If you are wondering where to go on your next (or first!) backpacking trip, Southeast Asia is a great choice. It’s cheap, full of culture and exotic experiences, and beautiful beaches that will literally make your jaw drop. While backpacking through Europe seems to be a pretty standard gap-year experience, SE Asia is a region that fewer people know about. It took my first solo backpacking trip through SE Asia when I was 19. I came back to live in Thailand when I was 22, as I fell in love with the culture and way of life.
It’s not difficult to fall in love with Southeast Asia. I did the second my plane touched down.
Here are some travel tips that I have learned along the way.
Costs Of Backpacking Through SE Asia
What you should budget for your backpacking trip depends entirely on you and what sacrifices you are willing to make in order to have a more extended trip. For a 4 month backpacking trip, I spent around 6,000 dollars including my roundtrip plane ticket and a flight to Bali. That broke down to about 1000 dollars a month. I also did an elephant mahout volunteer experience, which was costly. Some people say to try to stick to the 30$ a day rule. This is completely doable if you plan to stay in one place for a while. In fact, you could probably make it on about 15$ a day if you were staying at a cheap hostel and eating local food. However, make sure you are including transportation costs and any fun, extra activities you might want to do! If you have want to go snorkeling, zip lining, or trekking, the costs will add up.
Food- If you buy street food and eat where the locals eat, your meal will cost around 1-4$. Western restaurants can be significantly more expensive, so if you plan to eat at these every once in a while, fit that into your budget.
Accommodation- Obviously this depends on the kind of places you are interested in staying. Dorms usually cost around 3$-10$ per night, except on the touristy Thai islands (especially during Full Moon Party!). Cambodia tends to have some of the cheapest rooms. I paid 3$ for a single room in Battambang. Single rooms in most places tend to range from 10-30$ per night.
Transportation- It is very possible to get around SE Asia for cheap. Always go for the local buses if you are looking to save some cash. These tend to take longer then the express VIP buses, but it is a great way to meet locals and save money. You can also rent a motorbike for around 5$ per day. For flights, Air Asia seems to be the cheapest bet. If you are booking in advance, check frequently for deals as they often have promotional prices.
Drinking- If you like to go out, it would be a mistake to not add drinking costs into your budget. Although alcohol is a lot cheaper than in most Western countries, if you are drinking 3-4 nights a week the costs will add up. A typical night out for me ranged from about 10-20$. Of course, these costs depend on the person and how much they are spending.
When to Travel to Southeast Asia
Cool season is from November-February.
Hot season is from March-May.
Rainy Season is from May-November.
The weather will probably be significantly easier to deal with if you go to SE Asia during the cool season. However, it is peak season for other tourists as well. That means accommodation prices rocket up, and you might have to try a lot harder to find that secluded beach of your dreams. I actually don’t mind SE Asia in rainy season. The rain is fairly sporadic and though it will rain ridiculously hard for 30 minutes, the skies will be perfectly clear after. Hot season is a bit harder for me to deal with, but still manageable.
Where Should You Go?
A Typical Route– Fly into Bangkok- Head north to Chiang Mai-Cross over to Laos-Cross to Vietnam-Head Down to Cambodia-Back To Bangkok.
From Bangkok, you can get cheap flights to Myanmar, The Philippines, Indonesia, or other Southeast Asian countries.
Of course, this can be changed based on what you want to see and do, and how much time you have.
What To Pack
My number one travel tip for SE Asia is Don’t Overpack!. Any backpack over 20 pounds is just heavy and miserable. Pack the essentials. The climate stays fairly hot in most places in SE Asia, so it is easy to plan your clothes around that.
Here’s what I packed for a 4 month backpacking trip through Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Indonesia:
4 tank tops. I like to have at least one cute, going out tank top that is fun and brightly colored.
1 tee- shirt. This is good if you need to wear a top that covers your shoulders.
One light-weight, long sleeved top.
