Southeast Asia is one of the most popular destinations for backpackers. It's easy to see why - gorgeous sandy beaches, cultural temples, delicious food and bustling cities makes for an attractive mix. It’s also a safe and cheap place to travel, meaning that Southeast Asia is a great place for first time travellers getting to grips with backpacking and those on a budget.
Southeast Asia has been on my bucket list for years and in 2022, I spent 7 months travelling in Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia and Indonesia. Based on my experience, I've put together 50 essential travel tips to help you plan your trip to Southeast Asia. These tips cover everything from what food and drink to avoid, to how to keep track of your budget while travelling and travel hacks to make life on the road easier.
These travel tips will prepare you for a great trip to Southeast Asia and hopefully help to prevent you from getting into any tricky situations!
50 Essential travel tips for first time backpackers visiting Southeast Asia
Practical information for travel in Southeast Asia
Travelling takes a lot of organisation and planning. Here’s a few hacks to help you have a smoother travel experience.
1. Get yourself a sim card as soon as you land
Often the best sim card deals can be found in the arrivals hall at the airport, with a ‘tourist sim’. I’d recommend getting a sim card as soon as you arrive in the country, especially if you are taking public transport from the airport / ferry / bus terminal to your accommodation. Most likely, you will be dropped off at a location in the centre of town (or at the side of the road as I experienced several times!) and having the internet to figure out where you are is very helpful.
2. Download an offline version of google maps before you arrive at a new place
Even if you have a sim card with data, you might not always have a signal to access the internet. Make sure that you download an offline version of google maps, covering the area you are travelling to. You might need to download several if the area you are travelling to is vast. Another handy tip is to ‘pin’ key locations onto your map, such as your accommodation, attractions, bus terminals and places to eat! That way, if you can’t access the internet you’ll still be able to find your way to key services and attractions.
Having an offline google map helped us when cycling around Ninh Binh in Vietnam
3. Screenshot or note down your accommodation booking confirmation and address
Don’t rely on being able to access the internet to retrieve the information of your accommodation. You’d be surprised how many travellers get off a bus in a new town and don't know the address or even the name of the place they are staying at and can’t access their emails as they don't have internet! Take a quick screenshot of your accommodation and travel bookings, or write the important information down in a notebook or in the notes folder on your phone.
4. Print any important documents you need to enter a country
For entering many of the countries in Southeast Asia, you’ll need a visa (and may need other supporting documents too). It always helps to have a printed copy of any important documents as well as the electronic version on your phone. This way, if your phone gets lost / stolen / runs out of battery, you’ll have a backup copy. If you are travelling between countries, your hostel or hotel might be able to print documents for you, or they can usually point you in the direction of a printing shop.
5. Be aware of scams
Travelling in Southeast Asia is an amazing experience and most of the local people you meet will be welcoming, friendly and helpful. However, you will also encounter locals who will try to take advantage of travellers. The most common scams usually involve taxi or tuk-tuk drivers, or money exchange kiosks. When travelling around in Southeast Asia, always negotiate the price and be clear on what the price covers. Only change money in authorised exchange kiosks - your accommodation should be able to help you with this.
How do you know if something is a scam? Usually you can tell if something doesn't feel right. If you don't feel comfortable and are unsure, just say no and move on. It also helps if you do your own research and plan beforehand. For example, if you research how much a specific A to B journey should cost in a tuk-tuk and the price you are being quoted is over double, you know they are trying it on.
6. Don't put tissue paper down the toilet
As a general rule, putting tissue paper down the toilet is a no-no in Southeast Asia. There are some exceptions to this rule, for example in more modern, and usually more upscale resorts. However, in most places, the pipes cannot cope with the paper and they will block, which is not nice for anyone. Use the bin provided or embrace the water gun!
7. Read reviews
Whilst it’s not a good idea to get hung up on one negative review out of 10’s of positive ones, reading reviews is definitely worth doing. Whether this is for accommodation, attractions or transport. Filter the reviews to ‘Newest first’ and make sure you know what to expect before you part with your money.
8. Check the weather when planning your trip to Southeast Asia
Generally speaking, October - March is the best time to travel in Southeast Asia as this is the dry season and the weather is cooler and more manageable. However, research the individual countries you want to visit to plan which month would be best for you to travel.
