10 good-to-know tips for Backpacking Southeast Asia

Every millennials I’ve befriended on facebook, followed on twitter and on instagram have this obsession of backpacking Southeast Asia someday, solo or with their bffs, partners or parents (yep, parents)! Not only millennials, but most of my colleagues are bugging me for tips for their first ever take on backpacking Southeast Asia.

Questions like, what’s it like over there? Do they have ATMs? Do they have internet? Do they have cellular services. How to commute over there? How do you say thank you in Thai, in Malaysia, in Manila? Is it safe to go?

Southeast Asia, also commonly referred to as IndoChina, is a subregion located, of course, bounded by India in the East, China in the North, Australia in the South and West of New Guinea. This region is a beautiful melting pot of cultures from Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Philippines, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar. It is best to slow travel across these countries to embrace its characteristics and immerse in the Asian way of life.

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For the first timer, a handful of tips to get you going with your itinerary planning and building up your self-confidence in booking that airline ticket for a flight across the Pacific, Atlantic ocean or the Philippine seas should get you going. So here we go.

It’s mostly cash everywhere so prepare crisp US dollar bills

If you’re not from the US, consider opening a dollar account for more convenient travel instead of exchanging PHP (for Filipinos coming from the Philippines) to USD then to other currencies. This is best if you plan to travel to several different countries with different currencies. It is safer and lets you take advantage of the strong USD exchange rates. 

Credit cards come in handy, sometimes

Bring your credit card if you have one. This is for emergency cases only not for mindless shopping and bar hopping! Credit card can save your butt in cases when you run out of cash or run into problems with your bank. 

Safeguard your travel documents

Always secure and have your passport handy, especially when border crossing and visa application. It is best also to have a photocopy of your passport and important IDs tucked in your backpack somewhere. Just in case your passport is misplaced or stolen, you still have proof of your identity to present when reporting your lost items at the police station or at the embassy. 

Do your research

Research. And research more about the countries that you want to include in your travel plans. Read a lot about the culture, traditions and way of life. Research also about the weather, money matters, transportation, communications, embassy locations, safety and travel advisories issued by your countries, tourist scams and of course, budget. 

Must Read: Mastering the Art of Itinerary Planning

Blend in

Be a local for a day and dress down and you avoid being a target of scams. Plus the hot and humid weather across Asia is more appropriate to shorts and basic cotton tank tops.

When visiting shrines and temples, you need to dress appropriately though. The rule of thumb here is to make sure your shoulders and knees are covered. So a top or blouse with short sleeves and a skirt that is past the knees should be good. 


Have a print out of your hostel accommodation

Locals across Southeast Asia speak in a tonal language. Though basic english is widely spoken by the locals, understanding the english words is another story. Ive had countless anecdotes of taxi drivers bringing me to the wrong hotel because of misunderstood pronunciation. 

The sure-fire way to work around this is to have a print out of your hotel accommodation. Just show the printout to taxi drivers or tour guides and they will know where to bring you back. Or if you don’t have your print out with you, ask your hostel receptionist to write down the hostel name in the local alphabet characters and english alphabet and you can show this whomever you are giving instructions on where to take you back.

Bring your own water bottle

Water is not served is most eateries and restaurants across the region. Water bottle are sold averaging in 1-2USD but this cost can really add up especially if you are staying for a long time in one country. You can refill your own water bottle in your hostel before you leave for the day. Bringing your own water bottle also saves you money and makes your trip environment friendly.

Street food can be fun or not

Street food is a culture across the region. Quiet side streets are converted into one big street party featuring a spread of fusion of flavors.  Street food are fun, delicious way of getting to know the local food culture and a cheaper alternative to bar hopping.

A bit of warning though, its not for the weak of tummies. I had a Canadian bunkbed neighbor in one of my stays in Krabi, Thailand who was hit with a stomach flu due to bad choice of barbecue and oysters for dinner the night before and she had to stay at the hospital for most of her Thailand holiday. So be careful when making your choices from the buffet spread and make sure they are thoroughly cooked.

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Keep an open mind

Most locals across the southeast asian region are shy and soft-spoken. Do not mistake this for being rude or think they are impolite if you don’t normally hear them say “excuse me” or “thank you”.

Don’t feel bad if you’re shoved around in cramped trains or buses during your commute. It is simply not common here to say “excuse me”.  It is just who they are. Simply get out of their way and smile. Nope, you don’t get your smile back either. 

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Always be alert and vigilant of your surroundings

Always put safety above everything else. Always be vigilant of your surroundings. If something does not fit or you don’t feel good about something or someone, get out. Your safety should be your topmost concern. 

There have been numerous tourists who were victimized, one way or the other, by scams, stolen passports and gadgets, solo travellers who were raped, mugged or worse, killed. Don’t let this scare you, instead use this warning to raise awareness that you are most vulnerable there and that you can do something about it.

Must Read: 10 Essential Safety Tips for Women Who Travel Solo

Looking for hotels in Bangkok, Thailand? Bangkok is a good starting point for most backpackers that plans to roam around Southeast Asia. Bangkok is an energetic, vibrant city that is friendly to budget travellers too!

