25 Tips for Backpacking Around South East Asia

Updated: 9 April 2017.

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 year after year. Here’s a few things 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 don’t 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’ll 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’s 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. That’s a good rule anywhere, but especially in SE Asia. Wheeled suitcases are a terrible idea when roads and footpaths are clogged and potholed, and carrying around a 20kg backpack for hours in the heat and humidity will leave you screaming for less.
  • Booking ahead is highly overrated. 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 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 a filter or bottled water for everything from drinking to brushing your teeth if you’re in 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 the essence of a balanced diet.
  • For when all the above goes horribly wrong, pack Imodium.

Mekong river ferry at sunset

Transport

  • There will always, always be someone around who will happily take you from one place to another 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 an entire family, half a dozen chickens and a tractor tyre can fit 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 Asian 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’re also a great way of getting three hours of broken sleep, freezing to death due to an over-excited air conditioner, 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 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 try not to crash if you don’t want a permanent nasty reminder of your time in South East Asia. Remember, travel insurance won’t cover you if you’re breaking the law, and that includes being drunk on a bike or not having a valid license.
  • 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 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 among a sea of local faces, though, so for shorter trips or if you’re not in a hurry, give the other options a try.

People on scooters, Mekong

People

  • There are 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 on 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 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’re being offensive but that doesn’t make it acceptable.
  • 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 body weight in buckets with your fellow backpackers on Ko Phangan, I guarantee some of your most abiding memories will be the interactions you had with local fishermen, guesthouse owners, taxi drivers and random strangers along the way. I know that mine are.

Got any tips of your own? Leave ’em below!

100 Responses to “25 Tips for Backpacking Around South East Asia

  • 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~

  • 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.

    • Nothing quite like a good list post, I always say. Oh wait, I’ve never said that. Oh well… 😉

  • 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

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

  • 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!!!

  • 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

  • oh and stumbled…lol!

  • liked, tweeted, bookmarked and shared

  • 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! 🙂

    • 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!!

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

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

    • 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!

  • zeenath peer
    6 years ago

    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.

  • 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!!

  • A real interesting read thank you.

  • 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!!

  • 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! 🙂

    • 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. 🙂

  • 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.

  • 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!

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

  • John Old
    5 years ago

    Agree with Craig xjohn

  • Pretty hilarious but very informative. Cheers to your tips! 😉

  • Jessica Bate
    4 years ago

    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

    • 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. 🙂

  • Kyle Clements
    4 years ago

    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 😉

  • 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.

  • JackieM
    4 years ago

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

  • Theresa
    4 years ago

    I want to live your life!!

  • 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 🙂

  • MARIE SMITH
    4 years ago

    Hi Dave 😀 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

    • 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!

  • 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 !!

  • 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.

    • 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!

  • 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 🙂

  • 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.

    • 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.

      • shan gill
        2 years ago

        we are planning to travel thiland totly new guide us if you can where to start back packing ,do they have any lockers to store your exta lugage

        • Hi Shan,

          Yes, most hostels have lockers to store your bags when you’re not using them, and a storage room to keep your luggage before/after you check in and out.

  • Dave,

    Thank you very much for replying to my email so quickly and congrats on this amazing website. Anyone who is addicted to travel and backpacks would appreciate every word you put on this post.

    Thanks and good luck.

    Andre

  • Kiron A.
    3 years ago

    A big ‘Thank You’ for the fun read; it’s taken the edge off my nerves…for now.

    I’m one of those jittery travelers that has to go through at least one panic attack a month, a whole 4 months before leaving the safety of my home and routine. I’m going to Thailand for about 2 weeks, with a friend, in November. This is the first time I’ll be undertaking an international trip without my family in tow, so I’m have a spaz attack every now and then just to remind me of that fact. Fortunately (for me, at least), I’m not a very fussy traveler, although my tum might raise a few objections. So, we’re spending most of our trip in hostels, saving our funds for about a million rounds of haggling. Any special advice about shopping at the weekend/night markets? I always carry a small calculator with me, so there can never be any miscommunication about prices.

    Also, I’m not entirely sure Indians do backpacks (at least I’ve never attempted it & my friends are of the pack-your-home variety) but I know they’re probably a more sensible option than strollers. The problem is that I wouldn’t know what to do with 2 weeks worth of clothes & extras with only that much space; I’m not Hermione Granger and cannot (to the best of my knowledge) use a bottomless charm on my pack. Please save me from myself!

