The reasons we love backpacking in Southeast Asia are simple: the food is amazing, it’s easy to get around, and best of all, it’s cheap. In the last few months we’ve been to astonishing places like Myanmar, Indonesia and Malaysia. We’ve gotten to explore all different cultures and landscapes, and we’ve found that most countries in Southeast Asia have a few things in common.
Here are our 7 best tips for backpacking in Southeast Asia:
1. Rent a motor scooter
Renting a motor scooter is never easier than while backpacking in Southeast Asia. It’s one of the best ways to see the countries you’re in and get around while backpacking. Most accommodations offer scooters for rent or can arrange one for you, so you don’t have to worry about where to find the next scooter rental service. There will always be one around the next corner.
Be aware that the traffic in most places is chaotic. You will see locals carrying bed frames or giant mirrors on their scooter, and spot a family of 5 people on one bike. Just remember to go with the flow and your first scooter ride will be a great adventure.
2. Try Southeast Asia’s street food
Many people will try to tell you that “you can’t eat the street food.” But that’s not true! In Southeast Asia the local street food is a must try. We’ve tried so many different dishes during the past few months and it was always a delighting experience. In all honesty, we have had “Southeast Asia belly” a few times, but it also happened after eating in a chic restaurant. Don’t let it stop you!
Make sure to visit at least one of the fruit stands. You can find them all over Southeast Asia. From bananas and pineapples to the most amazing mangos, they make foran amazing food experience. You won’t find better fruit anywhere else in the world.
3. Don’t drink the water
In most countries it’s not advisable to drink the tap water, so we recommend bringing your own reusable bottle when backpacking in Southeast Asia. You’ll find that a lot of great cafes and accommodations offer water refills. Plus, if you’re going to stay in one place for a couple of days, you should buy a large container of water to refill your bottles. Not only will it help you save money, but also minimize waste. ☺
4. Keep the weather in mind
If you’re planning to spend a few weeks or months backpacking in Southeast Asia, you are probably dreaming of sunny days and hot weather. However, many countries have a wet season that you should research before booking all of your stops. Just keep in mind that the wet season is not all bad! It usually won’t rain the whole day. Instead, you’ll often experience downpours in the afternoon or evening for 1 to 2 hours.
The wet season is usually low season. That means cheaper prices and fewer tourists at the sights, and the landscape will be lush, green and beautiful. Our advice is to pack a good raincoat and a cover for your backpack and enjoy the advantages that wet season offers.
5. Use public transportation
The term public transport in Southeast Asia covers a bigger variety of options than in, for example, European countries. When backpacking on a budget, they are your best means of travel. Besides the usual trains, buses, and taxis, there are also tuc tucs, boats (of all different kinds and sizes), and minibuses.
Here are some tips to keep in mind for each type of transport:
Taxis and Tuc Tucs: When it comes to taxis, you should stay away from any that are not running the meter. If you want to ride in a Tuc Tuc, make sure to bargain the price before getting in.
Trains and Buses: The long distance trains and buses are usually comfortable, especially the overnight ones, but do your research for each country. For example: in Thailand you can find some amazing overnight train rides (like from Bangkok to Chiang Mai), but train rides are not always available in Myanmar. Buses can also be challenging for travelers there. We found that it can take about 8 hours to travel just 300 kilometers in Myanmar because of the bad road conditions.
You’ll also want to note that some buses, trains and boats may not leave according to a time schedule. Some leave when they are full, so you should arrive there at least an hour early. Furthermore, it shouldn’t be a problem to get your tickets at the station when you arrive on the day you want to leave. There’s no need to plan all your routes before your trip, which gives you more flexibility. However, you do need to check all visa regulations before you travel to a new destination.
One last transport tip: you can find Uber and Grab in every country in SEA. It’s super convenient and the rides are often cheaper than the local taxis. Just make sure to download the apps before backpacking in Southeast Asia!
6. Learn from the locals
Getting to know new cultures, customs and people–isn’t that why we all travel? We challenge you to go that extra mile in the local village. Talk to the person sitting next to you and don’t be afraid to ask questions. We think you’ll find most people in Southeast Asia to be friendly and interested in your background. So drink some beers and learn from the locals. They have the best stories to tell. After all, who better to tell what’s going on in a country than the people living in it?
We had a great experience because of our conversations with the locals during our first time in Bali. When we left Austria in December 2017, the volcano Mount Agung was already active. We had thought about changing our flights but then decided we want to go and check out the situation for ourselves. After talking to owners of cafes and restaurants, it soon became clear that the locals suffered more from the loss of tourists than the volcano itself.
We can’t say that there wasn’t any threat, because there were serious moments, and it’s important to be careful and check the media. But as we learned, it’s also more important to create your own opinion and to listen to the locals. The absence of the tourists was a benefit for us. We were able to experience a less crowded Bali and enjoy the local’s humor and the relaxed atmosphere even more.
7. Take it easy
This one should be on your mind all the time! Backpacking in Southeast Asia means slower travel than what you might be used to. There is no rush in SEA. If the bus is already an hour late, take it easy. It will arrive…probably. If not, there will always be another one. This laidback approach is actually a quality you can learn from the locals. Know that it will all turn out to be just fine. Taking it easy and going with the flow can benefit us all once in a while. ☺
We’re Berni and Julia from thebackpackway, two Austrian backpackers who quit our jobs to travel in Southeast Asia. We started our journey in December 2017 and have already been to 6 countries. You can follow along with more of our travel moments at @thebackpackway on Instagram.