Southeast Asia is one of the world’s best regions to go backpacking, but it’s not entirely without a learning curve. To help you better prepare for your trip, let me share with you my 25 top tips based on my three backpacking trips in Southeast Asia.
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1. Pack light (seriously)
I know it’s kinda scary to venture off to some whole other part of the world, but you don’t have to pack like you’re a doomsday prepper! Relax… you’re gonna be fine.
Just pack one week’s worth of clothes plus your travel essentials. If you need some help, I have a guide on how to pack light. Consider taking just a carry-on bag; check out my video showing just how much fits in a 40L backpack. Don’t pack any pillows, sleeping bags, or mosquito nets. You don’t need them.
A lighter bag is easier to carry, keeps you agile, makes it way more difficult to lose stuff, and saves you money on airline baggage allowance.
2. Do bring some warm clothes
It can get cold in Southeast Asia sometimes! A hoodie and trousers will definitely be needed for any mountains, hill stations, heavily air-conditioned environments, or in the northernmost parts of Southeast Asia.
3. Rainy season is different everywhere
Rainy or monsoon season doesn’t happen at the same time everywhere. For example, in Thailand it may be rainy season on the east coast but not on the west coast. Or when it’s monsoon in Malaysia, it’s dry season on Bali. On a longer trip, you can move around the region to enjoy the best weather.
4. Stay in hostels
Hostels are fun and can save you a lot of money. Some hostels in Asia attract a party crowd (especially in southern Thailand), but most of them are chilled out and welcoming to all ages. See also: How Hostels Work.
5. Or… don’t stay in hostels!
Guesthouses and B&Bs offer great value for money too. Travel in the right places and you can easily nab a sweet little bungalow for under $10 a night. The best budget options are usually found on Booking.com and Agoda (the latter site is specialized in the Asia region).
6. Avoid over-planning
It’s nice to do some research and create some outlines for what you want to see and do. But… plans will also inevitably change when you get there. Don’t get too attached to your initial plans, as improvising is relatively easy in this part of the world. (For more, read my Southeast Asia itinerary advice.)
7. But you can book places to stay
That said, booking your accommodation (one step ahead while you travel) can still be a good idea. These days I book my places on Booking.com or Agoda pretty much 80% of the time as it’s just so convenient, and you’ll be assured of a room in a high-rated place.
Some travelers just show up to destinations to find something there-and-then. This can often get you cheaper deals than you can find online. If you’re with a group, you can sometimes even negotiate a lower price. But either way, there’s practically always a place for you to stay.
8. Put the phone down
SIM cards with cheap internet data are widely available, but it’s much more fun to experience your trip offline. Maybe just get the MAPS.me app for offline wayfinding (see: top apps for backpackers) but otherwise I think it’s best to stick to the occasional WiFi only.
Seriously, a trip can give you a rare chance to reboot your mind. Travel can make you forget about work, or the news, or all the dumb stuff on the internet. Get a SIM and you might just ruin this great opportunity for a digital detox.
9. Rent a motorbike whenever you can
Okay, this tip is huge. While you can get to most tourist spots using public buses or tuk-tuks, renting a scooter (motorbike) is a total game-changer.
Scooters are by far the most popular form of transportation in Asia, so you can rent them pretty much anywhere. This usually costs about $5 ~ $10 a day. It’s extremely liberating and allows you to get off the usual trail and travel at your own pace.
Do take care though, as traffic accidents are by far the number 1 danger to travelers in Southeast Asia. Some Western backpackers drive at insane speeds and end up in horrifying accidents. But drive carefully and a whole different side of Southeast Asia will open up to you.
10. Eat the street food!
Don’t get too paranoid about any food making you sick. It rarely happens. If it’s fried it’s probably gonna be fine. Unless you’re on a short holiday where absolutely nothing can go wrong, be sure to try the delicious street food. It’s an essential part of the experience.
11. But bring loperamide… just in case
Admittedly, during one year of travel in Asia I did twice find myself praying to the Porcelain God. One of those times was not from any street food, but actually from a German schnitzel with potato salad that I got in Indonesia. So it goes.
Buy some loperamide pills (a.k.a. imodium) as this will stop the flood. You’ll thank me later.
12. Stick to bottled water
Tap water is generally not safe to drink, but safe bottled water is available everywhere. To avoid creating more plastic trash (and save money in the long run), consider getting a LifeStraw filter bottle.
