You’re going to love backpacking Southeast Asia!
It’s one of the most captivating and amusing areas of the world.
I’ve been slowly migrating around Southeast Asia now since 2009 and to be honest, I still haven’t been to a fraction of the places I’d like to visit – there’s still so much for me to explore… but, I have been to quite a few places and my aim of this ultimate guide is to offer you some personal travel advice and tips about where to go, what to see and what to eat!
After just over 3 years I have finally been to the 10 countries that make up Southeast Asia (11 if you count East Timor but I haven’t been there).
There are a lot of links throughout this guide, if you see anything that looks interesting just click on the link for more information about it.
For each country I’ll give a little introduction, then go over a few of the cities I’ve visited and enjoyed, and finally briefly mention a few places in that country where I’d like to go… but haven’t yet.
Also, be sure to check out the videos that I’ve embedded into this guide. Alternatively, you can browse my video channel to watch country specific videos.
I hope this will be a great resource on your backpacking Southeast Asia trip of a lifetime! If you have any other advice or questions, please leave a comment at the bottom of this article!
Visting Thailand is almost mandatory when it comes to backpacking through Southeast Asia – just about everyone comes through Thailand at least a few times. Recent statistics have shown that Thailand receives something like 19 million tourists annually (and rising each year).
With a busy airport, it’s easy to catch a flight directly into Bangkok to begin your southeast Asia adventure – that’s what I did in 2009 before visiting other countries in the region.
Spending time in the Big Mango (Bangkok) is a thrilling experience. Here are a few things to check out when you’re in town:
- 101 Things to do in Bangkok: A giant list of Bangkok attractions to get your ideas flowing
- Cost of Living in Bangkok: How I live in Bangkok for less than $300 per month, sometimes Bangkok is my home base
- Top 16 Bangkok Street Food Streets: Some of the best streets for eating Thai street food in Bangkok
- Walking Tour of Silom: Step by step tour around the downtown district of Silom in Bangkok
I’ve spent over two years in and out of Bangkok now, it’s a great hub for getting to other destinations around the country and around Asia
After teaching English for one year I’ve been able to leverage my savings and make enough money from a few online projects to survive and continue to slowly travel.
(Click here to watch the Dangerous Maeklong Train Market video on Youtube)
If you have some extra time in Bangkok I would highly recommend visiting Amphawa Floating Market which is one of the most popular local floating markets and the Maeklong Train Market (VIDEO Above), a truly fascinating market that takes places directly over the train tracks (and the train still runs).
After Bangkok, Chiang Mai is a destination located in northern central Thailand many choose to visit. It’s known for its forest trekking, beautiful mountainous scenery, for all kinds of adventure sports and for the famous Thai elephants.
- Digital Nomad Headquarters: There’s a rising amount of people, especially digital nomads, that prefer Chiang Mai over Bangkok – here are 18 reasons
- Best Spots in Chiang Mai: An excellent little guide about some of the coolest spots in Chiang Mai to visit
- Jungle Trekking Chiang Mai: If you enjoy the outdoors, it’s pretty easy to organize a hiking trip into the jungle mountains near Chiang Mai – here are some great photos to inspire you!
While backpacking Southeast Asia, you’ll be able to enjoy a wide range of different natural environments including mountains, forests, and some of the most beautiful beaches in the world.
Krabi in Southern Thailand is a gateway entrance to a number of beautiful islands and stunning beaches.
- 10 Things you shouldn’t miss in Krabi: including a visit to Railay Bay and Tonsai Bay, a surreal beach in Thailand
- Krabi Morning Market: A few photos and thoughts on Krabi’s main morning local fresh market
- Nong Joke: An outstanding restaurant in Krabi town
Sangkhlaburi (in Kanchanaburi): A beautiful relaxing town on the border of Burma with a scenic lake and just a perfect lazy environment
Though there are many festivals in Thailand, here are 2 that you’ll enjoy and it would be great if you were here during one of these events:
- Thai New Year (Songkran Water Festival): By far Thailand’s most celebrate and anticipated holiday – a giant all out party, water fights, lots of food and a time for local Thais to spend time with family
- Thai Vegetarian Festival: You’ll love this annual event in Thailand if you are vegetarian or even a carnivore. There’s great vegetarian food and very interesting ceremonies to watch (especially famous in Phuket).
