Last updated on June 6, 2022
Southeast Asia is one of the most popular backpacking destinations in the world. And for good reason—everything that makes traveling great is easily accessible. A strong street-food scene across the region ensures you’ll never go hungry (and the flavors are incredible). Ancient history is still visible in the region’s temples and ruins. Homestays and cultural exchanges offer fascinating insight into indigenous communities. The varied topography means you can snorkel coral reefs one day and hike through the highlands days later. It’s also easy to plan your Asia backpacking trip given how many veteran travelers have come before you (that’s a good thing!), and it’s affordable on any budget, even a shoestring one—that can’t be overstated. Southeast Asia is also among the places that I have felt safest traveling as a solo woman.
Over the past the decade, I have spent years discovering the cultural nuances and tiny details that make traveling Southeast Asia so enjoyable. I cannot emphasize strongly enough how much I think all travelers should plan a trip to the region and spend ample time exploring, no matter if it’s on a long-term trip, a short-term holiday, or a first solo travel experience abroad. And with that, here’s a download of everything I think you should know when planning a backpacking trip across Southeast Asia!
Fast Facts About Southeast Asia
Burmese Kyat (MMK) (current exchange rate), Cambodian Riel (KHR) (current exchange rate), Lao Kip (LAK) (current exchange rate), Thai Baht (THB) (current exchange rate), Vietnamese Dong (VND) (current exchange rate).
Can You Drink the Water?
In Thailand, the water served at restaurants in jugs is always filtered. Water in the rest of Southeast Asia, in general, is not safe to drink. Some countries, like Myanmar, serve a weak hot tea on the tables—the tea is safe to drink. In rural areas especially, use a SteriPen or LifeStraw if you can’t drink bottled water and use sterile water even to brush your teeth in the more developing regions.
Internet Access in Southeast Asia
Southeast Asian internet is pretty reliable most everywhere (don’t count on much in Myanmar). It’s not the fastest in the world but it works, and most cities promise good uptime, too. If your hotel internet doesn’t work, then you are guaranteed to find a dozen or more cafes in the city with good speeds and tasty coffee. Nomadic Notes has a fantastic collection of wifi-friendly cafes across many cities in Southeast Asia. If you rely on internet access, then grab a SIM card in every new country and easily surf at 4G+ speeds.
Transportation for SEA Backpackers
Most budget backpackers travel the region overland. For crossing overland between the countries, you will likely use long-distance buses, but that can vary greatly depending on the border crossing and the topography. You may find “a bus to a boat to a truck” required for even the most “on-the-path” route. And trains are slower but cheaper in some countries. Keep an open mind to your transport options, and note that it’s a big region and roads are rough in rural regions—this makes for long travel days, at times. If you’re jumping long distances, you’ll find surprisingly cheap flights via the budget airlines, and this can cut significant time off of your travel days. I reliably find great flight deals on Skyscanner.net since it includes nearly all budget airlines operating in the region and is, by far, the best flight search engine for SEA backpackers.
Once you are within a city, tuk-tuks and motorcycle taxis are common most everywhere. Uber is handy and offered throughout a lot of the region—it even works on motorbikes—but Grab is the wildly popular regional equivalen. When you buy a local SIM card, sign up and have it readily accessible on your phone for easy transport within all the region’s big cities. I recommend having both apps on your phone when backpacking the region.
220V/50Hz (North American plug and two-prong round)
The region is generally safe and violent crimes are rare. I cover safety below in the country guides, but overall, be aware of scams in capital cities like Bangkok, Saigon, and others. Scams primarily center on the tourist areas of town and there are a few common ones across the region. Please, please read up on these: here and here. Even experienced travelers have fallen victim to these scams. Quality healthcare is also hard to find in some areas and you should absolutely have travel insurance—it’s a must.
Note that although renting a motorbike is so common as to appear a given, traffic fatalities are the leading cause of death for tourists in Thailand. Wear a helmet and read this piece to truly understand travel safety.
When you’re in Southeast Asia, Agoda is pretty much the best booking site, hands-down—anyone telling you differently is selling you a line. While Agoda offers accommodation around the world, its coverage and reviews are best in SEA. Accommodation is often cheap enough that you can swing for a budget guesthouse and private room in most places, even on a backpacker budget, and the hotel sites offer hostel options too, so I recommend concentrating your search in one place for ease of research and such. Airbnb in Southeast Asia is a bit different than other places in the world—although there are private properties for rent, many hotels use it as well. Use Airbnb any time you want something a bit nicer but more affordable—A Little Adrift readers get an Airbnb credit here to give it a go. I used Agoda and Airbnb exclusively on my recent three-month Vietnamese backpacking trip and it worked flawlessly. If you need more help navigating where to stay each night, check out my detailed guide to finding good places to stay.
Securing Visas While Backpacking
Vietnam and Myanmar are the only two countries that do not offer visa on arrival for most Western passport holders. Both countries offer new e-visa options, though, so it’s handier than it was in years past. Of particular note for backpackers is the fact that Thailand offers 30 days on arrival by air, but only 15 days at overland crossings. Many visas in the region are full-page stickers, so be sure you have a lot of room in your passport! Count your days carefully—if it says 30 days on your visa, you will be fined for every day over that!
How to Stay Healthy & Avoid Travel Sickness
One of the scariest obstacles to international travel is often the health question. In my planning stages for my own round the world trip I fretted over the health side of the equation because it was the big unknown. Beyond vaccinating myself, stocking my medical kit, and buying really good travel insurance, the rest was out of my control, and I really like maintaining control.
Alongside the common questions I receive about facing fears and obstacles to travel, the topic of health is a big one. Over the years, several long-time readers emailed me about their health battles after setting out on their big trip overseas.
1. Get your vaccines.
Vaccinations are an important part of off-the-beaten path travel and all new travelers should visit their local health clinic for the recommended vaccines.
2. Carry a travel medical kit.
While you can easily buy a travel medical kit to get you started, I recommend customizing it to meet your needs and adding a few things that are often lacking. Tip: Oral rehydration salts are a life-saver, as are general antibiotics, and heaps of antihistamines. You will likely use an antibiotic cream more than anything else to make sure small scrapes don’t become infected in the tropical heat.
3. Buy travel insurance.
I have never used my travel insurance in Europe, and it saved me a lot of money. I highly recommend having it just in case, especially if you’re traveling long-term. I use World Nomads or IMG Patriot (here’s why).
