Tips for an epic Southeast Asia backpacking adventure

It’s time to stop staring at those instagram photos wishing you were swimming in Thai’s crystal clear waters or running through luscious rice fields in Vietnam. Here are a great tips for an epic Southeast Asia backpacking adventure.


Southeast Asia backpacking

Southeast Asia is such a magical place for first time backpackers and those who want to see a lot for a low cost. Many travel bloggers and backpackers in general have stated their favorite trip was somewhere in this region.

At first, some of these destinations can seem a bit overrated as they’re constantly talked about by many people but the beauty of the land and the culture speaks for itself.

Planning a trip here can start at 2 months and lead up to two years; many people end up falling in love with the region and begin their remote jobs as digital nomads and end up never leaving. 

Why go backpacking in Southeast Asia?

As said before, Southeast Asia is possibly one of the best destinations travelers can visit to dip their feet into first time backpacking or solo travel.

Other than an extremely expensive flight ticket (from the USA), SE Asia is one of the cheapest regions on earth. Many broke backpackers go here and are able to live a life of luxury due to the currency exchange rate. Would you believe me when I say that several SE Asian countries are the cheapest travel destinations in the entire world with Vietnam possibly being the first? Yeah, you better believe it.

Another reason to backpack here is the opportunity to meet other travelers. People from all 4 corners of the earth flock here making it accessible to make new travel friends.

The final reason to travel here is simply for its beauty. Personally, some of the best views in the world are reserved in Southeast Asia. It's truly a destination everyone should be able to see at least one time in their lives.

Whether you choose to explore the rural villages in Vietnam, island hop in Indonesia, or try street food in Cambodia, a backpacking trip here is sure to make memories of a lifetime.

Three backpackers posing for a photo in front of a temple in Thailand

Gap year backpacking in Southeast Asia

For those not well versed or aware, a gap year is when a student takes time off from higher education or an adult takes a break from everyday life and job stressors. I myself skipped college to travel the world and it was one of the best decisions I’ve made to date.

Southeast Asia is such a great place to explore what the beautiful Earth has to offer and learn important life skills outside of the typical classroom.

If planning a gap year stresses you out, there are plenty of programs that take students abroad to explore the different islands and mainlands, but they're going to cost a lot.

If you’re willing to take on a little bit of planning and want to save a bit of money, consider doing a gap year with the volunteering programs of Worldpackers in Asia.

The platform has hundreds of different opportunities all over this region ranging from teaching English, rural farming, and reception desk assistance. Read on to the end of the article to learn more about volunteering and gap years ideas with Worldpackers.

Where to go in Southeast Asia? Best 7 countries for backpackers

Although I’ve graciously gone into detail on seven uniquely stunning Southeast Asian countries, there are still a few that I missed. Other than the ones listed below, there are still other great SE Asian countries and Asian countries in general to discover.

Visit the islands of Indonesia

Bali is quite arguably the most visited, known, and sought out destination when people think of Southeast Asia and it is for a reason. With its seemingly endless rice fields, white sand beaches, and waterfalls that look like they belong in the Avatar movie, Indonesia has stolen the heart of travelers from all across the globe.

Although Bali is an extremely beautiful area with kind hearted people, Indonesia has so much more to offer.

The country is the largest in all of the Southeast Asian region making it an absolute playground for backpackers to explore.

Indonesia is honestly perfect for any type of traveler. Whether you are a luxury traveler or a budget backpacker with a few funds, the islands are able to accommodate all types of budgets.

For example, some hostels can be found for as low as $4 USD! Exploring this area won’t break the wallet the same way other regions of the world may, it's no reason so many people fall in love with this place.

Don’t forget to hit up street vendors and visit the fruit markets while in Indonesia! There is such an abundance of tropical (and delicious) fruits here, as a vegan traveler it’s my absolute dream.

Oh, and don’t forget to hit up Sukawati Art Market in Bali for some cultural souvenirs.

Check out the Top 10 things to do in Indonesia.

Girl looking at a temple gate in Bali, Indonesia

Thailand: the most popular destination in Southeast Asia

One of the most beloved travel destinations in the world with delectable aromatic food, great massages, and ancient culture, is Thailand.

Although Thailand (mainland) itself is not an island, there are a few small islands that lie off the coast. Ko Samui, Koh Phi Phi, and Ko Chang are all great places to soak in the equatorial sun and bask in the beauty of the seaside.

