The world’s most beautiful beaches, friendliest locals and cheap…everything: reasons why so many backpackers love Southeast Asia.
Several landmarks, destinations and activities available in this region of the world show up on people’s bucket lists. Because of certain stigmas surrounding the region, people sometimes are too afraid to cross those items off. It’s silly, because Southeast Asia is not only one of the easiest places to travel, but it’s also one of the most exciting.
How do I know?
I’ve backpacked the region twice. My first visit was for four months in 2011 and I did half of it on my own. My second visit was for two months, which I did entirely with my boyfriend. Between both those trips, I’ve visited most countries in the region: Philippines, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia and Singapore; some for much longer than others.
Some people see Southeast Asia as dangerous or scary. That’s because they know so little about it. I’m here to answer the most common questions about Southeast Asia. Hopefully, you will understand what it’s like to backpack the region.
Is Southeast Asia safe to travel?
Yes! But just like any other place in the world, it has it’s dangers and annoyances. Every travel destination has scammers, maybe more in Southeast Asia more than elsewhere. Still a cabbie in Thailand will rip you off of far less than one in New York City. Most scams are documented and easy to avoid with a little research prior.
It’s important to keep your wits about you no matter where you go in the world. Some say that the more one ventures off the beaten path, the more dangerous it becomes. But locals are friendlier and more welcoming the further one gets from tourist traps.
The biggest concern in Southeast Asia, beside scams, are drugs and alcohol. But those are self-inflicted, aren’t they? Many countries in this region have very harsh drug laws. It’d be wise to stay away from them for your own sake. Don’t buy, carry, and definitely don’t try to bring any home.
Travelers drink heavily in a lot of countries in the region, because the booze is so cheap. Mix a day of endless drinking with the extreme heat of the region and dehydration become another urgent concern. Plus, there aren’t as many regulations or safety precautions taken for activities in a lot of Southeast Asian countries, especially ones including booze. For instance, several people die a year tubing Vang Vieng (though that was shut down in the last year) and the Full Moon Party absolute chaos. It be easy to overdo it at either of these activities and hurt yourself.
Finally, weather and natural disasters are concerns. The rain in Southeast Asia during September and October can be very serious. Flooding is common in certain parts of that region. Plus, I’m sure it’s hard for a lot of us to wipe away the memories and images of the Christmas Tsunami in 2004. These things did and do happen, but not often. Some places are more vulnerable than others, so if this is a concern for you, plan around it.
What is an ideal budget?
Yes, Southeast Asia is as cheap as you’ve heard. But it gets more and more expensive with popularity. On average, a private room in a guesthouse costs $10 per night; a beer is almost always under $1; and you can eat very well for $6-8 a day. Give yourself a daily budget of about $30 to be safe, then add in the costs of transportation and entertainment and you should be set. Bus is usually the cheapest way to get around and while it’s fairly affordable to travel the region, the price of transportation does add up. Bus and rail travel can be booked at the stations when you’re there. Look into Air Asia, Cebu Pacific, Jetstar and Tiger Airways for affordable flights around the region.
How long is good to visit?
It’s different for everyone depending on their budget and what’s on the agenda. Two months is a good amount of time to start with, but you won’t be able to fit in every country in that time. One could easily spend 30 days in Thailand alone. Visas are fairly easy to get, most just give them to you on arrival, but the time you have in each country is limited by your visa, so if you have to leave the country and come back, plan accordingly.
Do I need a visa?
Depending on the countries you visit, you might need a few during your travels in the region. Southeast Asia Backpacker Magazine has put together a great guide to visas. Some countries like Myanmar charge for visas. Others like Vietnam are very hard to get. It is possible to be turned down for a visa at the border, but very rare if you know what to expect and follow the rules.
Some tips and things to keep in mind. Make sure to bring along extra passport photos on your trip. They are often required for visas here, so it’s best to plan ahead. Make sure your passport is in order and is valid for at least the six months to come. I’ve seen people denied entry into a country due to their passport’s expiration date.
Finally, scamming goes all the way to immigration in Southeast Asia. Don’t be surprised if you’re asked for a new “fee” you didn’t know about at border crossings. It’s probably not real, but you can’t fight it and it will never be more than a few dollars. They’ll want to keep the scam going.
Where should I go?
None of the places that everyone else is going to. Southeast Asia became a cool place for travelers because of its untouched beaches and secret islands. Today, those sort of places are getting harder and harder to find, but still exist and will make your Southeast Asian experience so much better than just hitting the places that everyone has already been too.
Popular destinations include, Bangkok, Ko Phi Phi, Chiang Mai and Koh Samui, Thailand; Boracay in the Philippines, Bali in Indonesia, Angkor Wat in Cambodia and Ha Long Bay, Vietnam. You might really want to visit those places and some, like Angkor Wat, you kind of have to, but make the effort to get to the less touristy places as well. Some ideas for getting off the beaten track: all of Myanmar, Sumatra in Indonesia, most the the Philippines, the north of Laos and the list goes on.
There are a few other things to consider when picking places to visit in Southeast Asia. Not everywhere is cheap and places like Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and Singapore are actually very expensive. It costs more to visit countries that aren’t landlocked like the Philippines and Bali, because you have to fly to these places.
When is the best time of year to visit?
November to May is the recommended time to visit Southeast Asia because the weather is best and there are a several festivals and events. Heavy humidity and the risk of monsoons during the wet season (June to October) affects tourism in certain areas tremendously. That said, the rate of accommodation and tours goes up during high season and the weather is never guaranteed to be good during either season. Plus, there are a lot less tourists in the country in the low season, so places seem more secluded and you’re not trapped in a crowd. I’ve traveled through both and overall preferred my visit in October, but did really enjoy Songkran (Thai New Year) in April.
Is Southeast Asia good for group travel?
I’d say Southeast Asia would be more fun and affordable as a group than solo. Don’t get me wrong, you’ll have a great time on your own, but most of the accommodation here is private, so it’s not like renting a bed in a dorm. You’ll usually save more with another traveler. It’s also nice to have someone there who speaks the same language, because you’ll find in a lot of places the locals don’t. Finally, secluded beaches are amazing, but they’re a lot better with a buddy. One thing I’ve found in Southeast Asia is that the places with good crowds are overcrowded and often polluted and the secret or private spots are beautiful, but can be a bit boring. If you have a good group with you, you can have the best of both worlds.
What can help me plan a Southeast Asia travel?
Lonely Planet guidebooks spawned from a trip to Southeast Asia, so that’s a good place to start. Websites like Travelfish are helpful online sources to use to plan your Southeast Asian holiday. Southeast Asia Backpacker Magazine offers great advice and inspiring tales. Websites like Asia Rooms tend to be better for booking accommodation in this region than worldwide booking companies. Plus there are loads of free apps to help you with the languages in Southeast Asia, like Speak Thai, which gives you voice recordings of key Thai words and phrases.