TIPS ON BACKPACKING IN SOUTHEAST ASIA:
Costs, Itineraries, and Tips
I've mentioned a lot of times how much I love and how much I recommend anyone who wants to travel or go on a holiday to check out Southeast Asia. It's a perfect place to start; affordable, easy to get around, and a lot of backpackers begin their trip here.
When I started my backpacking in Southeast Asia, I didn't have any idea what I was going into. I must have unnecessarily spent some of my budget on a few things and missed some places along the way. To help you not to do the same mistake as I've done, I'll give you all the tips I've picked up along the way. I know how frustrating it can be to not have any idea how much should you save for your upcoming Southeast Asia adventure.
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TIP: Use the table of contents to navigate faster
How Many Countries are in Southeast Asia
There are 11 countries in Southeast Asia which are all member of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), and those are Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, East Timor (aka Timor Leste), and Vietnam. It's a lot of countries, and if you only have 2 weeks or even 1 month, it's impossible to explore all of them in one go. The most popular destinations and are easier to begin your trip are Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam.
Why Should You Go Backpacking in Southeast Asia
Southeast Asia is one of the best places to go backpacking. Why? It is very lively, affordable, easy to travel to, hundreds and hundreds of backpacker starts in Southeast Asia. Apart from that, it is rich in culture, history, it has the most amazing cuisines. This region offers such a great deal, from mountains, sea adventures, food tripping, road tripping, or even just lie on the beach, drink your night out, or simply make new friends.
How Long Should You Spend in Southeast Asia
Of course, this depends on how much time you have. But, if you have an indefinite time or can squeeze to go for more than three months, there are more than enough things to see and explore. With a year in your hand, you can definitely explore the entire region. You can probably still do this with six months, however, you won't be able to see and explore deeply.
You can spend two weeks and focus on one region of the country to have a taste of Southeast Asia. One month can easily be spent as well, with that, you can combine two countries or focus on one country and dig its unbeaten path. To give you an idea what's the ideal time to spend in each country:
- Brunei – 1-2 weeks ( this country is very small but have loads of attractions to offer)
- Cambodia 2-3 weeks is plenty to explore this fascinating destination
- Laos – 3 weeks (you can buy a motorbike and travel slowly)
- Indonesia – 1 month (or more) this country has 17.5K islands
- Malaysia – 3 weeks (you can easily spend more here, get a motorbike and travel in your own way)
- Myanmar – 28 days (the maximum single entry visa is only for 28 days, you can always get another visa if you want to stay longer but you need to exit the country then re-enter)
- Philippines – 1 month (or more) since this country has 7,000+ islands, mostly can be travelled by ferry or aeroplanes
- Singapore – 2 weeks (this will give you plenty of time to explore slowly)
- Thailand – 4 weeks (hopping on different islands takes time)
- Timor-Leste – 2 weeks
- Vietnam – 4 weeks on a motorbike | 3 weeks on public transportation
TIP: If your time permits, stay as long as you can to explore the small and unbeaten areas of each destination. There is no such thing as “I stayed too long here”.
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How Much Does it Cost to Travel Southeast Asia
What is a good budget for backpacking in Southeast Asia? That's a very common question and very vague. You can easily spend $1,000 for a week's trip or $1,000 for two month's trip. The first question you need to answer is how long do you want to travel and how do you want to travel. I spent $2,000 for six months on my first trip, I stayed in dorms, I volunteered, taught and worked in hostels, hitchhiked. and even sleep in monasteries.
Are you willing to stay in hostels dorm rooms, deal with people who snore or possibly a roommate who will shag on the top bunk? Do you prefer to have your own private room to have the peace and quiet? Are you okay eating street food or a casual restaurant is a must? Would you prefer to fly over taking a bus? It also depends on which countries are going to be on your list. Because Vietnam is crazy affordable but Singapore will break your bank in just a week!
Here is to give you an idea of the travel cost in Southeast Asia:
You can find a $6 for a dorm room, $10 for a private room - these are the average prices, I found some dorm room for $3 and a private room for $8. Check out best hostels in Vietnam, hostels I stayed in Cambodia and hostels I recommend in Malaysia. Or you can check my favourite booking sites:
Transportation over land
For a 5-6 hour bus, it should cost about $8, overnight buses are about $12, some of them have a toilet inside and offers a reclined seat up to 160-degrees. They also offer some snack and a bottle of water. You can also take a bus to cross the border. For example from Vietnam to Laos, Thailand to Cambodia, and other land borders in Southeast Asia.
