QUICK: First-timer’s Guide to Backpacking in South East Asia

Kach Umandap - Howe Asia, Travel Blog, Travel Guides 36 Comments

Backpacking in South East Asia is, for many, a once in a lifetime opportunity, so when you set out on your first trip, you want to do it right! You probably want to avoid rookie mistakes which could put a bit of a downer on your trip and give you any unpleasant problems dramas. Think excessively large backpack weighing you down to more serious hospitalizations without the right insurance – What a bummer!

How to Fund and Sustain a Life of Travel Part 2

Jon with Seb on their South East Asia motorbike adventure

There are a lot of countries in South East Asia that are full of amazing sights, sounds, and people; Philippines; Malaysia, Indonesia but here we’re sticking with the Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia. These are all incredibly beautiful and diverse countries with huge amounts to offer, so if you’re thinking about your first backpacking adventure then a tour of the big 4 will give you experiences and memories to reminisce over for years to come and also give you all the experience and confidence you need for any future adventures.

12go Asia

  • Important things to prepare before the trip

Insurance – You may never use it, but you’ll know when you need it.

Health – Vaccinations, Malaria medication, First aid kit.

Documents – Make copies of everything important – printed and electronic, saved in a safe place.

Plan your route – You don’t have to stick to the plan, but a little research goes a long way on a first solo trip abroad.

Get in shape…and try to stay that way! It’s easy to end up drinking every night traveling around South East Asia, but it’ll inevitably shorten your trip by destroying your budget. Precious memories become a hazy blur of shots, rowdy bars, and hung-over bus rides and you feel like crap for half the time you’re away. Then again, have fun!

  • What to bring?

Just bring your essentials, don’t bring a lot of clothes as you can easily buy the baba pajama style in Bangkok and some “same same” cool shirts! Flip flops is a must have, don’t ever forget that!

Check out some of the cool and cheap tours you could do in Bangkok.

  • What backpack?

If you will be travelling for a month or less, we suggest you carry a 38 Liter Backpack or a Backpack that can be a carry-on luggage on planes but if you plan to travel long-term and 50 to 65L will be good enough.

  • What backpacking route?

There are different routes to take, it all depends on your interests, time frame, and budget. Here’s our recommended route if you plan to travel for 1 month or more, if you plan to travel for 3 weeks or less then you can just skip some of the Cities.

First Route – Start in Thailand then Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and end the trip for a crazy full moon party week.

Bangkok – Chiang Mai – Luang Prabang – Vang Vieng – Vientiane –  Hanoi- Hue- Hoi An – Nha Trang – Ho Chi Minh – Phnom Penh – Sihanoukville – Siem Reap – Bangkok – Suratthani – Koh Samui- Koh Pah Ngan – Koh Tao – Bangkok

Check out some of the cool and cheap tours you could do in Chiang Mai, Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng, Vientiane, Hanoi, Nha Trang, Ho Chi Minh, Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Koh Samui.

You can check my backpacking itinerary last year, here.

Second Route – Start in Singapore to Malaysia then do the First route (reverse order)

Singapore- Kuala Lumpur – Penang – South Thailand (Koh Phi Phi side and  Koh Pah Ngan side) – Bangkok – Cambodia- Vietnam- Laos – Bangkok

Check out some of the cool and cheap tours you could do in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Koh Phi Phi and Koh Pah Ngan.

You might also consider visiting the Philippines, Indonesia and Myanmar- though they are out of the way we tell you, they are really worth it!

  • Visa

If you’re from the Philippines, then you get visa stamp on arrival – you can check this article with my personal experience for more details.

If you’re British, European or American – you have to get the visa in advance in Vietnam (you have to pre-apply online if you’re flying or get it from the Embassy if you plan to cross the border by land). You can get a visa on arrival in Cambodia and Laos with a certain fee. You don’t need a visa to enter Thailand, Philippines, Malaysia, and Singapore if you plan to stay for 30 days or less. Check out our Ultimate Guide to South East Asia Visa for Europeans.

  • Transportation? Crossing borders?

It’s really easy to cross borders in South East Asia as there’s a lot of overnight buses all over. In Cambodia, the VIP bus even has wifi while in Vietnam there are different bus companies offering a Hop On and Hop Off. If you fancy traveling by train then you can do it in Vietnam and Thailand.

  • Where to stay?

Ultimate List of Best Backpackers Hostels in South East Asia

There are different options for you. Hotels in South East Asia depends from Mid-range to luxury, you can do Couchsurfing as the community is quite active there but we highly suggest that you try to stay in different dorm-style hostels where you will be able to meet like-minded people.

Okay, we have the list here of places where we stayed while backpacking. These dorm bedrooms price range is between $5 and $15 only!

Transportation Tip: If you’re looking for the cheapest way to book the Trains, Buses, Ferries, Transfers on this route, we use 12Go.Asia to compare the prices!

Powered by 12Go Asia system

Check out our detailed lists of Best Hostels in different Cities per countries in South East Asia:

Where to eat? What to eat?


  • Tom Yam Goong – A vibrant combination of fresh herbs, lemongrass, fish sauce, chilies, and jumbo prawns.
  • Pad Thai – A simple yet brilliant dish. Noodles with tofu, bean sprouts, onion and ground nuts. Now often served in chicken or pork varieties, you can add your own fish sauce and chili for extra flavor.
  • Geng Kheaw Wan Gai (Thai Green Curry) – The spiciest curry in Thailand repertoire is also the most distinctively Thai, with a blend of delicious spices and coconut milk.
  • Massaman Curry – Literally meaning Muslim in Thai, Massaman curry is an explosion of flavours from coconut milk, potatoes, roasted peanuts, bay leaves, sugar, cinnamon, and tamarind sauce.

