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. Sure, 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. Don’t get too attached to your plans as the magic happens when you improvise, which is relatively easy to do in this part of the world.
  2. Relax. Not everything runs perfectly on a timetable in Asia, but that’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. Take it easy and shrug off inevitable minor setbacks with a sense of humor.
  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 my own struggles still fresh in mind, so it’s the perfect companion guide if you’re considering a trip or in the midst of planning one yourself.

Rice terraces in northern Philippines

Rice terraces in northern Philippines

Recommended Reading

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Chinatown in Pengang, Malaysia

Countries in a nutshell

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 honestly 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 and Laos, though everyone who has travelled the region is bound to have their own favourites. The following summaries are obviously very quick and 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.

Since Thailand is a common place to start an Asia trip, I also put together a sample itinerary for Thailand.

Laos

In Laos you won’t always be offered a thousand tours and 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 only a party town but is now an excellent hub for caving, hot air 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 among the most vibrant in the region and 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. Apart from a few exceptions in the far south, Vietnam also has mostly average beaches compared to neighbouring countries, many tropical reefs are damaged due to dynamite fishing, and there’s a bit of a scam and rip-off culture that can leave a bad taste if you are unlucky.

Dang… I guess I’ve made this sound a bit negative now, even though Vietnam is actually amazing!

The food and the street life are particularly fascinating, and 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 in Vietnam is to rent or buy motorbikes, as the country lends itself especially well to road trips.

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 also 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. Of course, 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: instead of rainforests you’ll first be mostly greeted by large modern cities and uniform 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 much 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 very clean and can also be (dare I say) a bit dull and lacking creativity.

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 where you can cheaply sample virtually any Asian cuisine.

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 (to Bali’s hinterlands or to other islands) and you’ll quickly be rewarded. Java and Lombok have some of the most impressive volcanoes around, while Java has some of the biggest temples in the region. Sumatra and Sulawesi see very few tourists, and they’re highly recommended if you want to go somewhere unspoiled. There is spectacular marine life around the Komodo Islands, where you can also see the komodo dragon lizards, and I loved exploring rural Flores.

Bali and the nearby Gili Islands are firmly on the typical Southeast Asia trail (and I recommend them), though the rest of Indonesia is much less discovered and 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. While it’s not a common starting point for an Asia trip,  consider going here maybe after you’ve seen the mainland.

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. Also, since most people speak English, it’s much easier to have local experiences here.

It has some of the best beaches, reefs, and islands, as well as stunning rice terraces, fantastic national parks, lovely people, and an interesting culture that mixes Asian, American, 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. While it’s been 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 great 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. In part because it’s still less-discovered, 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.

Southeast Asia cost of travel

Not everywhere in Southeast Asia is equally cheap. Be sure to check out my Southeast Asia backpacker budgets along with average accommodation prices and up-to-date costs for various popular tours, trips, and park entries.

If you’re on a very tight budget, it’s easiest to stick to northern Thailand, Laos, Vietnam or Cambodia. If you have a little room in your budget, consider going to other destinations as well.

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!).

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30 comments

  1. Tonkin - Travel Vietnam Reply November 8, 2017 at 8:30 am

    Yeap, Southeast Asia with the cheap expenses of travelling is really the heaven for backpackers. Except some popular countries like Thailand or Vietnam, Laos – the only landlocked country in SEA needs to be discovered more and more because of so many cultural heritage sites and stunning beauty nature.

  2. Guillermo S Reply September 13, 2017 at 12:23 pm

    Hi Marek,

    I have read through many blogs and I’d agree with the comments made by others that your blog is one of the most complete blogs I have had the opportunity to read and find use of.

    I am currently 2.5 months in on a 5-6 month sabbatical traveling around the globe to take a break from the corporate world. I have traveled to 18 countries and 24 cities chasing the summer so in October I will do 1 month in Asia and your descriptions and references have made me a bit more confident about my plans there(Dont overplan, relax and go loca<—GREAT ADVICE), which are a bit less hectic than the previous 2.5 months I've traveled (longer periods of time in one place is better).

