50 Tips for Backpacking Southeast Asia

50 Tips for Backpacking Southeast Asia

We’ve gone through many rounds of trial and error while traveling, especially during the time we spent in SE Asia. If you’re headed to this part of the world, check out our top 50 take aways from five months in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, and the Philippines.

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Yogyakarta: an Exciting Alternative to Jakarta

Getting to Yogyakarta

Coming from Denpasar, Bali, we flew into the Yogyakarta regional airport. The airport is an hour’s drive from the main downtown area, so contact your accommodation to arrange for pickup when you land. There’s also a railway connecting most main cities between Yogyakarta and Jakarta. We took the train out of town, and it took about eight hours to get to Jakarta.

We stayed four nights at a hostel called Ostic House, and we cannot recommend them enough. They offer beautiful dorm rooms for cheap. They’re very clean, the beds are pretty big, and you have plenty of room in the dorms.

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The downstairs hangout area is super welcoming with bean bag chairs, a big couch, a long family dining table, a zen outdoor patio, and even a TV for those football games you just can’t miss. The walls are happily decorated with colorful murals and positive vibes, only to be out-shined by the smiling faces of the amazing staff. They even make you an authentic Javanese breakfast every morning - not just toasted white bread!

Things to do in Yogyakarta

If Jakarta is the commercial, corporate city of Indonesia, think of Yogyakarta as the cultural, artsy sibling. The city’s main area is called the sultan’s palace, where you can find a couple of fun things to fill your day with. 

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We spent a whole afternoon wandering around the Malioboro market. You can find anything from street meats and local vegetables to cheap Louis Vuitons and colorful t-shirts. Grab a snack at one of the sidewalk stalls, or work your way through the maze of textiles for an adventure among the merchants. On your way back, stop at the Alun-Alun park to have your hand with fate. They say that if you can walk straight between the two banyan trees with your eyes closed, you will have good luck and prosperity in the future.

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The Water Temple

The Water Temple is a magnificent playground to stroll around among soft hues of pinks and blues. Just try not to get swindled into a tour once you get there - many of the “guides” have fake badges and are not authentic staff of the temple.

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The King built the temple for his children and wives to cool off in, but make sure you go through the building to the back to see the King’s private pool. He made it to enjoy with one of his wives when he was really feeling the heat ;) 

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The Underground Mosque

The Underground Mosque is another unmissable attraction of Yogyakarta. Keep walking through the charming alleyways after the Water Temple - you may have to ask for directions, the entrance is not so obvious.

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Descend down to the dark passageway and enter the lower level of the mosque. Climb any of the four stairways up to the landing for an epic shot in the middle of the mosque. Depending on the time of day, you may have to wait in line for a solo pic.

Around Yogyakarta

Surrounding the city, you’ll find the awe-inspiring cultural experiences that draw people to Yogyakarta: Prahmbanan and Borobudur… and the Chicken Church, kind of.. There are a couple options for organizing your trip to go see these places. 

If you’ve looked up Borobudur online, you’ve probably seen photos of the pink morning sun rising over the hazy stoopas. Keep in mind that it takes almost two hours to get to Borobudur, so if you want to see it at sunrise, you’ll be leaving around 4am. Prambanan is also about 2 hours from downtown Yogyakarta. Being that both places are so far away, riding a scooter might be a bit uncomfortable, and arguably a bit unsafe.

Our hostel organized a private car rental for us. We split the cost for a driver between 5 people. We had 12 hours to adventure the surroundings of Yogyakarta, which ended up being just the right amount of time to see Borobudur for sunrise, the Chicken Church on the way out, and Prambahnan for a late lunch. By the end of it all, 12 hours was more than enough. We could’ve spent more time at either Borobudur or Prambahnan, so if you’re keen on digging deep into the Hindu and Buddhist cultures in either location, it may be worth spending a full day at each.

Sunrise at Borobudur

The Hill is where you’ll go to watch the sunrise if you buy the ticket bundle. It only takes 5-10 minutes to climb up to the platform, but it is pretty steep. At the top, you’ll find a handful of other tourists patiently awaiting the sunrise. It’s likely that the fog will be too dense to see the actual sun, but the lighting softly illuminates the clouds rolling around the hills, making for a stunning landscape. 

