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25 tips for backpacking around South East Asia

Serene monks on mobile phones and corrupt politicians in limousines.  Stinking traffic jams and stunning deserted beaches.  Ancient ruins and gleaming skyscrapers.  Armani suits and subsistence farmers.  Full moon parties and silent contemplation.  No matter which way you look at it, South East Asia is one of the most interesting, vibrant, beautiful and complex areas in the world.

For me, it’s utterly fascinating, achingly beautiful and one of the greatest places in the world to backpack, and somewhere I keep finding myself returning to.  Here’s a few things that I’ve figured out to help you enjoy your time in the region, and avoid a few of the pitfalls along the way.

General

  • RELAX!  This is Asia.  Things do not work the way you expect them to, and they certainly don’t operate on a timetable. Blowing your top only makes you raise your blood pressure, lose respect and look like an idiot – it will never help.
  • Be flexible and give yourself plenty of time to allow for the unexpected.  Trains will be delayed, hotels will be closed, tuk-tuks will break down, the minibus driver will stop for an hour to visit his mother enroute.  Strict deadlines are rarely a part of local life here – they shouldn’t be part of yours either.
  • English is widely spoken in some of the tourist areas, and not spoken at all in many others.  Expect plenty of misunderstandings no matter where you are and learn how to play charades.  Knowing a few words of the local language will always get a positive reaction – nobody will be offended if you get it wrong.
  • Expect to get ripped off now and again.  No matter how experienced a traveller you are, you will be taken for a ride at some stage.  God knows I did.  From harmless things like overcharging for a t-shirt or rigging the taxi meter to some much more sophisticated and dangerous scams, there is no shortage of ways to separate tourists from their money.  Keep your wits about you and avoid the more obvious ones – but don’t let losing a few bucks here and there ruin your trip.  It’s really not the end of the world.
  • Carry a backpack and travel light – a good rule anywhere, but especially in SE Asia.  Wheeled suitcases are a terrible idea when roads and footpaths are so clogged and potholed, and carrying around a 20kg backpack for hours in the heat and humidity is likely to leave you screaming for less.
  • Booking ahead is highly over-rated.  You just don’t have to do it outside the peak tourist spots in the highest of high seasons.  Accommodation is best found by walking around a new place and taking a look, while everything from tours, sightseeing, planes, trains and buses doesn’t need to be arranged more than a day in advance at the most.  Less planning provides more flexibility and less stress.  You’ll have a lot more fun with a blank itinerary.  

Snails and beer in Saigon

Eating and drinking

  • There’s no need to rely on guide books or websites for recommendations on where to eat and drink – just follow your nose.  Much like accommodation, food prices and quality in much of the region seem inversely proportional to a place’s popularity with other backpackers.
  • For god’s sake please eat the local food.   It will always be fresher, tastier, cheaper and just all round better than the cook’s attempt at anything Western.  Don’t be afraid to buy it from street vendors either, especially busy ones or those that cook to order.  Fast turnover = less risk of stomach problems!
  • Drinking the local beer is always the right choice.  When it’s hot and you’re sweaty and exhausted, a big frosted bottle of Saigon or Beer Lao is quite possibly a gift from the backpacker gods.  Given it should only cost a dollar or two, it very well may be.
  • Drinking the local water, on the other hand, may not be such a great idea.  Do your research on the area you’re in and use bottled or filtered water for everything from drinking to brushing your teeth if you’re in any doubt.  Or just see step 9 and use beer instead.
  • Surprisingly enough the ice is often made in factories using filtered water and is therefore safe to have in your drink.  Except when it isn’t.  I gave up worrying about it after a week or two, but don’t blame me if you spend a week on the toilet after ordering an iced coffee.
  • Banana pancakes and buckets of whiskey red bull are not necessarily the essence of a balanced diet.
  • For when all of the above goes horribly wrong, pack Imodium.

