The Ultimate Guide to Backpacking Southeast Asia

Summer is coming up quickly, and the stress of finding a job and making plans is hanging like a cloud over most soon-to-be-graduates’ heads. However, instead of rushing the process and jumping into a career that isn’t perfect or worthy of your talents, sometimes it’s better to take some time off and explore a little. There’s nothing wrong with taking some time to travel before settling into a full-time job, and directly after graduation is one of the best times to do it too! Stop worrying about the money — the journey is worth it. Plus, lucky for you, Southeast Asia is one of the cheapest and easiest ways to travel around to many different countries, and I promise you won’t need much during your trip. There will be setbacks on your journey — you’ll miscommunicate with people, a taxi driver will rip you off, you’ll get lost — don’t let these minor speedbumps slow you down! They are all part of the process, and truly they happen to everyone. 

 

What to Bring

 

1. A large, durable backpack

Don’t bring a suitcase. You will be burdened by it through your entire adventure in Southeast Asia. As a young traveler, it’s best to be on-the-go and as adaptable as possible. Especially if you plan to travel solo, you want one item that you can carry with you at all times and have less to worry about. These backpacks can get expensive, but I recommend buying one from REI during their garage sales, where you can buy their products for much cheaper. 

 

2. A good book + cheap headphones

I am an avid reader, but I still only recommend bringing one book. You’ll find other travelers during your journey that you can trade with, and it’ll lighten your load exponentially. But you will want something to keep you busy during inevitable long waits.

 

3. Lightweight clothes

Read lightweight not skimpy. Southeast Asia is much more modest than we are used to in America. Bring along roomy cotton t-shirts, elephant pants, maxi skirts, mom jeans or just wait and buy most of it for cheap at the markets once you get there! I will mention, if you’re a curvier person — like me — it will be more difficult to find correctly fitting clothing at markets. You won’t want your booty-hugging jeans shorts or crop tops; you’ll draw lots of unnecessary attention in those. 

 

4. Chacos + running shoes

I wore Chacos the entire time I was traveling Southeast Asia because they were the most versatile shoes ever. I hiked the Himalayas, climbed through waterfalls, and explored beautiful cities in those shoes. After breaking them in — which I’ll admit was a painful process — they were the comfiest shoes I could’ve had along. I’d also recommend one, old and comfortable pair of tennis shoes too that you can throw on for a change of pace. 

 

5. A Pack of Outlet Adapters

While traveling throughout Asia, you will come across a wide variety of different outlets and plugs. Having a pack of adapters on hand will be so helpful, and you can order them cheaply on Amazon.

 

Where to Go

 

1. Thailand

Thailand is a great place because there are so many other travelers everywhere that you’ll adjust quickly. Not to mention you’ll fall in love with the cuisine: Thai tea, chicken skewers, pad thai, papaya salad, and so much more amazing street food and fruits. 

 

Bangkok

Fly straight into Bangkok and spend the weekend in the city. Bangkok is wildly tiring and chaotic but also so fun. The best way to wear off your jetlag will be to explore the city as much as possible during the humid days. Bangkok is a hot mess, a beautiful mix of virtue and sin, and it won’t ever be boring. While in Bangkok, make sure to visit Wat Pho, Chatuchak Weekend Market (go on a Saturday afternoon), party on Khao San Road with other world travelers and ride the BTS (sky train) to the Siam shopping centers to wonder at Bangkok’s out-of-this-world consumerism hub. 

 

Kanchanaburi

The province of Kanchanaburi is home to my favorite location in Thailand, Erawan National Park. Erawan is a beautiful park, consisting of a long hiking trail that takes you through a series of waterfalls. The waterfalls are crystal clear, wonderfully refreshing, and you can swim and climb and explore in them all day long. I am convinced this was the inspiration for Peter Pan’s mermaid lagoon. You can get a bus from Bangkok to Kanchanaburi that takes about four hours. From Kanchanaburi, you can get another cheap bus to Erawan National Park. Once at the park, I recommend renting camping gear (tents, sleeping bags, pillows, and all in good condition!) so you can spend the night in the park! The air gets cool at night, which feels so good, and then when you wake up in the morning you have the park to yourself for a few hours before the tourists start flooding in — it’s without a doubt worth the trip. 

 

Chiang Mai

From Bangkok, head North for a change of scenery and temperature. Chiang Mai will feel like a breath of fresh air (but not really, cause Thailand is smog-city) compared to Bangkok. Chiang Mai is the perfect place to get your adventure fix. I personally recommend paying the money (usually $50-$100) to spend a day with the elephants in Chiang Mai. However, please be careful and do your research before paying any company that offers day-trips to hang with the elephants. It’s near impossible to truly know what happens to these glorious animals once tourists leave for the day, but it’s important to try your best to go to a sanctuary with a reputation for taking good care of their gentle giants. Don’t ever ride the elephants or go to a place that advertises “elephant shows,” as those are red flags for mistreatment. I also recommend an early-morning hike up to Doi Suthep. You’ll have to hire a taxi driver the night before to pick you up in time to drive you up the mountain, but watching the sunrise and getting to hear the monks doing their daily routine in the early morning is worth losing some sleep over. 