    • Hi Kiron,

      No harm in being a jittery traveller — we all were, once upon a time. 🙂 No huge pieces of advice for haggling at the markets — just do it with a smile on your face, and don’t be afraid to walk away if you aren’t getting the price you’re happy with. There’s all kinds of advice about where to start — depending on the item, I usually start at a little over half of the asking price, and usually end up paying around 3/4, but I’m not the greatest bargainer in the world. Also, don’t feel the need to bargain down to the last 20c on everything — it’s better that everyone leaves happy with the transaction.

      A backpack is definitely a better option than a suitcase in SE Asia — whether it’s rough pavements, sandy beaches or just trying to manouver around everything, it’s all easier with a backpack. You only need a week’s worth of clothes — it’s super easy to get laundry done almost anywhere in Thailand, for a few dollars. I’ve been on the road for nearly three years now, and I only have 8 days worth of clothing — wear them for a week, then have something to wear while the laundry is being done. 😉

      Hope that helps!

      • Hey Dave!

        Thanks for taking the time out to respond to my silly questions.

        I don’t actually think anyone can out-haggle an Indian, although I’d like to think that the final price we settle on is fair for both parties involved (guess I’ll never know unless I get sent a doll of myself with needles sticking out of it). I was just wondering whether there was anything specific I should be mindful of or anything different about “negotiating” in Thailand. Anyway, thanks for the tip.

        Also, I think I might end up burning the clothes I take, at the end of the trip, if I’m carrying only a week’s worth of them. I’m not a girlie-girl but more like a young boy i.e. give me 5 minutes and whatever I’m wearing might as well be used as a rag cloth later on. But I’ll try to limit myself. And about checking your rucksack in at the airport…isn’t that kind of dangerous, considering that these things really don’t have any sort of locking mechanism? I’m currently hunting for one with zips that I can put a lock on but that still won’t be any safer from sharp objects, will it?

        Forgive me for my 20 questions. Like I said before, paranoid *points to her herself* By the way, have you ever thought about writing a guidebook (read: ‘Idiot’ series) for each of the countries you’ve visited (me and my kind being said idiots, of course)? Just a thought (I’m an editor; sometimes, I just can’t help myself :P)

        Cheers,
        K.

        • Heh, yeah I did kind of think that being from India you might have a pretty good idea on how to haggle. 😉 I don’t think there’s anything particularly unusual about doing it here in Thailand vs other places.

          You’ll be fine with the clothes, trust me — you shouldn’t need to burn them at the end of the trip! Well, unless you really want to, of course…

          So far, I’ve never had anything stolen from my backpack, or had it sliced open. I do have lockable zips, which helps deter the opportunistic thief, but I don’t really keep anything of great value in my checked bag anyway. All of my electronics, money, cards and passport are in my day pack or on my person. If you’re really worried, most airports have shrinkwrap machines that cover your bag in several lays of clingfilm, but it’s not something I’ve ever bothered with myself.

          That’s not a bad idea about writing idiot’s guides… I’ll add it to my ever-increasing list of things I need to write!

  • Thanks again for turning into my (temporary, I swear!) Agony Aunt.

    For citizens of my country, Thailand only offers a Visa-on-arrival. But the problem is that they ask that you keep about 10,000 THB on your person and that’s a lot, converted. Wouldn’t traveller’s cheques (in USD) be a better idea than loose cash? I looked it up on the embassy website but they don’t mention any variable forms.

    What else is on that list, if you don’t mind my asking?

    • With all of the tightening of visa restrictions in Thailand in the last few days and weeks, I’d suggest it’s best to do what they ask. If it’s 10k baht in cash that is required, that’s what you should have.

      Loads of things on the list, but nothing of interest that I’m in a position to announce publicly yet. 🙂

      • Kiron A.
        3 years ago

        Alrighty, will do. Thanks a bunch. Hopefully, I won’t be bothering you again with my million-and-one questions.

  • Just sold out everything and going to travel around world, starting with SE Asia – Australia, New Zealand, then north Asia and Then North, South America and Antarctica,.. planning to be away for next 1,5 year. Tnx for tips

  • Hi,

    Loved reading your tips, we are going at the end of next month for 6 weeks and we are in that panic do we book all of the journey, do we not book stage at the moment but reading this blog has made me realise that going with a blank itinery is the best option!

    Thanks!

    • Absolutely the right choice! Probably the only times you might want to consider booking something in advance is your first night, and if you’re still travelling over Christmas/New Year, perhaps consider it if you’re going to be somewhere that’s popular with other travellers. Other than that, just make it up as you go! 🙂

  • Hi, I’m heading to SE Asia for 6 months in January. Can you please recommend a backpack size as I’m buying a new one. Thanks.