    BTW- I will be in Lisboa for 6 days next week so your advice there is also great! Maybe we'll run into each other if you are there!

    Guillermo (castawaymemo)

    • Marek Reply September 14, 2017 at 1:35 pm

      Hey Guillermo! It’s definitely nice to slow down a bit, especially after a few months. I think Asia is the perfect region to do this. Hope you’ll have a great time. I go to many couchsurfing and nomad meetups in Lisbon so if you see me, say hi! 🙂

  3. Barbara Reply September 5, 2017 at 12:02 pm

    Hi,

    I am planning to travel around Southeast Asia and I need some advise on the logistics part. My plan is to fly in to Thailand and travel to Vietnam through Cambodia for tha first part. Do you by any chance know or do you know where I can find out if there are any train services from Thailand to Vietnam and where the stops are?

    And for the 2nd part I am planning to fly from Vietnam to Singapure and make my way down to Sumatra, Java, Bali and/or Borne? Do you know if there are any public transport between the islands?

    Thanks for you help! I really appreciate it!
    Barbara

    • Marek Reply September 5, 2017 at 12:28 pm

      Hey Barbara. There are unfortunately no train services in Cambodia. This map shows you the routes.

      You can take a ferry from Singapore to Sumatra, and from there everything is connected by buses and ferries. You can get all the way from Singapore to Bali by public transport. It won’t be fast but you’ll get there eventually. 🙂

      Hope this helps!

      • Barbara Reply September 5, 2017 at 2:14 pm

        Thanks for the quick reply!

        This map is very good and your blog is very helpful! Thanks for all the hard work you put into it!
        Barbara

        • Marek Reply September 5, 2017 at 2:18 pm

          Glad it’s helpful. Good luck and hope you have an amazing trip! 🙂

  4. Andrew Darwitan Reply August 6, 2017 at 2:00 am

    Very useful guide. I especially enjoy your section about getting off-the-beaten. Parts of the charms is really how rural some parts can be, like Ha Giang in Northern Vietnam and West Sumatra in Indonesia. Beautiful region, I must say!
    Andrew Darwitan recently posted…Best Time to Visit Asia Pacific CountriesMy Profile

  5. Costas Sarkas Reply July 28, 2017 at 12:15 pm

    Hi Marek,
    Loved your article. Do you have any advice for someone travelling for just 3 weeks? It’s my 40th and i’d like to give myself a mini-taste of the backpacking trip i never went on in my 20s. Ideally i see myself arriving into Bangkok for a day or 2 and then heading out to Cambodia and/or Vietnam finishing off the trip in the Phillipines. Any thoughts or suggestions would be much appreciated.

    Costas

    • Marek Reply July 28, 2017 at 12:47 pm

      That’s a great idea for a trip. 🙂 I’d probably do 4 days in Cambodia (focusing mostly on Angkor Wat), then 10 days in south/central Vietnam, focusing on the cities, markets, war history, and national parks, then a week in Palawan in the Philippines for some relaxing beach time away from the crowds of Thailand. That will give you a pretty great slice of all the things SEA has to offer. The only challenge might be going from Vietnam to Philippines, I’m not aware of that many direct flights, so you may have to fly via Bangkok or Singapore.

      • Erwin Reply July 30, 2017 at 4:52 am

        Cebu Pacific (a budget airlines from the Philippines) has regular direct flights from Manila to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh.

  6. Rangga Nadiar Reply July 14, 2017 at 7:01 pm

    Hey Marek, your blog is amazing! It’s really interesting and informative. im a 16 yo Indonesian, and im planning to go backpacking with my friend to other Southeast Asia country next year, but we’re still thinking about which country. Any reccomendation or tips? Thanks!

    • Marek Reply July 18, 2017 at 1:57 pm

      Thanks Rangga! Oof, that’s a difficult question. It depends on what you like. 🙂 I recommend reading a lot about each country and going to whichever country has the most of what you’re looking for. Since you’re already from the region, I don’t know what would interest you most.

