Backpacking Southeast Asia is an incredible experience and you should all try it, at least once.
When I first visited Southeast Asia last October during a trip to Indonesia, I felt overwhelmed, for it looked and felt completely different from anywhere else I had been before. It took me a second trip to visit the rest of the region to fully enjoy it, and I eventually fell in love with it. Traveling across Southeast Asia takes some skills, but a few tips here and there can help to plan and enjoy the trip.
So, here is a list of things to know before backpacking Southeast Asia.
20 Absolutely Useful Tips For Backpacking Southeast Asia
Read before going
Part of the reason for the cultural shock I experienced when I first visited Southeast Asia is that I didn’t know anything about it. I had read nothing about the country I would be visiting, knew nothing about its culture, its way of life and I didn’t know anything about its people.
I wholeheartedly recommend to do some readings before going – whether on travel guides, travel blogs, government websites and magazines. This helps you prepare and know what to expect.
Going to Malaysia? Check out my post 17 Best Places To Visit In Malaysia.
Find out about the needed visas and their fees
Remember to read about the visa requirements!
Different countries in Southeast Asia have different visa requirements, and the visas have different costs depending on the passport one may hold. For example, Vietnam grants free 15 days visas to Italian passport holders. Vietnam visas can be obtained online before traveling. Cambodia on the other hand has a fee that should be paid. In this case, knowing the price of the visa will help to avoid the regular border scams.
Make sure to also check if there is any specific requirement for the passport. I was demanded to pay an extra $30 USD at the border, because my passport only had two free pages and the minimum required was supposedly three. I knew that this was not the case (I had done my homework!) and managed to argue my way out of this scam.
Make a scan copy of the passport and other travel documents and send it via email
I am distracted, I admit it. I once almost lost my passport in Nicaragua, and the best part of it is that I did so when I was making a copy of it, just in case I’d lose it. Thankfully I was able to retrieve it as I knew exactly where I had left it, but I panicked a bit. I have also met other travelers who had their bag snatched in Phnom Penh, with anything that was in it including their passport.
Make sure to keep your documents safe when you are on the move – for example in a money belt. To be on the safe side in case all precautions fail, scan you passport and send a copy to yourself. This will make the process of getting a new passport, in case you lose yours, much easier. Another tip I have it to carry a few spare passport photos. They will come handy for visas and it is a very useful thing to keep in mind when backpacking Southeast Asia.
Plan to cover the longer distances by plane
Backpacking Southeast Asia usually means lots of bus and train travel. But… does it really have to be?
Traffic in Southeast Asia is terrible, and unless you are getting a sleeper bus, traveling can be really uncomfortable and tiring, with shuttle buses that are packed to the brim with people and their luggage, and the driving totally mad (honking is the rule here, for whatever reason). It is way better to cover longer distances by plane, especially as it is easy to get cheap flights.
Don’t exchange currency at the airport, and always count the exact change
For whatever reason, exchanging currency at the airport costs way more than doing it at any other place in the city. Furthermore, it is not uncommon that even in banks the attendants who exchange the money “forget” to give you the whole amount expected. Always count the money on the spot, and demand the whole amount if anything is missing. It’s an essential lesson to learn when backpacking Southeast Asia.
Always carry more than one debit and credit card
The last thing you want when backpacking Southeast Asia (or anywhere else, really) is to be left with no card and no way to get cash.
You see, sometimes banks block cards, or ATMs won’t accept one. Cards can get lost, stolen and even de-magnetized with all the traveling. In the early days of my traveling career, I was so afraid to get my cards stolen that I only carried one, and found out when I tried to withdraw cash that it wasn’t working. I was lucky enough to be able to get some cash through an alternative service, which however involved a long process.
Lesson learned: make sure to carry several cards, keeping them separate so that they don’t get de-magnetized and in different places, in case one of them gets stolen. Carry one with you, one in your daypack and one in your backpack, carefully hidden.
Carry some spare cash
Cash is king when backpacking Southeast Asia!
Carry a decent amount of US dollars wherever you go, keeping it in different places. Give preference to US dollars as they are widely accepted. In case of emergency, having some cash will mean that you can easily get a meal, a bed and at least local transportation, and call your family to wire you some money until you can sort things out.
Don’t book tours in advance – they cost much less locally
Backpacking Southeast Asia means traveling more or less spontaneously and booking things on the go.
You surely expect tours to be a bit cheaper when bought locally, but in Southeast Asia the difference can be up to 4 times less. I have been on a tour of the Mekong Delta in Vietnam where people who bought the package online, from home, paid something like $160 USD and those who bought then locally paid only $40 USD.
Don’t be afraid not to find a tour or not to have time to arrange everything locally: anything is possible in Southeast Asia, a tour will always pop up, and local operators will play their magic to find a suitable solution – and there will be considerable savings. Here are more tips on how to budget for Southeast Asia.
