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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Ultimate Adventures in Vang Vieng

The lush green river valley of Vang Vieng is a less-frequented adventure hotspot for backpackers in Southeast Asia. Hello cheapest hot air balloon rides in the world!

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Hot Air Ballooning

I said cheapest in the world. It’s somewhere between $80-90 each (as of 2018). You have the option to go in the early morning or later in the afternoon. We opted for the afternoon (golden hour baby)!

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Make sure you book your flight for one of your first days in Vang Vieng, so you can reschedule in case of bad weather. They usually send two balloons up per session - get in the second balloon so you can take pictures of the first one going up! 

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Keep in mind, it’s not very easy to take pictures of each other while you're in the basket. Maybe bring a selfie stick? Otherwise you’ll have to awkwardly hang off the side… which is what we did.

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Also it’s HOT in the basket. Like standing next to a flamethrower kind of hot. Wear short sleeves and don’t forget deodorant! The whole ride lasts about 45 minutes, plus a rough landing.

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Blue Lagoons 

The Blue Lagoons outside of Vang Vieng are popular for lazy days in the heat. Blue Lagoon 1 is often pretty crowded, but Blue Lagoon 3 is slowly growing in popularity as well. All of them have entrance fees of about $1.20. We took a tuk-tuk 30 minutes out of town to #3 for a hungover float on the tubes. There’s also a zip-line and a rope swing for those with a bit more energy during their visit.

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Sim’s Adventures

We missed out on this some classic Vang Vieng adventures, but our best friend Simona (@simonamusto, check her out on instagram!) filled in a few blanks for us:

At first glance, it seems quiet, kind of dirty and unexciting. On our first day, our hostel roomie recommended we rent a motorbike and discover the “real” Vang Vieng. So we did and ventured out to explore. It was definitely not the easiest journey, with construction sites and bumpy roads at times. But what we saw was beyond our expectations. There’s so much beauty and hidden wilderness; children playing in the river, animals eating the lush green grass, limestone cliffs, jungle paths leading to waterfalls (check out Kaeng Nyui Waterfall!) that make the journey worth it. 

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The next morning, we decided to go river tubbing. Groups of ‘tubbers’ stopped at the first of three bars, shyly ordered their first beer at 11am and it never really stopped till sunset… People got drunker by the hour, but it was fun to socialize, play some games and cruise down the river with a beer in hand, watching the sunset and hot air balloons pass above us. The friends we made that day were the same ones we went out with at night for drinks and dancing at the many bars/clubs in Vang Vieng- it gets as wild as you want.

x Mama Sim

Nightlife

The lazy river valley town may not seem like it, but Vang Vieng turns up. There’s a surprising number of bars and clubs, and I promise you can stay out until 4am if you want to. The dance floor at Sakura Bar gets sweaty. No matter what your reason for coming to Vang Vieng is, you can always find what you’re looking for.


One more thing from Sim…

*As a foodie, this post wouldn’t be complete without a few recommendations of places to eat. First, an Italian restaurant called ‘Il Tavolo’ that serves some pretty amazing authentic pizza. The other is the 1$ sandwiches from the wonderful vendors on the main road, that are packed with whatever you want and keep you full for hours, I think about how much I miss those often..

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Landing in Laos: Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang is an ideal starting point when coming to Laos. The Old Town has so many places to eat good food and shop for iconic Laotian crafts. LPB provides many opportunities to immerse yourself in local culture, whether it be cooking classes or a trip to the community art centers. The weather can be suffocatingly hot, so plan your days around the midday heat. Or better yet, head to nearby waterfalls to cool yourself down.

LPB is a great place to begin your journey into the northern jungle, or a quick 3-stop hop onwards to Vang Vieng and Vientienne. Nong Khiaw is a bumpy, but worthwhile trip to see northern Laos for a couple nights. Keep in mind, LPB is really far away from Southern Laos (Four Thousand Islands), and internal transport isn’t quite so easy. 

Lao Crafts

Laos is internationally known for beautiful handmade goods - especially textiles. Luang Prabang’s night market was one of our favorite spots in SE Asia to find funky, colorful pieces to bring home. Pillow shams, little pouches, metal jewelry, or even scorpions in moonshine bottles reminiscent of formaldehyde preservation (yes, you can drink it). The “Night Market Food District” is perpendicular to the crafts market, just down a small alley next to the Tourist Information Centre. The food is super cheap, and there’s a hell of a lot of it. So many noodles and veggies. It’s a great place to get a taste for Laotian food.

