So you want to travel in Southeast Asia… well, you’ve made a good choice! Backpacking in Southeast Asia is incredibly cheap, relatively easy, and there are more places, sights, and activities than you can shake a stick at. I have travelled all over the world and Southeast Asia remains my favorite region to travel.
“But how much time do you really need to see Southeast Asia?”, you might be wondering. The answer is honestly as much time as you possibly have.
On my first-ever backpacking trip I spent 9 months travelling every country in the region. While you can easily spend that much time (or more!) and never get bored, it’s also perfectly possible to have an amazing Southeast Asia backpacking experience that lasts a couple of weeks or months.
Your only challenge will be in deciding where to go and how much time to spend in each place. And that can be easier said than done…
Since I often get questions about this, let me try to offer some advice. Though rather than providing pre-fab Day 1, Day 2, etc. itineraries, I think it’s more helpful to give some high-level advice. It’s good to have a rough plan for your journey, but it’s great to keep some flexibility as well. And, after all, everyone’s goals and interests are different.
Firstly: don’t bite off more than you can chew
Unless you have all the time in the world, chances are your route is already too ambitious.
It’s only natural to want to see every listed highlight for Southeast Asia, but it’s often better to try and pare down the number of destinations. I know from planning so many trips myself that the temptation to overreach can be strong.
On travel forums and places like Reddit I constantly see people asking if, say, 3 weeks is enough to see all the four mainland SEA countries. It might be technically possible, but I don’t recommend it. You would probably need another holiday just to recover from such a hectic schedule, not to mention you are will experience many things only very superficially.
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Paring things down can actually improve your trip, as you will have more time to experience each place more meaningfully rather then just ticking things off a list. (Related Post: How to deal with “fear of missing out” and making the right choices).
Consider your transit time as well: it’s easy to underestimate the distances involved, and you might be too tired after a long journey to immediately go sightseeing. Keep some room in your plans for transit and recovery time.
Balancing your itinerary
During your trip planning your attention will inevitably turn to the “Big Things”, like must-see places, ‘top 10’ experiences and UNESCO world heritage sites. This was a natural focus for me as well.
These major sights are easier to find information about, easier to plan for, and easier to get excited about. In researching Southeast Asia you may have already built up some expectations for places like Ha Long Bay in Vietnam, Angkor Wat in Cambodia or Koh Phi Phi in Thailand.
These landmark destinations often form the backbone of most people’s itineraries. They can definitely add some guaranteed ‘wow’ moments to your trip, but smaller experiences are equally important. The more I’ve travelled, the more I’ve wanted to keep my plans flexible so I can seek out those other experiences.
Whether it’s simply riding a scooter through the rice fields in northern Thailand, watching the sun set over the Mekong river in Laos, lazying on a beautiful beach with bamboo huts in Cambodia, or enjoying a delicious bowl of Pho noodles at a local market in Vietnam—these are actually some of my most memorable vignettes of travelling in Southeast Asia.
If you are finding it impossible to fit in all the big bucket list items, know that it’s entirely possible to have a spectacular trip without them! Don’t get me wrong, the big stuff is often amazing. But don’t be afraid to make sacrifices if not everything from your wishlist fits easily into your plan. Having a more manageable route will allow you to stay in places longer and seek out those little golden moments that you can’t always plan for.
TIP: My 272 page backpacker guide examines the pros and cons of planning vs. improvising in much more detail. I talk about ways to “wing it” where you can and getting more unique experiences. Check out the book for this and a lot more.
Just some of the major sights in Southeast Asia (there are many more!). Depending on how much time you have, hitting up all of the “big things” on your list may be impossible.
Cost of travel in Southeast Asia
Southeast Asia is an inexpensive region to travel by Western standards, though there are still big differences in cost within in. Thailand’s islands and beaches, Singapore, Myanmar and the Philippines are a bit more expensive for instance, while Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and much of Indonesia are cheaper. For more, read this post: Southeast Asia Cost of Travel Overview.
Regional flights can add to your expenses, so it can make sense to choose countries that connect well overland.