Boarding a river ferry at sunset

Transport

  • There will always, always be someone around who will happily take you from somewhere to somewhere else for not much money by a random means of transport.  It might not be fast, comfortable or particularly safe, but compared to wherever you come from, it will certainly be cheap.
  • Don’t be afraid of saying yes to the moto (scooter) drivers who want to take you somewhere.  Yes, even with your big backpack on.  Let’s face it, if you can fit an entire family, half a dozen chickens and a tractor tyre on a single Honda Wave, you and your bag don’t even register.
  • Take a tuk-tuk several times in each country.  They are such a definitive part of the South East Asia experience that you’d be crazy not to, and each area has a slightly different spin on them.  Finding one won’t be difficult – just stand still for half a second and at least three drivers will descend upon you.  Unless you’re in Laos, in which case you may need to wake them up first.
  • Overnight buses are a great way of maximising your time and minimising your accommodation budget.  They are also a great way of getting three hours of broken sleep, freezing to death due to an over-excited airconditioner and becoming well acquainted with the sounds and smells of a few dozen other people and their chickens for twelve hours or more.  Another definitive part of the backpacking experience.
  • Renting scooters is a brilliant way of combining freedom, flexibility and a new appreciation for remaining alive in one easy step.  I did it a few times in different places and absolutely loved it.  Licenses and helmets are usually optional, but do try not to crash if you don’t want a permanent nasty reminder of your time in South East Asia, or at least an unpleasant conversation about paying for damage at the end of it all.
  • Flying is quite cheap even when booked only a day or two in advance, and varies between clean and safe (Air Asia and Vietnam Air, for instance) and life threatening (anything with wings in Indonesia).  It’s also a really boring way of (not) seeing a country, so only consider it to cover distances that are impractical by any other means.
  • VIP buses will usually have a few extra conveniences (air conditioning, doors that close, less chickens, that kind of thing), be faster and cost more than mini buses or local transport options.  It’s good fun to be the only Westerner amongst a sea of local faces, though, so for shorter trips or if you’re not in a hurry, give the other options a try.

Roadside stall, Vietnam

People

  • There’s around 600 million people in South East Asia, with hundreds of languages, dozens of religions and uncountable different cultural beliefs.  The dodgy watch salesman you meet on your first morning in Khao San Road is not representative of all of them, and neither is anybody else.  Give everyone a chance, even when the last thing you want to do is talk to yet another persistent songthaew driver.
  • Be alert for scams and danger, but not to the point of being unnecessarily rude or paranoid.  The guy that asks you if he can practice his English may, in fact, just want to practice his English.  The homeless kid that asks you for food may be genuinely hungry.  The girl touting for business outside the massage parlour may just want to give you a massage.  Of course none of this might be true either, so always be prepared to walk away when things start looking dicey.
  • Be respectful of local beliefs.  Take heed of the notices regarding removing your shoes, touching people’s heads or pointing your feet at them, covering up in temples, etc.  If you’re not sure, pay attention to what other people are doing.  Many people (especially in Buddhist countries) may not say anything if you are being offensive but that doesn’t make it acceptable.  You are a guest in their country, after all.
  • Most people are only too happy to help if they can.  I was constantly amazed by just how far people would go just to give me, a total stranger, a hand.  It would be nice if people were half as friendly and helpful in the Western world.
  • Take the time to get to know the locals wherever you are.  As much fun as it is to drink your own bodyweight in buckets with your fellow backpackers on Ko Phangan and wander round the temples of Angkor, I guarantee that some of your most abiding memories will be the interaction you had with the local fisherman, guesthouse owner, taxi driver or random stranger along the way.  I know that mine are.

In the interests of not making this post longer than War and Peace, I’ve limited it to just 25 tips about backpacking around South East Asia. Please do feel free to add your own, though – it’s a vast, amazing part of the world and I always love to read more about it!

The Friday Photo #23 – Life on an Amsterdam canal
The Friday Photo #22 – Wreck with a view, Greek Islands

47 Comments

  1. Reply

    Jaime D.

    September 21, 2010

    This is funny and very interesting! I am planning for a big portion of my RTW trip to take place in SEA, thanks for the tips~

  2. Reply

    Dustin Main - Skinny Backpacker

    September 22, 2010

    Haha a list post! I knew you couldn't resist the urge!

    Good tips though I must admit, though I'll add that Malaysia Airlines and Bangkok Airways were both cheaper than Air Asia for my last minute flight needs.

    • Reply

      Dave

      September 23, 2010

      Nothing quite like a good list post, I always say. Oh wait, I've never said that. Oh well... ;-)

  3. Reply

    Craig Zabransky

    September 30, 2010

    Fantastic list, educational and humorous. A great read. And so many ring true not just for SE Asia, but essentially the world.

    stay adventurous, Craig

    • Reply

      Dave

      September 30, 2010

      Thanks Craig, I'll do my best! ;-)

  4. Reply

    Hogga

    October 4, 2010

    Some of these would have come in handy 2 months ago, damn! haha

  5. Reply

    Elise

    November 22, 2010

    You hite the nail on the head with these tips! We have spent 11 months in SEA everything you said rings true. It is such an amazing country-we will be going back there for years to come!
    Thanks for posting a funny article and reading it made me reminise about amazing SEA!!!