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Another great place to get some goodies is from one of the Ock Pop Tok (https://ockpoptok.com/) stores. A little bit pricier than the night markets, but the profits help OPT to train and support 500 Laotian artists. Part of the OPT mission is to train and provide ways for women in Laos to earn a sustainable income from weaving and handicrafts. Plus, they’re committed to environmental responsibility. All of their cafes minimize plastic consumption by replacing straws with bamboo alternatives, and unlike anywhere else in Asia, they offer *treated* water bottle refill stations. 

Photo courtesy of Ock Pop Tok

Photo courtesy of Ock Pop Tok

Their Flagship Shop is on the bank of the Mekong River, and has an onsite tour with opportunities to meet some of the weavers! Their attached Silk Road Cafe overlooks the Mekong River for a wonderful lunch spot or evening drink. Their second cafe is a garden in front of the Heritage Shop location downtown. The Heritage Shop has beautiful displays on how the crafts are made, and some really unique gifts too.

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The Boutique Shop downtown also offers bigger home goods and more fine art type crafts. Their scarves are beautiful. It’s across from the Zurich Bread Artisan Bakery (great Western food, if you’re craving it). 

Photo courtesy of Ock Pop Tok

Photo courtesy of Ock Pop Tok

Think you’ve got what it takes to be a weaver? Ock Pop Tok also offers classes (https://ockpoptok.com/classes/)! For half, one, two, or three days, learn how the masters work on looms and spinners. And if that’s not enough, they also do Moonlight Cinemas (https://ockpoptok.com/visit-us/silk-road-cafe/moonlight-cinema/#whatson) every Thursday night at the Silk Road Cafe.

Photo courtesy of Ock Pop Tok

Photo courtesy of Ock Pop Tok

If you can’t make it all the way out to Laos, but you love the idea of supporting Ock Pop Tok, they have an entire online store! Have a little peek… https://ockpoptok.com/shop-online/

Kuang Si Waterfalls

These picturesque swimming holes look like a filming location for scenes from the Little Mermaid. Any taxi service will take you there, but avoid tuk-tuks because the drive is long and very bumpy. Much easier in a van - even easier if you have some buddies to split the cost with.

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The icy blue water is a refreshing way to beat the Laotian heat. There are multiple swimming holes, and a few places to jump in from the edge. If anything, there are some beautiful off-limit areas to take nice pictures for those who prefer to stay dry.

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Mekong River

Luang Prabang is on the wide, winding Mekong river - perfect for sunset cruises. There are a lot of operators, so there are plenty of options depending on your budget.

Alternatively, you can sit at a riverside restaurant to watch the hazy pink sunset without going aboard. We opted for dinner at L.P.B. Restaurant instead of a cruise.

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Fun fact: if you’re trying to get to Thailand from Laos, or vice versa, there’s a party-boat that makes the journey along the Mekong River. There are lots of suggestions to go from Laos to Thailand, as it’s slightly faster and less crowded. It leaves/arrives in Huay Xai in Thailand, a few hours from Chiang Rai. The whole journey takes 2 days, and you’ll have a stopover in Pakbeng (not included). We didn’t have time to take the boat, but a lot of travelers say it’s a relaxing way to get to Thailand, and there are great views of more rural areas along the Mekong River.

Songkran

We happened to be in LPB during one of the biggest festivals of the year, Songkran! The traditional Sanskrit New Year is celebrated all over Asia when the sun moves into the Aries constellation of the astrological calendar. A lot of backpackers go to Thailand for the festival, but it’s also a lot of fun in Laos.

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This 3-day celebration is basically one giant water fight… to the next level. People drive around in pickup trucks with inflatable pools full of water, armed with water balloons and super soakers. Some people even use gallon buckets to drench vulnerable passers-by. Shops keep their hoses running for refills, and children will chase you down if you look any bit dry. It’s an awesome time to be in Laos, but don’t expect to get away anything less than drenched.

Digs

Utopia bar - one of the few spots for nightlife in LP.

Timeless Cafe - modern menu with outdoor seating - try the mango avocado salad!

Atsalin Restaurant - a local eatery with typical Laotian meals.

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