Backpacking Route in
South East Asia
Backpacking in South East Asia is ever popular and it’s not hard to see why. It’s ridiculously cheap, is home to a unique and varied culture, has fantastic weather and scenery but with such a thriving backpacker scene, home comforts are never hard to find. Perhaps it has lost some of the mysticism it had back in the day when traveller numbers were still relatively small but there is still undeniably a certain magic about this part of the world.
The route begins in the traveller hub of Bangkok before heading into mystical Northern Thailand and then crossing through lazy chilled out Laos. Next stop is Vietnam, a rapidly developing country with a fascinating history before looping back around into the crazy kingdom of Cambodia. Back in Thailand and returning to Bangkok for the trip to the beach paradise of Southern Thailand. After a few weeks of island hopping, the route takes in the length of Malaysia before finishing off in the exciting city state of Singapore.
Bangkok- The Thai Capital is in many ways the best place to start your South East Asian trip. For starters it’s a major airline hub so it is very easy to get to and flights are more reasonably priced than ones to other South East Asian cities which often pass through Bangkok anyway. It is the most Westernised city in the region so the culture shock is less than if you landed straight into Vietnam or Laos. It offers you a chance to stock up on anything you may need for your trip, with prices much cheaper than back home but still with great choice.
As for the city well it’s the sort of place that divides opinions. It’s certainly something of a backpacking Mecca centred round the famous Kao San Road (right), possibly the most international street in the world. It is a huge place with many different districts and lots of sights to see. Then there’s the seedy side of Bangkok, which is almost unavoidable but like it or not is probably what the city is most famous for.
Ayutthaya- Ancient city and former capital of Siam. Ayutthaya is effectively an island in the middle of three rivers. History buffs will love it and for everyone else it makes for a nice stop on the way to the North of Thailand.
Phitsanulok- Not a on the regular hit-list for people backpacking in Thailand, but it is somewhere to break up the journey between Bangkok and Chiang Mai. Explore the nearby Sukhothai Historical Park and visit some of the temples and museums in town.
Chiang Mai- The Northern city of Chiang Mai is an intellectual kind of place with an alternative vibe and many travellers prefer it to Bangkok. It’s a good spot to study traditional Thai practices such as massage and meditation. It is also the best place to base yourself for exploring or trekking into the jungle and ethnic minority villages near the city.
Chiang Khong- Right on the border with Laos, it has a real traveller vibe to it with people heading in both directions. It is in the Golden Triangle, a famous opium growing region which covers areas of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar. Chiang Khong is also a market town and attracts local hill tribes such as the White Hmongs. Explore the mountainous region, visit some of the other villages and learn about the opium trade which has been cut out in Thailand but still thrives over the nearby Lao and Burmese borders.
Border Crossing from Thailand to Laos: Chiang Khong and Houay Xai are right next to each other so it’s fairly straightforward and you can purchase a 30 day Laos tourist visa for around $30-40 at the border.
Houay Xai- For a border town, Houay Xai is very pleasant and it may be worth hanging around for a day or so to adapt to the chilled out Lao lifestyle and enjoy sitting on the banks of the Mekong or consider visiting the nearby Bokeo Nature Reserve. It’s a decent spot to psyche yourself up for the long journey to Luang Prabang. (Backpacking in Laos isn’t as easy or anywhere near as comfortable as in Thailand thanks to dodgy roads and a basic to non-existent transport system)
Luang Prabang- French and Indochinese culture met here and resulted in an enchanting city, one of the highlights of Laos. The Old Quarter on the banks of the river is home to an array of temples and museums that are worth visiting. The night market is another big draw and there are plenty of companies offering trekking, biking and kayaking opportunities.
Vang Vieng (left)- This is another hugely popular backpacking destination in South East Asia. Everyone seems to go tubing in Vang Vieng and buy the customary t-shirt to say you’ve done it. Hop on a rubber tube and make your way between the various bars along the river. This is the main attraction here but there’s plenty of other adventurous stuff you can do around the ramshackle town of Vang Vieng which doesn’t have much going on.
Vientiane- A capital city it may be but don’t let that deceive you. Vientiane is about as friendly and laid back a place as you’ll find anywhere. Set on the Mekong River, this French influenced town is extremely picturesque and the perfect place to chill out for a few days.
