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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Best of Vietnam

A breakdown of our favorite places to explore, things to do, and experiences to splurge on in Vietnam.

Best Experiences to Do for Free (or very cheaply)

War Remnants Museum (Saigon)

Wander around the night markets

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Explore the Old Town of Hoi An

Rent bikes or scooters and wander around (Tam Coc)

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Hike 450 stairs up Hang Mua, a.k.a. Lying Dragon Mountain (Tam Coc)

River tour (Tam Coc)

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Wander around the Old Town of Hanoi

Explore the lakes around Hanoi

Try egg drop coffee (Hanoi)

Rent a swan boat on the lake (Hanoi)

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Train Street (Hanoi)

 

Best Experiences to Splurge On

Cu Chi Tunnels (Saigon)

Canyoning and jungle trekking (Dalat)

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Tailoring clothes (Hoi An)

Oxalis Tour in Phong Nha National Park

Kayaking tour in Phong Nha Cave

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Ha Long Bay cruise

Bar crawl (Hanoi)

Motorcycle road trip (Ha Giang Loop)

 

Best Instagram-Worthy Spots

Canyoning in Dalat (the tours take the photos for you!)

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Old Town lanterns in Hoi An

Anywhere in the jungles of Phong Nha National Park

The top of Hang Mua in Tam Coc

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Landscapes of the Ha Giang province 

Bikini pics in Ha Long Bay

 

Best Restaurants & Bars

Secret Garden Restaurant (Saigon)

Pho Hoa - The Family Dynasty One (Saigon)

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Broma Not a Bar (Saigon)

The Gin House (Saigon)

Whiskey & Wares (Saigon)

The Maze Bar (Dalat)

The BBQ place in Dalat, ask someone at Wolfpack Hostel, they’ll know

Either of the Morning Glory restaurants, they also offer cooking classes! (Hoi An)

**DO NOT MISS** Banh Mi Queen (Hoi An)

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Jim’s Snackbar (Hoi An)

Mr Bean Bar (Hoi An)

Bamboo Cafe (Phong Nha)

Paradise Pizza (Phong Nha)

Andy’s Bar and Restaurant (Phong Nha)

Oasis Bar (Cat Ba Island)

Pasteur Street Brewing Co. (Saigon & Hanoi)

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Bit Tet Chim Quay (pop up restaurant, corner of Hang Buom and Hang Giay)

The Alchemist (Hanoi)

Mojito Bar (Hanoi)

Polite and Co. (Hanoi)

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The Mad Botanist (Hanoi)

 

Best Places to Stay on a Budget

Bui Vien Hostel (Saigon)

Wolfpack Hosel (Dalat)

Hoa Binh (Hoi An)

Trang An River Homestay (Tam Coc)

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Catba Central Hostel (Cat Ba Island)

Babylon Garden Inn Hostel (Hanoi)

 

Things We Didn’t Get To, but Wish We Did

Sapa terraces

Chu Chi Tunnels

Mekong Delta

Phu Quoc, Nha Trang, and other southern islands

Phnom Penh

Warning: Some content in this post may be potentially disturbing.

Bustling Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh is a lively, exciting city full of character. Cambodian culture oozes from the cracks of the bustling city streets, from crafty stalls in the art deco Central Market to fried creepy crawlies in the many night markets. Although often overshadowed by Siem Reap, Phnom Penh is a must-see city of Southeast Asia.

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Getting to Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh has an international airport for those flying in from far-off cities. Otherwise, buses and vans are also a suitable option. Coming from Siem Reap, we hired a van for the 6-hour journey. Our driver was two hours late, and the aircon wasn’t nearly high enough - but such is Cambodian van travel! There are plenty of companies that will book you in a van or a bus for less than $10.

For some reason, maybe the absurdly hot climate, Phnom Penh is known for pool hopping. We stayed in a hostel called Eighty8 Backpackers, which of course, had its own pool. When looking for accommodation, opt for one where you can take a dip in the scorching afternoon. You probably won’t want to be out during the heat anyway.

Understanding Cambodian History

Cambodia’s history is riddled with violence and instability. But now, Cambodians are happy to be at peace and eager to share stories about their country’s past.

Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge

In 1975, the Khmer Rouge’s army emerged from the jungles of Eastern Cambodia where they had been building under the leadership of Pol Pot. They captured the capital, overthrew the government, and sought to return the country to an agrarian, socialist republic. The Khmer Rouge regime shut down Cambodian cities and imprisoned anyone who was seen as opposition to Pol Pot’s idea of the perfect society, including scholars, doctors, lawyers, teachers, and most professionals. pPrisoners were interrogated, tortured, and forced to confess to crimes they did not commit. After which, they were trucked to unmarked “Killing Fields,” and brutally executed.

