This post was first published in 2014 – big updates in 2017, 2018, and 2020.
Planning to travel in Southeast Asia? Then you’ve made a good choice!
Backpacking Southeast Asia is easily one of the best things you can do. The region offers more adventure than you can shake a stick at, and for the most part, it’s incredibly inexpensive too.
“But how much time do you need to see Southeast Asia?”, you might wonder. Honestly, as much time as you possibly have.
My first-ever backpacking trip to Southeast Asia lasted a whopping nine months, roughly following the so-called ‘Banana Pancake trail’. You can spend all that time (or more!) in this region, never get bored, and still barely scratch the surface.
Rest assured, it’s also entirely possible to have a fantastic experience lasting 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. That can be easier said than done.
The above map shows the key Southeast Asia backpacking routes. You’ll often find other travelers going down these lines, hitting up some of the region’s top sights. However, there is much more to see than you might be able to cover in one trip.
This article was written before the pandemic. Currently Singapore, Thailand, Cambodia, and Bali (Indonesia) are reopened for tourism. Other countries are expected to reopen in 2022.
Don’t bite off too much!
This is easily the most important tip I can share about creating your route for Southeast Asia.
I know you’ll be intensely tempted to include every highlight listed in your travel guide. But unless you have all the time in the world, chances are your route is already too ambitious.
It’s usually better to focus. Think about it: do you want to see loads of stuff only very superficially (and tire yourself by continually moving from place to place in a hurry)?
Or do you want to pick a more realistic number of places and then see them in a more meaningful way?
If your answer is still the former, that’s okay! Not everyone likes to travel the same way. Personally, I think it’s often better to pace yourself.
I often have people asking if, say, three weeks is enough to see Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. It’s technically possible, but I don’t recommend it.
Why? Well, you would probably need another holiday just to recover from such a hectic schedule. And when you’re frantically pinballing around the region, you’re likely to experience most places only fleetingly.
Cutting back and streamlining your itinerary can actually improve your trip. Here are a few reasons why:
- You will have more time to truly get to know a country instead of just ticking things off a list;
- A tighter route typically means more time to experience things, and less time wasted in transit;
- You’ll have more opportunities to go beyond the most obvious tourist hubs.
Not to mention, traveling long distances can be tiring!
While infrastructure is improving in Southeast Asia and budget flights are increasingly commonplace, it’s still easy to underestimate the time and distances involved, especially if your goal is to travel mostly overland.
Balancing your Asia itinerary
Okay, so maybe you don’t want to stretch yourself too thin.
Apart from that, I recommend having a good mix of Big Things as well as small things in your itinerary.
What do I mean?
In your research, much of your attention will inevitably be drawn to Big Things. I’m talking about UNESCO world heritage sites or other famous places. Southeast Asia is full of them!
Now, these places are definitely worth going. But they are usually also rammed with tourists and drones and selfie sticks. It’s definitely cool to have several major sights in your itinerary, for that pure wow-factor, but it should never be an obligation to see them all.
Personally, I think it’s fun to mix them with a few less-known places that may have more local character.
Many of my favorite travel memories in Asia are not of grand or iconic locations. I often think back fondly to simply riding a scooter through rice fields in northern Thailand, watching the sunset over the Mekong river in Laos, or enjoying a delicious bowl of Pho noodles at a market in Vietnam.
If you’re finding it impossible to fit in all the big bucket list items, don’t beat yourself up about it. Your route simply may not be able to capture them all. Just know that between the famous sights there are so many smaller things you may enjoy just as much.
Now enough with the disclaimers… let me share a few ideas!
Southeast Asia in 2 weeks
Two weeks is honestly not a whole lot to be thinking about an entire region, but I understand that not everyone has the luxury of time. Given 2 weeks, you’ll have some tough decisions to make.
Some 2-week itineraries out there suggest flying everywhere and spending only two or three days per country, trying to capture as many Big Things as possible, but I think that’s a bit of a waste. Such a whirlwind tour isn’t going to capture what’s so truly great about this region.
Instead, consider just picking one country, then make the most of your time there.
I know, that might feel unambitious! But it may let you be more ambitious within that country and see and do more things overall.
Not sure where to go? If you’re new to Southeast Asia, then Thailand is always a safe bet. The food is phenomenal, travel logistics are easy, and you’re spoiled for interesting attractions. Check out my Thailand itinerary for a rough template for a 2 week or longer trip to Thailand. From Bangkok, you could also make an excursion into Cambodia to see the sprawling temples of Angkor Wat, though Thailand also has its own ancient temple ruins at Ayathuya and Sukhothai.
Vietnam is also a great choice for a 2-week trip. It’s a big and stretched-out country though transportation options are solid, including many train connections (with sleeper cabins). Seeing all the highlights would take at least 3 or 4 weeks, so with 2 weeks, you may want to choose to see either the south or north of Vietnam.