Tha Khaek- A small town with a large market selling all sorts of weird stuff including unorthodox dishes like snake and squirrel frogs. It’s main use for travellers is as a base for exploring the Phou Hin Boon National Park. Don’t miss the giant Konglor Cave, which is basically a river beneath the surface that can be navigated on boat trips. You can also visit the Tham Nong Pafa Cave discovered as recently as 2004 and home to 200 mysterious Buddha statues.
Savannakhet- Second biggest city in Laos, but again it is very chilled out, with a combo of French and traditional Lao feel to the city. Stuff to do here includes a visit to the Dinosaur Museum which exhibits various dinosaur remains found in the area. There’s also a museum about the problem of unexploded bombs from the Vietnam War that still litter the Eastern side of the province. The city also hosts many different festivals throughout the year which you may be lucky enough to catch.
Border Crossing from Laos to Vietnam: Buses are fairly high quality with air-con and run from Savannakhet to Dong Ha in Vietnam and take around 8 hours. Enquire in town for bus times. You normally need to arrange your Vietnam visa in advance so it is probably best to do this at the Vietnamese Embassy in Vientiane.
Dong Ha- The Socialist Republic of Vietnam is very different to Laos and it will take a little time to adjust to the increased pace of life here. The main sight near Dong Ha where the buses from Savannakhet arrive is the former de-militarised zone (DMZ) which used to separate North and South Vietnam. You won’t want to stay in Dong Ha more than a day, if that and many travellers head straight to Hue.
Hue- Ancient city on a musty coloured river with dragon boats. Lots of Vietnam War sites nearby and a pretty decent traveller scene. Good place to try Vietnamese food. It rains a lot.
Hoi An (right)- This riverside town is pretty damn cool. It’s the place to buy tailor-made clothes of all varieties and then prance around like a prize nutter in your new bright purple suit. The beach is a short moto-taxi ride away and is one of the finest in the country. There are also some surprisingly cool bars here catering to a variety of music tastes. It makes our Top 10 New Backpacking Hotspots.
Nha Trang- Nha Trang has a fairly seedy traveller area and a dirty beach but there are a few positives. A peaceful temple near the bus station is home to a giant white Buddha. There’s also a decent beach club that serves cheap cocktails and stays open till much later than anywhere you’re likely to find further north. Some decent water sports on offer here too.
Dalat- 1500m above sea level, Dalat has distinctly different feel to it to the rest of the main places to visit in South East Asia. With a temperate climate that makes nights chilly, it comes as a refreshing change and with lakes, forests and waterfalls that surround the town, it is a paradise for fans of the great outdoors. Hiking and cycling opportunities aplenty here and there’s a few villages nearby home to ethnic minority groups.
Mui Ne- The nearby sand dunes are good fun if you can stand the heat. There is one road, it’s very long and runs parallel to the 20km or so long beach which is largely deserted. Good place to unwind but not much going on.
Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)- It is the biggest city and has by some considerable margin has the largest backpacker scene in Vietnam. Hit the Pham Ngu Lao area and you will find numerous cheap places to eat, sleep and drink. The area is busy until late and has cuisines from literally all over the world. The moto drivers here will compete for your business non-stop so it’s easy to get anywhere else in town. Lots of sights relating to the war (left: Re-Unification Palace) here in this ever growing and somewhat crazy city. The traffic is mental!
Border Crossing from Vietnam to Cambodia: Buses from Saigon to Phnom Penh are cheap and regular taking around 6 hours. You will have to get off at the border and most bus companies seem to rather annoyingly take your passports off you on the bus and charge $25 to sort out the Cambodian visa as opposed to the official $20.
Phnom Penh- On the surface Phnom Penh is a pleasant, aesthetically pleasing and surprisingly peaceful capital city with lots of monks. Dig a little deeper and it’s a lawless, poverty stricken place where just about anything goes. Welcome to Cambodia.
Backpackers here depending on who you speak to get up to just about anything from blowing up cows with rocket launchers to attending cock fighting matches and getting off their faces on ridiculously easily available drugs. It’s not for everyone but is certainly worth experiencing to understand the horrors that took place here all too recently during the days of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. There’s also some stunning temples and palaces which could grace any of the finest cities on the planet. Inequality is everywhere in Cambodia and Phnom Penh demonstrates it better than anywhere.
