A Travel Guide to Backpacking Southeast Asia

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A Travel Guide to Backpacking Southeast Asia

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If you’re a backpacking traveler – or want to be – a Southeast Asia backpacking trip should be top of mind. It’s one of the best destinations for backpackers on a budget and rewards you with incredible natural settings, vibrant cities, rich culture and cheap, mouthwatering cuisine. Stay in a hostel or a beachfront bamboo hut. Explore Hindu ruins or a Buddhist ceremony. Hike through rainforest and rice fields or along stunning beaches. Here’s your go-to guide (and answer to FAQs) for an incredible Southeast Asia backpacking route – one that offers great adventure and lifetime memories.


How Long Do You Need to Backpack Southeast Asia?


How long your Southeast Asia backpacking trip is going to last is entirely dependent on the available time you have and where you want to go. Here’s a sample of a four-week Southeast Asia backpacking itinerary:

Highlights of Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Laos (4 weeks)

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Hanoi, Vietnam (3 days); Halong Bay, Vietnam (2 days, 1 night); Hoi An, Vietnam (3 days); Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam (3 days); Phnom Penh, Cambodia (2 days); Siem Reap, Cambodia (3 days); Bangkok, Thailand (3 days); Koh Phangan, Thailand (2 days); Chiang Mai, Thailand (3 days); Pai, Thailand (3 days); Luang Prabang, Laos (2 days); Vang Vieng, Laos (3 days); Vientiane, Laos (1 day)

Southeast Asia Backpacking Trip (3 months)

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Hanoi, Vietnam; Halong Bay, Vietnam; Sapa, Vietnam; Hoi An, Vietnam; Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam; Phnom Penh, Cambodia; Siem Reap, Cambodia; Bangkok, Thailand; Chiang Mai, Thailand; Luang Prabang, Laos; Vang Vieng, Laos; Vientiane, Laos; Bangkok, Thailand; Bagan, Myanmar; Mandalay; Khao Sok, Thailand; Krabi, Thailand; Koh Lipe, Thailand; Penang, Malaysia; Cameron Highlands, Malaysia; Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; Melaka, Malaysia; Singapore; Jakarta, Indonesia; Yogyakarta, Indonesia; Surabaya, Indonesia; Mt. Bromo, Indonesia; Bali; Gili Islands, Indonesia; Lombok, Indonesia; Kuching, Malaysia; Brunei; Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia; Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia


How Can I Get Around Southeast Asia on My Backpacking Tour?


It’s actually pretty easy to get around Southeast Asia, particularly with everything you need on your back. There are short flights, train service and bus routes. Catch a tuk tuk in cities or a moto taxi. Ask and negotiate the tuk tuk or moto taxi price first. Just be as flexible as possible and you’ll find it’s mainly a breeze to get around. Let’s look more closely at transportation for backpackers in Southeast Asia:


Busses: The old backpacking standard, the bus is a classic way to get around Southeast Asia. Bus tickets are often available online and you can check with the folks at your hostel to see if you need to book in advance. This is a great way to meet other backpackers. The Bamba Experience and Stray Asia allow hop-on-hop-off service throughout Southeast Asia along a set route.


Flying: Don’t have a ton of time for your Southeast Asia backpacking trip? You’ll save time by taking quick connecting flights between destinations. Typically, domestic flights are USD$80 of less.


Trains: The train service is more limited than the bus service in Southeast Asia – and more expensive – but sometimes the ride is worth it. The routes – particularly Bangkok to Chiang Mai – is particularly beautiful. In larger cities like Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Bangkok and Jakarta, use the inner-city metro trains to get around and avoid traffic.

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Tuk tuk, taxi and moto-taxi service: Get around quick and cheap on a tuk tuk or moto-taxi. Be aware that some tuk tuk drivers will up the price for tourists, so be sure to haggle your way down to an acceptable fee.


What Is the Best Time of Year to Visit Southeast Asia?


Well, that depends. Each country of Southeast Asia – while tropical, hot and humid – has its own microclimate. There are two annual monsoons that you can depend on, but for more accurate seasonal expectations, let’s look at the top Southeast Asia backpacking destinations:


Cambodia Weather: The dry season in Cambodia is November through April, with the cooler temperatures in November. November has the added benefits of being less crowded and it’s the time of the lively Cambodian Water Festival. Toward March and April, the weather gets more humid. Khmer New Year, one of the most significant festivals in the country, takes place in April. May to October marks the rainy season with monsoons, humidity and strong winds. It’s less crowded then and the countryside is beautifully lush, so for some who don’t mind the dampness, this can be a great time to backpack in Southeast Asia.


Indonesia Weather: Generally speaking, the wettest months in Indonesia are November to April and the driest months are May to October. If you’re backpacking on a budget in Southeast Asia, avoid the priciest months of mid-June through mid-September.


Laos Weather: There is no wrong time to go to Laos – there are reasons for every season, but if you really want the best of the best backpacking weather, visit this Southeast Asian country between November and January. There’s little to no rain and the temperatures are pleasantly warm. The water levels of the Mekong River are pleasant, making swimming, tubing and caving safe.


Malaysia Weather: Enjoying a equatorial location, Malaysia has stable weather throughout the year. There are two distinct seasons: rainy and dry. The monsoon arrives between September and February. If your Southeast Asia backpacking route takes you into the highlands and mountains, you can expect cooler weather. The very best months to visit are between March and October.


Myanmar (Burma) Weather: The best time to backpack in Myanmar is from November to February. After this, from March through May, the temperatures can be uncomfortably warm. The monsoon is between May and October, with roads becoming impassable July to September.