There are $25 for a domestic flight, $35 (is the lowest I've taken) for a flight to another Southeast Asia country - the price differs A LOT because of the distance and the fact that even there are budget airlines in Southeast Asia, so far, there are no airlines that offer crazy cheap tickets like Ryanair or Wizz Air. I use this site to find cheap flights for Southeast Asia.
You should be able to find $3 meal in a casual restaurant and fast food or $1 for a street food if you're down for that. It is very rare that hostels in Southeast Asia have a kitchen.
From FREE tours to $10 for a day trip (covers transportation and/or bottle of water) are both can be found easily. Free walking tours exist in major cities (remember to tip the tour guide), while there are very cheap tours like in Cambodia, I managed to get on a boat tour for $10 with food and drinks, a $3 tour in Phnom Penh where you pay for the transportation only. I highly suggest this site for tours all over Southeast Asia, I've had a great experience with them, I even booked their tours in Europe.
For a visa, you can spend from $35 and up; a lot of European and North American countries need to pay for a visa in some Southeast Asian countries like Cambodia, Myanmar, and Vietnam. While Indonesia, the Philippines, and Singapore will let you enter their country without a visa.
These only an estimated costs, it's easy to spend more. If you want a deeper idea for budget and costing, check my in-depth article about Southeast Asia Travel Budget where I list down the expected cost per country. I also recommend this article about backpacking in Vietnam for more specific information about travelling here.
Best Southeast Asia Travel Route
If you are coming from Europe, direct and cheap flights are heading to Bangkok in Thailand, Singapore, and Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. Based on these, the best place to start is either Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur.
TIP: I wrote a very detailed article Southeast Asia travel route that you should check out
Start in Singapore
You can also start in Singapore, cross the land border to Malaysia, another border to Thailand, then Laos, Vietnam, and through Cambodia. However, Singapore is quite expensive, probably cost like the UK or sometimes, even the Scandinavian countries.
Start in Thailand
Bangkok is where everyone starts their trip, from there, they will cross the border to Laos or Cambodia then hitting up Vietnam. From Vietnam or Cambodia, there are affordable flights to Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines.
Banana Pancake Trail
There is a well-known trail called Banana Pancake Trail, while there is no specific trail for this, most of the backpackers agree that it's around Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, then off to Malaysia or Myanmar.
Or Don't Listen to Me
Or don't listen to me, you can always make your own trail depending on what you want to see, do, and budget. You can check out my article about Southeast Asia Travel Route which I divided depending on how much time you have, from 2 weeks to 6 months.
Weather in Southeast Asia
Before you book an expensive or last-minute flight, you must know first the weather in your country of destination. If you are looking for a full-on summer holiday on the beach, you probably should not go to the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam between June to October.
Even the countries in Southeast Asia are not very far from each other, they possess different weather. Make sure you have the weather checked for the time you are going. You will be surprised how many backpackers forget to do a research on this topic.
When is the Best Time to Go
Take note of the climate of each country below, I also suggest this website for more information about the weather per city in every country.
- the best time to go to Brunei is between January to April with less rain
- the temperature in Brunei is almost the same all year round, the chance between 23-30 degrees Celsius.