13. Go local and save money
On a budget? Then go for Asian food instead of pizzas or hamburgers. Take local transportation. Wean yourself off of air-conditioning so you can get the much cheaper fan-only rooms instead.
14. Ignore a tuk-tuk driver’s advice
I’ve found them pretty unreliable for information. They’ll often just take you to crappy tourist traps or some shady guesthouse where they get a commission for bringing you there. Figure out your own plan first, then tell them where to drive.
15. Kill the flesh-eating bacteria
It can take a long time for wounds to heal fully in Southeast Asia. A cut that would be easily healed within a week in Europe might still not be closed in Asia after a month. I eventually learned this is because of tropical flesh-eating bacteria (yep…!). That actually sounds a lot worse than it is, but I highly recommend putting some iodine antiseptic (like Betadine) on any wounds. It will kill the bacteria and allow your wounds to close.
16. Respect the culture
Be aware of local norms. For example, walking around in a bikini in Laos is akin to walking around butt-naked. This will either not be appreciated at all or appreciated way too much by certain locals. Similar norms exist in (parts of) Indonesia and Malaysia. Temples and holy sites always require extra care.
17. Don’t be a dick to animals
Taking a photo with a tiger in Thailand is not that awesome. That tiger will be heavily tranquilized and living an awful life. When these pictures inevitably show up on Tinder, very few people are impressed. (See: Tigers of Tinder or this article on tiger selfies.)
Elephant riding may sound fun, but the animals are often horribly abused and traumatized so that they’ll later obey commands. Ethical elephant sanctuaries let you feed and wash them, but not ride them.
18. Animals might be dicks to you though
Particularly monkeys. They’re total asshats. Watch your camera, beer, bananas, etc.
19. Learn something new
Backpacking in Southeast Asia gives you tons of opportunities to try or learn new things. It’s a great time to dive into travel photography or to learn Asian cooking. If you’ve got some days to spare, just base yourself in a place where there are courses in rock climbing, muay thai, surfing, or scuba diving. You may not be able to do it as cheaply again!
20. Know your scams
Keep an eye on any taxi-meters: they may be rigged up to go many times faster than normal. Be sure to take photos of any equipment you rent, so no one can claim that you damaged it (when in fact you didn’t). Read the scams section of travel guides or travel wikis for more location-specific scams.
21. Beware of the copycats
Guesthouses and restaurants often shamelessly steal the names of other successful businesses. Sometimes they just put a tiny barely-noticeable ‘2’ at the end to avoid trademark infringement. Pay attention so that you actually end up at the place you were looking for, and not some horrible fleapit that’s just riding their coattails.
22. Be patient
Not everything runs exactly with German efficiency. Delays are common and travel plans can go awry. Take it easy and shrug off the inevitable minor setbacks with a sense of humor.
23. Pad Thais are boring
Food menus in Southeast Asia often start with some generic options like ‘vegetable chicken stir fry’. In Thailand, you’ll also find a dish like this called Pad Thai. It’s simple, cheap, and typically not spicy, so some backpackers end up eating pretty much only this during their trip.
But let’s be honest, it’s the most boring dish ever. Come on, you’re in Asia! You should be ordering those flavorful curries, tom yam soups, laap, pho, laksa… the list goes on.
Maybe a good laap (a delicious Loatian minced meat dish) will cost $3 whereas a bland vegetable stir-fry might cost just $1.50, but you’ll be totally missing out. If you don’t like spicy, just say “no spicy please”. (Or better yet, try to acquire a taste for it. I used to hate it, and now I love it.)
24. Say hi to everyone!
Every other traveler is just looking to have fun! Say hi to people and you may make many friends along the way. If you’re solo, don’t worry about it too much. Southeast Asia is the perfect training ground for learning to travel solo.
25. Get off the beaten track
As a travel blogger, it’s often frustrating to me that most travelers simply aren’t interested in hearing about less-visited places. It may be fashionable among backpackers to say that you like less touristy places and ‘hidden gems’, but the reality is that 95% of travelers only stick to the most thoroughly beaten paths. (And so this is what you end up covering.)
Admittedly, there is a lot of good stuff on the beaten path. But a place doesn’t need to appear on a ranked listicle or promoted by an Instagram influencer for it to be worth it. Some of the best experiences can be had in the most unexpected places! Every now and then, be sure to take a roll of the dice.
For more in-depth tips and advice for backpacking in Southeast Asia get a copy of Travel the World Without Worries, your ultimate guide to preparing for a big adventure.