Philippines Weather: Most backpacking travelers to Southeast Asia and the Philippines choose the dry season, though the rainy season can have its benefits (including fewer tourists). The coolest temperatures are in January and February. To save money during your backpacking tour, consider the shoulder months of May and November.


Thailand Weather: A Southeast Asia backpacking tour favorite, Thailand offers its most pleasant weather in December. The weather is comfortable and dry and there are festivals practically every day. The cool season, in general, is from November to February.


Vietnam Weather: When to go backpacking in Vietnam depends on where in the country you want to go. The south or southwesterly monsoon takes over from May to September, while the northeast monsoon hits from October to April. In general, the best time to visit and sightsee throughout the whole country is September through December or March and April.


How Can I Backpack Southeast Asia on a Budget?


If you’re on a backpacking budget (that’s kind of the point, isn’t it?), you can enjoy backpacking in Southeast Asia on the cheap and still feel like you got an incredibly immersive, authentic vacation. Some avid backpackers claim you can get by on as little as USD$25 per day, especially if you’re mainly eating the local food. Of course, this depends on where you’re visiting, as some destinations are cheaper than others. If you add on trips to the elephant sanctuary, a diving course and jungle ziplining, your bottom line will add up. Planning a couple months? Aim to budget USD$1,000 for each month.


Here are the best tips for keeping tabs on your Southeast Asia backpacking budget:

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1. Stay with (new) friends. Sure, you can always choose a hostel, but particularly if you’re a solo traveler (or maybe with one friend), you can crash on as many couches as you’re invited to. There are even apps these days that allow you to find new “friends” who are open to sharing their pad to travelers. It’s a great way to get to know the locals and get their tips for what to see and do.


2. Sightsee with a small group tour. You’ll have better negotiating power with local travel guides if you have a group of people signing up and buying multiple tours and activities. If you’re a solo traveler, buddy up with someone from the hostel who wants to experience the same things as you.


3. Be last-minute. Really, don’t plan in advance. When you’re hitting up tours and activities at the last minute when they’re hoping to fill more spots, you’ll get the best deals.


4. Enjoy the street food. It’s the most delicious and the least expensive. Consider local markets, too.


5. Haggle and bargain. It’s in the Southeast Asia culture to haggle for goods and services, so get in the game!


6. Bring a water bottle. Don’t waste valuable money on single-use plastic water bottles. Bring your own water bottle with purifier.


Let’s look at how the various Southeast Asia backpacking trip destinations stack up against each other in terms of price. Here’s what you can expect to spend per day if you are sleeping in cheap accommodations, hostels or couchsurfing, if you’re using overland transportation and if you eat mainly local. These prices are in USD.

Thailand (southern beaches): $50-$60
Thailand (central/north) $25-$35
Laos: $25-$35
Vietnam: $20-$30
Cambodia: $20-$30
Malaysia: $35-$45
Philippines: $35-$45
Myanmar (Burma): $30-$40

What Should I Have on My Southeast Asia Backpacking Itinerary?


Depending on the amount of time you have for your Southeast Asia backpacking trip, you’ll want to include as many of these top destinations as possible. Mix and match so you can enjoy urban and rural experiences, temples and beaches – and, of course, as much street food as possible.

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Chiang Mai: Commune with elephants at an elephant sanctuary, explore many of the northern Thailand capital’s 300 temples, wander through night markets, watch a local Muay Thai fight and take a Thai cooking class.


Siem Reap: There are temples for days in Siem Reap, so explore as many as you can. Angkor Wat, the largest religious structure in the world by land area, is the show-stopper here. Be sure to visit at sunrise if you can. Venture into the outer villages to meet the local residents and learn about their way of life.


Phnom Penh: Sobering as it may be, a visit to Phnom Penh is an integral part of a Southeast Asia backpacking trip. Learn and remember as you visit the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek.


Kuala Lumpur: Savor the juxtaposition of old and new in Kuala Lumpur, where Malay, Indian and Chinese culture come together, resulting in outstanding food, varied architecture and modern skyscrapers. Look for temples and mosques beside the sky-high Petronas Towers. While you’re here, don’t miss the Batu caves outside town, an important site for the city’s Hindu population.

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Phong Nha: Visit the Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park in the Quang Binh province of Vietnam. The caving here has put the part on the UNESCO World Heritage Site list. It’s home to one of the world’s most majestic cave systems – some parts over four million years old.


Chiang Rai: Trek into the remote hills around Chiang Rai. Visit the many art galleries and cafes in town. Check out the White Temple and Black House for their distinctive temple architecture. Learn about the ethnic minorities in the region, including Akha, Lisu and Lahu, at the Hill Tribe Museum.


Hong Kong: Buzzing with energy, Hong Kong is a backpacker favorite. Island hop on the tram. Take a nap in Victoria Park. Finish off the perfect day with the Symphony of Lights show, visible from Tsim Sha Tsui and Hong Kong Island.

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Ho Chi Minh City: Get lost along the bustling streets of this major Southeast Asian metropolis, where you can soak up culture and history and shop the stalls of the expansive Cho Ben Thanh market. Crawl through the Chu Chi tunnels and visit the War Remnants Museum.


Phu Quoc: Need a respite from the noise of Ho Chi Minh City? Take the quick one-hour flight to the quiet island of Phu Quoc. This is where to come for secluded beaches and serenity. Bai Sao Beach on the southern tip of the island is an irrefutable favorite. Rent a lounge bed in the shade, grab some juicy mango from a local seller and relish the opportunity to just “be.”

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