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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Navigating Kuala Lumpur

Of all of the countries we’ve visited in Asia so far, Malaysia has been my favorite, second only to Vietnam. It’s hard to explain exactly why that is, there’s no concrete reason, but between KL, the Cameron Highlands and Penang I absolutely fell in love with this country.

We started our adventure in Kuala Lumpur (KL), which is as easy and obvious a place to start as it gets. The biggest city in Malaysia, KL is known for food, incredible shopping, and fantastic city tours. If you’re spending some time in this metropolis, here are a few ideas to kick off your stay.

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The Food

This is just a reoccurring theme with our posts from Asia so far but we can’t help it - the food here is such a huge part of their culture and it’s so. damn. good. 

The classic hunting around until you find a restaurant you like will serve you well here - you’ve got endless options. But if you’re looking for cheap eats in KL, you’re going to want to check out one of two places: the street markets or the malls.

Sounds weird to say, but the malls in the major cities throughout Asia have absolutely bomb ass food. The food courts are enormous, relatively inexpensive, and you can find almost anything you want and chances are it’ll be delicious. If you’re like us and have a hard time with the daytime heat in Asia (shit is intense) then the mall is the perfect place to cool off, maybe swap a few items out of your backpack, and grab a delicious meal.

 

The mall we haunted was called Pavilion, but there’s also The Gardens Mall, Fahrenheit88, Suria KLCC and more. If you do take my rec and head over to Pavilion, you’ve got to go to Grandmama’s - Flavours of Malaysia. Order the hot pot, order the curry, order whatever you want and thank me later. It was SO good.

The other obvious choice for cheap, good eats is one of KL’s markets. Night market, morning market, daytime market if your brave and can handle the heat better than us. You can’t go wrong. Grab some fresh fruit off the street and wander until you’re tempted into one of the many stalls and restaurants lining the streets. 

At night, there’s the Connaught Night Market or the Alor Street Food Night Market (where we went). During the day, there’s Central Market, where you can shop for not only for food but for souvenirs too, or Lot 10 Hutong, which features 34 food stalls in the packed food court. Streets like Jalan Imbi, Jalan Sultan Ismail, Jalan Raja Chulan or Jalan Alor are all great places to start!

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The best part? Anywhere you could want to eat in KL is also where you can shop for those last minute souvenirs you promised everyone that you’ve forgotten about until now. 

One last thing. We are the queens of brunch, so I can't leave out our favorite brunch place that we found in KL - Merchant's Lane. You may have to wait but it is WORTH it. 

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Exploring the “7 Wonders of Kuala Lumpur”

This famous backpacker tour takes you on a whirlwind day tour of the most famous highlights of KL and can be booked through any hostel you’ll find yourself staying in.

On your tour, you’ll visit the following seven wonders:

  1. Thean Hou Temple: one of the oldest and largest temples in Southeast Asia to the Chinese sea goddess Mazu

  2. Little India Brickfields: a wide street with Indian stores and restaurants run by the country's Indian community

  3. Batu Caves: a limestone hill that has a stunning series of caves and cave temples

  4. National Palace: official residence of the monarch of Malaysia

  5. National Monument: a sculpture that commemorates those who died in Malaysia's struggle for freedom

  6. City Gallery: information hub with souvenirs & art for sale, maps, cultural exhibits & a gift-making workshop

  7. Selangor Pewter: the Royal Selangor pewter museum

The tour costs a grand total of RM85, roughly 21USD. The same company that offers this tour, Backpacking Malaysia, also offers tours to Taman Negara, Malaysia’s oldest rainforest, the cultural gem of Malacca, and boat trips on the Selangor River. 

Whatever kind of adventure you’re interested in, KL’s got something for you!

PS: They may or may not be a part of your tour, but you can’t miss (literally you can’t miss them, they’re enormous) the famous Petronas Twin Towers. Day or night, these two massive architectural masterpieces tower of Kuala Lumpur and are absolutely worth a visit, up close and personal.

 

Going Out

All right. Before we even got to Malaysia, we met a couple of travelers who told us that we would have a really hard time going out in KL. That there wasn’t much to do at night and that we were probably going to be disappointed. In fact, they told us that the best place for us to go out in all of KL was going to be Reggae Mansion, the hostel we were staying at that does have a kickass rooftop. 

