A couple of years ago I spent three and a half months backpacking Southeast Asia. In a little over a month, Matt and I are heading back to Asia. During our prep and storytelling I find myself giving quick tips to my friends and family. So, I thought I would share 52 quick tips for backpacking Southeast Asia!
Know the visa requirements for each country. I like to try to get my visas ahead of time. It can keep you from having to pay an extra fee and you know how much to budget. There’s nothing worse than thinking you can walk into a country and it really costs you $60 to get in!
Do a little bit of research on the scams in each country. There are many scams that are running anywhere in the world. A quick google search will let you know what to keep an eye out for.
Exchange money in the country you’re visiting. I used to exchange money before visiting a country, but some of the best exchange rates I’ve ever gotten are at ATMs outside of the airport.
Keep some US dollars handy! Many countries accept USD and it can really just come in handy. Plus, in Cambodia it’s their preferred currency. The ATMs give you USD.
Invest in travel insurance. It’s one of those things, you hope that you never have to use, but it’s great when you need it. You don’t want to lose your computer while backpacking Southeast Asia and have no means to replace it. Or worse, have an accident and no means to take care of yourself or even get back home. These are the things that travel insurance are for!
Bring a few passport photos with you. It comes in handy to have them ready at border-crossings or airports. It also saves you a “photo fee” that isn’t always a legitimate fee.
Don’t plan a super strict schedule. One of the great things about backpacking Southeast Asia is that you’ll meet loads of people who have done something you don’t want to miss, but you’ve never heard of! You want to leave some wiggle room for those spontaneous stops.
Learn pleasantries. I’m not saying you have to be conversational in Khmer or Thai. However, it really opens up doors when you can say a few simple things (even if it isn’t perfect pronunciation) like hello, thank you, yes, no, please and bathroom. I write these down in my journal so I can reference them if need be.
Be prepared for squat toilets. While this seems like a given to anyone who’s been there, I’ve heard it was quite the shock to many backpackers. Luckily, most accommodations have a western toilet, so your legs do get a break.
Be prepared for the aforementioned squat toilets to not have toilet paper. I always make sure to have a roll of TP ready and available in my day pack. You’ll miss it if you don’t have it.
In addition to that bring soap or sanitizer. There’s rarely soap on roadside stop bathrooms, as they’re frequented by many travelers and locals. If you want to be sanitary post-squat-session it’s likely BYO.
Schedules can be flexible. It seems like most countries that I’ve visited while backpacking Southeast Asia have times for buses or shows, and then 15 minutes earlier or later, your bus is leaving or the show has started. Ha! Just be sure to arrive a little bit ahead of time and be prepared to wait a bit. I like to call it “Southeast Asia Time”.
Before renting something (like a motorbike) be sure to take photos before you leave. I’ve heard horror stories of companies holding your card info and even a passport hostage because owners wanted renters to pay for dents that were already in it.
Watch out for bag-snatchers. I personally haven’t had any issues with any bag-snatching attempts, or known anyone who has. However, I have heard the warning a million times. So, I have to think that I hadn’t had issues because I’ve kept my bags securely across my body.
Remember that safety standards aren’t the same as you may be expecting. When booking tours or walking across bamboo bridge just remember it may not have the same safety standard you might expect. I’m not saying to avoid everything just trust your gut on this one! Did I explore five miles of caves without any safety equipment? Yes. Did I ride the sketchy-looking zipline I saw in rural Laos? No. Make your own judgements and, as always, be safe.
Haggling is a must. It’s such a part of the culture in markets + streets. Plus, when you’re an outsider, people will more than likely try to get you to pay more. Once you get used to it, it’ll just be another part of your day. A lot of people haggle over accommodation as well. I don’t like to do that unless I’m staying for several days, and then I’ll try to get a deal for staying so long.
Don’t stress about an international plan or SIM. I only had a total of 36 hours without access to wifi in the 3.5 months I was there. Backpacking Southeast Asia isn’t as cut off from the world as it used to be.
Don’t forget about whitening agents in skin-care products. Sunscreen, lotions, makeup and more can have bleaching agents. Check for those before making a purchase.
Be prepared to have your personal space violated. This was hard for me to get over. I like my personal space. However, lines, transportation, cafes and markets are very crowded and people will bump into you over and over with no apologies. It’s not them trying to be rude. It’s just because it’s crowded.
Keep calm. Losing your cool is not normal in Southeast Asia. People will not react well to you shouting or yelling. Just take a breath before discussing a sensitive subject – like rates, damage, etc.
Eat the street food. A lot of people are so afraid of food poisoning that they never try some of the best food in a country. Just be smart. If something looks sketchy, pass on it. In fact, I got a really bad bout of food poisoning from an actual restaurant in Bali.
Don’t stress too much about the ice either. The vast majority of ice is brought in as a massive chunk from filtered water. I had smoothies and iced coffee each day. Again, just be smart and use your own judgement.
But still don’t drink the tap water. I’ve not even attempted it. Also, check the seals on your bottled water. That’s a popular scam in parts of Asia.
Drink the coffee! I can’t emphasize this enough. Rich, flavorful coffee and the perfect amount of sweetened condensed milk make for absolute perfection. Don’t be shocked if it comes in a cup, glass, or even a bag!
Be prepared for stomach issues. Even if you’re really careful, you’ll catch some sort of bug! Be sure to take care of yourself and get plenty of rest when you’re ill.