(Click here to watch Thai street food video on Youtube)
Delicious Thai Food
Even though there’s tons of awesomely delicious food throughout ALL of Southeast Asia, I would have to say that Thai food is the best.
Now I may be a little biased, but when it comes to variety, vibrancy of flavors and overall cleanly conditions, Thailand takes gold.
I created the Eating Thai Food Guide to be the ultimate resource for hungry travelers in Thailand wanting to discover the next level of awesome Thai food. You don’t want to miss the best Thai dishes!
Also, if you are vegetarian it can be difficult backpacking in Thailand, so after eating fully vegetarian for a month in Bangkok I launched the Vegetarian Thai Food Guide just for you!
Places I haven’t been:
- Chiang Rai: A beautiful city north of Chiang Mai known for its mountainous scenery and for the famous White Temple
- Koh Lanta: If you are interested in visiting Koh Lanta, check out this useful site by a friend of mine
- Pai: One of the most famous places on the Thailand route of backpacking Southeast Asia is a little country town known as Pai. I haven’t been there, but I’ve heard that it is a highlight of many people’s trip.
Cambodia is an anticipated destination mainly for the temples of Angkor Wat. Many backpackers choose to head straight from Bangkok to Angkor Wat.
Siem Reap – Angkor Wat
The big ticket for travelers visiting Cambodia (or even Southeast Asia altogether) are the famous temples of Angkor Wat – a truly remarkable attraction.
When I visited the temples, I took local transportation from Bangkok and chose to see the temples for just one day (you can also buy a 2 day ticket). It’s not just a single temple, but Angkor Wat is a huge area with many ancient temples and ruins.
As far as the Siem Reap town goes, I wasn’t much of a fan – tons of tourists and lots of Western restaurants. Backpacking Southeast Asia you should definitely see Angkor Wat but don’t spend too much extra time in Siem Reap.
- 24 Hours at Angkor Wat: I saw quite a bit in 24 hours!
- 20 Detail Photos of Angkor Wat: A few of my favorites
(Click here to watch Phnom Penh video on Youtube)
It’s been a long time since I was last in Phnom Penh and I know some things have evolved in the city. I did write a few cultural observations about life in Phnom Penh and the video is the first city video I made!
- 9 Ways to Survive in Phnom Penh: A few steps to making the most of your time in Phnom Penh
- How to Be Native in Cambodia: Funny yet truthful observations from a fun city
Places I haven’t been:
Southern Cambodia: The southern portion of Cambodia is beginning to gain a reputation as a great backpacking Southeast Asia destination for its lazy lifestyle and beautiful beaches. Check out Sihanoukville or Kep.
It seems that almost the entire country of Laos was colonized by relaxation – partly because the country is surrounded by bustling Southeast Asian countries like Vietnam and Thailand so it’s a quiet oasis in the middle of booming industrialization.
If you are looking for scenic outdoors, hiking and or course relaxing in a hammock, Laos is a country you’ll surely enjoy!
The capital and largest city in Laos is in reality a very low-key easy going city. Many would say there’s not much to do, but when you’re backpacking in Laos you don’t want a long list of attractions to check off from your to-do list.
Situated on the Mekong River, Vientiane is a great spot for watching the sunset, eating Laotian food and hanging out.
- Relaxing in Vientiane: A few tips of how to relaxa and enjoy your stay in Vientiane
Luang Prabang is the Chiang Mai of Laos – easy to navigate and a place you’ll probably fall in love with while backpacking Southeast Asia.
It’s beautiful, there are plenty of places to stay, there’s a fantastic handicraft market and there are lots of nature related activities in the area.
- Luang Prabang: A slow paced town and an unparalleled place to unwind and refresh yourself
- Boating the Mekong: A few years ago I took a 3 day boat trip from Luang Prabang all the way to the Thai border and then on to Chiang Mai. It was a fantastic river experience. If you are interested you can take the boat in either direction.