The Killing Fields

Phnom Penh’s main attraction is the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, otherwise known as The Killing Fields. “Killing Fields” are burial grounds throughout Cambodia where mass execution occurred under Khmer Rouge, killing between 1.5 to 3 million people. Choeung Ek is the largest known site in Cambodia where over 8,800 bodies were uncovered, thus adopting the overarching name of “The Killing Fields.”

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Visiting the Killing Fields is an emotional, but necessary experience for anyone visiting Cambodia. The $8 admission fee includes an audio tour, which is the best way to get the most out of your visit. The tour will take you through 18 spots around the fields, each with an accompanying narrative and a few sub-topics for those wishing to dig deeper. If you’re not rushing to catch a flight, take the time to listen to each story.

At the far end of the grounds, there is a pond you can walk around and listen to stories of survivors, or just be in your own head. The Killing Fields are provocative and potentially triggering, so prepare to have time to process your thoughts.

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The last stop on the audio tour brings you to the central stupa, a memorial for the unburied victims. Within the glass walls of the memorial are shelves upon shelves filled with skulls of those massacred at Choeung Ek. The lowest shelves are displayed with color-coded stickers indicating the cause of death drawn by forensic specialists, including the suspected tools. Being in the stupa with the remains can be both overwhelming and enlightening.

Be sure to donate a dollar or two to contribute a flower and incense to the memorial.

S21 Genocidal Museum

Tuol Sleng Genocidal Museum is an accompanying experience to the Killing Fields, or perhaps an alternative for those who may find the Fields too triggering. S21 was originally a high school converted to a prison upon capture by the Khmer Rouge regime. Now, the grounds serve as both a memorial and an educational opportunity.

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The classrooms were converted into torture chambers, interrogation rooms, and prison cells. As you walk through the old eerie campus, you’ll find the rooms filled with meticulous records of the prisoners kept by the Khmer Rouge Regime. Thousands of images fill the walls of unjustly persecuted Cambodians. Over 14,000 people were brought to the prison, and only 7 are known to have survived. Spend some time observing the artistic depictions of what life was like in the prison.

Central Market

For a more upbeat, lively experience of Phnom Penh, check out the vivacious Central Market! The bright yellow art deco building is jam packed with shops and countertops full of Cambodian goodies.

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Browse the sparkling silver boxes, the wooden carvings, old war memorabilia, charming jewelry, flashy watches, and heaps of textiles! This is definitely the place to grab grandma a good souvenir.

Night Markets

You cannot miss a food market while in Phnom Penh. Check out the Sambath Tonle Bassac  Night Market for an authentic Cambodian night out. There are loads of vendors lined up along the Wat Botum Park where families gather to enjoy the late afternoon’s setting sun. Each cart has a full spread of oddities to throw on the grill - cucumber-stuffed squids, full-sized frogs, slimy garlic snails, and still-moving seafood!

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Jet’s Container Night Market is another great place to hit the town. There are a couple blocks of lively restaurants bumping loud music and selling cheap beer - popular with the young folk. Try a few things from one of the buffets and climb directly above to the dining area where you can join all the other market-goers across the whole market!

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If you’re still hungry, head to the Night Market (vaguely named) right next to the Children Park Koh Pich. The food stalls create a courtyard-esque seating area made up of straw mats and low tables. Grab some noodles and pop a squat, or just wander around the maze of shops and listen to some local performers on the full-size stage!

Vibe Asia

Vibe Asia is an amazing 100% plant-based vegan restaurant on Street 446. This three-story cafe offers vibrant, filling meals for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Head to the top floor for a table in their cozy “rooftop jungle” among hanging plants and straw cushions.

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You can leave with a smile on your face knowing that 10% of Vibe’s proceeds are donated to the Good Vibe Foundation, bringing healthy vegan food to children around Cambodia! Check them out at https://goodvibefoundation.org/ for more information!

Bangkok

Any traveller who’s ever visited Thailand has probably made their way through Bangkok at some point, and they all have something different to say about it. In fact, there are few cities we’ve been to that inspire more love/hate reactions than Thailand’s capital.

Home to nearly 8.3 million people, this gigantic city has no shortage of new experiences and things to do. In fact, there’s so much to Bangkok that it’s almost daunting to try and plan out what you want to do here. Personally, I think this, and Khao San Road, are the main reasons some people claim to “hate” this city. 

BUT, don’t knock it till you try it, no matter what anyone says. There are many, many amazing things to do in Bangkok. We spent a little less than a week exploring the city and had a blast. Here’s a breakdown of some of our highlights.

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Experiences in Bangkok

Chatuchak Weekend Market

Over 400,000 visitors hop on the metro to Chatuchak Park each weekend in order to browse the 15,000 stalls of Chatuchak Weekend Market, the largest market in all of Thailand. You can get lost for hours, like we did, among the thousands of visitors and vendors haggling over Nepalese gemstone bags, delicate silver jewelry, and ornate wooden carvings. Anything you could hope to shop for, there’s probably 6 of, so take the day (or, hell, the whole weekend) and get ready to drop some dollars at this fabulous market.