 

Pai

Just a few hours north of Chiang Mai, Pai is another awesome city to explore. Pai is a total backpacker town, and you’ll meet plenty of other travelers while staying here. I warn you though, the trip from Chiang Mai to Pai brags about 762 turns up a windy, mountainous road — if you get easily car sick, this might not be the best trip for you to take. Once in Pai, I recommend renting a scooter so you can explore to your heart's content. Just be smart, wear your helmet and don’t be reckless. There’s plenty of hiking trails and waterfalls to explore in the area, accessible with a scooter. Grab a pack of beers and head to Pai Canyon for the sunset. 

 

Koh Samui

Now it’s time to relax, and there’s no better place to do that than in Southern Thailand’s beaches. Koh Samui is a good island mix, not too touristy yet but still plenty of accommodations for western travelers. During your stay on the island, I’d recommend visiting the Vikasa Yoga Retreat. Drop-in classes are two hours long for only about $10, and you get to do yoga on a large mountain overlooking the ocean — it’s breathtakingly beautiful. 

 

2. Cambodia

Cambodia is still recovering from the mass genocide it experienced during the Khmer Regime in the 1970s. The Khmer Rouge was a communist party that took power of Cambodia for four years during 1975-1979. The leader, Pol Pot, had a vision of bringing Cambodia back to its rural roots. In doing so, the Khmer Rouge killed 1-3 million people — that’s almost 1 in every 4 Cambodian adults, and many children as well. This was less than 50 years ago, and today there still isn’t a single person in Cambodia who wouldn’t know someone important in their life that was affected by the genocide. 

 

Siem Reap:

Siem Reap is host to hundreds of temples waiting to be explored and appreciated. If you’re a huge history buff and Indiana Jones is one of your favorite movies, you might want to stay in Siem Reap for a few days. If not, stop through to take a day trip of the temples. You’ll still surely enjoy all the amazing structures that cover the city. Explore Angkor Wat, wander the night markets… whatever you do in Siem Reap, do not stay at the Funky Flashpacker Party Hostel. I got bed bugs and had a drunk, naked Irish man pee all over the floor near my bed. 

 

Phnom Penh:

You can get from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh with a bus ticket. Our particular bus was super janky, no A/C and my seat was broken — I’d recommend paying a bit extra (probably less than $5 more) for a nicer bus ride. The capital city of Cambodia was one of my favorite places I visited. There’s so much history and heartache that covers the city, but it is coupled with optimism, kindness and hope. Take the time to feel sad and learn about the history of the country. It’s not easy, but the audio-guided tours of both the Killing Fields and the S21 Genocide Museum are necessary. It’s important to learn what happened here, and the role the U.S. played in allowing the genocide to happen. Spend some time exploring the city as well! If you’re feeling really brave, try the fried tarantula. 

 

3. Vietnam

Vietnam is a backpackers dream — easy transportation, incredible foods, and cheap! There are a few ways to get from north to south through Vietnam. One option is to take a series of sleeper trains. You pick the train up at night, sleep as you travel along the countryside and then by morning you’re in a new city! This is a great way to maximize your time in the country. However, if you have a bit more time and an adventurous soul, you can also rent a motorbike and drive it along the highway from north to south, which gives you infinite possibilities of stops and sightseeing along the way. 

 

Hanoi:

Hanoi, while not my personal favorite place in Vietnam, is a cool city with plenty of sightseeing to be done. You can see the impact of French colonization in Hanoi, especially in the area of the city called the French Quarter. Grab a Vietnamese/French baguette as you explore.  

 

Ha Long Bay:

I have mixed feelings about Ha Long Bay. It was so beautiful, but the impacts of heavy tourism on the natural beauty is evident. I saw lots of trash floating in the water, there were boats (just like the one I was on) all over the place, and construction projects were happening to help accommodate for the mass numbers of people visiting every single day. If that’s something that’s going to bother you — as it did me — I recommend taking the L and not seeing this gorgeous place. On the other hand, if the Vietnamese government decides to start regulating tourism here soon, you might not have an opportunity to see it in the future. If you have the money to stay on one of the mini-cruise boats overnight, then I recommend the experience as sleeping on the bay and waking up to it again in the morning was incredible.

 

Hoi An:

I love Hoi An. It’s totally a tourist city, but it’s fun, vibrant and bright. Old Town in Hoi An is a maze of brightly colored streets, yellow walls and artisan shops. One of the fun things you can do in Hoi An is visit a tailor. I decided to have a custom skirt made with pockets and a sunflower print, and it’s absolutely perfect. All you have to do it show them a picture of the style of clothing you want, then pick your materials! If you have the room in your backpack, this is a great place to get custom clothing made for an unbelievable price. The tailors work quickly and professionally and provide you with a high-quality, hand-crafted good within 24 hours. Rent a bike and spend an afternoon cruising around the Hoi An countryside. I had so much fun exploring in the sunshine. Before you leave, you must go have a Bahn Mi from Bahn Mi Queen. I dream about that sandwich to this day, I kid you not. 

