If you’re a new traveller in Southeast Asia, you’ll be interested in hitting up the highlights of each country as well as meeting plenty of travel buddies along the way! Am I right?
The most popular Southeast Asia backpacking route is the most popular route for a reason. It takes in the must-see highlights in the most logical way, avoiding back-tracking and overspending on travel costs. Of course, there’s plenty of opportunities to get off the beaten track along the way too. What’s more, the route is so popular that for solo travellers, you can rest assured that you’ll never be lonely!
In this article, we’ll tell you exactly what the route is, but first, we answer the most burning backpacker question… Where on earth do I begin?
Where Do You Start Backpacking in Southeast Asia?
Most new travellers to begin their adventure in Thailand. Why? It’s home to the most well-trodden backpacker trail in Southeast Asia, it’s cheap, safe, the people are friendly, the food is great and most of all, it’s the easiest place to meet travel buddies for your onward adventure!
Most Popular Starting Point:
Bangkok is the natural hub for travellers to Southeast Asia. Flights from Europe and the US to here are fairly cheap and the city is safe, friendly and one of the easier (we didn’t say easy!) Asian cities to digest. Plus, there are loads of great sociable hostels where you can meet fellow travellers.
Read more about the best places to stay in Bangkok: Hostels Bangkok.
Second Most Popular Starting Point:
An alternative is Kuala Lumpur, the home of Air Asia, which also has cheap flights, very good hostels and amazing street food. One disadvantage is that the city is more expensive than Bangkok (and the beer is more expensive too!).
Backpack Southeast Asia Route: The Most Popular Itinerary
So here it is, the most popular backpack Southeast Asia route! I’ve heard it nicknamed ‘The Golden Circle’ ‘The Banana Pancake Trail’ or ‘The Backpacker Circuit’. A trail that was originally carved out by the hippies of the 60s and 70s, inspired the birth of the Lonely Planet, and one that backpackers from all over the world continue to mark out today!
- START: Bangkok
- FINISH: Kuala Lumpur
- Transport: You can complete this route entirely overland using local transport (buses, trains and occasional boats). No flights are needed.
- Visas: Some visas will need to be arranged in advance. See our visa guide here.
- Duration: This route is usually completed in 3-6 months.
- Average budget per month: $500-$800 USD.
- Best time to go: The most popular time to backpack Southeast Asia is from September to March which misses out the rainy season in most areas. (Rainy season hits most of SE Asia June to August.) However, there are several microclimates so make sure you check each destination before you travel.
- Travel Insurance: Read our guide to choosing the best travel insurance here.
- Best Hostels in SE Asia? Find the best hostels in Southeast Asia here.
COUNTRY 1: THAILAND (Central and Northern)
- Average visit: 3-4 Weeks
- See here for in-depth travel guides to Thailand.
- See here for more detailed Thailand Itineraries.
Start in Bangkok (for the reasons above) and spend a few days getting over your jet lag and exploring the city. Many first time travellers choose to stay in Khao San Road, which is one the most notorious backpacker districts in the whole of Southeast Asia. While you should definitely take a walk there for a drink and a cheap massage, there are other neighbourhoods in Bangkok to explore!
12-hour train journey or 9-hour bus journey north from Bangkok
Head north to Chiang Mai, the gateway to Northern Thailand, famous for its weekend markets, cultural activities such as Thai Massage, Muay Thai, Yoga and Meditation. If we had one tip for Chiang Mai, it would be to hire a motorbike and get out of the city to explore! Check out these alternative (and free!) things to do in Chiang Mai here.
- Also, check out our list of the Best Hostels in Chiang Mai!
- Tip – It’s best to avoid Chiang Mai during the months of March/April when the ‘burning season’ occurs.
- An optional stop on the way from Bangkok to Chiang Mai
- 5-6 hours north from Bangkok, 4-5 hour south of Chiang Mai
UNESCO World Heritage site, Sukhothai is the old capital of Thailand and is conveniently placed smack bang in the middle of Bangkok and Chiang Mai making it an excellent stopover to break up your journey. It’s a great place to soak up some ancient Thai culture and visit some beautiful temples.