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Ladyboy Show

Something that we unfortunately didn’t get to, ladyboy shows are frequently labeled a “must do” attraction of Bangkok, so they have be included as our “coulda, woulda, shoulda, but didn’t.” The most popular is called Calypso, and you can catch this eye-popping performance twice every day, so there’s plenty of opportunity. 

 

Wat Phra Kaew (Reclining Buddha)

If you’re looking to explore one of the more cultural attractions of Bangkok and don’t feeling like shelling out for the Grand Palace (aka, if you’re just like us), this is a great alternative. Much cheaper, less crowded, and with plenty of temple views and photo ops for you rising instagram stars. Despite being near impossible to photograph, the reclining buddha in this temple is incredible, and regardless of whether or not you hit up the Grand Palace, this temple is absolutely worth a visit. 

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Floating Markets of Bangkok

Another thing we opted out of, Bangkok is famous for its floating markets. While they’re a bit pricy to go see, you either splurge for a tour or catch a cab out of the city and hire a boat, there’s no doubt that it’s a sight to see. There are five floating markets outside of Bangkok, the most famous of which is Damnoen Saduak. We decided it was a bit too pricy for us, but many would argue the getting to witness the hundreds of boats floating up and down the river laden with fresh fruits, vegetables, and other goodies make it well worth the money.

 

Unicorn Cafe

Another one for the instagrammers out there. Unicorn Cafe has gone viral for the simple reason that suddenly everyone is obsessed with unicorns (the internet is a weird place). That being said, it’s a fun place to check out and a great place to take some pictures. Go early, it gets very crowded very fast. The food is all rainbow, a little weird but, hey, that’s the theme. We weren’t all that hungry for rainbow pasta, but the crepe cake was awesome! Must love sugar. 

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Where to Stay

Hint: not Khao San Road. 

We met a lot of backpackers who warned us off Bangkok and the majority of them (major shocker here) stayed on or near Khao San Road, the famous backpacker street in city. It is crowded, dirty, and full of absolutely wasted travelers by 9:30pm most nights. Even if you’re looking to party in Bangkok, we wouldn’t recommend you stay there because not only are there other places to party but its also pretty far away from the metro, which is the best way to get around.

We stayed in an area called Sukhumvit and loved it. It’s known as a party central, with major clubs and bars all within walking distance of the metro stop. We stayed at a hostel called 1SABAI and it was great, if quiet. It was right next to Slumber Party Backpackers, which has numerous hostels throughout Thailand and is definitely where the party’s at. 

Either is a great stay, depends how much you want to sleep each night, and they’re both a quick 10 minute walk to the metro that will take you almost anywhere you want to go. Definitely recommend staying in this area. Less touristy, plenty to do, great food, easy access to metro…what’s not to love?

 

Where to Eat & Sip on Some Coffee

There's no shortage of amazing restaurants, cafes, bars, and cheap food options in Bangkok and I don't know how one could create a "complete" list, but here's a couple of highlights from our personal food tour in Bangkok.

Simple Natural Kitchen: We are slightly addicted to brunch, and this place had an epic one. We ordered shakshouka and avocado toast and it was great. Definitely recommend.

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Wonderwall: We parked it at this coffee shop for a couple of hours to get some work done. Can't argue with great coffee and a chill atmosphere.

25 Degrees: Looking for a great burger in Bangkok? 25 Degrees has got you covered. It also have a fantastic happy hour and is a great place to stop after a long day of touring some of the Bangkok's more famous attractions.

Not Just Another Cup: We so badly wanted to make it here (again, addicted to brunch) but we didn't realize until too late that you'll need a reservation to sit down. Don't be like us. Reserve and enjoy.

Iwane 1975: We ate here maybe 2-3 times while we were in Bangkok. Easy walking distance from the metro station in Sukhumvit, about halfway between our hostel and the station, this place has an amazing brunch/lunch (we have a problem) and absolutely everything we ordered was delicious. I'd recommend one thing in particular but it's just all great. Take yourself here and thank me later. 

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Terminal 21 Mall: Much like Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, Bangkok has some fantastic malls. We spent tons of time in Terminal 21 because it was so close, has amazing destination themed floors (go to Tokyo!), and has a fantastic food court. You've got plenty of options and it's an easy and typically cheaper option than restaurants every night. 

Where to Party

Hint: not Khao San Road.

I’m not just hating here. The government and police force in Bangkok have imposed a strict midnight curfew and even conduct raids along Khao San Road in an effort to curb the wild partying in Bangkok. Other bars and clubs are also being affected by this curfew, but Khao San Road has been hit the hardest and if you go on a weekend night you’ll see the streets packed with drunk partiers by 11:30pm as the bars begin to close down.

