Backpacking Southeast Asia Travel Guide (UPDATED FOR 2022!)
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For many travellers, backpacking Southeast Asia is the ultimate highlight of their backpacking adventures. If you are coming from western civilisation, exploring the countries of Southeast Asia is like being catapulted into an alternate reality.
From the moment you set foot on the continent, you can feel the electricity in the air. Your senses explode from stimulation and you head out into the hustle and bustle in search of an ice cold beer…
If you’re new to backpacking, this corner of the world is a great place to start your travels – it’s affordable, safe, diverse, friendly, and beautiful.
With enticing tales of adventure coming from a few generations of travellers, it can be hard to know where to start planning your visit to Southeast Asia. Legions of inspiration are found in every country throughout the region – and you want to see it all!
Never fear! This Southeast Asia travel guide will give you a detailed low-down of everything you could possibly need to know before you embark on your epic journey. From the OG Banana Pancake Trail itinerary to ideas for something more offbeat to my favourite street food, this guide has it all. Spoiler alert: banh mi is the best street food!
Fasten your seat belts and put on your motorcycle helmet: this is the ultimate backpacker’s guide to traveling Southeast Asia!
Why Go Backpacking in Southeast Asia?
Backpacking Southeast Asia is wildly chaotic punctuated by brief moments of reflection and utter calm. When I first landed in Vietnam and began my travels on the continent, I got that wonderful thought of so this is what travelling is about.
The best thing about visiting Southeast Asia is that you can stick to the well-trodden path and still have a mind-blowing adventure that’s easy on logistics. There are cheap busses you can catch between countries, it’s easy to buy your own motorbike and explore yourself, plus internal flights are usually cheap too.
Conversely, it’s very easy to step off into the wilderness and have a raw, untamed adventure. Some of my best memories come from taking a side road through the jungle on the Vietnam-Laos border. I camped on the outskirts of small villages amongst unruly jungles that hadn’t seen tourists come through in ten years. Of course, obligatory rice wine was shared each night!
Generally speaking, backpacking in Southeast Asia is very cheap compared to travelling to other parts of the world. You don’t have to count your pennies and hustle at every step of the way in order to enjoy a beer at the end of the day. I’d say this part of the world takes the cake when it comes to budget backpacking.
Because the region is so cheap, you can enjoy big-ticket experiences that you might not be able to afford in other regions of the world. This could include world-class SCUBA diving in Malaysia, or a freediving course in the Philippines.
Even the ‘everyday experiences’ of backpacking Southeast Asia are epic, though! Think about taking yoga classes in the morning and surf in the afternoons in Indonesia. What about hiking through dense jungles exploding with wildlife, raging rivers, and massive waterfalls in Laos? And you can’t forget to explore Vietnam by motorbike.
There is a reason that, despite how touristy some parts of the region get, Southeast Asia remains an incredibly special place to both first time and veteran travellers! It’s just that bloody good.
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Best Travel Itineraries for Backpacking Southeast Asia
Let us be clear about one thing: Southeast Asia has so many things to do and see that it would be impossible to see it all in one lifetime let alone in just one backpacking trip. That said, you can sure pack in a whole lot no matter what your time frame is!
Also, remember that this is a region that lives, breathes, and thrives on a certain degree of chaos. Backpacking in Southeast Asia requires one to adapt to that chaos and embrace the wonderful spontaneity that can arise here.
I don’t think that you should attempt to plan your trip to the last tuk-tuk ride. That said, having a general Southeast Asia travel itinerary in mind will help you get the most out of your trip. You don’t want to spend your time scrambling for things to do; nor do you want to pack so much into your travels that you forget to enjoy yourself.
Do you have two weeks? Three months? Six months? No matter what your time frame is, the itineraries I have listed below have helpful travel routes for Southeast Asia to suit all schedules.
Note that each itinerary can be combined with another, done in reverse, and customized based on your interests. Sometimes it’s worth leaving off one or two sights in order to fully enjoy the others.
2 Weeks Backpacking Southeast Asia Itinerary: An Epic Getaway
When low on time, I advise sticking to smaller countries like Laos, Thailand or Cambodia. That way the transportation distances won’t eat a big bite out of your precious backpacking time. You will certainly only be scratching the surface, but you will leave with an even more intense hunger to return!
You could start your two weeks by visiting Bangkok and exploring the city for a few days. Thailand also has some spectacular temple ruins of its own at Ayathuya and Sukhothai that are close to Bangkok and well worth checking out.
From Bangkok, it’s easy to travel to Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand and from Chiang Mai onwards to the mountain town of Pai. If the North of Thailand doesn’t quite do it for you, you can always go party on the Islands in the south.
Alternatively, you could go from Bangkok across the border into Cambodia. There you can go see Angkor Wat and go south to visit the tropical islands off Cambodia. While there is a party vibe on the Cambodian islands, they’re definitely more relaxed. Think swimming at night with bioluminescence and chilling all day in a hammock with just a splash of psytrance.
3 Months Backpacking Southeast Asia Itinerary: The Banana Pancake Trail
This backpacking itinerary takes you through the heart of what put Southeast Asia on the map. This is the juiciest of the banana pancake trail!
I would recommend flying into Bangkok and still kicking off your Southeast Asian travel with a bang. As you head north to the likes of Chiang Mai and Pai where there are lots of opportunities to creep off the beaten path.
Explore the best of what Thailand has to offer before heading to Laos. Take the slow boat from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang. If you have time climb, climb Mount Phousi because, daaaaaaaamn, those views are insane!
Laos receives a fair amount of backpackers, however far-fewer than Thailand. The main attraction to Laos is its unmatched natural beauty, kind people, and rock-bottom prices. Vang Vieng is the main backpacker playground in Laos; this is the place where you can smoke a joint and eat banana pancakes all day. Tad Lo Waterfall is definitely worth the visit as well.
Vietnam is another classic stop on this route. Soak in the majestic views and cooler temperatures of the mountains in the north before heading south. Hire a motorcycle, explore the cities, go scuba diving, or hop around the islands. Vietnam has THE best street food in all of Southeast Asia, so prepare your belly for bliss. From backpacking Ho Chi Minh to Hanoi there’s ample rice paddies, bustling metropolises, and banh mi glory to enjoy!
Finally, travel to Cambodia and Angkor Wat en route back to Thailand’s southern beaches. Learn about Cambodia’s sobering recent history whilst exploring some of the most impressive temples and beaches in all of Southeast Asia. You can finish your three-month extravaganza with a full moon party on one of Thailand’s best beaches – bottoms up, you deserve it!
6+ Months Backpacking Southeast Asia Itinerary: The Longterm Backpacker
You will not be the first backpacker who loved backpacking Southeast Asia so much that you spent six months there followed by another six months followed by another cheeky six months. The longer you spend here, the more that the region opens up beyond parties on the beach.
Go trekking in Borneo! Get your ass to Indonesia and explore a few of the thousands of remote islands there! Hit up far-flung places in the Philippines! I will always vouch for travelling off the beaten path.
This itinerary would still have you flying into Bangkok aka Asia’s Sin City. Backpacking Thailand is almost a rite of passage for those that backpack Southeast Asia. Now, while Thailand is crazy beautiful, you can experience a lot of Thailand’s best highlights in a month or less.
You can travel south to explore Cambodia and the Thai islands before crossing over into Northern Malaysia. Check out Langkawi Island before heading south. Staying in Penang is the best; it’s one of my favourite cities in Southeast Asia, with some great hikes and diving to be had around Penang National Park.