    • Speaking for myself, I’ve been using a 50 liter backpack for the last three years, with a daypack for electronics and so on. That should be enough, especially if you’re only going to be in warmer parts of the world. The bigger the pack, the more stuff you end up carrying, the more annoying it becomes. 🙂

      Plenty of people travel carry-on only (40 liters or less) — that’s a bit too minimalist for me, but it’s definitely possible.

  • Great thanks for that! I’ll get a 50L. I like to travel light but us girls do have a few more things to pack so 40L may not quite be big enough. Cheers.

  • Hiya Dave, very informative read. Addressed a lot of my unanswered question, so thanks for that !!
    I’m leaving not-so-sunny London in just over 2 weeks for my first solo trip. I’ll be spending 10 weeks in Central America, then crossing the Pacific to travel SEA for 4-5 months, or until my money runs out…
    I’ll be starting in Indonesia and working my way up through Singapore, Malaysia, up through Thailand, into Loas, down through Vietnam, and after a few weeks in Cambodia I’ll finally settle in Bangkok for a fortnight before heading home. I’ve done my research but only I’ve only really received indefinite knowledge regarding over land travel. Is is easy enough to do the whole shebang withought flying ??

    Thanks again for the read !!

    • Hey Dan,

      Probably the only part that isn’t all that feasible to do without flying is the Indonesia to Singapore leg. Apparently you can still take a boat, but it takes a couple of days, isn’t particularly safe and doesn’t cost any less than flying. More on that here. Other more minor concerns may be the Malaysia/Thailand border region (there’s often some unrest there) and depending on where you cross, the Laos to Vietnam trip (I’ve heard several people refer to the Vientiane / Hanoi bus ride as the worst they’ve taken in SE Asia, especially in rainy season). All part of the adventure though, right? 😉

  • Awesome blog man, still reading a lot of it as I look to do some traveling.

    So I came across your blog from googling backpacking Asia. And it was incredibly informative. One question I have and can’t help but ask is how one even begins to budget for a trip. Like say if I wanted to go for a month and am a person that doesn’t have expensive tastes per se, then how well could I get buy?

    Safe travels

    • Get by***

    • My general advice for the cheaper parts of SE Asia (so that’s Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and most of Thailand) is to assume around $30/day. That’ll see you staying in basic guesthouses, eating a good amount of street food or in cheap restaurants, taking buses or trains most places. If you plan to drink more than a beer or two a night, eat lots of Western food or fly around the region, push the costs up accordingly.

  • This has been such a useful read! Thank you, very informative 🙂

    I’ve got a few questions, would be great if you had any advice! Firstly, was just wondering what size backpack to look for, I was thinking a 60l but this may be too big? Am only going for 5 weeks! Was going to attempt a 40l but don’t know if I would be able to scrimp that much! Any reccomendations?

    Also, was just thinking about the logistics when out and about during the day and eve.. Will have a kindle, my mp3 and my iphone on me – would it be best to keep these and other valuables such as passport and tickets ect, on my person the whole time in my day bag and just leave luggage in the hostel? What’s generally the done thing?! Know it sounds silly but just thinking for my own peace of mind!

    Apologies for the essay!

    • I’d suggest that somewhere around 50 liters is the sweet spot. You could go a little lower if you’re prepared to be more minimalist, or a little higher if you want to — but remember that the bigger and heavier your bag, the less you’re going to enjoy carrying it anywhere in the heat. And you will definitely be carrying it in the heat at some point. 🙂

      I personally keep my phone and wallet on me at all times. If I’m carrying a daypack, I’ll probably have the Kindle in it, but otherwise everything else is locked in my backpack when I’m out and about. This works best if your backpack has proper lockable zips — they still aren’t a foolproof security measure, but seem to have acted as enough of a deterrent to prevent me from having anything stolen in the last 15 years. If you’re worried about theft from fellow travellers, also remember that private guesthouse rooms in SE Asia run $10-$20, sometimes less.

  • Hello,

    I am busy looking for insurance policies at the moment- are there any to be highly recommended? I have been looking at outbackers which seems really reliable but there is a big difference in prices ranging between £200 and £400 fr 12 months.

    Thanks again!!

    • It depends on a few things, not least of all where you’re from, where you’re going and how long you’re going for, as well as what kind of coverage you need. I can only really speak for myself — I’ve been using World Nomads (note: affiliate link) for several years now, mainly because you can renew your policy while you’re still on the road, and they only pause it (not cancel it) if you return home for a while during your trip. Lots of other insurers have a problem with one or both of those things. I’ve never had to claim, though, so can’t comment on that side of things.