It’s difficult to say how much a trip in Southeast Asia will cost, as everyone goes to different countries and has different standards. I usually recommend budgeting about USD $900 a month or $30 a day. However, stay in backpacker hostels, eat local food, and stick to the cheapest countries, and you should be able to manage on $25-$30 a day.
South-East Asia in 2 weeks
If you only have two weeks, consider just picking one country. Some 2-week itineraries out there suggest flying everywhere to see all the highlights, but I think it’s better to pick a couple of highlights and build your trip around those.
If this is your first South-East Asia visit, your best bet is probably Thailand. While it’s the most touristy country in the region, it can also be whatever you want it to be. Central and Northern Thailand are still very cheap, the food is phenomenal, travel logistics are easy and there are a lot of interesting attractions. If you’re a backpacker or independent traveller you might be less enamoured with islands like Phuket or Koh Samui, which have become expensive and focused on all-in “fly and flop” holidays. However, there are also plenty of authentic experiences in Thailand, making it an ideal starting point for any trip. I go into a lot more detail in my Thailand backpacking guide. From Thailand you could make a bee-line into Cambodia to see the temples of Angkor Wat, as many are tempted to do, but honestly it would be very tight. Thailand has its own ancient temple complexes at Ayathuya and Sukhotthai.
Vietnam also makes for a great shorter trip. It has a ton of things to see and good transportation options (bus, rail and air). Many people do spend at least 4 weeks here, so consider going only to either the south or the north, or take a domestic flight to speed things up. Key sights in the north include Halong Bay and the rice terraces of Sapa, while the south is home to the capital and the Mekong delta. Read more in my Vietnam travel guide.
South-East Asia in 4 weeks
4 weeks will give you more time to work with, but it’s realistically still too tight for hitting up all of mainland South-East Asia. My suggestion is to focus on the two countries that appeal to you most.
Some people will hate me for saying this, but Laos should probably be the first to drop from your list. Don’t get me wrong: Laos is a wonderful back-in-time kind of place. I love the Buddhist calm of Luang Prabang and the nature in Laos is beautiful.
But… it’s also a very thinly populated and stretched-out country. Buses are ancient and sloooooow and will regularly break down. To put things into perspective, getting to Vietnam from Laos by bus takes a life-destroying 36-hour ride. The capital Vientiane is in my view also the least interesting capital in the region. So if you are pressed for time, Laos might just not be your top priority. Again, I did love Laos a lot, so I only say this in the context of being absolutely forced to make a choice.
These countries are more conveniently combined into one trip:
Thailand + Cambodia. Start in Bangkok, then hit up northern Thailand for temples, trekking and tours. Go back down and take a bus from Bangkok to Siem Reap in Cambodia. Visit Angkor Wat and head on to Phnom Penh, where you shouldn’t miss the heart-wrenching but must-see genocide museums. Loop back towards Thailand, then stay in the south of Thailand for some quality beach time.
Vietnam + Cambodia. Begin in north Vietnam, visit Halong Bay, and work your way south. Vietnam alone could take you 2,5 or 3 weeks; keep at least one week free to dip into Cambodia and see Angkor Wat and other Cambodia highlights. End your trip with some quality beach time on Phu Quoc in Vietnam or near Sihanouksville in Cambodia. Alternatively, you could start in southern Vietnam, head west into Cambodia, circle upwards and back east after Siem Reap, go through a bit of southern Laos, and end on a beach in Vietnam (for instance in Hoi An).
Banteay Kdei Temple near Angkor Wat. Many of the temples are overgrown with giant trees.
South-East Asia in 2 months or more
2 months is the perfect minimum time to enjoy all four countries in mainland South-East Asia without having to rush. You can follow the complete so-called ‘Banana Pancake’ trail, a well-trodden Southeast Asia backpacker route that runs through Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.
Most people start their South-East Asia trip in Bangkok simply because it has the most (and the cheapest) flight connections. Spend a few days acclimatizing and exploring Bangkok, then take the train up to Chiang Mai. Consider going to Pai and exploring the Mae Hong Song loop, then head to Chiang Rai near the Laotian border.
