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A Backpackers Guide to South East Asia

Written by Jenny McWhirter on 01 / 06 / 2016

Gap Year Advice

Grab yourself a map. Did you know that Asia itself consists of 50 different countries? It’s massive, full of history, contrast and fascinating cultures but its still just South East Asia which captures the imagination of the gap year student, pulling in 1000’s of hunched backpackers year after year, a trend which dates right back to the 1970’s.

As a result, there is an overwhelming mass of travel advice aimed at the backpacker, so to make life easy I’ve started the research for you and put together this simple guide to help those thinking about travelling across the best of South East Asia. Top countries to visit, things not to be missed, how to get around and a rough budget...read on.

Where to Go

The best route, known as the ‘Grand Tour of South East Asia’, starts in Thailand and then heads across to Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and Malaysia finishing up in the bright lights of Singapore. Pure heaven. Each country is completely different from its neighbour so all worth a visit if time is on your side.

Thailand

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8ik4dY9viNk

From Bangkok City which offers an amazing clash of modernity and tradition, to the calm beaches of the islands such as Ko Chang, to the jungle of the north. Whether you’re a fan of all-nighters, culture or jungle trekking – it's all here and a great place to start earning your backpacker stripes in South East Asia.

Not to be missed: Even if the all-nighter is not your thing, a full-moon party is a definite must-do in Thailand. It’s the biggest one-night party in the world - think neon paint, fish bowls (?!) and great music. Put it in your diary.

Laos

Laos from Out Road on Vimeo.

Often overshadowed by it’s noisy neighbors - Vietnam and Thailand, Laos is not to be underestimated with its laid-back charm, kind people, rich culture, lush rice fields and picturesque mountains which allow you to lose yourself in the pristine landscape. Not short on fun too as the country is covered in rivers who all seem to offer a tubing experience. Perfect for the more confident backpacker, who is keen to experience the ancient culture, away from the tourist trail, still found in hidden places in South East Asia

Not to be missed: The secluded town of Luang Prabang, the former ancient royal capital and arguable South East Asia’s prettiest town, surrounded by soaring green mountains – easy to forget the outside world.

Vietnam

Vietnam from Pedro J. Saavedra on Vimeo.

Gaining on the popularity stakes. Vietnam is stunning. From the natural beauty of Sam Mountain to the man made wonder of the sacred temples, this country has a lot to offer and I highly recommend starting at one end and making your way to the other, eating croissants and baguettes as you go. But beware, the locals are prone to tourist scams so you must be vigilant at all times.

Not to be missed: Halong Bay and Ho Chi Minh City, couldn’t be more different but both require a visit. Halong Bay [https://www.lonelyplanet.com/vietnam/northeast-vietnam/halong-bay] is described as the ‘natural beauty of Vietnam’ and will have you in awe of the power of nature. Although a word of warning here- you get what you pay for, splash the cash on a boat tour and you won’t regret it.

In a completely different vein, Ho Chi Minh City offers a frantic, chaotic and crazy city feel. However, when you start to wander the city you’ll get into the groove and realize that this is a fine specimen of ‘controlled chaos’.

Cambodia

Many flock to Cambodia to visit the great Angkor Watt and whilst this offers a stunning, peaceful beauty, the country has so much more to offer. It is one of the more adventurous destinations along the trail and if you wander outside Phnom Penh it’s easy to feel like you’ve walked back in time.

It’s steeped in history and still bears the scars of genocide and oppression. One of the best ways to get beyond the tourist trail and really start to understand this city is by living and working with a local community – definitely tag it onto your trip.

Not to be missed: Koh Rong Island and the famous food markets. Koh Rong is the beautiful peaceful island, with bright blue water and white sandy beaches. It's truly a paradise and will offer you a break from the busy city life and party style Sihanoukville.

As for the food markets – every city and town in South East Asia has one, just make sure you seek them out.

