Say the words, ‘Southeast Asia‘ and you’ll draw mental imagery of long-tail boats, white sand beaches, lazy rivers and rolling mountains, gorgeous temples, flaming street food, scooters on every corner, thundering waterfalls, lush rainforests, and ruins of civilisations past.
It’s a part of the world that can overwhelm first time visitors with how much there is to see and experience. The warm weather, wealth of attractions, natural beauty, and the captivating culture of each country makes it (as a region) the perfect holiday destination.
During my nine months bouncing around Southeast (SE) Asia in 2019, I visited Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam, The Philippines, Indonesia and Singapore. On my trip, I had the luxury of time, largely because I worked remotely, which allowed me to travel for months on end, while balancing adventuring with digital consulting and teaching English.
This post is a build upon a two week, ‘see and do as much as possible’ itinerary I created for first time visits to Southeast Asia. Much of the advice here will be the same, with location and travel advice expanded.
Where to Start With Planning
There are guidebooks galore, but to keep my travel load light, I favor Instagram (bookmark posts; save them to folders), Pinterest, and online travel resources when it comes to trip planning.
Typically, before any trip, I start a Google sheet, where I track details about a place, things I want to do, reservations, logistics (hotel/hostel info, flight details, arranged transportation, booked tours, etc.). Having everything in one place makes it simple to access or add to on the go via my phone, as well as easy to share with family and friends so they know what I’m up to.
Before I left for my trip to SE Asia, I looked up key bits about every country I wanted to visit to help me roughly outline where I wanted to go, and how long I may want to spend in each place. I’ve provided a sample itinerary below, but there’s so much to do in every country, your own research will help you figure out which places are the most interesting to you.
If you’re feeling stressed about planning so much in advance, don’t. Plan the first few weeks, and then look things up as you go. Chances are, you’ll befriend other travellers, and they always have the best advice.
While there are things that make every part of SE Asia special, don’t feel pressured to see and do everything. Take your time when you need it, rest along the way, appreciate the journey above anything else.
Essential bits to make sure you look up and have taken care of before leaving:
- International driver’s license (if you plan on renting a motorbike)
- Understanding of which countries you need a visa to enter (based on your passport)
- Extra copies of your passport photo for visas^^ (I brought six to have extras, just in case)
- Copies of your credit cards/bank cards/passport (digital and one printed version)
- Travel insurance (while I travelled SE Asia, I was insured through World Nomads, and then Safety Wing)
- 1-2x digital bank cards (in addition to a debit card and credit card – easier to replace; less risk in having your funds hacked)
- Travel vaccinations (consult with your GP before leaving)
How Much to Save for Backpacking SE Asia
When I ventured around SE Asia, I worked as a digital consultant and English teacher, but was between ‘9-5 jobs’. However, because I had steady cash flow on the road, I often paid a bit more to stay at places with stable, high speed wifi and was able to treat myself to splurges at nice hotels, as well as experiences that I may not have been able to afford if backpacking on a slim budget in my early 20s.
If your budget is limited, you’ll likely want to travel much slower to get the most out of each destination.
In terms of actual budget, range can vary significantly. I know people who’ve travelled on less than $2,000 for three months, and others who spent +$2,000 a month. I tracked my expenses with Trail Wallet to help me understand how much I was spending in different places. Vietnam, Laos, Malaysia and Thailand were notably cheaper to travel than Singapore and Indonesia (specifically, Bali).
Key Expenses to Account For In Your Budget ($, USD):
- Flights/buses/trains to get to/from Southeast Asia, as well as around: Buses are usually under $10 for 5-6 hour rides, and flights are often $20-50 for domestic travel, and +$30 for international (cost varies widely internationally, depending on the distance travelled, but is still far less than you’d pay for a flight in the US)
- Baggage fees: You pay by weight, not necessarily number of bags. I usually ended up paying $6-12 per flight for 15-20 kg of baggage. Book before you’re at the airport for the best rates
- Visa entrance fees: Usually between $30-50 when required. As an American, I paid visa fees to enter Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. Everywhere else I visited was free to enter on a short stay (sans Indonesia, which I paid for because of the length of time I stayed)
- Accommodation: Shared hostel rooms may be found for as low as $3-5 or under $20, it varies widely depending on where you are. As a general rule of thumb, islands will always cost more than cities and there’ll be less availability, so it’s usually better to book in advance than elsewhere if your dates aren’t flexible and you care about quality of stay. I stayed in private hostel rooms or my own Airbnb (with decent internet), to have privacy to work, and averaged $15-50 per night. A few times, I treated myself to nice hotel stays in Bangkok and Bali for $100-130 per night
- Tours: Depends on the length and country. A 3-4 hour food tour in Hanoi was under $15, whereas twice, I spent $60-80 on day trips in Indonesia with custom itineraries and private transportation
- Food: Again, this’ll vary widely. I’m partial to upmarket cafes for great coffee and ‘get work done’ vibes, but also love street food, both for its flavour and cost efficiency. A mix of both is usually how I like to see and experience a place. Either way, as long as you’re not eating every meal out at upscale places, this is the budget area where you can likely flex the most – easy to scale up or down, depending on your needs
- To give you a sense of how far your money can go, while in Indonesia and staying in trendy Canggu, I put myself on a $15-20 per day food budget, which often covered 1-2 nice coffees, a smoothie bowl, plus vegetarian lunch and dinners at nice cafes. I could have definitely done Canggu on less, but loved the abundance of fresh, healthy eats and treated myself daily
More than any specific budget guidance I can provide here, where you go, how you travel and how long you travel will depend how much money you need. And, if your travel timings are more flexible, consider working from the road. Teaching English is a great way to earn a bit of cash on your own schedule with little experience (aside from a college degree) needed.