- there is rain at least 15 days a month all-year averaging 175mm, the month with least rain are February and March while the month with most rain are October to December
- the best time to go to Cambodia is between the end of October to the middle of January
- rainy season starts on July and lasts until November, however, the average rainfall is only 60mm, not so much compared to other Southeast Asian countries
- the hottest time of the year in Cambodia is between February to August
- the best time to go to East Timor is between April to August where it rains a lot less and the temperature will be bearable
- the average temperature of East Timor doesn't change a lot all year which is between 23-28 degrees Celsius
- rain season starts at the end of November until mid-March with an average rainfall of 175mm
- the best time to go to Indonesia is July to August
- due to the size of Indonesia (at least 17,000 islands) and the fact that there are hundreds of mountains and volcanoes, the country have very different weather per area
- the temperature dances between 25-29 degrees Celcius, the hottest months are April and May
- while rainy season starts in November and lasts until April with an average 90mm of rainfall
- the best time to go to Laos is October to May where there are less rain
- the temperature in Laos is not as hot as other Southeast Asia countries, it plays between 22-29 degrees Celcius
- the rainy or typhoon season starts in June and lasts until September with an average rainfall of 100mm for at least 11-17 days per month
- the best time to go to Malaysia is between February or June and July
- the average temperature in Malaysia is between 26-29 degrees Celcius
- it rains throughout the year with at least 13 days of rain in one month with an average rainfall of 200mm, the months with most rains are September to May except February
- the best time to go to Myanmar is November and April
- May to October are the rainy months with an average of 75% chance of rain
- January to February will be very dry and dusty, while March to April will be a little more green and some rain to cool down the hot temperature
- I'm from the Philippines and personally, I would say the best time to go will be November to March, the temperature will be a little cooler. If you head to the mountains, it can be as cold as 14 degrees Celsius while there is almost no rain in these time of the year
- you will want to avoid the rainy season and heavy typhoon which starts in June and ends in the middle of October where it rains 16-20 days out per month
- while the hottest months are April and May
- In December, many Filipinos love to celebrate the Christmas, if you do at this time of the year, you will experience and witness how happy and in such good mood the locals will be
- the best time to go to Singapore is February to March, the temperature won't be too hot, however, you should remember that the humidity in Singapore is very high most time of the year
- it rains a lot in Singapore as well throughout the year with an average of 150mm at least 13 days per month
- the best time to go to Thailand is November to March where the temperature is between 25-27 degrees Celcius
- the rainy season starts in May until October where it rains at least 16 days per month with an average of 175mm rainfall
- the hottest months are March to August
- the best time to go to Vietnam will be from November to March
- end of December to the middle of February: cold and wet in the north (can drop to zero degrees), chill and less humid in central (18 degrees), less hot with a little humid in the south (21 degrees)
- the hottest time of the year will be March to May (up to 32 degrees) and even during the rainy season because of the high humidity
- the rainy season starts at the end of May and lasts until the middle of October with an average of 150mm rainfall, making June, July, and August as the rainy/typhoon season
- you have to keep in mind that because of the geographical design of Vietnam, the weather from the north, central, and the south can differ massively
Safety in Southeast Asia
Southeast Asia is full of tourist from everywhere in the world which makes new backpackers and travellers feel a lot safer. Regardless, this region is safe and the locals are very friendly and warm. However, just like everywhere in the world, other people take advantages of others. The poverty here is still a big problem (apart from Singapore) which is mostly the cause of crimes such as robberies.
Here are some safety tips for you:
- If you have a locker in your hotel or hostel, it is safer to leave your passport, bank cards, and other valuables. You can also ask your reception desk to keep these valuables for you.
- When walking on the street, keep your bags and valuables close to you, place your bag in front of you and hold it when entering a big crowd. Do not wave your phone everywhere or near the sidewalk.
- Always remember to keep in touch with your family and friends back home, tell them your plans and where you are going. When you meet new people during your travels, there will be a big chance that you will change your plans often, make sure to keep your family and friends updated with your whereabouts. If you use Google Maps, you can share your location with your parents or trusted guardians.
- Do not agree to meet strangers in a private place, always meet them in the public where there will be a crowd and you will be seen by many people
- Always trust your instinct, when you don't feel like something is not right or you are not comfortable, get out of the situation as soon as you can and go back to your hotel or hostel
- You need to know that the police are not very helpful and should not frustrate yourself in case you don't receive a must needed attendance, instead, reach out to your hotel for assistance or other travellers, locals, and expat groups. If the situation is really serious and you feel that your life is in danger, contact your Embassy immediately (also, save the number of your Embassy on your phone).
- Do not walk alone late at night. Some places in Southeast Asia are just not safe to walk alone at night especially for women.
- Bring a whistle and pocket flashlight.
- Do not do drugs especially in countries where using, selling, and buying drugs is a serious offence like in the Philippines
Diseases and Vaccines for Southeast Asia
Southeast Asia has a different climate than your home country, insects and parasites exist here that doesn't exist in other parts of the world. While the cooking practices and drinking the water from the tap can also result in some sickness. Here are some diseases that can be potentially acquired while in Southeast Asia:
- chikungunya virus
- zoonotic viruses
Personally, I have never been sick while travelling in Southeast Asia apart from when I got bitten by a stray dog, I took a set of anti-rabies shot right away.
There are some shots and medicines you must take especially if you know that you will be going to rural areas of the region or will be around animals a lot. If you are highly concern, you must consult your doctor and ask for their opinion.
DISCLAIMER: I am no specialist in medicine or whatsoever that involves medical topic and I do not advise you to take everything I suggest on this section apart from talking to your doctor.