Alternatively, you can travel to Bali or Manila from Bangkok and explore a totally new part of Southeast Asia. Philippine highlights include climbing Mt Pulag, Sagada’s Crystal Cave and Olahbinan, Kalinga Jungle, El Nido for some climbing and partying, and Coron for epic scuba diving.
If you want to dedicate a couple of months to Indonesia you won’t be disappointed. Alongside the Bali to Flores route, you can also catch a flight to Sumatra. Here, visit the orangutan sanctuary in Bukit Lawang and the stunning Lake Toba.
Also on tap here is world-class diving at Pulau Weh. This tiny island is located at either the beginning or end of Indonesia, depending on which way you’re looking at the map. You’ll have to pass through the town of Banda Acehto to reach here, which is the only place in Indonesia that has Sharia Law in place. This definitely isn’t the place to come party while backpacking Indonesia, but the juice is worth the squeeze if you get to Pulau Weh.
What is the One Item Every Traveller NEEDS???
There is one item every traveller NEEDS. Some travellers don’t even know they need it, but those travellers need it more than anyone.
What is this forgotten essential of the backpacker-life? SPOILERS! Guess you’ll just have to click the button to find out. 😉
Best Places to Visit in Southeast Asia: Country Breakdown
Southeast Asia is a truly massive region. There are eleven countries that comprise the Southeast Asian region; each one is special and also radically different in its own ways. You won’t even be eating the same food from country to country. Sure, it’s all mostly rice-based, but is it fried Nasi Goreng with an egg on top or is it laden with spicy green Thai curry.
The landscapes are even more varied with jungles, mountains, epic coastlines, and deserted islands all found in this region.
What seems to be true though, is that if this is your first time backpacking through Southeast Asia, you will experience a series of cultures that is very unlike anything you have ever come into contact with (if you grew up in the west). And across the board, people are ready to welcome you into their country with a smile.
There’s something addictive to landing smack bang in the humid collection of markets, traffic, and skyrises that do crop up amongst all major Southeast Asian cities. Just visiting one or two of these countries will have you desperate to come back for more!
For many first time backpackers, Thailand is the image at the forefront of their imaginations when it comes to destinations in Southeast Asia. Those white sand beaches, turquoise waters, and towering jungle peaks are sprinkled with a little hedonistic fun and low, low prices.
Finding a Thailand backpacking route is easy, as many routes are well-established and there are plenty of backpackers on the ground to grab tips from. You just never know who will suggest an epic street food vendor where you find spicy watermelon, or who will give you the heads up that certain roads have become notorious for police asking for bribes.
In addition to its natural splendour, Thailand boasts some of Southeast Asia’s most dynamic cities, especially if you are wanting to settle in somewhere as long term as a digital nomad. In fact, Thailand is rapidly becoming the digital nomad capital of the world. While being a digital nomad changes your travels, it can be incredibly rewarding – especially if you’re surrounded by a group of like-minded people.
Thailand receives more visitors annually than any other Southeast Asia nation by a long shot, so it’s not super easy to get off the beaten path. That being said, if you drive far enough north you’ll stop seeing tourists and start seeing covert drug smuggling routes. I’m not suggesting that drug smuggling routes make the best adventure – especially for first-time backpackers – but if you happen to find work as a fresh-faced, aspiring journalist, then this country is definitely still full of stories.
There are also some lesser-known hikes nearby Chiang Pai – plus the motorbike riding around there is amazing.
What to Know Before Visiting Thailand
- Don’t miss out on…the North – this is the REAL Thailand! Sure, those Southern Islands are beautiful and full of some cheeky debauchery, but if you want to get off the beaten path then you need the jungle mountains of the north.
- You know what’s overrated…the Full Moon Party on Koh Phangan – it’s pretty sloppy here, not to mention hectic. The Eden Party is way better.
- The coolest hostel is…S*Trips – The Poshtel. Awesome location right next to night bazaar and super slick interior.
- The best food is found in…Bangkok. If you find yourself craving a cheesy pasta or fat steak you won’t be disappointed in this city! But even better (in my opinion) are the endless side alleys and markets selling incredible street food. Spicy watermelon, pad thai style noodle salads, and soups so spicy you’ll sweat out your demons… YES, please!
Over the last few decades, Vietnam has charged to the head of the line as a top destination for backpackers. Delicious cuisine, cheap places to stay, epic ancient temples, and mind-boggling motorbike routes are just a few of the draws that make up the charm in Vietnam.
If you are wanting to explore Southeast Asia by motorbike, then Vietnam is the best place to go. The country is long and thin, so it’s perfect for a road trip and bikes with Vietnamese plates can enter most other countries in Southeast Asia (this is pretty unique).
Vietnam has the feeling of a country that’s leapt into the future so quickly that its countryside is buffering to catch up. When exploring Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, or any of Vietnam’s big cities you’ll find skyscrapers and high-speed internet. There are underground music scenes and students who deal a little weed on the side to ex-pats. The streets are thick with motorbikes.
Then there’s the countryside: rolling green rice paddies, straw hats, shacks. The mornings are long and slow, the evening is full of the sound of insects. The fields are thick with buffalo. And yet, both sides of Vietnam are united by their incredible food.
Pho might be the most famous noodle broth, but it’s far from the only tasty meal. Vietnam knows how to make a meal out of very little and they know how to make it taste good. Most backpackers will at some point indulge in a 3 am banh mi after a big night out and know what I mean!
What to Know Before Visiting Vietnam
- Don’t miss out on…the Ha Giang Loop by motorbike. This one of the hidden gems of Vietnam that takes you through towering jungle covered mountains on windy, delicate roads. This is not for the faint hearted or ill prepared. This is a real adventure!
- Look out for…those bamboo pipes in the north – they’re used for smoking local tobacco and hit HARD. You might risk lung cancer, but all in the name of experiencing the local way of life, right?
- The coolest hostel is…Old Quarter View Hanoi – free beer every night and the hostel is still immaculate? What is this mythical place that you speak of?
- The best food is found in…Hue – it’s well known for its Central Vietnamese plates. I had quite possibly the best meal of my life here (definitely top ten, anyway). In a back alley, crammed into plastic chair far too small for me I sampled the legendary Bun Bo Hue… I never knew noodles and broth would make me want to become a foodie.
Laos is truly a special country in Southeast Asia and one that has managed to retain its easy-going identity in the era of mass tourism. Wild jungles, river deltas, smiling locals, and amazing treks make Laos the backpacking paradise that it is.
Places in northern Laos, like the areas in and around Luang Prabang, experience cooler temperatures in the mountains and rainforest. The south is more of the agricultural heart of the country. Each holds a lot to explore for backpackers. Laos is the perfect country for backpackers wanting to experience Southeast Asia within a short time frame as you can get in a bit of all climate, different cultures, and party vibes.
One can easily see the highlights and experience the country off the beaten path in 2 weeks to a month. Take it easy though. Laos is a country that is not to be rushed through. You will see when you get your boots on the ground that nothing happens quickly in Laos anyway… This is a land of chill.
What to Know Before Visiting Laos
- Don’t miss out on…the mountains around Vang Vieng. Lots of people neglect exploring these in favor of tubing the river. The river party scene in Vang Vieng is diminishing anyways.
- You know what’s overrated…Luang Prabang. In recent years, it’s become very touristy and a bit disingenuous. The nearby waterfalls are still cool though.
- The coolest hostel is…Barn 1920s Hostel – as the name implies, this hostel is charming and rustic, not to mention very chill.
- The best food is found…on the streets! The street food in Laos is absolutely top-notch.
The temples at Angkor Wat are an obvious draw for those backpacking Cambodia and are truly impressive. Cambodia is a country rich in culture, beautiful beaches and islands, the Mekong River Delta, and bustling markets.