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The temple is actually pretty far away, so make sure to bring a strong zoom lens if you want to capture it. There are also some set-ups for cute pictures along the edge of the platform. And don’t worry, there’s plenty of room at the top for you yogis to get your vinyasa on.

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Chicken Church

On your way down from The Hill, you can opt for a stop at the Chicken Church - a church shaped like a chicken, believe it or not. The hike up there is short but steep, making for a stellar view from the very top of the chicken. Take note of the anti-drug images on the inside of the chicken’s head.

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Included with your entry ticket is a free breakfast! Go to outdoor patio at the back of the church  for a cone of delicious fried potatoes. The flakey bites are perfect for a post-sunrise snack.

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Stupas of Borobudur

The grounds of Borobudur are pretty big, so you have the option to rent some bicycles or take a little tram to the base of the temple. Otherwise, it’s a short 5-10 minute walk from the entrance.

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There will be plenty of guides offering to walk you through each level of the temple for a reasonable price. Lucky for us, a couple of local students offered us a free tour to practice speaking English. Even without guides, be sure to wander around a few of the lower levels to appreciate the ancient stonework along each tier.

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Prambanan 

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The grounds of Prahmbanan are like an Indonesian amusement park with a beautiful Hindu temple section. There are tons of activities to fill your afternoon with if you’re all templed-out. Have your hand at the archery station, or take a horse ride through one of the sandy rinks. 

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Otherwise, you could spent plenty of time getting lost among the crumbling rock piles around Prambanan temple. Hop up the steps into the cold dark rooms to contemplate life, or just gaze up towards the peaks in the sky.

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Digs in Yogya

  • SS (Special Sambal) - for the most authentic Javanese experience of your life, sit at one of the low tables and get your fingers dirty with family-style dining - the first order of rice is free!

  • Yam Yam - classically delicious Thai food with a pretty open-air dining area - number one restaurant on TripAdvisor!

  • Move On Gelato - just some really great gelato with a cool mural on the wall.

If you do go to Jakarta

Head up to Kota, the old Dutch quarter, for some beautiful streets and lunch spots! The colonial architecture will give you a glimpse into the past of what Jakarta used to look like.

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The picturesque square is the perfect place to hop on a neon bicycle and glide around. We had lunch at Cafe Batavia, seated next to the big shuttered windows with a beautiful view of the square. It’s a great place to enjoy both local Javanese cuisine and homey western options while taking in the bustling scene below.

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More Pictures!

Your Guide to Bali On and Off the Beaten Track

I don’t think we’ve met anyone in Asia who hasn’t been or isn’t planning to go to Bali. It took only a couple of years for this small Indonesian island to become a top tourist attraction for vacationers from the North America, Australia, Europe and the rest of Asia.

From the tourist meccas of Seminyak and Ubud to the less explored north and east coast of the island, Bali is full of treasures on and off the beaten track.

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Seminyak

I would bet half my backpack (literally half of my possessions right now) that no travelers visit Bali without at least one trip to Seminyak. The southeastern city is packed with unbelievable hotels, sunset bars, backpacker hostels, and enough shopping to leave you broke before you know it. You’ll find people from all over the world in this little corner of the island. 

From here, it’s and easy ride to Ubud and the Gili Islands, both of which can be easily booked through your accommodation. Grab some sundowners on the beach at Potato Head and party into the night with fellow backpackers at La Favela. Take a surf lesson from the Bali Cowboys or take a day trip up to the Tanah Lot temple. No matter your schedule, you’re in for a good time. 

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What you WON’T find in Seminyak is almost any trace of authentic Indonesian culture and ways of life. While there are locals everywhere and they’re typically incredibly friendly and helpful, they are very much there as a part of the enormous tourism industry the island relies on. If you want to get to know the real Bali, you’re going to have to catch a moped out of Seminyak. 

BUT, before you leave, here are few places we definitely recommend you check out:

  • La Favela: a backpacker favorite, two story bar/club that gets going around 11 p.m. each night. Make sure you take another place up on happy hour first, drinks here are $$.

  • Potato Head: we won’t be the first or last person to tell you to go to this amazing restaurant/bar. Just do it.

