50 Tips for Backpacking Southeast Asia

We spent over five months traveling throughout SE Asia, a part of the world neither of us had spent a lot of time in before (or, in Kim’s case, no time). To say it was a whiplash from New Zealand and Australia would be an understatement. The customs and ways of life in this part of the world are so, so different from the western world we’re used to. 

Backpacking here was an unforgettable experience.

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Over the course of these five months, we dragged friends and family to Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, the Philippines, and Sri Lanka. Here are the major things we learned (some quickly, some over time) while living out of a backpack in this part of the world:

  1. Toilet paper is never a given.

  2. When you fight with a local, no one loses but you.

  3. Prices are subjective, almost always. Haggling is a way of life that you’ll have to get accustomed to - or you will get majorly ripped off. Be firm, but not rude. Locals here will never, ever respond well to aggression, as they shouldn’t.

  4. Always check out the markets!

  5. When in doubt, ask a local. Whether it’s a great place to eat, the right tour to book, or how much something should cost (so long as they’re not selling it, obviously), they’ll know and almost always be happy to help.

  6. AC is not always a thing, and that can be a bitch.

  7. Bandanas have a million uses.

  8. Dresses and loose rompers/jumpsuits > pants and a t-shirt.

  9. Don’t bring the jeans, but bring a sweater.

  10. Don’t forget your rain jacket, the weather is unpredictable.

  11. Buy a pack cover and use it - the cargo holds of buses are not always rain proof.

  12. Keep your valuables on you always unless you can lock them up.

  13. A few unforeseen essentials: a lock, a headlamp, a sleeping bag liner, eye mask, ear plugs (musician grade are best), basic sleeping pills (melatonin will do), scarf to cover your shoulders/knees at temples, and a dry bag.

  14. Your passport is better off in a locked drawer - bag snatchers hope it’s in your purse.

  15. Learn how to say “thank you” in the local language, it will go a long way.

  16. Be patient with the language barrier, you’re in their country.

  17. Take your shoes off before entering hostels, homes, and stores unless otherwise indicated.

  18. Don't rent a scooter, but if you do, make sure you know how to drive one.

  19. Uber doesn’t exist here, the local app is called Grab.

  20. Watch out for ice in restaurants and bars - ONLY DRINK SEALED BOTTLED WATER.

  21. There’s almost always wifi :)

  22. Don’t take cabs, and check Grab prices before ordering a tuk tuk. Negotiate the price before you leave.

  23. Browse before buying, especially in markets.

  24. Always check out the night markets.

  25. Be mindful of your behavior at night… people have gotten arrested for twerking in Cambodia.

  26. Every country is different, do your research before you go.

  27. When visiting somewhere religious, cover your shoulders, chest, and knees.

  28. Try the local food!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  29. Don’t go for a casual hike in the jungle without a guide. No, a map doesn’t cut it. We’re talking unexploded mines and poisonous snakes.

  30. The bus system in Vietnam is amazing, but in Laos, it’s shit.

  31. Do your visa research well in advance… definitely before you get to the airport (oops).

  32. Sunblock and bug spray (bring it, it’s cheaper than buying it there).

  33. Get your vaccines, Malaria is a major buzzzzzz kill.

  34. Everything is in COLD HARD CASH - make sure you have an ATM card that works internationally (Charles Schwab ftw).

  35. You will get sick, really sick, at least once (our doctor prescribed us Azithromycin for bad cases of food poisoning and it saved our asses more than once. Highly recommend you bring some).

  36. Travel insurance - MJ’s hospital bill for one night was over $1,200 dollars (TGFI, Thank God For Insurance).

  37. Buy the local beer, it’s pretty good and dirt cheap.

  38. You will get stared at, but you’ll get used to it. It’s not malicious.

  39. When in doubt, follow the other tourists, you’re probably trying to find the same thing.

  40. When in doubt, eat where the locals do or ask your hostel for a recommendation.

  41. Sunrise hikes are always worth it.

  42. Make sure you’re not traveling during that country’s rainy season.

  43. Off season is not always a bad thing, but make sure the activities you want to do are available (hot air balloons in Myanmar are not year-round).

  44. Read Hostelworld reviews - and leave one if you liked it!

  45. This is THE place to do the expensive activities you’ve always wanted to do (hot air balloons, canyoning, scuba diving).

  46. If you’ve ever wanted to get dive certified (DO IT), Southeast Asia has some of the best dive sites and the cheapest certification courses in the world (Gulf of Thailand).

  47.  Be ethical with your tour choices, especially when it involves animals or the environment at large.

  48. SE Asia, has a major problem with trash and waste, try not to contribute to it.

  49. Take pictures!

  50. Save contact info and swap those social pages, you’re likely to run into your friends on road again <3

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