The Ultimate 3 Month Guide to Experiencing Southeast Asia

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)
June: Indonesia
July: Indonesia
[August: Australia & New Zealand] 
September: Singapore; Indonesia
October: 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.

// 21 Things I Wish I Knew Before Travelling to Thailand //

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

SINGAPORE:
10 Things You Must See, Do & Eat in Singapore
The Caffeine Lovers Guide to Singapore
A Whirlwind Day in Singapore

MALAYSIA:
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

THAILAND:
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

CAMBODIA:
A Two Day Guide to Seeing the Best of Angkor Wat
Four Cute Cafes in Siem Reap You Can’t Miss
Four Things to Do Your First Time in Siem Reap
A  Magical Sunrise in SE Asia: Angkor Wat at Dawn

LAOS:
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

VIETNAM:
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

INDONESIA:
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? 

Other Posts You May Enjoy

An Unforgettable Two Weeks Exploring Southeast Asia

Say the words, ‘Southeast Asia‘ and you’ll draw mental imagery of long-tail boats, white sand beaches, lazy rivers, 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.

Although I had time, I also moved around a lot- keen to see and experience as much as possible. It was my first visit to this part of the world, but it won’t be the last. Since returning, I’ve had many ask about ‘two week itineraries’ for SE Asia. Even with the pandemic, many are looking forward to a time when they’ll be able to travel again.

Why two weeks?
Often, that’s the amount of time most can take off from corporate jobs without preparing for a longer period of leave, or using too many/all of their allocated vacation days. That said, the longer you have, the better. There’s so much to see and do in each country far beyond what’s represented here. For a first taste of Southeast Asia though, this guide is designed to maximize your experience.

Every place in Southeast Asia has something special to offer, no place is the same- even within a country, things vary significantly from north to south. I’ve included Thai islands, but not an entire week lounging at the beach. You’ll move around a lot, so if that’s not your preferred travel style, consider spending more time in a place. But, if you’re keen to see as much as possible, this guide may be right up your ally.

Where to Visit in Southeast Asia?

Narrowing down places to highlight was difficult. In some ways, this guide is controversial. Often, recommendations for first time visitors to SE Asia center in picking one country and exploring one or two places. While that’s a fine way to travel, I also tend to oscillate between trips where I see and do a lot, and others where I travel slow, spending more time in a single place.

If visiting SE Asia for the first time, I’d definitely want to experience as much as I could. There are 11 countries in SE Asia- Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Timor-Lester, and Vietnam.

If you’re short on time and out to see as much as possible, I’d recommend venturing to 4-5 of my favorite countries, and picking one place to see in each- Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.

In Singapore, spend time seeing the city.
In Malaysia, soak up the sights of Kuala Lumpar.
In Thailand, go island hopping.
In Cambodia, visit the ancient ruins of civilizations past.
And in Vietnam, eat all the street food. Seriously, all of it.

Will you see and do a lot in a short span of time?
Absolutely.

Will it be a relaxing, rejuvenating vacation?
Perhaps not. But you’ll learn a lot, see a lot and experience a lot. Which, for me, always sparks joy in the moment and long after I’ve returned home.

I’ll also say this- if you’ve haven’t travelled much, this is not the itinerary for you. You may do better visiting one or two places vs. bouncing from spot to spot. But if you’ve travelled quite a bit, enjoy fast paced trips and aren’t bothered by repacking or being on the go, this adventure packed itinerary may be of interest to you.

When to Visit in Southeast 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 visited Singapore, the Andaman Islands in Thailand, Bangkok, Siem Reap and Hanoi in late March / early-mid April, and would recommend that as an optimal time to visit. Siem Reap will be at the end of the dry season, and it may be unbelievably hot, but it’s tolerable for a short period of time, and much better than visiting in the rainy season.

How to Get Around Southeast Asia

If you’re short on time, fly. An abundance of air carriers, like Air Asia, make doing so easy, peasy and affordable.

Once you reach a place, plan on taxing a Grab or taxi to your hotel/hostel, again, to save time (and stress of navigating a new place). And, depending on where you are, plan on either walking places or using ride sharing (Grab & Go Jek are the ‘Uber’ of SE Asia) to save time and allow you to see more with the time you have.

Must Bring Packing Essentials for Southeast Asia

First and foremast, pack light. When you’re on the move throughout your holiday, you don’t want to cart around a ton of baggage. Trust you’ll be able to either do your own laundry or send out at least once during your trip, 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 Vietnam back with you.

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. If you’re only spending two weeks in SE Asia, pack clothes you can mix and match.

5 Must 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 to minimize 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 needing to check luggage or wait for it to arrive. Carrying on equates to ease of travel throughout your trip.

Key Things to Know About Visiting Southeast Asia

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 most upmarket places (cafes, hotels, hostels, restaurants), but the benefits to having wifi 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 all 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.

// 21 Things I Wish I Knew Before Travelling to Thailand //

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 to carry throughout your trip. 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’.

Finally, make sure you understand the rules of renting a motorbike, as well as the potential risks before doing so.

A Sample, Jam Packed Itinerary

For the purpose of outlining an itinerary, I’ve started the trip in Bangkok. Based on where you’re originating, you may find it’s better to fly in Singapore or Kuala Lumpar and start there. If you do that, then you could easily switch up this itinerary- all three are cities with major international airports. There’s plenty to see and do in each, but if you only have a day in one or two of them, you can still hit up some of the highlights.

Growing up it the US, it was usually advised to book return flights when traveling, but if you’re trying to see and do as much as possible in SE Asia, I’d book one way there and back (price pending, of course). Doing so gives you more flexibility in where you visit, and how much you’re able to see.

One more note about the below- it’ll look like a lot of travel days, but in reality, you’ll likely only need to block a quarter or half day to do things like flying from Phuket to Siem Reap, or Siem Reap to Hanoi. The reason I’ve blocked the day as a travel one is to give you flexibility, but depending on your flight times, you’ll be able to use part of those days to sightsee as well.

