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Southeast Asia is the place that first captured my heart and turned me into a traveller. While I know many of the countries well, there’s always more to do, see and experience in this captivating region. While it’s fantastic for all types of travellers, today I’m going to be sharing my Asia backpacking tips.
Southeast Asia is one of the world’s most popular places for backpacking. It’s cheap, safe and beautiful with friendly people and delicious food. From pho to laksa, banh mi, pad Thai, massaman curry and chilli crab, you’ll never have your fill… Of Asia, or the food!
Related read: the ultimate Southeast Asia bucket list
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What to know before backpacking Southeast Asia
Despite being safe and friendly, there’s still plenty to know before you embark on a Southeast Asia backpacking trip.
Not only do you want to make the most of your trip and not miss anything, but most of the countries are different to the West in terms of attitudes, values, religion and customs. These Southeast Asia tips will help you make the best of your trip and ensure you don’t get in trouble or cause cultural offence.
Then, there’s living out of a backpack for an extended period: a challenge in itself! I’ll share my packing tips for backpacking Southeast Asia including what to bring and what to bin.
I spent 11 months backpacking Asia between 2015-16, parts solo and parts with friends. It was a fun and carefree trip. The photos suck but the memories triumph. I drank too much, laughed a lot, learnt a lot, took terrible photos, and generally dipped my toes in the surface of Southeast Asia.
Then, when I started working remotely, I spent 14 months in Southeast Asia from 2018-19. I based between Vietnam, Bali, Thailand and Malaysia, getting to know cities like Hanoi, Hoi An, Ubud, Penang and Chiang Mai. Although I had more laptop days than late nights, I slowed down and got to know the locals.
Both trips were wonderful in their own ways. After 25 months in Southeast Asia, I feel I’m still scratching the surface. A lifetime would be too short!
(Then I buggered off to Mexico and fell in love all over again. So fickle!)
Here are my top travel tips for Asia…
Asia tips for planning and organisation
1. Plan your route right – you don’t want to end up going back on yourself and spending extra money on transport. I did this all wrong, learnt from my errors and put together this backpacking Asia route & itinerary.
2. Spend enough time per country – this is another lesson I learnt the hard way. I didn’t spend nearly enough time in Cambodia or Laos. Research what you want to do and see in each country before deciding how long to spend.
3. But don’t over plan – this may sound contradictory but I’d advise keeping things loose enough that you can travel with new friends if / when you meet them. I’d suggest not booking your transport too far in advance.
4. Vaccinations – check which are required for the countries you wish to visit.
5. Visas – suss out visa requirements before your trip. You can get in trouble for overstaying even if by accident. Some countries like Vietnam only allow entry for 2 weeks without a visa (for most nationalities). You can apply for a longer one in advance or ensure your travel itinerary fits into their requirements.
6. Get insurance – it’s just not worth travelling without it. I use World Nomads because their policies cover all of Southeast Asia and can be easily extended if your plans change. Click here to get a quote.
7. Ensure you have 6 months left on your passport – this is a rule for travel in general not just Southeast Asia.
8. Carry copies of your vital documents – this is an important tip for Asia travel (and travel generally). I keep a scan of my passport and insurance details close in case of emergency.
9. Avoid burning seasons – Northern Thailand turns into a land of polluted fog between February and April. I would time your trip outside this period.
10. Be aware of local holidays – for example, Vietnam shuts down for Tet on 1 February. You won’t be able to catch a bus or visit any attractions. Likewise, Nyepi in Bali (usually in March) is when bad spirits are thought to fly over. Shops are shut and everyone has to stay indoors.
11. Proof of onward travel – occasionally when entering a country, you’ll be asked to provide proof that you’ll exit before the end of your visa. One way to get around this is by booking a refundable journey on Expedia.COM (very important it’s the US site) and cancelling within the set period.
