7 tips for backpacking Southeast Asia

Posted by on October 20, 2014

Backpacking Southeast AsiaSoutheast Asia has been a dream destination for backpackers for a long time. With its typical route often coined the banana pancake trail, Southeast Asia offers something for every type of traveler and all of that at a relatively low price. This, its easy accessibility paired with the ever luring images of exotic cultures and pristine beaches as well as its long history as a backpacker destination, have made it the starting point for many backpacking careers. Some would even argue that Southeast Asia is the region which by far infected the most people with severe cases of incurable wanderlust.  It has been on bucket lists for decades and still keeps becoming more and more popular. But before you start your own journey across this magical region, let me share some insights which might help making your trip even more worthwhile.  

Respect local customs and culture

Typical tourist destinations from Thailand to Laos and Cambodia, especially the famous beach and party places, may appear very much adapted to Western culture and lifestyle. This, the relaxed atmosphere and hot weather often seem to tempt tourists to to forget common rules of decency and walk around half naked. But you should bear in mind, that most societies in Southeast Asia are actually very conservative and traditional, especially in Buddhist countries. The fact that locals usually won’t openly voice their objections is not a sign of approval but rooted in their culture as well.
Inform yourself about the culture, customs and norms of the country you are traveling and respect them. Cover yourself up when entering temples or monasteries, take off your shoes when entering a house and don’t walk around town bare chested or in your tiny bikini top. It’s all about respect and if you respect the locals and their culture, they in turn will respect you.

Ayuttaya Thailand Budhas

The famous Buddhas of Ayuttaya, Thailand

Use your common sense

Let’s be honest here, scams are a part of Southeast Asia. But that being said, they can be found anywhere where tourists are. Tourists are usually an easy victim and especially in countries with a lot of poverty, it probably is a huge opportunity for some people. But don’t be that victim; use your common sense and be smart. In the guidebooks and on the net you will find a lot of information about scams typical for certain regions. Reading about it will probably help 90% of travelers avoid getting scammed. But honestly, if you are traveling a bit longer, chances are high that it will eventually happen. You might get overcharged by a taxi or tuk tuk driver or the police might stop and fine you for ridiculous things. If you realize that it has just happened, take a deep breath and shake it off. It is somewhat part of game and it happens to the best.

Tuk Tuk Ride in Thailand

Tuk Tuks in Thailand – always overcharging.

Learn the basics of the local language

Wherever I go, I try to learn at least the basics of the local language. Sometimes I buy a little phrasebook beforehand or I just pick up words along the way and write them down. Basic things like “Hello”, “How are you”, “What is your name”, “How much is this” and “too Expensive” accompanied by a big smile can take you a long way. The locals will highly appreciate that you as a foreign tourist make the effort to communicate in their own language and it will make your traveling experience a lot more worthwhile.

Laos Homestay

Spending time with the kids in the house of Laotian locals

Avoid morally and ethically dubious practices

Tourism has picked up a lot in Southeast Asia, in some countries it represents the major source of income. This influx of foreign money has created desires and a lot of competition. Whenever a lot of money is involved, it can produce ethically questionable practices. You can find tiger temples where the animals get drugged, elephant camps which resemble badly kept zoos or attractions which go against every principle of sustainable tourism. Don’t support these, even if it might sound like a nice activity to tell people at home about.

Thailand Elephant Camp

One of the better elephant sanctuaries in Northern Thailand.

Venture off the beaten track

Generally Southeast Asia is pretty easy to travel. The major spots are easily accessible, transport is fairly reliable and the hot spots offer backpackers all of the amenities they could wish for. Bars, western restaurants, clubs, beach parties, cheap drinks and a lot of other travelers to meet.
But this is actually not what Southeast Asia is about. Each country in this vast region has so many different facets that it would be a shame to not explore some of them. I also found locals in more remote locations much more welcoming than in the more touristy destinations. Experiencing this type of unique interaction can really make the difference. I am not telling you to avoid partying or not to enjoy the lively atmosphere in those famous backpacker havens. By all means, do what you like, have fun and enjoy your trip. But try to mix it up a little and to move away from the crowds for a while. Step out of your comfort zone, go exploring and welcome adventure. I can say that traveling to places off the tourist radar, usually not even offering any touristic highlights, made for some of my best experiences. Arriving in a remote village in the Shan Highlands of Myanmar, getting invited into people’s houses, playing with the kids and trying to get a good shot, were simple experiences but all so worthwhile.
As my friend Ralf, whom I have recently interviewed here on the blog,  said, it usually only takes about ten minutes to get away from the beaten path and you will find yourself in a whole different world, detached from tourism and probably being the only foreigner around.

Trekking Hsipaw Myanmar

Off the beaten track in Myanmar

Stay calm and leave your expectations at home

If you come from a developed country, chances are that you will face things which are utmost different from anything you know from home. Places you encounter might be dirty, the air in some metropolises might be polluted to a degree that you don’t see the sun anymore, you might encounter poverty with all the effects that come with it, people might be loud and pushy, the pace of life might be slower and accommodation standards might be lower. But remember, you are not at home. You are actually far away from it, in an exotic and often developing country. Accept it, don’t complain and go with the flow.  Enjoy every bit of it. How boring would it be, if every place would be the same? The differences, even if perceived negative at first sight, are what makes the difference.