Day 1: Fly into Bangkok
Day 2: See Bangkok
Day 3: Fly to Krabi
Days 4-6: Spend 2-3 days in Railay or Ao Nang; Ferry to Phuket to depart Thailand
Day 7: Fly to Siem Reap
Day 8: Explore Siem Reap
Day 9: Fly to Hanoi
Days 10-11: Explore Hanoi
Days 12-14: Fly to Singapore or KL
Day 13: Explore Singapore or KL
Day 14: Transit home

Where to Stay in Each Place

Where you stay should reflect both what you plan on doing (proximity for ease of adventuring), as well as your budget. I’ve made recommendations in every post I’ve linked for each destination below, but Booking.com and Airbnb are great places to check, based on your schedule. Before booking, be sure to read the reviews on their sites, as well as Google- they’re always telling.

Must-See Highlights in Each Place

BANGKOK

Thailand’s capital, Bangkok, is a bustling metropolis- to say the least. The intense, constant grid lock is enough to cause sensation overload in even the most seasoned traveller. Mix in the dozens of beautiful temples, vibrant street markets, hundreds of restaurants and cafes, and infamous nightlife, and you’ve got a city with more to see and do than anyone could possibly find the time for.

  • Favorite things to do: Visit Khao San Road; Have sunset drinks at one of the city’s swank hotel rooftops
  • Favorite place to eat: Chinatown for great street food
  • Favorite places for coffee: Bangkok’s cafe scene is worth your baht. Toby’s, Not Just Another Cup, and Rocket Coffeebar are a few of my favorites
  • Favorite cultural site (museum; temple): Temple hopping: The Grand Palace; Wat Arun; Wat Pho

// Two Weeks to Travel the Best of Thailand //

RAILAY / AO NANG

The soaring cliffs and pristine beaches of Railay, Thailand have hovered near the top of my travel ‘wish list’ for years.

Every time I saw photos, I couldn’t believe it was a real place.
It appeared to be actual paradise.

Many people actually think Railay is an island, but it’s actually part of mainland Thailand. It is, however, difficult to reach. Because of the cliffs and dense jungle, you can only access Railay East or West by taking a long tail boat. The isolated location lends an island feel, which manifests as secluded relaxation.

If Railay is too tough to get to in the time you have, you could stay in adjacent Ao Nang to be more central with the benefit of proximity to exploring Railay.

  • Favorite things to do: Go for a morning walk on Railay Beach; Do two day trips to Hong Island, Four Islands, or Koh Phi Phi. Day trips often start early (8/9 am) and return mid-afternoon (3 pm), so you’ll still have time to hang around when you return
  • Favorite place to eat: The food scene didn’t impress me too much in Railay, but I also need to be overtly careful, because of my food allergies
  • Favorite places for coffee: Coffee Station

// Dramatic Limestone Cliffs + Lush Jungle in Railay, Thailand //

SIEM REAP

Siem Reap is a gateway to the ancient world.

With history dating back to the year 802, it’s somewhat hard to believe Siem Reap was a sleepy town in the Cambodian countryside until the world found out about Angkor Wat. If you’re visiting Siem Reap, chances are you’re there to see Angkor, and by extension, Angkor Wat. And, while the ancient temples should be at the very top of your sightseeing list, there’s plenty more to do in Siem Reap.

  • Favorite things to do: Sunrise at Angkor Wat (you’ll need to get temple tickets the day prior); Get a Khmer massage; Wander Siem Reap’s markets
  • Favorite place to eat: New Leaf for Khmer curry and Khmer noodle soup; The night market
  • Favorite places for coffee: Little Red Fox
  • Favorite cultural site (museum; temple): Angkor

// Four Things to Do Your First Time in Siem Reap //

HANOI

Just the name of Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi, conjures images of motorbikes, street food flames rising up from the sidewalk, its infamous train street, French colonial architecture, charming cafes, and chaos- always chaos. Vietnam is the kind of place that awakens your sense and pulls you in from all angles. The country’s capital, Hanoi, best illustrates this- it’s a crazy, beautiful, historic place.

You could say it was love at first sight my first night in Hanoi. The city’s charm snaked its way into heart, and as I explored back streets over the course of a few weeks, I couldn’t deny how hard I was falling for Hanoi. I call Vietnam my favourite country in Southeast Asia, a title it earned but not without fierce competition from Indonesia, Laos and Malaysia.

  • Favorite things to do: Vegetarian street food tour; Sipping beers at Bia Hoi junction; Wandering the old quarter
  • Favorite place to eat: Banh Mi 25 (best vegetarian banh mi)
  • Favorite places for coffee: Cafe Dinh (egg coffee, old school style); Cong Caphe (frozen coconut coffee)
  • Favorite cultural site (museum; temple): Temple of Literature

// The Ultimate Guide to Hanoi //
// Two Weeks to Travel the Best of Vietnam //

SINGAPORE

Ah, Singapore- the clean, futuristic, cultural city has a lot to interest travellers. With Sing’s airport being a major international hub for connecting flights around Asia, there are often flight deals to be found, with long layovers to see a bit of the city.

  • Favorite things to do: Gardens by the Bay (Supertree Grove and Cloud Tree Forest, in particular); Nightly light show at Marina Bay Sands; Wander colorful Kampong Glam and Koon Seng Road
  • Favorite place to eat: Hawker Centres, in particular Tekka in Little India
  • Favorite places for coffee: Free the Robot; % Arabica; Common Man. Coffee not your thing? Try cheese foam fruit tea at Hey Tea
  • Favorite cultural site (museum; temple): ArtScience Museum

// 10 Things You Must See, Eat & Do in Singapore //

KUALA LUMPAR

Famed for its skyscrapers and shopping malls, Kuala Lumpar (KL) is the capital of Malaysia. It’s a melting pot of culture with a vibrant mix of Malay, Indian, Thai and Chinese. The food is fantastic and there’s no shortage of things to do.