The nation of Cambodia is a country still pulling out of an extremely dark recent past. A staggering 1.5 – 3 million people were killed by the Khmer Rouge, led by tyrant Pol Pot. It happened only 35 – 40 years ago and is still very fresh and raw to the Cambodian people.
Despite the tragic history, the local Khmer people are some of the kindest humans in the world. The country is still recuperating, rebuilding and moving forward, however, corruption is hindering its rehabilitation. There is a strange energy in the air in Phnom Penh sometimes. It can be quite tense and stifling amongst the humidity. It’s as if everyone is waiting for the other shoe to drop and for chaos to return.
This is a country that makes you think about how lucky you were to be born into a country of peace. And I think that it’s important amongst the wild nights partying in Cambodia, that you pause and really learn something from the lands you’re travelling in.
Cambodia is one of my favourite Southeast Asian destinations to travel to; I loved it so much that I ended up overstaying my visa. From the awesome hostels, cheap prices, and epic off-the-beaten-track travels, Cambodia seriously has it all. See it for yourself and you’ll fall in love too.
What to Know Before Visiting Cambodia
- Don’t miss out on…the Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng. One of the most sobering places in Southeast Asia and a refreshing change of pace.
- Keep an eye out for…temples other than Angkor Wat. Cambodia is full of Khmer ruins, like Koh Ker. You can spend days getting lost in the ruins of an empire past.
- The coolest hostel is…Mad Monkey – Koh Rong Samloem. MM Hostels are legendarily good, but this one is the best!
- The best food is found in…the outdoor food market in Siem Reap. Most of the backpacker accommodation is conveniently located around here so it’s simply a matter of walking down and gorging yourself silly!
Oh, Myanmar. For a few years between roughly 2011 and 2019, backpacking in Myanmar really took off as the country instituted democratic reforms and started to open up to the world. There was even a fear that in opening up to the world too quickly, Myanmar would lose some of its authenticity and charm.
I want to stress that I love Myanmar. I love the country and I love the people. I travelled there through some of the remote Northern regions. I caught the dilapidated trains, hitchhiked with monks, and even publically pooped my pants on a public bus after some dodgy food.
The temples are second to none, the food is cheap and delicious, the countryside is beautiful.
But, the seeds of what has happened to Myanmar had been sown many years before. You can trace the military take over and crackdown back to the consequences of British rule back in Imperial times. There was a lot of tension during the decolonial period too with the government shirking a lot of international aid and joining any international forums.
This isolationism was intensified with the first military coup of the 1960s. This was the same military that was loosening the reigns during the 2010s that allowed a few of us to explore what truly is one of my favourite countries on the planet.
The tensions with the various ethnic groups on the borders never went away, though. And neither did the military. As of early 2021, Aung San Suu Kyi (the former democratic leader) has been imprisoned and political dissenters shot and jailed as the military clamps down on control again.
I couldn’t in good conscience advise anyone to go backpacking in Myanmar at this time. But I don’t want to strike this country off the map entirely. The people deserve better than that. It’s probably not the place of a travel guide to tell you to support democratic movements – especially not ones that are as flawed as Aung San Suu Kyi’s – but I think it’s fair to say that the moment it’s safe: go backpacking Myanmar.
What to Know Before Visiting Myanmar
- Don’t miss out on…Bagan. There are touristy spots in Bagan, however, the scope of the area is immense. Riding an e-bike to a secret place and setting up for sunset is the way to go. There are so many side roads and off the beaten path ruins here that you’ll find something special.
- You know what’s overrated…Inle Lake. Super beautiful, super touristy, and super expensive. Visit, then shoot through for some of the mad trekking in the nearby regions.
- The coolest hostel is… Ostello Bello. These guys are a solidly run hostel chain that will have your back and provide a place of comfort while travelling Myanmar.
- The best food is found in…Mandalay. I actually love staying in Mandalay, and the aromas drifting from the nighttime street food market is a big reason why! It’s a big city so there’s a lot
I absolutely LOVE backpacking in Malaysia. Somehow, Malaysia has managed to stay below the radar of many backpackers on the Southeast Asia backpacking circuit. To write off Malaysia as uninteresting would be a mistake! Malaysia should be your next backpacking destination!
For one, I found Malaysia to have some of the lowest prices in all of Southeast Asia. The country is extremely clean, the roads are in great shape, and the people speak decent English. Malaysia is also a majority Muslim country, which I found to be an interesting contrast to the Buddhist majorities of the countries to the north.
Tioman Island is one of Southeast Asia’s best-kept secrets. Getting your PADI open water certificate is cheaper on Tioman than anywhere in Thailand. Also, diving is better in my opinion. The coral reefs are not experiencing the same level of bleaching as they are in Thailand. I saw plenty of turtles, sharks, and more vibrant reef systems generally.
Malaysia is also home to one of the world’s oldest rainforests at Taman Negara. So alongside some of the most vibrant and developed cities in Asia, are some of Asia’s most wild and unruly jungles! And, if that wasn’t enough Malaysian food is seriously delicious.
Then there is Malaysian Borneo. Parts of Borneo are surprisingly well developed. That said, there are giant swaths of the island that are still wild and teaming with rhinoceros, orangutans, and other rare wildlife. The trekking here is of the old school, beat your way through the jungle variety! Malaysia has incredible adventure opportunities for those willing to get well off the beaten path!
What to Know Before Visiting Malaysia
- Don’t miss out on…Borneo. It’s such an overlooked destination but there’s so much cool stuff going on here. Get a tattoo in Kuching!
- Look out for…hidden speakeasies in Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown. They’re VERY well disguised, and absolutely worth it! Being an Islamic country, it’s harder to get alcohol here but where there’s a will there’s a way.
- The coolest hostel is… Two Peace House. With chill vibes and a short walk away from the beach, this hostel will welcome you to slow down to Malaysia time!
- The best food is found in…Penang. Whilst ALL the food in Malaysia is good, Penang takes top honors. Seriously, those soups had me in a proper food coma.
Singapore is the smallest country to make our list. This tropical island city-state nation might be a blip on the map, but it is a regional economic and cultural powerhouse.
Backpacking Singapore has the reputation of being an expensive place to visit in Southeast Asia. Whilst Singapore is certainly more expensive when compared to its relatively cheap neighbours, there is still plenty to do for backpackers on a budget.
Some of the best street food in the world can be found amongst the food stalls of various markets. Singapore is a multi-cultural melting pot so it is possible to taste the influences of many different cultures in a single dish. Rub elbows with locals and chow down on some epically delicious cheap eats.
Visit Chinatown, explore Arab Street, and be sure to grab a curry in Little India. Just based on the neighbourhood names alone, you can gather that many ethnic groups are represented across this city-country.
If you are visiting Singapore for longer, be sure to check out the nature reserves surrounding the city. Few people realize that just outside of Singapore’s urban centres there are some great day hikes to be had in the surrounding jungle. There’s also plenty of local life to be experienced beyond the neon landscape.
Singapore is a city that has something for every backpacker. Whether you are just passing through or coming specifically to backpack Singapore, you can be sure that there is always something awesome (and tasty) to get into here. It’s wildly different to other countries within the region, and yet there are glimmers of something similar. You’re sure to love it!
What to Know Before Visiting Singapore
- Don’t miss out on…the hawker centres (cafeterias). When you’re in Singapore, you EAT. The food is incredible.
- You know what’s overrated…Sentosa Island – it’s just Disney World with a fake beach. And you know what’s worse than hoardes of people? Paying to be around hoardes of people.
- The coolest hostel is…Wink Capsule Hostel. This place is intimate without being cramped – gotta love those pod style beds!
