Many people choose South East Asia for their first adventure when thinking about travelling the world and there’s three simple reasons why;
- It’s one of the world’s cheapest regions – you can travel comfortably on less than 30 GBP per day.
- Travel through and between each country is easy, with no shortage of tour companies offering transport for every route.
- It’s popularity with backpackers means you’ll never be on your own, even when travelling solo.
I visited SE Asia for the first time in 2013 and it was my first time travelling outside of Europe. It was also my first solo trip and excitement and nerves were abundant! Originally I planned to do Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and all of Thailand…in 4 weeks. I wanted to cover as much as possible in the time I had in case it would be my only chance. Mistake number 1. This is one of the best tips for anyone wanting to travel but especially around SE Asia as it’s so big, don’t rush.
Be prepared to realise you were too ambitious.
I spent my first 12 days in Vietnam – just one country had already taken up almost half my time and I had 3 more I wanted to visit! I quickly had to prioritise what was important to me and where I desperately wanted to go so that I could get more from the countries I visited.
I came to the conclusion that Northern Thailand and Cambodia were it. The decision was actually easier than I thought and I made in the comfort of knowing that I would soon return to SE Asia to do the countries I’d missed, which I did so two years later. I booked a flight from Hanoi to Bangkok, explored Chang Mai and Pai then boarded another flight to Siem Reap in order to make my way across Cambodia and back into Vietnam ready to return home. This made the remainder of my trip comfortable and relaxed and I got to see everything I wanted to in these countries without being rushed.
Save time by taking internal flights.
That brings me to my next tip, fly. It might not be the ‘traditional’ way to backpack and obviously isn’t the cheapest but when you are on a strict timeline you’ll want to spend as little time as possible on transport moving from one place to the next. I made 4 internal flights in total, costing less than 250 GBP which is still relatively low cost.
The important thing is you choose the option that fits for you, your budget and your time scales. For me, this 4 week trip was a trial run of travel, I was testing the waters to see if it was something I could do and wanted to do longer term, so I wasn’t disheartened that I ‘cheated’ a little by taking a few flights. Plus, it makes border crossings so much easier if you’re worried about those.
The only issue with a shorter, stricter travel itinerary is flexibility. Yes I was flexible and changed my route, which worked out for the better, but I didn’t always have the luxury of being flexible when there was opportunity to stay somewhere a few days longer because there was more to do than I’d first realised or book on to a sleeper bus with a group of cool people I’d met so we could travel together. I chose to fly so I could save time but that often meant I was doing so alone. The majority of travellers I met along the way were spending 6 months or more backpacking around SE Asia, which meant they were pretty relaxed with time and opted for the cheaper modes of transport.
So, if you can be flexible, then be flexible. Don’t plan a day by day itinerary (especially when you’re travelling for a month or more) just have a rough idea of the places you want to go and the activities you want to do and it will all work out fine.
Don’t get sucked in by party culture on the southern Thailand beaches.
When you mention SE Asia, many people will immediately think of Thailand. It’s tropical beaches and party culture often make it number one choice for backpackers all over the world, however, if you’re visiting SE Asia for the first time I would recommend you stick to Northern Thailand and skip it’s southern beaches, at least at first. I met many backpackers who started in Bangkok, immediately making their way to the famous Full Moon party and that’s where they stayed, exploring each island cocktail bucket after cocktail bucket. Sure, time is of importance here – if you’re lucky enough to have the time to do it all then great, go for it, but if like me you have 4 weeks then making those 4 weeks memorable in terms of real travel experiences should take priority. There are far more activities to enjoy in Northern Thailand so head there for a more cultured ravel experience.
Do your research, but ‘real time’ recommendations are gold.
The best thing about how popular SE Asia is for backpacking is that there’s a wealth of information available online from those who have been there, done that. Make sure you’re aware of the routes available, how long they take and most importantly how much they cost so that when it comes to doing it yourself you know what’s realistic. It will also help prevent being ripped off. One of the tricks I’d heard so much about were the tuk-tuk drivers who would claim certain attractions were closed – something that inevitably happened to me but thankfully I was prepared for it so was able to save myself a whole lot of trouble.
As with all tourist destinations, things develop and costs may be ever changing. That blog you read may be 5 years out of date by the time you start your travels but luckily you have the best thing available to you – other travellers. You’ll meet so many people while travelling in South East Asia and you’ll soon realise many of those travellers have just come from where you’re going. So their experiences are so valuable to yours. You can hear about the best hostels to stay at, the easiest way to book tours, where to avoid and where is really worth a visit from the people doing exactly what you’re doing then and there, which is far more credible than any internet source.