4. Read about and research each destination.
Read up on the places you’re traveling, ask other travelers what precautions they took for the region. Read How to Shit Around the World, which wins for the best title ever.
5. Take physical precautions.
In many tropical regions (this is essential all of Southeast Asia) mosquito bite prevention is important; consider Deet, malaria medicines, and/or a mosquito net as needed for your specific trip. Wash your hands a lot—more than you ever would back home.
6. Learn about food safety.
Carry your own utensils (I carry this spork), and research the ways to spot good street food stalls and restaurants. My friend Jodi wrote the Food Traveler’s Handbook, a great guide that not only shows you how to delve deeply into a place’s food culture, but she offers heaps of practical food (and eating) safety tips.
Also, learn about water safety: Drinking water in developing countries is not always safe. I used a SteriPen on the road (my full review here), and something like a LifeStraw could also be effective in ensuring that you’re never stuck without clean drinking water.
7. Stay hydrated.
Anything related to diarrhea and vomiting have severe dehydration side effects. Carry oral rehydration salts and focus on drinking electrolytes and minerals when you’re suffering from any bout of diarrhea or vomiting. Proper hydration may be the single thing that stops an illness from turning fatal before you can find medical help. It’s quite cheap to refill your supplies on the road in the more developed countries in Southeast Asia (Thailand had oral rehydration salts in every pharmacy, Laos did not). Note that I take this tip very seriously. While not every traveler or trip requires something like a SteriPen, oral rehydration salts have saved my life—twice. Both times were during a severe diarrheal illness in Southeast Asia.
8. Take preventive measures.
Antibiotics wreak havoc on your system and kill all the good bacteria in your body alongside the bad. But sometimes antibiotics are the only way to regain health. Take probiotic pills and eat yogurt, kefir, or other foods with live cultures not only during your course of antibiotics, but throughout any region where you’re battling intestinal issues. Getting enough sleep and eating healthy also helps your recovery time when you do get sick!
9. Ask for help when you need it.
This includes seeking medical help, asking locals to help when your condition is serious, and generally communicating. People are kind all over the world, and if you’re in a tough spot you need to let others know about your illness and let them help you find help. Between the humidity in Southeast Asia, risk of infection, and poor sanitation and healthcare, situations can deteriorate quickly. If you think you’re seriously ill, don’t just self-diagnose on WebMD—seek help.
10. Keep a positive attitude.
Being sick on the road was the loneliest I have ever felt while traveling. Maintaining a positive attitude after hugging a toilet for days is tough, but essential to helping you stay healthy and recover faster. You’re not alone and the rest of the travelers posting happy photos on Facebook don’t have a secret recipe for health; all long-term travelers have battled sickness on the road.
Which Vaccinations Do You Need for Southeast Asia?
This question is best answered by your nearest travel clinic. If you want an outline of the recommended shots, The Center for Disease Control is the best source on the internet for the vaccination-inclined. As for costs, these can stack up if you use a travel clinic in the United States; consider that a travel blogging family managed to save about $1,000 by getting their shots at the beginning of their Southeast Asia backpacking trip at a very reputable travel clinic in Thailand: Cut the Cost of Travel Vaccinations.
I traveled the region with my niece and was responsible for choosing her vaccinations and in that post I listed out concerns for parents and the shots she got for our travels in Southeast Asia. These are the shots I have right now. Some of these are standard childhood vaccines, while the ones marked with an asterisk* are administered most often for international travel:
- Hepatitis A
- Hepatitis B
- MMR (measles, mumps and rubella)
- Tetanus/Diphtheria (Td)* (get a booster before you leave)
You don’t generally need the following vaccines on a Southeast Asia backpacking trip, but you may want to get them depending on your doctor’s recommendation, or the full extent of places you will visit on your trip: Japanese Encephalitis, Rabies, Cholera, Chicken Pox Booster. Note that Yellow Fever* is a proof-required vaccine for some countries outside of Southeast Asia.
Planning the Backpacking Best Route Through Southeast Asia
There’s so much to see in Southeast Asia that it’s seemingly impossible to narrow your options, pick a route, and then stick to it. The great thing is, even if you pick a route through the region, you can easily vary things up once you’re there—a strong transportation infrastructure and low costs mean you can change your plans if you’ve decided you love one place too much to leave (it totally happens). Some backpackers visiting SE Asia have just 10 days total for their epic backpacking trip, while others are on a six-week adventure, and still some plan a three- to six-month odyssey across the region. With ten days, I recommend sticking to mainland Southeast Asia to avoid spending most of your trip at airports. If you’re really keen to explore Bali, consider spending your entire trip there and island-hop around Indonesia. Locations like Singapore are easily tacked onto some trips, especially if you book your flights home from there.
Best time to travel Southeast Asia?
In general, high season in the region runs from November through March. This is when the weather has cooled and the rainy season is over for most (not all) of Southeast Asia. The weather is baking hot in the spring, hot and muggy throughout the summer, and seriously wet during fall monsoons. But it’s a big area and some nuances might be different depending on your dream spots—Sapa, Vietnam sees snow some Januaries and certainly lacks the iconic terraced rice fields. April is hot, but that’s why the Songkran and Thingyan water festivals take place these months. And as you get further south, Malaysia and Indonesia actually see drier weather in the summer. Research more closely once you’ve picked out key activities and an anticipated route.
This page is the single best resource for visually seeing weather patterns and planning travels in Asia that might take in multiple locations.
Where should you go in Southeast Asia?
With less than two weeks
Start in a large city like Bangkok, Penang, Hanoi, or Ho Chi Minh City and then move overland from there to see local sites nearby, or hop countries using cheap puddle-jumper flights that are available between hub cities. Generally, you should only plan to visit two countries max—if you do more, you will spend most days in transit instead of seeing the best sights.
Most travelers who start in Thailand venture to Cambodia for a few days of their trip, or south to Malaysia if they’ve just left the Thai islands. Visiting Laos involves only expensive flights or long, long travel days, so consider skipping Laos on a short visit in favor of deeper travel in other areas (which pains me to write, because I love Laos). Like starting in Thailand, Vietnam-bound travelers should focus the bulk of their time on the amazing sites there, with perhaps a few days to visit Cambodia (it’s easy to cross overland from southern Vietnam into Cambodia). Go for quality rather than quantity, and play with balancing the types of experiences on offer: temple and historic sites, adventure activities, beach time, natural wonders, urban and rural life, etc.