Borneo

Way off the beaten track, even for South East Asia and for the more adventurous: Borneo boasts one of the largest, most biologically diverse and species rich equatorial rainforests. If you venture through the deep jungles and unexplored tropical wilderness, you’ll truly see the tropical paradise that surrounds you.

After a few days of exploring you’ll feel like you’ve been dropped into an endless David Attenborough documentary.

Not to be missed: Jungle trekking is a must-do to see the diversity of the wildlife that calls Borneo it’s home. Spend 10 weeks exploring and you’ll get 5 days learning jungle survival skills and trek into the depths of the rainforests.

How to Get Around

The good news is that it is super easy to get around the different countries of South East Asia, both within and between. You’ve got three main options when it comes to travel – bus, taxis or tuk tuks and airplanes. Trains aren’t really an option in South East Asia so don’t rely on these.

Within a country the easiest and cheapest way to travel is via public bus. You can also take longer bus journeys to get between your countries – granted it won’t be the most comfortable nights sleep but a night bus will see you hop from Thailand to Laos or Vietnam to Cambodia.

If you are a little strapped for time, then flights are easy and regular. You are best to look at Air Asia or Tiger Airways for those country-to-country flights. The good news is that they often have great sales so it shouldn’t break the bank either.

Budgeting for your travels in South East Asia

The tourist trail across the region is fairly uniform and the good news is, it’s fairly cheap. An average daily budget is around $30 a day, depending how many beers you fancy and how many tours you opt for.

But dig a little deeper and let’s see where you can save and where you have to splash.

Accommodation is super cheap

No matter where you are your accommodation won’t eat into your budget too much. The prices are at the higher end in the cities and the more touristy places but you’ll never really spend more than $10 a night on a dorm room.

In Cambodia dorm rooms cost from $2-5USD, Thailand varies between $6-15USD and Vietnam will set you back just $5-8USD. But this will also depend on what type of backpacker you are and the level of comfort you require! To find out what type you are have a read here:

The best part of the accommodation, apart from the in-expense, is that you can be super flexible. There’s no need to book accommodation in advance, backpackers tend to just show up and book on the night. A good resource is iNomadicatt.

Food, local is tasty and affordable

Budget around $15USD a day. If you eat locally you’ll spend the least amount of money. Street food is around $1.50 for a dish and utterly delicious but be careful and make sure it all looks freshly cooked.

Even if you head to a local restaurant you’re still only looking at between $3-5USD a day. However, the price increases dramatically should you want those favorites from home

For a tasty pasta dish you’re looking at more like $8USD a meal and if you fancy a steak that will set you back around $20USD. In my opinion, explore the local cuisine and leave those home favorites for when you return. Have a read of a blog on this very subject!

Transport can vary greatly

A local tuk tuk will cost a few pennies, a public bus - a couple of dollars up to $10-15USD for an overnighter and a taxi will cost you triple so up to you and your own limitations!

My advice, use tuk tuk for little local journeys, public transport for overnights and taxi for getting home late at night. Remember to always haggle. They’ll start around double of the price you’ll pay so just keep bargaining.

Flights - if you shop in the sales can be extremely cheap – as low as $25USD – so this is a great option for those with less time and won’t break your bank.

Activities - don’t book before you go!

In terms of activities that you’ll do, it shouldn’t be too expensive, many day tours are around $20USD. Top tip is not to book any activities before you arrive. You’ll end up spending a lot more money and it won’t be any different.

There are plenty of tours and tour operators on the streets that will offer great deals and make your exploring fairly inexpensive. Although be aware that at times it’s worth spending the money, most notably as I mentioned earlier, in Halong Bay in Vietnam. Talking to other backpackers for the insider’s track is well worth it.

Star in your own version of The Beach

So there we have it, a few pointers for planning a trip around South East Asia. It’s a great region with amazing culture, history and some of the loveliest people you’ll ever meet. It’s also a great place to start your backpacking if you are a novice with its well trodden routes and lots of other backpackers to meet along the way.

Do you have a great piece of advice to add to our guide? Your fellow travellers would love to hear about it, so let us know in the comments below.

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