Backpacking Southeast Asia is full of surprises for both new and seasoned travelers in the area. And with these travel tips I promise you will be way more prepared to travel Southeast Asia and know what to expect. Trust me when I say that some things you don’t want to be a surprise.
I’m sharing my best Asia tips on saving money, necessities to pack (it’s a good time to treat yourself to a travel gift or two), how to keep healthy and the top things you must know when you backpack Southeast Asia. But make sure you also know the basics of how to travel safely too. The only place that most of these don’t apply to is Singapore.
Need to Know Tips for Backpacking Southeast Asia
Do not leave for your trip without reading every one of the Southeast Aisa travel tips in this category. These are the basics for backpacking Asia and the most important.
1. Always have toilet paper – There is never any around, but when you do find some, stock up! Seriously you will realize that you need it when travelling Asia.
2. Research cab fares before you arrive – One of the biggest scams in Southeast Asia is with cabs ripping people off. Know how much it should cost to get from where you are arriving to your accommodation. You can usually figure out what cabs should cost by asking others you meet on the road. Or find out what cab companies are trusted. Email a hostel and ask.
3. Know if there will be an ATM – You won’t have a problem with finding ATMs in most of Southeast Asia, but there will be the odd spot where there are none. Plan ahead! Some examples are El Nido, Philippines and Koh Rong, Cambodia.
4. Wifi is everywhere, no need to buy SIM cards – Free wifi is honestly way easier to come by than expected and for the most part it is decent. That being said, SIM cards are super cheap so you’re not breaking the bank buying them. But why spend the money when you could easily save? And if you’re worried about getting lost, download Maps.me, an app that doesn’t need wifi to use maps!
5. Always have USD – If you ever run out of the local currency USD will be accepted. Most boarders require you to pay in USD as well. I recommend getting some in your home country and bringing it with you, though some countries (like Cambodia) dispense USD as well as the local currency. I use XE Currency for up to date conversions.
6. Research scams to lookout for before you go to a new country/cross borders – A lot of scams in SE Asia are common, so make sure you know what to look out for. Most have to do with cabs, renting scooters, and crossing borders.
7. Weather! – No, unfortunately the weather is not always perfect and sunny and warm in Southeast Asia. Parts can get quite cold (like snow cold in northern Vietnam). You’ll also want to avoid monsoon season, especially if visiting an island. And know that the hottest month is generally April (aka you will never stop sweating). It varies from country to country, but traveling in offseason can be cheaper.
READ MORE: Southeast Asia Packing List
8. Don’t be afraid of street food – I’ve seen people get just as sick from eating at sit down restaurants than I have from street food stalls when traveling in Asia. The only difference is that you can’t see what’s going on in the kitchen.
9. Agree on a taxi price before you get in – If you don’t you’ll suddenly be expected to pay a ridiculous amount. This is the same for tuk-tuks, motorbike taxis, tricycles, etc.
10. Don’t expect anything to be on time. But if you’re late, expect it to be on time – The one time you’re late the bus will actually be on time (it happened to me). But for the most part everything leaves late. People in Asia are a lot more relaxed and don’t care about time like we do in the western world.
11. Take pictures of your scooter before leaving the rental place – Whenever renting anything in SE Asia always take pictures of everything. Including close-ups of the scratches/dents so that they can’t blame you for anything and try to charge you. A good company will mark down any damages on paper and give you a copy or take pictures themselves. Even if they do this still take your own pictures.
12. Learn some phrases – Learning how to say hello and thank you are a good start and people really appreciate it.
13. Always keep your calm – This is a must. Never get angry with a local, raise your voice, or get all up in their face. This is not how things are handled in Asia. Trust me, you will never win. The locals will help the locals out, not you.
14. Always have hand sanitizer – Just like toilet paper, you won’t find soap much.
`15. Get used to the bum gun – For those situations when you don’t have toilet paper. It’s a gun that shoots water to clean yourself. You’ll see them when backpacking through Southeast Asia, don’t leave Asia without trying it!
