Going backpacking in Southeast Asia? These travel hacks will make your life easier and save you money along the way.
Best time to visit Southeast Asia
The best time to visit Southeast Asia depends heavily on what you plan to do and where do you want to go. While the main tourist season in Thailand is from November to April, Vietnam during the winter months can be pretty chilly.
To give you an example of how much it can vary, when I visited Vietnam in January, in the north of the country I had to wear long pants. However, at least it was not too hot for hiking in the mountains. Then when I went to central Vietnam, it was experiencing the monsoon season, but the only bad weather I got was just 10 minutes of rain.
The point I’m trying to make is simply go when you would like to go, but still check the weather forecast to see what kind of weather you might get. Sometimes, you may learn that it’s worth packing a second jumper instead of another bikini. Traveling in the off-season also has its upsides; fewer people are traveling so you can avoid the crowds and get better accommodation prices.
Vaccinations for Southeast Asia
We can probably agree that 3 injections are much better than 1 unfortunate bite.
The basic travel vaccination package usually consists of hepatitis A + B and typhoid. If you are traveling to countries known for aggressive apes (such as Indonesia or India), a rabies vaccination is recommended as well.
Before my trip to Southeast Asia, I paid a visit to a local vaccination clinic in my hometown and the doctor also recommended that I get a vaccination against meningococcus; that one should be useful if you expect to visit places with a high concentration of people. I was, of course, going to visit many public markets and use public transportation a lot, so I got that one as well.
Before you embark on your backpacking trip, I honestly recommend you to look for a vaccination center with good reviews from other travelers. Try to avoid places that seem to focus on upselling; the last thing you need is a shopkeeper trying to convince you to get you something you don’t need.
Visa requirements for the region
The good news is that you probably won’t need to visit any embassies. Still, coming from the Czech Republic, I am speaking as someone from the European Union. If you are coming from elsewhere, it’s better to check additional resources.
The visa requirements vary from country to country. Coming from the EU, I didn’t need a visa for Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia. On the other hand, a visa was necessary to enter Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam.
In some countries (such as Cambodia and Laos), you will be able to get a visa at the border. You will need to have an exact required amount of US dollars to pay the fee (around 30 USD for both countries) and two passport pictures. Without pictures, you will pay a couple of dollars extra. Having some US dollars in change are handy in any case; even if you already have an electronic visa, there is still a 1 USD administrative fee to enter the country.
Dealing with money on your trip
Cash is king across Southeast Asia. During my trip, I understood that my debit card in my purse was more or less a redundant item. You can only use it pay in some “better” (and more expensive) hotels, hostels and restaurants, but you will usually be charged 3% on the top. I, therefore, recommend paying in cash everywhere you go.
When changing money, it’s better to change from dollars than euros. Some of the tourist sights in Cambodia list prices in US dollars and simply use it as the main currency that they accept. Payment in local riel is still possible at most sights as well.
In my personal experience, I used the Revolut credit card to withdraw cash in all the countries I visited. There are no handling or transaction fees. However, you still have to watch out for possible fees from the local banks; this can be anywhere from 0 to 4% of the withdrawal amount. It’s worth checking out different ATMs; with a little bit of patience, you should be able to find one without transaction fees every time.
There are some limitations as well. In Vietnam, only 2 million Vietnamese dong can be withdrawn at one time. That may sound like a lot, but in fact that’s only equivalent to 86 USD. If you need more, you’ll have to do a second transaction. In Thailand, a transaction fee of 220 Thai baht (about 7 USD) is charged at all ATMs. It does not make a difference how much money you are withdrawing, so it’s better to take out more each time.
Internet and data to stay connected
It’s not hard to stay connected on a backpacking trip to Southeast Asia.
Local SIM cards with data are available in all countries, and those couple of gigabits will definitely be enough for normal needs. Often, special and inexpensive pre-paid cards are available for tourists; just ask around. SIM cards are easy to get; not only can you can purchase them from the operators, but they are often sold at tourism offices and transportation centers.