  • Mamasan: absolutely delicious Asian-fusion food

  • Shopping in the town center

  • Late night massages on your way home from dinner (or ear candling if you’re into that kind of thing *side-eye at MJ*)

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  • Sundowners on the beach at The W Hotel’s Woo Bar or La Plancha

  • Catch a ferry up to the Gili Islands. We didn’t get to, but everyone we’ve met who’s done it would do it again. The three islands are very different, so do some research before you pick your location!

Ubud

Ubud is the tourism industry’s answer to authentic Bali, and that’s not a bad thing. The city itself is packed with delicious restaurants, a wide range of shopping, and hole in the wall places to stay. It’s very walkable and a little less intimidating than Seminyak at night. It’s also conveniently close to places like the unbelievable Tegalalang Rice Terrace, which comes with a convenient walking path.

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You will immediately feel the difference going from Seminyak to Ubud in the sense that there is some real Indonesian culture here. The presence and popularity of the rice terraces, the typical food on the streets, and the surrounding areas all speak to the real Bali. 

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Ubud is also a great place to base yourself if you want to explore the rest of the island. Unlike Seminyak, Ubud is relatively central, making it easier to reach far off attractions like the Mount Batur sunrise hike (get up, it’s worth it) or the instagram-famous Pura Lempuyang temple. 

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Take our and everyone else’s recommendation and visit Ubud while in Bali. Take a yoga class, a cooking class, or just get more in touch with your inner zen if that’s your thing. You’re in for a treat.

Singaraja & Northern Bali

NOW we’re talking authentic Bali. If you commit to zig-zagging your way to Bali’s northern coast you will encounter the kind of beauty and culture that put the island on the map in the first place. 

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Rural villages, enormous open air markets, jungle paths that are only accessibly by moped, and the constant need for Google translate await you. Here, hostels and hotels are fewer and far between, but a popular way to stay and enjoy this quieter side of the island is to rent a villa. 

This may sound extravagant. That’s because it is. However, if you can get a big group together it’s easy to make this stay both possible and worth it. We did this and it was some of the most relaxing time we’ve had on the road thus far. 

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Ask one of the local staff (almost every villa will have staff that come to help you out) to take you on a tour of the early morning market. Take a drive across the northern coast or dive into the jungle in search of hidden rice Terrances or Bali’s famous waterfalls. 

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Visiting northern Bali is an extremely different adventure than southern Bali. It’s unorganized and almost entirely DIY but it’s also worth it. If you’re interested in getting to know and experience authentic Bali culture and way of life, you’ve got to head north.

Exploring Bali’s East Coast

If you’ve got a car or moped, exploring Bali’s east coast is a must. The countryside and roads are dotted with unexplored rice terraces, local villages, and unbelievable temples. MJ and I took this drive after we descended from our sunrise hike up Mt. Batur and spent the whole day getting lost on this side of the island. 

Our favorite highlights of this day, other than the unnamed treasures we passed throughout the day were the Pura Lempuyang temple and the Tirtagangga Water Palace (bring a swimsuit!). 

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Diving in Bali

We chose of dive in Komodo National Park instead of Bali and wished we could’ve done both. Though we didn’t get to explore them, here are some dive highlights of Bali we recommend you check out if you’re looking to dive there:

  • Nusa Penida

  • USS Liberty Wreck

  • Gili islands

  • Catch a quick flight to Flores to dive in Komodo National Park, it was unbelievable!

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Getting Around Bali

I feel obligated to say a few things about navigating Bali because it truly is a different beast than most places and somehow everyone leaves that out. I’ll keep it simple.

Driving a car in Bali:

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  • DO NOT rent a car in Bali with intention of exploring the whole island unless you are a VERY competent manual driver.

  • The whole island is incredibly hilly and mountainous, it will take a LONG time to get from one place to another.

  • Streets and roads are designed for mopeds, not cars, and it is near impossible that you will return your car in perfect condition. Take photos before you leave with your rental.

  • Keep an eye on that gas tank, as you head north or east they will be fewer and farther between.

  • Don’t even think about trying to find places like hidden waterfalls with a car, there’s no where to park and no, you won’t be able to get it back up that hill.

Renting a moped in Bali:

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*Note that we didn’t do this, this is what we’ve heard/observed*

  • If you’ve never ridden moped before, this may not be the place to learn. It is crowded, especially in southern Bali, and you do not have right of way, cars do, because they're bigger.