What Are the Less Travelled Countries in Southeast Asia
The less travelled countries in Southeast Asia are East Timor and Brunei this is mostly because the flights to these countries are costly and they made a smaller impact than other Southeast Asian countries. However, if you like to explore the unbeaten paths, like to be the unusual traveller, and discover the hidden gems, these are the countries that you would want to go.
How to Get Around in Southeast Asia
There are 10 countries in Southeast Asia that are land bordered to each other and there are 2 countries that have thousands of islands. Only the Philippines is not bordered by land to any Southeast Asian country.
The land bordered countries are Myanmar to Thailand, Thailand to Laos and Cambodia, Vietnam to Laos and Cambodia, Malaysia to Thailand and Singapore and Brunei, and Indonesia to East Timor. This means that you can enter and travel to these countries through a bus, train, and even with a boat easily and cheaply. While within each country, you can easily take a bus to get from city to city.
While you can take a flight to other neighbouring countries such as the Philippines, Indonesia, East Timor, and Brunei. There are direct flights from budget airlines like AirAsia, JetStar, Scoot, and Cebu Pacific. The flights between Southeast Asia countries can be affordable, however, there are no crazy cheap flights like in Europe which are offered by Ryanair or Wizz Air.
There are also times that you can take a boat between countries or destinations. For example a slow boat between Thailand to Laos, Cambodia to Vietnam. While Indonesia and the Philippines have thousands of islands, there are boats that you can take to get from one island to another.
Remember that not all countries will allow you to drive a motorbike. However, countries such as Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Indonesia are ones that are popular for this way of transportation or travelling. In Thailand, it is strictly illegal for a foreigner on a tourist visa to drive a motorbike regardless what your international driving license said so, unless of course, if you have a work permit or your visa lets you drive.
Must Do Tours in Southeast Asia
Even you are not a fan of organised tours, there are some destinations and situations that you cannot avoid joining a tour. Either because there are some places that only organised tours can get to or the government only allows tours group to do such activity.
For example, the famous 3-day hike in Myanmar, which is between Kalaw to Inle Lake is a must tour that you should not miss but even if you are an experienced hiker, the government of Myanmar will only allow hikers to go with a local tour guide. I highly suggest this young lady who was my tour guide on this tour in Myanmar. She's amazing, speaks great English, and this is her own business that she runs.
While in the Philippines, there are caves and mountains you can hike that is only accessible with local tour guides for safety reasons. Regardless of your own experience and expertise, if go to these places that required a tour guide, you are being irresponsible. If something happens to you, these areas will be shut down, which result in taking away the local's livelihood and preventing other travellers to explore a destination.
In Vietnam, it's not a secret that a lot of backpackers would jump on a motorbike and drive around the country by themselves. However, if you can't afford to spend a month doing this or you prefer to go with a group or a guide, you can always join these affordable motorbike tours in Vietnam throughout the country.
Are there Dress Codes in Southeast Asia
No countries in Southeast Asia have a dress code that is written on their law. However, this does not mean that you should wear whatever you want. Take into account that every country is different and every country has different cultures. Dressing in some ways can be offensive to the locals.
You can easily wear a casual clothing but remember to cover up when visiting sacred buildings and destinations. You can also check out this article about the dress code in Vietnam.
Southeast Asia Visa Guide
The visa requirements in Southeast Asian countries are very different from each other. Make sure to do your research before arriving or else you will be spending too much or worse will be denied of entry. Here are the visa guides and other information you need to know about visas in Southeast Asia:
With a more flexible visa policy, Brunei let's most tourists to enter the country without a visa. However, the entire continent of Africa, most south and central America, and Central Asia need to obtain a visa before arrival. You can find more information here.
Visa-free for ASEAN members, Africans, Europeans, North and South Americans, must apply one before arriving or pay for one on your arrival. Read this visa guide for Cambodia for more specific requirements.
Schengen State citizens and Cape Verde are free to enter East Timor without a visa, while the rest of the most can receive a visa on arrival at Dili Airpot or seaport only. You can find more information here.
Indonesia also lets any tourist enter the country without a visa while there are only less than 20 countries that need to get a visa beforehand. You can find more information here.
A lot of European, north and south Americans and Asian countries can travel in Malaysia without a visa they also offer a visa for those who need it. Here is my visa guide for Malaysia for more information.