12. Don’t be scared to go solo – I can personally vouch for Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Laos, Cambodia and the Philippines as friendly and safe destinations for solo travel. With hostels and public transport, it won’t cost much more, either. Keep reading for my budget tips for backpacking Southeast Asia…
Read next: my solo travel guides
13. Get off the beaten track – as Asia backpacking tips go, this could be the best one yet. Since Southeast Asia is so safe, you don’t have to worry about staying on-grid (like you would in India for example). Make sure you escape the tourist hotspots in search of more peaceful places.
14. Download the right apps – some of the best apps for travelling Asia include XE (currency converter), Uber and Grab, Skyscanner, Google Translate, SplitWise (great for splitting bills with travel buddies) and Maps.me.
Travel tips for Asia
15. Use 12Go – this website and app is ridiculously useful. It shows transport options between any two destinations including bus, train, ferry and boat. Compare durations and price, and pay by card or PayPal.
16. Get used to long bus journeys – you’ll be a pro by the end. Always bring a book / Kindle or download something to watch on your phone or tablet (but don’t flash around expensive devices). Keep your valuables close on night buses.
17. Know which border crossings are easy (and when to fly) – it’s usually easy to cross Asian borders but there are a few mammoth journeys where you’ll wish you flew. Here’s a quick summary:
- Thailand to Cambodia – easy. Take a 13-hour bus or 16-hour train from Bangkok to Siem Reap.
- Thailand to Laos – easy (although time-consuming) on the slow boat or bus. For the boat, travel from Huay Xai (easily reachable from Chiang Rai) to Luang Prabang with an overnight stop in Pakbeng.
- Laos to Vietnam – this is a long bus journey between Luang Prabang and Hanoi lasting up to 28 hours. You may want to fly instead.
- Vietnam to Cambodia – easy. Take a 6-hour bus between Saigon and Phnom Penh (or a river adventure over the course of a few days).
- Thailand to Malaysia – catch a ferry from Koh Lipe to Langkawi.
18. Agree taxi prices beforehand – or insist on using the meter. Keep an eye out for rigged meters that start shooting up by huge amounts. If this happens, get out.
19. Download the local taxi apps – countries often have their own version of Uber. I used GoJek in Indonesia and Grab in Vietnam and Thailand. As well as cars, you can call scooter taxis – these are a game-changer for travelling on a budget! Your driver will provide you with a helmet.
20. Take public transport – don’t be shy. Journeys are often listed on Google Maps so use your phone to check you’re not headed in the wrong direction. Public transport is the cheapest way to get around.
21. Research how to get around in new cities – major cities in Southeast Asia often have efficient transport networks. For example:
- Bangkok – Metro and Sky Train (pay with cash or card)
- Chiang Mai – songthaews (big red share taxis – just hail them and pay in cash)
- Hanoi – bus (pay the fares of 5-10k VND in cash)
- Kuala Lumpur – there are several trains: the Metro, LRT, monorail and KLIA airport express (pay with cash or card).
22. Learn to ride a scooter – providing you wear a helmet and your insurance covers it, riding a scooter is a great way to explore Asia on a budget, especially in Bali where there’s no public transport. Hire yours in advance.
23. Photograph them before leaving the rental store – snap any existing scratches or damage when you hire your scooter in case you get charged for it.
24. Download Maps.me – this is your best app for navigation. Download offline maps for whole countries.
Southeast Asia tips for staying connected
25. There’s usually Wi-Fi – I spent a whole year in Asia relying on Wi-Fi rather than buying a SIM card. Most hostels have Wi-Fi as well as many cafes and public places.
26. SIM cards – it’s easy to find affordable SIM cards should you want them. Ask staff at your hostel staff where to get one. Monthly data packages often cost $5-10. Check Klook for pre-ordered SIM cards delivered to your accommodation.
2022 update – there’s a new eSim data package that works around most countries in SE Asia. Just scan the QR code to activate it!
