Are you currently planning to go backpacking in South East Asia? Have you researched your visas, the best destinations and read up on current travel advice? Have no fear, we’ve put together the ultimate guide to backpacking South East Asia to answer all your questions and get you prepared for the trip of a lifetime.
Related Read: Backpackers Guide to Cambodia
Things to Consider Before Backpacking Through South East Asia
Many Australians can visit countries in South East Asia without obtaining a visa. Thailand and Indonesia currently offer Australians 30 days travel in the country visa-free, with Singapore allowing you to stay up to 90 days! Cambodia and Vietnam require you to have a visa and if you want to save money and hassle, it’s best to organise this prior to travelling. You can obtain a visa for Cambodia and Vietnam through their embassies. Your passport will need to have at least six months left before it expires.
If you wish to stay longer or extend your stay in any of these countries, it is vital that you apply for a longer tourist visa and go through the correct channels. The last thing you want is to overstay your visa and face heavy fines or even prosecution or being barred from returning.
South East Asia is a relatively safe holiday destination, but it pays to be vigilant and keep up to date with the Australian govt travel advice. The most common things to look out for are petty crime, scams, sickness or natural disasters. In some countries like Cambodia, it is recommended to stay vigilant of civil unrest and any political tension. Terrorism has been an issue in Bali in the past, so is another thing to be watchful of.
The main threat to be wary of is petty crime. If you have a hotel safe store all your valuable items in it, be wary of withdrawing cash from an ATM at night and keep your bags close to you as the most common robbery is bag snatching from motorbikes.
Another threat to be aware of and to purchase insurance for is natural disasters. Indonesia specifically is prone to volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and tsunamis. Try to plan travel outside of typhoon season and familiarise yourself with emergency numbers or procedures to help in case a natural disaster occurs.
How to stay healthy
Before you go on holiday, get yourself to a doctor for a check-up and head to a travel clinic to see if you need to get any vaccinations. It’s important to remember that there are mosquito-borne illnesses throughout South East Asia from Malaria to Zika Virus and Dengue Fever. None have vaccinations, with malaria tablets being available for certain risk zones. It’s important to practise prevention and wear long-sleeved clothes and use plenty of DEET insect repellent.
Whatever you do, don’t drink the tap water and practise good hygiene. Street food is a common cause of stomach sickness, so be wary and head for stalls that are popular with Thais and tourists alike. Unfortunately, sometimes sickness can’t be helped so remember to bring lots of stomach medicine with you, diarrhoea medicine and rehydration sachets as these can be costly to access.
Remember to take out comprehensive travel insurance to ensure that you will be covered if there are any issues that may arise.
South East Asia is a cheap destination that offers low-cost accommodation, food and transport. You will find that your money will go a lot further with prices for food and accommodation being substantially less than you would expect to pay at home. You will be able to find many 3- and 4-star hotels in Thailand that do not charge a high rate. Many tourists find the most expensive aspect of their holiday is the flight there, with low-cost options for hotels and activities allowing them to enjoy things they couldn’t afford to in Australia.
What’s the weather like?
In South-East Asia the monsoon season runs from June to September, which means that you will encounter daily rain showers and high humidity. You will still be able to sightsee and enjoy many attractions, just remember to prepare for heavy rain if it occurs. Purchase a rain poncho just in case and include a waterproof cover for your backpack, the last thing you want is to be carrying around damp clothes.
How do you get around?
South-East Asia is one of the easiest areas in the world to travel to. You will be able to find many budget travel options from buses, trains and flights, to Ubers, tuk-tuks or motorbikes. The type of travel is incredibly flexible and often will not have to be planned. You can be spontaneous here!
One of the most popular ways to tour South East Asia is by renting a motorbike, remember when you do this that you should always follow the rules of the road. Remember to wear a helmet and to check that your travel and health insurance will cover you if the worst could happen. There are also a lot of scams to watch out for with motorbike rentals, take plenty of images of your bike when you rent it and have evidence of any damages to the bike prior to leaving the shop, this will stop you from being held accountable for them when you return it.
Where can you go?
There are a variety of destinations you can travel to in South East Asia, we’ve included the top Aussie favourites below.
Us Australians have a love affair with Bali, with over a 1.1million Aussies paying it a visit every year. But Bali is only one on Indonesia’s 17,000 islands. Why see one, when you can see a variety? Start your trip in Jakarta and explore the lively capital, from here head to Yogyakarta, home to the largest Buddhist temple complex in the world, Borobudur. From here you can climb Indonesia’s highest volcano, Mount Bromo.
If you are passionate about scuba diving and underwater sea life then Indonesia has plenty of spots from the rural shores of Raja Amput, to Bali and the popular Bali alternative Lombok. Indonesia has plenty of opportunities to experience wildlife. If you have your heart set on orangutans, head to Sumatra or Southern Borneo. For elephants, tigers and Sumatran rhinos head to Sumatra. If you want a once in a lifetime experience, head to Komodo National Park to catch a glimpse of the elusive Komodo Dragon.