- The best food is found in…Maxwell Food Centre. This is the most famous hawker centre in Singapore. In fact, the world’s cheapest Michelin-star restaurant is here! But aside from that, there are countless delicious options. There’s little wonder I ended up a couple of kilos heavier after backpacking in Singapore!
As a vast archipelago nation composed of over 17,000 islands, Indonesia is one of the most fascinating countries in the world. The country is so big and so spread out that exploring it can feel overwhelming.
Backpacking Indonesia is an adventure like no other. For starters, you can climb active volcanoes, encounter orangutans in the jungle, visit ancient temples, and enjoy spectacular diving.
All along the way, you’ll be welcomed in by some of the most friendly people out there while you enjoy the varied and delicious cuisine. Best of all, you can easily backpack Indonesia on a budget.
Bali is definitely the backpacker magnet of Indonesia and for good reason. Along with a blossoming digital nomad scene and tons of epic places to see, Bali is also surf and party central. If you are wanting to become a yoga teacher, there are countless programs being offered all across the island.
It’s worth staying in Bali for some time, but be sure to visit some of the other islands as well. Though fun, I would argue that Bali is not at all what the rest of Indonesia feels like. The country is jam-packed with off the beaten path exploration potential.
17,000 islands bro! Get yourself out there and explore some of them and you will quickly fall in love with this massive island nation. Because the real Indonesia is well outside of Bali. The streets of Jakarta are a hot mess of traffic and street food contrasted with towering skyscrapers. The outer islands are deserted. There are jungles and villages as much as there are modern cities.
What to Know Before Visiting Indonesia
- Don’t miss out on…island hopping. Backpacking Nusa Penida, Derawan, the Kai Islands, Wakatobi; these are some of the best, but there are many more to see.
- You know what’s overrated…Kuta, Bali. Avoid it like the plague. Drunk Australians and piles of garbage. Plus, the tourists have made many of the locals suspicious of travellers. Not a vibe.
- The coolest hostel is… Ubud Tropical. This is about as far removed from Kuta as you could be, while still sharing the same island. The jungle vibes with modern ammenities will have you extending your stay over and over again!
- The best food is found in… Jakarta. This city takes satay to a whole new level. Be sure to try as many satay sticks as possible – and Nasi Goreng, of course.
Backpacking The Philippines
Cheap beer, beautiful beaches, adrenaline-pumping activities and some of the most friendly, genuine, people in all of Asia; the Philippines truly captured my heart. I made some incredible friends in the Philippines and I have to say, it is one of the easiest countries in the world to travel around as the locals are so friendly.
Getting around the Philippines as a backpacker and finding a sweet and cheap place to stay (and a sweet and cheap thing to eat) is breezy.
There are thousands of islands to choose from. This translates into EPIC scuba diving, a great place to learn to snorkel and to go fishing. If you have never learned to spearfish, you should absolutely give it a go. Spearfishing doesn’t get much better than in the Philippines where the visibility is insanely good!
If you love trekking like me, then you will be pleased to find some epic hiking opportunities in the Philippines. Caves, rivers, mountains, you name it, one can find all the outdoor playgrounds here. There are heaps of adventure opportunities in The Philippines if you’re equipped for the job!
There are endless trekking options in the Philippines: remote hill hikes and active volcanoes, gentle strolls, and multi-day backpacking trips. Some popular treks include Cordillera and its rice terraces and trekking Mt. Pulag. Not too far from here you can reach Sagada and hike in the hills. Bohol and the Chocolate Hills are a great place to trek as well. The Philippines is home to 25 active volcanoes that can be climbed to the summit!
What to Know Before Visiting the Philippines
- Don’t miss out on…El Nido. It’s utter paradise, the stuff of dreams and legends. Stay here forever if you can.
- Look out for…crowds at Baguio. It’s becoming one of the most popular places in The Philippines; let’s hope it doesn’t become TOO popular.
- The coolest hostel is…Paglaom Hostel (Siargao). It’s chilled, welcoming, offers surfboard rentals, and has a dedicated yoga space. Perfect for surfers.
- The best food is found in…hard to say, really – there’s just so much diversity. Suckling pig in Cebu, empanadas in Ilocos, bulalo in Tagaytay; nothing really beats adobo made by a local grandma though.
Getting Off the Beaten Path in Southeast Asia
Once you have your boots on the ground, the Southeast Asia backpackers circuit will be as obvious as the stars in the night sky. Backpackers generally don’t venture too far off of the so-called Banana Pancake trail.
That said, if you are a keen and adventurous type, there are many parts of Southeast Asia that are untouched by backpackers to this day. Many regions are very wild and make for endless exploration opportunities.
Additionally, there are islands in Southeast Asia (think Indonesia) that are so damned remote few westerners have ever been to them. Have fun on the Banana Pancake Trail, but don’t forget to dip out once in a while a truly explore.
For starters, I’d suggest trekking in Borneo or taking a long motorbike excursion to the Vietnam-China border. These are two wildly different types of adventure, but they hint at the wild times you can forge for yourself if you avoid other tourists like the plague.
Is This the Best Backpack EVER???
The Top Things to Do in Southeast Asia
Southeast Asia is an adventure playground. It is at once a backpacker paradise and a place teeming with awesome budget adventures. There will certainly never be a day where you are bored for lack of things to do in Southeast Asia. Let’s dive in and take a look at some of the radical adventures that await you in Southeast Asia…
1. Jungle Trekking
There is some great jungle trekking in Northern Thailand, Malaysia, Laos, Vietnam… Hell, in every country in Southeast Asia, really! If you choose to go trekking make sure to go on a multi-day hike. Personally, I prefer trekking in Laos, and I had an epic experience in Myanmar back when it was safe to travel through.
I would love to explore more of the remote corners of Indonesia and Borneo too – the options to go jungle trekking in Southeast Asia are really limitless!
2. Scuba Diving
Many backpackers fall in love with scuba diving whilst in Southeast Asia. Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia offer incredible diving opportunities in crystal clear waters with abundant marine life and plenty of wrecks for the underwater adventurer. The cheapest place to learn is the island of Kao Tao in Thailand and the islands in Malaysia.
If you’re not up to learning to dive, you can always learn to snorkel too. But with the affordable prices of Asia combined with the excellent visibility, you can’t really go wrong!
3. Motorcycle in Southeast Asia
Perhaps there is no better way to explore a country than by motorbike. You’re truly free to design your own itinerary and take every side alley that takes your fancy. Plus, you become part of the landscape when you’re riding. There aren’t windows of a bus separating you from the buffalo or the mountain.
But there also isn’t much of anything to protect you if you fall off. So I’d suggest wearing proper riding gear and having insurance. That way, you’re free to enjoy the jungle roads, the epic peaks, and the offbeat camping destinations that Southeast Asia has to offer with some peace of mind.
4. Learn To Cook
Love the hell out of Southeast Asian cuisine? Me too! Taking a cooking class whilst visiting a Southeast Asian country will supercharge your cooking skills. You will be preparing delicious meals for years down the line that remind you of the good ol’ days backpacking Southeast Asia.
Each country is full of such diverse dishes, too. You could pick up a nasi goreng recipe down in Indonesia which would stand completely apart from a classic Thai green curry, or a delectable set of Vietnamese rice paper rolls.
5. Chase Waterfalls
Don’t go chasing waterfalls… What nonsense! In every country in Southeast Asia, you will stumble upon waterfalls, epic waterfalls. Each will be more impressive than the last and will have you dreaming of turquoise waters for years to come.
