The Ultimate Backpacking Guide to Southeast Asia

Hot air balloons over pagodas in sunrise at Bagan, Myanmar
Hot air balloons over pagodas in sunrise at Bagan, Myanmar | © sippakorn / Shutterstock
Southeast Asia is one of the easiest places on Earth for backpackers to explore. Excellent inter-country transport, affordable prices, and great weather attract huge numbers of backpackers throughout the year. With stunning beaches, lush jungles, diverse cultural and historic sites, outdoor adventures, a huge selection of culinary delights, terrific nightlife, and more, the region has something for everyone. Here is our comprehensive guide to help you make the most of your backpacking trip around Southeast Asia.

The backpacker scene

Backpackers have been exploring Southeast Asia for decades and the region is used to meeting the needs of travellers. A good transport network makes travelling between major destinations pretty simple, and locals along the so-called Banana Pancake Trail are no strangers to foreign faces. Backpackers of all ages (solo and otherwise) explore the region all year round, so it’s easy to meet other like-minded people. From beach lovers, hiking enthusiasts, and culture vultures, to people seeking a spiritual encounter, foodies, and party animals, Southeast Asia greets them all.

Khao San Road © TONG4130 / Shutterstock

Making the most of it

Plan, but be flexible: Have a rough plan of where you want to visit, in what order, and how long you plan to stay there – but be prepared to throw your plans out of the window and go with the flow at times. You may meet new pals and decide to tag along to someplace you didn’t consider, you may fall in love with a particular spot and want to stay for longer, and you might come across transportation issues that require a rethink. Adopt the laid-back character of many locals and don’t try to plan right down to the last rickshaw ride.

Check flight prices: There’s a lot of ground to cover in Southeast Asia! The novelty of overnight buses and trains can wear thin quite quickly. When affordable flights can come in at the same price as a more time-consuming transport option, it can sometimes make more sense to simply hop on a plane. Don’t forget to compare deals (taking into account luggage fees) when looking for ways from A to B.

Step away from the beaten path: Southeast Asia has many well-travelled roads, but there are many more places that see relatively few independent travellers. Lots of backpackers hit up Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Malaysia, for example, with Myanmar a relatively new travel destination and the Philippines under-visited when compared with its neighbours. Busy places are popular for a reason, but it’s also nice to break away from the crowds and explore somewhere different.

Visit Brunei while exploring the island of Borneo for something a bit different to the masses © Don Mammoser / Shutterstock

Safety

Southeast Asia is generally a safe destination for backpackers, but you should still exercise a healthy level of caution and avoid potentially dicey situations.

Don’t be tempted to take a lone stroll along deserted sands at night and avoid isolated places at all times, especially in the dark. Hire a local guide if you want to venture deep into the jungle, and always let someone know of your whereabouts if taking short solo hikes.

Many of Southeast Asia’s countries have strict penalties for drug use. Don’t become a headline. Solo travellers especially should keep track of their alcohol intake – being alone and drunk in an unfamiliar place is a recipe for trouble.

Don’t flash the cash or expensive gadgets – you don’t want to become a target for thieves. Don’t be too trusting of new people (locals or fellow backpackers), and never leave your valuables unattended. Lock your passport / cash / camera, etc. away at nighttime, be aware of pickpockets in crowded places, and never set your bag down unsecured, even if it’s right by your feet. Take particular care to secure your possessions on night transportation, and never put anything of value in your main bag if it’s going in a storage compartment.

Don’t skip on travel insurance. Stolen possessions, illness on the road, injuries, delayed flights, and other mishaps can really ruin a trip and be costly without cover. Ensure your plan covers everything you plan to do, keeping in mind that most policies don’t cover vehicle use if you don’t have the necessary licence, and many require excess cover for adventure activities.

Food and accommodation

Street food stalls, markets, and hawker centres are often a backpacker’s best friend in Southeast Asia. Not only are prices typically very low, but you’ll also be able to try some of the freshest and most authentic dishes available. For a sit-down meal, look at where the locals are eating for the most delicious fare and best prices. Most major backpacking hotspots have a good selection of western options if you’re craving a taste of home, but do limit the amount of non-local meals you enjoy if you’re trying to stick to a budget.

Southeast Asia has an abundance of hostels, guest houses, homestays, cheap hotels, motels, campsites, and almost any form of budget accommodation that you can think of. Even more offbeat destinations are rarely far from somewhere cheap and cheerful to rest your head. In busy backpacking areas it’s common for people to arrive and compare a few options before deciding where to stay – it’s rarely difficult to find a bed and walk-in rates are almost never inflated. Indeed, they may be cheaper! Do book accommodation in advance if you’re visiting for a major festival or event. You don’t want to struggle or pay over the odds when you should be out enjoying Tet in Vietnam, Songkran in Thailand, or Chinese New Year in Malaysia and Singapore.