Laos – Simple, fresh ingredients form the foundations of Lao’s cuisine, with a blends of aromatic spices like ginger, galangal, coriander, and tamarind.

  • Laap – Essentially a fresh and healthy meat salad made with beef, chicken, pork. beef or fish, flavoured with lime, roasted rice, garlic, and herbs and served at room temperature.
  • Tam Mak Houng – Too often dismissed as a copy of the papaya salad found all over Thailand, this salty, spicy salad can be served with the main dish of chicken or pork and rice for a complete and satisfying meal.
  • Oh Lam – Translating into, ‘to put in,’ this is the Irish Stew of Laos cooking – whatever you have to hand goes in the pot with herbs and seasonings to create a flavourful and hearty meal. Beans, eggplants, mushrooms, lemongrass and coriander are all thickened with sticky rice.

Cambodia – Most Cambodian dishes are built on a foundation of contrasts; sweet and bitter; salty and bitter; raw and cooked. They are a blend of local tradition and foreign influence from close neighbours and years of migration.

  • Grilled Seafood – With fresh water sources in all directions and the Gulf of Thailand to the South, fresh fish and seafood, flavoured with chili, fish sauce, and lime juice, is a staple of Cambodian cuisine
  • Fish Amok – Cambodia’s signature dish. Aromatic kroeung curry paste, white fish and coconut milk steamed in a banana-leaf cup. Incredible!
  • Green Mango Salad – Mangoes are eaten in all colours I Cambodia and the green ones make an incredible salad, blended with carrots, basil, peppers, fish sauce and lime juice.


  • Gỏi cuốn (Spring Rolls) – These fresh, un-fried spring rolls come filled with a variety of different ingredients and are best dipped in delicious peanut sauce.
  • Bánh Xèo (Sizzling Pancake) – One of the things the French left behind, the humble crepe has been fried into a crispy, taste-filled pocket of awesomeness!
  • Phở (Vietnamese Noodle Soup) – This staple breakfast soup is found on street stalls on every corner of Vietnam. The simple, clear soup with added herbs and flavours beautifully hydrate and nourish you, ready for the day

Looking for other articles? Check out our DIY Travel Guides Around the World and City Guides (Awesome Things to do in each Destination). For cheap and luxurious places to stay while traveling, here’s our ultimate list of best hostels and hotels!

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Comments 36

  1. Sometimes I tend to overpack and bring something so much no important, this post is excellent for me. I love the extremly helpfull tips! Thank you 🙂

  2. This is such a great post. I’m so in love with Asia and I’ve been to quite a lot of countries within it, and these tips could not be more useful!

  3. Wow, great tips. These essentials are enough to make adventurers more confident in pursuing their passion of seeing the world.

  4. I’ve never tried backpacking in Asia before. I’m sure it was quite an experience and I really appreciate the tips and all the information! Asia has always been beautiful and full of breathtaking sights!

  5. I am from the Philippines and I’ve only been to Singapore here in South East Asia. I do intend on backpacking someday!!

  6. Now this is what you call the ultimate travel guide, I have always wanted to go to South Est Asia as the way of life is so different.

  7. ultimate backpacking guide , seriously you have some great advices in here and not only for backpackers . pinned

  8. This is an ultimate guide. i would definitely have a look at this when I plan my trip to the South East next year. thanks for the share.

  9. hi miss Kach, i would like to know how many hours of travel by land if we start from thailand to laos? laos to vietnam? vietnam to cambodia? if we’ll follow ur recommended first route.

    hope to hear from you. Godbless.

    1. Where in Thailand you will exit? North to Laos? You have to take a boat then bus… then Laos to Vietnam is around 25 hours depending where you will exit and enter. Vietnam to Cambodia is only 6 hours. When crossing border you need to spend at least a day.

  10. I really wish I could try backpacking across SE Asia very soon. Im curious how u do the multi city thing.. Do u book all ur plane tickets in advance?

  11. Hi Ms. Kach, My friend and I are planning to have a one week tour in Bangkok then we’re planning to cross to Cambodia. We appreciate any suggestions on how should we do this since we’re both inexperienced in travelling and we really don’t have any idea at all. we’re kinda lost on how should we do the multi city thing. Thank you so much. xoxo

    1. Hello Shela, hope these below articles would help you with your journey. if you decide to cross the border, I highly suggest you just pay a travel agent in Khao San Road to arrange it for you. You’re better off checking 5 different agency to check the prices, usually it will be a van then bus in Cambodia side.

      Things to do in Bangkok- https://twomonkeystravelgroup.com/2015/09/7-awesome-things-penang-malaysia/

      Things to do in Siem Reap- https://twomonkeystravelgroup.com/2015/09/7-awesome-things-siemreap-cambodia/

      Recommended Backpackers Hostels in Bangkok = https://twomonkeystravelgroup.com/2015/06/ultimate-list-best-hostels-thailand/

      Recommended Backpackers Hostels in Siem Reap – https://twomonkeystravelgroup.com/2015/07/ultimate-list-best-hostels-in-cambodia/

      Let me know if you have other questions. – Kach

  12. This is a great guide! I LOVED Pans Place Guesthouse in Laos – one of the best places of my trip. If anyone heads to Vietnam make sure you head to Da’Lat. It has amazing French colonial architecture and the cheapest and most fun thing I did in Vietnam; Waterfall Canyoning!!!!

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