 

Ho Chi Minh City:

I love Ho Chi Minh City (sometimes still referred to as Saigon by native Vietnamese). While there’s no denying HCMC is headachingly wild and chaotic, it’s also full of energy and has lots to explore. As an American, you are obligated to spend a morning in the War Remnants Museum learning about the Vietnam War from their perspective. Spend more time than you’re comfortable in the room about Agent Orange, it’s important to know and accept these things about the harm our government has caused other people. Then go explore the Cafe Apartment, nine floors of cafes and shops in converted apartment buildings that used to house military officials. Don’t leave without getting some good Vietnamese pho, you can try Pho 2000, where President Clinton stopped and ate while reconciling for the war.

 

4. Indonesia

Be careful traveling Indonesia. Pick the wrong island, and you could land in a dangerous spot. I’d recommend visiting Bali, the most popular and largely safe Indonesian island. It’s beautiful and relaxing, and you’ll never want to leave.

 

Bali:

There’s almost no end to the amount of time you could spend relaxing in Bali, and truly once getting here you might not want to continue the rest of your trip, because you’ll want to spend months here. Bali is beautiful, cheap and full of travelers. You can find incredible hostels and resorts for great prices. And while you could spend the entire time simply relaxing, reading and tanning, I will recommend one other activity: go on the Mount Batur sunrise volcano hike. You start the hike at a god awful early hour in the dark, and it’s pretty hard actually. Your muscles will be tired by the time you get to the top — mark my words. But then from the peak, you can watch the sunrise over what seems like the entire world. If you stick around Bali long enough, you can also learn to scuba dive or surf for fairly cheap.

 

5. Malaysia

Truthfully, Malaysia didn’t stick out to me much while I was there, but now, over a year later, I think about Malaysia more than any of my other trips, and I really want to go back. Malaysia had arguably some of the best foods in all of Southeast Asia, and it’s got so much diversity just waiting to be explored. 

 

Kuala Lumpur:

KL is kind of a confusing city. There’s the Old City side to it and then the New City side, and their pretty stark opposites. Hearing the prayers being sung from the mosques will remind you what a different place you’re in, and it’s a beautiful experience. Take the train out of the city for a morning to visit the Batu Caves. Then spend the afternoon and evening visiting the Petronas Towers and have a drink at the Helibar, a bar on a helicopter landing on the top of a building. If you’re feeling fun, go find PS150, a speakeasy tucked behind an old town shop in Chinatown. 

Tanah Rata:

You can bus from KL to Tanah Rata, and it takes only about five hours but does involve some twisty, turny roads. In Tanah Rata, you can take your time exploring tea plantations and hiking through jungle mountains. It’s a good place to feel a little more removed from the major tourist hubs of bigger cities. If you stay the night in Tanah Rata, you must go to Singh Chapati, a family-owned Indian restaurant. Go hungry, because this is the best food I think I’ve ever had.

 

 

Tips and Tricks

 

1. Grab

Grab is equivalent to Uber for Southeast Asia (Grab actually bought out Uber in this region of the world). It’s a Singapore-based app, and it’s incredibly handy for overcoming language barriers that sometimes make travel stressful in taxis. However, do some research before traveling anywhere. In Bali, for example, Grab is extremely frowned upon and taxi drivers threaten Grab drivers if they can get their hands on them. 

 

2. Gecko Adventures 

If you want to travel but you don’t feel comfortable doing it alone, look into Gecko Adventures. Most travel companies are marketed towards older generations and are very elaborate or expensive. Gecko Adventures is only for 18-29 year-olds, and the cost is kept as cheap as it can be for a guided travel experience. It’s a great way to meet people from all over the world (okay, mainly Australia) that are your age. Plus Gecko Adventures tries it’s very best to create sustainable relationships and give back to the community your visiting.

 

3. SIM Card

Getting a SIM card at the airport when you visit a new country might seem like a total hassle and waste of money, but it was also super helpful at times. In about half these countries I got a SIM card, and in the other half I didn’t, but for how cheap a 2-week SIM card is, I think it’s worth it. It’s helpful to be able to search on Google at any point: when you don’t understand something, when you think of a cultural question, when you are lost, etc. However, it’s also very possible to travel without a SIM card, and you can download maps ahead of time and get by just fine on wifi most places. If you want the challenge, skip the SIM card and get lost a little. If you plan to get one, check before you leave to make sure your SIM card in your phone is “unlocked.” If you’re unsure what this means, just give your carrier a call. 

 

4. Nomadic Matt

This is one of my favorite travel bloggers, and if you want more information about any of the places mentioned above, or if you’re curious about someplace completely new, check out his website for information, tips and tricks before planning your trip. 

 

You will never regret taking the time to adventure and surround yourself with new scenery, foods, smells, and experiences — so do it now, while you’re still young, strong and adventurous!