And, after all of this adventure, Bali is always there waiting for you. From the bustling tourist districts of Kuta to the cultural hub of Ubud. This country offers something for absolutely every traveller, no matter what your tastes.
Second, to Indonesia, Thailand is the most popular country for Aussie’s to head to. There’s enough here to last your whole backpacking trip and something to suit every taste from the rowdy streets of Khao San Road, to the gentle relaxed lifestyle of Pai. Thailand is what you make of it.
If you want to party all night at a full moon party and spend your time dancing and snoozing off the hangover, then head to the walking streets and beaches of the islands and the thriving backpacker streets in the capital. If you want to relax and unwind or get off the beaten track the northern region of Chiang Rai or the overlooked islands of Koh Kut and Koh Mok are the best alternative. If you are looking to explore ancient temples and wildlife, then head to Ayutthaya and Kaho Sok National Park.
Thailand is also the perfect place for budding divers to get their PADI certificate in Krabi, Phuket, Koh Tao or the famous Similan Islands. You can also experience a liveaboard diving cruise, where you will live, sleep and breathe diving and exploring the tropic waters of the Andaman sea.
Vietnam is a popular tourist destination for anyone backpacking South East Asia. The country has an emotive past and when visiting it’s important to learn about the Vietnam war and its impact on the country to this day. Ho Chi Minh is a popular starting point with many, after crossing from Cambodia. The country has a buzzing atmosphere and is home to the War Remnants Museum when visiting you should pay a visit to the Cu Chi Tunnels.
After all that history travel up to the UNESCO world heritage site of Hoi An where you can take in temples, canals, pagodas and traditional houses. From here you can catch a night train to the capital of Hanoi with its bustling city streets. Try to cross the road if you can! This is the popular spot to book your tour to Halong Bay, where you can see thousands of limestone islands and take a dip in the water.
But Vietnam isn’t just all history and landscapes if you want to escape it all head to the beaches of Phu Quoc and Nha Trang where it’s just you and the South China Sea.
Cambodia is a popular destination to visit after Thailand for anyone doing the Indochina route. Home to the archaeological marvel Angkor Watt, makes this country claim the top spot in many bucket lists. The country also has a painful history, with the legacy of the Khmer Rouge and the mass genocide still casting a shadow over the lives of many Cambodians today. If you visit, make sure to learn about this horrific past and visit the Tuel Seng jail in Phnom Penh. The capital is also home to the Royal Palace, the National Museum and Silver Pagoda.
Cambodia also has a growing beach scene with resorts in Sihanoukville drawing large crowds of backpackers. There have been recent incidents on Police Beach, so please be vigilant and never leave your drink unattended.
Malaysia is known for its famous Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, exotic islands and orangutan sanctuaries. Many tourists here start off in the capital and go on a day trip to the Batu Caves, which is the most impressive Hindu temple in the world outside of India. From here turn your sights to the Langkawi archipelago and explore jungle forests, underwater marine life and more. Another favourite is the picturesque colonial town of Georgetown in Penang.
For those of you who are animal lovers, then you cannot visit Malaysia without heading to Borneo to see the endangered orangutans. Check out the rehabilitation centre in Sabah and check out the caves and wildlife in the Gunung Mulu National Park.
Singapore is a small island that offers travellers a high standard of travel experience in South East Asia. There’s no slumming it in hostels here, you have the pick of many luxury hotels and brands. The country is a popular start off point for backpackers with many direct flights available from Australia. The country doesn’t cater much to backpackers, but that doesn’t mean you should leave it out. Maybe include it at the end of your trip to allow yourself some well-needed luxury after spending weeks roughing it on sleeper trains. Singapore is all shopping centres, buzzing nightlife and thriving metropolis.
7. The Philippines
The Philippines is made up of more than 7,000 islands and is a firm favourite with anyone chasing a budget island paradise. The popular islands of Boracay or Palawan are known for their powdery white beaches, scuba diving opportunities and for rest and relaxation. It’s the perfect place to island-hop without the crowds of Bali or Thailand and earn your PADI diving certificate. Many backpackers begin their journey in Manilla ant take in the sights of colonial buildings, making their way up north to visit the Banaue Rice Terraces and famous Puerto Princesa National Park.
Recommended Read: Top 4 Mistakes to Avoid While Backpacking for the First Time
Planning a trip to South East Asia?
Have you ever considered using a luggage shipping service? Save money and time by sending your items direct to your destination with My Baggage. They offer a stress-free door to door service, so you don’t have to worry about excessive airline baggage fees or carrying your heavy backpacks through the airport. Learn more about the service here.