With three months
Like the shorter itinerary, it’s more cost- and route-effective to begin in a large hub city. Consider working in a spiral or circle through the mainland region. Three months is a good chunk of time and you can truly see a lot without burning out. One popular pattern is to begin in Bangkok, head north to Chiang Mai, then overland into Laos via the Mekong River—explore the lovely Luang Prabang and then work your way to Vietnam. Overland into Vietnam is a rather rough few days of travel, so you could also book flights from Vientiane to Hanoi to save time—you would miss some lovely villages, but it would give to the chance to pause in the beautiful Vang Vieng.
From Hanoi, explore Sapa, Ha Long Bay, and other classic sites before heading south to the delightful Hoi An, and further down to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC). This is a loooong route, and there are very affordable flights (think less than $50 in some cases) between the major cities. Some travelers (me!) spend a full three months just in Vietnam, so you will have to pick and choose the sites you most want to see. From HCMC, head into the Mekong Delta, perhaps relax on Phu Quoc for a few days (especially if you won’t make it to the Thai islands), then move overland into Cambodia. Siem Reap is the obvious choice and it’s unmissable, unlike the beaches, which are not nearly as nice as Phu Quoc or the Thai islands.
From Siem Reap, Battambang is a sweet and sleepy town if you’re after slow travel, or move to either the Thai islands, or back to Bangkok. You have a choice here, if you go south to the islands then it’s quite easy to visit Malaysia (and there’s amazing food in Penang), or you could return to Bangkok, register for a Burmese visa, and fly to Myanmar. I favor this second plan as I think Myanmar is a real treat and unique in the region. Start in Yangon and you can’t miss Bagan and Inle Lake. You’ll need to fly back out of Myanmar, so it’s up to you if you return to Bangkok or head on a cheap flight to Malaysia, Bali, or the Philippines. You might also be out of time, because that route can surely, surely take the entire three months if you’re traveling slowly and enjoying the pace of life along the way. :)
Essential Route Planning Resources:
Agoda: Essentially the only hotel booking site that I use in the region as it has the widest and most affordable selection in Southeast Asia. I use Airbnb, too, but hands-down Agoda is the best in this region specifically.
Rome2Rio: So handy for figuring out the full range of transport options between two cities, shows everything from flights to trains, buses, minibuses, and more.
Skyscanner: Best site, hands down, for low-cost flights in the region.
Travelfish: Among my go-to resources for anything in Southeast Asia. It’s updated far more often than print guidebooks and has extensive local insight and a fairly active forum, too. If you head off-the-path, this should be the first place you check for tips, transport advice, etc.
What is a Reasonable Budget to Backpack Southeast Asia?
Nearly all of Southeast Asia is incredibly budget-friendly and it’s in this region of the world that budget backpackers can achieve days where they spend little more than $15 a day. That budget, however, is not consistently sustainable for most travelers interested in experiencing and truly enjoying the region. There are a number of incredible food tours, homestays, and social enterprises that offer experiences you will remember for a lifetime, if you allow yourself a budget that includes these types of activities.
As a broad generalization, younger backpackers more easily travel on the very low end of the scale as they are willing to save costs by using slower transport, bunking in dorms or sleeping in a hammock, and forgoing pricier experiences. For that reasons, the budget estimates here anticipate that you are traveling on a tight budget but still willing to buy important experiences. These averages assume long-term travel of a month or more to reach these average daily budgets for Southeast Asia.
Budget backpackers average $25 per day across Southeast Asia.
Particularly when you factor in costs like entrance fees for Siem Reap, a few intriguing classes, splurges here and there—this also assumes that you’re moving frequently across the region and not staying in one spot (this region offers an affordable cost of living for expats and digital nomads). So, your on-the-ground backpacker’s budget is about $1,000 to $1,200 per month, per person (this does not include your flights, travel insurance, gear, etc).. Sure, you could do it cheaper, but this is a modest budget where you still get to dive into the culture, history and cuisine. Some countries cost more (Myanmar, Singapore), and others less (Laos, Malaysia), so balance your days in your chosen countries if you’re on a tight budget (country specifics below). I spent most of my travels in the region at this price-point, and it’s both doable and you can see a ton.
Mid-range backpackers in Southeast Asia travel well on $40 – $45 a day.
Traveling at this level means that you’re staying in private rooms, eating Western food sometimes, and you’re definitely booking cooking classes, fun day tours, and immersive experiences along the way. You might still take the long bus ride to save on costs, but you’re generally adding in little experiences and upgrades along the way to ease your comfort levels and experience more of the countries and culture. This budget is even more doable as a couple since many private rooms are doubles and you can split the accommodation cost between you both. This was my budget for my three months backpacking Vietnam and it was both comfortable and I denied myself little at this price-point.
Higher end backpackers and digital nomads should budget about $60+ a day.
This affords a comfortably cushy travel experience. Note that this is for higher-end backpackers, not high-end travel. At this budget, you’re still taking a different mindset to some of your trip—you’re likely moving around the region at least partly overland and you’re keen to dive deeply into the culture. This budget consistently affords you rooms with A/C, private taxis to and from bus stations and airports, and the chance to splurge on nicer meals when you find a place that strikes your fancy. If you’re traveling as a couple, your money will stretch especially further since rooms and private taxis are not usually priced per person—couples will not need double that daily rate for this style of travel.
See each country breakdown below for a guide to daily budgets in Thailand, Laos, Myanmar, Cambodia, and Vietnam. And use Legal Nomads’ fantastic collection of real-life travel budgets from this region so you can accurately estimate how much your travels will cost.
There’s usually no reason to sell someone on a trip to Thailand—it has a beautiful, welcoming culture. And let’s not even get started on the tasty food. That’s not to say that it’s not complex, too. It’s the country’s contradictions and accessibility that keeps tourists (myself included) coming back. Thai cultural norms are complex, and with a vastly different language than English, there’s a lot under the surface.