  6. Reply

    Bodlagz

    January 6, 2011

    Tip No. 18 renting scooters, may I leave this link here, it is informative and relevant no matter where you rent a scooter, it help people avoid some of the unseen pitfalls.
    http://www.pattayaunlimited.com/2009/08/how-to-hire-motorbike-in-pattaya.html

  7. Reply

    Ray Sone Hovijitra

    January 27, 2011

    oh and stumbled...lol!

  8. Reply

    Ray Sone Hovijitra

    January 27, 2011

    liked, tweeted, bookmarked and shared

    • Reply

      Dave

      January 27, 2011

      Now that's what I call social media love. :) Thanks Ray!

  9. Reply

    CanCan

    April 4, 2011

    Also please respect the local culture and do not walk around with no shirt or shoes. Is it possible to pack light AND not look like you just finished working in the garden?
    I haved lived in Laos for 8 years and I get tired of tourist nipples. Also you aren't at the beach so the bikini top isn't working for you. Thanks! :)

    • Reply

      Dave

      April 4, 2011

      And there, folks, is the best comment I've had on this site in ages. Totally could not agree more. Have some damn respect, people!!

  10. Reply

    Ellen

    April 5, 2011

    Best blogpost I read in a while (Next to my own). It's just so true! Well done!

    • Reply

      Dave

      April 5, 2011

      Awesome, thanks for the kind words! :-)

  11. Reply

    Spoken like a local living in Southeast Asia for decades, very true! What a fun read :)

    • Reply

      Dave

      April 10, 2011

      I'm not a local yet ... but I wouldn't be surprised if I end up being one some day. Thanks for your lovely comment!

  12. Reply

    zeenath peer

    September 7, 2011

    really informative :), we produce a gap travel magazine and i really think that some of your experiences would go perfectly in our interviews on SEA. email me if your interested in doing one zeenath@bamedia.com i really think the editorial would be better coming from someone whose actually been.

  13. Reply

    Eating the local street food is an absolute must! when I went travelling the first time, I was scared of eating from those places, but as you say - you are probably less likely to get sick from that food, especially if it is being cooked for locals as well!

    "Banana pancakes and buckets of whiskey red bull are not necessarily the essence of a balanced diet" - now that made me chuckle!!

    • Reply

      Dave

      October 4, 2011

      Hehehe - pleased you liked it Paul! ;-)

  14. Reply

    Kelly

    January 12, 2012

    A real interesting read thank you.

  15. Reply

    Tara

    April 19, 2012

    I just came back from Thailand and am ready to go again! This time for much longer and much cheaper! Ditch the job and live life so i reckon! I only found this today and i am in love i want your life!! Very interesting to read and your a great story teller!!

    • Reply

      Dave

      April 19, 2012

      Thank you Tara, I really appreciate that! Live your dream hey? ;-)

  16. Reply

    Stevie

    August 23, 2012

    Thanks for a short informative & very funny post Dave! Im heading to SEA soon and was wrapped to come across this! I wanna travel with you, you sound fun! :)

    • Reply

      Dave

      August 23, 2012

      Thanks Stevie, glad you liked it! You might (not) be surprised to hear that I'm going to be back in SE Asia myself in about six weeks. :)

  17. Reply

    Sankara Subramanian C

    August 24, 2012

    Great tips. I am sure I will find all of these helpful as I am planning a solo backpacking trip to SE Asia this winter.

  18. Reply

    Becca

    October 28, 2012

    You put it perfectly! My friend is coming to visit me in Thailand in a few weeks, this will be a good heads up before she steps off the plane. Thanks!

  19. Reply

    Nathan

    December 18, 2012

    Very interesting read, now debating whether to travel to the US for 2 months in summer, or to travel in SEA for 2 months!

    • Reply

      Dave

      December 30, 2012

      Definitely SE Asia ... but I'm biased. :)

  20. Reply

    John Old

    December 29, 2012

    Agree with Craig xjohn

  21. Reply

    Sheryl

    January 3, 2013

    Pretty hilarious but very informative. Cheers to your tips! ;)

  22. Reply

    Jessica Bate

    May 12, 2013

    Hi , im getting ready to go to SEA for 10 weeks over my summer holidays from uni... I ve saved up 2500 and already paid for my flights.... Will this be enough? also great post made me feel stupidly excited about going now