  • Favorite things to do: Climb to the top of Batu Caves (free); Gawk at some seriously good street art; Watch the sunset or sunrise at a rooftop pool
  • Favorite place to eat: Merchant’s Lane for brunch; Connaught Night Market or Bangsar Baru Night Market (more touristy) for nasi lemak, satay and roti canai
  • Favorite places for coffee: VCR; Pulp by Papa Palheta; Feeka Coffee Roasters; Lim Kim Cafe
  • Favorite cultural site (museum; temple): Admire Thean Hou Temple

// 5 Things You Must Do in Kuala Lumpar //

A Final Note

Know your plans may not work out. As with travel anywhere, things can go wrong.

If you need a long tail boat to get to a resort but it’s storming, you may have to spend a night on the mainland. It’s just how it goes, and why travel insurance is so important- I always use Safety Wing or  World Nomads. Remember, you’re experiencing a new country, full of unfamiliar sights, sounds and things. It’s okay if everything doesn’t work out exactly ‘to plan’- you never know what you’ll discover, sometimes it may be even better than what had imagined.

Have you ever been to Southeast Asia? Where would you recommend people visit on their first time in this part of the world? 

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Everything You Must See & Do in Penang, Malaysia

THE ULTIMATE GUIDE TO PENANG

Killer street food, mountains and sea views, a plethora of cool cafes, brillant, interactive street art, and a thriving culture. No reason comes to mind you shouldn’t visit Penang, Malaysia. In so many ways, it’s the best of both worlds.

Since being designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2008, Penang has done a fantastic job blending the old with the new. Walking down the old streets of George Town, you’ll see crumbling, pastel buildings, eclectic street art, sacred temples, modern cafes, and local markets.

Georgetown is a former colonial city on the island of Penang in northern Malaysia. Named after King George III, it’s an interesting mix of Asian and European influence. Malaysia is predominantly Malay, but Penang has a high population of Chinese and Indian, creating a truly unique culture.

Having loved my time in Kuala Lumpar when I first came to Asia, when I was looking for a place to visit for a week before heading to Bali in early June, Penang came to mind.

I’d heard tale of an improving WiFi infrastructure from other digital nomads, and could tell from the blog posts I scoured, there’d be no shortage of things to do in this somehow timeless, yet modern city.

And so, I booked a flight from Seoul to Penang, eager to see more of Malaysia before heading to Indonesia.

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With only a week there, Penang was a place I left wishing I’d given myself more time. It’s one of the best cities I’ve visited in SE Asia- no shortage of activities, vibrant culture, and modern enough to provide amenities many long-term travellers miss (hello, shopping malls and movie theatres).

The historic old town is compact enough to wander on foot, and Grabs are plentiful if you want to head to another part of the island. I didn’t use the bus system while there because Grab estimates were always very cheap, but I’ve heard it’s pretty good, and helpful for getting to some of the island’s major attractions.

Whatever you decide to do in Penang, you really can’t go wrong. It’s a place brimming with activities and things to try.

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The Ultimate Guide to Penang: What to Do

There’s no shortage of activities in Penang. I wished I had longer to explore the city, and see more of the island.

Whether you have a few days or a bit longer, you’ll find something in Penang to interest just about everyone.

Hunting for Street Art in Georgetown: Before visiting, I’d heard the street art scene, in particular, was the stuff legends were made of, but still wasn’t prepared to be so blown away. When George Town became a UNESCO site, the Penang State Government held a competition for ideas to help brand the town as such to make it more attractive for visitors.

One of the ideas to come out of the competition was a series of wrought iron sculptures, which give off a sketch-esque appearance against the city’s walls.

Every corner I turned down, there seemed to be iron sculptures. The details in some of them are incredible, and I found them interesting because many contain history snippets.

The hunt for street art is a fun (and free!) activity that seemed to happen every time I set out to explore downtown. Even, if my intent was to head to a cafe, I’d inevitably be distracted by a glimpse of a colorful mural down an alleyway.

Where to find this awesome street art? 

It’s seriously all over town. You can’t miss it.

A few places to head to if you want to kick-start your search-

  • Armenian Street
  • Gat Lebuh Chulia Street
  • Love Lane (bonus, you’ll find plenty of trend cafes in this area and budget hostels- it’s known for being backpacker friendly)

Strolling Historic Georgetown: Whether you’re looking for street art, or just out to peruse city streets, don’t miss seeing Love Lane. A tourist hotspot, there’s lots of cafes, bars, restaurants and great street art. Some of my favourite finds in Georgetown were discovered when I decided to just wander a few streets and see what I could find.

Another must-see while wandering, the Blue Mansion. As one of the most famous places in Penang, it’s a beautifully restored 19th century house painted bright, you guessed it, indigo blue. It’s famed for its ornate furnishings. If you’ve got cash to splash, you can book a room in the mansion for an overnight stay. Daily tours are offered for those just desiring a peek inside.

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Going on a Street Food Tour: Street markets in Penang are some of the most diverse I’ve encountered- you’ll find noodles, laksas, samosas, traditional Malaysian desserts- it’s easy to see how different cultures blend together for a street feast. Most tours take you to a food market, plus coffee shops and restaurants. I didn’t do a tour while in Penang, since I was sick for part of my stay, but I’ve heard rave reviews for the Tastes and Traditions tour.

Checking out Penang’s Malls: Malls in Asia are serious business. Most are multi-level and have several towers. I visited the Gurney Plaza mall a few times during my stay, popping in for one of the best pedicures I’ve ever had (Charmaine Nail Studio), to see Aladdin (only £2 for the ticket!), and excellent bubble tea from TeaAlive (one of my favourite places in Asia). Even if you don’t fancy shopping, the lower level food courts in Asian malls are epic.