9. Plan your route but allow for flexibility
Whether you are visiting one country or several countries in Southeast Asia, plan your itinerary beforehand. Having a rough plan of your route is a good idea so that you have an idea of what you would like to see within your time frame. However, don’t be rigid with your plans. Be flexible and embrace opportunities to visit places you hadn't included in your original itinerary. Having unexpected experiences is one of the best things about travelling!
Being flexible with our plans took us to the incredible Paradise Cave in Phong Nha, Vietnam
Managing your budget and finances when travelling in Southeast Asia
Budgeting for your trip is one of the most important things you can do, both before and during your travels. Make sure that you read these top tips to help you manage your budget and keep track of your spending when travelling.
10. Have a couple of good debit cards
One of the most important things you will need when travelling is a safe way to access your money. Instead of using your normal bank debit card, which may have expensive fees for use overseas, get yourself a new debit card, purely for travelling. I use a Starling Bank debit card, but I've also heard good things from travellers about Revolut and Monzo too. Instead of having all your money on your travelling debit card, simply ‘top it up’ when you need and keep just a small amount on the card. That way, if you lose the card, or it gets stolen, you don't risk losing a lot of money. For this same reason, having two debit cards you can use in this way is also a great idea (just make sure you keep them in different places!).
11. Pay for large items on a credit card
When booking things like accommodation, travel (especially flights) and activities, always use a credit card. Credit cards offer a much higher protection on spending and if something goes wrong with the supplier (for example, if the service provider goes out of business), your credit card company can help you to claim your money back. I have a Halifax Clarity credit card which is great for travelling and using abroad. Shop around and find a credit card with low or zero exchange fees or charges for using it overseas.
12. Always carry some cash
When travelling in Southeast Asia, it’s a good idea to always have a bit of cash on you. If you are travelling to more remote areas, or buying something from a local shop or stall, you will need to pay for it in cash. Just be aware that many of the ATM's in Southeast Asia charge for withdrawing money and they have a limit for how much you can withdraw, which is annoying!
Travel is one of the best things to spend your money on!
(Image: Windmill Viewpoint, Phuket, Thailand)
13. Make sure you can access your bank account if you lose your phone
Most of us manage our bank accounts via an app on our phones. However, what happens if your phone is lost or stolen? Make sure that you know how to access your bank account online or over the phone.
14. Set yourself a travel budget and track your daily spend
Possibly THE most important element of travelling is budget management! It doesn't sound exciting (and it's not!), but it's vital if you don’t want your trip to end abruptly because you’ve run out of money.
When planning your trip, do your research and set a daily budget. This should be based on the prices of accommodation, food, transport and activities in your destination and also what kind of experience you want to have (on the scale of budget backpacker - luxury holiday). Make sure you record your daily spend to keep you on track. I use the free version of @travelspendapp
Managing your budget means that if you're careful in some places, you can splurge on more expensive trips in others, such as an overnight luxury cruise to Halong Bay in Vietnam
15. Take advantage of travel rewards programs
There are plenty of rewards programs available to savvy travellers. One of my favourite reward programs is the Booking.com genius program. The more qualified bookings you make through your Booking.com account, the more genius points you can earn, which can get you discounts and upgrades on certain hotels, transport and experiences.
Another great rewards program, if you are from the UK, is Topcashback. Simply login to your Topcashback account and make your booking with one of the travel providers via the Topcashback site to earn cash back on your purchase.
The view over Halong Bay from Titov Island viewpoint
Top tips for getting around in Southeast Asia
Southeast Asia is a large, diverse continent and even the individual countries within Southeast Asia are massive, so you’re going to want to travel around and explore as much of it as possible. Getting around in Southeast Asia is not always the most straightforward, so here’s some tips to help you navigate public transport.
16. Shop around for the best deal on public transport
During the 7 months I spent in Southeast Asia, I booked a lot of my bus and ferry journeys online. One of the best booking platforms for transport in Southeast Asia is 12go.com. Bookaway and Camboticket in Cambodia are other good options. For booking tours, Viator, Get your Guide and Klook are all great platforms. But don’t just rely on websites. Speak to your hotel or hostel and get their advice. Sometimes they can tell you about transport routes or tour companies that don’t appear on the larger comparison websites. Whatever you are booking, shop around and get a couple of prices for the best deal.