(Click here to watch Wat Phou video on Youtube)
Champasak and Wat Phou
Peaceful even by Laos standards, Champasak is a quaint little town and the gateway to the famous temple of Wat Phou, located just 15 minutes away by bicycle.
- Champasak: It’s truly an unspoiled travel retreat if you want really peace and solitude
- Visiting Wat Phou: A UNESCO world heritage site, similar to Angkor Wat on a smaller scale, but I though the setting and the ruins were absolutely beautiful – I would highly recommend it.
(Click here to watch the 4000 Islands video on Youtube)
Of the 4000 islands, there are 3 main popular islands to visit. You may want to check out all 3 and decide for your self which you prefer.
If you do enjoy the party atmosphere, Don Det is your island – think Khao San Road on an island.
If you prefer quiet relaxation, Don Khong and Don Khon are fantastic!
- Guide to the 4000 Islands (Part 1): Covers mostly the island of Don Khong
- Guide to the 4000 Islands (Part 2): Covers Don Det and Don Khon – there is a bridge between these two islands that you can walk across
Places I haven’t been:
- Vang Viang: Vang Viang is famous for river tubing, drugs and alcohol, and for its beautiful scenery. This is not actually a place that I want to go (but I included it because of its popularity). I skipped visiting Vang Viang altogether, but linked is an article about the good and bad of Vang Viang.
- Plain of Jars: It looks like a pretty interesting site, jars scattered all over the place that remain quite mysterious
Vietnam has so much to offer, and I have only been to a very small fraction of this exciting bustling country. I’ve heard the north is very different from the south, so while backpacking Southeast Asia it would be great to see both sides of Vietnam.
Despite hearing lots of stories of scams and rip-offs, I had a very enjoyable time visiting Vietnam and managed to escape all those stories (even fighting in the buffet line).
(Click here to watch the Hanoi street food video on Youtube)
While in Vietnam I spent the majority of my time (I only had 2 weeks) in the capital city of Hanoi. I highly enjoyed walking around, sitting at cafe’s and taking things easy as the world of Hanoi was rushing in every direction.
- Hanoi Travel Guide (Look at this first): A list of most of the places I ate and slept while traveling in Hanoi
- Long Bien Market: Probably the most chaotic market I’ve ever seen in my life – at 4 am!
- Hanoi Street Food: Vietnamese food is delicious, and there’s so much to eat – don’t miss these delicious dishes (also be sure to watch the video above for Hanoi street food)
- Coffee in Vietnam: There’s nothing better than watching the world by sitting on a low stool sipping on Vietnamese iced coffee
From Hanoi, it’s a short distance to one of the most famous attractions in Vietnam: Halong Bay.
There are so many tour agencies that it can be a hassle to organize a tour of the scenic bay. I booked a boat tour from one of the hotels that I stayed at, and it was a fantastic experience.
Places I haven’t been:
- Ho Chi Minh (Saigon): Here’s a great informational guide (plus a podcast) by Sherry Ott about visiting the busy southern Vietnamese city of Saigon.
- Hoi An: The city of Hoi An is a main stop on the backpacking Southeast Asia route in Vietnam because it’s an old and picturesque Vietnamese town and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
- Sapa: Sapa is a place that I really wish I would have had more time to visit, a town in the northern tip of Vietnam famous for its mountainous terrain and rice terraces.
5. Myanmar (Burma)
Things are changing rapidly in Burma. I was in Yangon in 2012 and I had an incredible time, but unfortunately I didn’t have enough time to explore any other parts of the country. Though I missed many places in Myanmar, I still had an incredible time just in Yangon!
Before you do anything, read this important Myanmar travel information.
(Click here to watch Yangon travel video on Youtube)
Yangon is dirty, loud and busy, but if you look around and slow down you’ll find an amazing amount of beauty and entertainment in the city.
I spent about 2 weeks in Yangon and had an incredible time walking around, eating, and chatting with extremely friendly locals.