27. Skype credit – I use FaceTime and WhatsApp to call friends and family but Skype is a godsend when I need to make a phone call home (for example to my bank or insurance company). Skype credit is a fraction of the price of making an international call via a SIM card. Use the web version or mobile app.
28. Get a Mobile Wi-Fi hotspot – these let you insert a SIM card and share the data between your devices. This can be handy for watching things in the evenings as often Wi-Fi is available in hostel communal areas but doesn’t stretch to the rooms.
29. Travel with a VPN – to browse the internet securely and ensure your personal details don’t get shared via public Wi-Fi networks, use a VPN. They also bypass countries’ restrictions so you’ll be able to watch shows from your home country.
Tips for Asia backpacking & hostels
The following backpacking Southeast Asia tips will help set your expectations for hostels & meeting people on the road.
Related read: how to meet people when travelling solo
30. Pick the right hostel for you – I’d describe myself as an extrovert who likes nightlife and even at 21, some of the Asia hostels were too much for me. You’ll meet people in party hostels who don’t seem to even like travel – they just want to drink and hook up! Which is fine, but just be aware what you’re letting yourself in for.
31. There are cosy hostels too – it’s easy to find family-run hostels that attract a friendly backpack crowd. Look at the photos and reviews on Hostelworld to make an educated guess.
32. Be approachable – don’t bring your book to communal areas.
33. Pack earplugs – especially in party hostels! Aside from people coming in drunk, hooking up or snoring, there’s always some noise in dorms whether it’s someone going to the bathroom or leaving for a flight.
34. Don’t be THAT dorm mate – pack the night before. This should really go in the ethical Asia tips below 😉 There’s nothing worse than being woken up at 6am by the sound of a dorm mate packing for their flight.
35. Join Facebook groups – search for backpacking Asia groups on Facebook. You may cross paths with the members or glean useful Southeast Asia travel tips. Those that identify as women can join Girls Love Travel.
36. Make friends with locals – don’t stick to socialising with other backpackers! Befriend tour guides and hostel staff. Get chatting to locals when you’re out and about. You’ll have a blast and learn a lot from them.
Related read: How to pick a great travel buddy
Cultural immersion tips
37. Get used to the bum gun – two words not usually used in the same sentence. This handy device is used in place of toilet paper in many Asian bathrooms.
38. Prepare for squat toilets – these aren’t everywhere but you’ll encounter them at some point.
39. Prepare for different health and safety standards – things are quite relaxed in comparison to Western countries but do always insist on helmets / life jackets etc. Your insurance may be void otherwise. Suggesting you’ll take your business elsewhere usually results in someone ‘finding’ a spare helmet…
Wellbeing backpacking tips for Asia
40. Know you might get homesick – it’s normal and not a sign of failure. Luckily, technology is good when you want to call people back home. You can usually find Western comforts when you need them, especially in major cities like Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur. Nothing wrong with a mall day!
41. Plan rest days – I massively burnt myself out during my first Asia backpacking trip. I didn’t factor any rest days and almost stopped enjoying myself altogether. It’s worth booking a private room and having a few lazy days to do life admin, laundry etc.
Tips for eating in Southeast Asia
42. Eat street food – the food is about 60% of the reason I always return to Asia. It’s delicious! Check out some of my Asian food guides:
43. Bring reusable items – sadly a lot of plastic in used in Asia. There are a few items I travel with and would recommend taking with you. These are:
44. Don’t drink tap water in Asia – it’s safe to drink bottled water (just make sure the lid is sealed) although not very sustainable. It’s best to bring a reusable water bottle that you can fill up from large filtered units at your accommodation. Alternatively, pack a filtering water bottle that sterilises water for safe drinking.
45. Eat where it’s busy – in terms of street food safety, this is one of the best Asia tips for staying healthy. Eat where it’s busy because there will be a quick turnaround of food meaning nothing has been sat around long. If locals are eating there, it’s a bonus.
