This entire trip is near and dear to my heart & soul. It was Southeast Asia where I first traveled alone and really explored a new culture by myself. It was Southeast Asia where I discovered the joy of unique cuisine and to try everything that was offered to me. It was Southeast Asia where I realized the importance of international education, perspective, and the blurred definition of what it means to be successful.
It was also Southeast Asia where I learned what poverty actually looks like. It was Southeast Asia where I learned how cruel pompous foreigners can be to local people. It was Southeast Asia where I finally understood the toll American Exceptionalism has taken on this beautiful area of the world, especially in Vietnam.
If you are at all interested (and able) to take a month or so to backpack, please consider Southeast Asia. It has been well traveled since the 70’s and every country in that region is “English Friendly”. I cannot stress enough how even though the language is very different, the tourism industry is so strong that English is available everywhere you go. The last point before outlining some references/trip ideas for you…
Traveling within Southeast Asia is a cakewalk and is very cost-effective. One-way tickets from Bangkok to Kuala Lumpur can cost as little as 20$. This is what you cannot get in Europe. And do not worry about the safety – this industry is very established in this area of the world and has minimal accidents. If you have ever dreamed about traveling the world, this is where you want to start. This article will be a bit lengthy as I explain different ways to do this trip and give you different articles and resources for your own investigation. At the very least, I hope reading these first couple paragraphs has inspired you to at least consider planning (with a good friend!) a trip in the future.
Now, onto the “how” to backpack Southeast Asia….
I won’t pretend I am an expert, but I have done it twice and I have done extensive research. My opinion is also based on stories/experiences of friends of mine who have also done Southeast Asia. There are basically two ways to do this….
Option 1 starts with flying into Chiang Mai or Bangkok (Thailand). Either way, both options you want to head North and then East. Chiang Mai is the most populated Northern city in Thailand and contains a nice blend of local northern Thai culture with enough tourism culture as well. The food is phenomenal and you can do many different wildlife excursions like: visit elephant conservatories, zip lining, ATV riding, kayaking, etc. In addition, there are a few different cities to visit around the area with the most popular being Pai.
From Chiang Mai, head east to Laos. Unfortunately, I have not had the chance to visit this beautiful country, but it is something you should try to do if you make this trip. While your hostel in Chiang Mai will have plenty of options/advice on how to travel to Laos, make sure to do your own research as well. There are many websites out there that contain information on how to do this, you just need to find the right one that fits you!
From Laos, head north to Hanoi. The capital of Vietnam, Hanoi contains an amazing blend of traditional Vietnamese culture with colonial French influence. I personally enjoyed this city much more then Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), but you should decide for yourself. Make sure to check out the French Concessions and view some of the memorials/museums from the Vietnam War – which, of course, is called the American War in Vietnam. In addition, spend a day visiting HaLong Bay and enjoy the countryside ride to this amazing natural wonder.
Once you have spent sufficient time in Hanoi, head on down to Hue, DaNang, and Hoi An. If you are like me, take this time to ride the train in Vietnam and really see the beautiful countryside (seat61.com is an AWESOME website to figure out transportation in this area of the world). Otherwise, like almost everyone in this country, rent a bike/moped and drive yourself! It is easy to rent a bike in Hanoi for 2-3 weeks and return it once you reach Ho Chi Minh City in the south.
Hue, DaNang, and Hoi An are all relatively close to each other, with DaNang and Hoi An being a quick 15 minute bike apart. Hue is the ancient capital of Vietnam and is a must see if you are interested in History. If not, make sure to spend time in DaNang and Hoi An.
Hoi An is a wonderful touristy city with many opportunities for shopping and eating. I would recommend buying something silk or tailored here — it is one of the most famous cities in the world for silk products.
From Hoi An, head on down to Ho Chi Minh City, or commonly referred to as Saigon.
Ho Chi Minh City was the Southern capital during the war and contains many memorials and museums dedicated to the victims and cause. The War Remnants museum describes the war both from the American side and the innocent victims in the battle. This museum also includes a whole exhibit on the devastating effects of Agent Orange. Once finished, I recommend reflecting on the differences between the Hanoi museums and Ho Chi Minh City museums. This is where you can see how the Winners tell history and can depict it anyway they want to.
There are many fun things to do in Ho Chi Minh City as well. Find a tour that takes you down to the Mekong River Delta and see fisherman at work. Climb into the Cu Chi tunnels and see what it was really like to be on the ground in Vietnam. Lastly, eat as much food as possible and don’t be afraid to try live quail eggs!!
From Ho Chi Minh City, head on over to Cambodia. While personally for me, Phnom Penh (the capital) was a little disappointing, you should make sure to visit Siem Reap — famous for Angkor Wat.
This also gives you a more direct path to some more island/beaches in an amazing country: Thailand.
Make sure to start south and work your way up to Bangkok. If you took option #1, then you probably have a round trip flight to Bangkok. In this case, make Bangkok the last city you visit.
