A Backpacker’s Guide to Southeast Asia

The hustle and bustle of a million motorbikes contrast starkly against dense, jungle-laden mountains that flow toward pristine white sand beaches. Amidst the chaos of the city, you delight in the smells of street food. In sleepy villages, strangers smile and wave as they prepare their fishing nets for the morning’s catch. No matter where you travel, Southeast Asia offers a real bombardment of the senses. This diverse slice of paradise offers something for everyone, from the exotic foodie to the thrill-seeker to the cultural tourist. With so much to see and do amidst unmatched natural beauty, Southeast Asia is a backpacker’s paradise.

Where to Start Your Southeast Asian Journey

Southeast Asia might look small on the map, but it’s quite a broad swath of territory. Both Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and Bangkok, Thailand, are excellent starting points, as both cities offer plenty in the way of modern amenities. They also have extensive public transportation networks and act as airport hubs for budget airlines if you choose to fly from place to place.

How Much Time do I Need to Backpack Southeast Asia?

You can spend a lifetime exploring the nooks and crannies of Southeast Asia. If you have only two weeks, pick a country or two to hone in on. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself stuck in transit for most of your stay. A month will allow you to explore a few regions in a couple of countries. With several months you can cover quite a bit of ground. For planning purposes, select a country or region that best fits what you would like to get out of your backpacking trip. Keep in mind, public transportation is often inefficient, and budget flights might be your best bet if you’re short on time.

Enjoy Eating in Malaysia

Malaysian street stalls feature exceptional cuisine from all over the continent. Dan Freeman

“Have you eaten yet?” These four words act as a common greeting in Southeast Asia’s premier foodie destination. Due to its central location, Malaysia has a blend of influences from China, India, and local Malay cultures. As Southeast Asia’s melting pot, the streets of Malaysia are littered with collections of street stalls (called hawker centers) serving up delicious bites. Be sure to check out Kuala Lumpur’s Pasar Malam (night market) along with Japan Alor and the Chinese Malay-influenced island of Penang for incredible dining options.

Discover Ancient Temples in Cambodia’s Angkor Wat

Cambodia’s famed UNESCO World Heritage site is a must-see on any Southeast Asia backpacking trip. This mighty, ancient city of temples needs at least four days to explore properly. Be sure to see the sunrise and sunset over the main temple complex— it’s an unforgettable experience. You can opt to hire a tuk-tuk (which resemble beefed-up golf carts), a personal driver, a guide, or rent a bicycle to ride through the park. The latter option lets you stretch your legs, but keep in mind that the heat gets oppressive during the day. It’s best to start early and bring plenty of water and snacks. Don’t forget to stash a headlamp in your bag.

6WJIq6KDyEfIEdz1NIPLA5You’ll find a variety of interesting—and often cheap—ways of traveling around Southeast Asia. Christian Holzinger

Explore the Land of a Million Elephants in Luang Prabang, Laos

Escape the punishing heat of Southeast Asia’s tropical lowlands and visit Luang Prabang, Laos. Nestled in a valley surrounded by steep jungle mountains on the banks of the Mekong River, this sleepy town is one of the region’s most charming cities. With friendly locals and children yearning to practice their English, you’ll feel welcome, and its higher elevation keeps temperatures moderate.

Spend four days exploring the many stunning temples in the town center, walk to the top of Mount Phousi for an unmatched panoramic view, take a cooking class, swim in the nearby Kuang Si Falls, or have an encounter with an Asian elephant. Riding elephants or having them perform tricks for you is not advised (riding is an unhealthy practice and many elephants are beaten to learn tricks). Opt instead to visit a sanctuary where you can get an up-close view and interact with them in their natural environment.

Ride a Hot Air Balloon over Bagan, Myanmar

The ancient capital of Bagan in central Myanmar sprawls on seemingly forever in a picturesque river valley. Take three days to explore the best of this sprawling complex. One bucket list item that’s well worth the splurge is a sunrise hot air balloon ride over the temple complex. Get a bird’s eye view of the sunrise over this magical landscape for an unforgettable morning. You can opt to explore the many temples by motorbike, tuk-tuk, or a hired driver.

Walk the Shores of Thailand’s Famed Beaches

Thailand offers an endless array of reasons to visit: Delicious street food, the stunning cultural city of Chiang Mai, countless sleepy islands and world-class beaches. Take a break from inland Southeast Asia and spend days, weeks (or even months) combing Thailand’s world-famous coastline. Krabi, Koh Phi Phi, Phuket, and Koh Phangan all offer a wide variety of beaches from the famous full-moon party to pristine waters.

Take the Train through Iconic Vietnam

5jXqnovxWKee8YamylOKu3Train travel is a budget-friendly way to get around Vietnam. Will Saunders / Gregory Mountain Products

Vietnam offers a wide variety of landscapes and cultures to explore. From the sleepy mountain town of Sa Pa to the bustling metropolis of Ho Chi Minh City (commonly called Saigon), there’s plenty of ground to cover. Train travel offers a viable, budget-friendly option to see the country. Work your way from north to south, hopping off the train at your desired destination. You’ll need at least two weeks to do this right. More intrepid travelers can opt to make the journey by motorbike. A few noteworthy stops in Vietnam include:

  • The capital city of Hanoi
  • Ha Long Bay (a beautiful island-filled bay)
  • Hoi An (a quiet beach town)
  • Da Lat (with relaxing mountains)
  • Sa Pa (a sleepy farming village)
  • Can Tho (on the Mekong Delta)
  • Saigon (Vietnam’s hip hotspot)

No matter how much time you have in Southeast Asia, there are endless opportunities for adventure, cultural exploration, and culinary experiences. So pack your backpack and see for yourself why this is becoming one of the world’s top adventure travel destinations.

Written by Meg Atteberry for Matcha in partnership with Gregory Mountain Products and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@getmatcha.com.

Featured image provided by Will Saunders