  • Hi there,

    I am planning to travel for around 3 weeks in SE Asia, from Singapore. I am trying to travel only by bus or train. So ideally, from SG > KL > Penang > Bangkok > Chiang Mai > Laos > Hanoi > SG. I know this sounds a little too ambitious, but is just a very rough outline of what I have in mind.

    Im struggling between visiting more cities, or staying for a longer period in one country. I personally havent been to Chiangmai, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, so I’m thinking how I can minimise the number of flights.

    What do you think? 🙂

    • I’d agree that your itinerary is too ambitious if you’re planning to travel overland. You could spend three weeks in any one of the countries you mention, and there are some very long travel days/nights in there if you’re going by bus or train. You’ll be spending a LOT of time on some sort of long distance transport. If you want to enjoy the trip and not be exhausted after the first week, I’d be looking to cut some of your plans and stay longer in each city /country.

  • Hi Dave!

    Thanks for those useful tips! I have a query, wondering you might b able to help me. Very recently I came to know that for Indians backpacking in SEA, they need to come back to India to apply the visa for the next, that cuts off the whole mood. Please do tell that’s just random c#$p. Thanks! 🙂

    • That’s not something I’d heard before, and this page suggests it’s largely not true either. Still, if you want to be sure, check the embassy/consulate websites for each of the countries you want to visit, or just give them a call. I’d also imagine that even if you needed a visa, you could get them before leaving India unless you were going to be gone for several months.

  • Great review of backpacking SE asia. I did it for a little while a few years ago but want to go back and do it for a long period of time soon. Tuk Tuk’s are super fun! I love it when they rip around as fast as they can. Somehow, they never hit each other.

    Jack.

  • This is what exactly I have been doing in the past two years. Always go here, when looking for some inspiration.

  • Great travelblog Dave! Some great countries are changing rapidly! Great impressions there!

  • patricia mariani
    2 years ago

    Totally inspired. This is something my boyfriend & I are planning on doing and your struggles were so similar to mine. So happy I stumbled upon your page. <3

  • patricia mariani
    2 years ago

    I woud love some advice s we start to look in to SE Asia as our general area we will travel….4-6 months 🙂 —

  • Dave

    myself & my gf are thinking of heading to SEA for four weeks in July. I’ve never been so open to ideas on where to head. Would you recommend flying in & out of bangkok & then just getting internal flights from there? Any places you’d recommend as a must see? Weather wise is it going to be monsoon season for most parts of SEA?

    • Since internal flights are usually pretty cheap within SE Asia, any hub airport is fine to fly into. Check out Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, and Singapore, perhaps Hong Kong as well, for cheap flights from wherever you’re starting from, then see how much the outbound flight to your next likely destination is going to be.

      In terms of must-see destinations, it depends so much on what you’re into. Check out the suggested itineraries on Travelfish — they’re a great starting point. It will be rainy season in many parts of SE Asia at that time, but unless you were planning to lie on the beach all day, it’s unlikely to affect your trip too much. I actually prefer rainy season in many ways — temperatures are a little cooler, there are few fewer other tourists, and unless you’re unlucky, you’ll typically only get rain for a few hours in the afternoon/evening.

  • Dave, this blog post is friggin amazing! Can’t believe I just now found it. Thanks for all the great advice. I’ve been saving for the last two years and I’m about to embark on an across the globe backpack journey, living on 20 dollars a day. Check out my blog if you wanna join me on my adventure!

  • Gary Rainstrom
    1 year ago

    Dave I would really like to hear more about keeping my stuff safe in hostels and guesthouses. I have read many blogs and people generally do not go into too much detail about this aspect of backpacking through SEA. Thanks in advance for your time and patience.

    • Hi Gary,

      I don’t think things are particularly different in SE Asia in that regard. I’ve never had anything stolen from a room in this region (or anywhere else). That said, a few comments:
      – I don’t tend to stay in hostels there, just because guesthouses are so inexpensive. That greatly reduces the risk from other travellers (which, sadly, is at least as big a risk as that posed by staff or outside thieves).
      – I try to choose my accommodation with security at least vaguely in mind. I read the reviews, and avoid anywhere that people have had stuff stolen. I try to get a room on a higher level if possible, and make sure that doors and windows close and lock properly.
      – I don’t tend to use room safes or leave valuables at reception, just because I don’t necessarily think that’s a safer option in many cases. Most of the places I tend to stay don’t have safes in any case. Instead, I lock things like my laptop inside my backpack, via the lockable zips and a padlock. For smaller items like passports and phones, I’ll make a judgement call about whether it’s safer to carry them with me (in a zippered, front shorts or pants pocket), or lock them in the same bag. Either way, I don’t leave anything lying around that is tempting for a thief to take, especially if it’s small and valuable.
      – Finally, I try not to travel with anything I can’t afford to lose, and have travel insurance if the worst happens.