3-hour mini-bus ride west from Chiang Mai
From Chiang Mai, head three hours west to the mountainous hippie town of Pai in Mae Hong Son province. From hot springs to waterfalls, canyons, great street food and live music, there are many reasons why backpackers call this one of their favourite hangouts in Thailand. (Worth the puke-inducing journey to get there!)
Mae Hong Son Loop: 3-5 days (Optional)
If you’re looking for an adventure, consider renting a motorbike to do the Mae Hong Son Loop, a 3-5 day journey that takes in some of the best scenery that Northern Thailand has to offer!
4 hours north of Chiang Mai
After making your way back to Chiang Mai, head further north to the smaller city of Chiang Rai. Here don’t miss a visit to the White Temple and the Black House, and if you have time check out the trekking opportunities close by.
2 hours northeast from Chiang Rai
Take a short bus journey to the Mekong Riverside town of Chiang Khong on the border of Thailand and Laos. Here, you will be leaving Thailand for a while to start your Laotian adventure!
COUNTRY 2: LAOS
- Average visit: 3-4 Weeks
- See here for in-depth travel guides to Laos.
- See here for a more detailed Laos Itinerary.
GETTING TO LAOS: The Two Day Slow Boat from Thailand to Laos
The slow boat from Thailand to Laos is an epic backpacker journey that takes two days along the mighty Mekong stopping one night in the small riverside village of Pak Beng. After you’ve sorted out your visa at the border town of Huay Xai, you’ll board a colourful wooden boat to Luang Prabang, Laos. You’ll experience some amazing scenery (especially on the last day as you are coming into the city of Luang Prabang) and no doubt make travel buddies along the way!
Your first stop in Laos is Luang Prabang, a rather touristy yet undeniably beautiful old town full of old temples, markets and French-style cafés. Get your fill of bread and cakes here! A must-do in Laos is to hire a bicycle and visit the Kuang Si Falls just outside of town.
3 hours north of Luang Prabang by bus, or 6 hours by boat
If you’re looking to see the most spectacular scenery in Laos, then this is the place to do it! Located on the Nam Ou River and nestled by dramatic limestone cliffs on both sides Nong Khiaw is an adventure lover’s paradise! Trekking, rock climbing and kayaking adventures await. Reach here by boat from Luang Prabang for a truly special experience.
1 hour by boat from Nong Khiaw
Take a one-hour boat trip for the day or stay overnight in this beautiful village for a slice of the laid-back life that Laos is so famous for.
Head back to Luang Prabang and continue to Vang Vieng
3-4 hours south of Luang Prabang
Vang Vieng used to be infamous on the backpacker trail for the dangerous party activity, tubing. It’s since reinvented itself as an eco-travel destination and there are lots of outdoor activities on offer from rock climbing to mountain biking and there are loads of amazing caves, lagoons and hiking trails to explore.
3-4 hours south of Vang Vieng
Laos’ sleepy capital, Vientiane, is nothing like the other Southeast Asian cities you’ll have experienced. It would be difficult to get run over here if you tried! Relax a while drinking beer by the Mekong, visit a few temples as well as the weird Buddha Park and prepare yourself for your transition to the next country on the list – a place where you definitely can get run over! VIETNAM!
Leaving so soon? Is Southern Laos worth seeing?
Southern Laos has a few delights for the intrepid traveller, such as the very popular backpacker hotspot of Four Thousand Islands. However, many travellers who are planning to travel through Vietnam choose to skip Southern Laos and head straight from Vientiane to Vietnam’s capital of Hanoi to begin their Vietnamese adventure. If you want to explore Southern Laos, it is possible to cross the border from Cambodia later on…
COUNTRY 3: VIETNAM
- Average Visit: 4 Weeks
- See here for in-depth travel guides to Vietnam.
- See here for a more detailed Vietnam Itinerary.
GETTING TO VIETNAM: The epic 27-hour bus journey from Laos to Vietnam
Many backpackers enter Vietnam via the lengthy 27-hour+ bus journey from either Vientiane or Luang Prabang in Laos. It’s an arduous journey that has many horror stories attached to it, but it will certainly give you a story to tell! Read one backpacker’s account of the journey here. (It is also possible to take a one hour flight.) Read more on Vietnam visas here.