The history of Thailand is long, earliest inhabitants dating back to 3,000 BC. The current Kingdom of Thailand, however, dates back to about the 13th century, when modern-day Thailand established sovereignty from the Khmer Empire (still present in modern-day Cambodia). Over the next few centuries, Thailand would see the rise and fall of several Kingdoms (including the Kingdoms of Sukhothai and Ayutthaya)—and travelers will see this long history not only in the complexes of temple ruins, but also in the deep cultural heritage that infuse the country’s festivals, culinary traditions, religion, and modern way of life.
While traveling the entire region, notice that Thailand remains the only Southeast Asian country never colonized, so it’s a distinct and interesting contrast to the French-influenced Laos and the British-influenced Myanmar.
Your Route Through Thailand
The country is a long distance north to south, which is why many overland travelers pick a direction and then circle back for the rest of it after exploring nearby countries. Transportation in Thailand is among the best in the region, so buckle up for a lot of movement to see all it offers. In a broad generalization, from Bangkok you could:
- head north to the country’s cultural capital, Chiang Mai. Stop at Sukhothai on the way. Then visit an elephant sanctuary, tour the many temples by bike, and then head either further north, or to the Laos border. If you’re keen to see all the north offers, consider Chiang Rai a must-visit, and the small border towns with Burma a fascinating way to spend a few days. Pai is perennially popular, too, and the Golden Triangle is truly better visited over several days than as a day trip.
- head south to the Thai islands and while away your time in turquoise blue waters with views of the gorgeous karst rocks. Every island has a different personality, so research well. And island hopping can take days or weeks—your choice completely. From there you can easily cross into Penang, Malaysia, grab a flight elsewhere, or overland it to Cambodia through the Koh Kong crossing to access southern Cambodia.
- head east on a bus or train toward Vientiane, Laos. Eastern Thailand’s Isaan region is far less visited than other areas but has incredible history, culture, and unique foods—instead of heading straight into Laos, spend a few days in Isaan for truly off-the-path travel.
- train, bus, or fly southeast to Cambodia to explore Angkor Wat. The Poipet border crossing is rife with scams, but it’s an easy travel day between Bangkok and Siem Reap. Your off-the-path option is to leave Poipet on a bus bound for the truly charming town of Battambang, which you can visit for a few days before traveling onward to Siem Reap (I have done this and you must catch early transport out of Bangkok to ensure you catch the last bus of the day to Battambang).
Thailand has amazing food options for travelers of every ilk. You can find vegetarian food pretty easily with just a few words under your belt. Street food is quite common in Thailand and you’ll find carts of fruit or meat or curry or desserts in just about every city and village in Thailand. Similar to Western dining culture, the trick to finding the best food is to eat where the locals eat. Not only in terms of flavor, but in terms of food safety as well.
Pull up a tiny plastic stool, visit a shopping mall food court (some are surprisingly good, but will be a little more expensive), and pick up yummy snacks from a fresh market (typically sells fruit and vegetables, and there are usually street food vendor nearby as well). You absolutely should not skip the street food markets anywhere, but Bangkok and Chiang Mai have particularly vibrant ones.
Thailand is a relatively safe country. The political situation in Thailand is very complex, and even expats living in the country for years barely understand the nuances that shift and change the political climate every few years. For tourists, it’s best to steer clear of political discussions. Ancient politics are up for study because of the impact on the beautiful archaeological sites, but be wary of offering opinions on any protests, on the monarchy, on the government, or on the political parties. The stakes are high here, and I do not say this lightly—you face jail time for comments or actions that are OK in your home country (handing out political leaflets, speaking against the government, etc) that are perceived as sedition here.
And always where a helmet on motorbikes—traffic accidents are common and dangerous.
Travelers visiting Thailand can take simple actions that aggregate to a huge difference over time. Ethical human-animal interactions are among the biggest ethical quandaries, and travelers should avoid the many captive wildlife situations available throughout the country. Instead, choose to support elephant sanctuaries that have banned elephant riding, and avoid the tiger sanctuaries. Also reconsider human tourism to visit the captive Karen hill tribe group north of Chiang Mai. Even more innocuous-seeming activities like the Full Moon Party take a toll. And note that while some bloggers think ping-pong shows and sex tourism make good stories, sex-trafficking and exploitation is a major problem in the region.
Positive actions you can take include spending money with tourism operators offering ethical alternatives to these activities, including some fantastic social enterprises operating in the region. Read our complete guide to Responsible Travel in Thailand.
- Sightseeing: Discover the Thailand caught between two worlds: the one tourists see, and the nation facing economic and societal issues.
- Mai Pen Rai Means Never Mind: A classic book to read before you go, if you can find a copy.
- Bangkok 8: A Royal Thai Detective Novel and Thailand Confidential offer a fiction and non-fiction take on the seedy underside of Bangkok.
- Lonely Planet Southeast Asia is a given—while I recommend this NatGeo Thailand guide for those only visiting Thailand, you should have a copy of this regional guide for it’s great transportation sections, and other practical advice.
10 Unforgettable Experiences in Thailand
1. Eating the street food. One of the best parts of Thailand is the delicious street eats. Once you know the safest ways to eat street food, sample it widely. You can also book a street food tour and to orient yourself to the cuisine and try a range of local dishes. This guide offers great eats in Bangkok, and this one shares a visual guide of what you might sample. If you’re truly adventurous, try durian—it’s a love it or hate it kind of flavor!
2. Exploring bustling Bangkok. It’s big but getting around Bangkok surprisingly easy. Visit the Grand Palace—one of the top palaces in Bangkok featuring several beautifully decorated holy buildings and temples. Wat Phra Kaew is the most sacred, housing the 15th century Emerald Buddha. Wat Pho is best known for its famous reclining Buddha statue. Chatuchak Weekend Market is a labyrinth of shops and the floating market is fascinating. You’ll likely want a week staying in Bangkok alone to see all it offers.
3. Diving into history at the ruins of Ayutthaya. Found in the 14th-century, Ayutthaya was the second Siamese capital. Wander the ruins of this ancient city located a couple hours outside Bangkok.
4. Wandering Sukhothai. The first Siamese capital, the ruins of Sukhothai, a Thai UNESCO site, are beautiful. Visit the main site, or hire a tuk tuk driver to visit ruins in the countryside, as well.
5. Taking a cooking class. Northern Thailand offers truly unique cuisine and is the best region in the country to take a cooking class. Many classes take you to the markets, some even out to their farms. Many guesthouse in Chiang Mai offer classes. In Bangkok, take a cooking class with Courageous Kitchen, a social enterprise that works with street kids and refugees.