  7. Isabel Henia Reply May 11, 2017 at 3:40 am

    Hi Marek, I was wondering if you could give me suggestions for Myanmar. I think I will only have 6 nights, maybe 8 if we are lucky, but I want to be able to get the most out of my experience. Thank you so much 🙂 Your blog is amazing, by the way….

    • Marek Reply May 11, 2017 at 4:55 pm

      Hey Isabel – just replied to your email. 🙂 But the gist of it is: I’d probably do a little circle in the north (Mandalay / Bagan / etc.)

  8. Nacho Reply May 6, 2017 at 11:53 am

    Hi Marek!
    Its Nacho, from Spain. Firstly I want to thank you for making this amazing website, it is the best I found. It is helping me a lot to plan my trip, so thank you!! Well, I am planning a solo trip to Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, do you think three months is enough time to get a good taste from these countries? I am not interested in highly touristic places, but I know I will go to some of them such as Angkor Wat. I have a couple of questions for you: which hostel do you recommend me for when I arrive in Bangkok? I would love a social hostel with a good atmosphere where I can meet fellow travellers. Is it necessary to prove you are leaving the country in one month to get your visa in Thailand?
    Thank you so much! Good luck with your future travels!!
    Peace
    Nacho

    • Marek Reply May 7, 2017 at 10:51 am

      Hola Nacho!

      I think you can get a great taste of these countries in 3 months. It’s more or less the perfect amount of time. I have some hostel recommendations on my Thailand page. I like Suneta, which is very cosy and friendly, though it is a bit small / boutique-style. If you’d prefer a bigger hostel with maybe not as much character but with definitely a lot of people, Lub D is a good bet.

      Officially you need a confirmed return ticket for the visa-on-arrival, but I’ve never had to offer such proof myself. I’ve had advance visa via the Thai embassy where no questions were asked, and I’ve had visas on arrival with no questions asked. This seems quite common for EU travellers. If you have a return flight (even if it’s 3 months later) you should be in a good position to explain that you’re visiting multiple countries in SEA. I can’t give a perfect guarantee but your visa process will most likely take like 5 seconds. 🙂

      Good luck and have an amazing trip!

  9. Jenny Reply April 12, 2017 at 4:37 am

    Hi,Marek

    Great stuffs! Your site does stand out and thanks so much for the great info !

    I had been living in HK so have been to all the popular places and find that I always go back Thailand for it’s food and ppl and Phuket.

    My bf will join part of my trip next month, and prefers to explore other countries other than Vietnam and Thailand where he has been.

    Wondering where you’d suggest for a 2 week snorkling holiday other than Koh Tao ? I will be on my own most of time so a solo traveller friendly place will be great. Thanks

    • Marek Reply April 12, 2017 at 1:47 pm

      So you mean outside of Thailand, right? El Nido in the Philippines comes to mind, or maybe Bali. It’s a difficult question to answer though as I don’t know where you’ve already been 🙂

  10. RebekkaS Reply March 14, 2017 at 10:13 am

    Your website is very helpfull, thank you very much.
    I am planing a four month backpack trip through Asia (and hopefully Australia.) I have way to many places i want to see, so i know i have to save a few for the next adveture. I know it depends on the city and the traveller, but i was wondering approximately how many days you would recomand in each city? Do you think a week would be enough in each city?

    • Marek Reply March 14, 2017 at 10:54 am

      It all depends. For instance, some people could easily spend a week in Bangkok, but I would probably leave after a couple of days and head towards some nature, beaches, or just a more relaxed city like Chiang Mai.

      If you want to get to know a place really well then a week is perfect. But you don’t have to decide this all in advance. You can just go and play it by ear, and stay longer or move on depending on how you feel at the time. In Southeast Asia, this is really easy to do.

  11. 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!

    • Marek Reply October 31, 2016 at 12:47 pm

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

  12. 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.

  13. 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! 🙂

  14. Lukas Reply May 31, 2016 at 5:36 pm

    Splendid stuff ! Super useful ! Thanks for the effort !

    • Marek Reply June 1, 2016 at 9:43 am

      Thanks Lukas! 🙂

  15. 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.

    • 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! 🙂

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

    Very detailed and extremely hepful blog,thank you.

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