16. Have at least 6 months validity on your passport – Most countries (this applies for even outside SE Asia) require you to have at least 6 months left on your passport. Otherwise they can deny you entry. The same goes for having blank pages. I’d have a minimum of two blank pages when entering a country.
17. Always pay the extra couple of bucks for air conditioning – Seriously, you’ll thank me later. Fans just blowing around hot air will not cut it when you’re trying to sleep.
18. Don’t plan everything before you go – You’ll find the best suggestions from the people you meet while on the road. It is good to have a general idea though!
19. Expect squat toilets in most places – I didn’t stay in a hostel that didn’t have regular western toilets, but when traveling from spot to spot, at restaurants, and in public places it was mostly squat toilets.
20. Never leave your stuff unattended – This is the most important when you’re traveling. Never leave your stuff on the bus unless you have someone watching it for you.
21. Watch out for snatchers – For ladies I recommend having a cross body bag that you wear cross body or have your hand on at all times. All should hold onto their phones tight. Snatchers are usually people on scooters who will grab your bag or whatever is in your hand quickly while you’re walking, in a tuk tuk or on a bike.
22. All things whitening – We want to be tanned, but in Asia they want to be white. So watch out when buying products as most will have whitening agents.
23. If you have big feet and need new shoes, good luck – Asians have way smaller feet than westerns so if you break or lose your flip flops you may have trouble finding a new pair.
24. Learn to go with the flow and just say yes – People are much more laid back in Asia. Travel Asia and use it as a time to relax. Don’t get caught up with things being late or schedules. Just expect things as they are or it’ll be a nightmare trip for you.
25. Don’t expect western safety standards – You will have “OMG we’re going to die” moments when driving too close to the edge of a cliff or riding through choppy waves in the ocean. This stuff happens all the time when you backpack through Asia. Also when on a boat never expect there to be enough life jackets so don’t freak out at everything that doesn’t seem “safe.”
26. Know visa requirements – For every country on your Southeast Aia trip you will need to know how much visas will cost, to knowing if you need a picture or not, and what currency to pay in (usually USD). Know if you need to apply online beforehand or if you can get it at the border, or if you need proof of a flight of onward travel (most don’t care but the Philippines is very strict about this).
27. You will see the same souvenirs over and over again – No need to panic and buy everything at once. Guaranteed you will see the same thing in the next city or country and literally everywhere backpacking through Asia.
28. Toilet paper does not go down the drain – Don’t flush toilet paper. Be kind to the next person, they don’t want to deal with a clogged toilet. Throw it in the trash bin.
29. You will see poverty – Prepare yourself. It’s not home. And though you may be traveling to all of the pretty places, while traveling from destination to destination you will see poverty.
30. Be Prepared to sweat a lot – This is a helpful guide with every possible tip to help you to stop sweating while traveling.
Money Saving Tips for Southeast Asia Travel
Backpacking in Asia can be done on the cheap but you need to know the best Asia travel tips first.
31. Know how to budget – Super boring I know, but I have a detailed Southeast Asia budget guide to help you not go over budget and to know what to expect for each country.
32. Use 12G0 – If you haven’t travelled through Southeast Asia before you probably haven’t heard of 12Go. It’s a site that shows you options to travel all across Asia from short to long trips. I recommend checking it out to compare prices before booking.
33. Best airline to fly with: AirAsia – They’re my personal favorite budget airline to fly with and fly to the most destinations. You will pay for checked luggage so make sure to purchase it when you book your ticket or you will be charged 4x the price when checking in.
34. Buses are your best friend – Traveling by bus is the way to go in SE Asia if you want to save money. But if you’re tight on time, fly. Always splurge and go for the VIP buses. They’re never that more much and it will be a way better experience.
35. Laos Kip is very difficult to exchange – If you’re heading to Laos you’ll have no problem getting their local currency but good luck getting rid of it when you’re out of the country. Exchange it before you leave or at the border if crossing by land.
36. Take local transport – It’s not as bad as you’d expect, it’s cheap and it always makes for an adventure while backpacking in Asia.