When in Thailand you simply have to try the local food. Besides the food of my culture (Jamaica), Thai food has to be some of my favorite cultural eats. The Thai restaurant near my house is enough to convince me to get a one way ticket straight to Bangkok. Being able to have access to unlimited Thai food seems like an absolute dream to me.

A few dishes to indulge when in Thailand are Pad Thai, Massaman curry, coconut sticky rice, jok (rice porridge), and Pad see ew. If you’re a fresh food type of person you can also try Som tam which is a flavorful papaya salad often served with dried shrimp and chilies.

Be sure to research all information and be respectful of the visa laws while visiting Thailand and anywhere else in SE Asia.

When you finally find yourself in Thailand, be sure to check out Chiang Mai, Bangkok (capital), Ko Samui, Koh Pha Ngan (famous for the Full Moon Party), and Phuket.

Two couples visiting a buddhist temple in Thailand, Southeast Asia

Backpacking through Vietnam

The land of mouthwatering pho, beautiful waterfalls, affordable accommodation and another great Southeast Asia backpacking destination, is Vietnam.

Honestly, I’m ready to pack my bags and head over here tomorrow, a backpacking trip here will be anything short of an adventure.

We all know SE Asia is an extremely affordable travel destination. Vietnam could possibly set a record for being the cheapest out of them all. By looking at, (the ebay way to find affordable hostels in the area), the most expensive bunk is about $21 USD which is unthinkable in a lot of other countries.

Most of Vietnam is coastal so the weather is going to be very hot and tropical which makes for the opportunity to see some great beaches.

In Vietnam, be sure to visit Hanoi, Ha Long Bay, Ho Chi Minh City, and Hoi An for historical tours, nature, and city life.

If you're interested in volunteering with Worldpackers in Vietnam, read this traveler's experience.

Aerial view of green natural lanscape of Vietnam, Southeast Asia

Travel to The Philippines

An archipelago (string of islands) consisting of over 7,000 islands, The Philippines is a relaxed and gorgeous location close to Oceania. There are thousands of islands (many uninhabited) but the country is split up into three large groups called Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao.

Some of the names of certain areas may sound Spanish because The Philippines was colonized by Spain, and then by the US, finally claiming their independence in 1946 on July 4th, which is ironically also the day that the USA also celebrates their independence.

If you’re a lover of seafood then you’re in luck, the people here love fresh fish from the sea and season it extremely well. Try Okoy which is kind of like a crab cake, but with shrimp! If you’re more of a land meat type of person, definitely dive into the famous Filipino adobo chicken which is marinated in an array of different spices. And for my fellow vegans and vegetarians who are craving something sweet, ask a local street vendor for suman, a sweet coconut milk rice cake and the perfect sweet treat for any time of the day.

Puerto Princesa (meaning "Princess Port" in English) is a must visit in Palawan island! It is a city that has nightlife, blue water underground rivers, and of course inviting traditional Filipino food. Enjoy snorkelling in one of the many coral reefs or go kayaking, you won’t be bored in this city.

Named after a classic sweet treat due to their rich color of the soil, Chocolate hills in Bohol will make you feel like you’ve traveled back in time. Take a short walk, rent a motorbike, do anything you can take in the full beauty of this place before heading back to your hotel.

Backpacker in a turquoise waterfall in The Philippines

Backpacking in Cambodia

Cambodia is home to an endless amount of temples so it is only right to see at least some of them: Angkor is by far the most popular temple complex in all Southeast Asia, with Angkor Wat being the jewel of the crown. If you plan on visiting them, be sure to wear appropriate clothing. Most of the time, women are required to cover their arms and legs in respect of religious grounds.

Sandwiched in between Vietnam and Thailand, Cambodia would be an affordable flight from most other places in the SE Asia region. With hostel prices ranging from $3 to $10 USD, it won’t be a struggle getting around. Transportation commonly used is the public bus, tuk-tuks (moto taxis), taxis, or motorbikes.

If you’re interested in how certain things are made or just want to learn something new, check out the salt fields and watch Cambodian locals harvest and produce salt, it's truly a sight to see.

Is Cambodia safe to visit? Read the article for what you need to know before you travel

Girl visiting the Angkor temples in Cambodia

What to do and see in Malaysia

Next up on the list is Malaysia! Sitting right above the tiny island of Singapore, Malaysia is known for its curries, beautiful beaches, and endless hills.

Malaysian food has influences from India, China, and Thailand which basically means their food is bomb. Every single local dish is crafted with love and different spices which will be evident in each spoonful.