I can highly recommend taking the 2-day slow boat into Laos from Huay Xai at the Thai border, stopping in Pakbeng, and ending up in Luang Prabang. While nowadays it’s possible to transit faster by bus, the boat ride gives you a better appreciation for the landscapes and it’s a fantastic way to meet other travellers (I kept bumping into other people from the boat all over the South-East Asia backpacking route for months after).
Take one or two weeks to see Laos, then make your way to Vietnam. Consider skipping the epic 30+ hour bus ride from Laos to northern Vietnam and fly from Vientiane to Hanoi instead. Or dip down into southern Laos to see Si Phan Don (the Four Thousand Islands) and cross into Vietnam near Hue, though you will miss Ha Long Bay and other sights in northern Vietnam unless you are okay with backtracking a little.
Make your way down Vietnam; a lot of people like to make a stop at Hoi An. I personally wasn’t too impressed with the Mekong delta tours around Ho Chi Minh City myself (too cookie-cutter touristy) but you may have a better time exploring this region independently.
Head into Cambodia, stopping in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap and possibly other places as well. Sihanoukville is a beachside town that’s been designated for tourism development, but it remains a laidback backpacker hangout that I personally much preferred to some of the overcrowded places in Thailand.
Finally, make your way to Thailand and find a beach to spend your remaining time relaxing in the sun. I think it’s always a nice to end your trip on a beach!
This is a typical backpacker route for mainland Southeast Asia requiring 2 months or more. I have not included many secondary destinations; it’s only a rough template showing the main waypoints most backpackers follow. While this is very much a ‘classic’ route, there are lots of other ways to travel the region.
Expanding your route
If you have more than 2 months then you can really take your time. You can go for the full loop described above, but stay longer in places or take detours.
You can also consider expanding your route outwards. Malaysia and Indonesia are obvious destinations to add. Myanmar is a fascinating off-the-beaten-track destination. Due to border restrictions it is easiest to fly into Myanmar, though the first overland border crossing with Thailand is also set to open officially sometime soon, which will surely make this an increasingly attractive combination with Thailand.
It’s also possible to go overland from Thailand into Malaysia, then Singapore, then Sumatra in Indonesia and make it all the way to Bali and Lombok. Fewer people make it all this way, but there’s a lot to see here, particularly on the island of Java. It’s a great overland trip to consider if you’ve got time to spare.
One of my favorite countries in the region is The Philippines, which is far removed from the main backpacker trail but also all the more rewarding. Fewer people go there, even though it’s got some of the best sights and most beautiful beaches in Asia.
Of course, ultimately it’s all up to you! I have deliberately not broken down any itineraries into Day 1, Day 2, etc. as I believe it’s much better to have only a rough plan and then just go. Improvising parts of your trip is fun, as it will ensure an element of chance and discovery. Some of the places I remember most fondly weren’t in any Top 10 lists!
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- Southeast Asia Cost of Travel Overview
Detailed cost breakdown with estimates and graphs.
- 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.
- Thailand Backpacking Guide
How to avoid the overcrowded parts and see the best of Thailand.
- Travel the World Without Worries – my in-depth book
There is only so much you can cover in a blog post. I wrote this 272-page book over the course of six months, and it covers truly everything you need to know. If you want detailed, beat-by-beat trip planning advice, get your copy today. You won’t be disappointed 🙂
- Travel Zen: Avoiding FOMO & Being Happier On The Road
How to deal with the pressure of ‘wanting to see it all’. Read this if you’re finding it hard to narrow down your itinerary.
- Packing Light: A Minimalist Example
I backpacked through South-East Asia with just a 45L backpack. Travelling with a small backpack is amazing and I highly recommend it.
- How You Can Take The Leap And Travel Long-Term
Want to travel for longer than just a few weeks? Here’s how.
- Photo impressions: Thailand, Laos, Cambodia
A little photo essay of some of the things I did in these countries.