Seeing the City from Above at Penang Hill: If you’re up for a mega hike, you can climb your way to the top of this towering hill. If that’s not quite your speed in high humidity, fear not- you can take the world’s steepest funicular railway. In addition to stunning, sweeping views at the top, there’s a canopy walkway, temple, mosque and owl museum to check out.

Getting Lost in the Kek Lok Si Temple: One of Penang’s most famous sights, it’s believed to be the biggest Buddhist temple in Malaysia. Over 100 years old, the temple is an important pilgrimage site for Buddhists from all over SE Asia. Plan on spending at least a few hours here- the views are great, but there’s also a 7-story pagoda, multiple prayer halls, beautiful gardens and endless nooks and crannies to explore. To enter the temple, you’ll be asked to make a donation. I didn’t see a dress code noted anywhere, but as with anywhere in Asia, I’d err on the side of modesty.

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Wandering Little India: Strolling through this part of Georgetown will awaken your senses- there’s so much to see, smell and taste. Buy a refreshing lassi from one of the street vendors to sip, and make sure you see Sri Mahamariamman Temple. Hailed as the oldest Hindu temple in Penang, it’s decorated in beautiful pastel colours. I timed my visit for evening prayer, and enjoyed watching the ritual from the street.

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Taking a Cooking Class: The gardens at Tropical Spice Garden are gorgeous, and reason enough to visit, but I’ve heard their cooking class is great for anyone looking to learn how to make Malaysian specialities. It uses the freshest ingredients, including spices from the garden itself. I didn’t have time for this while in Penang, but know people who’ve taken the class and loved it.

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Walking Around the Chew Jetty: The largest and most intact of the clan jetties, the origins of these jetties can be traced back to Chinese settlement. Dating back to the 19th century, the jetties are one large floating village of Chinese shops and homes. Now, many of the jetty streets are mostly lined with souvenir stalls and street food. Wander a bit from the main one to see some of the ones further down the river. Here, you’ll find evidence of what daily life is like for those who still live in the jetties.

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Admire Nature at Penang’s National Park, Taman Negara: The smallest of the national parks in Malaysia, it’s no less of a beautiful place to spend time. Travel northwest to Teluk Bahang to find the entrance to the park, and the start of hiking trails. While you’re in the area, if you have time, take a boat out to by monkey beach for beautiful views, and yes, loads of monkeys.

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See Sparkling Lights at Penang’s Avatar Secret Garden: I didn’t make it here because of the evening thunderstorms when I visited Penang, but taking a Grab out there was high on my list of things to do. Peruse pictures, and you’ll see hundreds of colourful lights set in a beautiful garden. Looks pretty magical.

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The Ultimate Guide to Penang: Where to Eat

Some of the cafes I’ve recommended underneath ‘Where to Have Coffee’ deserve a shout out here as well-

For breakfast, lunch, check out: Black Kettle, Lavish Fusion Bakery, Macallum Connoisseurs Coffee Company and Mugshot Cafe.

Dessert, China House is a can’t miss. There’s over 100 different types of cake, with a selection that changes daily. Plus, the cafe itself is a cool place to spend time. Roots Dessert cafe is also a visitor and local favourite.

And for dinner, Tai Tong is a very popular place for dim sum. There’s a branch of Din Tai Fung in Gurney Plaza Mall (excellent dumplings and noodles), and what seems like endless street food stalls in city centre. The Chula Street Night Hawker Stalls are particularly good. General rule of thumb, only eat from ones where you see locals or there’s a queue.

Other places to eat that are vegetarian friendly: Zhu Yuan Vegetarian Restaurant, Tofu Village, Carrot Fish (great healthy eats), Karaikudi (Indian), Holy Guacamole (Mexican), and Evergreen Vegetarian (Indian).

A few foods to try to get a taste of local eats, all of which are vegetarian friendly:

  • Coconut ice cream
  • Pineapple tarts
  • Cendol, a very sweet dessert made from shaved ice, coconut milk, palm sugar, bright green rice flour jelly noodles and sweetened red beans
  • Ais Kacang, a shaved ice topped with rose syrup, jellies, red beans, creamed corn, and peanuts
  • Apam Balik, folded pancakes with peanuts, creamed corn and sometimes coconut or banana

The Ultimate Guide to Penang: Where to Have Coffee

Penangites love coffee. Small, traditional shops can be found on just about every corner. At these shops, you’ll find kopi tiam style coffee. Best to visit these if you’re just looking for a morning cup of joe. Not the kind of place you’d necessarily crack open a laptop.

Fear not, because with a more modern coffee culture emerging in George Town, there are plenty of modern cafes for you to also visit. It’ll feel like your options for a good cuppa (and usually decent wifi) are endless.

My favourite places were

China House: No list of cafes in Penang can overlook this institution. It’s one of the oldest and most visited cafes in Penang. Walk through the cafe, all the way to the back to check out the art gallery. With old school music pumping and a seriously impressive selection of cakes, this place is great for catching up with a friend or just taking a break from sightseeing.

Black Kettle: The bright, yellow exterior is what drew me in, but the hip interior and expansive menu convinced me to stay for breakfast. The menu has a fun, Western twist to it. A nice reprieve from the Malay, Indian and Chinese cuisine the rest of Penage offers.

Macallum Connoisseurs Coffee Company: A bit outside of the historic George Town centre, Macallum is worth the Grab ride. In fact, I loved this modern warehouse-style cafe so much, I came twice. The breakfast sandwiches were insanely delicious, and the coffee and tea menu is long enough to please just about anyone. Don’t sleep on the smoothie options- I tried a fresh jackfruit smoothie at Macallum, and instantly understood why so many people love this exotic, SE Asian fruit.