- Shwedagon Pagoda: Backpacking Southeast Asia you’ll see lots and lots of temples, but one of the most impressive is Yangon’s golden Shwedagon Pagoda
- Thiri Mingalar Market: I think this market is no longer in the same location, but this was one of the most local and coolest markets I visited
- Burmese Cuisine: Food and more food, try these amazing 20 Burmese dishes
Places I haven’t been:
- Mandalay: From the sunset views on top of Mandalay Hill to the famous U Bein bridge, Mandalay is a destination I would still love to visit, but haven’t yet
- Inle Lake: From all I’ve read, it’s absolutely beautiful and worth seeing if you have enough time
- Temples of Bagan: A truly impressive area dotted with well preserved historical temples that were anciently constructed
Singapore is not the place to go if you are backpacking on a tight budget. While in most of Southeast Asia you’ll be rejoicing about the prices, in Singapore you’ll feel like you’re back in Europe or the United States.
While backpacking Southeast Asia, some visit Singapore just for a few days as a city of transit or a place to fly in or out of. Tiger Airways is a great budget airline based out of Singapore and you may be able to find some cheap tickets.
I personally was in Singapore for three days. I did enjoy walking around, enjoying the clean streets and eating delicious Singaporean cuisine.
If you’re looking for the tastiest marvels of Singaporean food, I Eat I Shoot I Post is your ultimate food resource.
There are two main sections of land that make up the country of Malaysia: The main peninsular section connected to Thailand, and a part of the giant island of Borneo (shared with Indonesia and Brunei).
I’ve been to both sides of the country and I have great things to say about Malaysia – it’s not the cheapest place for backpacking in Southeast Asia, but there are lots of cool things to see, an interesting international culture, and truly magnificent Malayasian gastronomy.
(Click here to watch the Malaysian street food video on Youtube)
The international melting pot of cultures, cuisines and traditions is what truly fascinates me about Kuala Lumpur. It’s an easy to navigate city with a smooth running network of public transportation and a modern infrastructure.
Home to the Petronas Towers, the Batu Caves, and a smorgasbord of Malay, Indian and Chinese food, Kuala Lumpur is a great place to spend a few days (or more) while backpacking Southeast Asia.
- 15 Things to do in Kuala Lumpur: A quick overview of 15 popular things you can do while visiting Kuala Lumpur
- Batu Caves: A visit to the famous Batu Caves, home of the annual Hindu Thaipssum festival
- 10 of the Most Delicious Malaysian Foods: Don’t miss these
- 12 Hours Kuala Lumpur Street Food Binge: Last time I was in Kuala Lumpur just for a flight layover, and I made the most of it eating as much as I could!
- Durian Buffet: That’s RIGHT! If you enjoy durian, I can assure you, Malaysia will not let you down!
Melaka is a great little historical town in southern Malaysia. I had a great time here.
- Jonker Street: The historical area of town where you’ll find lots of old Chinese style buildings, nice restaurants and lots of fun things to do
- Baba Cendol: A delicious sweet ice based treat
- Satay Celup: If you’re looking for a local style food hangout you’ve got to try Satay Celup – a restaurant where you grab things on a stick and cook them in the oily peanut sauce before you
So far, I’ve honestly only spent a total of about 3 days in Penang so I’m by no means very experienced. I basically remember all the good food and a few pretty cool attractions.
I spent just a few days on the northern Malaysian island of Langkawi. If you’re backpacking Southeast Asia and looking for more island experiences, you may want to check out Langkawi Island.
On the Borneo side of Malaysia I went with the main intent to climb Mount Kinabalu (an hour from the Kota Kinabalu town), one of Southeast Asia’s highest mountains.
Kota Kinabalu is a beautiful little town with an awesome seafront evening market and a greta atmosphere. I thoroughly enjoyed my time and wished I could have stayed longer to visit other parts of Sabah and Sarawak.
- Climbing Mount Kinabalu in One Day: Many choose to climb Mount Kinabalu in 2 days, but in order to save money, I attempted the hike in 1 day. It was a grueling adventure, and due to the weather conditions, I didn’t actually make it to the top – but it was still an amazing experience!