4000 islands Laos

Rural life on Don Det in Southern Laos

Less is usually more

I know it is tempting. A whirlwind tour across the region, seeing as many countries as possible in the shortest amount of time. Two days in Cambodia to see Angkor, seeing a couple of Thai islands and heading over to Laos – all in one week. It is of course doable but usually less is more here. If you have only limited time, try to focus on one or two countries only and take your time for those. Get to know culture and customs and let it all sink in instead of just crossing off things off your bucket list. This will make for a much more memorable and sustainable travel experience and you can always return to see the other countries.

Melacca Streets

Less is more – take your time and take it all in. In Melacca, Malaysia

Last thoughts…

Southeast Asia is a huge and manifold region with so much to discover. Exotic foods, wonders of nature, different cultures and traditions and some of the friendliest and the most hospitable people in this world. If you decide to travel this part of the earth, keep an open mind and accept and embrace the differences. Even though parts of Southeast Asia have already been heavily influenced by the effects of mass tourism, there is still enough authentic beauty to be explored. Just keep your eyes open and be bold. Enjoy the ride!

Have you guys traveled around Southeast Asia as well? What’s your take on traveling this region and what are your tips?

Chiang Mai Temple

Buddhist wisdom. Nothing to add to this.

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13 Responses to 7 tips for backpacking Southeast Asia

  1. ilana green (@goddessnature1)

    Nice! SE Asia is really for designed by nature for wanderlust. Your previous article re the falls esp in Laos made me include it in my bucket list 🙂 Thanks for sharing travel tips esp the the danger of some places and traditions of some asian countries.

    • Phil D.

      Hi Ilana, I am happy you found the post, also the last one, interesting and helpful. Let me know if you ever plan to travel to any of the places I mentioned and I can sure give you some tips. Concerning dangers in Asian countries…I wouldn’t even call it danker because that it such a hard word. It is like I said, you can get scammed in Asia as in Europe. It will also depend on your own behavior. If we stay smart, we will probably stay safe … Thanks a lot Ilana and take care… Philipp

  2. richlovelock

    Nice post Philip. Agree completely, I found some pretty remote places in Palawan on bike (heading toward Nacpan Beach) and seeing the locals there, how they’re living and the smiles/waves from the little kids is one of my fondest memories. Think I’d always make effort to get away from real touristy places.

    I think sometimes it helps to do a little research sometimes but also as a lot of your posts allude to, having spontaneity (whilst being aware of dangers) is a nice thing.

    • Phil D.

      Hi Rich, good to hear that you also took the chance to head to Nacpan Beach on your own. It is also one of my own fondest memories. People around that area were happy, friendly and welcoming. I think chances to have encounters like that are more likely in less touristy areas but as Susan said below, it always depends on your own attitude. If you are open then you can meet locals everywhere – even in the most touristy places or in the bigger cities.
      I think spontaneity is important, especially when traveling for a longer period of time. But planning is also important at times… I think a good mix is the way to go here. I also like planning because it tells me a lot about the places I will visit. And that can never be wrong. Cheers Rich, thanks for stopping by again. Philipp

    • Phil D.

      Hi Rich, I am also contemplating and considering January, But no set plans yet. Have a few things to arrange first. What are your plans?

  3. Susan Duncan

    Great post Phil! I agree with everything you put, but would like to add that even in tourist areas you can meet some great locals if you make the effort to do so. I didn’t go off the beaten path like you, but still managed to meet some great people. Not everyone will greet you warmly, but by making yourself open to the possibility, learning a little of the local language, and carrying around a big smile like you mentioned, you might befriend everyone from your tuk-tuk driver to your hostel owner. By doing this I had a regular driver in Ho Chi Minh City who cut me a deal and showed me local cafes, got invited to a going away party in Laos, and often enjoyed great conversations with servers over my dinner. Your attitude towards the locals, no matter where you are, determines your experience… and a lot of the time they’re just as curious about you and your culture as you are about them and theirs. Keep up the good work! Cheers – Susan

    • Phil D.

      Hi Susan, thanks so much for your thoughtful input. That is very true and you are right, you definitely don’t have to go off the beaten track to meet locals and have a great time with them. Attitude is what counts, and that no matter where you are. Your stories sounds really amazing and can be an inspiration for others. Great feedback by a like minded traveler – really like it. Thanks a lot Susan!!!

  4. John

    Hi Phil, thanks again for an awesome post! I especially like your tip “less is usually more” which also applies to the contents of a backpack in SEA:D When it comes to the Philippines, where the infrastructure is often times not as developped as in other countries like Vietnam or Thailand, backpackers even have to bring more time and should not try to discover 10 islands in 2 weeks but rather “go with the flow” and spend more valuable moments where they really feel comfortable

    • Phil D.

      Hi John, glad you enjoyed the post and thanks for your comment. You are definitely right, people should not rush it and take their time to really get a taste of the country. What is the sense in seeing like 10 islands but only spending a day or two on each one of them, right? So true …. Thanks again John

  5. Stewart

    Do you have a top 5 or top 10 “off the beaten path” list of locations for the Philippines?

  6. Stewart

    Of course!! Do that ASAP please!

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