Hanoi is like nowhere you’ve ever been before. Millions of motorbikes whizz past you, food sizzles on the street as you walk by locals drinking Bia Hoi at all times of the day and old people do strange exercises in the park. Hanoi is an exhilarating experience and the beer is the cheapest in Southeast Asia!
8 hours north by train
An overnight train ride from Hanoi towards the Chinese border lies the misty mountain hill-town of Sapa. This is home to the highest mountain in Vietnam (Mount Fansipan) and is the most popular place in Vietnam to go hiking and discover more about Vietnam’s colourful ethnic minorities.
Back to Hanoi
3 hours east of Hanoi
The UNESCO World Heritage site of Halong Bay is a must-see destination in Vietnam and millions of backpackers each year take a cruise to experience the floating villages, caves and beaches of the area. One of the most popular hard-core party trips is the cruise with Vietnam Backpackers Hostels to Castaways Island. However, if you’re looking for an alternative experience, consider this DIY trip from Cat Ba Island.
Optional Adventure: The Ha Giang Loop – 3 Days
The Ha Giang Loop is quickly gaining a reputation amongst backpackers as the most epic adventure in Vietnam as it showcases some of the most spectacular scenery that the country has to offer! Hire a motorbike from Hanoi or get yourself hooked up with an Easy Rider and set off on this spectacular three-day journey taking in some incredible mountainous landscapes!
Back to Hanoi – You’ll see that we’ve done this quite a lot, but now it’s time to leave the north of Vietnam behind and head south!
Phong Nha National Park:
9 hours south of Hanoi
An absolute must stop on the backpacker trail, Phong Nha National Park is home to the world’s biggest cave, Han Son Doong! Although it costs an arm and a leg to visit and there’s a huge waiting list, there are loads of other epic caves in the area to explore, as well as trekking, rafting and biking opportunities.
Ninh Binh (Optional Stopover)
2 hours south of Hanoi
Optional Stop on the way to Phong Nha: If you want to break up the 9-hour journey from Hanoi to Phong Nha, consider stopping at Ninh Binh, famously nicknamed ‘Halong Bay on Land’ it’s only two hours from Hanoi.
4 hours south from Phong Nha
The ancient city of Hue is worth a visit for a day or two as you explore Hue’s Citadel and other important buildings. From here, you can take the journey over the famous ‘Hai Van Pass’ to reach the town of Hoi An.
3 hours south of Hue
The UNESCO World Heritage city of Hoi An is a must stop on any tour of Vietnam. Take a boat trip, a cooking class or hire a bicycle to explore the lovely villages around the city. And, there’s a beach! Head to An Bang Beach for some much-needed beach time and try some of the great restaurants there while you’re at it!
12 hours south-west from Hoi An
The high altitude town of Dalat is known as the ‘Alps of Vietnam’ and it’s famous for its wine, cheese, yoghurt, café culture and its outdoor activities. Try canyoning, mountain biking, trekking and other adventure activities in the local area and then indulge in some comforting dairy products!
3 hours east by bus from Dalat or one-day downhill mountain bike ride!
Instead of taking the bus, why not try a unique way to get to the coastal town of Nha Trang from Dalat. Hop on a mountain bike and freewheel all the way! Nha Trang is a coastal resort town famous for diving, booze cruises and nightlife. Chill out here, meet fellow backpackers and indulge in the tacky backpacker party scene for a few days!
4 hours south by bus
Mui Ne is famous for kitesurfing, sand dunes and fishing in that order. The beach is pleasant and it’s a chilled out place to stay for a few days before making your way to the big smoke…
Ho Chi Minh City:
4 hours west of Mui Ne
Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam’s biggest and craziest city can be overwhelming for backpackers. As the last stop on your tour of Vietnam, you should definitely pay a visit to the Vietnam-American War Museum and the Cu Chi Tunnels to get a better understanding of the recent history of the country.
COUNTRY 4: CAMBODIA
- Average Visit: 2-3 Weeks
- See here for in-depth travel guides to Cambodia.
