The Banana Pancake Trail is known for being arguably the most legendary backpacking route in the world.
With major stops throughout Southeast Asia, this travel route is known for being easy to navigate, safe, and typically very affordable, along with being adventurous and home to so many spectacular sites.
I have travelled 100% of what is typically considered part of the Banana Pancake Trail. This took close to a year by taking it very slowly!
But itineraries of a month or a few months are also possible. If you have at least 2 or 3 months available, you’re in a great position to consider backpacking the Banana Pancake trail.
You can expect to be swimming in crystal-clear waters, riding on crazy tuk-tuks, and seeing breathtaking architectural sites. The route also provides ample opportunities to meet other backpackers, making it a great trail for those solo or first-time travellers.
Wait, why is it called that?
First up, the question probably on most of your minds is why is a backpacking route named after a sweet treat?
I know, it’s a bit strange!
Well… the Banana Pancake Trail was named decades ago when guesthouses started selling hippie travellers banana pancakes as an alternative to the typical rice-based breakfast. The name kind of just stuck.
However, you will still find sweet banana pancakes all over the route in Southeast Asia, from homestays and hostels offering free breakfast to local street food vendors offering the tasty treats for less than $1.
Countries on the trail
The Banana Pancake Trail is located in the Southeast Asia region and covers several different countries.
Keep in mind it’s not really an “official” trail. It’s just a name for a loose collection of travel destinations that are easily chained together into one big route. While most people travel roughly the same way, the route is entirely open to interpretation.
As the backpacking scene has expanded over the years, the trail has grown and expanded to other areas and countries which are slightly less travelled. This includes destinations in The Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Myanmar (when the security situation there allows).
What to expect
Although each country in Southeast Asia can present certain challenges, the Banana Pancake trail is generally beginner-friendly thanks to high safety levels and good tourism infrastructure.
That’s one reason why the backpacker scene in Southeast Asia tends to skew a bit longer than, say, along the Gringo Trail in South America. It’s often recommended as the ideal first backpacking trip outside of Europe/Australia.
When I first backpacked the Banana Pancake trail, most travellers seemed to be in their 20s, with somewhat fewer in their 30s and up. The hostel scene in Thailand and Bali skewed youngest (often at least) as these individual countries are easy places to go first.
But whatever your age, you can find like-minded and similarly aged travellers anywhere in Southeast Asia.
As I travelled again in Southeast Asia in later years, I kept meetings travellers who were also a bit older (as I was at this point), perhaps because we sought out the same kind of experiences.
There is definitely a bit of a backpacker party scene along key stops on the Banana Pancake trail — in fact, some seem to equate the trail with partying, which is not really accurate, but places like Pai (Thailand), Vang Vieng (Laos), Siem Reap (Cambodia), or Koh Phangan (Thailand) definitely have a strong party element if you seek it.
It’s also easily avoided if it’s not your thing!
And if you ever want to escape the tourist crowds, you don’t have to stray all that far from the typical Banana Pancake trail.
There are many highly “authentic” experiences along the way that will give you a real feel for Southeast Asia. For example, relaxing in homestays in Laos, driving the Ha Giang Loop in Vietnam, exploring epic caves in Phong Nha, or visiting forgotten Khmer temples in Cambodia.
Exploring Indonesia (outside Bali) or the Philippines will also give you a different vibe from the more thoroughly-travelled Thailand.
The Banana Pancake route is honestly incredible and something you must have done once in your life. It’s what originally made me addicted to travel and inspired me to travel across all the continents!
Where to start
Most travellers heading to explore the Banana Pancake Trail tend to start their trip in Thailand’s bustling capital city of Bangkok (and particularly around the lively and famous Khao San Road).
This is largely due to it having a great geographical location to start the mainland Southeast Asia route of the Banana Pancake Trail. Along with this, you will find frequent flights to the International Airport from hundreds of locations across the world and it is typically one of the cheapest destinations to fly into.
However, depending on the season you decide to take the route in, you may want to change your starting point. During Bangkok’s wetter months, typically from late July to October, many backpackers choose to start their journey elsewhere.
A popular alternative starting point is Bali in Indonesia, which has an opposite rainy season.