Pack light and use a backpack
Backpacking Southeast Asia can be truly uncomfortable and having the right travel gear is a requirement: shuttle buses often don’t have a trunk and place the bags in between seats; lots of budget accommodation don’t have elevators and you may have to carry the bags all the way to the top floor; and when doing boat trips in Ha Long Bay it is often necessary to carry bags on and off the boat.
All of this is much easier when carrying a backpack rather than a suitcases and even better if your backpack is actually light. Picking the right backpacking gear is a key factor when traveling in Asia. One is this one and the other is this one.
Besides, it is so cheap to shop in Southeast Asia that if you break your pants, you can easily replace them!
Opt for solid toiletries
Knowing what to pack when backpacking Southeast Asia is essential. Solid shampoo properly placed in a tin, solid conditioner and a bar of good soap instead of shower gel are way lighter than their liquid equivalents, and occupy less room in the backpack. There’s even solid sunscreen and solid insect repellent.
Solid toiletries help to pack lighter and can also be packed in a carry on. A good solid shampoo and conditioner last for up to 4 months, even on hair as long as mine. I call that value for money!
Always carry a toilet roll in the daypack
I have learned from many years of traveling that, especially in developing countries, toilets don’t necessarily come with toilet paper. Make it a habit to pack up a toilet roll in a sandwich bag, and keep it in your daypack. It comes really handy especially during long bus journeys.
Do carry prescriptions medicines
It is quite common to get sick when traveling. Crowded buses and trains and even planes are known to be excellent vehicles for viruses. That is how I got my laryngitis in Vietnam and lost my voice for a few days (which according to my sister wasn’t necessarily a bad thing).
But in a place where not many people speak good English, it is hard to explain what one needs when feeling sick. Make sure to pack some prescription drugs with you – a little bit of everything, just in case.
Eat local food
Food in Southeast Asia is good and cheap pretty much anywhere. Even after a month there, you won’t miss Western food at all, because local cuisine is so tasty. The best places to eat are actually on the street, as I have learned in Bangkok.
Wherever there is a good amount of people eating (and possibly even a line), a mixture of locals and travelers, and even women and children, is bound to have good food which is tasty, cheap and more importantly completely safe to eat.
Make sure to check out my post How To Find The Best Singapore Hawkers Center.
Learn to cross the street
I thought I had learned how to cross the street when I was a child, but once I arrived in Southeast Asia I realized that any good pedestrian behavior was useless. Traffic is mad. There are lots of cars, and millions of scooters. The key to crossing the street is to – literally – never stop to look. Nobody will stop to let you cross, but cars and scooters will nicely swing by you.
Ask to use the taxi meter
Taxi drivers often try to set a flat rate, but the price they suggest is generally higher than the one passengers should expect to pay otherwise. For example, when I arrived in Hanoi, the driver suggested a flat rate of 400000 Vietnamese Dong to take me to my hotel. I paid 360000 with the meter.
In Saigon, the driver suggested a flat rate of 300000 to take me from the airport to the backpackers area, but I had read beforehand that it shouldn’t cost more than 150000. I demanded to pay by the meter and ended up paying only 120000. You should do the same,
Bring ear plugs
Traffic never stops in Southeast Asia, and people have a real passion for honking: they honk to get others out of their way; they honk to get the traffic moving; they honk just to say they are driving by. If you can’t stand the noise of traffic when you are trying to sleep make sure to carry a pair of ear plugs to wear at night.
Don’t necessarily trust online reviews
It often happened to me that tour operators, hotels and restaurants that have glowing reviews were a total disappointments. I asked myself how it was possible that such poor services had incredible reviews. It is quite simple: those reviews are often fake. A hint into knowing that the 5 stars reviews are fake is when the reviewer has only left that one review.
Do check who is leaving the review before trusting it. Furthermore, be advised that hotels, restaurants and tour operators can (and will) pay to remove bad reviews and get good ones.
Carry a travel towel
Hostels tend to skimp on towels, or guests have to pay to rent one. A travel towel is a good solution, as it is extremely light and it dries quickly, and it can also be used as a beach towel.
Wear flip flops in showers
I often see people walking around barefoot in hostels, including to go to the toilet. I may be a neat freak but I would rather avoid getting athletes’ foot or other sort of skin issues. Getting in the shower with flip flops is a good way to protect yourself against nasty stuff.
Ask permission to take photos
People in Southeast Asia love to pose for pictures, so much so that whenever they see you taking a photo they would actually stop you and ask you to take one of them too. Some may even ask you to pose in the photo with them! Regardless of that, asking for permission to take a photo is always polite and appreciated.
Do you have any other tips for backpacking Southeast Asia?
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