- See here for a more detailed Cambodia Itinerary.
GETTING TO CAMBODIA: Flight or bus to Phnom Penh
You can either take a one-hour flight or a 6-7 hour bus ride across the Vietnam-Cambodia border.
The capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, has seen its fair share of tragedy in recent years. A visit to the Killing Fields and S21 Genocide Museum will demonstrate this.
3 hours south of Phnom Penh
Kep is an old colonial beach resort and sleepy fishing village on the Cambodian coast that’s famous for its seafood (most notably crab) and its decaying French mansions. Visit the pepper plantations and explore the flat countryside by motorbike or bicycle.
30 minutes to 1 hour from Kep
Kampot is a favourite amongst long-term travellers who fall in love with this sleepy countryside town and end up staying longer than expected. A visit to Bokor National Park and the Bat Cave are absolute musts, as is a cycle tour with the student guides at Butterfly Tours.
3-4 hours from Kampot
While the once-popular backpacker beach town of Sihanoukville has since turned to rack and ruin, the tropical island paradise of Koh Rong remains intact (for now). It’s a must-visit for backpackers who want to witness an unspoilt side of Cambodia’s coastline with beautiful white sandy beaches and amazing phosphorescent plankton that glows underneath your feet as you walk on the water’s edge. It has to be seen to be believed. Go now before they build casinos there!
12 hours by bus
It’s an overnight bus journey to Cambodia’s most popular tourist destination of Siem Reap. Home to the world-famous Temples of Angkor and the largest religious building in the world, millions of tourists flock here annually to wander the immense ruins of this ancient lost civilisation. You should spend at least three days exploring Angkor Wat, as well as some time to soak up what the rest of Siem Reap has to offer, such as the Tonle Sap floating villages, the night market and of course, Pub Street!
COUNTRY 5: BACK TO THAILAND! (The South)
- Average Visit: 3-4 weeks
- See here for in-depth Thailand travel guides.
- See here for detailed Thailand Itineraries.
GETTING BACK TO THAILAND: Crossing the Border
It’s just a 6-hour bus journey from Siem Reap back across the Thai border to the capital Bangkok. Get a sticker on your chest and let’s go! (You’ll see…)
You’re back in the hubbub of Bangkok! Do some shopping, enjoy some Thai food, a Thai massage, buy a new bikini and get ready for some beach time in Southern Thailand!
Bangkok to Surat Thani: Take an overnight train or bus to Surat Thani, the gateway to the Thai Gulf Islands. (9 hours by train. 13 hours by bus.)
3 hours (by boat and bus) from Surat Thani
Many backpackers make a bee-line for the island of Koh Phangan, world famous for the Full Moon Party. However, Koh Phangan is also well-known for its spiritual new-age scene with yoga classes, meditation courses, tantric workshops, energy healing ceremonies, rebirthing, Reiki, NLP, hypnotherapy, astral-projection and every type of healing therapy you could ever imagine! If you’re not into either of the above, the island has some amazing beaches and snorkelling too.
1-hour boat from Koh Phangan
Koh Tao is famous on the Southeast Asia Backpacker scene for diving and it’s the most popular place in Thailand for backpackers to get their PADI or SSI diving licence. A 3-day PADI Open Water Course costs around $300 USD and you’ll then be equipped to dive up to 18 metres anywhere in the world. Keep an eye open for whale sharks!
If you’re not into diving, the snorkelling around Koh Tao is great too (and much cheaper)! A morning or afternoon snorkeling tour with Oxygen Koh Tao is just $29USD per person (plus 100THB island landing fee on arrival).
Khao Sok National Park:
7 hours bus and mini-van from Koh Tao
Located on the strip of the mainland that separates the east and west coast, Khao Sok National Park is home to some jurassic scenery and epic natural wonders, including the world’s biggest flower, the Rafflesia. Go trekking in the jungle, visit caves, stay overnight on a floating hut on the lake and try to spot wild elephants!
2 hours from Khao Sok
Krabi is a beautiful region of Thailand that is home to the quintessential Thai scenery that is printed on postcards. (Longtail boat with colourful garlands, limestone mountains, translucent turquoise waters – got it?). So is it really like this? You bet it is!