Lunabar Coffee: The stuff quiet weekend mornings are made of. At first, I had a tough time finding this cafe because of all the plants out front- an excellent problem to have. Come here for good coffee, slow vibes and plant bebe heaven.

Secawan ‘n’ Such: Hidden on Hutton Lane, Secawan was one of my favourite cafes in Penang. There were fewer tourists, and the WiFi was so strong, I would have definitely come back if I had time. Also loved the cafe’s interior design- the giant murals and rustic touches helped create a relaxed vibe that kept me centered while plowing my way through to-do lists.

The Alley: Set in an old Chinese goods store near Little India, The Alley may be small but the atmosphere is quite lovely- the word, charming, comes to mind. Here, I enjoyed a chai latte and order of piping, hot churros. There’s a game console in the back, so this seems like it would be a cool place to meet a few friends and catch up.

Lavish Fusion Bakery: An Aussie I met in Vietnam raved about Lavish’s souffle pancakes, so much so, that when I was finally hungry after spending a few days sick, all I could think about was trying them. Pleased to inform they do not disappoint- fluffy, a bit wobbly and full of flavour, the pancakes are the star at this bright, modern, plant draped cafe.

Coffee Affairs: Sous vide cold brew? Yes, please. Concerned it may be too hip to be good, I was overjoyed to discover the cold brew tasted just as good as some of my long-steeped favourites. This cafe was also a nice spot to lounge- indoor and outdoor seating, and close to Little India for wandering.

The Mugshot: With a prime location near historic Love Lane, The Mugshot is loved by many visitors to Penang. The bagels are pretty good, and wooden details lend to the cafe’s lovely ambiance. Oh, and per the name, you can have a ‘mugshot’ taken with wall art here as well.

Twelve Cups: Recently renovated and perfectly positioned at the cusp of town. A great place to stop while searching for street art, or to take a break from roaming the jetties.

The Ultimate Guide to Penang: Where to Drink

Malaysia is a Muslim country, so alcohol is heavily taxed. I wasn’t drinking while in Malaysia, but have heard a few of the upmarket bars in the city centre do decent cocktails.

If you have nice weather while visiting, the Rainbow Bar skydeck would be a great option for a tipple and sunset. And I’ve heard great things about some of the rooftops in town too, notably The Press Rooftop Bar and Loke Thye Kee Bar.

Extra Travel Tips

  • Language: English is widely spoken, especially in Georgetown but the official language of Malaysia is Malay, which has various dialects 
  • Currency: Malaysian Ringgit 
    • I withdrew from a bank ATM. Look for Visa and Mastercard images on an ATM- that means it’s global, and only withdraw from a bank one (there’s less of a chance your card will be skimmed). I’d advise carrying cash on you- many purchases are so small, you won’t meet the card minimum if the place you’re at even takes cards
  • Budget: I found Penang to be slightly more expensive than Kuala Lumpar, but still cheaper than islands in Thailand. My Airbnb came in under $25 USD a night, and generally tried to stick to $15-20 USD a day budget for transport/activities/food. I ate at a lot of upmarket places, but you can do Penang on the serious cheap if you stick to street food and local cafes
  • Getting There: 
    • Flying: You’ll likely layover somewhere nearby- Kuala Lumpar or Singapore before flying into Penang’s airport, which is located in the island’s south 
    • Boat: If you’re coming from the Thai islands or Langkawi, there are ferries to Penang
  • Getting Around: Walk in the historic centre, and use Grab or buses to get around to other attractions on the island. From the airport, I called a Grab to take me to my Airbnb 
  • Where to Stay: I stayed in a beautiful Airbnb condo just outside of Georgetown’s city centre because I planned on using Grab to get around, and needed high speed WiFi to teach English. If you’re just in Penang for holiday, you can easily stay downtown – plenty of hotels, hostels and Airbnbs to choose from, pending your budget 
  • When to Visit: I visited in late May, and had humid, sunny days. In the evenings, there were often short thunderstorms, but they never really impacted my plans (aside from not being able to catch a good sunset). Like most places in Asia, Penang has a wet and dry season, and because it’s an island, it’s not uncommon for it to rain, even in the dry season. High season for tourism is November – January, when it’s less likely to rain and not overbearingly humid 
  • Tipping: Tipping is not common practice in Malaysia. Some upmarket places may add a 10% service charge to your bill, but they’ll usually warn you of this on the menu first 
  • Wifi Access: Every cafe, restaurant, bar and coffee shop I visited offered free WiFi, but quality varies greatly. In some places, it’s quick and in others not so much. Everywhere though, it’d be fast enough to call a Grab if you need help getting around. The only places you’d struggle to do so would be attractions outside of city centre- temples, hiking trails, the National Park, beaches 
  • SIM Card Options: I bought a 7-day SIM, paying $7.30 for 2 GB of data. A bit more expensive than other places in Asia, but not too bad. I also had the option of unlimited texts and WhatsApp messages OR unlimited social platform access (FB, IG, Pinterest, Snapchat). So, those 2 GB of data I bought were only used for Google maps, hailing Grabs and looking things up on Google. There are cheaper options available for short term stays, and a 30 day option if you’re planning on being in Malaysia for a bit longer

Have you ever been to Malaysia? Is it a place that’s on your travel wish list? If you’ve been, would you add anything to this guide to Penang? 

Enjoyed this ultimate guide to Penang? Pin it. 

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The Best Street Art in SE Asia, Found in Penang

A GUIDE TO THE BEST STREET ART IN PENANG

Since being designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2008, Penang has done a fantastic job blending the old with the new. Walking down the old streets of George Town, you’ll see crumbling, pastel buildings, eclectic street art, sacred temples, modern cafes, and local markets.

Before visiting, I’d heard the street art scene, in particular, was the stuff legends were made of, but still wasn’t prepared to be so blown away.

When George Town became a UNESCO site, the Penang State Government held a competition for ideas to help brand the town as such to make it more attractive for visitors.