      There’s no foolproof approach, but this one has served me well for the last few years on the road.
      Hope that helps!

  • Hi Dave,
    My friend and I are currently planning a trip to SEA for a few months. These tips were good, but our main concern is finding the cheapest flight and where.
    Also I saw that you took 5 years off to travel, would love to do that and wanted to know how you supported yourself without dying. Haha. Seriously though..

    • I use a combination of Skyscanner and Google Flights to track down the cheapest/best flight options. They haven’t steered me wrong so far!

      I’ve supported myself through advertising and affiliate income on both my sites, plus some freelance writing. So far, so good (and it’s still supporting me in Lisbon!)

  • Meredith
    9 months ago

    Hi Dave!

    I had to share this article with my friend, it definitely put me at ease. We’re heading out for a 40 day trip through Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and Cambodia– first time travelers. I did have a question (more than one, but let’s start somewhere..ha) regarding currency. I have gotten a lot of feedback from travelers who have different options and it has been helpful, but a little confusing.
    Should I be using a credit card as much as possible? Some tell me to take all of my cash with me to change at the airport when I arrive. But, with the cash needed, does that really mean I need to be carrying $1,000 US dollars with me to SE Asia, that’s a little nerve-wracking to me? If so, say I don’t spend all the money in Malaysia, do I then take that money and turn it into the airport bank for currency at the Bali airport? It just doesn’t seem safe, but I’m not sure the best way to do it.

    Any help would be greatly appreciated!

    Thank you 🙂

    • If you’re travelling on a budget, don’t expect to be able to use credit or debit cards particularly often. Low to midrange accommodation places won’t take them, and neither will most transport providers, restaurants or stores unless you’re in very touristy places.

      I pay for almost everything in cash, withdrawn from ATMs in-country. Airport ATMs and money changers tend to give the worst exchange rates, so you may want to only get out/exchange a smaller amount when you first arrive, but afterwards I usually get out about $200 worth of local currency at once, to minimize ATM fees. That’s often the maximum anyway.

      That’s enough that I don’t need to go to the ATM all the time, but not so much that if the worst happened, it would ruin my trip if I lost it. I’ve got pretty good at estimating my likely costs, so I don’t tend to end up with large amounts left over, but I just convert whatever I have left either as I’m leaving a country, or when I arrive in the next one.

      I also keep an emergency supply of US dollars hidden away at the bottom of my backpack, enough to pay for food and accommodation for a few days while I sort out whatever my problem might be. So far, I’ve never had to use it for a genuine emergency, but it’s been good for occasional unexpected costs (or paying for things like visa fees that require USD, without having to find a money changer ahead of time).

      Hope that helps!

  • I’m taking a two month sabbatical from and going travelling , solo in SEA and I really want to go to okinawa and Tokyo for about 5 days each. I have about £4000 budget. I don’t know whether to prevent book the flights to and from Japan as I have found some really cheap ones, but I’m worried that when I am in SEA I might not want to go to Japan on the exact date of the flight. I know Japan will eat up a lot of my budget. Could you please give me any advice and tips for a first time solo traveller.

  • I’m taking a two month sabbatical from and going travelling , solo in SEA and I really want to go to okinawa and Tokyo for about 5 days each. I have about £4000 budget. I don’t know whether to pre-book the flights to and from Japan as I have found some really cheap ones, but I’m worried that when I am in SEA I might not want to go to Japan on the exact date of the flight. I know Japan will eat up a lot of my budget but I really want to visit there as I have been learning Japanese for a couple years now. Could you please give me any advice and tips for a first time solo traveller

    • I can’t really tell you what to do, since it’s so specific to your situation. If the flights are extremely cheap, though, I’d probably buy them. If you decide to take them, you’ve got a bargain. If you don’t, it’s because you really want to stay in SEA, and you won’t have lost a lot of money to do it.

      • Thank you Dave, I think I will buy them as it’s gonna cost me about £200 to get to Okinawa from Bangkok, Tokyo from Okinawa and Horishima from Tokyo, i don’t where I fly to from Hiroshima yet I’ll figure that out when I’m there.

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