The backpacking trail through Southeast Asia is well worn. People have been traveling it since the 1970s. Starting in beautiful Thailand, the trail makes its way to up-and-coming Laos, through Vietnam, and through the temples of Angkor Wat. It then heads back into Thailand, where people head south to party in the Thai Islands before moving down to into Malaysia and Singapore. There are a few variations on the trail but this is what it mostly covers. The warm months of November-April draw the biggest crowds. Everyone is escaping the cold in Europe, and it’s not too hot in the region. Despite the vastness of the region, the tourist trail is much more uniform in many ways than Europe. Prices can be quite similar in places, transportation types don’t vary too much, and general travel advice is usually the same. This guide will tell you where to go in Southeast Asia, and give you the tips you need, to have an amazing trip.
Accommodation – Accommodation in Southeast Asia is really cheap. You can find dorm rooms for as little as 8,000-20,000 KHR or 16,000-40,500 LAK ($2-5 USD) in parts of Cambodia and Laos. In Thailand, you will typically pay 200-440 THB ($6-13 USD) per night. In Vietnam, expect to pay 100,000-175,000 VND ($5-8 USD). In Indonesia, between 100,000-135,000 IDR ($8-10 USD). Throughout the region, you typically expect to pay around $15-20 per night for a private room with A/C. Prices are higher in the cities and touristy areas (and especially on the touristy islands) and lower in rural areas. You can usually stay cheaply by booking hostels and guesthouses, so Couchsurfing and Airbnb don’t really need to be used here. Budgeting $10-20 USD per night for accommodation is pretty safe no matter where you go in Southeast Asia.
There is no need to book accommodation in advance when traveling around Southeast Asia. Backpackers have the tendency to just show up and book a room on the spot. I only book the first night’s accommodation in any city (which is only because I’m usually too tired to walk around looking for a place to sleep at that point).
Food – Food is very inexpensive in Southeast Asia and if you are spending a lot of money on food, you are doing something wrong. Even with a balance of Western meals and local dishes, I rarely spend more than $15 USD per day on food unless I decide to feed my sushi addiction.
While travelling Southeast Asia, street food is the most popular form of eating. On average, these meals cost no more than $1.50 USD. You find these stalls throughout this region lining major streets and at the markets. In Thailand, you even find markets specifically for street food. In Singapore, you’ll find street food (or “hawker stands” as they are called there) to be around 4.25 SGD ($3 USD) for a meal. Even if you go into small local restaurants, the price does not increase that much. Food you can find for $1.50 USD at a street stall will only cost $3-5 USD at a local restaurant. Western meals, including burgers, bad pizza, sandwiches, cost around $5 USD for cheaply made food. This is going to be the most expensive part of your food budget. If you want something that actually tastes like it does back home, you’re looking at spending at least $10 USD for your meal. In the mood for a really nice bowl of pasta? $8 USD. Want a deliciously made steak? At least $20 USD. In short, even though the food is cheaper than back home, it is expensive by local standards and eating a lot of western food will diminish your ability to spend little in this region.
Transportation – The easiest and cheapest way to travel around Southeast Asia is by bus. A bus will take you everywhere and anywhere you want to go, no matter how far. The backpacker trail is so worn that there is a very well established and oiled tourist bus system to take you anywhere. Buses costs vary between $5-8 USD for a 5-6 hours journey. Overnight buses cost $10-15 USD depending on distance. Local public transportation costs from a few pennies to a few dollars. In Bangkok, the public bus costs 4 THB (10 cents) while in the above and underground trains (they one of each) costs 35 THB ($1 USD). In Singapore, the local train system starts at 1.40 SGD ($1 USD).
Taxis and tuk-tuks (small shared taxis with no meter) will require a bit of haggling and cost more than local transportation. Taxis and tuk-tuks are normally double to triple what the local transportation is and you often have to haggle for the price. They start really high and you work towards something you are willing to pay. Eventually, you come to a conclusion, which is usually about half the price they started with.
Outside of Thailand and the Singapore-Bangkok train (which is long and overpriced), train service is limited and not worth considering.
For flights, Air Asia and Tiger Airways can get you around the region cheap and fast. They often have incredible sales so if you’re in a rush, these two airlines can get you where you need to go!
Activities – Activities in Southeast Asia are pretty cheap. Most day tours only cost around $20 USD, often times less. Learning to scuba dive will set you back a few hundred dollars and the multi-day pass to Angkor Wat is 160,000 KHR ($39 USD). The pass will be doubling in price as of February 2017, so get there while it’s still cheap! Jungle trekking costs 1,000-1,685 THB ($28-50 USD) per day, though you can usually get better prices in groups. White-water rafting will cost around 200 MYR ($45 USD). For everything else, check the country and city guides for prices on various activities.
Moreover, never book anything before landing in any city because that’s a sure-fire way to overpay. Always wait until you get there. There are tons of tour operators and small shops dotting the backpacker streets that you can negotiate with to get a good price.
Suggested daily budget – $25-35 USD (Note: This is a suggested budget assuming you’re staying in a hostel, eating out a little, cooking most of your meals, and using local transportation. Using the budget tips below, you can always lower this number. However, if you stay in fancier accommodation or eat out more often, expect this to be higher!)
Money Saving Tips
Southeast Asia is really cheap. While travelling here, you can get by on as little as $15 USD per day if you want, though $25 USD is more realistic. There’s little opportunity to really spend a lot of money. The two reasons why most people end up overspending is that they eat a lot of western food and drink way too much. If you want to save money while traveling in this part of the world, you’ll need to cut down the drinking and try to eat as much local food as you can. After all, did you travel halfway around the world to eat a crappy burger? Doubtful. If you drink a lot or eat Western food, you’ll end up spending close to $35 USD per day.