6. Go Caving
Southeast Asia is home to some truly impressive cave systems. If you have the chance, you must explore some of them! There is the world’s largest cave in Vietnam, but many of the smaller caves throughout the region are equally as epic and more accessible. Over in the Phillippines, you can even try your hand at cave diving – that shit’s UNREAL!
7. It’s Street Food o’Clock
Love trying new things? There is something delicious, tasty, and bizarre to put in your mouth around every turn. I hope the words “no, I don’t think I want to try that” never come out of your mouth. You will find food that makes you cry tears of joy. There will be times when your entire mouth becomes a burning pit of hell. And there will be magical moments where it’s a bit of both.
Each country brings something unique to the table for you to sink your teeth into – literally. So you’ve got no choice but to start munching your way through street carts!
(Exceptions are granted only if the food in question is an endangered or protected animal.)
8. Go climbing
Southeast Asia is full of karst mountains, which rise like pillars and towers from the ground. For the casual tourist, these spires make great photos; for climbers though, these are the stuff of dreams.
Visit Railay, Cat Ba, and Kuala Lumpur for some grade-A routes.
9. Island hopping
The Philippines has over 7,100 islands; Indonesia has 17,000. Combine these with all the other random islands scattered throughout Southeast Asia, and you have a shit ton of islands to live out your Robinson Crusoe adventures. Better get started now – it’s going to take a while to visit them all.
If you get really addicted to island life, you may want to try boat life. That way you can perpetually traverse the best of Southeast Asia’s islands and beyond…
Small Pack Problems? 😉
My missus travels with all her clothes in ziplock bags: don’t be like my missus. UP YOUR PACKING GAME!
Packing cubes for the globetrotters and compression sacks for the real adventurers – these babies are a traveller’s best kept secret. They organise yo’ packing and minimise its volume too so you can pack MORE.
Or, y’know… you can stick to ziplock bags.
Southeast Asia Backpacker Accommodation
The most common place to stay while backpacking Southeast Asia is, of course, hostels. They’re cheap, ubiquitous, and can be a helluva a lot of fun.
Never stayed in a hostel before? You’re in luck! Southeast Asia is the best place to learn how to live the hostel life.
Southeast Asia has some of the most well-known and well-regarded hostels in the world, which would impress even the most seasoned backpacker. There’s a real mix of cheap places to stay, too. There are the classic party hubs where to beer never stops flowing. But there are some really chill places where it’s more likely that everyone is sitting around smoking a joint while swapping travel stories.
If you’re going to be hitting the Banana Pancake Trail hard and for several months, you’ll want to pack the right stuff with you. We all know that guy who steals towels from hostels and takes them wherever he goes; don’t be that guy.
Whilst it’s easier to find hostels in the well-trafficked parts of Southeast Asia, there are some real gems just slightly off the beaten path. One of the best hostels I ever stayed in was in the middle of nowhere Northern Vietnam.
As is always the case, camping would be the ultimate way to save cash while backpacking. Just make sure you take a good tent with you and do your best to check your site – there are some really dangerous snakes and crazy, heavy rain out there in the remote, jungle areas.
There is really never a need to stay in a hotel while backpacking Southeast Asia. If you need a private space, use Airbnb or book a local guesthouse instead. Because it’s Asia, it won’t be very expensive and might be just what you need to recharge yourself.
The Best Places to Stay in Southeast Asia
Backpacking Southeast Asia Costs
Southeast Asia is the mecca for cheap places to travel broke. Nowhere else on earth can you drink beer for under a dollar, find accommodation for little more than that, and eat out every day easily for under $10 USD.
To give you an idea of the cost of backpacking Southeast Asia, here are some examples of shoestring travel budgets:
- $20 – $30 / day: Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia
- $25 – $35/ day: Thailand, Myanmar, Malaysia
- $30 – $40 / day: Indonesia, Philippines
As you can see, some countries in Southeast Asia are more expensive than others. For example, the cost of a trip to Thailand is not as dirt cheap as you might think. Generally speaking, any of the islands you visit whilst backpacking Southeast Asia will be more expensive than the mainland. Also, Singapore kind of stands as its own thing – you can expect a much higher cost of travel there than the rest of Southeast Asia.
Creating the right Southeast Asia budget for yourself is the key to a successful backpacking adventure. Travelling in Southeast Asia should never be super expensive. With a few budget travel hacks up your sleeve, you will save a ton of money and have the time of your life.
A Daily Budget in Southeast Asia
Here is a more in-depth breakdown of what you can expect to pay on a daily basis whilst backpacking Southeast Asia…
|Country||Dorm Bed||Local Meal||Bus Ride||Average Daily Cost|
|Laos||$4-6||$1-3||$2.50 per hour||$20-35|
Budget Tips for Visiting Southeast Asia
To keep your spending to an absolute minimum whilst travelling in Southeast Asia, I recommend sticking to these basic rules of budget adventuring….
- Camp: With plenty of untouched beaches, forests, stunning countryside, and far-flung jungle, Southeast Asia can be a great place to pitch a tent for the night. Camping saves you money and can help you get off of the beaten path. Check out this post for a breakdown of the best tents to take backpacking.
- Couchsurf: Southeast Asian locals are awesome, so get to know some! Check out Couchsurfing to make some real friendships and see a country from the perspective of locals. When using Couchsurfing, be sure to send personalized messages to your potential host -make yourself stand out!
- Haggle: Barter, negotiate, sit down for a tea, and philander hedonistically if necessary. A good haggling game is going to go a long way towards backpacking Southeast Asia on a budget.
- Hitchhike: This is just your friendly neighborhood reminder that hitchhiking is the best, and it saves you cash! But more than that, it launches you right into the thick of it and entices adventures to come out of their hidey-holes.
- Leave “The Bubble”: Staying in the tourist bubbles always gets more expensive. Remember to leave the bubble and live the local life for truly cheap Southeast Asia travel.
Why Should You Travel to Southeast Asia with a Water Bottle?
Whilst there’s a lot that we can do when it comes to travelling responsibly, reducing your plastic consumption is one of the easiest and most impactful things you can do. Don’t buy one-use water bottles, don’t take plastic shopping bags, and forget straws. All of this just ends up in landfills or in the ocean.
If you’d like some more tips on how to save the world, be sure to watch the video below.
One way you can minimise your plastic footprint is by investing in a premium filtered water bottle. That way, not only do you save money by not having to buy bottled water everywhere you go, but you aren’t contributing to the problem. You’re being part of the solution! And the turtles thank you!
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Best Time to Visit Southeast Asia
Due to the great distances involved when we are talking about ALL of Southeast Asia, the weather can really vary.
The peak tourist season in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam is from November to February when the weather is beautiful across the region, but there’s a high chance you’ll run into a ton of tourists. The really popular guesthouses fill up fast. This way you can find cheaper accommodation which is difficult to find during peak season.
The local people are a really friendly bunch and keen to help so if you have any problems don’t be afraid to ask for directions from the locals. It is best to avoid northern areas of Thailand from February to April as the burning season starts and mountains will slowly be covered in smoke.
When we are talking about Indonesia for example, keep in mind that Indonesia is WAY farther south and nearer to the equator. The weather in Indonesia can be loosely applied to Malaysia as well.
Generally speaking, there are two seasons in Indonesia – the dry season and the rainy season. In most parts of the country, the dry season lasts from May to September. Of course, this is also the most popular time to visit. Consider visiting in either May or September if you want to try and avoid the massive summer crowd, especially in Bali.
Most of the rain in Indonesia falls from October to April, with some regional variations. Those looking to do some serious trekking or diving may want to try and plan a trip in the dry season. There’s no need to let a little rain spoil your trip, though. Rain usually comes in quick downpours so just take a solid rain jacket; you’ll still get to enjoy several hours of sunlight.