On top of that, you will still be able to stay connected even without purchasing your own data. I am talking from personal experience; I didn’t buy a SIM card with data on purpose so that I wouldn’t have to be connected at all times. In the end, all hotels, hostels and many restaurants (even many dodgy ones) offer free WiFI, and this was enough for me.
On the other hand, I learned that the WiFi on long-haul busses never works, despite the transportation companies openly advertising it. Either there is no WiFi at all, or there is, but connecting to it is nearly impossible.
The tap water is not drinkable in Southeast Asia. If you want to keep an eye on the amount of plastic waste you are producing on your trip, always refill your water from the drinking fountains in hostels or public places, such as airports and train stations.
Many restaurants offer cold or warm tea free of charge with their meals, which is a great help to stay hydrated on the road.
The biggest problem with the tap water isn’t the bacteria but the heavy metals that can get into the water from the pipes. I thought that a water filter was a good idea and I used it to filter and drink tap water (from hotels cafes and public toilets) throughout my trip, never experiencing any problems.
Opinions about using tap water for brushing the teeth are mixed. I would not do so in India, but I did use the tap water in Southeast Asia and it was fine for me.
What to eat: A Paradise for Foodies
Tasting local food is definitely one of the best ways to experience a new country and its culture. The cuisine of Southeast Asia is incredibly varied and much of it is even quite healthy. Rice and noodles are staples, with smaller portions of meat and veggies.
Do not limit yourself to the nicer or fancier-looking restaurants only. In Asia, the best food is to be found on the street, in the small and often unkempt kiosks and food stalls, where most locals dine. This is where you get the biggest portions for a very reasonable price. Be brave and keep trying new things (even the ones you can’t identify). It’s worth the gastronomic adventure!
Unless you become completely homesick, I recommend that you stay away from Western food during your backpacking trip. Meals like burgers and pizza are usually pricier than local food, and often not properly prepared according to Western standards.
Just think of how “kung pao” meals in Europe basically consist of some chicken with frozen veggies and nuts,. In Asia, don’t be surprised to find a pizza prepared with lemon juice and lime pieces, which I ate in Vietnam – it tasted as terrible as it sounds.
Tourist scams in Southeast Asia
The Internet is full of articles about all possible scams. You can definitely read about the many ways that people could rip you off you on your trip. Just keep calm and don’t take it all so seriously! You will definitely meet some people trying hard to make money on you in a rather fierce way. Yet, with a little bit of common sense and patience, you won’t fall for any of these tricks.
Perhaps it’s thanks to the fact that I don’t look like a rich and classy traveler, but with one exception of a tuk-tuk driver in India who brought me to an expensive elephant farm instead of the temple I had asked for, I have managed to avoid being scammed in all of my travels.
Tips for staying away from trouble
- Know how to bargain in the market and with taxi drivers. The best way is to always inform yourself about the market price of the goods or services you are about to purchase. Never accept the first offer without informing yourself first. Taxi drivers sometimes to add 50% or more. The more touristy the place, the worse it can be. On the other hand, trying to barter with a price that is already fair can make you look like a jerk.
- Watch your valuables. Keep your passport, money, mobile and other valuable things with you at all times. Do not leave them at the hostel, do not put them in the luggage compartment of the bus, and especially don’t leave your passport anywhere as a deposit, such as at a hotel or when renting a motorcycle. Do let them make a copy of the passport if they want to, but never leave the original with them.
- Don’t give anything to beggars, especially to children. In many places, beggars are controlled by the mafia, which takes most of their earnings. Sometimes they even cripple people on purpose to evoke more compassion. And you don’t want to teach local kids that the easiest way to get money is to annoy white strangers instead of going to school.