- Couchsurf – Accommodation is cheap in Southeast Asia but nothing’s cheaper than free! Use Couchsurfing to stay with locals who have extra beds and couches for free. Meet great people too.
- Book tours and day trips as a group – You have more negotiation power when you’re with a group of people buying multiple things. Traveling alone? Meet a friend at a hostel and see if they want to join the same tour as you.
- Eat on the street – You can pick up tasty local fare for cheap! Street side snacks, soups, and noodles will keep your wallet fat! Markets are your best bet for finding seriously cheap food.
- Bargain hard – Nothing is ever at face value in Indonesia. Bargain with sellers as most of the time, the price they’ve quoted will not be the price you’ll pay if you bargain!
- Minimize your drinking – Drinks really add up. Even with cheap drinks, if you’re not aware, you’ll end up spending more money on beer than on food and accommodation.
Where To Go In Southeast Asia
There is a lot to do in Southeast Asia and trying to list everything on a continent would be too difficult to do. Below are some of my favorite activities. Clicking on the city and country links in this article will help you branch off and get more details.
- Explore Bangkok – Bangkok is the hub of travel activity for Southeast Asia. You’ll be able to get anywhere you want from here, experience amazing food, find cheap shopping deals, and experience a great nightlife that will keep you up until dawn. I hated it when I first went, but after a few days, I saw just how amazing this city was.
- Go jungle trekking – No matter where you do it, jungle trekking is a must for any traveler. The area is covered in amazing jungles with a diverse wildlife. Some of the best treks are in Laos and Malaysia, though the ones in Thailand are the most convenient.
- Admire Angkor Wat – One of the greatest human creations in history, this temple complex is best done over the course of a few days. Even if you don’t like temples, the place is still amazing to see as it’s a testament to the genius of humanity. I spent three days here and that simply wasn’t enough. It’s beautiful here.
- Attend the Full Moon Party – The biggest one-night party in the world can sometimes see up to 30,000 people. Party until dawn covered in glow paint and dance the night away with new friends on the island of Ko Phangan in Thailand.
- Learn to dive – There are many great dive sites around the region. Learn to dive here at a fraction of what it would cost back home. Some of the best places are Ko Tao (Thailand), Sipidan (Malaysia), as well as Indonesia and the Philippines.
- Eat in Singapore – Thought Thailand had great food? Try the hawker stalls of Singapore for great eats. Don’t forget to also visit Little India and Chinatown. They have some of the best and cheapest food in Asia!
- Situate yourself on some tropical islands – There’s more tropical islands in this part of the world than can be named. You have some of the best in the world here, places here you can lie on the beach, soak up some sun, and cool off in azure blue water. Some of the best: Perhentian Islands (Malaysia), Rabbit Island (Cambodia), Ko Lanta (Thailand), Ko Chang (Thailand), Ko Tarutao National Park (Thailand).
- Get your temple overload – There’s a lot of everything in Southeast Asia – lots of food, islands, clothes, drinking, and lots of temples. You can’t turn a corner without seeing another temple. You’ll get temple overload at some point, but visit as many as you can as each is unique to the country and region of the temple.
- Dive Sipidan – Located off Malayasian Borneo, Sipidan is one of the best dives sites in the world. If you have your dive certificate, make sure you venture out here. Not a lot of people make it to this part of Malaysia but there’s a lot to see here besides diving. Go the extra mile, and make your way off the tourist trail a bit.
- Fall in love with Bali – Bali is the most popular destination in Indonesia. It’s famous Kuta beach (overrated) and is known for its parties and surfing. However, there is much more to Bali than just wild nights and sun-soaked days. Many beaches are great for families, while the rice terraces in the center will show you what green really is, and Ubud is an artistic town with great food and traditional dancing.
- See Halong Bay – A few hours outside of Hanoi, Halong Bay is the inside passage of Asia. An island filled bay, sailing trips out here give you an appreciation for the natural beauty in Vietnam. Watch out for scams – make sure you go with a reputable company. Paying more is worth it. Cheaper is not better here.
- Take in Ho Chi Minh City – Frantic, chaotic, and crazy, Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam is the embodiment of the controlled chaos that rules Southeast Asia. You can’t quite figure out how this teeming mass of people and cars work together, but it does.
- Watch the sun rise over an Indonesian Volcano – One of the most popular tourist attractions on Java is Mount Bromo and its National Park. You’ll not want to miss out on getting a snap of the smoldering Bromo volcano as it lies surrounded by the almost lunar landscape of the Sea of Sand. If you’re there in mid-August, you’ll be just in time to see Upacara Kasodo, the monthly ritual which the Tenggerese take part in. Get up early to catch one of the most memorable sunrises of your life.
- Visit Khao Sok National Park – Located in the south of Thailand, Khao Sok National Park is constantly rated as one of the best in Thailand, with incredible trekking, camping, limestone karsts, cooling rivers, and a glistening lake. You’ll find semi-challenging hikes, tons of wildlife, walking paths, and incredible sunsets. Park entrance costs 200 THB.
- Visit Kuala Lumpur – If you’re in the area, be sure to spend a few nights in Malaysia’s capital, Kuala Lumpur. The Petronas Twin Towers are a must-see, and if you don’t mind heights, you should walk across the bridge connecting the two. They stand an awesome 1,500 feet tall! There is a decent bird zoo in the city, and a few parks also worth seeing.
- Visit Kampot – Most people come here to enjoy the scenic riverside views, as well as the rolling hills that surround the city. Since you can explore easily enough on foot or by bicycle, Kampot is a great place to slow down and relax. Don’t miss the pepper farms, the mangroves, and the national park.
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