If you really need to cut costs, look up walking tours and other free activities, eat street food, stay in hostels, do your own laundry. There are tons of ways to save on the road.
When to Visit SE Asia
Do your research before booking. SE Asia is composed of islands, mountains, countryside and buzzing cities- each country experiences different weather throughout the year.
I started travelling Southeast Asia in mid-March, which meant I had ideal weather conditions in many of my destinations. There were a few missteps, such as visiting Cambodia at the end of their dry season when it was unbearably warm, and visiting Ho Chi Minh City at the start of their rainy season, but overall, I planned things well.
If you’re curious about how I timed things, see below. But, note, my trip evolved a lot as I went, and if I planned it again from the beginning, I’d follow more of a ‘route’, rather than doubling back through some places.
March: Singapore; Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; Thailand
April: Cambodia; Laos; Vietnam
May: Vietnam; Penang, Malaysia; (& South Korea and Taiwan)
[August: Australia & New Zealand]
September: Singapore; Indonesia
November: Malaysia; Myanmar
When your’e planning your trip, also consider holidays. Visiting Thailand and Laos during Songkran and the New Year was intentional, but also a water filled couple of days. I loved it, but being doused in water all day may not be for everyone.
How to Get Around Southeast Asia
If you want to see as much as possible in the time you have and have the budget for it, fly. An abundance of air carriers, like Air Asia, make doing so easy peasy. You’ll find flights usually aren’t that expensive, but if you’re on a budget, overland travel (trains, buses) may be more your style. Plan on ferrying between islands in Thailand, and flying between the Andaman and Gulf sides.
Not sure about the best route to take, per the time you have and available budget? Google your question. Loads of travellers have come before you, take their advice.
Once you reach a place, grab a taxi to your hotel/hostel if you’re trying to save time, or look into public transit options. In some places, like Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, there’ll be plenty of public transit options available.
Things You Must Pack
First and foremast, pack light. When you’re on the move, you don’t want to cart around a ton of baggage. Plan on doing laundry once a week, and leave room for things you want to bring home. Even if you’re not a souvenir person, as I’m not, you may find yourself excited to bring things like coffee from Thailand or custom tailored clothes from Vietnam back with you.
If you’re struggling to pare down clothes, keep in mind you’ll find international chains, like H&M, in big cities (Bangkok, Singapore, Hanoi), in addition to boutiques and local market stalls just about everywhere, so it’s simple to pick up items while travelling.
This is the full list of everything I packed to backpack the world through different climates for a year- all of which, fit into a 55L Osprey backpack.
5 ‘Can’t Forget’ to Pack Items:
- Sunscreen / aloe vera
- Mosquito spray
- Luggage locks
- Global charger
- Light, breezy casual clothing, and a scarf or sarong to cover legs or shoulders at temples
Ladies, consider wearing sports bras only. Seriously, it’s so hot and humid, I can’t even imagine wearing a normal bra. Low impact sports bras are where it’s at- the last thing you want are things chafing and sticking.
While we’re talking about sports bras, women, you’ll need to cover your legs past your knees, and shoulders/upper arms when entering temples. I usually wore a midi / maxi dress or trousers and brought a scarf to ensure I was covered on top. If you forget, many temples let you rent items for a small fee. Always check a temple’s rules before visiting- if they don’t have a website, try TripAdvisor for tips from others who have visited.
And, always carry local currency. Most places, unless they’re upmarket, are cash only. And, even if they do accept card- there’s likely a minimum spend. No need to exchange at an airport- just withdraw from an ATM, I use global digital banking cards like Revoult so there are no foreign transaction fees.
One last thing to keep in mind when it comes to packing- if you’re on the move a lot, you’ll spend a decent amount of time in airports- don’t spend even more time in them by checking luggage or waiting for it to arrive. Carrying on translates to ease of travel throughout your trip.