Best Time to Visit – Country Breakdown
Best Months to Travel: November-February, March-September (Southeast Coast)
What’s the climate in Thailand like?
Most of Thailand is dry and comfortable to visit from November-February. In March and April, the temps start to rise until they become horrible in June. The rains start in May.
The exception to this is the southeastern coast of Thailand (Koh Samui, Hat Yai, etc). The rains come a bit later here.
Best Months to Travel: November-April (North & South), February-July (Center)
What’s the climate in Vietnam like?
Vietnam is a weird one: the North and South have similar rainy seasons, but the center’s is a bit later in the year. The absolute perfect time to visit the whole country would be in February and March.
Best Months to Travel: October-April
What’s the climate in Cambodia and Laos like?
Pretty straightforward with only two distinct seasons: a wet one and a dry one.
In the wet summer season, downpours can washout dirt roads, and the heat can be OPPRESSIVE. Be prepared for lots of lazy days of doing nothing if traveling to Cambodia or Laos during the summer season.
Best Months to Travel: October-March
What’s the climate in Myanmar like?
Typical Southeast Asia. The dry season in Myanmar actually runs until May but the temperatures at the end of the month are just WAY too much. June is unbearable to visit.
Visiting during March or October (shoulder months) are great times.
Best Months to Travel: November-February (West Coast), March-September (East Coast)
What’s the climate in Malaysia like?
Pretty hot and humid all year round but each coast has opposing rainy seasons. Stick to one coast depending on when you’re visiting Malaysia.
Note the Cameron Highlands are temperate all year-round with a rainy season from September-December.
Best Months to Travel: May-September
What’s the climate in Indonesia like?
In most of the country, the wet, hot season runs from October to April. Around May, the rains start to subside, temps drop, and tourists return. Visit Indonesia in May before prices go up.
Northern parts of Indonesia, like Maluku and Raja Ampat, experience the wet season in OPPOSITE months. October-April is the best time to visit these.
Best Months to Travel: November-May
What’s the climate in the Philippines like?
Not quite as hot as continental Southeast Asia, which makes travel in April and May more viable. But June-August should definitely be avoided – this is typhoon season and storms can very dangerous. Most ferries and resorts shut down during this time.
What to Pack for Southeast Asia
An adventure backpacking in Southeast Asia means navigating a certain level of chaos. If this is your first backpacking trip, or even if you’re a veteran, you gotta make sure you’re equipped for the job! On every adventure, there are a few things I never go travelling without:
Somewhere to hide your cash
Somewhere to hide your cash
Active Roots Money Belt
This is a regular looking belt with a concealed pocket on the inside – you can hide up to twenty notes inside and wear it through airport scanners without it setting them off.
A travel water bottle
A travel water bottle
GRAYL Geopress Filtered Bottle
Having a filtered water bottle means you can drink from just about any source. The GRAYL Geopress is hands-down the most effective one we’ve ever used as well!
For those unexpected messes
For those unexpected messes
Active Roots Microfiber Towel
Hostel towels are scummy and take forever to dry. Microfibre towels dry quickly, are compact, lightweight, and can be used as a blanket or yoga mat if need be.
When the power goes out
When the power goes out
Petzl Actik Core Headlamp
A decent head torch could save your life. If you want to explore caves, unlit temples, or simply find your way to the bathroom during a blackout, a headtorch is a must.
Active Roots Camping Hammock
Taking a tent backpacking is not always practical but hammocks are lightweight, cheap, strong, sexy (chicks dig hammocks), and allow you to pitch up for the night pretty much anywhere.
To stay a clean backpacker
To stay a clean backpacker
Hanging Toiletry Bag
I always travel with a hanging toiletry bag as it’s a super-efficient way to organize your bathroom stuff. Well worth having as it helps to have quick access to all your stuff.
For plenty more inspiration on what to pack, check out my full backpacking packing list.
Staying Safe in Southeast Asia
Is Southeast Asia Safe? This is easily one of the most common questions I’m asked.
Every country on earth has a certain degree of crime and the associated shitty people. Southeast Asia is no different. Though violent attacks on backpackers are extremely rare, they can happen.
A common problem in Southeast Asian cities is the motorcycle bag snatch. Two dudes roll up on a motorbike and grab your purse or day bag and they ride off into the night (or day). I have heard reports of this gig being particularly rampant in the touristic areas of Phnom Penh.
Keep an eye on your stuff, especially when you are in the big cities and crowded bus stations. Be smart hiding your valuables and money when travelling and things will be chill. In general, Southeast Asia is one of the safest places in the world to go backpacking, so fear not!
Wear a helmet when you hop on a motorbike in Asia. Despite being an experienced driver, I’ve had a total of three crashes in Southeast Asia over the last ten years. On the one occasion, I wasn’t wearing a helmet, I split my head open and had to go to the hospital. Your mum doesn’t want to get the call about your insides being on the outside…
To stay safe, every backpacker should follow the common-sense rules of safe backpacking. In general, being out late, drunk, and alone is a recipe for trouble anywhere in the world. If ever you run into the very rare hold-up situation give them what they want and don’t resist. Your iPhone and wallet are never worth dying over, ever!
Check out our in-depth safety guides
Sex, Drugs, and Rock n’ Roll in Southeast Asia
There’s a reason that those seeking something a little hedonistic oftentimes get stuck in Southeast Asia… You can buy ketamine from certain pharmacies and the acid seems to be ubiquitous amongst travellers. Many Southeast Asian countries have very harsh drug penalty laws though, and even without harsh laws, there are some truly crippling fines dished out.
Drugs on the road is pretty much a guaranteed experience – and in Southeast Asia more so than ever. There are the magic mushroom shakes popular in Thailand and Cambodia; there are the strong and freely available prescription meds too. Plus, doobies are a staple of almost every hostel. So, if you’re gonna do the good stuff, then stay hydrated and watch out for ya mates!
What seems to go hand in hand with travelling even more so than drugs? Why, love and sex of course! But we don’t like to have frank and honest discussions about sex on the road out of fear we’ll be too judgemental – or not judgmental enough
At the end of the day, love and sex will on the road is inevitable so we might as well have a conversation about it.
Remember that free love is about love as much as it is about sex. And I’d be dancing around the elephant in the room if I didn’t talk about how easy it is to engage with prostitutes in Asia.
Regardless of your beliefs and thoughts on prostitution, remember this is another person with thoughts, feelings, and a life outside of the sex industry too. You are not superior to these people, you just happen to be from a more privileged background.
Go to Asia and have the time of your life, do the things you’ve dreamed of but be respectful along the way. Travelling the world makes you an ambassador for your country, which is awesome. We can make a positive impact on people when we travel and get rid of any ugly stereotypes that may be associated with our countries…
Travel Insurance for Southeast Asia
Travelling without insurance would be risky so do consider getting good backpacker insurance sorted before you head off on an adventure.
I have been using World Nomads for some time now and made a few claims over the years. They’re easy to use, professional and relatively affordable. They may also let you buy or extend a policy once you’ve started your trip and are already abroad which is super handy.
If there’s one insurance company I trust, it’s World Nomads. To find out why I use World Nomads, check out my World Nomads Insurance review.
Why You SHOULD Consider Travel Insurance
A Story from Wild Will Hatton
“Many moons ago, I almost lost my leg in a sweltering jungle in Central America…
I battled a seriously nasty infection that snaked up past my knee; by the time I made it to a local hospital, I was delirious, unable to walk, and near-incapacitated from the pain. The docs wanted to amputate – HARD NO.