- Kota Kinabalu’s Night Market: Great street food and phenomenal sunsets is a combination that really goes well together, and you can enjoy it nightly at the Kota Kinabalu market
- Sabah’s Ngiu Chap: Like beef noodle soup? This is for you!
- Curry Laksa: It’s extraordinary, outrageously delicious – noodles covered in curry and dressed with lime juice, chillies and chicken!
If you proceed on to the country of Brunei, check out this guide about how to get from Kota Kinabalu to Brunei in 1 day.
Places I haven’t been:
- Malaysian Islands to Visit: Here’s a quick overview of some of Malaysia’s most beautiful islands
- East Coast Malaysia: Few backpackers or tourists travel to Malaysia’s forgotten East Coast (I’ve never been there), but it’s a place in Southeast Asia I’d love to visit in the future.
From Kota Kinabalu I took the ferry to neighboring Brunei, the third country represented on the island of Borneo. It was extremely interesting to visit the rarely traveled to city of Bandar Seri Begawan, even though I was only there for 1 day and 1 night.
(Click here to watch this Brunei video on Youtube)
If you are in Kota Kinabalu, here’s how to get from Kota Kinabalu to Brunei.
- Things to do in Bandar: A few of the coolest things to do while you are in Bandar
- An Unforgettable Day in Brunei: Doing as much as I could in Bandar Seri Begawan in a single day
- Ambuyat Sago Palm: Looking for local food in Brunei? Try ambuyat!
It would take years and years to say you’ve traveled through all of Indonesia – there’s more than 19,000 islands that make up the country!
The island of Bali is extremely famous on the backpacking Southeast Asia route, but I would encourage you to explore some other parts of the country as well.
I’ve been to 3 islands, and each one was beautiful in its own unique and fascinating way. From the people to the food to the intense beauty, you’ll find so much to see and experience in Indonesia.
Sumatra – Medan, Lake Toba, Orangutans
From Kuala Lumpur I boarded an Air Asia budget flight to Medan, the capital city in central Sumatra. As soon as I landed I got that exciting sensation, the same kind of positive feeling I get when I return to Africa.
- Peaceful Shores of Lak Toba: It’s one of those places I’ll never forget, a place so relaxing and beautiful that I could have spent years admiring the beauty at Lake Toba – one of the most amazing places!
- Face to Face with an Orangutan: If you are interested in wildlife, you’ll be happy to see the orangutans in Sumatra. I went on a two day trek through the jungle and was able to see some amazing orangutans in their natural habitat.
I spent 9 days in Sumatra and barely scratched the surface of possibilities on this lush giant island.
Java – Jakarta, Yogyakarta, Mount Bromo
Java is the most populous island of Indonesia, home to the largest cities and a fascinating mixture of cultures.
I took a flight (again with Air Asia) from Medan to Jakarta, spent a few days in Jakarta, just one day in Surabaya, almost a week in Yogyakarta and then on to Mount Bromo.
- Things to do in Jakarta: Here are a few things to do if you spend any time in Jakarta
- Nasi Campur: One of my favorite meals consisting of rice with an assortment of dishes piled on top
- Money Guide to Indonesia: A brief amount of information about getting comfortable using Indonesian Rupiahs
- 9 Mandatory Food to Eat in Indonesia: A few great tasting Indonesian foods you need to eat
Though some areas are quite touristy these days, Yogyakarta is an amazing city to visit with two incredible UNESCO World Heritage temples in the nearby vicinity.
- Borobudur Temple: Borobudur is an ancient Buddhist temple masterpiece, and if you enjoy visiting historical attractions while backpacking Southeast Asia, this site should be right up there with Angkor Wat on your list.
- Prambanan Temple: Just a short distance from Borobudur is another remarkable temple, this time Hindu, known as Prambanan. The site of the temple and its ancient construction blew my mind!
Wrapping up my 1 month trip in Indonesia, I spent a few days on the island of Bali. Kuta is a place I didn’t really care for, lots and lots of backpacking tourists and an over amount of partying (in my opinion).
