A beginner’s guide to backpacking in Southeast Asia

Backpacker in Asia

Southeast Asia is one of the most popular backpacking areas in the world, and we understand why. It’s easy to fall in love with this part of the world.

Southeast Asia has been part of backpackers’ travel itineraries for decades, which means that there is a well-developed tourist market. And it’s cheap!

Different people prefer different countries and places. Still, several areas are considered along the typical backpacking route. Some of them are really good while others are, to say the least, overrated.

Plan and determine main destinations

Bangkok
Bangkok

It is common for people to fly into one of the big cities to start their journey and have their return ticket from another city and often land. We would recommend anyone who will backpack for an extended period to book a direct air ticket, no return trip. There are far too many who extend their journey and stay in paradise.

Each country has many destinations that are considered a must. Examples are Angkor Wat in Cambodia, Bali in Indonesia, and the islands in southern Thailand.

Budgeting

Asian market
Asian market

Southeast Asia is cheap. Really cheap if you want. But you can also spend money here. We had no problem traveling on a budget of $20 for both of us. It is for food, accommodation, and transport with local buses and boats.

Attractions, more expensive attractions, and more satisfactory accommodation will also be in place.

Some countries are cheaper (Thailand, Indonesia, Cambodia), and here you get a rustic double room for under $10 / night. A meal is often under $2. At the same time, other countries are significantly more expensive (Singapore and Brunei), where you have to pay the triple price.

Travel during the right season

Rainy season
Rainy season

What is the right season, really?

As a rule, most people try to avoid the rainy season. Luckily, the rainy season differs from country to country. We traveled for 16 months in Southeast Asia and managed to avoid the rainy season almost all the time.

Our own winter is dry season and high season in many of the countries. Not only does it not rain, but the water is more transparent if you plan to dive.

Another season that is good to keep track of is the fruit seasons! Mango, lychee, rambutan, and durian (when I was in Indonesia, I changed my entire itinerary to fit in the durian season) are some seasonal fruits in the area. Thai and Filipino mangoes are worth planning the trip after.

Getting around the area

Tuk Tuk
Tuk Tuk

As I said before, Southeast Asia has a well-developed tourist market, which means that transport is often not something to worry about.

From and to larger cities, there are comfortable direct buses with AC and wifi. In other areas, it is the local buses that apply. The local buses are usually our first choice as it is cheaper and gives more feeling.

Almost all of Southeast Asia, from Singapore through Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos can travel the country road by bus and train. Transport in the Philippines, Indonesia, and parts of Thailand is a mixture of ferries and buses.

Within the cities, there are several transport options. Bus, minibus, jeepney, motorcycle taxi, bike, walk.

Due to visa rules in Myanmar / Burma, it was necessary to fly in, but I have heard that it has changed now.

Accommodation

Cambodia hotel
Cambodia hotel

Depending on your budget, you can choose from simple rooms with mosquito nets and a fan (the cheapest double room costing $2 / night in Cambodia) to 5-star luxury hotels. For $10 per night, you get a clean room with a fan, for $15-20 you get with AC. Dorms and shared dormitories are found in big cities such as Bangkok and popular tourist hubs like Sihanoukville in Cambodia, but usually, the double room applies. It costs about the same.

We did not book a single night during our 16 months, and we never had any problems finding accommodation. When you arrive at a tourist area, you will be met at the station or in the harbor by hotel staff who drive you to the hotel.

The only time it can be useful to book is if you arrive just during a big festival.

Respect the culture

Asian culture
Asian culture

However, open Southeast Asia seems to tourists, the countries are more conservative and stricter than ours are. So, to show respect and not trample someone’s toes by mistake, it is essential to know what is allowed and above all what you should not do.

It differs from country to country, so it is not possible to say in general, but some rules are more rule than exceptions. Here are some things:

For girls, cover the shoulders and knee-length shorts. Especially in Indonesia and at religious sites.

When eating with your hands, eat with your right hand. The left hand is considered dirty and used for toilet visits (water is used for toilet visits, not paper)

When sitting on the floor, do not point your feet at anyone else or at Buddha.

Food

Asian food
Asian food

The food is very different from what you are used to from home. The food is a big part of a country’s culture, so be sure to try as many new dishes as possible. You will come into contact with the food you have never seen before and do not know the name of but to test. The worst thing that can happen is that you don’t like it. Our rule is to try everything at least twice at different times in different places. Maybe it was just a lousy cook or a Monday copy we got.

Chili is used in a different way here than what we are used to. Even if you like strong food at home, we warn you to order strong food in Southeast Asia. Thailand and Indonesia are notorious for their chili, which makes any experienced backpacker cry.

Vegetarian eating is incredibly easy here. And the fruit is lovely!

Learn the local language

Local language
Local language

Selamat Pagi, Apa Kabar? Good morning, what does it cost? In Indonesian. That’s all it takes to be accepted, get a smile back, and a better place to bargain. Common phrases to learn are greeting words, thank you, what does it cost, can you give me a discount and show me how to count. It will take you an hour to learn, and you will come a long way.

You come a long way with English, but outside the tourist route, it can be difficult. Download an offline translation app and dictionary for your phone, it will make life easier.

Visa Requirements

Visa Requirements
Visa Requirements

For us Westerners, it is easy to travel in Southeast Asia. The visa rules differ slightly from country to country. Still, in most countries, we get visas on arrival (are uncertain in Myanmar, they have changed regulations since we traveled in the area). Cambodia and Vietnam cost $15, the others are free.

Remember to check the current visa rules before traveling. Read on each country’s immigration agency’s website or embassy. Forums and blogs are useful as guides but always double-check with official pages before traveling.

Visa-run is common in Southeast Asia. If you are in Thailand and your visa will soon expire, you can take a bus to Malaysia, turn the same day and return to Thailand on a new visa. (Our shortest visit to Cambodia was 30 seconds, that was the time it took to walk around the building)

Be flexible and enjoy

Flexible travelers
Flexible travelers

Things will go wrong, and new, more exciting things will catch your interest. Maybe you miss a bus, perhaps you hear about a temple and decide to go there, maybe you meet someone, and you start traveling together.

Whatever happens: Remember, you are out backpacking. It doesn’t matter what you do and where you are as long as you do something and have fun.

Planning to travel to Southeast Asia? What are you most looking forward to?

(Image credit: Wikipedia)

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