One of the ideas to come out of the competition was a series of wrought iron sculptures, which give off a sketch-esque appearance against the city’s walls.

Every corner I turned down, there seemed to be iron sculptures. The details in some of them are incredible, and I found them interesting because many contain history snippets.

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Other projects in Geroge Town have led to the creation of what seems like it must be endless street art.  In fact, there are so many murals in Penang, statistics about how many there actually are simply don’t exist.

The hunt for street art is a fun (and free!) activity that seemed to happen every time I set out to explore downtown. Even, if my intent was to head to a cafe, I’d inevitably be distracted by a glimpse of a colorful mural down an alleyway.

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Where to find the best street art in Penang? 

It’s seriously all over town. You can’t miss it.

A few places to head to if you want to kick-start your search-

  • Armenian Street
  • Gat Lebuh Chulia Street
  • Love Lane (bonus, you’ll find plenty of trend cafes in this area and budget hostels- it’s known for being backpacker friendly)

While wandering, keep an eye out for the cat art. It’s all over town, the result of a collaboration with the 101 Lost Kittens Project. An effort carried out by the Artists for stray animals to help raise awareness of the issue and find home for stray animals.

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And, not posing with one of Ernest Zacharevic’s 3D works of art would be a serious George Town oversight.

In 2012, Zacharevic came to Penang on hire to add a series of murals to George Town. It was his first major art project and resulted in a phenomenal public response. His work now features worldwide, and he’s one of the most famous street artists.

His series in George Town is distinctive because it often includes motorcycles, bicycles or a swing. You’ll be able to spot these words from streets away-  there’s often a short queue or group of people crowded around what appears to just be a wall, until get closer and see the artwork.

His interactive street art was one of my favourite things to seek out in George Town. Don’t be afraid of sitting on the bikes, or climbing on the swing- the structures are sturdy.
Such a fun concept.

In any place I visit, I’m always interested in public or street art (if it exists), but it wasn’t until visiting Penang, that I really appreciated how much of an impact it can have on a city.

Penang would be worth visiting without it, but there’s not question how much the murals have shaped the vibe of the town.

Few other places spring to mind- Berlin, London, Prague, Lisbon- that people purposefully come to in hope of seeing street art.

In George Town, there are a mix of fun, interactive pieces, and murals meant to have more of a social impact (awareness to adopt stray animals, a reminder of climate change).

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Have you ever visited a place where the street art or local art surprised you in the best way possible? Would you add any spots to this post about street art in Penang? 

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8 Cafes You Can’t Miss in Penang, Malaysia

A GUIDE TO CAFES IN PENANG

Coming to Penang felt like a breath of fresh air. 

After three intense weeks travelling Manila, Taipei and Seoul, I needed to slow down and chill out. 

Getting sick was all the affirmation I needed of this being the case. 

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I spent my first two days in Penang barely able to get out of bed. Good thing the king size bed in my Airbnb was seriously comfy, the air-con was strong, the giant bedroom TV was connected to Netflix, and I had all the hot tea I needed at my disposal. 

Fortunately, the rest of my trip, I started to feel better and was able to venture out and explore the city. With a long list of life admin tasks piling up from the past few weeks, I was keen to find a few cafes I could work from while in Penang. 

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Fortunately, Penangites love coffee. Small, traditional shops can be found on just about every corner. At these shops, you’ll find kopi tiam style coffee. Best to visit these if you’re just looking for a morning cup of joe. Not the kind of place you’d necessarily crack open a laptop.

Fear not, because with a more modern coffee culture emerging in George Town, there are plenty of modern cafes to also visit.

It’ll feel like your options for a good cuppa (and usually decent wifi) are endless.

A Guide to Cafes in Penang: 8 Cafes You Can’t Miss In George Town

All of these spots are great for your coffee fix, but some have better WiFi than others. I only visited most of these spots once, and consider it unfair to include note of the WiFi situation in my notes because I know it can be better some days or weeks than others.

If you’re looking for somewhere to work while in Penang, and want to ensure there’s strong WiFi, read the cafe’s reviews on Foursquare or TripAdvisor before visiting.

Or, Google something like, ‘cafes for digital nomads in Penang’. People are usually pretty honest about things that make a cafe a great place to work repeatedly – think: Wifi speed, number of plugs, seats, busyness, menu variety, etc.

China House: No list of cafes in Penang can overlook this institution. It’s one of the oldest and most visited cafes in Penang. Walk through the cafe, all the way to the back to check out the art gallery. With old school music pumping and a seriously impressive selection of cakes, this place is great for catching up with a friend or just taking a break from sightseeing.

Black Kettle: The bright, yellow exterior is what drew me in, but the hip interior and expansive menu convinced me to stay for breakfast. The menu has a fun, Western twist to it. A nice reprieve from the Malay, Indian and Chinese cuisine the rest of Penage offers.

Macallum Connoisseurs Coffee Company: A bit outside of the historic George Town centre, Macallum is worth the Grab ride. In fact, I loved this modern warehouse-style cafe so much, I came twice. The breakfast sandwiches were insanely delicious, and the coffee and tea menu is long enough to please just about anyone. Don’t sleep on the smoothie options- I tried a fresh jackfruit smoothie at Macallum, and instantly understood why so many people love this exotic, SE Asian fruit.

Lunabar Coffee: The stuff quiet weekend mornings are made of. At first, I had a tough time finding this cafe because of all the plants out front- an excellent problem to have. Come here for good coffee, slow vibes and plant bebe heaven.

Secawan ‘n’ Such: Hidden on Hutton Lane, Secawan was one of my favourite cafes in Penang. There were fewer tourists, and the WiFi was so strong, I would have definitely come back if I had time. Also loved the cafe’s interior design- the giant murals and rustic touches helped create a relaxed vibe that kept me centered while plowing my way through to-do lists.