It will be the cheapest to go to Phuket first and then find which island(s) you want to visit, but there are a bit more expensive options to fly directly to the island(s). Make sure to visit skyscanner.com to see the best deals — this is my favorite website to find cheap Asian airlines.
Phuket is located on the southern end of Thailand and is the launching point to all of the famous Thai islands. Phuket itself, however, is a great place to spend a couple days as well. Get up to visit Patong beach for a good time and Phuket old town for a history lesson. Downtown Phuket will show you everything that is wrong with the tourism industry: prostitution, drugs, ping pong shows, and corruption run this city. Keep Phuket to a day or two and you will be fine.
Phuket hostels have all of the information for you in regards on how to get to the islands and which ones to choose. I will detail my experience, from there you can do your own research to find the best island(s) for you!
Here is an updated version of the “top 10” list for the islands in Thailand. That top 10, however, still lists Kho Phi Phi as the top island. Famous for the Leo movie “The Beach”, Kho Phi Phi is paradise for singles and partygoers alike. However, the beach itself is pretty subpar and the island is overrun with tourism and expensive food. Great for a night, maybe two, but not worthwhile to stay for a while. Make sure to visit some of the more laidback islands like Kho Lanta or Kho Samui. However, this is my suggestion…
Either fly or boat to Krabi, an island across from Phuket. Enjoy Krabi, but use Krabi to easily get to other islands. Mainly, I suggest going to Railay Peninsula and visit Railay & Tonsai beach. It is not listed on the above map, but it is the two islands just south of Krabi, next to Koh Lanta. It is here where you can enjoy: cheap food, cheap luxury resorts, and beautiful beaches. In addition, this area is still not heavily visited so tourists are not abundant here (yay!). From there, you can get to Kho Lanta or Ao Nang.
Once you enjoy the beaches and island life, it is time to head back to Bangkok for your flight home. Bangkok is a whole monster and has many different things to explore and see. At the end of a long trip like this, I recommend shelling out a bit of $$$ to relax these few days away from the Hostel life. Eat as much street food as you can and make sure to buy many gifts!
Now let’s go the other way….
Starting point is Hanoi and working backwards. Sometimes round trip flights are cheaper out of Vietnam (closer to California) and it is better to go West and then South. If this is so, take the advice from the later route, but go the opposite direction.
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: A unique visit of Indian, Chinese, and native Malay, Malaysia is a melting pot of different cultures that has created its’ own flavor. Kuala Lumpur is the center of it all, giving you the opportunity to eat Chinese dumplings for breakfast, Malay-style gyros for lunch, and famous Indian curry for dinner. I personally really enjoyed this city — many opportunities to jump from there to other parts of Malaysia as well (or Singapore!)
Myanmar (formerly Burma): A recent war-torn country, Myanmar is quite new to the Southeast Asia backpacking experience. This may make this option quite appealing — the tread of the trails are still quite new, so it can be more of an ‘adventure’ for you. However, this might be the exact reason why you also do not want to go.
Bali, Indonesia: The first country I truly went by myself, Bali is an island paradise that offers any guilty pleasure that you are looking for. With beautiful rainforest and shoreline, renting a motorbike is a must to really appreciate the whole island. Try to avoid the party spots (Bali is the Cancun for Australians), and stick to the East side like Sanur.
Hong Kong / Taiwan: These two destinations give you a glimpse of Chinese culture without getting a visa to visit the Mainland. Taiwan includes local Taiwanese culture which comes in the wonderful form of: fruit, night markets, and seafood. I highly recommend visiting the National History Museum there – it contains over 5,000 years of Mainland Chinese history. Hong Kong is a little bit more familiar to Western tourists – a nice blend of Chinese with the Western world. Everything is in traditional Chinese characters, but the taxi drivers will speak to you in fluent English. Oh, and make sure to get used to your “comfort zone” being extremely violated.
This is my advice I want to give you in order to travel Southeast Asia. This is no way the “right” way to do it, just my personal opinion on what worked for me and how I would do it again. Ten people might have ten different ways to do this trip, but all can agree that this area of the world is magical. Make sure to stay in hostels and meet people from around the world; people like you who are just trying to figure out who they are and what the world around them is like.
Most importantly, take note on how other cultures/countries view YOU, especially as an American— learn how to be introspective and gain an understanding of your culture and the privilege that comes with it. Very few passports allow you the opportunity to just walk around other countries with no drawbacks. Think about what that means and what had to happen to achieve that.
If you have any questions at all, please do not hesitate to contact me. I am very willing to help answer your questions and give personal direction to accomplish this journey. Being able to help plan your trip helps to somewhat tame my own travel itch!
Do your research and do not be afraid to take the leap! The hardest part is making this individual decision — think of it as an investment for your own personal self-growth rather than a vacation. As anyone who has done this trip can confirm, Southeast Asia is never “just” a vacation, it’s an adventure.