46. Drink local beer – keep it cheap by keeping it local. Drink Chang in Thailand, Bintang in Bali and beer hoi (locally produced fresh beer) in Vietnam.
Safety tips for Southeast Asia
The following Southeast Asia backpacking tips will keep you safe. But remember you still need insurance however careful you are!
48. Watch out for pickpockets – Southeast Asia has little violent crime. Having your valuables stolen is as bad as it gets. While not life-threatening, you still want to avoid it. The following Asia tips will help you avoid sticky situations…
49. Split up your bank cards – for the love of god! If you ignore the other 100 Southeast Asia tips in this blog and just remember this, my work is done. Don’t lose them all once like I did.
50. Scooter snatchers – the most common way to get robbed is when you’re on foot and a couple of guys whiz by on a scooter, the one at the back grabbing your phone/bag. It happened to me in Vietnam. To stay safe…
51. Wear a crossbody bag – I usually wear the one below but you can go even safer with one that goes around your chest or waist. I have one I sleep wearing on night buses.
Packing tips for Asia
The following travel tips for Southeast Asia relate to luggage, clothes and useful travel gadgets and accessories…
52. Get a good backpack – you’ll be carrying it every few days so it’s worth getting a decent one. I recommend the Osprey Farpoint (men’s) (women’s). You won’t need more than 65L.
In terms of day bags, I use a:
- Small rucksack for hiking (which I carry on my front during transit days)
- Crossbody bag for days/nights out
- Secure bum bag for night buses.
53. Packing cubes – these are a lifeline for organising your luggage.
54. Pack light – I’d suggest tops and bottoms that you can mix n match, underwear and swimwear, an extra layer for evenings/cooler places, and a raincoat. Laundry facilities are cheap so you don’t need many outfits. Bring 1 pair of comfy walking shoes (hiking boots not necessary unless you’re doing something extreme), 1 pair or sandals and 1 pair of flip flops.
55. Keep it casual for evenings out – you rarely need fancy going out clothes in SE Asia. I pack 1-2 ‘nice’ dresses for days and nights out.
56. Sarong – although you’ll look like a tourist, this is a handy Southeast Asia tip. I have a trusty sarong I use on the beach, to cover my legs at temples, and as a cover on bus journeys. Don’t worry if you leave home without one – you can buy them cheaply at markets in Asia.
57. Don’t wear white – it’ll never stay clean. I don’t know if dust and mud is particularly stubborn in Southeast Asia or if it’s something about the laundry… Either way, just don’t do it.
58. Wear cool clothes – it’s better to have cool cotton clothes than synthetic materials which make you sweat in the heat. I often prefer to wear long (but thin) sleeves and pants that save you getting burnt. These are also better for visiting religious sites where revealing clothing may cause cultural offence.
59. Bring enough sunscreen – I’ve been burnt (literally) before. When you buy local Asian brands of sunscreen, it rarely works. Make sure to bring enough for your trip or buy it from a reputable store or mall in Asia. It’ll be pricey but worth it.
60. Mosquito spray – the same goes for mosquito spray. Aim to bring enough for your trip as local brands may vary in quality.
61. Don’t bring designer items – no one else will have them and you’ll put yourself at risk of theft.
62. No need to worry about sunglasses – you will find $1 ‘Raybans’ on every street corner in Southeast Asia.
63. Neck pillow – the holy grail of backpacker items! You won’t regret the space a neck pillow takes up.
64. Sanitary products – this is a useful Asia tip for people with periods. You can usually only buy pads not tampons. Either take a bunch with you or – the more sustainable option – pack a moon cup (or similar brand).
65. Watch out for whitening products – it’s worth noting that body products in Asia commonly contain skin whitener. Scrutinise the packaging; I was usually able to find products without… Aside from deodorant. I spent a year with very pale underarms.
Money tips for backpacking Asia
The following travel tips for Asia will help you budget and – hopefully – travel for longer...