The Alley: Set in an old Chinese goods store near Little India, The Alley may be small but the atmosphere is quite lovely- the word, charming, comes to mind. Here, I enjoyed a chai latte and order of piping, hot churros. There’s a game console in the back, so this seems like it would be a cool place to meet a few friends and catch up.

Lavish Fusion Bakery: An Aussie I met in Vietnam raved about Lavish’s souffle pancakes, so much so, that when I was finally hungry after spending a few days sick, all I could think about was trying them. Pleased to inform they do not disappoint- fluffy, a bit wobbly and full of flavour, the pancakes are the star at this bright, modern, plant draped cafe.

Coffee Affairs: Sous vide cold brew? Yes, please. Concerned it may be too hip to be good, I was overjoyed to discover the cold brew tasted just as good as some of my long-steeped favourites. This cafe was also a nice spot to lounge- indoor and outdoor seating, and close to Little India for wandering.

The Mugshot: With a prime location near historic Love Lane, The Mugshot is loved by many visitors to Penang. The bagels are pretty good, and wooden details lend to the cafe’s lovely ambiance. Oh, and per the name, you can have a ‘mugshot’ taken with wall art here as well.

Twelve Cups: Recently renovated and perfectly positioned at the cusp of town. A great place to stop while searching for street art, or to take a break from roaming the jetties.

Five cafes I didn’t get around to checking out, but that came highly recommend: Wheeler’s, Bricklin, Grano de Cafe, Gao Coffee and Bean Sprout.

Like other places appealing to digital nomads in SE Asia, Penang’s growing number of cute cafes makes it easy to work and play.

And, if you’re just in Penang to visit, find comfort in the fact there are plenty of places for you to take a break from sightseeing and relax with a cup of coffee, a freshly brewed tea or sweet treat.

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Have you ever been somewhere like Penang, that surprised you with its amount of seriously cool and chill cafes? Would you add any spots to this list of cafes in Penang? 

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Off the Tourist Track: Visiting the Federal Territory Mosque in Kuala Lumpar

VISITING THE FEDERAL TERRITORY MOSQUE IN KUALA LUMPAR

Living in London for several years and having the rest of Europe at my doorstep meant I was constantly on the move- travelling to new cities to discover new-to-me cultures, cuisines, drinks, and of course, historical landmarks. In Europe, this often meant visiting at least one cathedral in each city.

Planning a long-term trip to SE Asia, I was excited for the experience of visiting more temples than I’d seen on prior visits to Hong Kong or Japan.

And thus far, no place has disappointed. The temples of Thailand, in particular, are something I’ll always be in awe of.

Planning my time in Malaysia, I read a few tips that suggested setting aside time for visiting the Federal Territory Mosque in Kuala Lumpar.

Never having visited a mosque, I was intrigued.

With Muslim friends, I understand the basics of the religion, but for whatever reason, had never taken time to seek out or visit mosques to learn more.

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Learning the Federal Territory Mosque was near my Airbnb, I decided to commit to visiting. If nothing else, I reasoned, I’d learn more about Islam, and that was reason enough to go.

The architecture of the Wilayah Mosque, also known as the Federal Territory Mosque, is inspired by the Blue Mosque of Istanbul in Turkey.

Besides being a beautiful building, the mosque welcomes visitors every day for free tours.

If you’re a woman, you can head to the visitor centre for a robe and burka to wear during your tour- they’re free to borrow. I arrived right before afternoon prayer and was invited to watch from the back of the mosque.

Such a special experience.

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After prayer was finished, a kind woman led me around the mosque, telling me about the history of Islam, answering questions I had, and introducing me to a few other people so I could meet more of the mosque’s community.

The people I spent a little over an hour chatting with were some of the kindest people I’ve met- keen to answer questions, and eager to tell me more about the great programs their mosque puts on to help the community.

I visited Federal Territory two days after the horrific terror attack at a mosque in New Zealand. It’s unimaginable to think about the people I met being attacked while worshipping. It’s just feels unfathomable.

The tour ended up being one of my favourite parts of my visit to KL, and my travels in SE Asia. Carving out time to do something off the typical tourist path was every bit as great as I’d hoped it would be.

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Have you ever done an ‘off the beaten path’ travel experience to learn and expand your horizons? 

Three Places to Find Excellent Coffee in Kuala Lumpar

THE BEST PLACES FOR COFFEE IN KUALA LUMPAR

When the cold brew in a city is so good, it has you envisioning trips back to drink more of it, you know it’s good.

Before visiting Kuala Lumpar, capital of Malaysia, I knew it was a melting pot of culture with a vibrant mix of Malay, Indian, Thai and Chinese. I’d heard the food was fantastic, knew there’d be no shortage of things to do. 

When mapping out my trip to SE Asia, I envisioned my first time in Malaysia being a few weeks long- time to visit KL, the Cameron Highlands and possibly the coast.

In actuality, my first jaunt was 48 hours in KL. When I needed to adjust travel plans, I decided to hit Malaysia on my way to Thailand to get a quick intro to the country in case I didn’t have time to make my way through later in my trip.

Exhausted after spending a few days road tripping around southern Spain and a whirlwind day in Singapore, I arrived in Malaysia tired, but also excited to see the city.

All of the praise hands for the incredible coffee I found during my two days in the city. Without it, I’m not sure I would of had the energy to see and do so much.

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Many of the cafes in KL are “kopitiam” meaning coffee shops, which serve local dishes, and hot and cold beverages like Teh Tarik, coffee, and juices.

I couldn’t believe how great the cold brew was at every cafe I visited- some were even dedicated to perfecting cold brew.

The coffee scene was so good, I’m considering another quick trip to KL with the intent of re-visiting some of my favourite spots.