Luckily, there are some amazing places on the island of Bali, like Lovina and Ubud.
When I was last in Bali, I wasn’t really keeping accurate notes or photos, so I barely have any of my own information to share.
Check out the Travelfish Bali travel guide for lots of useful tips.
Places I haven’t been:
Of course, in a country that has as many islands as Indonesi, there are so many places to go, but I’ll just mention a few places that are on top of my list when I return to Indonesia.
- Sulawesi: This island is a popular destination for divers with its coral ecosystem and is also famous for the Toraja ethnic group and their funerary ceremonies.
- Komodo Island: You go to Komodo to see giant Komodo dragons in their natural habitat – a place I’ve wanted to visit for a while now
- Lombok: With amazing beaches, one of Indonesia’s biggest mountains, and beautiful island life, Lombok looks like a lot of fun.
One country that is often overlooked by the majority of backpackers is the Philippines. Why? For one, as an island nation it’s a little out of the way, and two, in the past the Philippines has not been known as the safest destination.
After spending two months in the Philippines, I’m here to tell you that it’s one of the most beautiful countries in Southeast Asia. But again, just like Indonesia, I’ve only had the privilege of exploring a micro portion of the vast archipelago nation of the Philippines.
Luzon Island – Manila, Banaue
Luzon is the biggest and most populous island in the Philippines, home to the city of Manila as well as a lot of amazing attractions. To get to Manila I got a great deal on a flight with Tiger Airways from Singapore.
Despite Manila not having the greatest reputation, I genuinely had a fantastic time in the action packed city and really came to like love it. About 3/4 of my time in the Philippines, I was in Manila volunteering in Payatas with an organization known as Gawad Kalinga.
- 16 Things to do in Manila: Here’s a list to give you some ideas of things to do while you are in Manila
- The World’s First Chinatown: Manila is home to the first Chinatown (outside of China), a great are of town to explore and restaurant hop
- Seafood Dampa: One of my favorite things to do in Manila is to purchase fresh seafood and have expert chefs freshly prepare it!
- How to Eat Balut: Ever heard of balut? It’s the Filipino hard boiled egg including a duck embryo – and you’ve got to try it while visiting the Philippines!
- Mt. Taal: A trip to the world’s smallest active volcano is just a few hours from Manila – climbing Mount Taal was a really fun day trip.
Banaue and Batad Rice Terraces: In the central northern part of the island of Luzon are some of the most incredible rice terraces I’ve ever witnessed in my life. Despite planning to be in Batad for just a few days, I ended staying in the region for about a week, hiking and enjoying the beauty.
Sagadais a small town located in the pine tree mountainous region of Luzon. Arriving to Sagada, the scenery made me feel like I had left the Philippines altogether. When backpacking Southeast Asia, I can’t think of a better mountainous relaxing retreat than Sagada. The ancient hanging coffins were quite interesting, but I really loved hiking into the cave.
Palawan – Coron Island
Being a country made up of lots of islands, the Philippines is a beach lover’s dream come true. One island beach destination that I was able to visit was Coron Island just off the larger Palawan Island.
It’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been.
Renting a boat, hopping from beach to beach, dining on fresh grilled fish and crab was an experience that left me feeling like millionaire for just $35.32.
One reason I love Southeast Asia so much is because you can literally have priceless experiences at affordable costs.
Places I haven’t been:
- Cebu: Cebu City is another important city in the Philippines and the location where the Spanish first stepped on the islands. I’ve heard there’s a lot of good food in Cebu!
- Chocolate Hills of Bohol Island: The main reason people come to the island of Bohol is for the amazing natural perfectly shaped hills that resemble Hershey Kiss chocolates.
You’ve reached the end of this massive 5000 word backpacking Southeast Asia travel guide!
I hope the information in this guide (as well as all the links and videos) will give you some fresh ideas about where to go, what to see, what to eat, and just a preview taste of what to expect.
I am confident that because Southeast Asia is such an amazing part of the world, you’ll have a fascinating trip wherever your journey takes you!