- Don’t trust taxi drivers and tuk-tuk drivers. They like to claim that the place you are heading to is too far away, or that the monument you want to go to is closed today. They would gladly offer you an alternative program, usually a visit to an “original” shop where their friend sells souvenirs and where they will get a commission from your expensive purchase.
Personally, I like walking and I have no problem walking with a backpack for 5 kilometers from the station to my hostel. At least I get to know part of the city outside the main tourist center. But few people walk far in Asia on foot; most locals ride a scooter or at least a bike, so anytime you are arriving at a station, get all of your patience ready. You may have to refuse a ride offer literally every 10 meters.
Transportation: Getting around in Southeast Asia
Transportation in the region is not as bad as you might think. Except for flying, you are able to get nearly everywhere by bus. Both Vietnam and Thailand also have relatively good and functional railway systems, although you must count on the fact that the trains can be slower and more expensive. On the other hand, traveling by train is the perfect way to experience the ever-changing and beautiful scenery across the region.
Look for connections on websites such as Rome2Rio or 12go.asia, both of which feature handy comparisons of means of transport, companies, and prices. If you want to plan your trip in advance and have the security of knowing you will have a seat, booking online is a good choice.
If you wait until your trip to organize your transportation, you may be able to find some smaller, local carriers without English websites reservation systems, but with cheaper prices and better connections. It’s a good idea to ask at your hotel about the recommended ways to get to your next destination or to have a stroll around the city and visit one of the many transportation and tourist offices that will definitely supply you with their offers.
The occupancy rates of the buses and trains are largely influenced by the tourist seasons. I was pretty lucky during my trip; most buses and trains I used were not fully occupied. Even when purchasing one of the rather popular night trains in Vietnam, I still got my tickets smoothly just half an hour before departure. This can vary from destination to destination. Trains in Thailand, on the countrary, were sold out months ahead.
The vast majority of buses and trains are super heavily air conditioned. Most likely, you will catch a cold during your first ride, you can practically get my guarantee on that!
The worst, in my experience, are the sleeper trains (once the temperature even dropped to 17 degrees) and the best are older buses. You never know what the temperature will be, so I recommend always bringing warm clothes.
Navigating most cities is rather easy. There are always numerous taxis, motorbike-taxies or tuk-tuks available. If you want to avoid the inevitable discussion about the prices and have the security that the driver will take you where he or she should, use the Grab app (similar to Uber and widespread in Asia).
Financially speaking, a trip by motorbike-taxi will only cost you half the price as compared to a car taxi. Plus, it’s usually much faster. I use it even whenever I’m traveling with only a backpack. Only when the distance is longer than 20 kilometers or so do I would opt for the taxi for comfort.
What to pack for Southeast Asia
Don’t bring a suitcase! You will hate it from the very first moment you step outside the cab. Unfortunately, there are not a lot of sidewalks in Southeast Asia – and if so, they are used as a parking lot for scooters or storage space for businesses and often its problematic to even traverse them on foot. Moreover, the surface is often broken, so your suitcase wheels would not last very long. For the day trips, you can consider this trendy travel backpack that you can even have as carry on.
- One warm layer
Trains and buses are often air-conditioned to temperatures below 20 degrees. Especially at night, you will appreciate a light jacket or sweatshirt, long trousers, and socks.
- Clothing that covers your shoulders and knees
Without it, they won’t let you into most temples. My solution is to bring a long skirt or long pants, as well as a scarf to cover my shoulders before entering.
- Sleeping mask and earplugs
These will be helpful for the night train and bus rides. Even a luxury hotel on a busy street will not be as quiet as you might expect. Sometimes, even the air conditioner in your room can also make too much noise.
- Sunscreen and insect repellent
This depends on when and where you are going. In winter in Vietnam, you will not need these unless you are planning to have a barbecue on the beach or something. On the other hand, you will appreciate the repellent in the southern regions with more humidity.
I hope this article will help you to plan your trip. If you have any questions, do not hesitate to ask them in the comments!
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