Key Advice to Know Before You Leave for Your Trip
Before you travel, research whether you’ll need visas to enter each country you intend to enter. Of the ones I’ve listed here, visas are required for American travellers visiting both Cambodia and Vietnam- others are visa exempt for short stays.
If you’re able, bring an unlocked phone. You’ll find wifi at most upmarket places (cafes, hotels, hostels, restaurants), but the benefits to having service to call a tuk tuk or taxi, check currency conversions or language translations, or even look up directions or opening hours for something are endless. If you’re only in each country for a few days, pick up a SIM at the airport when you land- you’ll be surprised by how affordable they are.
Download a few apps to help make your travel plans and time in each country easier.
Research how to say basic greetings in the primary language of each country you’ll visit, as well as key cultural customs to know. While many people you’ll encounter will speak at least transactional English, don’t expect everyone to. Google Translate is my go-to when I need help communicating.
Don’t do anything in a temple you wouldn’t do in a church (or other place of worship). Temples are a place of worship. Be respectful with photography or video and in observing anyone who is worshipping.
If taking a taxi, insist the metre be turned on ahead of getting in.
Bring hand sanitizer and tissues. Sometimes, there won’t be toilet paper in public bathrooms (cue the tissues). And, in public bathrooms and cities, I find having hand sanitizer critical. Especially if eating street food while wandering.
Whether you’re coming from the United States or not, withdraw $50-100 USD. You never know when having USD will come in handy- especially in places like Cambodia which use USD flexibly alongside their own currency, and where you’ll want it to cover visa fees. I also like to keep a few small bills ($5, $10) handy in a second wallet in case I ever run into ‘trouble’ and need a ‘bribe’.
Make sure you understand the rules of renting a motorbike, as well as the potential risks before doing so. And, if you need it, be sure to arrange an international license before you travel.
Places You Can’t Miss: A Sample, Jam Packed Itinerary
If you’re backpacking SE Asia on a set timeframe, it’s likely because you’re travelling only for the amount of money you’ve saved, or you’ve taken a sabbatical from work and/or are taking a break to travel in between jobs.
Whatever the reason to travel, I’d recommend planning to spend time in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Indonesia.
I’ve left off the Philippines, as the islands are notably more expensive than other places in SE Asia, and the transit infrastructure isn’t as developed as other places (e.g. Thai islands), so it can take a bit longer to get from island to island.
It was also a conscious decision to leave Myanmar off this itinerary, given ongoing political distress (read: a military coup and genocide) occurring in the country. You’ll also notice Timor-Lester and Brunei aren’t on this SE Asia itinerary, both because they can be more expensive to travel to, and because I haven’t been to either.
I’m providing an outline of roughly how much time to spend in each country, and key stops to make, but also would only plan the first couple of weeks if you’re starting off on a longer trip to SE Asia.
I traveled the region for over nine months, and I planned the first six weeks too much and regretted not having more flexibility to spend another day or two in places that really appealed to me. For the rest of my trip, I didn’t book exit flights/plans until I was in a destination and understood just how much time I wanted to spend there. That decision led to some beautiful, unplanned adventures to places I never imagined I’d visit on my trip as a result of flight deals (Taiwan, South Korea, Sri Lanka, India).
While it’s good to have a general plan, and do a bit of research for each place before you your trip starts, don’t over-pace yourself or over plan. You’ll meet people along the way and will appreciate having the flexibility to switch things up at leisure.
The below day allotments are only recommendations, flex up or down based on what appeals to you in each place, and how your trip goes as you’re on it. Generally, the below route follows an upward and over progression, but you could switch it up based on flight deals, or any other factor.
In some places, like Luang Prabang, I’ve suggested a few more days than you ‘need’ to see the key sights because, some spots are magical places to slow down and chill out.