17. Travelling from A to B is not as easy as it sounds!
Travelling from A to B sounds easy (and it should be!), however travelling from A to B in Southeast Asia usually ends up being a lot more complicated than it needs to be! Don’t be surprised if you are asked to change buses several times throughout your journey as different drivers and companies take over each section of the trip. I took a journey in Thailand from Railay in Krabi to Koh Samui which took 12 hours and consisted of 1 boat, 5 buses, 1 ferry and a taxi (which was 4 more buses than expected!) Try to stay patient and go with it, it won't make you feel any better getting stressed about it.
18. Give yourself plenty of time for transfers
As I’ve mentioned, travel in Southeast Asia is usually not a simple process. Often journeys depart later than scheduled and will take a lot longer as the drivers make random stops along the way. If you are planning a journey that has transfers with different companies (for example, a bus journey followed by a ferry), make sure that you leave plenty of time between each leg of the journey, as you are most likely going to be late!
19. Prepare for delays or things to go wrong
You can see a theme emerging here! Most journeys in Southeast Asia are late, or delayed, or there’s been a miscommunication with your booking. Try to be patient and polite with the locals. Most local people I encountered in Southeast Asia were incredibly warm and friendly and willing to help. So, be respectful and don't be rude if things don't go to plan, it’s all part of the travelling experience!
Travelling by long tail boat in Khao Sok National Park, Thailand
20. Don't expect formal booking confirmations for public transport
If you’re the kind of person who likes to have written confirmation of everything, then prepare to get out of your comfort zone! As someone who is super organised and over prepared, I had to learn to accept that formal booking confirmations don't always exist in Southeast Asia when booking transport. Instead, you’ll be given a flimsy paper slip as confirmation, which at some point will be taken off you and replaced with a coloured sticker (which may later be replaced with another sticker!) They do love a sticker, especially in Thailand! Just take photos of your paper slip or sticker in case you lose it and you’ll be fine.
21. ALWAYS negotiate when ordering a tuk-tuk or taxi!
Rule no.1 when travelling in Southeast Asia - always negotiate! In some of the larger cities you can use Grab, Uber or Gojek which is great as it gives you an idea of what the cost should be. Even if you are getting a ride with a local driver, use the price on Grab/Uber/Gojek to help you negotiate. If that is not available, ask your hostel or hotel how much the prices should be so you have an idea of what is a good price and what is a bad price.
22. Get an international driving licence
If you are considering hiring a car or scooter in Southeast Asia, get yourself an International driving licence. If you are from the UK, you can pick these up in the Post Office for £5. Make sure you keep your licence and your international licence with you at all times when driving. Occasionally local police may stop you and ask to see your licence and if you don't have it (or the correct one), they may fine you.
23. Don’t feel pressured into riding a scooter
Travelling in Southeast Asia and riding a scooter seem to go hand in hand (if you believe everything you see on Instagram, or read in some blogs). However, don't feel pressured to ride a scooter if you don't feel comfortable. The roads in Southeast Asia are uneven and windy and the traffic can be crazy, with people cutting you up and zig-zagging down the road. It is absolutely possible to travel in Southeast Asia without riding a scooter if you don't want to. If you do want to ride a scooter, make sure your travel insurance covers you and always wear a helmet.
24. Have motion sickness tablets with you on travel days
Even if you don't normally feel travel sick, you may find yourself feeling queasy. Many of the roads in Southeast Asia are quite hilly and windy and the drivers can be fast and erratic. Also, if you are on a small minibus, it is usually hot and cramped, making you feel even worse. (If you are in the north of Thailand, the Chiang Mai - Pai bus is notorious for making people feel ill). Buses aside, you will likely be taking several boats and ferries during your time travelling in Southeast Asia and some of the boat crossings can be bumpy. Make sure that you have some motion sickness tablets with you for your journey. These can be picked up cheaply from 7/11 in Thailand and also most pharmacies or shops.
25. Pack warm clothing in your day bag on travel days
If you are travelling long distances on a coach or sleeper bus, make sure you keep a warm top or hoodie with you. The buses in Southeast Asia are renowned for having the coldest air conditioning!
Tuk-tuk's are a popular way of getting around in Vietnam and Cambodia
Food and drink in Southeast Asia
Sampling the food and drink in a new country is all part of the travelling experience and one of the best parts of visiting Southeast Asia is to eat the local food. Here’s a few tips to keep you safe and avoid the dreaded traveller’s belly!
26. Don't drink the tap water
Unless you want to spend a couple of days being ill, don’t drink the tap water! Bottled water is very cheap to buy, Unfortunately this does often mean that you will be using a lot of single use plastic, which is a big problem in Southeast Asia. Some larger cities such as Bangkok, Phuket and Chiang Mai in Thailand have filtered water machines where you can top up your refillable water bottle for a fraction of the cost.