6. Biking around Chiang Mai. Nicknamed the rose of the north, I loved Chiang Mai enough to call it home for a year. With more than 300 temples scattered through the city, rent a bicycle and discover just how many things you can do in Chiang Mai, then you’ll understand why it’s considered the country’s cultural capital.
7. Supporting ethical elephant tourism at the Elephant Nature Park (Chiang Mai). Riding elephants shouldn’t be on your bucket list for a number of reasons. But there are wonderful alternatives that still put you in close contact with the elephants. I highly recommend either a day tour to the ENP, or a weeklong volunteer vacation.
8. Celebrating Songkran and Loy Krathong (Chiang Mai). Chiang Mai is the best spot to experience both of these beautiful Thai holidays. Songkran is a massive country-wide water fight in celebration of Thai New Year, while Loy Krathong is a beautiful lantern release in honor of the harvest and rains.
9. Experiencing rural Thailand. Either join the annual coffee journey from Akha Ama, or venture to the tiny and fascinating small towns in the north, perhaps Mae Sot or Mae Salong. Or head into Isaan—just go rural to dive deeply into Thai culture.
10. Soaking in the sun in the Thai Islands. Head south to the turquoise waters framed by scenic karst rocks and white-sand beaches. Use TravelFish to sort out the best beach to match your island goals (sun loungers, diving, yoga retreats, snorkeling, or beach bungalows).
Once one of the largest kingdoms in Southeast Asia for four hundred years, Laos was known as Lan Xang Hom Khao (Kingdom of a Million Elephants Under White Parasols) and a hub for overland trade. After a bout of turmoil the kingdom of Lan Xang was divided into three kingdoms: Luang Prabang, Vientiane, and Champasak. It wasn’t until the end of the 19th-century, while under French rule, that the kingdoms reunited to form the country we now know as Laos.
Home to the oldest recovered human skull (something like 46,000 years old), Laos has stone artifacts that date all the way back to the Ice Age. Of course, there are artifacts from other epochs that are equally fascinating, including that of the mysterious Plain of Jars, a megalithic archeological site that dates back to the Iron Age and is overlooked by many tourists, but worthy of a trip for any history buffs.
A landlocked country, Laos is bordered by China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, and Myanmar. In Laos, you’ll find jungles and rugged mountains, plains and the Mekong Delta. Explore ancient temples, tube down the river in Vang Vieng, admire French colonial architecture. And more than anything, just relax, because Laos just might have the most laid-back and peaceful country in the region. My first trip there in 2009 was a revelation and I cannot recommend highly enough that travelers dive deep—find nuances of culture, watch sunsets over the mekong, and just enjoy.
Your Route Through Laos
Lao is often visited as a sandwich between other countries, thus your route will entirely depend on your entry point. As a broad generalization, you could:
- enter from Thailand in the far north, through the Chiang Khong/Huay Xai border crossing and either head north by bus to the hill tribe and trekking region of Luang Namtha, or take the two-day slow boat to Luang Prabang. From Luang Prabang bus to Vang Vieng and onward to Vientiane—then you can either leave back into Thailand, or head south to the 4,000 islands so you can see the endangered Irrawaddy dolphins and easily (ish) exit Laos into Cambodia or southern Thailand.
- enter from Thailand at the Thai–Lao Friendship Bridge and find yourself in Vientiane. From there, you’ll likely have northern Laos in your sights. It’s easy to bus to Vang Vieng and onward to Luang Prabang. From there you have options: a two-day boat ride up the Mekong, an eight-hour bus ride to trek from Luang Namtha, an off-the-path adventure with a bus ride to explore Muang Ngoi and pretty Nong Khiaw, or a winding bus ride to Phonsavan to the Plain of Jars (where you can easily exit Laos into Vietnam).
- enter by bus from the south via Cambodia or Thailand (both have border crossings). Visit the Champasak Cultural Landscape, a Lao UNESCO site, explore the 4,000 Islands and say hi to the endangered Irrawaddy dolphins, and then prepare for long travel days as you move north. You can easily make it to Vientiane in a couple of days by bus, and then take the recommendations above.
- enter from the east by bus on a pretty rough (but pretty) northern overland route where you’re likely leaving Hanoi or Ninh Bình in Vietnam and heading to Sam Neua in Laos, or you’re leaving Hue, Vietnam bound for Phonsavan. From either of these spots it’s easy to get to Luang Prabang and pick up the above recommendations.
- fly from pretty much anywhere else in the region into/out of Vientiane or Luang Prabang—flights won’t run every day between every nearby capital, but there are flights to/from Vietnam (Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City), Cambodia (Siem Reap and Phnom Penh), Thailand (Bangkok and Chiang Mai). Flights in and out of Laos can be more expensive than others in the region, so be sure you can swing the cost in your travel budget if you hope to skip the long bus rides.
Transportation & Getting Around
Transportation is Laos is not nearly as extensive and comfortable as countries like Thailand or Vietnam. The roads vary in quality, the distances are longer than one might think, and travel is oftentimes sluggishly slow. Traveling by bus is the most common way navigate the country, and a steady stream of buses travel along Route 13, which runs from Luang Prabang to the Cambodian border via Vientiane and Pakse. Many travelers also make the two-day boat ride down the river from the Northern Thai border to Luang Prabang—it’s so common that some consider it a rite of passage in Laos.
Whichever mode of transportation you choose, whether it is bus or boat, leave yourself plenty of time to arrive at your destination. Although there are schedules, buses and boats tend to leave whenever the driver sees fit. Always have something to read or entertain yourself, bring snacks, bring a deck of cards, and remember to be patient and enjoy the journey.
The national dish of Laos is larb (also known as laap) which is marinated meat or fish prepared with herbs and greens, and can be quite spicy. Some dishes will have a similar profile to those found in Thailand, like spicy green papaya salad (known as tam mak hoong) and kai yang (grilled chicken). Most dishes will have elements of galangal, lemongrass, and padaek (fish sauce) and are served with sticky rice, which is eaten by hand.
Similar to other Southeast Asian countries, Laos has a strong street food culture. Khao jee is a popular street food, and very similar to banh mì in Vietnam—it’s a baguette sandwich prepared with fresh French-style white bread, fresh vegetables, and some sort of meat. Khao piak sen is also quite delicious—it’s a soup similar to Vietnam’s classic pho.