Originating in the southern region of China but also popular in Malaysia, chee cheong fun consists of rolled rice noodles served with a fishy sweet sauce and chili. If you’re in the mood for something sweet, try chendol which is a coconut milk based dessert made from mung bean flour noodles.

We all know about the skyscrapers of New York and the Eiffel tower of Paris, but have you ever heard of the Petronas Towers? Coming as a sister (or brother) pair, they graciously hold the title of highest twin towers in the entire world.

You can also go explore the colorful and colonial towns of Malacca and Georgetown (Penang) and visit one of the museums to learn more about the area’s history.

Petronas Towers in Malaysia, Southeast Asia

Explore Myanmar

Some international travellers may have not heard of this next destination but sitting at the east of Thailand, Myanmar is filled with history, scenic views, and ancient temples.

There are so many carefully built buddhist temples in Myanmar, travelers who are keen on history and ancient Asian culture may be keen to visit this country.

If you want to see something totally awesome, head to the Golden rock. Encrusted in golden leaf material, the rock shows the illusion that it will fall off the edge of a very high cliff. If you ask the local people what keeps the rock afloat, they will tell you Buddha is protecting it.

Bean salad (that may or may not be vegan), rice noodles soups, and filled fish cakes are all street foods loved by the Myanmar community. Just be sure to double check what you may be eating as a lot of cultures in SE Asia cook food that western people are not used to such as chicken feet or pig’s blood.

Myanmar should be on the list of every backpacker who plans on spending more than 2 months slowly traveling throughout this region of the world. A few notable places to hit up before leaving include: Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan and Inle Lake.

Learn more about backpacking in Myanmar with this article.

If you're interested in checking out Cambodia, Bali, or even India, take some time out to read this article about the cheapest Asian countries because all of your questions will be answered!

Golden rock in Myanmar

Making Preparations: What you’ll need for a Southeast Asia backpacking trip

It is important to be prepared before booking a ticket. Will you need to apply for a visa? How long are you legally allowed to stay before needing to exit the country? Does the destination require any specific inoculations? Should you get travel insurance?

Each country is different in regards to their entry requirements and documentation necessities so prior research is extremely important during the planning process.

To plan an epic trip to an epic destination, an epic backpack is needed. Yes, I just said epic 3 times in the same sentence. Along with a good backpack, (or carryon sized suitcase) quality items are needed to have a successful trip that doesn’t require constantly buying and replacing old stuff.

It's also best to travel this region with a minimalist mindset because backpackers often find themselves in a new destination every week. Lugging around a huge suitcase every few days does not seem so appealing. Here is a small list of items you may need to travel Southeast Asia:

  • Quality backpack (I use 40 L Osprey Farpoint)
  • Hiking sandals or water proof shoes
  • Thin Jacket (just in case)
  • Anti theft day pack

Check out this minimalist packing list to learn more about how to pack effectively. And the The ultimate international travel checklist before you head out.

Computer and notebook: planning a Southeast Asia backpacking trip

Digital nomadism in Southeast Asia

Out of all the continents, regions, and countries in the world, travelers have reported that Southeast Asia is possibly one of the best places to live a digital nomadic lifestyle.

If you’re not familiar with the term, digital nomadism is basically location independence and working online. I myself am a digital nomad and it is personally one of the best lifestyles to live.

Some popular cities in SE Asia that travelers like to flock to an indulge in slow travel while working from their laptop include: Bali (Indonesia), Chiang Mai (Thailand), Bangkok (Thailand), Hoi An (Vietnam), Phnom Penh (Cambodia), Phuket (Thailand), and Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam) are just a few affordable living destinations to start.

Worldpacker's blog has many different articles about the topic of working online from different dream destinations. If you’re interested in learning more about how to become location independent, check out all the articles about digital nomadism and travel jobs.

Volunteering in Southeast Asia

If you’re planning an extended trip (1 month +) in the SE Asia region and you’re wondering how to make your funds last, look no further. Volunteering with Worldpackers via work exchange is the best way to enjoy slow travel.

Whether you plan to stay at a position for one month or three, the accommodation is completely covered and in return, you help your host out with certain chores or even dealings in the digital realm such as social media, content creation, and website design.

Whatever your skill set is, there is most likely a position for you, check out these rad opportunities in various SE Asian countries!

Check out all Southeast Asia's  volunteering opportunities and find your ideal host.

Want to learn more about planning your epic Southeast Asian backpacking adventure? Subscribing to the WP pack plan and you’ll be granted unlimited access to +120 courses at Worldpackers Academy, the travel school made by travelers!

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