27. Be careful of the fruit!
It can be hard to stay healthy when travelling and the fruit in Southeast Asia is delicious, however just be careful where you buy it from. There’s plenty of street stalls selling pre-cut fruit. Most of it will be fine, however you don't know how long it has been sitting there getting warm and also whether it has been washed in clean drinking water. Eating dodgy fruit can make you really sick and wipe you out for several days - believe me! Try to pick places where they cut the fruit fresh in front of you, or buy whole fruit which you can peel / cut yourself.
28. Eat the street food!
The street food scene in Southeast Asia is brilliant (plus its great for your budget too!) The street markets are a lively buzz of noise and smells, creating a great atmosphere. Make sure you go to as many street food markets as you can, it's all part of the Southeast Asia experience! If you buy meat from a street vendor, make sure that they fry it / cook it in front of you. Eating meat that has been left out for a while is another thing that could leave you chained to the bathroom for a day or two.
The Phnom Penh night market in Cambodia has a great atmosphere
29. Try local dishes
When you visit somewhere new, make sure you know what the local dishes are and try them. Ask the locals you meet what food you should eat whilst you are there. There’s often regional variations of national dishes too.
30. Don’t be put off by the interior (or lack of!) a place
Some of the best food I've eaten in Southeast Asia has been whilst sitting outside on a tiny plastic stool at a metal table! In my experience the small, family-run local restaurants have the best food and even better, they are the most budget-friendly too!
31. Bring a reusable water bottle and bag
As I’ve mentioned, some of the larger cities and towns in Southeast Asia do have places where you can top up your reusable water bottle. There are also some cafes which will allow you to top up for a small charge. Take a reusable cotton tote bag too for your shopping, rather than asking for a plastic bag each time you go to the shop.
32. Check the spice level!
Spicy food in Southeast Asia is on a different level! A ‘mild’ dish is comparable to a medium in the UK. Don’t be afraid to ask for no chilli or for a dish to not be spicy.
Going to Jonker Night Market is one of the best things to do in Melaka, Malaysia
Local cultures and traditions in Southeast Asia
Experiencing a different culture and learning about the history and traditions of a place is one of the best bits about travelling. Read these four things you must do to make sure that you are respectful and get off to a great start with the locals when travelling in Southeast Asia.
33. Learn basic phrases
If you are travelling in another country, even just for a couple of weeks, it’s a great courtesy to know a couple of key phrases, such as Hello and Thank You. Even though English is widely spoken across Southeast Asia, locals love it when you try to speak a little of their own language and will be happy to teach you some new phrases.
34. Be respectful
Southeast Asian culture is very different to western culture and each country in Southeast Asia has their own traditions and cultural differences. Make sure that you know how to behave in certain situations and be respectful. For example, women should not approach, converse with or touch Monks. Women also cannot enter certain shrines or temples whilst menstruating.
Wat Phra Kaew (The Temple of the Emerald Buddha), in Bangkok is one of the most important temples in Thailand
35. Dress appropriately
Whilst both men and women should make sure that they are respectfully dressed when entering a temple or government building, this mostly applies to women. Women must always cover their knees and shoulders in a temple. When bathing in certain spots, it is respectful to cover up. Wearing a bikini is acceptable at most public beaches and in your hotel or hostel pool, however, if you are visiting a local bathing spot, you will notice that Southeast Asian women wear shorts and a t-shirt to bathe in. It is polite to do the same.
36. Take off your shoes
This is common practice in many places throughout Southeast Asia, but it is mostly associated with Thailand. Shoes should always be removed before entering a temple, but you will also need to remove shoes before entering other places too. If you are staying in a small guesthouse, or homestay, it is polite to leave your shoes outside. This is the same if you enter a small, local shop and even when you travel on certain boats and buses (especially the sleeper buses in Vietnam).
Angkor Wat in Cambodia is one of the world's most impressive temple complex
Prepare for your trip to Southeast Asia by making sure that your health requirements and needs are taken care of before you travel…
37. Check what vaccinations you need before you go
When planning a trip to any new country, it is important to make sure you have received all the relevant vaccinations beforehand. If you are in the UK, you can check the NHS website to see which vaccinations are recommended for the country you are visiting and which vaccinations you can get for free on the NHS.
