If you plan to travel in Southeast Asia, then you’ve made a good choice!
Backpacking in 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 to travel in.
“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 Asia lasted a whopping nine months. You can spend all that time (or more!), never get bored, and still barely scratch the surface. But rest assured, it’s also entirely possible to have a fantastic travel experience in Southeast Asia 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. But that can be easier said than done…
Having made several trips all over Southeast Asia, let me try to offer you some advice.
First: don’t bite off too much!
This is 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 the former, that’s okay. Not everyone likes to travel the same way. But personally, I think it’s better to pace yourself.
On travel forums and on Reddit I often see people asking if, say, three weeks is enough to see Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. While it’s technically possible, I don’t recommend it. You would probably need another holiday just to recover from such a hectic schedule, and you’re likely to experience many places only very fleetingly.
Cutting back and streamlining your itinerary can actually improve your trip, as you will have more time to get to know a country instead of just ticking things off a list.
It’s also nice to have some recovery time in your schedule, as you might be too tired after a long journey to immediately go sightseeing.
Not to mention, it’s easy to underestimate the time and distances involved. While bus and train services are decent in Vietnam or Thailand, in Laos or Cambodia you’ll often have to deal with old rickety buses with engines that regularly overheat, or minivan services that will toss passengers like a salad as they zig-zag around potholed roads. This is all part of the adventure, but it does slow you down.
While you could take shortcuts by taking lots of regional flights, that can limit you only to the most accessible and most touristy hubs (and risks robbing your journey of some of the romance of overland travel). This is why I recommend picking several areas of focus for your trip.
Balancing your itinerary
During your planning phase, your attention will inevitably turn to the Big Things, the must-see places, the UNESCO world heritage sites. These are a good starting point.
Such major sights are easier to find information about, easier to plan for, and easier to get excited about when you’re still at home. In researching the region 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 major landmarks can form the backbone of your itinerary, as they’ll ensure some definite wow-moments along the way. But don’t forget the smaller experiences too!
It’s often the humbler moments I remember most fondly from my travels in Asia, like riding a scooter through rice fields in northern Thailand, watching the sun set over the Mekong river in Laos, or just enjoying a delicious bowl of Pho noodles at a local market in Vietnam.
If you are finding it impossible to fit in all the big bucket list items, don’t beat yourself up about it too much. You route simply may not be able to capture them all. Just know that between the famous sights are plenty of smaller things you may enjoy just as much.
South-East Asia in 2 weeks
2 weeks is not a lot, but it may be all that you have available. Southeast Asia is a big region, which means you’ll have to make some tough decisions.
If you only have two weeks, consider just picking one country. Some 2-week itineraries out there suggest flying everywhere and spending just two or three days per country, but I think it’s much nicer to focus.
Focusing on Thailand
If this is your first South-East Asia visit, your best bet is probably Thailand. Even though areas like Phuket are mainly focused on mass tourism and fly-and-flop beach holidays, Thailand is still an amazing entry point into the region for any independent traveler. The food is phenomenal, travel logistics are relatively easy, and you’re spoiled for interesting attractions.
From Bangkok you could make an excursion into Cambodia to see the sprawling temples of Angkor Wat, either by bus (7 hours) or by flying directly to Siem Reap. But Thailand also has its own ancient temple ruins at Ayathuya and Sukhothai, which are also located more conveniently on the way from Bangkok to northern Thailand.
Focusing on Vietnam
Vietnam is also an excellent choice for a shorter trip. It has some of the most buzzing cities and markets in the region, some fascinating history, and world-famous karst islands. Transportation options are good, including a railway route spanning the whole length of the country. To see all the highlights takes at least 3 or 4 weeks though, so if you have only 2 weeks to spend you could consider a domestic flight to cover more ground, or focus on seeing only specific parts of Vietnam.
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. My guide to travelling in Vietnam has some more tips.
South-East Asia in 4 weeks
4 weeks gives you more 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 and trekking. Go back down and head into Cambodia from Bangkok. 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. Alternatively, pick some of the much less-visited beaches in Cambodia.
- 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 on the Cambodian islands. 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 lovely Hoi An).
I’m not saying you must stick to just two countries: you could easily decide to do three. I’m only saying two countries in four weeks will give you a very nice unhurried pace and a chance to truly get to know these countries.
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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.
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 relief from the usual rice-based meals. The name doesn’t make that much sense anymore but it’s what stuck!
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. You can get a more detailed description of this segment on my Thailand itineraries page.