66. Know what to budget – generally, $1,000 a monthly is a good starting point for Southeast Asia backpacking although it’s worth noting that countries vary in price. Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia are the cheapest in my opinion. I’ll put together a big guide to do this topic justice but a few general costs (in USD) are:
- Bed in a hostel dorm – $3-10
- Private hostel room or budget guesthouse – $15-20
- Street food meal – $1-3
- Western-style restaurant meal – $5
- Bottled water – $1
- Intercountry bus journey – $10-20
- Day tours – $10-50
- Diving – $300 for a 3-day course inc accommodation in Koh Tao.
67. Learn to haggle – locals expect it so don’t pay the first price quoted, especially at crafts markets.
68. Volunteer – in the past, I’ve volunteered in exchange for food and board using Workaway and Worldpackers. They have plenty of positions from hostel work to farming, language exchanges and helping with promotion. There are even a few paid positions.
69. Travel through the night – not only do you save the cost of a night’s accommodation, but you free up the next day (although this is hit-and-miss – I often end up napping if I’ve not slept well on the bus).
70. Have USD – since there’s no universal currency in Asia, it’s worth bringing some USD ($100 or so). You’ll thank me for this Asia travel tip when you need to buy a visa on the border but haven’t been able to withdraw local currency yet.
71. Always carry cash – you can rarely pay with card in Southeast Asia. Withdraw cash every few days so you’re not carrying too much.
72. Prepare for various currencies – if you have money leftover when entering a new country, exchange it at a reputable money changer (do a bit of research for example this article on the best places to exchange money in Hanoi). Airports charge the worst rates and there are often scams at land borders. Use XE currency app to check you’re getting a decent rate.
Main currencies in Southeast Asia:
- Vietnam – Dong (VND)
- Indonesia – Rupiah (RP)
- Cambodia – Riel (KHR) and USD
- Laos – Kip (LAK)
- Malaysia – Ringgit (RM)
- Singapore – Singapore dollar (SGD)
- Thailand – Baht (THB)
- Myanmar – Kyat (MMK)
- Philippines – Pesos (PHP).
73. Sign up for mobile banks with reduced fees – my three favourites for UK travellers are Monzo, Revolut and Starling. Wise (for all nationalities) is great for low-cost international money transfers. If you get one of their cash cards, there are no foreign transaction fees and you can withdraw $250 a month without fees.
Ethical tips for Asia
The following tips for travelling Southeast Asia will ensure everyone benefits from your travels!
74. Avoid unethical animal activities – the tiger temple is a truly despicable place in Thailand where tigers are drugged for tourist photos. Never go. Also, don’t listen to anyone who tells you it’s okay to ride elephants. Here’s why not.
75. Avoid human tourism – for example the Karen ‘long neck’ groups in Northern Thailand. Many are actually Burmese and have had their passports confiscated to keep them trapped for tourism purposes. Be wary and read reviews whenever people are involved in tourist activities.
76. Give tips – if you’ve had good service, tip your tour guide/waiter at least 10%.
77. Learn a bit of local lingo – even if it’s just hello, thank you and goodbye, people will appreciate it.
Tours in Asia
79. Multi day / week tours – again, you don’t need to take these but if you’re lonely or burnt out from organising everything, they can be a worthwhile investment. G Adventures are great for getting off-the-beaten-track while Contiki are more of a young, social company. Consider taking one in the middle of your trip if you need a break.
80. Day tours – if I can’t be bothered with organisation or I’m visiting somewhere tricky to access by public transport, I browse Viator, GetYourGuide and Klook to see who has the best offer on day tours.
81. Asian food tours are great! Yes, you can go it alone and eat like a king/queen BUT I love taking food tours because you get to try so many things by splitting them with the group, plus the guides always know best.
My favourite food tour operator in Asia is A Chef’s Tour. So far I’ve taken their Chiang Mai Northern Food Tour by Truck and their Bangkok Chinatown tour.