Intrigued? I have a detailed guide to backpacking Vietnam, as well as my list of highlights in Vietnam. I consider Vietnam a somewhat underrated destination, the reason for which I explain in these guides.
Southeast Asia in 4 weeks
4 weeks gives you more to work with, but it’s realistically still too tight to include all of mainland Southeast Asia. My suggestion is to focus on the two countries that call out to you the most.
Some adjacent countries combine especially well. For example, Thailand and Laos. Thailand is more developed and has a lot of entertainment on offer, while Laos is mostly rural, wild, and sparsely populated, with some amazing opportunities for jungle trekking and cultural travel. A neat loop through northern Thailand and northern Laos will give you the best of two worlds.
Or combine Vietnam and Cambodia. Start in northern Vietnam, visit Halong Bay, then work your way south. Vietnam alone could take you 2,5 or 3 weeks; keep at least one week free to dip into Cambodia to see the temples of Angkor Wat. End your trip with some quality beach time on the Cambodian islands, or on Thailand’s Koh Chang archipelago.
If you don’t want to travel strictly overland, you could also split your time between two countries and fly between them. I do like traveling overland as somehow this makes it feel more like a true journey.
Of course, I’m not saying you must stick to just two countries. But I do think two countries in four weeks will give you a nice unhurried pace, with some opportunity to explore.
Southeast 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 mainly runs through Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam (though it has many other tendrils through other countries).
In case you were wondering, this trail was named after the guesthouses that were all starting to sell banana pancakes back when hippies were trailblazing around this region in the 1970s. At the time this pancake breakfast offered the only alternative from the usual rice-based meals. The name doesn’t make that much sense anymore, but it’s what stuck!
An example of what the Banana Pancake route commonly looks like, more or less. Only showing key waypoints, not smaller places.
Due to having so many flight connections, many people start their trip in Bangkok. Kuala Lumpur and Singapore are also common entry points into the region.
Many backpackers then like to take the two-day slow boat from the Laos border to Luang Prabang along the Mekong. It’s nice to see the landscape slowly change and to get a glimpse of the locals living along the river. The boat is also a great way to meet other travelers. On my first sojourn through Southeast Asia, I kept meeting people from that boat for months after.
Be sure to spend some time in northern Laos. I think it’s an incredibly scenic and underrated part of the region.
If you’re following the classic route from Luang Prabang down to Vang Vieng and the capital of Vientiane, it may be worth flying to Vietnam from there. While infrastructure is slowly improving in Laos, overlanding from Vientiane to Hanoi still makes for a soul-destroying 25+hour bus journey that you may wish to skip.
Work your way down Vietnam, then through Cambodia, and end your trip lazying on the Thai islands.
Pssst, don’t forget your travel insurance!
Traveling Asia for a while? Then I recommend Heymondo. It covers you for medical emergencies, theft, travel delay, cancellation, lost luggage, and much more. (If your trip is under 60 days, consider their affordable Annual Multi-Trip Insurance which will cover trips up to this length.)
Alternative Banana Pancake route
The route above is roughly how I traveled the banana pancake trail back in 2013 as a rookie backpacker following more or less the tried-and-true path.
Knowing what I know now from later trips — and if I had to cherry-pick — I would create a different route. Below is probably how I’d do things now, adding more focus on nature and rural regions, and a bit less focus on cities or some of the most touristy parts.
Some of the most key changes:
- This route leaves out Vientiane in Laos, as I (humbly) think it’s one of the dullest capitals in the region
- More stops in the mountainous central and north Vietnam instead of the south (but this can be added back in)
- Added southern Laos for a gentler Mekong river experience, in favor of the busier Mekong Delta in southern Vietnam
- Less time spent in southern Thailand, which can be more commercial and expensive (Not to be a travel snob, I should also say the southern Thai coast is an easy place to have a lot of fun).
Some of the highlights along this route:
- Rent a motorbike and do the Mae Hong Son loop for a great slice of rural Thailand
- Luang Namtha in northern Laos is a nice jumping-off point for hill tribe and jungle hikes.
- Visit the UNESCO world heritage city of Luang Prabang, known for its French colonial architecture and Mekong river views
- Go to Nong Khiaw for waterfall treks and other adventures. The landscape and things you can do here are similar to Vang Vieng but without the cheesy nightlife.
- A quick stopover in Phonsavan just to break up the overland journey to Vietnam
- See lush rice fields and karst landscapes around Ninh Binh. Consider staying overnight instead of doing this as a day trip from Hanoi, as it has a nice vibe. Take a boat tour to Trang An, not Tam Coc (it’s better).
- Explore Vietnam’s traditional capital of Hanoi. It’s a love-it-or-hate-it city, but I think it’s absolutely wild and exciting. I’ve been in Hanoi thrice now and wrote this experiential guide to Hanoi in the hopes of inspiring more people to enjoy its street life and secrets! From Hanoi, you can also add a potential route extension into the mountainous northwest of Vietnam. The Ha Giang region is unbelievable.
