A Backpacker’s Guide To Southeast Asia: Everything You Should Know

“To travel is to live.”- Hans Christian Anderson, The Fairy Tale of My Life.

You’re here, which means you’re thinking of setting off for a backpacking adventure across Southeast Asia (SEA). Along the road, you’ll discover mind-boggling cuisines, ancient temples, and valuable life lessons. For many, the unfamiliar landscape of SEA can seem daunting and may dissuade some tourists from visiting.

A Backpacker’s Guide To Southeast Asia: Everything You Should Know

So today, we’re going to break down a couple of common backpacking routes and a little bit about the countries that make up this vibrant subregion of Asia.

Suggested routes for backpacking Southeast Asia

It’s almost guaranteed that you’ll wish your trip was longer, so for that reason, we recommend a minimum time of 3 to 6 months. Below are the common routes that backpackers have been using for decades.

3 months in Southeast Asia: Chiang Mai to Penang

A Backpacker’s Guide To Southeast Asia: Everything You Should Know

6 months in Southeast Asia: Chiang Mai to Boracay

A Backpacker’s Guide To Southeast Asia: Everything You Should Know

SEA country spotlight — hotspots for backpackers


“The land of smiles” never fails to uplift even the weariest traveler. The Buddhist nation offers everything from verdant, sprawling hills to tropical beaches. Whether seeking an enriching cultural experience or maximum chill by the sea, Thailand has you covered.

Chiang Mai: This hippie hotspot has been overrun in recent years but still retains a spiritual calmness. From Chiang Mai, you can take the trip out to Pai or Chiang Rai to discover the cultural history of the hill tribes.

Southern Islands: Just off the coast of Surat Thani, a collection of serene islands can be reached by short ferries. Divers will fall in love with Ko Tao, while backpackers looking for a party should look no further than Ko Pha Ngan.

A Backpacker’s Guide To Southeast Asia: Everything You Should Know


Famously nicknamed the “Land of a Million Elephants”, the mountainous country of Laos is famous for its epic scenery. Gigantic mountains are the backdrop for French colonial buildings and remote villages of various hill tribe ethnicities.

Luang Prabang: Lao artistic history and cultural heritage are on display in Luang Prabang. Here, traditional temples blend with French-colonial architecture. If you wake up early enough, you can watch the procession of monks collecting alms in the streets.

A Backpacker’s Guide To Southeast Asia: Everything You Should Know

Si Phan Don: South of Pakse, along the Mekong River, lies Si Phan Don, or “Four Thousand Islands.” This rural paradise is one of the few places you can spot the rare Irrawaddy dolphin. A little further south is the magnificent Khon Phapheng Falls.


Home to world-class coffee, kind locals, and mouth-watering cuisine, Vietnam is a budding tourism destination and a favorite of backpackers. The cold mountain climates in the north also give a much-needed escape from the blistering heat in the south.

Hội An: This legendary port city was recently ranked second in Tripadvisor’s top 10 trending tourist destinations worldwide. With colonial architecture from France, China, and Japan, Hội An is a melting pot of cultures, art, and irresistible food.

A Backpacker’s Guide To Southeast Asia: Everything You Should Know

Đà Lạt: Originally developed as a French resort town, Đà Lạt is a nature-lovers dream. Located in the South Central Highlands, Đà Lạt’s temperate climate means that fresh fruit and vegetables are in abundance, not to mention the lush landscapes.


As you swing past Saigon for one more bánh mì, you’ll head over the border to Cambodia. Home to the famous Angkor Wat, Cambodia is beginning to make strides toward stability after the horrific events of the Cambodian genocide.

Kampot: The southern city of Kampot has long been a tranquil getaway for backpackers. While tourists skip the sleepy town, many backpackers fall in love with the rural, small-town lifestyle. Nearby are a number of remote islands to explore as well.

A Backpacker’s Guide To Southeast Asia: Everything You Should Know

Siem Reap: We have to mention Siem Reap, the home of Angkor Wat and the ancient seat of the Khmer kingdom. Charming cafés and waterways give Siem Reap a quaint yet historically significant feeling as you wander through its streets.