Railay and Ton Sai:
30 minutes from Krabi by longtail boat
Famous for world-class rock climbing, this peninsular offers some spectacular scenery, Railay and Ton Sai Beaches are an absolute must visit for backpackers. Don’t miss the opportunity to take a day’s rock climbing course, go deep-water soloing, visit the hidden lagoon, go snorkelling at night to see phosphorescent plankton and visit the penis cave! And, when you’ve done all that just chill in the reggae bars in the evening…
1 hour from Railay
Koh Lanta is an underrated Thai island that has some of the best beaches in Thailand! Hire a motorbike to explore all of the islands beaches, caves and national park and head to Mong Bar for a great backpacker party! Also a great place for snorkelling and diving. (Don’t miss Koh Haa!)
Find your own castaway island paradise!
From Koh Lanta, it’s possible to hire a long-tail boat to visit one of the lesser-known islands in the Andaman Sea such as Koh Ngai or Koh Pu. (There are many others!) You’ll find a very different scene here away from the tourist beach life and can relax on your own private island paradise for a few nights! Read more here.
3 hours by boat
Your last stop on the tour of Southern Thailand is Koh Lipe, a beautiful tropical island that has become rather popular of late. However, while it may not be the deserted paradise of old, if you’re looking for white sandy beaches, clear blue seas, as well as snorkelling and diving, Koh Lipe has it all!
COUNTRY 6: PENINSULAR MALAYSIA
- Average Visit: 2-3 weeks
- See here for in-depth Malaysia travel guides.
GETTING TO MALAYSIA: Boat from Koh Lipe to Langkawi
The boat from Koh Lipe, Thailand to Langkawi, Malaysia takes an easy breezy hour 30 minutes.
Most backpackers don’t stay here very long as it’s more of a holiday island. However, if you choose to linger a while there are plenty of nice beaches and plenty of cheap booze (the island is duty-free).
A 2-hour ferry ride from Langkawi
Famous as the food capital of Malaysia, Penang is a fascinating cultural melting pot. Soak up the atmospheric capital of Georgetown, visit Penang National Park and eat as much of the delicious and cheap local cuisine as you possibly can!
Perhentian Islands (Depending on the weather):
8-hour bus from Georgetown to Kuala Besut Jetty
The Perhentian Islands are the most popular backpacker beach hangout in Malaysia, in particular, the smaller island Perhentian Kecil. Get ready for amazing snorkelling, diving, relaxing and beach parties!
(Monsoon season in the Perhentian Islands is opposite to most of the rest of Southeast Asia hitting the islands November – February. The best time to go is March – November.)
3-hour bus from Perhentian Islands
Taman Negara (literally meaning ‘National Park’ in Malay) is a dense rainforest at the heart of Peninsular Malaysia many backpackers head to for awesome jungle trekking and wildlife spotting.
4-hour bus from Taman Negara
The Cameron Highlands in central Peninsular Malaysia is a beautiful and unique destination in Malaysia famous for its misty tea plantations and old colonial British estates, complete with strawberry farms, golf courses and black and white Edwardian Houses! Go trekking here amidst cooler climates and enjoy a nice cup of soothing tea!
Malaysia’s young capital, Kuala Lumpur (KL) is a multi-cultural feast for the senses! Have an Indian thali for breakfast, Chinese wonton for lunch and a Middle-Eastern shwarma for dinner! See the famous Petronas Towers, Batu Caves and visit a roller coaster inside a shopping mall!
Pulau Tioman (Tropical Side-step from KL):
If you’re craving a tropical island vibe, why not spend a few days on the idyllic paradise of Pulau Tioman. Famous for its amazing beaches, unbelievable snorkelling and romantic castaway atmosphere. Once voted one of the world’s most beautiful islands!
Back to Kuala Lumpur
FLYING ONWARD: As the home of Air Asia, flights from Kuala Lumpur are some of the cheapest in Southeast Asia. Book a cheap flight and continue your adventure!
What’s Next on Your Southeast Asia Itinerary?