1 sarong. ( Do not bring a towel!) It takes up too much space and will smell bad if you try to put it in your bag damp. A sarong is multi-purpose as it can be used as towel and as a coverup for visiting temples.
1 pair of yoga pants. I like these for working out and hiking.
1 pair of pants. These should be lightweight. You can also wait and buy them in SE Asia, as there are a lot of options at the markets.
1 sweater- The air con on trains and buses can be turned up to Arctic temperatures. This is for those instances.
A bathing suit. I wear a bikini but make sure to cover up anywhere off the beach.
Underwear- 7 pairs of underwear, 2 bras (one sports bra), and 2 pairs of socks should suffice.
Shoes- I buy a pair of fake Havanias in Bangkok as they are comfortable and easy to slip off. I also pack a pair of Converse. If you are interested in doing intense hiking or trekking, hiking boots or Teva’s would be a smart choice.
2 pairs of shorts. One cute for going out on the islands, and one fairly modest pair.
Other Must-Have Items-
Silk sleep sack- This has been an absolute life saver when I am not too sure of the status of the sheets. A lot of hotels in Asia don’t provide a top sheet- and the thin layer of the sleep sack provides protection from insects.
DEET- I hate putting DEET on my body, but sometimes it is essential. Some people say to bring your own mosquito net, but I personally don’t think that is necessary unless you will be camping.
Fold Up Yoga Mat- These are great for travelling! I bought mine off Amazon.com.
Ear Plugs and Eye Mask- For protection from that guy in the dorm that has no idea how loudly he snores.
Medical Kit- I like to include antibiotics, tampons, ibuprofen, pepto bismol, anti malarial pills, electrolytes, and charcoal tablets for an upset stomach.
Hand Sanitizer and Wipes.
Toiletries- Shampoo, conditioner, body wash, face wash, and moisturizer. I also like to pack coconut oil. I use this for my hair and body.
Makeup- Keep the makeup simple. I like pack BB Cream with SPF included, mascara, brown eyeliner that can be used on my eyebrows as well, and a small palette of eyeshadow color for night out.
Hair- I like to include a small tube of smoothing serum for my natural crazy hair and some hair ties in case it just isn’t cooperating. I also like to pack a few cute headbands.
iPhone- I don’t own a camera at the moment, so I pretty much use my iPhone for taking photos, listening to music, and using wifi.
Sunglasses. I actually brought my real, favourite pair of ray-bans. I wasn’t too worried about them getting stolen as fake ones are so prevalent- it would be very hard to spot the difference.
Travel Journal and Pen- Essential.
Passport (obviously) and small passport photographs. You can get these done at home or many places will do them for cheap in SE Asia.
Top Things To See And Do In SE Asia
Explore Angkor Wat in Siem Riep, Cambodia. These temples are truly magical even if you have feel like you have seen one two many in Asia.
Learn to Dive in Koh Tao, Thailand. Koh Tao has some amazing diving if you are looking to swim with the sea life.
Go Tubing in Vang Vieng, Laos. Vang Vieng is a notorious backpacker party spot, and for good reason. I once had a friend say that “Vang Vieng is like Disneyland for twenty-somethings.” That is very true.
Go to the Full Moon Party on Koh Phangan, Thailand. Although I think Full Moon Party is a tad overrated, it is still an experience. Just don’t go too hard at the parties leading up to Full Moon as I did unless you can really handle it. (I couldn’t.)
See Breathtaking Rice Terraces in Sapa, Vietnam. The rice terraces in Sapa are some of the most gorgeous things I have ever seen. You can also trek outside of Sapa and see how local villagers live.
Zipline with The Gibbon Experience in Laos. Have you ever wanted to fly above the trees while sleeping in tree houses at night? Now you can.
Take A Hot Air Ballon Above Bagan, Myanmar. See the temples of Bagan from a birds- eye view. These only run in the cool season until April, so make sure you plan your trip around that.
These are just some of the amazing things to do in Southeast Asia. Have any more tips that I left out? Make sure to share them below.