Past the southern border of Thailand lies the hub of multiculturalism in SEA, Malaysia. The Muslim country occupies a large part of the Malay Peninsula and the Northern half of Borneo.

Penang: Nowhere is Malaysia’s culture and modernity shown better than in Penang. Famous for colonial Georgetown and a world-class food scene, Penang has everything from jungle to beach towns.

A Backpacker’s Guide To Southeast Asia: Everything You Should Know

Perhentian Islands: On the other side of the peninsula, the Perhentian Islands have been tied to the backpacker route for decades. While the larger island of Perhentian Besar is a luxury resort island, Perhentian Kecil is cheaper and favored by backpackers.


Believe it or not, there is more to Indonesia than Bali. Home to over 17,000 islands, backpackers have spent countless days lounging on remote island beaches in affordable hostels and beach huts.

Lombok: For an experience similar to Bali without the crowds of tourists, visit the neighboring island of Lombok. Explore scenic, untouched beaches or take on the Mount Rinjani volcano trek over a few days.

A Backpacker’s Guide To Southeast Asia: Everything You Should Know

Komodo Island: Earning its namesake, Komodo Island is home to the largest lizard in the world, the Komodo Dragon. Dazzling pink beaches and vibrant coral reefs decorate the coastlines of this island group.

The Philippines

What better place to wrap up a long backpacking tour than the island nation of the Philippines? The exotic beaches throughout the Philippines are so plentiful that you’d need a lifetime to see them all.

El Nido: Tall limestone cliffs frame this picturesque island group and only add to the serenity of El Nido. Snorkeling and scuba diving are popular thanks to crystal clear waters and abundant marine life.

A Backpacker’s Guide To Southeast Asia: Everything You Should Know

Boracay: It may be too busy for some, but it’s clear why Boracay is the most popular destination in the Philippines. Take a break from the always-crowded White Beach and watch dozens of kitesurfers flying along the quieter Bolabog Beach.

Honorable mentions

We could chat about SEA all day, but alas, there are a few spots not so frequented by backpackers:

  • Singapore: The least budget-friendly Southeast Asian nation may be pretty, but too expensive for most backpackers.
  • Borneo: Hosting Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei, Borneo is home to a dense rainforest but is more popular with hikers and animal lovers.
  • Myanmar: Oh, Myanmar! Everything about the nation is a backpacker’s dream, yet political instability and ongoing human rights abuse have scared them off.
  • Timor-Leste: Violent crimes and rampant poverty have pushed away tourists from this underrated tourist destination.

DOs and DON’Ts while backpacking in SEA

DON’T pay full price for flights

By far, the most expensive part of backpacking is flying. Sometimes it just can’t be avoided. In those cases, use a VPN for cheap flights and avoid flying any distance that you could instead get a cheap overnight bus.

DO your research on each country

As a seasoned backpacker, there’s nothing worse than spotting an ignorant tourist. Each country’s religion, culture, and customs vary greatly — even a simple wai when greeting Thais can earn you a heart-warming smile.

A Backpacker’s Guide To Southeast Asia: Everything You Should Know

DON’T underestimate the sun

You’ll spot countless tourists with a severe, lobster-like complexion on beaches throughout SEA. During peak UV hours, cover up with sunscreen and longer clothes — even locals avoid shorts and t-shirts during the day.

DO update your travel vaccines

It’s more common than you’d think for a tourist to get bitten by a local dog or fall from a scooter. Updated tetanus and rabies shots are essential for longer trips through SEA.

DON’T overpack

You’re going to be jumping off boats into ocean water, climbing hills, and trekking to hostels. Overpacking is not only unnecessary (as you can buy anything you need along the way), but it will physically weigh you down.


So there you have it — if you still haven’t booked your tickets, you’re missing out on the adventure of a lifetime.

It’s time to book that one-way ticket and begin your journey backpacking Southeast Asia.

The only thing you’ll regret is not staying longer!

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