37. Travel throughout the night – Yay for night buses! Vietnam travel is easy because it has the best buses for overnight travel because they’re sleeper buses so you can actually lay down. By traveling at night you’ll save on accommodation and have more time to do things during the day!
38. Get used to haggling – If you don’t haggle you will be overpaying for everything. Some things you can’t haggle for (like food), but use your skills while at markets, shops and with transportation. Start low, you can usually tell by the look on the locals face if you’ve gone too low. And don’t be afraid to walk away, most will give in and accept your offer. If they don’t then you’re probably being unrealistic.
39. Always go for the local beer – It’s cheap and often really good!
40. Uber and Grab – Grab is the equivalent of Uber, but the Asian version (you can ride on the back of a scooter for cheaper than a car). I recommend these the most for the Philippines.
41. Bring sunscreen from home – It is ridiculously expensive in SE Asia. It’s one of the few things I recommend bringing that are worth using the extra space in your bag for.
42. Avoid package tours – Though some are great, they’re always more expensive than doing it yourself. That being said, don’t skip on all. I used tours for trekking in Myanmar, Sapa, and Halong Bay.
Packing Tips for Travel in Southeast Asia
When you travel Southeast Asia you want to make sure you have the proper clothes for heat and culture reasons.
43. Ladies, pack a scarf to easily cover up – This is essential when visiting temples. It’s too hot to always be covered, but you’ll need your shoulders, chest, and knees to be covered when visiting temples. This is a great post on a fabulous piece for your travels.
44. Pack proper shoes – Treks in SE Asia are quite common, so don’t write them off just yet. With that being said, make sure you have proper shoes. And no those cute no grip Nike’s won’t do the trick (I tried and sprained my ankle!). You’ll also want shoes to easily slip on and off at temples.
45. Don’t pack too much, clothes are cheap! – Clothes are super cheap and easy to find at markets. Most are pretty cute too. But if you are heavier clothes may be more difficult to find because their sizes are so small!
46. You better have Imodium – At some point you’ll need it. Especially for long bus rides after eating questionable meat. Or for day trips on boats when bathrooms are not accessible.
47. Pack appropriate clothes – Please respect the locals and not only pack skinny tanks, short shorts, and belly tops. It’s fine to wear shorts and tanks, and certain places are more open than others, but this is not your home. So dress according to their standards, not yours.
48. Do not even think about traveling without travel insurance – If you’re not convinced you need it then read these horror stories. And if you need help deciding, here’s a guide that details what to look for.
49. Whatever you need to sleep on night buses – You’ll probably take at least one during your trip. Have something you can pop to make sure you get as best a sleep you can.
Health Tips for Your Southeast Asia Trip
One of the main fears of traveling Southeast Asia is getting sick from food, don’t worry it happens to the best of us! There are just a couple of essential tips to help it from not happening.
50. Your gut may get out of balance – If this happens, eat sunflower seeds. Taking probiotics before and during your trip can also help (please know that I am not a doctor so I can only tell you what works from personal experience for my body).
51. Only drink bottled water – Try to find brands you know, but don’t panic if you can’t. And check to make sure the seal isn’t broken.
52. Ice – Most is safe to drink, but be warry. I’d say it’s rare to find ice that is bad as even the locals don’t use ice that isn’t filtered.
53. Eat where the locals eat – The more people at a restaurant or food stall the better. People don’t eat where they’ve gotten sick before! Plus you know it’s tasty.
Got all of that? Not you’re ready to backpack Asia! But even if you think you’re fully prepared, expect not to be. There are always surprises when in Southeast Asia backpacking. Regardless, embrace it and have fun!
Backpacker Travel Insurance
Picking travel insurance is an essential part of planning a trip for anyone. If you can’t afford travel insurance, you can’t afford to travel. Luckily there are affordable options. I personally recommend, have used and have made multiple claims with World Nomads. If you have no idea where to start then check out my travel insurance guide to help you pick the best option for you.
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