Drink the local beer. It’s as cheap as 10 cents in certain countries. It’s not bad and in case you didn’t hear that, IT IS TEN CENTS! Ha!
Be smart when drinking. Don’t overindulge, watch your drinks, and just be safe, just like you would anywhere at home. Have fun, but be smart.
Don’t be ashamed to get Western food. Sometimes you just need to get your western fix. However, don’t expect it to always taste like home. French fries are one of the easiest/best things to get, just FYI.
Don’t pack too much. Not only because it weighs you down, literally, but also because you’ll find about a million things that you want to buy!
Don’t forget to splurge on occasion. Just find things that are important to you and do it! I love experiences. So, it was worth it to me to splurge on Canyoning in Da Lat or Swimming with whale sharks. Matt loves a little more luxury than I do, so we’re splurging on a private bungalow in Bali for Christmas this year. Love food? Try a nice restaurant. Do things that make you feel comfortable, inspired or excited. To be honest, you can get these upgrades for not much more a lot of the time.
Talk to locals. Especially when staying in hostels, it can be easy to only hang out with people you meet there because it’s easier to communicate with travelers. However, if you take the time and effort to talk to locals, your experience will be so much richer.
Get outside. The nature in Southeast Asia is amazing. Get off the beaten path, explore natural sites and get some exercise in the great outdoors. You won’t be disappointed.
It’s humid, so stay hydrated! Like, seriously humid. If you put makeup on, it melts off.
Don’t forget the insect repellent. Those little buggers are intense. My mosquito bites opened up and oozed. They’re intense.
Don’t forget to relax. I tend to be a go, go, go traveler. Sometimes I forget to take the time to stop and relax. I tend to wear myself to the point of exhaustion and then I collapse. Instead, I have started scheduling in relaxation time. It make life much easier.
Bring a first aid kit. I made this mistake one too many times. Now, I always carry my travel first aid kit with me. Also, don’t forget to get enough of the prescriptions to take with you.
Travel slow + dig deep. Some of my favorite experiences are the ones where I stayed a few extra days or sat in a temple a little longer and was approached by a monk. You learn even more when you’re able to take your time.
Don’t ignore your morals. If something doesn’t feel right. Don’t do it. That goes for volunteer opportunities, animal tourism or anything else. If your gut reaction is that someone is being harmed or taken advantage of walk away, even if it isn’t what the “cool kids” are doing.
Take advantage of hostel book exchanges. Books can start to weigh you down. However, if you’re like me, it’s hard to leave home without one. The great thing about hostels is when you finish your book you can trade it for another for free!
Check other amenities in hostels. Many provide meals, tea, classes, potlucks and more! I also always use the free things that are provided to help make my trip go further – like soaps, hairspray, snacks, etc.
If you’re traveling with a companion, compare the price of two dorm bunks vs. a private room. In some cases it was actually cheaper to have a private room and it was frequently only a dollar or two more to have your own space and your own bathroom, which is actually pretty nice. Especially if you’re part of a couple.
Your room will likely have lizards in it. This sounds crazy at first. True story, I asked a woman to remove a lizard from my room in Laos. She sweetly proclaimed, “You sleep; it sleep.” Ha! They actually eat the mosquitoes so it’s not too bad.
Don’t forget to bring or purchase some modest clothing. Many cultures are more modest, and it’s always best to be respectful. If visiting a temple, remember that your shoulders and knees should always be covered.
Be respectful in temples + religious ceremonies. Don’t get too close, dress inappropriately, be loud or disruptive. If you aren’t worshiping, participating or meditating, keep a respectful distance. Feel free to ask questions at appropriate times, but the key word there is appropriate.
Arrange for local guides. Some of my favorite experiences were things that I hired a local guide to show me. Like street food, farms, jungles and more. Ask your guest house for recommendations.
Have the price you’re paying for a tuk tuk set before you leave. Don’t trust a driver to take you somewhere first and then spring an outrageous rate on you. If you take a taxi, trust the meter (unless renting for a day, then negotiate a price). However, watch the meter to make sure it isn’t ticking like crazy.
Take night buses + trains. They aren’t always the most comfortable night of sleep, but even if you have to snooze a bit upon arrival, it saves you a night of accommodation and it’s a much more peaceful time to travel.
Spring for Air-conditioning on trains. It’s worth it.
Pack snacks for long journeys. There are places to that many drivers stop, but it may not have what you want. Plus, you never know when you’re going to be hungry.
Don’t stress about booking ahead. Unless it’s festival time, you shouldn’t have too much trouble finding a place to stay or even a tour. If there’s a festival or holiday, book ahead though! Even transportation can become more difficult!
7eleven will become your best friend. When I think of 7eleven in the states, it’s basically a gas station with overpriced snacks. In Southeast Asia (Thailand particularly) it’s a destination for toasties, snacks, cold drinks and even laundry detergent. Plus, they’re air-conditioned so I found myself stepping in just to escape the heat from time-to-time.
Keep an open mind. You may see things that challenge your cultural norms. That’s 100% normal and 100% okay. Don’t call it wrong or weird. It’s just different. If you keep an open mind, you may come away with a whole new way of thinking.
Are you a seasoned backpacker? What tips would you give to someone backpacking Southeast Asia for the first time?
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