Key Destinations on the trail
To give you some inspiration, here are a few of the most popular destinations on the route:
- Chiang Mai
- The Thai Islands
- Siem Reap
- Koh Rong
- Phnom Penh
- Sa Pa
- Halong Bay
- Ninh Binh
- Phong Nha
- Hoi An
- Ho Chi Minh City
- Vang Vieng
- Luang Prabang
- Komodo Islands
- Kuala Lumpur
- Perhentian Islands
In addition, there are some places that have become real ‘traveller hubs’ — places where people tend to stay a bit longer, or that are simply important waypoints to some of the top sights in Southeast Asia.
They may be quite touristy, depending on your perspective, but they are fun places to linger and tend to be well-rated among backpackers doing the Banana Pancake route. Let us highlight a few here:
This is often the first base that backpackers use in Thailand after Bangkok. While the capital of Thailand can be a bit of an assault on the senses, the northern city of Chiang Mai is a lot more laid back.
The city has a lot of charming and very cheap hostels and guesthouses to stay. With tons of things to do in and around Chiang Mai, it’s the city where everyone goes before exploring the north of Thailand or heading into Laos.
Love it or hate it — picky travelers will say that Pai is not “authentically” Thai, but this small laidback mountain town is undeniably a heap of fun. If you just want to relax in a bamboo bungalow by the river you can, or you can hang out in one of the lively backpacker hostels in town.
There are waterfalls, gorges, and hot springs to visit nearby and in town, there are both Thai and international cuisines. It’s definitely a tourist town through-and-through so if you’re on some kind of anthropological mission to Thailand this might not be your thing, but as far as a traveller scene goes, Pai has it for sure.
Vang Vieng, a riverside backpacker town in Laos, is a real highlight that’s stayed ever-popular with backpackers. Now, it used to be the location of some pretty notorious river parties back in the day, which ended some years ago. However, it’s a great place for adventure activities (like ziplining, tubing, and swimming in lagoons) and has some of the most beautiful mountain backdrops in Laos.
Hoi An is a cute historical town in Vietnam that seems to be everyone’s favorite. This is surely because of its well-preserved historical center famed for its many colorful lanterns, but maybe it also has something to do with its center location along the north-to-south backpacker trail in Vietnam, serving as a great little pitstop between different regions of the country.
Siem Reap is Cambodia’s second-largest city and is known for the magnificent temples of Angkor, which is the biggest religious structure in the world and a spectacular destination to visit.
Siem Reap is also known for being the epicenter of traveling around Cambodia and is well located to explore other areas in the country, making it a hub for travellers exploring the Banana Pancake Trail. Many hostels have pools where you can cool off and there is a lively bar scene in Siem Reap, making it a popular place to stay longer.
Koh Phangan is an idyllic island located in the Gulf of Thailand and is home to crystalline waters, white-sandy beaches, and spectacular waterfalls.
However, the island is arguably most well-known for its famous Full Moon Party, which is one of Thailand’s biggest events. A crazy night-long celebration tied to the Luna Calendar, you will find thousands of backpackers partying the night away along the shores of Koh Phangan until the early hours of the morning.
If you’re not into the party scene, there are also many unspoiled beaches on Koh Phangan where you can wind down.
The Gili Islands near Bali have long been a favorite backpacker haunt, with each of these three islands representing a different vibe. Gili T is the most lively with a different party at a different bar every other night. Gili Air is a bit more laidback and yoga-inspired, while Gili Meno has almost a deserted island feel. (Technically the term “Gili Islands” doesn’t make sense as Gili is just the Indonesian word for island, but it’s simply how it got to be known among tourists.)
Palawan is one of the thousands of tropical islands located in The Philippines and is known for being home to some of the best island-hopping tours in Asia.
Popular towns on the island include El Nido and Port Barton, which have a stripped-back aesthetic with bundles of gorgeous natural hotspots surrounding them. Palawan is also home to the famous Nacpan Beach, which multiple times has been named the best beach in Asia.
Mainland vs outer countries
A big decision travellers typically have to make, especially when they have time constraints, is whether to stick to mainland Southeast Asia or venture out to other areas such as Indonesia and The Philippines. If you want the easiest travel route with minimal flights then sticking to mainland Southeast Asia is your best option.
As mentioned, you can pretty much get around the whole region by bus and there are also sections with some great rail connections. This lets you travel without using expensive flights. The main countries of Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and (most of) Thailand are also cheaper than The Philippines or Malaysia.
Along with this, there are typically more backpackers in these countries, so if you’re traveling solo, you’re more likely to meet people.