Luckily, I managed to call my insurance provider – they moved me to a much better private hospital where the doctors were able to save my leg. I racked up $15,000 in hospital bills, but these were completely covered by my travel insurance. Luckily, I still have my leg today, and I’m damn grateful every day it’s still attached!
Moral of the story: consider getting travel insurance before you head out into the wilds, people! Things get real out there.
Me personally? I travel with coverage from World Nomads. They saved my leg once, and I’m confident they’d do it again.”
Getting Into Southeast Asia
As I said before Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur are Southeast Asia’s two main international hubs. Most backpackers start their journeys visiting and staying in Kuala Lumpur or Bangkok for a spell. Budget flights throughout the region will almost certainly have you passing through one of those airports.
If you are looking to do the classic Southeast Asia Loop or the Banana Pancake Trail, then starting off in Bangkok is the obvious choice. Flights into Vietnam through Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are getting increasingly less expensive as well, so keep an eye out if the prices keep falling.
Visas and Entry Requirements for Southeast Asian Countries
The biggest headache of travelling is getting a visa organised! The rules are subject to change at a moment’s notice and you never know what the land border will actually be like. All I can say is do your research,(politely) refuse to pay bribes that you don’t have to and get organised in advance.
Luckily, most Southeast Asian countries have pretty straightforward visa requirements. Tourism is their bread and butter after all.
Travelling to Southeast Asia During COVID Times
The Southeast Asian countries were among the first to shut their borders when the COVID pandemic hit. Since then, some countries have begun reopening to tourists while others remain shut.
Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam have slowly begun to resume international flights and allow foreigners back into the country. Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, and the rest remained closed. Even among those that are starting to reopen, “travel bubbles” within Southeast Asia are being formed, which only allows relatively free movement within themselves.
No Southeast country has returned to pre-COVID travel status. Every single one has different travel restrictions in place as well. If you’re planning on backpacking in Southeast Asia while the coronavirus is still present, you’ll need to do thorough research beforehand and know that things will change at the last minute.
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How to Get Around Southeast Asia
The most popular and rewarding way of independent travel in Southeast Asia is to rent or buy a motorbike. It also helps if you can rent for longer periods of time. Most shops in Bali charge around $5 a day for a motorbike, but I was able to rent one for only $50 a month!
With a full tank of gas costing only around $1, you can cover a lot of ground without burning a hole in your wallet if you’ve got a long-term motorbike rental. Pair this with a proper motorcycle tent, and you’ll hardly ever spend a dime!
Common Types of Transport in Southeast Asia
Hitchhiking in Southeast Asia
Hitchhiking should not prove to be too difficult and in some countries, it is fairly easy to get picked up. You have to be persistent and make sure the locals understand where you need to go or you will end up getting dropped at a bus station. Check out our Hitchhiking 101 Guide for more info on the nitty-gritty nuances of hitchhiking around the world.
Some locals decide to turn their car into a taxi cab the minute they spot a foreigner on the highway. I would never assume that the ride is free initially. Always ask to avoid having an awkward scenario in which the driver who picked you up is demanding an unexpected fee.
Due to the large number of backpackers riding motorbikes across Southeast Asia, it is possible to score a ride with some fellow travellers. Generally, hitchhiking in Southeast Asia is safe, though you still have to be smart and use good judgment.
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Onwards Travel from Southeast Asia
Whether you are heading home or carrying on travelling, budget international flights are your best bet. Again Bangkok or KL is where you will find the lowest prices. India and South Asia may beckon the vagabond to continue their travels. Or, Australia and New Zealand might get the backpacker to settle down in a sense and get a backpacking job.
Many backpackers pop over to Australia or New Zealand for 6 months to a year on a working holiday visa, make some cash, and come right back to Southeast Asia for their second round of backpacking escapades.
Travelling Onwards From Southeast Asia?
Working in Southeast Asia
Working in Southeast Asia is certainly popular – though not especially lucrative. Scoring a gig as an ex-pat of some kind is always great, but most backpackers won’t fall into that category. Since work visas are sometimes difficult to get, a lot of the work ends up being done under the table.
That’s not to say it’s all dodgy run businesses, of course. There are a surprising amount of opportunities for backpackers to find work in Asia, but don’t expect to make a lot of money. You’re here for the lifestyle and experience, not the cash.
Popular jobs include dive instructor, English teacher, or some kind of hospitality. How easy it is to get a job will depend on the country. But a more popular way of making money while on the road in Asia is to work as a freelancer or digital nomad – this is where Asia truly shines.
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The Digital Nomad Scene in Southeast Asia
Southeast Asia is THE most popular place for digital nomads to base themselves (based on recent digital nomad stats). Places like Chiang Mai, Bangkok, and Bali are thriving nomad hubs that attract people from all over the world. Kuala Lumpur and many large Vietnamese cities are quickly following suit.
Southeast Asia is a paradise for remote workers for many reasons:
- The cost of living is very low.
- Internet is ubiquitous and reliable.
- Expat communities are strong.
- Local economies are booming.
- Visas relatively easy to organize.
- Conferences and events are frequently organized.
- There’s a lot to do in your free time.
If you’re a digital nomad or someone who wants to give the lifestyle a try, you can’t go wrong living in Southeast Asia.
Teaching English in Southeast Asia
Teaching English is another way of living or extending your trip to Southeast Asia and people have been doing this for a long time. Though you won’t always need one, having a TEFL certificate will increase your chances of scoring a gig.
We suggest using MyTEFL to get accredited. Broke Backpacker readers get a 35% discount on TEFL courses with MyTEFL (simply enter the code BACKPKR).
For more information, read our in-depth report on teaching English abroad.
I think that working as an English teacher does give you a deeper appreciation of the country that you’re travelling in. You spend time fostering connections to a place and you are, ultimately, teaching people a skill that will carry them far in life.
Volunteering in Southeast Asia
Volunteering abroad is an amazing way to experience a culture whilst helping your host community. There are plenty of different volunteer projects in Southeast Asia including teaching, construction, agriculture and pretty much anything.
There are so many different volunteer opportunities in Southeast Asia to suit any skill set. You could support communities doing social work in Vietnam, help out on farms in Thailand, teach English in Cambodia, or volunteer in a hostel in Laos.
Other opportunities include bartending, doing community work, and web development. Short-term volunteers should apply for a tourist visa before arriving, but you’ll need the appropriate permits to stay longer depending on what country you’re in.
Volunteer programs run through reputable work exchange programs like Worldpackers are usually very well-managed and reputable. However, whenever you are volunteering, do stay vigilant especially when working with animals or children.
Worldpackers: connecting travellers with meaningful travel experiences.
Southeast Asian Culture
Ask the average joe what they know about the history of Southeast Asia and most will be able to think as far back as the Vietnam War, maybe the Japanese occupation of Thailand. Beyond that, Southeast Asia is kind of a mystery.
But the history of Southeast Asia is long, complex, varied, and extremely fascinating. Before the Europeans arrived – the French in Vietnam, English in Burma, and Dutch in Indonesia – there were great kingdoms: the Toungoo, Khmer, and Malaca Sultanate, to name a few. Through these channels, Buddhism, Islam, trade, and science all flowed.
It is quite difficult to talk about “Southeast Asian Culture” because it would be a generalization; there are just so many different aspects.
What travellers SHOULD know about Southeast Asia is that it is in fact way deeper than it seems. Thanks to a long history of colonization that dates back before the Europeans – Indians, Arabs, and the East Asians all settled in SE Asia – the region is enormously diverse. Food, religion, politics, customs, all of the things that SE Asia does so well, come in part from external sources.