  • ALWAYS wear a helmet. We met a girl whose helmet saved her life but didn't spare her a trip to the hospital.

  • Locals know what they’re doing better than you, follow their lead.

  • Have an International drivers license. If you’re pulled over without one you WILL be fined.

  • Ask a local at your hostel/hotel about what to do if you’re stopped by the police on the road. They will advise how best to deal with an altercation without getting into more trouble, or paying more, than you need to.

Taxi:

  • Negotiate the rate before you go anywhere if there’s no meter.

  • Bluebird taxis are the best as a rule, try and avoid the others.

  • If there’s a meter (there are in all the Bluebird cabs), make them run it and MAKE SURE THEY DON’T TURN IT OFF.

Komodo National Park

Getting to Komodo

Getting to Komodo is as easy as a short flight from Denpasar to Labuan Bajo Airport (LBJ). The main downtown area is just 10 minutes away. You will be bombarded by eager taxi drivers upon exiting the airport - any driver is good, but don’t pay more than 50,000 rupiah. 

The main road of Jl. Soekarno Hatta is right on the water. We stayed in Bajo Nature Backpackers, but there are loads of options. Take a walk along the main drag when you get there to browse some dive shops for packages you’re interested in. 

Dive Komodo

Among the many reasons to fly out to Komodo, we were compelled by the marine wonders within the national park. We chose to go on a day trip with a company our friend recommended, Dive Komodo. In addition to day trips, they also offer overnights and multi-day trips for those who would like to spend more time underwater. When you book your trip, you'll also give them Rp 150,000 per person for the National Park entry fee (one-day general entry).

On certain days, they can also arrange for an afternoon “dragon trekking” adventure on one of the islands. It takes a considerable amount of time to get out to the national park from Labuan Bajo, so if you have a limited amount of time, consider opting to see the dragons on the same day you go diving.

As is usual with diving, expect to get on the boat around 7am. The ride out to the dive sites takes about two hours. The early morning makes for some beautiful lighting, so be sure to sit up top where you can watch the passing boats as your cruise among the islands.

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Our first dive was at the Coral Gardens. You descend into an wide open sand field and work your way towards the coral on the far edge. Along the way, you’ll probably spot some camouflaged sea rays, rogue upside-down jellies, and maybe some ornate pipefish in the sand. Once you’re in the coral garden, keep your eye out for turtles munching on the patches of sea grass!

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Diving with Manta Rays

Upon begging and pleading, our guides agreed to take us to Manta Point for our second dive. Like any creature of the natural world, you’re not guaranteed to see manta rays, but diving at one of their cleaning stations gives you a good chance. Lucky for us, there were four. We spent the entire dive parked on the sandy slope watching the mantas glide through the waters - a truly magical experience.

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Expect to return ashore around 5pm. You’ll head back to the dive shop, log all your dives on paper, and maybe book a second day of diving if you’ve really been enchanted.

Komodo National Park

Komodo National Park was established in 1980, and soon became a World Heritage Site in 1986. The park is a total of 1,817 square kilometers, including both terrestrial habitats and a marine park. The five main islands of the park are Komodo, Rinca, Padar, Gili Mota, Nusa Kode.

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The climate of Komodo is mainly hot and dry with less than 800mm of rainfall per year. November is the hottest month of the year, while most rain falls between December and March during the northwest monsoon season. As a result of the particularly dry conditions, over 70% of the park is open savanna habitat consisting of tall grasses, and twiggy shrubs. Other than Komodo dragons, the park is home to 276 other species.

Komodo Dragons

Komodo National Park is the only place in the world where the dragons can be found, on the islands of Komodo, Rinca, Gili Motang, and a small part of western Flores. Sadly, they recently went extinct on Padar. Most companies will take you to Komodo or Rinca to see the dragons.

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Reminiscent of dragons from high school biology class, Komodo dragons are the largest living species of lizard on the planet. They have no natural predators, which allows for their huge size of up to 90kg, and lifespan of 50 years or more. Dragons are cold-blooded so they need to lay out in the sun to regulate their body temperature. They are most active during the morning and afternoons, but not during the peak heat of the day as they have no method to cool down (we can sweat, they cannot).