Note that food sanitation standards in Laos are not up to par with neighboring Thailand, so eating fresh vegetables (like those in the sandwiches) carries a risk for waterborne illnesses. Watch how locals prepare the food, and heed the first rule of street food: eat where locals eat.
Laos is a relatively safe country in terms of physical violence. However, there have been issues along Route 13 between Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng in the past due to uprisings among the Hmong. It is always a good idea to make sure there is nothing happening in the area before you journey there. Theft and scams are also a bit of a concern, especially in touristy areas. Always exercise caution: never hold an expensive phone or camera far from your body and wear a cross-body bag to avoid snatch-and-grab scenarios, avoid walking home late and intoxicated, and maintain a good situational awareness whenever your wallet is out and you’re purchasing something.
If you’re motorbiking independently through the country, be very aware of Laos’ status as the world’s most bombed country, per capita (here’s why)—do not hike/bike off-the-path without local guides. Really though, you’re most likely to get sick from poor food handling, so read up on staying healthy on the road, and read How to Shit Around the World, it has sage advice for staying healthy in developing countries.
Like other countries in Southeast Asia, Laos has some ethical quandaries facing responsible travelers. I recommend you completely skip elephant experiences in Laos (instead save that for Thailand, where there are some great options). Laos is also among the more conservative countries in the region, so women should wear tops that cover their shoulders and bottoms to the knees. And the poverty here is very real—every dollar you spend locally and intentionally goes far in helping locals even something simple like medical treatment, which is scarce. Lastly, the Lao people are quiet and have social rules about excessive public outburst—bargain respectfully.
Positive actions you can take include spending money with local tourism operators, including some fantastic social enterprises operating in Laos. Read our complete guide to Responsible Travel in Southeast Asia.
- Ant Egg Soup: The Adventures Of A Food Tourist In Laos: An entertaining read about a woman tracking down traditional recipes in every remote corner of Laos.
- Another Quiet American: Stories of Life in Laos: An informative and fascinating personal account of contemporary Laos.
- The River’s Tale: A Year on the Mekong: Solidly written travelogue shedding light on the importance of the Mekong to the people of Southeast Asia.
- Lonely Planet: You’re likely not only traveling Laos, so if you’re in the north, this one is good because it features Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Northern Thailand.
8 Unforgettable Experiences in Laos
1. Swimming in the Kuang Si Waterfalls (Luang Prabang). A park with beautiful waterfalls and turquoise pools of water for swimming. You can hire a tuk tuk to take you there for about 180,000–200,000 kip, so find some like-minded backpackers and have fun. Park entrance fee is 20,000 kip.
2. Eating all the things. Laos has a culinary history unique to the country and differing than neighboring Vietnam or Thailand. Although the sanitary conditions are less safe, overall, you can still safely eat a ton of amazing dishes. This guide to food in Laos will get you started, and Mark covers even more essential eats here.
3. Finding adventure activities in Vang Vieng. Almost every backpacker traveling to Laos is on their way to Vang Vieng to tube down the Nam Song River. You can also rock climb nearby, eat pancakes at the mulberry farm, and generally enjoy the area. Tubing is rite of passage for SEA backpackers and it’s a fun way to spend a day, especially now that it’s not the massive party scene it used to be.
4. Sleeping in a treehouse and listening for Gibbons in the Bokeo forests. The Gibbon Experience is pricey but so worth it—I did the Classic Gibbon Experience and will remember it forever. The project has done phenomenal conservation work in the Nam Kan National Park and is a solid choice for responsible backpackers, nature lovers, and adventure lovers alike.
5. Visiting Si Phan Don and the Plain of Jars. A gorgeous archipelago in the Mekong Delta, Si Phan Don is a must see. Easily one of the best sites in Southern Laos. And near Phonsavan, you’ll need to hire a tuk-tuk to see the Plain of Jars, but it is well worth the trip. The jars date back to the Iron Age and are scattered throughout the upland valleys of the Xiangkhoang Plateau.
6. Relaxing in Luang Prabang. Easily the prettiest city in Southeast Asia, Luang Prabang is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has a low-slung charm and beauty you can’t stop enjoying. It’s also an easy spot to stop, take a cooking class, sip beers by the Mekong, and enjoy the Loa lifestyle.
7. Shopping at local markets. Backpacking Laos is about more than the big sights, it’s about sinking into the country’s fascinating pace of life. Shop at the local food markets, bargain at the night markets, and find reasons to talk to locals!
8. Boating down the Mekong. Rivers are an essential part of life in Laos—be sure you enjoy the slice-of-Loas seen from a river boat at least once on your trip. If you’re not up for the two-day boat between Thailand and Luang Prabang, consider something like a day trip to the Pak Ou Caves.
A small country with a violent past, Cambodia is best known for the ruins of the Khmer Empire located in Angkor Wat. When the empire fell, a new one was established in Phnom Penh and modern-day Cambodia was born. Similar to Vietnam and Laos, Cambodia had a period of French rule in mid-19th-century which lasted for about 90 years, with a brief break during WWII when the Japanese occupied Cambodia.
The truly heinous aspects of Cambodia’s history took place from 1975–1979 when Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge led a coup and usurped Lon Nol (the Prime Minister at the time). Pol Pot’s rule was violent and many Cambodians tried to flee the country any way they could. Unfortunately, more than a million Cambodians were mass murdered under Pol Pot’s regime. In 1979, the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia and ousted Pol Pot. In 1997, Hun Sen took ahold of the government in a coup and is still in power today.
Take time to visit the ruins of the Khmer Empire in Angkor Wat. Although they are quite busy, it is well worth it. Wander the chaos of Phnom Penh. Explore the killing fields and museums. This is a country unlike others n the region, both for good and bad—there is a lot of poverty and voluntourism done poorly has wreaked havoc in some areas, but the Cambodian people are proud, friendly, and have a lot to offer backpackers seeking homestays and memorable cultural tourism opportunities.
One of the most well-known Cambodian foods among travelers is amok trey, a fish fillet covered with kroeung (shallots, lemongrass, garlic and kaffir lime), roasted peanuts, coconut milk, and egg, and all wrapped in a banana leaf. The result is a somewhat sweet dish that tastes just as good as its Thai and Lao counterparts. In general, Cambodian food features herbs, leaves, pickled vegetables, dipping sauces, and edible flowers. Many dishes have Chinese influences, too. Street food is quite popular and cheap—the deep fried rice cakes with chives and egg make for a yummy breakfast (as would this soup in Battambang!)