    Jess

    • Reply

      Dave

      May 12, 2013

      Hi Jess,

      Not sure what currency you're working in, but you should be fine regardless. If that's dollars, then $35/day is enough to travel on a budget in SE Asia as long as you're staying in cheap guesthouses or hostels and aren't having too many beers each night. If it's euros or pounds, you'll be able to splash out a bit more for sure. :)

  23. Reply

    Kyle Clements

    May 15, 2013

    Just read this post and love it!! Great tips... "Planning" a SEA trip next year for around 6months. I will definately be following your blog for information and updates ;)

  24. Reply

    Phyllis

    May 29, 2013

    i do agree that the people in SEA are much more compassionate. My friends and i went cliff diving at one of the islands in philippines. My friend hurt her feet and had to get stitches done, they only charged 50pesos because we didnt have small change to give a 150pesos, That's like less than 5 dollars.

  25. Reply

    JackieM

    June 18, 2013

    Hey I'm travelling to SEA in 6 days loved reading your tips, excited/scared to get going!!

  26. Reply

    Theresa

    September 23, 2013

    I want to live your life!!

  27. Reply

    Steve

    December 11, 2013

    nice list of tips! totally agree with you about taking the local transport when you've got time. you get a better sense of what local life is like by riding with the locals. and yea, it's cheaper :)

  28. Reply

    MARIE SMITH

    January 3, 2014

    Hi Dave :D Thanks for the tips they're really helpful!!

    I'm going travelling with my sister and brother next month.

    We're going to new Zealand 1st for 2 weeks, and then flying to Hong Kong, then making our way down through Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, malaysia… briefly to Bali and then back to Singapore, to then fly to dehli to spend a week in india.

    Have you been back packing in india?

    Also, to be fairly relaxed with money, apart from the new zealand bit… how much in £'s do you think we would need? We will spend 2 1/2 months in Asia and 1 week in india.

    Thank you!!

    Marie x

    • Reply

      Dave

      January 3, 2014

      Thanks Marie! Yeah, there's a HUGE different in price between NZ and SE Asia, that's for sure. My usual advice for budget in most countries in SE Asia as a backpacker is around $30/day if you're not moving too fast, mostly eating street foot etc. It'll cost more in HK and Singapore, but still nowhere near as much as NZ!

      If you want to be really comfortable, change the dollars to pounds -- so thirty quid a day. That'll give you loads of leeway if you want to take extra trips, eat at fancier restaurants, sty in nicer guesthouses, drink too much or whatever! ;-)

      I haven't yet been to India -- it keeps getting added and then removed from the list for some reason!

  29. Reply

    Jordan

    January 9, 2014

    Great list Dave, heading off to SEA with a mate for our first backpacking trip in a few days, and was feeling pretty nervous, but this post reassured me on the great times i am going to have.

    THANKS !!

    • Reply

      Dave

      January 9, 2014

      Awesome, so glad I could help. Have a blast! :)

  30. Reply

    Jan

    February 23, 2014

    I am about to become a first-time backpacker in Asia and plan to stay at various locations for a couple of days to take plenty of photographs. I plan to take my photogear along each day every day but was wondering about my clothing and such. I assume you leave that in the hostel/hotel and would appreciate comments regarding safety measureI should take.

    • Reply

      Dave

      February 26, 2014

      I leave everything that I don't need for the day in my backpack, in whatever hostel/guesthouse/hotel I'm staying at. If there are lockers, I'll use them, otherwise I have a small combination lock to secure the zips on my backpack and deter casual thieves. So far, so good!

  31. Reply

    Sunil

    March 30, 2014

    Really interesting and useful tips. I look forward to backpack through South East Asia in 2015 once I am done with university. Thank you for sharing :)

  32. Reply

    Jan

    March 31, 2014

    Thanks for advise Dave, I plan to visit Myanmar, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos. Initially I thought to all 4 countries in one trip but lately I am considering to cut the trip in half, partly because this is my first backpack trip ever (and I am 66) and partly because I take one month per country and think that 4 months is a little long for a "first".
    Myanmar and Cambodia are highest on the list, any suggestions as to timing? I don't mind the end on the rain season when nature is at its greenest.

    • Reply

      Dave

      March 31, 2014

      There's a lot to be said for travelling in SE Asia at the end of the rainy season -- tourist numbers are down, everything is green and prices are lower. It's hard to predict what the weather will do -- sometimes you'll barely get a shower, other times it can rain heavily enough to flood -- so you need to have some flexibility with your plans.

      It's one of my favourite times to be in that part of the world. So, if you're giving yourself a couple of months, somewhere in Sep/Oct could be good.


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