This country probably has one of the most strict visa policy, only ASEAN members can enter without a visa while obtaining a visa is limited to only 28 days with a single entry and must enter via air to use.
The Philippines has a really flexible visa policy, almost anyone can enter without a visa and extend it without leaving the country for a fee. Check out my Philippines visa guide.
While most countries in the world can enter Singapore without a visa, central Asia, Eastern Europe, and some African countries need to apply for an evisa or a visa before travelling to Singapore. Here is my Singapore tourist visa guide.
Most countries in the Americas, Asia, and Europe can travel to Thailand without a visa for some day while other countries can expect a visa on arrival or obtain a visa before flying. Check out my Thailand visa guide for more information.
All ASEAN members are free to enter Vietnam while some not all western countries can receive a visa-free access too with limited time. If you want to stay longer, you can apply for a visa easily. You can read more information on Vietnam visa guide.
General Travel Tips for Southeast Asia
There are only so much you can do to prepare for your adventure and stay safe during your trip. However, there are few small things that can save yourself and ease up your travel worries a little bit. Here are some general travel tips for Southeast Asia:
- Always carry an emergency money in US Dollars, Euros, and British Pounds. Tuck them in a secure place in your backpack. In case you lose your wallet in the middle of nowhere or there are no ATMs near you, this a good thing to have. If at some point you have used up your emergency money, make sure to replace them immediately because accidents are unpredictable events.
- Make a photocopy and a digital copy of your passport. This is handy in the airports, hotels, renting a motorbike/bicycle, currency exchange shops or even when you lose your passport.
- Pack a long trouser, scarf, and a shirt with a long enough sleeve. Visiting Southeast Asia also mean visiting praying buildings like pagodas, churches, or even a place that requires to cover your legs, shoulders, and head.
- Book at least the first night. Before arriving at your destination, make sure to book at least the first night of your arrival even you don't like planning ahead of time. Shit happens and that can ruin your entire trip.
- Check the public holidays. Public holidays can mess up your plan big time. There is a 2-week holiday in Vietnam which resulted in hotels, hostels, and buses being fully booked.
- Check the weather. North of Vietnam actually has winter where the temperature can drop down to zero, while the rainy season in Thailand, Philippines, Malaysia, and other parts of the region is not ideal for your trip.
- Be a responsible and ethical traveller. Make your trip not only fun but something you can be proud of in the future. Don't ride the elephants, don't patronise the photo ops with tigers even they say they are not drugged. Don't throw your rubbish on the street even the locals are doing it, pack Eco-friendly travel accessories, buy the souvenirs to local shops instead of big shopping malls to support the locals who can barely bring a food on their table. Respect the culture of your host country and understand that you cannot do everything you want here compared to your home country.
- Pack light. The most common mistake that a lot of backpackers make is packing too much that they can barely carry it and walk 100 metres. You can even travel in Southeast Asia with a carry-on bag only. The best thing to do is pack your bag, take a look at it, if it's more than 25kgs in total, take out half of it.
- Check your visa. Find out if you need a visa in each country that you will go. Some visas takes a few days to get. If you need one get it as soon as possible to avoid any hassles.
- Get a travel insurance. A lot of travellers think that it's a sign of overreacting when someone gets a travel insurance but the truth is, you won't believe how many backpackers get on accidents while travelling in Southeast Asia. Then they had to cut their trip short because of the lack of budget for hospitalisation. Secure your safety and get a travel insurance even after you left your home country. I always subscribe my travel insurance with this company, from Southeast to Europe and to the Middle East.
Southeast Asia Travel Gears
Even Southeast Asia is an easy region to explore, you cannot expect a smooth journey even it's only 2 weeks or more or if it's 6 months. To help you a little bit on your trip, here are some travel resources that I personally use through my backpacking in Southeast Asia.
- Accommodations: Booking.com, Hostel World
- Transportation: buses, boats, trains, and flying
- Tours: Get Your Guide (I booked tours with them for Southeast Asia and Europe), Klook
- Visa: iVisa
- Travel Insurance: IMG Global (I use them from Southeast Asia, Europe, to the Middle East)
You can also check my resources' page for more travel gears.
Southeast Asia is massive with very beautiful places, if you consider backpacking in Southeast Asia, the main thing you need to remember is to have fun, be responsible, and stay safe.
I really hope you found this article useful, I know it's a little bit long as I've tried to add all the information you needed for your trip. If you have questions or suggestions, you can contact me or leave a comment below.
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