Individual dragons are typically solitary, only becoming social during mating and feeding. When Komodo dragons need to eat, which is about once a week, they use strategy to take down the perfect meal. One dragon will attack a chosen deer, water buffalo, or sweaty tourist. The prey will effectively make an escape after being bitten, but with little hope of survival. Dragon saliva has high levels of lethal bacteria that infiltrates the battle wound. A few days later, the prey will die of infection, exhaustion, starvation, or most likely: a combination of all three. The dragon, having stalked the prey since the attack, now has dinner on a silver platter. Most large prey species can feel multiple dragons. So in general, when a prey is felled, there is a jurassic-park-esque buffet-style feeding frenzy where a who pack of dragons tears into a sweaty tourist. KIDDING - it’s very safe to see the dragons.

Dragon Trekking

Make sure you go with a park ranger. They know what they’re doing, you don’t know what you’re doing, and this is their home to show you. It costs about Rp 80,000, which really isn’t much to ask. You can either add it onto a dive trip for the afternoon, or you can book and entire day adventuring one of the islands.

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We opted for just an hour or two on Rinca, and we had more than enough time to observe the local dragons. The trekking loop brought us through some of the forested areas, across the shrubby plains, and up the main peak for a stunning view of the surrounding area.

Hiking Mount Batur for Sunrise

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Getting to Mount Batur

Sort of a touchy subject for us… but it's really not that bad!! Unlike most other backpackers, we were staying with family on the very north shore of Bali. As such, we had to take a very remote, very windy, very dangerous road through the mountains in the dark. We planned to leave a bit earlier than we need in order to account for rural driving conditions, so we left for the mountain at 1:30am. Long story short, we were rescued from a treacherous situation by some local guides who were actually on their way to Mount Batur. We trustingly followed them to the base of the mountain (which we never would’ve found on our own), and promptly requested our new friend Jordan to be our guide. 

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Important note: if you’re traveling from Ubud, Seminyak, or anywhere on the central/south part of the island, you will not have this much trouble getting there. You can also probably book a tour that includes your transport. We just had to drive ourselves and were coming from the less traveled side of the mountains. 

If you have a car, you can actually drive the first third of the “hike” to a farther up parking lot. It cuts out about an hour, and doesn’t change your experience at all. Otherwise, park yo mopeds at the bottom and get walkin’.

Hiring a Guide

You don’t have to hire a guide, but keep this in mind - it’s dark, the trails aren’t always that clear, and if there was a heavy rain recently, the trails will be super washed out and unstable. The guides have hiked Mount Batur literally hundreds of times. They’re there every morning with enthusiasm, and bring lots of eager tourists to the top with a smile on their face. It’s their job, and their main source of income. Support the local tourism industry and hire a cheery guide! Otherwise, you’ll be heckled the whole way up anyway. 

Climbing Mount Batur

It’s definitely not the Long Trail in Vermont. Expect unclear paths with multiple ways up, very loose, gravely ground, and very steep switchbacks all the way to the top. After about an hour and a half, you get to a little hut with a bench and some nice viewing platforms to watch the sunrise. There’s still another 20-30 minutes to the summit, but this is a great place to watch the magic unfold if you don’t feel compelled to continue the steep climb, or you just won’t make it in time. 

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Sunrise at the Summit

If you continue through the final push, you’ll be welcomed onto the the small summit with smiles from a bunch of other people who beat you up there. Given that we left unreasonably early, we were the first ones up there at 4:30am. The next folks showed up just before 5am, and then it started to get crowded around 5:30. If you’re waiting for a while, you can grab a hot drink from the hut at the very top. If you come with a tour, it will probably include a hot drink and breakfast (a hard-boiled egg and a piece of toast) at the top.

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It takes a long time for the sun to rise, but even from the very beginning of the orange streaks behind Lombok in the distance, it’s an unreal landscape to take in. If the lighting is right, you can even see the smoke coming out of the active volcano of Mount Agung across Lake Batur.

Snap as many pictures as you can - you’ll only want to do this once. Anyone on the summit will be happy to take some for you, so have a go at all your jumping, laughing, hand-standing, or straight-cheesin shots. Maybe if you’re lucky, you’ll even witness a heart-jerking proposal like we did! 

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On the way down, be sure to grab a pic of the cheeky monkeys hanging around. They’re cute, but be careful because they will try to snatch your snacks and shiny things!