P.S.If you are travelling to Southeast Asia soon, consider booking through the links in this article. Using the links doesn’t cost you any extra, and it helps keep the site free, fun, and community supported! If you have any questions, please e-mail me at carlaabanes@justtravellingsolo.com.

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sherianne - 7 months ago Reply

I have not spent anytime in Southeast Asia, this is great information!

Tami - 7 months ago Reply

All good tips, I’m sure. I don’t have any plans yet to travel to Southeast Asia, and when I do, I most definitely will not be backpacking. But I’m sure these tips apply anyway.

Leah - 7 months ago Reply

I’m not a backpacker (never was), but these are great tips for any kind of traveler to Southeast Asia, especially about your travel documents and keeping an open mind. Those are the best tips no matter in the world you’re traveling.

Cai Dominguez - 7 months ago Reply

All your tips are true. I would like to highlight “blend in” that is so true, live and act as a local to have a deeper connection with other people. I’m about to finish my southeast Asia trip. 3 more countries 🙂

Chrysoula - 7 months ago Reply

Very good tips for traveling to Southeast Asia. Especially the fact that cards are not widely accepted can be a serious problem to travelers visiting unprepared.

Divyakshi Gupta - 7 months ago Reply

Relatable post. Truly, CRISP notes is what one needs in Myanmar. Oh boy! Had a harrowing time. They would demand creaseless notes and give you change in tatters! 😛

    Carla Abanes - 7 months ago Reply

    Yes, I had the same horrible experience in Myanmar, they wont accept my SGD at the money changer. I had to scout the city for an ATM, good thing I found one where I can withdraw kyat!

Nisha - 7 months ago Reply

Nice and useful set of tips for backpacking in Southeast Asia. Keeping an open mind is an important tip as you never what might await you in that street food or just round the corner 🙂 However Southeast Asia is not be missed as your dollar can you a long way

Viajar pela história - Catarina Leonardo - 7 months ago Reply

Asia is really the best of the world i know. It´s very different from European culture, it´s fascinating. Very good and useful information to backpackers!

Cat - 7 months ago Reply

I have traveled to couple places in south-east asia and agree that many places only accept cash! A lot of tips apply to traveling in other countries as well, such as be vigilant to your surroundings. Great tip on having a photocopy of the travel document in case it gets lost!

Agness of eTramping - 7 months ago Reply

These tips are excellent, Carla! I would love to backpack Southeast Asia and your tips seem very helpful!

Heather Hackett - 6 months ago Reply

Your tips are spot on. I backpacked Asia back in the 80s…in a different world. If you’d like to find out what it was like back then, check out my story on Amazon at http://www.amazon.com/dp/B01MXSWC3J

Jenn and Ed Coleman - a few months ago Reply

Cash only is a very real thing. We didn’t believe it but even the companies that offer card services charge extra for them. We also had a hard time getting cash in a lot of places and had to keep popping into banks to get cash in our hands from certain cards. Other places, ATM’s seemed to work ok. I would just make sure that you either have cash in your account or somebody willing to put it in for you back home or everything gets a lot harder and more expensive.

Kavita Favelle | Kavey Eats - a few months ago Reply

I love South East Asia as a travel destination and am exploring more of it in recent years. We’ve enjoyed several trips to Japan, a visit to Taiwan, and also Hong Kong and Macau. Thailand is next and I have many other places on my list including South Korea, Vietnam, Myanmar and many more.

Skye Class - a few months ago Reply

This is a great list. I couldn’t agree more, after having spent several months myself in SE Asia. I also had many friends hit with a stomach bug from street food, although I seem to have been one of the lucky flu who escaped unscathed in that department. I could also include bringing some non-toxic insect repellent, as they really are everywhere there. And bring more sandals than socks! Oh, and make sure you haggle everywhere. The locals usually like that.

Lucy - a few months ago Reply

These are really good tips! Especially about actually speaking in English and printing out your documents, as that can be tricky sometimes! Also having photocopies of your passport & documents, as you never know!

Jitaditya Narzary - a few months ago Reply

Interesting tips. Like the blend in part. Actually, most western tourists dress in a certain way, and buy certain types of things that are made only for tourists. This actually makes one immediately identifiable as a newbie. he he… Blending in can naturally discourage those who may be planning to take advantage.

Arnav Mathur - a few months ago Reply

Having visited Vietnam , Cambodia and Thailand, I agree with all the points you mentioned. To get the most out of these countries, all one should have is time, to explore and immerse in the culture for pure unique experiences. And if earning in USD/GBP, these countries are dirt cheap. Being a foodie, I go ga ga over street food, but one must always be cautious , about whats going in your tummy.

Adelina - a few months ago Reply

Great list of tips. Especially the one about keeping an open mind. So many countries which means so much diversity from one to the next not to mention that it’s just so different.

Suruchi - a few months ago Reply

These are some really valid points. I personally feel keeping an open mind during travels is really really important. Street food is awesome in South East Asia, but it can be a problem too at times. The best is too get yourself blended in the same culture to experience the best and have a gala time.

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