Of course, the colours of people’s personalities also changes from country to country. Thais are legendarily nice (and open to just about anything). Malaysians are incredibly diverse ethnically and thus incredibly tolerable. Cambodians are the most laidback people in Southeast Asia by far. All of these traits become more obvious as you spend time in each country.
Don’t stay on the established Southeast Asian backpacking route if you want to get to know the locals. Koh San Road, Hanoi’s Beer Street, Kuta, and all the other tourist hotspots are poor representations of the culture.
The real Southeast Asia is found at the plastic tables on the street, inside the bike repair shops, and in the dusty corners of the region.
What to Eat in Southeast Asia
There are people who go backpacking in Southeast Asia just for the food. For good reason, too: it’s fantastic! More than just delicious, it’s also cheap and hugely varied depending on where you are.
You can definitely expect a lot of rice, noodles, and curry in Southeast Asia. Luckily though, no two of these are ever the same. For example, noodles in Vietnam are traditionally served in broth (pho being the most famous). Thailand, on the other hand, usually prefers dry noodles.
This is just the tip of the gastronomic iceberg that is food in Southeast Asia and honestly, it’s really difficult to lump everything into one category. I will simply say that countries like Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand consistently rank among the most delicious in the world, every year.
Because of its tropical climate, the fruit in Southeast Asia is also ridiculously good. Borneo is practically the Garden of Eden where just about everything grows, and the local markets in all the major cities have incredible selections to choose from. Be prepared to eat lots of fruit on your backpacking trip, especially bananas when served with pancakes.
I definitely recommend eating at the local markets and street food stalls. The prices are super low and the food is just as good as anything you’d find in a restaurant. Just keep on an eye out for sanitation – make sure the food is fresh and things look clean (enough).
The Best Food in Southeast Asia
Below is a list of some of the most well-known dishes in Southeast Asia:
- Banh Mi Thit (Vietnam) – The best sandwich in Asia.
- Pho (Vietnam) – Noodles served in broth w/ extras.
- Pad Thai (Thailand) – Dry noodles w/ peanut sauce and chilis.
- Tom Yung Goong (Thailand) – Soup made with lemongrass, herbs, and shrimp.
- Satay (Malaysia, Indonesia) – Grilled meat skewers.
- Fish Amok (Cambodia) – Spicy fish coconut curry served in a banana leaf
- Burmese Curry (Myanmar) – Local take on the dish that is famously good.
- Shan-style noodles (Myanmar) – Thin-sliced, flat noodles.
- Nasi Goreng (Indonesia) – Fried rice.
- Chili crab (Singapore) – Singapore’s claim to fame.
- Larb/Laap (Laos, Cambodia) – Beef salad with lots of seasoning.
- Tam Mak Houng (Laos) – Spicy green papaya salad.
Some Unique Experiences in Southeast Asia
Southeast Asia is a fantastic budget destination that is great for your everyday travels, but it’s also amazing because it allows you to splurge on some truly unique experiences.
You can go surfing, sky diving, bungee jumping, or any number of exciting things! But there are two big-ticket items that grabbed my heart more than any other! Trekking and SCUBA diving.
DON’T DIE OUT THERE! …Please 🙂
Trekking in Southeast Asia
Each country in Southeast Asia offers up trekking experiences that will stay with you for the rest of your life. Whether you prefer guided or independent trekking, there is ample hiking on hand for every backpacker to enjoy. Pack yourself the right adventure gear, and go do something crazy!
- Taman Negara, Malaysia: Explore the oldest rainforest in the world and spend the night in a bungalow in the jungle (for free).
- Kibungan Circuit, Philippines: A three-mountain circuit in the town of Kibungan in Benguet. The circuit, which takes anywhere from two to three days to complete, spans across the mountains of Tagpaya, Oten, and Tagpew.
- Shan State, Myanmar: Shan state is a popular place to go trekking and there are some great hikes to be had around Kachin state as well. You will likely encounter no other travelers whilst trekking here.
- Phongsali, Laos: If you want to get off-the-grid and go trekking in Laos, I recommend making the long journey to the northern town of Phongsali. Though tough to reach, it’s equally rewarding for trekkers. While there isn’t much to do in the actual town, there are plenty of opportunities to visit remote hill tribes through the Provincial Tourism Office.
- Ring of Fire, Indonesia: While the beautiful beaches in Indonesia may be the major draw for tourists, there are also plenty of opportunities for adventures on land. Located in the Ring of Fire, Indonesia is home to well over 100 volcanoes. Trekking to the summit of some of these volcanoes is one experience you won’t want to miss when backpacking Indonesia. In addition to the aforementioned Mt. Bromo and Mt. Rinjani, you can also scale Mt. Agung on Bali or Mt. Egon on Flores.
Scuba Diving in Southeast Asia
If you have been paying attention, you should be aware now that Southeast Asia is fucking paradise when it comes to scuba diving. Without a doubt, Southeast Asia is the cheapest place in the world to become a certified diver. That fact coupled with some of the best dive sites in the world make scuba diving a no-brainer whilst you are backpacking Southeast Asia.
If you want to go diving in Thailand, go for it! Though I must reinforce how great the diving is in Malaysia and Indonesia. The reef systems are in better shape and you won’t have to contend with quite so many tourists. And if you aren’t up to learning to SCUBA, then you can always learn to freedive or snorkel!
Check out our post on the best places to go diving in Bali for just a sample of the spectacular underwater sightseeing to be found in Southeast Asia.
There is truly a whole other world waiting to be discovered once you leave the surface!
FAQs About Southeast Asia
You’ve got questions about Southeast Asia and we’ve got answers!
Is backpacking in Southeast Asia safe?
Violent crime against tourists is very low in this part of the world – and even petty theft isn’t that common. That being said, you should still watch out for your valuables in very touristy areas. The thing to watch out for here is food/water bugs that can really knock your health back.
Where can I backpack in Southeast Asia?
Out of the eleven countries that make up South East Asia, all of them except Myanmar were open to travellers before COVID. Slowly, many of the countries are opening back up to tourism.
How long do you need to backpack Southeast Asia?
You could spend a lifetime exploring Southeast Asia and still have oodles left to explore. But a backpacker could get a good idea of the region by spending 3 – 6 months there. This is enough time to explore a heap of places without feeling too rushed.
How much does it cost to backpack Southeast Asia for six months?
Southeast Asia is a blessing to broke backpackers. You can live comfortably here on $10 a day and splurge every so often on unique experiences. Including flights, insurance, and wiggle room within your budget, 6 months in Southeast Asia should cost between $5000 – $10 000.
What’s the best country to backpack in Southeast Asia?
This is a contentious question! My personal favourite is Vietnam simply because their food is my favourite. Aside from that, it’s cheap, full of epic motorbike adventures, and deadly rice wine!
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Final Thoughts on Backpacking in Southeast Asia
Be good to Southeast Asia. It’s an incredible region that truly does have a little bit of something for everyone – all while being super cheap. We risk ruining a place when we don’t appreciate how special it is, and Asia is pretty freaking special.
Whether you stop by just one of its countries for a short SCUBA diving trip, or whether you get lost on the banana pancake trail for a year or so you know you’re in for a good time. There are rice paddies, ancient temples, piles of spicy noodles, and some of the friendliest faces in the world waiting for you here.
Now, I hope I’ve been a source of inspiration in this guide but I also hope you’re ready to forge your own path through this great region. Because there are so many offbeat adventures and epic trekking to be done – you don’t need to get lost in the endless supply of cheap beer.
So off you go, you broke backpacker! I hope to see you deep in the Malaysian jungle or ordering your fifth banh mi of the week in Vietnam. Whatever you choose to do in Southeast Asia, it’s sure to be an adventure.
Thanks for reading – that was fun! 😀
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