However, if you’re someone who likes to get off the beaten path a little more and explore more remote destinations, then heading to other areas may be more up your street.
You will typically find far fewer crowds in other places out of mainland Southeast Asia such as The Philippines, and can often find yourself having entire natural hotspots all to yourself. I loved this aspect, though I must admit the ‘backpacker scene’ is a lot more spread out in The Philippines as well as in Indonesia (outside of Bali), so friends you make along the way are not always going to the same next destination as you.
So, this decision really depends on what you look for as a traveler.
If you have enough time on your hands, I’d definitely recommend you try to explore both areas!
Budget for Banana Pancake trail
As like on any travel trip, people’s budgets will vary depending on how they like to travel. Along with this, not all the countries in Southeast Asia will have the same prices.
For example, the number of internal flights in the Philippines will certainly ramp up your monthly budget. Some of the more luxurious Thai Islands will have expensive room prices.
However, overall, the Banana Pancake Trail is CHEAP, and most backpackers will only spend between $1000-$1500 per month doing it, which equates to around $30-$50 per day. This includes all transport, accommodation, food, and activities.
Particularly in Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia, it’s easy to be spending a maximum of around $1000 per month if you stay in hostel dorms and eat the local food. You can see this overview of travel costs in Southeast Asia for more.
The length of time that the Banana Pancake Trail will take you will depend on how much of the trail you want to cover!
The trail is just a rough guide to common backpacker routes in Southeast Asia so you can spend as little to as long as you want.
Try to reserve at least two weeks per country (or ideally three weeks).
Obviously, this will depend on what countries you visit. For example, Cambodia is a lot smaller than Thailand and The Philippines, so you will most likely need less time there. This just means you need to adjust depending on your chosen locations.
If you stick to the staple four countries of Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos, then we’d say two months is the perfect minimum time to explore all four countries. If you have 3 months available, even better!
Thanks to well-developed tourism infrastructure, it’s incredibly easy to get around all along this route. For short journeys to and from airports, and bus stations from your chosen accommodation option Grab is your best friend. Grab is basically an alternative version to Uber, which is super popular in Southeast Asia and provides affordable and safe travel for travellers. If you don’t have the app or internet, make sure you only get in licensed taxis as an alternative.
Getting in between locations on the Banana Pancake Trail will vary depending on which countries you choose to visit. If you’re sticking to mainland Southeast Asia, buses are by far the most popular way to travel.
Buses are typically the most affordable option and there is pretty much an option that can cover you around most of the tourist destinations. You can book these at local vendors or hostels in most of the destinations and there are also plenty of options for night buses too. This is perfect for those savvy travellers, as you can save yourself a night of accommodation costs! If you prefer to book online, THE booking site for buses in Asia is 12Go Asia.
One of the major anomalies is the Thailand-to-Laos crossing, where many choose to take a two-day slow boat from the Laos border to Luang Prabang along the Mekong. This boat trip isn’t for the light-hearted (a lot of people get crammed onto a small boat), so make sure you come prepared for this journey.
If you start branching out of the typical mainland route to destinations such as Indonesia, Malaysia, and particularly The Philippines, short-haul flights are going to become more frequent.
Luckily enough for savvy backpackers, flights along the Banana Pancake Trail are pretty cheap with plenty costing less than $50 for an hour’s journey. Along with short-haul flights, you can also expect to take a lot of ferries and water taxis in Malaysia, Indonesia and The Philippines.
Trains are a less common option on the Banana Pancake Route due to them being less frequent and sometimes non-existent in some countries. However, you can expect to take a couple on your trip, particularly if you’re heading to Vietnam.
How to book and plan
Thanks to its popularity, there are plenty of accommodation and transportation options to choose from.
A common question asked is how often you need to book things in advance to make sure you don’t miss out. Ultimately, this will depend on the season you visit, and this will vary from country to country.
Some backpackers show up in places without any reservations and just try to find something there. This can be a decent approach in the most popular places with lots of accommodation options. But if you want to stay in the best hostel or guesthouse, booking ahead is recommended.
If you’re visiting in the rainy season, you can typically get away with booking things a day in advance or even on the day. However, if you visit in the peak of the high season, then you may need to book a few days in advance or even a week in some destinations.
On average I’d recommend you book between 1-2 days before. This means you can be flexible with your travel plans but also still make sure you get to explore the best destinations.
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