Sihanoukville- 24 hour bars and unspoiled beaches are the order of the day here. It’s a bit like some of the Thai beach destinations would have been like 20 years ago before they became commercialised. Much like Phnom Penh there’s a majorly psychedelic backpacker scene.
Battambang- Travelling to Battambang from Sihanoukville is likely to involve going back to Phnom Penh and changing buses such is the limited transport network in the country. The city is full of statues and interesting Wats and has plenty of river based activities to entertain travellers. Once you’re done hop on a boat north to Siem Reap. It may be worth checking the estimated length of the journey as it depends on water levels and can take up to 12 hours, in which case you may well prefer the less scenic bus route.
(for Temples of Angkor Wat)- Siem Reap has grown from nothing into a thriving little town thanks to its proximity to country’s main pride and joy, the magnificent Temples of Angkor Wat (left), an essential stop for anyone backpacking in Cambodia. If you’re a fairly well travelled person you’ve probably been to some ancient ruin that’s in all the guidebooks and been left thoroughly disappointed at the crappy little pile of rocks that you’ve payed to come and see. Angkor Wat however is in a different league with hundreds of impressive ruins spread out over a large area of jungle, it’s a pretty amazing place and you’d have to be very hard to please not to be impressed by the scale of it. In Siem Reap itself there are few sights but some pretty decent bars and plenty of great food.
For more on Cambodia see our Backpacker’s Guide to Cambodia
Border Crossing from Cambodia to Thailand: Take the bus from Siem Reap to Poipet, a Cambodian border town which is a total hellhole. Your main objective ought to be to cross the border as quickly as possible while trying not to get scammed. The Thai side isn’t as bad but you are likely to have your luggage sniffed by dogs either at the border or once onboard your onward bus which will probably be stopped by police at some point early on in the journey. They are looking for drugs and penalties are severe if caught. Once you’ve got through immigration, take a tuk-tuk to the bus terminal in Aranya Prathet from where there are regular buses to Bangkok taking 4 hours or so.
Bangkok- Stay for a few days or hop straight on a night train south depending on how much you enjoyed the city first time around. Having completed the big loop around the North of Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia it’s time to hop on a night train and head for the beach paradise of Southern Thailand.
Ko Samui- A large and very westernised island that tends to attract more mainstream tourism than people travelling in South East Asia on a budget. Hat Chaweng and Hat Lamai are party central for the tourist masses but there are plenty of quieter spots to explore with a vast choice of beaches to choose from and you’ll probably have to pass through here to get the boat to Ko Pha-Ngan.
Ko Pha-Ngan (right)- This island is probably the most famous backpacking destination in the world. A tropical paradise it certainly is and the options are endless when it comes to finding a beach to spend the day on. There are no major developments here so accommodation is basic and dirt cheap with plenty of traditional beach bungalows still available. Hat Rin is the place to party and home of the famous full moon parties which attract thousands at that time of the month. The other beaches are considerably quieter and great places to relax and enjoy your days in peace.
For full moon dates see: Full Moon Parties
Ko Tao- Express boats travel the 45km between Ko Pha-Ngan and Ko Tao taking around two hours. This is the place to come to delve into the ocean and experience diving or snorkelling in beautiful clear waters with lots of marine life. It almost goes without saying that this is also another great island to soak up the sun and laze around on the beach all day. Hat Sai Ri’s bars are the centre of the drinking action, but Ko Tao’s nightlife is nowhere near as lively as that on Ko Pha-Ngan or Ko Samui.
Krabi- Back on the Thai mainland and now the Andaman Coast, hit the popular beaches of Ao Nang, Tang Sei and Rai Leh. Crash out in the cheap guesthouse or bungalows on one of the beaches. There’s also more opportunities for the active traveller here so if you’re bored of lazing around all day, try your hand at rock climbing, a popular activity on Hat Ton Sai and Hat Rai Leh.
Ko Phi Phi- Ever popular with backpackers in Thailand, this is where the movie ‘The Beach’ was filmed (left). It’s a bit pricier than some of the other Thai beach destinations and isn’t exactly a secret paradise any more but it’s still beautiful despite being badly affected by the 2004 tsunami.
Ko Tarutao National Marine Park- Over 50 little islands in the far south-west of the country. So far it has managed not to become at all commercialised or overrun by foreigners and isn’t regularly visited by peeps backpacking in Thailand. You can rent out a tent on one of the few accessible islands and enjoy a day or two in unspoilt natural surroundings.