Singapore: Start your trip here– 4 days (+1-2 days more than you ‘need’ to account for jet lag)
Malaysia: Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Langkawi – 10 days
Thailand: Andaman Islands, Gulf Islands, Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Bangkok- 23 days
Cambodia: Siem Reap, Phnom Penh- 6 days (more if you’re heading to the islands, e.g. Koh Rong or Koh Rong Sanloem)
Laos: Luang Prabang- 5 days
Vietnam: Hanoi, Sa Pa, Ha Long Bay, Hoi An, Ho Chi Minh City- 26 days
Indonesia: Bali, Flores, Gili Islands- 19 days
The Best Things to Do in Each Destination
Everything You Must See & Do in Penang, Malaysia
8 Cafes You Can’t Miss in Penang, Malaysia
The Best Street Art in SE Asia, Found in Penang
Three Places to Find Excellent Coffee in Kuala Lumpar
Off the Tourist Track: Visiting the Federal Territory Mosque in Kuala Lumpar
5 Things You Must Do in Kuala Lumpar
Two Weeks to Travel the Best of Thailand
Finding Serenity in Bangkok, A Review of the Banyan Tree Hotel
Living Luxuriously in Bangkok: Five Star Hotels On a Budget
21 Things to Know Before Traveling to Thailand
Finding Floating Markets in Thailand
Three Temples You Can’t Miss in Bangkok
Four Cafes in Bangkok Worth Your Baht
Chiang Rai, Thailand: A Sleepy Mountain Town with Stunning Scenery
Three Temples You Can’t Miss in Chiang Rai, Thailand
The Best Cafes in Chiang Rai
Visiting an Ethical Elephant Sanctuary in Thailand
Why You Should Try a Gong Bath in Thailand
Getting on Island Time: 48 Hours in Koh Tao
The Best Places to Watch the Sun Set in Koh Tao, Thailand
Affordable Island Luxury at the Charming Fox in Koh Samui
Discovering Pristine Island Paradise on Koh Nang Yuan
Cafes You Can’t Miss in Chiang Mai
Three Temples You Must Visit in Chiang Mai, Thailand
The Best Places to Eat in Chiang Mai for Vegetarians
The Ultimate Guide to 3 Days in Chiang Mai
Dramatic Limestone Cliffs + Lush Jungle in Railay, Thailand
A Thai Island Day Trip That’ll Leave You Speechless: Hong Island
Relaxing in the Maldives of Thailand, Koh Lipe
The Most Beautiful Day Tour in the Thai Islands: Snorkelling, Caving & Idyllic Beaches
3 Reasons Koh Lanta is My Favourite Thai Island
The Case for Visiting Thailand’s Phi Phi Islands
A Ranking of the Thai Islands: ‘Must Visit’ to ‘Okay to Skip’
The Complete Guide to Ferrying Between the Thai Islands
Celebrating the Water Festival, Songkran, in Bangkok
4 Places I Still Want to Visit in Thailand
How Luang Prabang in Laos Stole My Heart in 3 Days
Cruising the Mekong River at Sunset
Three Beautiful, Chill Cafes You Can’t Miss in Luang Prabang
Observing an Ancient Ritual in Luang Prabang, Almsgiving
The Most Beautiful Waterfall I’ve Ever Seen, Kuang Si Falls in Laos
Two Weeks to Travel the Best of Vietnam
A Love Letter to Vietnam
Discovering Coffee Mania in Sai Gon
The Ultimate Guide to Sai Gon, Vietnam
The Only Tour You Need to Take in Sai Gon: A Motorbike Street Food Tour
Every Kind of Coffee You Must Try in Vietnam
The Best Vegetarian Banh Mi I Ate in Vietnam
How Da Nang Stole my Heart and Became One of my Favourite Places in SE Asia
Slowing Down in Hoi An: Why I Loved Fell For This Historic Slice of Vietnam
A Guide to Getting Clothes Custom Made in Hoi An, Vietnam
Charming Cafes to Visit in Hoi An, Vietnam
A Night Cruising Vietnam’s Stunning Ha Long Bay
Why You Should Consider Visiting Sa Pa in Vietnam
The Ultimate Guide to Hanoi: Must Do’s & Can’t Misses
Pho Cocktails? Where to Find this Unique Drink in Vietnam
Eating Hanoi, Vegetarian Street Food Style
A Coffee Lover’s Guide to Hanoi
Why You Need to Visit the Gili Islands on your Bali Holiday
The Ultimate Guide to 3 Days in the Gili Islands
The Ultimate Guide to 72 Hours in Labuan Bajo, Flores
The Best Day Trip to Take in Indonesia
The Ultimate Bali Planning Guide
The Ultimate Guide to Jungle Paradise in Ubud
Every Cafe You Must Visit in Ubud
Chasing Waterfalls Near Ubud
10 Things You Can’t Miss in Canggu, Bali
15 Cafes in Canggu for Your Smoothie Bowl & Latte Fix
5 Spas in Bali I Loved Enough to Return to Time After Time
5 Sights in East Bali That’ll Take Your Breath Away
The Best Places to Workout & Zen Out in Bali
A Magic Day in the Mountains of Munduk
The Best of Uluwatu in One Day
A Night at Munduk Moding: An Eco-Luxe Hotel With One of Bali’s Best Infinity Pools
Going Off the Beaten Path in Bali, Finding Serenity in Seririt
Seeing the Best of Breathtaking Nusa Penida on a Day Trip from Bali
Three Luxury Hotels in Bali That’ll Take Your Breath Away
Have you ever travelled Southeast Asia? Where would you go on a long trip to explore the region?
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