The Southeast Asian region is a great starting point for your first foray into backpacking. With more than 12 affordable countries teeming with gorgeous beaches, majestic temples and religious monuments, inspiring architecture, diverse flora and fauna, and fascinating cultures, no wonder it’s been hugely popular among backpackers and budget travellers.
There are so many things to see and do to fill your time, whether you’re planning for a short trip or gearing up for a much longer stay. Here are our tips for your first backpacking trip to Southeast Asia.
Plan your trip months in advance. A successful backpacking trip necessitates a lot of careful planning. There’s nothing wrong with spontaneity, but you’d want to cover more ground and keep a modest travel budget without compromising the quality of your experience. And you can accomplish this through research and a well-planned itinerary.
One of the most important tasks you need to do when planning your trip is decide on which countries to visit. Concentrate on cities or countries that are situated close to each other, especially those that are accessible via cheap flights, buses, or trains. For example, you might want start to with Singapore and some parts of Malaysia and then fly to Vietnam, Thailand, or Cambodia so you can do the Indochina trail. Or you can just focus on Indochina and skip Malaysia and Singapore.
You also need to plan your visit around the weather. Southeast Asia has a tropical climate with dry and wet seasons. Schedule your trip when the weather is dry but the air is a little bit cooler.
Prepare visas and travel documents, as necessary. While there are Southeast Asian countries that allow visa-free entry to foreigners, there are those that require visas like Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia. There’s the visa upon arrival and e-visa options for some countries as well but take note that these may only be valid when you fly in through selected airports, and not when crossing borders. Be sure to research on the visa and international travel documents requirements for each country included in your itinerary. Prepare the required fees in the accepted currency and accomplish the forms before you leave.
Book airline tickets and accommodations in advance, if possible.Southeast Asia is a haven for tourists so flights and rooms often get fully booked. To ensure that your trip remains as hassle-free as possible, book your airline tickets and hotel/hostel rooms in advance. Early booking may also mean cheaper rates so be on the lookout for the best deals. Of course, if you are travelling during the low season, you might opt for just booking your accommodations the first night and then look for cheaper, better rooms for the rest of your stay. It can happen that the best accommodations are offered by places that do not accept online reservations.
Keep safe and stay healthy. Your health and safety should be two of your priorities during your travels. Southeast Asia is generally safe to travel in, and there are destinations with very low crime rates, but you should always mind your safety and keep watch of your belongings at all times. Observe road safety all the time, wear a seatbelt when in a car, or a helmet when riding a scooter. Don’t wander alone at night and stay vigilant against petty crimes such as theft and always secure cash, gadgets, and travel documents. If possible, wear minimal to no jewellery. Ask your embassy about travel advisories so you know which areas to avoid.
You need to stay healthy during your trip because what you perceive as minor illnesses can ruin your entire vacation. To avoid stomach upsets, be carefully with what you eat and drink on the road. It is strongly advised that you only eat from places serving hot or freshly prepared food. Choose dining places with long lines because it more’s likely that they’re serving food that’s clean and safe. Also, never drink or brush your teeth with water from the tap to avoid water-borne diseases. Bottled drinking water is cheap and plentiful in Southeast Asia.
It is also prudent to get comprehensive travel and health insurance. And please, complete all the necessary vaccinations before you leave. Most travel health advisories suggest getting the required immunizations against hepatitis A & B, typhoid fever, yellow fever, tetanus, rabies, and Japanese encephalitis.
Know the dos and don’ts. To ensure ease of travel, be sure to know a bit about the region. Before leaving for any of the countries included in your travel plans, know the local culture as well as the dos and don’ts. This way, you will be able to observe proper etiquette (e.g. temple etiquette, respecting personal space, never touching a person’s head, or pointing one’s feet toward another person), avoid putting yourself in embarrassing situations, or refrain from doing things that are generally frowned upon.
Pack your travel essentials.The 1st rule when it comes to packing for your Southeast Asian trip is travel light. The 2nd rule is for you to bring all your travel essentials with you. You don’t want to lug around heavy bags as you travel across Southeast Asia so just bring clothes that you’d actually wear and pack them in a large travel backpack. Consider the climate when choosing what clothes to bring; pack light and comfortable clothes and a hat during the dry season, and a jacket or poncho in addition to the usual tops and bottoms for the rainy season. A change of comfortable footwear is also needed. If you’re planning to visit temples and other religious monuments, bring a wrap or a sarong.
Aside from clothing, you also need to bring: cash, travel documents, cards, first aid kit, medications for colds and stomach upset, umbrella, swimwear, aqua shoes, sun protection, insect repellant, mobile device and charger, as well as a shape converter. For convenience, you might also want to bring a daypack.
Have your money exchanged to the local currency at banks or reputable money changers. You need to have enough cash with you as you travel because not all restaurants and lodging places accept credit cards. You wouldn’t want to use ATM machines often either due to the hefty transaction fees so be sure to research which money changers offer the best exchange rates.