38. Stock up on sunscreen
Suncream is not widely available in Southeast Asia, especially if you are travelling away from the main tourist holiday destinations. It is also very expensive. You will find lots of ‘sun serums’ or ‘daily lotions with spf’ - be careful with these, whilst they do offer some level of protection, they are not full sun creams and are not recommended for using while sunbathing. If you are only travelling for a short amount of time, take several bottles with you from home, if you have room.
39. Take any medication / feminine products with you
If you are travelling to some of the smaller islands, or more remote places in Southeast Asia, there is not always a large pharmacy available. So, if you need medication, make sure that you bring it with you and restock it before you run out. Feminine products can be expensive too, so if you can, bring these with you.
40. Always carry medication for ‘travellers belly’
It’s not nice to talk about but almost every traveller will experience an upset stomach at some point during their travels in Southeast Asia (no matter how careful you are). Although the best advice is to rest and let the bug ‘pass through’, that is not always possible, especially if you have a bus journey to get through. With that in mind, carrying some tablets for diarrhoea will be a lifesaver!
41. Always have a toilet roll with you on travel days!
This goes hand in hand with the above - most toilets in Southeast Asia don’t have toilet paper and there’s usually a small fee for using them, so carry some small change too.
Make sure you wear good sunscreen before enjoying Asia's most beautiful beaches, this like one - Nai Harn beach in Phuket
Depending on how long you are travelling in Southeast Asia for, your packing list will vary. This is also true if you are planning a long trip and are visiting other places outside of Southeast Asia too. So, rather than include a full packing list in this post, here’s a couple of top tips to help you pack better.
42. Take a Scarf or sarong
A scarf or sarong is one of the most versatile items you can pack in your bag. It is great for covering your shoulders in a temple, laying on at the beach, throwing on over a bikini, using it as a pillow on travel days or keeping you warm on the buses! Plus it takes up virtually no space in your bag!
43. Pack layers
You definitely don't need as many clothes as you think you do, and you will end up wearing the same things over and over! Pack light things that you can layer and roll up small in your bag. In terms of shoes, one pair of trainers, one pair of flip flops and one pair of Birkenstock or chunky walking sandals will be suitable for pretty much everything in Southeast Asia.
44. Leave room for new clothes!
Don’t go shopping for everything before you leave home. The clothes in Southeast Asia are so cheap and let's face it, most of the clothes you will buy at home will most likely come from Southeast Asia anyway! If there’s anything you've forgotten or wished you had packed, you will more than likely be able to buy it in Southeast Asia.
45. Be savvy with your chargers
There’s nothing worse than having a bag full of cables and charging wires! A lot of devices will accept the same charger cable and this is a great way to reduce the number of wires you take. For example, my laptop wire will fit my phone and my Go pro, meaning I only need one wire for three devices. (I do also have a single USB cable that will plug into an adaptor so I can charge two things at one, but this takes up hardly any room). I’d also recommend putting your wires into a small bag or pouch, so they are easy to locate in your bag.
46. Embrace the packing cube!
Packing cubes are a lifesaver when it comes to packing for travelling. Even if you are sceptical about it at first, you will soon realise how handy they are. It’s a great way to separate (and easily locate!) your clothes in your bag. They also help to condense things down in your bag!
Shopping in the markets in Asia is a fun experience. There's so much stock, like here at the Central Market, Hanoi, Vietnam
Making the decision to go travelling can be scary but it is also super exciting! Have the best time and remember that comparison is the devil!
47. Chat to others
One of the best parts of travelling is meeting other like-minded travellers. There’s a reason that Southeast Asia is one of the best places to travel solo. There’s so many great hostels and Facebook groups, where you can meet up with other people.
48. Everyone has bad days when travelling
You will have THE BEST time travelling, but there will also be some days that don't quite go to plan and other days where you are tired or may feel homesick. The best advice I can give you is not to dwell on those days, it is completely normal and usually after a good night's sleep and a comfy bed, you will feel much better.
49. Don’t compare your journey to others
Everyone’s travel experience is different and your trip will be unique to you. Don’t get caught up in comparing your journey to everyone else’s, just enjoy and embrace your own travel experience.
50. Have fun!
Travel is one of the best things you can do (in my totally biased opinion!). Whether you’re travelling in Southeast Asia for a few weeks or a few months, relax, go with the flow and HAVE FUN!
Looking out across Doi Inthanon National Park, near Chiang Mai, Thailand