WRONG.

Granted, in those travelers defense, it’s definitely not obvious where to go out. We had an inside source (one of my best friends from college is from KL) who pointed us in the right direction and that direction was to…

Changkat! This street is lined with lively bars, restaurants, and small clubs that bump great music, offer terraced views of the street, and more happy hour deals than you have time for. You can’t go wrong, just duck in where the music sounds best and hop from one to the other. 

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Still looking for something more after that (we weren’t…)? Head down to TREC, where you’ll find Zouk, the biggest club in KL. This club goes from 5PM to 5AM Friday and Saturday nights and will stay open for you during the week until at least 3AM. 

So grab your pals, or just take your lovely self, order a hookah, hit a happy hour, and dance the night away.

If you’re still looking for a party at 5AM…I can’t help you. Go to Bangkok.

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Best of Singapore

Singapore is the shiny, expensive, diamond in the rough of Southeast Asia. Notorious for its clean streets and safe, diverse neighborhoods, Singapore is consistently credited as one of the best cities in the world. This electrifying metropolis is an incredible example of urban planning and eco-design at its finest.

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The massive Changi Airport has countless flights connecting to pretty much everywhere, making Singapore a great last stop to blow your leftover dollars before heading home! Pro tip: Singapore’s impressive airport not only boasts a full size shopping mall for killing time, but if your layover is over 8 hours in duration, you’re eligible for a free tour of the city!

If you're looking for a budget friendly Singaporean experience, base yourself out of Chinatown! Everything is cheap, and it's only a short metro ride away from the Marina Bay area if you still want to have a wander around the luxurious landscape. The route along the Singapore River towards the Marina Bay is lined with beautiful parks and sculptures. Well worth the walk! 

Gardens by the Bay

Absolutely no trip to Singapore is complete without venturing down to Gardens by the Bay. Made up of the famous vertical gardens, the Flower Dome, and the Cloud Forest, you’ll catch your breath as you marvel at what Singapore has built.

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The vertical gardens, known as the Supertree Garden, are impossible to miss as your approach Gardens by the Bay. They tower over the surrounding area, ranging between 25 and 50 meters (82 and 160 feet for our fellow Americans). There’s a chance you may have already heard of them; they were featured in BBC’s Planet Earth Season 2 in the episode “Cities.”

While these trees are stunning during the day, be sure to catch a ride down to see them at night. They glow an eerie blue or light up with a dazzling display or neon colors.

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The Flower Dome and Cloud Forest are the other two main attractions at Gardens by the Bay. Our favorite, by far, was the Cloud Forest, which is designed to mimic actual cloud forests found in places like Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands or Costa Rica. 

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The enormous glass dome is an explosion of cool, tropical jungle plants. Take in the impressive indoor waterfall just as you walk in and take the elevator up to explore what’s called “Lost World.” This walkway will take you down in a spiral so that you can admire the indoor jungle from all heights and angles. It truly feels like a lost world - we spent over an hour alone in the Cloud Forest.

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The Flower Dome is also beautiful, though we would’ve skipped it if we hadn’t been obligated to pay for admission to both (locals get to pick one, foreigners must pay a double entrance ticket). That being said, the Flower Dome is bursting with color and flora from all around the world. Give yourself at least 30-45 minutes to embrace the flower power - you paid for it anyways!

The Infinity Pool at the Marina Bay Sands

Perhaps one of the most iconic hotels in the world, the Marina Bay Sands and its unbelievable infinity pool tower over Singapore. While a two-night stay here was the definition of treat yo-self, we couldn’t resist getting our crew of six up to the pool for a dip and the best view in the city. 

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The hotel feels more like a small city than a room for a night. With three towers, bars, a club, cafes, and walkway to the enormous Marina Bay Shopping Mall, you can spend your whole vacation in this complex. The highlight, however, is the world’s largest infinity pool on the 57th floor.

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When people say security is strict, they mean it. You need a key card to get up to the top floor and past the guard into the pool area. You also need to swipe in and out and there is someone posted at each entrance. It is NO joke. Courtesy of so many people trying to sneak in, security is very intense.