This city island is only a few hours from Kuala Lumpur, but be warned it will eat into your backpacker budget like a mosquito gnawing at your ankles! Read our Singapore Travel Guide here and check out our 3-day Singapore Itinerary here for some tips on how to make the most of the city on a budget.
From KL you can catch a cheap flight to Kuching, the charming capital of Sarawak. Visit tribal long-houses, encounter orang-utans, go diving, trek into enormous caves, climb Mount Kinabalu and more in Borneo! Read more about Borneo here.
After completing the above Southeast Asia route backpackers may choose to continue their backpacking adventure in Indonesia after arriving in Kuala Lumpur. Head to Melaka and then catch a ferry to Dumai in Sumatra to start your Sumatra itinerary. In Sumatra, you can head to Bukit Lawang for jungle trekking and orangutan spotting and don’t miss the beautiful Lake Toba or the gorgeous Pulau Weh if you’re into diving.
If you want to head straight to Java, catch a cheap flight and begin your journey in the nation’s capital, Jakarta. Volcanoes, deserted beaches, jungle trekking, the call of prayer, Komodo dragon-spotting and world-class diving await… Read more about Indonesia here.
If you’re intrigued by this ancient kingdom that was closed off to the outside world for so long logical place to slot in a visit to Myanmar would be right at the beginning of your trip, from Northern Thailand. Cross the border into Myanmar at Mae Sot and make the lovely town of Hpa An your first stop in Myanmar. Or simply catch a flight from any of the major Southeast Asiab hubs to Yangon, the capital of Myanmar. Read more about Myanmar here.
It takes a flight to get here folks, which is perhaps what puts many backpackers off visiting here, that and their crazy President maybe! However, those travellers who make the effort have nothing but awesome things to say about this magical country of 7,107 islands. Read more about the Philippines here and find out how to plan the perfect Philippines Itinerary here.
5 Tips on Planning Your Own Southeast Asia Travel Route!
I’m sure you’ll realise that the above route is only a guideline and there are many factors that make your Southeast Asian adventure unique. Here are 5 things to consider when planning your trip:
1. TIME: How Long Will You Travel the Southeast Asia Route?
Again and again, I see newbie backpackers posting a suggested itinerary in our Facebook Community that is beyond ambitious. The main mistake that new travellers make is to cram too many places into too small a time frame. This not only wreaks havoc on your budget, but you just won’t see the best of each country! Trust us – the true joy comes with slow travel. Allow extra time to linger in each place and flexibility for your plans to change, or better still, don’t plan much at all!
2. BUDGET: How Much Money Do You Have?
While most of Southeast Asia is accessible on a budget, if you’re travelling on a shoestring, you’ll want to avoid certain places (e.g. Singapore, Hong Kong, Koh Phi Phi) and linger a while in places where beds, food and beer are cheap. Read our guide to the cheapest places in Southeast Asia here!
3. SEASON: What Time Of Year Will You Travel Southeast Asia?
In general, most of Southeast Asia has a monsoon season from July to September. High season is October to February and the hot season is March to June. However, it’s wise to check up each destination before you visit as there are many different microclimates across the region and some destinations have a monsoon season that’s completely different from the rest of the country, (the east coast of Malaysia, or the central coast of Vietnam, for example.)
4. TRANSPORT: Local Transport Vs Flights
Do you want to travel only overland visa buses, trains and tuk-tuks? Or, would you be happy to get the odd flight here and there? There are many benefits of taking local transport over flights: you’ll have a more local experience, you get to look out of the window, you save money etc. However, flights in Southeast Asia are cheap, safe and quick and great for those of you who are short on time. Some great local budget airlines include AirAsia, Nok Air, Vietnam Airlines, Jetstar Airways, 12GO Asia and Bangkok Airways. Compare prices on Skyscanner.
5. ON OR OFF THE BEATEN TRACK: You Can Have Both!
The beauty of the ‘most popular’ travelling Southeast Asia route is that there’s plenty of opportunities to sidestep and get off the beaten track. You’ll find it ridiculously easy to get away from the tourists and into places where locals are surprised to see you. Often it’s just a few timid footsteps away from the main path. Do it!