- Take a cruise to Bai Tu Long Bay instead of Ha Long Bay. This takes a day longer but has much fewer crowds
- Stop at Phong Na for caving adventures. You’ll find here some of the most unique and largest caves in the whole world. The town also has a fun and laidback hostel/bar scene, if you are looking for some nightly R&R.
- Go to Hoi An, a pleasant town known for its colourful lanterns at night. It has some decent beaches nearby.
- Head to Pakse and consider exploring the Bolaven Plateau, which has some of Laos’ prettiest waterfalls and some very interesting experiences along the way.
- Chill at the riverine archipelago of Si Phan Don. Note: the happy pizzas sold here have an additional ingredient. But even if you’re not into the hippie-like scene, there is much to enjoy on these islands.
- See the epic temples of Angkor Wat near Siem Reap
- Relax on the islands of Cambodia and/or southeast Thailand. These islands are a bit less commercialized than the more famous ones in southwest Thailand (like Koh Phi Phi). I wrote here about my time on a beach on Koh Rong Sanloem, a very pure and laidback place.
Of course, there are a million ways to travel through Southeast Asia and this is just one other way.
This suggested route stitches together various pieces from trips I’ve done. I should mention I’ve not done the trip from central Vietnam (Hoi An) into south Laos (Pakse), which seems can be a bit tricky and could involve multiple minivans. Other segments do have direct connections by bus or train.
Expanding your Asia route
I’ve focused so far on the four mainland countries as they allow for many overland routes. With more time to spare or added flights, there’s clearly a whole other chunk of Southeast Asia to consider.
Malaysia makes for an obvious extension from southern Thailand. It’s a more conservative country with a quieter vibe than Thailand, though the nature and its diverse mix of cultures are a big part of its appeal. Malaysian Borneo has some of the best wildlife experiences as well as the tallest mountain in the region.
Some of my favorite backpacking destinations are on Southeast Asia’s periphery. I’m a big fan of Indonesia, which is best known for the crowd-pleasing island of Bali, though there are numerous other islands to consider. I much like Lombok, Flores and the Komodo Islands, and Mount Bromo and the Ijen Plateau on Java are also amazing.
I also love The Philippines. It’s a bit far removed from everywhere else, but it’s worth it. It has some of the friendliest people and best beaches and islands. El Nido on Palawan is considered by many the headline act, though it may have suffered somewhat from overtourism in recent years. You can’t go wrong with a trip through the Visayas or Northern Luzon, other parts of Palawan, and literally countless other islands.
Myanmar is another fascinating destination. Sadly, it’s been going through many political issues and it may not be as welcoming right now as when I visited a few years ago. Keep an eye on current events to know if it’s a good time to go to Myanmar.
The countries that are normally considered part of Southeast Asia include Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Myanmar, and the Philippines. As a world traveler, there is no need to restrain yourself to regional boundaries, of course. Destinations like China, Sri Lanka, India, or Nepal are not terribly far away.
Or… make your own route!
What I’ve shared here is merely some common wisdom for backpacking Southeast Asia. But maybe you have different ideas, in which case you shouldn’t let anyone tell you what to do!
I have traveled a fair bit in Asia but, in the end, I’m just some guy with a blog who has some biased opinions. Everything is subjective and everyone has different travel goals.
Don’t be afraid to go off the beaten track and make whatever crazy route you want. Equally, don’t be afraid to stick to the beaten track; attempts at being ‘original’ and going to some end-of-the-road place didn’t always pay off for me, when I was honestly just content to just hang out with other travelers in a fun place for a while. How you feel in the moment should really be the deciding factor.
If you’re going on a longer trip, keep in mind not everything needs to be planned out in advance. Improvisation is remarkably easy in Southeast Asia, so you can always just wing it and see where adventure takes you!
More help planning your trip
Hopefully, this article has helped you get some ideas for your Southeast Asia trip. But if you’re still feeling a bit overwhelmed, that’s understandable.
Apart from creating your route and selecting your destinations, there are many other issues to consider, like travel costs, visas, what to pack, vaccinations, safety issues, not to mention how to tackle some of the annoying challenges you may face on the road.
But there is only so much you can cover in a blog post!
Luckily, I also wrote a 272-page travel planning book that helps you with every possible question you might have before setting off on your journey.
Readers have called it “reassuring, inspiring, and specific” and “the single most helpful piece of writing I have read regarding travel”. (You can see many more reviews at Amazon).
It’s kind of my magnum opus: I took all the raw learnings and insights I picked up from traveling around the world for many years, filtered them thoroughly, then compressed them into delicious chunks of pure travel wisdom.
Much of what’s contained in Travel the World Without Worries comes from my 18+ months combined of exploring Southeast Asia. While it’s designed to help you with your trip, you’ll also learn about some of the stupid, silly, and incredible things I’ve experienced.
So, if you are looking for a more comprehensive guide, then I strongly recommend grabbing a copy, so you can continue where this article left off!
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