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Don’t miss these spots for the best places for coffee in Kuala Lumpar:

VCR: Tucked away on a side street, this is a local hangout, as well as frequented by visitors to KL who have the inside scoop. The cold brew is excellent, and brunch menu delicious. With strong aircon and chill vibes, I spent the better part of a morning here, reading and recovering from the heat.

Merchant’s Lane: It’s hard to believe this trendy cafe atop a newstand was once considered a coffee speakeasy- meaning, undiscovered. When I popped in for a to-go coffee on my way to brunch elsewhere, it was hopping.

PULP by Papa Palheta: If there ever was a heaven for cold brew lovers, I imagine it’d look like this. Different varieties of cold brew, each equally excellent. An open design and different coffee tasting stations help ensure you select a brew that’s best for you. And, they offer alternatives to milk if you avoid dairy. This place, in particular, is strong motivation for me making a return to KL.

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Bonus recos!

Breakfast Thieves, in the same building complex as PULP is serving up some good brew too. They’re more known for their breakfast eats, but their coffee doesn’t disappoint. Need brunch plans? Stop by PULP for your caffeine fix, then pop over here for delicious bites.

Feeka Coffee Roasters: Located near some of KL’s best street art, this cute cafe with a cosy garden is the perfect place to cool off from wandering. 

Lim Kee Cafe: A must visit in KL, ace for cake and coffee-mid afternoon if you’re near Chinatown.

Urban Daybreak: This place came highly recommended for brunch, but we weren’t overly impressed. However, the lattes were great, and with free WiFi, it seems like it’d be a great place to work from for a few hours as well.

Have you been to KL? Are there any coffee shops you’d add to this list? 

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5 Things You Must Do in Kuala Lumpar

Famed for its skyscrapers and shopping malls, Kuala Lumpar (KL) is the capital of Malaysia. It’s a melting pot of culture with a vibrant mix of Malay, Indian, Thai and Chinese. The food is fantastic and there’s no shortage of things to do. Recommendations in this post for 5 things to do in Kuala Lumpar only scratch the surface of what there is to do and see. 

When beginning to map out my trip to SE Asia, I envisioned my first time in Malaysia being a few weeks long- time to visit KL, the Cameron Highlands and possibly the coast.

In actuality, my first jaunt was 48 hours in KL. When I needed to adjust travel plans, I decided to hit Malaysia on my way to Thailand to get a quick intro to the country in case I didn’t have time to make my way through later in my trip.

Safe to say I’d be quick to go back to KL- the city charmed me in two days, and I only saw a small bit of what Malaysia has to offer.

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5 things to do in Kuala Lumpar:

Climb to the Top of Batu Caves (free)

Batu Caves are one of the most popular Hindu shrines outside of India. The towering 50 metre gold statue of Hindu God, Lord Murugan at the entrance to the cave is the tallest  in the world.

Admittedly, I first became interested in visiting Batu after seeing the caves on Instagram- rainbow stairs, can you blame me?!

If you want shots of the stairs without people on them, you need to come before sunrise and wait for the crack of dawn.

I arrived at 7:45 am and there were already a dozen or so people milling about on the stairs- some for tourism, others for morning prayer. I didn’t mind these people on the stairs, but it’s worth noting by the time I left around 9 am, there were well over a hundred people swarming the stairs.

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Don’t miss out on climbing to the top of the stairs, there’s a temple inside the cave.

To climb the stairs, you need to be dressed conservatively (shoulders/knees covered). You can rent sarongs at the base of the stairs or just wear a midi dress and bring a scarf to cover your shoulders as I did.

Once I reached the top of the stairs, I heard chants echoing from within and realised morning prayer was still happening. I hurried inside the cave, and spent ~10 minutes observing the final moments of offering. A really special experience.

If you want to make your own offering, there are vendors at the entrance to the temple.

Oh, and don’t forget your mosquito repellent. The temple’s cave setting means there are plenty of them flying around. Some people warn of the monkeys crawling around the outside of the cave, and advise you secure your belongings, but I didn’t see any on my visit.

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Visit a Mosque (free)

The architecture of the Wilayah Mosque, also known as the Federal Territory Mosque, is inspired by the Blue Mosque of Istanbul in Turkey.

Besides being a beautiful building, the mosque welcomes visitors every day for free tours.

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If you’re a woman, you can head to the visitor centre for a robe and burka to wear during your tour- they’re free to borrow. I arrived right before afternoon prayer and was invited to watch from the back of the mosque.

Such a beautiful experience.

After prayer was finished, a kind woman led me around the mosque, telling me about the history of Islam, answering questions I had, and introducing me to a few other people so I could meet more of the mosque’s community. The people I met spent a little over an hour chatting with me- keen to answer my questions, and tell me about the great programs their mosque puts on to help the larger KL community.

The tour ended up being one of my favourite parts of my visit to KL and my travels in SE Asia thus far.

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Sip Some Seriously Great Coffee

Many of the cafes in KL are “kopitiam” meaning coffee shops, which serve local dishes, and hot and cold beverages like Teh Tarik, coffee, and juices.

I couldn’t believe how great the cold brew was at every cafe I visited- some were even dedicated to perfecting cold brew.

 

The coffee scene was so good, I’m considering another quick trip to KL with the intent of re-visiting some of my favourite spots- VCR, Merchant’s Lane, PULP by Papa Palheta, Feeka Coffee Roasters, Lim Kim Cafe, Urban Daybreak, and Breakfast Thieves.

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Admire a Beautiful Temple (free)

Thean Hou Temple is one of the oldest temples in SE Asia. A Chinese temple, it’s located on top of a hill overlooking the city.

In short, the temple is breathtaking.

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The vibrant colours and decorations are so beautiful, it’s hard not to photograph each and every one.

I visited mid-morning around 10:30 am and was worried it’d be crowded. While there were lots of people around the temple, the complex is so large, it never felt like there were too many people around.

Still dreaming of the red lanterns strung around the temple and details etched in gold. 

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