I can highly recommend taking the 2-day slow boat into Laos from Huay Xai at the Thai border, which stops in Pakbeng (a small town in Laos) and ends up in Luang Prabang. While nowadays it’s possible to transit faster by bus, the boat ride lets you experience the Mekong, see the landscape change, and get a glimpse of the locals who live along the river. It’s also a fantastic way to meet other travellers; I kept bumping into people from the boat all over this 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, stopping at popular locations including Hoi An, Mui Ne, and the Mekong Delta near the capital of Ho Chi Minh City.
Head into Cambodia, stopping in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap and possibly other places as well. The Cambodian islands such as Koh Rong, Koh Kong and Rabbit Island are much less crowded than the ones in Thailand, so these are worth a look.
Finally, make your way to Thailand and find a beach to spend your remaining time relaxing in the sun.
Expanding your route
So far I’ve focused on the core countries of Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia, as these are among the most popular.
With more time to spare you could take the full loop described above (but stay longer in places or take detours), but you can also consider expanding your route outwards.
Malaysia is an obvious destination to add. Its a more conservative country with quieter beaches than in Thailand, while Malaysian Borneo has some of the best (and most accessible) wildlife experiences.
I’m a big fan of Indonesia, which is very touristy on Bali but much less-visited (in a good way) on most other islands. I like Flores and the Komodo Islands a lot and highly recommend these parts if you want to go off the usual trail.
Myanmar is another fascinating destination. Tourism still isn’t much developed there so it’s a great place to go for more of an authentic cultural experience.
But one of my favorite countries in the region is The Philippines, which is far removed from everywhere else but all the more rewarding. This country has some of the most beautiful beaches, islands, and reefs around. Its culture is a fascinating mix of influences, and the rice terraces at Batad are even more impressive than those in northern Vietnam.
Or… don’t listen to me!
On this page I’ve merely shared some of the common wisdom for travelling Southeast Asia. But maybe you have different ideas, in which case you shouldn’t let anyone tell you what to do.
For instance, earlier I advised against going to Laos if you are short on time, but maybe you are actually attracted by this more adventurous country… in which case, why not spend your time there instead of Thailand? You’ll probably come home with a few more original stories to tell. Many people have seen the temples in Bangkok, which is a staple tourist attraction, but not so many have lived in a treehouse in the jungles of Laos surrounded by gibbons. So what if transportation is slow – unique experiences like these can be well worth the hassle.
Every part of the region really has its own appeal, and in the end the only limit is your imagination. You certainly shouldn’t be afraid to go off the beaten track in Southeast Asia.
If you have at least a few weeks then improvisation becomes not only viable but also a lot of fun. In Southeast Asia you typically don’t need to reserve much in advance, so you can always just wing it and see where adventure takes you.
Important note about Vietnam
If your Southeast Asia trip includes Vietnam, keep in mind the visa process for this country is relatively more complex. Unlike some other countries, you typically can’t just show up at the border.
To enter Vietnam you often have to get prior approval for a visa-on-arrival, or you have to get a visa in advance from an embassy. Some ways of entering Vietnam are only applicable at airports and not at land borders. Another annoying thing: for your Vietnam visa you have to specify the start date in advance.
This can be a complicating factor when planning your Southeast Asia route. See: my easy-to-follow Vietnam visa explainer.
Cost of travel in Southeast Asia
One factor that I haven’t yet mentioned, but which may influence your itinerary, is the cost of each country and your overall budget.
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 relatively more expensive for instance, while Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and much of Indonesia are quite a lot cheaper. For more, check out my travel budgets for Southeast Asia.
Regional flights can add much to your overall expenses, so it might make sense for you 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 or travel style. That said, I usually recommend budgeting about USD $1100 a month or $35 a day per person. But if you stay in the cheapest backpacker hostels, eat local food, and stick to the cheapest countries, you may well manage for as little as $20 a day.
- Southeast Asia Cost of Travel Overview
Detailed cost breakdown with estimates and graphs.
- Travel Zen: Embracing the Joy of Missing Out
How to deal with the pressure of wanting to “see it all”
- 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.
- Top Places to Visit in Thailand
How to avoid the overcrowded parts and see the best of Thailand.
- Packing Like a Pro and Traveling Light—My Ultimate Guide
All you need for Southeast Asia is just a 40L backpack and some basic gear…
- How You Can Take The Leap and Travel Long-Term
Want to travel for longer than just a few weeks? Here’s how.
- Book: Travel the World Without Worries
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 everything you need to know. For detailed, beat-by-beat trip planning advice, get your copy today!
Around the web
- Popular Backpacking Route in Southeast Asia – My Funky Travel
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