Border Crossing from Thailand to Malaysia: Boats travel between Satun, Thailand and Pulau Langkawi in Malaysia taking 1 hour 30 mins and costing around 300 Baht. Violence sometimes flares up in the largely Muslim provinces in the far south of Thailand so if in doubt it’s best to head straight to Malaysia.
Penang- A small island off the West Coast of Malaysia that is well worth visiting. Hit Georgetown, for a taste of British colonialism and experience the town’s famous markets and religious sites of various faiths. Elsewhere on the island there are some decent beaches and plenty of quaint little fishing villages.
Ipoh- There’s lots of nice sights in Ipoh, even the train station is something of an architectural masterpiece. It is a mysterious kind of place, home to haunted castles, secret passages, weird statues and various caves. You can also go trekking in the surrounding jungle, visit nearby hot-springs, enjoy a day at the water park or for the adventurous try your hand at caving and white-water rafting.
Taman Negara National Park- It can be a bit of a pain to get to but is well worth the effort. You don’t really need a guide so you can wander around the jungle terrain at your own leisure. There are some beautifully clear lakes to swim as well as some spectacular water cascades and a 500m long suspension bridge (right) which cuts through the jungle canopies. Longer treks deeper into the jungle can be arranged as can mountain climbing and 4WD safaris.
Kuala Lumpur- The Malaysian capital is a developed modern city. There’s some excellent shopping and lively nightlife here in the Golden Triangle home of the Petronas Twin Towers, two of the tallest buildings in the world. It is considerably more expensive than most places on the route but still very cheap by Western standards.
Malacca- Another one of these World Heritage Sites (whatever that means), Malacca is considered one of the backpacking highlights in Malaysia. It’s a rather old city having being founded over 600 years ago but there’s still plenty of buzz about Malacca today. There are plenty of interesting and centuries old streets and squares to kick back in and there’s a good choice of local dishes and drinks to try.
Border Crossing from Malaysia to Singapore: Heading to Singapore, one way or another you’ll need to get to the town of Johor Bahru which is connected to Singapore by a 1km long causeway. There are frequent buses from Johor Bahru’s bus station north of the city and Queen Street Station in Singapore. They all stop at both immigration checkpoints where you will need to get off with your luggage and then re-board once you’re through passport control.
Singapore- The glamorous city state of Singapore is full of flashy skyscrapers and is a complete contrast to most of South East Asia. The city is is very multi-cultural and has lots of fascinating districts to explore and foods to taste. The law here is famously strict so behaviour that is considered perfectly acceptable in Cambodia and Laos could be punished by the death penalty so don’t take any chances. Even chewing gum is illegal here!
As far as budget travel in South East Asia goes, Singapore is firmly on the expensive side of the scale. Beer here is probably ten times the price it is in other parts of the region and although not everything is extortionate, it’s a good idea to ensure you’ve not totally blown your budget by the time you get here.
Singapore has probably the best airport in the world and is very well connected to locations all over the world so is the perfect place to end your trip and fly home or onwards to a different part of the world. Alternatively you could make the short sea crossing to Indonesia and continue your travels there.
What Did We Miss Out?
Northern Vietnam especially Hanoi and Halong Bay is well worth visiting but is fairly inaccessible from Laos by road. The trip is very long and bumpy so if you do fancy it, your best bet is probably to follow the route to Vientiane and then fly to Hanoi. Check out our Backpacking route for Vietnam which follows the Re-Unification Express trainline from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City.
Indonesia is a huge place and could justify 6 months travelling in its own right with the possibility of continuing onto Australia and New Zealand. Check out our suggested backpacking route in Indonesia if you're interested. The Philippines is also a huge collection of islands and is less popular with travellers, possibly because it is off the South East Asian mainland and parts of it have a somewhat dangerous reputation.
Daytrips to Burma can be arranged from the North of Thailand and longer visits may be possible but the situation is regularly changing. There is also the moral question of whether you should visit a country that is run by a military junta with an appalling human rights record. If you do decide and are able to visit then you will find a fascinating country with as much to see as any of the others in the region.
Pics courtesy of jjcb (singapore), flip.01 (malaysia national park), bruno (Ko Pha Ngan), JonasPhoto (tubing in Laos) and Argenberg (Ko Phi Phi) on flickr
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