Food vendor selling grilled chicken wings at Kota Kinabalu night market © Lano Lan / Shutterstock

Making friends

Hostel common areas are often great places to strike up conversation and meet new people, and many hostels arrange cool events to help people to mingle. Smile and pass the time of day with other backpackers on long-distance buses and trains, in restaurants, and in bars and you may find a new buddy to hang out with. Excursions and activities are great for solo explorers who want company for the day. Whether you sign up for a snorkelling trip, meditation retreat, yoga session, cooking lesson, walking tour, pub crawl, or something else, there’s sure to be someone you click with.

A range of languages are spoken across Southeast Asia, including Burmese, Thai, Khmer, Filipino, and Malay. While nobody would expect you to be fluent in all, knowing a few basics can endear you to locals. At the very least, figure out how to say hello and thank you. Check for local information about cultural exchanges and meet-ups to socialise with people from all over the world and friendly locals.

Backpackers at a Vang Vieng bar, Laos © Alexander Mazurkevich / Shutterstock

Money, money, money

Currency

Most countries in Southeast Asia have their own currency. Currencies to come to grips with include the Lao kip, Vietnamese dong, Cambodian riel, Thai baht, Malaysian riel, Singaporean dollar, Philippine peso, Indonesian rupiah, and the Burmese kyat. If you’re really striking out and going somewhere different to the crowds, you may also need the Bruneian dollar. A currency conversion app is all but essential!

ATMs are generally easy to find throughout the region, but do plan ahead for visits to more rural and remote areas.

US dollars are typically easy to exchange, with some countries (such as Cambodia and Myanmar) accepting them alongside the local currency. Make sure notes are new, clean, and crisp. Other major global currencies are usually easy to exchange, too. Stick to using official currency exchange kiosks and always check the rate and count the cash. It’s not unheard of for unscrupulous money exchangers to try and bamboozle and shortchange people or to even give out of circulation notes or a completely different currency.

With the exception of large hotels, fancy restaurants, and shopping centres, don’t rely on paying by plastic; much of Southeast Asia still prefers cash transactions.

Row of ATMs in Southeast Asia © amnat30 / Shutterstock

Costs

Costs of travelling throughout Southeast Asia obviously vary from country to country but, for the most part, prices are very affordable when compared with Western Europe and the Americas.

As a rough guide, here are some average prices.

1 meal from a street vendor: 1–3 USD
1 beer in a bar: 1–6 USD
1 night at a backpacker hostel: 3–15 USD
1 night bus ride: 10–30 USD
1 bottle of sun cream: 10–15 USD
1 snorkelling trip: 30–50 USD
1 admission to an expensive tourist attraction: 10–40 USD

The Alor Street Food Night Market, Kuala Lumpur © Inspired By Maps / Shutterstock

Where to go

Bagan: History, culture, and architecture lovers will be in their element in Myanmar’s Bagan. The landscapes are studded with ancient temples for as far as the eye can see. Take a world-famous hot air balloon ride or enjoy a lazy trip along the Irrawaddy River for a different view of the area.

Hot air balloons over pagodas in sunrise at Bagan, Myanmar © sippakorn / Shutterstock

Kanchanaburi: A laid-back riverside gem in western Thailand, Kanchanaburi is home to the beautiful Erawan Falls, interesting caves, wildlife-rich jungle, the Bridge Over the River Kwai, and war history attractions. Relaxed with a low-key nightlife, it’s a great place to mix jungle trips, historical sightseeing, and relaxation.

Hoi An: Get a taste of local life at Hoi An, a charming, ancient Vietnamese town with lots of rich historic sites to explore. Major attractions include the Japanese Covered Bridge, opulent heritage homes, ornate Chinese-style assembly halls, Hoi An Market, and Terracotta Park. Plus, it’s just a short ride to the beach.

Local life in Hoi An © Sam's Studio / Shutterstock

Cameron Highlands: With lush, verdant hills and tea plantations for as far as the eye can see, the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia is a top place for fans of the great outdoors. Expect cooler temperatures, hiking trails, strawberry farms, and a handful of delightfully quirky attractions.

El Nido: El Nido’s 40+ islands, islets, and limestone karts seductively speckle the emerald water and an abundance of marine life flourishes around the coral reefs. Stunning beaches, jungle trekking, and photo opportunities galore are just a few reasons to visit this Philippine paradise.

The Big lagoon in El Nido, Philippines © Guillem Lopez Borras / Shutterstock

Bucket list experiences

Watch the sunrise over Angkor Wat: Cambodia’s Angkor Wat is one of Southeast Asia’s most spectacular historic sites. Seeing the sunrise above the gigantic temple complex is simply breathtaking.

Sunrise at Angkor Wat, Siem Reap © Geet Theerawat / Shutterstock

Party all night on Koh Phangan: Thailand’s Koh Phangan is all but synonymous with hedonistic fun. Famous for its Full Moon Parties, there are fantastic parties at other times of the month, too – the revelry never stops!

Ride the waves in Bali: Indonesia’s island of Bali, particularly the coast around Kuta, is renowned for its awesome surfing. Spend active days trying to conquer the waves and soaking up the sun on the sands before experiencing the area’s legendary nightlife.

Hit the surf in Bali © Footage Lab / Shutterstock