For vegetarians, there is plenty of fresh produce and tourism is well established so you will find food everywhere. There are few traditional dishes you can eat from specialty street stalls, but when in doubt I could also order fried rice, a plate of fruit, and mixed veggies.
Similar to Thailand, it is a crime to speak ill of the government and if you’re caught you can be sentenced to jail for a long time. It is best to keep critiques to yourself. While the wars are over, there are still many landmines laying in fields around Cambodia. When off-the-beaten-path in Cambodia, always use caution when walking around and pay attention to signs warning of possible minefields.
Beyond these issues, petty theft is the only concern. Violent crimes are rare against tourists, but you can count on opportunistic theft wherever you roam, particularly on travel days (bus stations, buses, etc), or in the heart of Siem Reap’s backpacker area.
The biggest hurdle for Cambodia is the sketchy voluntourism industry—this is ground zero for phony orphanages exploiting children to gain money from backpackers. Avoid orphanage volunteering completely—there are other options, but even better is using your travel dollars as a force for good in the poverty-stricken country.
Cambodia has a number of community-based tourism organizations (CBOs) in the rural areas of the country. If you plan to leave the main tourist trail, these organizations offer wonderful homestays and tours that will give you a glimpse of the Cambodia of yesteryears.
More positive actions you can take include spending money with local tourism operators, including some fantastic social enterprises operating in Cambodia. Read our complete guide to Responsible Travel in Cambodia.
- First They Killed My Father: There’s a reason this is the most recommended book for the region—it’s the single best way to begin understanding what the Khmer Rouge did to Cambodia.
- When Broken Glass Floats: Growing Up Under the Khmer Rouge: Another riveting a child’s-eye view of the horror wrought by the Khmer Rouge.
- The Road of Lost Innocence: The True Story of a Cambodian Heroine: Southeast has a major sex trafficking problem and this is a beautiful story of a woman who made her way through it.
- Lonely Planet Guide: Unless you’re traveling on a true shoestring budget, opt for this one focusing on mainland Southeast Asia.
6 Unforgettable Experiences in Cambodia
1. Biking around Angkor Wat. Possibly the main reason for people visiting Cambodia. The ruins of the Khmer Empire are stunning, but can be overcrowded. Stay for a couple days and visit more than the main temples.
2. Visiting the Cambodia Landmine Museum. Landmines buried by the Khmer Rouge have been causing havoc since the 1970s and this museum is one way to learn about the devastating effects on the Cambodian people.
3. Touring the Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng Prison: Located 15 km from Phnom Penh, the killing fields are a somber reminder of the mass murders committed by the Khmer Rouge. Coupled with a visit to Tuol Sleng, they offer key insight into the history of the Cambodian people and who they are today.
4. Kayaking in Kampot. Since Sihanoukville is no longer the paradise it once was, instead soak in the slow life in Kampot. The town has a laid-back Cambodian charm and the river offers a number of activities. With Kep just up the road, there is no reason you couldn’t spend an enjoyable week here.
5. Wandering through the Royal Palace. An example of Khmer architecture, the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh was built in the mid-19th-century.
6. Slow-traveling through Bataambang. Rather than tick off to-do list items, slow down and take in your charming surrounds. There’s a rated circus show from Phare Ponleu Selpak, an antique bamboo train, and countless country roads to cycle.
Each region of Vietnam balances the other. The frenetic chaos in Saigon is just a stone’s throw from the sleepy colonial towns in the Mekong Delta. Hoi An’s charming, historic ancient town is a mere 40 minutes from the fast-growing and friendly Danang. And each layer of the country’s lengthy and complex history is still visible in modern Vietnam. From tangible evidence of French colonial rule to the aftereffects of the American War and a food culture deeply influenced by the international flavors and cultures—this country has a lot on offer from north to south.
Ruled by the Chinese in 111 B.C., Nam Viet (what we now know as Vietnam) was a part of the Han Dynasty, before regaining full control of their country in the 15th century. By 1884 France gained full colonial control over Vietnam. The French brought a Western-style education system, European architecture and food, and also instituted political and cultural changes. This French history is important because it’s a living, breathing part of modern Vietnam.
Read up on the Vietnam War, particularly if you’re an American. It’s impossible to travel the country without feeling, seeing, and hearing stories about the effects of the war. The Viet Minh attacked French forces in 1946, which eventually led to the decision to split Vietnam in half: north and south. By 1967, the U.S. had sent roughly 500,000 troops to Vietnam. Many thousands of people were killed before Paris peace talks brokered a ceasefire agreement in 1973. By that point, the actions by American troops had forever changed the country as the after-effects of Agent Orange and other chemical weapons continue to impact the country even today.
Vietnam also played a pivotal role in ending the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in the late 1970s, and since then (or since the 90s really), Vietnam has grown and the government has stabilized—tourism is a massive contributing part of the country’s economy. And the country has done well to offer a range of incredible cultural and nature-based experiences that are truly unskippable for anyone visiting the region. History and tradition infuse every aspect of life in Vietnam—from food to religion—and the culture and people are remarkably welcoming to tourism. Plan extra days in Vietnam, because you might just want to stay forever.
Vietnamese food is among the best in Southeast Asia. There is a vibrant street food scene (even more so than in Thailand) with plenty of places to pull up a tiny plastic chair and enjoy a flavourful meal. Pho (pronounced Fa) is the national dish and something everyone should try. There are a number of varieties, including vegetarian. Another popular street food is banh mì sandwiches which are served on warm French baguettes. But please, do yourself a favor and go far beyond pho and banh mì in your culinary wanderings. This post shares the most common street food dishes you will find, and this book chronicles a beautiful food journey through Hanoi.
If you are vegetarian, it’s possible to find food, but you will need to be diligent if you want to survive on street food alone while in Vietnam (even something simple like an egg banh mí may have sneaky liver pâté added). That said, temples often serve vegetarian food, and there are many restaurants in the key tourist cities. If you’re celiac, this is a fantastic and thorough post, complete with a free downloadable GF translation card.