It. Is. Not. Fun.

Some alternatives? The club scene around Sukhumvit is good, but not easy on the wallet. You’ll pay to get in and then you’ll pay double for drinks.

If you’re looking to go clubbing, and you’re in the Sukhumvit area, go check out Slumber Party Backpackers. Ask them where is best to go on any particular night OR make it even easier on yourself and join them when they hit the clubs. The night we went with them we hit Route66 Club and they went on to Onyx Club, which we opted out of. They host solid pregames every night and it’s a great way to meet fellow backpackers in such a big city. 

Sukhumvit Road is also an option, especially the Red Light District around Nana Plaza and Soi Cowboys. GENTLEMEN, watch your wallets, these ladies know what they’re doing and they’re probably not just interested in your face (though I’m sure it’s great).

Rooftop bars! There are TONS of rooftop bars in Bangkok and they are a great time. We only hit one while we were there, Sky on 20, and loved it. Shop around a bit and see which one suits your fancy, but chances are you won’t go wrong with a fantastic view and a fancy cocktail. 

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Another alternative is take you and your gang on a self guided bar crawl! We did this one night and had a blast just walking around and checking out any fun bar or brewery we could find. Our favorites that we found were CRAFT, a fun outdoor brewery venue with beer flights and good old American rock tunes, and Iron Fairies.

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Iron Fairies is dope. I have a thing for absinthe bars and this one was absolute magic. The decor is dark and suits the name. The live band is very talented and, though they’re a bit pricy, the drinks are great. We didn’t try the food, but heard great things about that as well. Even if it’s just for one drink, it’s a quirky and fun place to check out.

 

How to Get Around Bangkok

Metro, metro, metro (and walking)! If you can avoid Tuk Tuks and Grabs in this city then absolutely do, they can get pricy and the traffic is AWFUL at peak times. The metro is easy to use and cheap, definitely the best way to explore the city and surrounding areas. Whenever we hit a place that the metro couldn’t take us, we got as close as we could and walked. 

There’s also a great Sky Train in Bangkok, which we used to get to the Unicorn Cafe. There’s a stop for it in Sukhumvit as well if you’re staying there! More expensive, but worth taking at least one trip on. 

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Bangkok is a vibrant, chaotic, and diverse city that easy to get lost in, literally and metaphorically. Give yourself the time to explore it a bit and don’t listen to the haters - this city’s got a great time waiting for those who seek it. 

Exploring Fremantle, Australia

The “Brooklyn” of Perth.

Fremantle is a charming community on the coastal southwest of Perth, only a 30-minute train ride from the CBD station.

Fremantle Market

Immediately upon arrival, our hosts at Bambu Backpackers made it incredibly clear that Fremantle Market was a not-to-be-missed attraction of Perth. As most travelers would agree, markets are a great way to browse local culture. 

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Every stretch of the warehouse is crowded with stalls, each one bursting with delightful distractions. Between the handmade leather bags and the obscurely colorful crafts, the Fremantle Market will make anyone feel like a kid again.

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Upon stepping into the sunlight-flooded food court, the bustling excitement alone will make you want to buy a treat. The smells of pan-frying and slow simmering will surely tempt you into one of the stalls. Before you know it, you’ll be enjoying your hot food and absorbing the lively atmosphere under an upside-down field of dried flowers.

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Marine Parade Park

If you walk to the edge of Fremantle, you’ll empty out of the quaint neighborhood streets into a big open park. Along the edges of the well-loved community space, grand towering pines hide the bright red, bedazzled ferris wheel. It’s the perfect place to soak up the sun, pick up a game of football, or even take a swing at the skate park. 

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You don’t even have to take a ride on the ferris wheel to appreciate it’s beauty. It’s unassuming location behind the pines grants it an air of humbleness, but when the afternoon sun blazes behind it, its presence shines throughout the park. 

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Little Creatures Brewery

Just across the train tracks from the sunny park, right on the water's edge sits the Little Creatures Brewery. The giant industrial brewery features a glowing pizza oven (an obvious attraction for us), only overshadowed by colossal fermentation tanks lining the warehouse.

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Little Creature’s “Bright Ale” can be found on tap at most bars around Australia, but an afternoon on their outdoor terrace can’t be beat. It’s the perfect spot to enjoy a casual lunch by the water, or even just an afternoon cold one.

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City Streets

The streets of Fremantle could be pulled straight out of a book. The pastel storefronts and godly white columns are reminiscent of childhood stories, and the slow-paced aura of the town will make you feel like you’re living in one.

Be sure to make a stop in one of the magical bookstores to really solidify that feeling of wandering through a fairytale.

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