What to know before backpacking Asia: country-specific tips
Now I’ve shared my general travel tips for Asia, here are a few country-specific tidbits…
Tips for Vietnam
- 82. Get the sleeper bus all down the coast – since Vietnam is so long and thin, it’s easy to travel without going back on yourself. The journeys are often long but the buses are comfortable with individual beds. Buy a book of tickets in any Hanoi or Saigon travel agents or individually on 12Go.
- 83. Spend enough time in Northern Vietnam – I’d suggest 3 days in Sapa and a 2-night Ha Long Bay trip. Since you’ll need to connect through Hanoi (where I’d also recommend spending 3 days), you’ll want to dedicate at least a week to Northern Vietnam.
Tips for Thailand
- 84. Time your trip around festivals – Songkran water festival in April is a blast wherever you spend it. Yi Peng and Loy Krathong are lantern festivals held in November in Chiang Mai.
- 85. You can only spend 30 days in Thailand without a visa – consider exploring Bangkok and the north then heading through Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam before returning to Thailand for another 30 days to do the islands justice.
Tips for Cambodia
- 86. Prepare for heartbreak at Phnom Penh’s Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields. Although it’s difficult to see and learn about, it’s important to understand Cambodia’s recent history.
- 87. You only use Cambodian Riel for small purchases like local buses. For everything else, use USD. You can withdraw this from Cambodian ATMs.
Tips for Laos
- 88. Don’t stick to the north – Four Thousand Islands in Southern Laos are beautiful and a convenient place to cross into Cambodia.
- 89. The capital isn’t great – there’s not much to do in Vientiane from a tourist perspective although there is good food.
- 90. Visit Vang Vieng for ecotourism – now the dangerous tubing bars have closed, the region is ripe for exploring spectacular nature.
Tips for Myanmar
- 91. Be aware of the political situation – as of 2021, it’s not safe to visit Myanmar. I’ll update this section as things develop.
Tips for Indonesia
- 92. Don’t stick to Bali – there are 17,000 islands in Indonesia so it would be a shame to only see one. I spent time on Java Island and want to visit Komodo and Flores.
- 93. Taxi apps are banned in Bali – there’s also no public transport so unless you hire a scooter, you’ll spend a lot of money on (overpriced) government taxis. Full-day private taxi tours with companies like GetYourGuide are often more affordable.
- 94. Get your vegan fix! The cuisine in most Asian countries is heavily meaty; this is your place to indulge in plant-based Balinese food.
Tips for Malaysia
- 95. Unlike most Asian countries, Malaysia has an efficient train network – or you can take the bus between destinations. When travelling within cities, there are no taxi scooters (only Uber cars) so budget a little extra.
- 96. Penang is food heaven! Save all your stomach room for a trip to George Town.
- 97. In Kuala Lumpur, stay in Chinatown – there’s great food in KL Chinatown and most of the attractions are nearby.
Tips for Singapore
- 98. Singapore CAN be done on a budget – I ate at hawker markets (hardly a problem as the food is delicious!), stayed in hostels and took the Metro. You might want to splash out on the Cloud Forest and a Singapore Sling cocktail, though.
- 99. Check prices before ordering – I got tricked into paying $50 for chilli crab at a street stall because I hadn’t checked the price first. I later learnt this is a common scam: everything else on the menu will be $5 apart from the crab which is ‘priced by weight’. You then get charged a ridiculous figure and can’t argue because you already ate it!
Tips for the Philippines
- 100. Budget time and money for getting between islands – it’s not easy to island-hop by boat. Islands like Palawan and Cebu are a flight apart usually with a stop in Manila.
- 101. Get outta Manila! This is one of my least favourite cities in Southeast Asia. It’s polluted, not especially safe and the traffic is ridiculous.
Phew, 101 travel tips for Asia all wrapped up! Did you learn anything new?
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