Just a friendly reminder, familiar yourself with the local currency as you travel.In Vietnam, different Vietnamese dong notes look very similar so be extra careful when handing out cash. For example, 500,000 dong may be mistaken for a 20,000 note. Also, take very good care of your dollar bills if you’re meaning to use them in Myanmar as they only accept crisp and clean notes there.
Avoid getting scammed. You don’t want to fall prey to con artists and fraudsters, most especially when you’re in a foreign country. Therefore, it is prudent to research first before transacting with tour operators, travel agencies, and taxi and car rental companies. Even when dealing with tuktuk, mototaxi, or rickshaw drivers, always exercise your best adjustment so you won’t lose money or have to endure extremely poor service.
Have a daily budget, but reward yourself once in a while. You need to decide on a daily budget before you embark on your journey to Southeast Asia. If you choose to spend wisely, 20 to 35 USD will cover food, accommodations, minimal transportation costs, prepaid data, and incidental expenses. A huge chunk of your daily budget will be spent on your accommodations, which would be less than 20 USD. Food in Southeast Asia is very affordable and you can even buy a decent meal for less than 2 USD. For bigger expenses such as day tours, long-haul bus and train fares, and airline tickets, you need to appropriate a separate budget for that.
Sticking to your budget is necessary so that you’ll have more than enough cash on hand but allow yourself the occasional splurge once in a while. Get a massage or dine at a nice restaurant every so often, or after a very tiring day.
Stay connected.There’s internet connectivity in Southeast Asia and most hotels and restaurants offer free Wi-Fi. But if you want 24/7 connectivity, you need to purchase a local SIM card with prepaid data for your smartphone or pocket Wi-Fi. Although the cost of data services may vary per location, you are assured that you can at least stay in contact with your friends and family from across the globe and update them of your travels. Having all-day internet access is also very convenient because you can access Google maps, or book your hostel and buy bus or train tickets online.
Try the local food as often as you can. What most travellers love about backpacking in Southeast Asia is that they can have Asian food whenever they want it. Whether you love dumplings, grilled meats, curries, noodle dishes, roti, or just about any local delicacy that catches your fancy, you’re definitely in for a treat. For the best food experience, skip the expensive restaurants and head straight to the local eateries, night markets, and side streets where there are food hawkers and street food stalls. Of course, you have to keep food safety in mind when indulging in local fare.
If you’ve been travelling for weeks and in the mood for Western food, know that Southeast Asia has a growing expat community so it will be quite easy for you to find diners serving your favourite pasta, pizza, and burgers.
Plan for a wide range of activities and attractions. When deciding on what to do or which places to visit, include a diverse mix of popular, modern, cultural, natural, and off-the-beaten path attractions. Do not make the mistake of going to every popular temple at each Southeast Asian country you visit, you’ll just subject yourself to temple fatigue. If you think you’ve seen enough of the popular tourist attractions in the city, skip a few or move on to the next pit stop on your list. If you think you need to stay away from the nightlife and the noise and chaos of the backpackers’ area you’ve made your temporary home for the week, then take the next bus out of town. You can experience the countryside, go to a wildlife sanctuary, or simply spend a relaxing day reading a good book while enjoying local food and a few cups of local brew. Make room for flexibility in your travel plans.
Use the local modes of transportation to your best advantage. When travelling between cities or countries, take the train or bus whenever you can. Bus rides will set you back between 5 to 15 USD, depending on the distance covered and length of travel. Train fares are priced a bit higher. The day train to Penang from Kuala Lumpur, for instance, costs between 11 to 21 USD. Sleeper seats on the night train will set you back 25 to 28 USD while the non-sleeper seats are anywhere between 6 to 11 USD. Aside from being cost-effective, taking the bus or train is a great way for you to see more of Southeast Asia.
Experience the culture. The best way to experience a country’s culture is by interacting with the locals. Keep an open mind and learn as much as you can from them. Learn a few basic phrases of the local dialect and try to engage them in a conversation. Southeast Asians are friendly, warm, and accommodating. You’ll never get enough of their welcoming smiles throughout your trip.
Learn to haggle. When purchasing at markets and local street vendors, it is necessary to bring your haggling skills with you. Know what you’re willing to pay for and then bargain with the seller. Be firm yet polite. If both you and the vendor can’t agree on the price, you can walk away and move on to the next stall. Please take note that in some Southeast Asian cities like Ho Chi Minh City, vendors can be very persistent and aggressive.
Be a green and responsible traveller. Remember to travel green during your backpacking trip. Walk more, observe proper waste disposal, and as much as possible, buy local and organically grown products and fresh produce. Help preserve the environment and the local culture wherever you go. Use water wisely and use biodegradable materials as often as you can. Respect the local culture and traditions. Invading the locals’ personal space is a no-no, and never take photographs without permission. And never go to attractions or buy anything that contributes to animal cruelty.
Also, refrain from giving money to beggars, especially children, because this keeps them away from school. The more you give them money, the more you reinforce the false belief that begging on the streets is the easiest way to earn money. You may want to help but you are actually causing them more harm than good. Organized begging is common in Southeast Asia and it is a form of human trafficking. Gangs prey on and profit from these child beggars so help put an end to this illegal activity.
By: Brendelyn Balaga