If you have at least one or two key cards, then all you have to do is take turns going up to use the pool. No one checks to see if you’re actually a guest if you have one. This is what we did to get all six of us up in turns. 

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Once you get up, it truly is worth the view. Of course, everyone wants that amazing picture (including us), and it’s worth it to be patient and get that shot. That being said, if you get up to that pool, take the time to float and enjoy the view, which truly is something spectacular.

ArtScience Museum

This lotus shaped architectural masterpiece of a museum is actually part of the Marina Bay Sands development, only a 5-minute walk from the main boardwalk outside the mall. The sun-soaked galleries “explore creative processes at the heart of art, science, technology and culture, and their roles in shaping society.”

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Check out their ongoing exhibitions for some inspiration and plan to spend at least one lazy afternoon wandering the interactive exhibits. Somewhere among the Titanic artifacts, Andy Warhol specials, or even Harry Potter wonderments, you’re sure to find an exhibit to get lost in.

Gilman Barracks

If you’re still itching to dive deeper into the art scene, make a trip to the southern end of the island and wander around the Gilman Barracks. This military base gone art hub is an awesome playground to get a feel for the young, lively art vibe in Singapore. There are tons of buildings to explore - from internationally renowned exhibitions to local artists’ galleries, the energy of Southeast Asian art is oozing from the barrack seams. 

Check out their schedule for special events or temporary installations! We spent our Friday night hopping around an opening night concert for Singapore Art Week - flashing LED headphones included.

Chinatown

Looking for somewhere to eat and stay in Singapore that won’t break the bank? Look no further than the city’s thriving Chinatown. With its central location, endless foodie options, and bustling markets, you can’t miss this vibrant corner of the city-state. 

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Take a stroll through the night or early morning market and try a dish you’ve never heard of before (if you dare). Check yourself into one of the many affordable hostels or hotels in the area. Everything you could possibly want/need is right outside your door.

When in Chinatown, don’t miss out on the world’s cheapest Michelin-star meal: Singapore’s Liao Fan Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice & noodle. There may be a line - but it’s worth the wait!

Liao Fan Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice & Noodle

Liao Fan Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice & Noodle

 

Dine in the Dark

One of the coolest experiences we had in Singapore was undoubtedly our ladies night at Nox: Dine in the Dark. 

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We made a reservation at Nox off a recommendation from a friend who claimed this was her favorite thing she did in Singapore. A secret three-course meal, 12 dishes in total, all in eaten in total darkness. While the concept isn’t unique to Singapore, it was to us and we loved it.

So, how does it work? After showing up, you enter the restaurant’s downstairs bar where you order a cocktail and let the staff know if there’s anything you can’t/don’t eat. Don’t forget to mention that deadly peanut allergy, but be as adventurous as you can - it makes it more fun!

You’re then led upstairs into a pitch black room. I mean you can’t see A THING. It’s a weird experience at first, but one you quickly get used to. Your waiter will introduce themselves and then you’re off on your culinary adventure! Fun fact, all the waiters who work at Nox are blind and seamlessly navigate the room with 30+ tables.

Textures, smells, and tastes will take on a whole new meaning in this experience. One of the best parts is simply trying to guess at what you’re eating. They don’t keep you in suspense forever though. At the end of your meal you’ll get to take your guess and see just how close you got when they reveal everything you’ve tried. 

If you’re a foodie, need a clever date night idea, or are just looking to try something different - definitely give Dine in the Dark a try. It was delicious! 

PS: We definitely recommend taking the wine pairing with the meal, because everything is better with wine.

Other Digs in Singapore

  • Any street food in Chinatown - pick a stall and take a seat! Look for somewhere crowded, it's always a good sign...

  • Central Perk Cafe - the only copyright-approved Friends-themed cafe in Asia!

  • Hit up Clarke Quay for all-nighter bars and clubs.

  • McGettigan's CQ - of course we scoped out the best burger joint in the city.

  • Hawker Chan - the cheapest Michelin star restaurant in the world.

  • 28 Speakeasy - a completely unmarked bar, you might only be able to find it if you keep your eye out for some kiddos smoking some cigs on Hong Kong Street.

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