Vietnam is safe in terms of physical safety, however, theft is an issue and most scams center around money. Never walk the streets with cameras and bags draped over your shoulder as a motorbike might speed by and grab it. Cross-body bags are best. For the same reason, don’t walk with your cell phone held away from your body (consider a phone leash).
In touristy areas especially, count your change, paying close attention to the bills that look the same. Confirm your taxi fare before the ride (or use Uber or Grab). Travelfish has great information possible scams in places like Hanoi, Hoi An and Saigon.
In addition, many travelers buy motorbikes ride across Vietnam. This is a dangerous place to learn to ride. If you buy or rent a motorbike, please make sure it’s covered by your travel insurance (hint: that’s only if you’re a licensed rider in your home country).
Irresponsible wildlife tourism and sex trafficking are two of the biggest issues facing Vietnam. Like nearby Thailand, the sex tourism industry is larger than it should be and is fed by traveler’s expectations. Read up on the issues. Human tourism is also at-issue—while not as prominent as the issues with the Karen hill tribe group in Thailand, note that hill tribe treks are not the time to act like you’re on a human safari. Always ask permission before taking photos anywhere in the country—many people will decline when asked and that should be your first hint that it’s more respectful to ask than assume.
For wildlife tourism, plan ethical elephant interactions in Thailand and avoid riding ostriches in Dalat—an activity sadly gaining popularity despite the harsh tole it takes on the bodies of the terrified ostriches. Also avoid the black market in endangered animals, it’s very real and very easy to find, unfortunately, and only lowering demand will truly prevent the devastating effect of trafficked ivory, pangolin, turtle shells, and more.
More positive actions you can take include spending money with local tourism operators, including some fantastic social enterprises operating all across Vietnam. Read our complete guide to Responsible Travel in Vietnam to find the best experiences in the country.
- The Sorrow of War: A Novel of North Vietnam: It’s essential you understanding the war, especially if you’re an American backpacking Vietnam. This harrowing recounting of the war and aftermath is written from the perspective of a North Vietnamese soldier.
- Catfish and Mandala: A Vietnamese-American returns to the Vietnam he left as a young child—his bicycle ride around the country is beautiful.
- Eating Viet Nam: Food is a huge part of truly experience Vietnam—do yourself a favor and read this book to uncover the possibilities.
- Lonely Planet Vietnam: You could use a regional guide for sure, but if you’re spending months in Vietnam (as I did), the Vietnam LP is essential.
8 Unforgettable Experiences in Vietnam
1. Eating the streets:: Even as a long-time vegetarian, I found wow-worthy food all over the country. The flavors are unique, and they even have a fun take on coffee that your taste buds won’t soon forget.
2. Floating through the markets in Can Tho (Mekong Delta). These markets showcase a fading way of life as bridges span more of the rivers. Visit Cai Rang and Phong Dien morning markets. Tours leave Can Tho around 5:30 am, however, if you stay at a homestay you will cut about an hour off of your travel time. This is a lovely way to spend a morning and the Mekong Delta is worthy of more than a Saigon day trip.
3. Delighting in Hoi An’s charming Old Town. Buy a pass, which includes entrance tickets to any five of the 22 UNESCO World Heritage Sites. I recommend: Tan Ky, Duc An, and Quan Thang houses. Also visit The Museum of Trade Ceramics, and Phuoc Kien Assembly Hall—the most impressive of the ones in Hoi An. And do yourself a favor, stop by the Reaching Out Teahouse—you won’t forget it.
4. Taking a Hanoi Kids tour of Old Town. Take a free personalized city tours run by students who want to practice their English and learn of other cultures. You can ask your guide to show you any aspect of the city—food, architecture, history, markets—and you will pay for their entrance fees into the sites, and any transportation, but nothing else. Hanoi is worthy of at least a couple days to see all it offers.
5. Staying on Cat Ba Island (Ha Long Bay region). Take a shuttle transfer to Cat Ba Island (by way of Haiphong), then a ferry to the island. Rooms are very affordable, with private rooms start at $10 USD per night. Then organize either a day trip, or a multi-day experience around Ha Long Bay, a UNESCO area. This, or Bai Tu Long Bay, are far better than the tourist boats every tour operator and their mother will sell you.
6. Marveling at the Thac Bac (Silver) Waterfall in Sapa. A gorgeous waterfall about 12 kms ( 7.5 miles) from Sapa, Silver Waterfall looks like a dragon from a distance. The best way to get there to by motorbike or to hire a taxi and it should be a given that you will go trekking in the region , too.
7. Sunning among turquoise waters in Phu Quoc. Pristine sands await at Sao Beach and Phu Quoc has easily some of the best beaches outside of Thailand—if you can’t make it to the Thai islands, this is an unforgettable option.
8. Discovering markets and temples in Saigon’s Chinatown, Cholon. For an off-the-path adventure, use this guide to start at Binh Tay Market (furthest point east of D1 on the map), and walked back toward District 1, zig-zagging through town to see the buildings, pagodas, and churches.
Final Tips for Backpacking Southeast Asia
Opt for a backpack, not a wheeled suitcase.
Although I backpacked Vietnam with this amazing wheeled bag (and if you need to use one for health purposes, it’s the hands-down best one on the market), I used this 60L backpack for most of my travels and it’s far easier to navigate janky sidewalks, dirt roads, and long travel days with one of these. Here’s how to pick the right backpack.
Pack wisely and think: layers.
Southeast Asia is a huge region with varied topography. You may lounge on the beaches one week and trek through high altitude mountains the following one. Packing for varied climates is tricky, especially when you need to pack modest hot-weather clothes for the conservative areas. My female packing list shares thorough reasoning on the what and why for every item in my backpack.
Plan just enough of the practicalities that you aren’t stressed on the road.
My World Travel Resources page covers every single practical thing you might need to handle when backpacking long-term, from mail services to best flight booking engines, how I select accommodation, and so much more (it has more than 20K words of tips and advice from my decade of traveling the world.
Find a spot you love and stay for weeks, not days.
Vietnam and Thailand are the two locations most hopping with digital nomads, but really many Southeast Asian cities beg for you to slow down, rent an apartment for a couple months, and truly uncover the nuances of that town and culture.
Support social enterprises.
Our sister site has responsible travel guides for Southeast Asia, which include 20+ social enterprises in each location that can help you use your travels as a force for good. Read more about Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam.