad taste if you’re unlucky.

Well, dang… I guess I’ve made this sound a bit negative now, even though Vietnam is actually amazing! Sure, the main tourist sights in the Mekong and Ha Long Bay can be so-so and rather tour-group focused, but Vietnam also shows a totally different face when venturing out into the countryside, going on a homestay, or venturing into the local markets. A popular thing to do is to rent or buy motorbikes, as this lets you easily go to off-the-beaten-track places. Those who’ve done this come back inevitably with unique stories and often list Vietnam as their number one favourite.

Cambodia

The temples of Angkor Wat — one of the largest ancient temple complexes in the world — is the main attraction here. Take your time and explore the outer-lying temples as well, which have an awesome overgrown Indiana Jones kind of feel. Cambodia emerged relatively recently from a dark history; the museums about the genocides are harrowing but essential to understanding this country. Cambodia has some great beaches and islands, often less developed than many of those in Thailand.

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Ancient temples of Angkor Wat

Malaysia

At first glance, peninsular Malaysia can feel a little too… organised. It’s more conservative, more family friendly, and doesn’t have that rough-and-tumble feel that its neighbors have. At least, those were my first impressions. Some might say these are actually good things, and the Perhentian islands and Langkawi are known as low-key and stunningly beautiful beach destinations.

My personal favorite part of Malaysia is Borneo, as it’s among the best places for nature and wildlife. Initially, you may be surprised by how developed this northern part of Borneo is, and instead of rainforests you’ll first be mostly greeted by large cities and landscapes filled with palm oil plantations. But go deeper into Borneo and you’ll unlock a wealth of wildlife adventures, including river tours of the rainforests (with a chance to see Urangutangs), climbing Kota Kinabalu (the highest mountain in Southeast Asia), and scuba diving at Pulau Sipadan, one of the world’s most famous dive sites that’s brimming with sharks, barracudas and sea turtles.

Be sure to budget a bit more for Malaysia. Accommodation and food is nearly as cheap as anywhere else, but local tours, hiking trips, and entries to national parks do add up faster here.

Singapore

Singapore is much more expensive than the rest of Southeast Asia, so those on a budget don’t stay for too long. Is is modern and high-tech, with some business districts feeling like futuristic visions from an architect’s dream. Singapore is also very clean and can be (dare I say) a bit dull. It does make for a good layover on an Asia trip, as its airport is one of Asia’s main hubs, and Singapore’s modern comforts can be a refreshing change after you’ve spent some time roughing it in bug-riddled bamboo huts far away from civilisation. The food in Singapore is phenomenal and no visit is complete without going to one of its many hawker centers.

Indonesia

Indonesia is so big that it’s almost impossible to summarise. Parts of Bali are focused on mass tourism, but forge your own path and you’ll quickly be rewarded. Java and Lombok have some of the most impressive volcanoes around, and some of the biggest temples are on Java too. Sumatra and Sulawesi see few tourists, and they’re highly recommended if you want to go somewhere unspoiled. There is spectacular marine life around the Komodo Islands, and I loved exploring rural Flores. Bali and the nearby Gili Islands are firmly on the Banana Pancake trail (and I recommend them), though the rest of Indonesia is much less discovered… with huge potential to find your own little stories.

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Gunung Batur volcano on Bali

Philippines

This is Asia’s best kept secret! I adore the Philippines and keep recommending it to everyone. That said, part of me thinks you need to have gone to countries like Thailand or Vietnam first to fully appreciate the Philippines. It’s a bit different and maybe not what everyone expects.

For me, the Philippines has the perfect balance between adventure and ease of travel. You can go well off-the-beaten-track, but it also never feels like you’re having to push very hard. It’s not a common starting point for an Asia trip, but consider going here maybe after you’ve seen the mainland. It has some of the best beaches, reefs, and islands, as well as stunning rice terraces, amazing island hopping, lovely people, and an interesting mix of Asian and Spanish colonial influences.

Myanmar (Burma)

Myanmar is a relative newcomer to the Southeast Asia backpacker circuit, as prior to the government reforms in 2012 it was difficult to go here. It’s now rapidly opening up. You’ll still find authentic culture and a relative lack of cynicism towards tourists in Myanmar.

Go to Bagan at sunset (a complex of thousands of ancient temples) for some true pinch-me vistas. Burmese cuisine is hugely underrated and a foodie is going to have a good time. Take a train at least once: the creaking old carriages are something to experience. Myanmar is best for those not seeking just  parties or beaches, but authentic cultural immersion. It’s among my personal favorite countries in Asia.

Are you trying to fit multiple countries into a trip with a specific timeframe? Be sure to also read my itineraries post for some useful tips.

Take the stress out of planning your trip

With Travel the World Without Worries, my 272-page guide to backpacking, you can plan your trip in an easy step-by-step way. From deciding where to go to surviving on the trail, it’s an in-depth resource going far beyond anything you can find for free on the web (don’t believe me? check out the reviews!).

Learn More

9 comments

  1. Comment by Adam Mason

    Adam Mason Reply October 30, 2016 at 6:18 am

    Awesome article!! I went to Thailand for a month then off to China and South Korea for a couple of weeks in spring 2016 and fell in love with the region! Im planning a return trip spring 2017 & want to do Vietnam/Thailand again (for songkran 2017, I went this past spring and it by easily the most memorable days in my journey and some of the best days of my life!)/ Cambodia/ Bali & Gillie T & would like to finish off in Philippines. Just beginning to somewhat organize my trip and this has been extremely helpful!

    • Comment by Marek

      Marek Reply October 31, 2016 at 12:47 pm

      Glad to hear, Adam. Sounds like you’re planning a fantastic trip 🙂

  2. Comment by Rae

    Rae Reply July 31, 2016 at 10:17 am

    Love this blog! I am going travelling this year and will be starting in Oz then going to Asia but have no idea where to even start! This has helped me loads! Thank you so much.

  3. Comment by Piotr

    Piotr Reply June 28, 2016 at 9:22 am

    Thanks for this extremely detailed article! 🙂
    Despite the fact that I traveled Southeast Asia a couple of times it’s still really helpful post. And thanks for sharing these amazing photos, they’re so inspiring! Time to organize next trip 🙂
    Keep this excellent work up! 🙂

  4. Comment by Lukas

    Lukas Reply May 31, 2016 at 5:36 pm

    Splendid stuff ! Super useful ! Thanks for the effort !

    • Comment by Marek

      Marek Reply June 1, 2016 at 9:43 am

      Thanks Lukas! 🙂

  5. Comment by Paula

    Paula Reply February 29, 2016 at 5:03 am

    Great intro summaries Marek. I have to say, I’m so surprised at how many people felt Vietnam had a rip-off culture. I travelled there for a month and have not felt it at all, and definitely less than in some other countries in the region, i.e. Thailand. My experience was actually opposite – Vietnam was one of the few places where locals we met on the road invited us for dinner, fed us, gave us beer and asked for nothing in return. Maybe we were lucky but I loved travelling around Vietnam.

    • Comment by Marek

      Marek Reply February 29, 2016 at 3:11 pm

      I’ve found that it’s mostly the cities that have a reputation for ripoffs. In the countryside it’s often the opposite. Or maybe you got lucky! 🙂

  6. Comment by Talwinder Singh

    Talwinder Singh Reply January 17, 2016 at 10:58 pm

    Very detailed and extremely hepful blog,thank you.

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