If you’ve made it to this page you are currently contemplating the trip of a lifetime. One that will transform the way you look at the world forever! In our humble opinion, Southeast Asia is THE best place for a backpacking adventure and this website is full of all the travel tips and advice you could possibly need to make this trip successful, budget-friendly and unforgettable!
So where do you start?
Planning a trip to Southeast Asia can seem like a colossal task! With so many things to think about, where on Earth do you begin? With this easy-to-follow step-by-step guide, you’ll feel confident knowing that you haven’t forgotten anything important! The guide covers 15 essential topics in the order that you should think about them…
- Malaria Tablets
- Budget & Money
- International Driving Permits
- Travel Insurance
- Proof of Onward Travel
- Choosing Your Backpack
- Packing List
- Plan Your Itinerary
- SIM Cards
- Local Transport
- Trips & Tours
Plan Your Southeast Asia Backpacking Trip: 15 Steps!
Before you start ? Join our Facebook Community! With over 20,000 active travellers in Southeast Asia, this is the best place to ask for advice, share itinerary ideas and make travel buddies! With over 10 years of travel experience in Southeast Asia, I will be on hand to answer your questions when and where I can. Feel free to @ me (Nikki Scott) if you have a specific question about your trip! Okay, let’s begin…
– HEALTH STUFF –
💉 STEP 1. Find out what vaccines you need
You may need to organise getting certain vaccines months in advance which is why this item is first on our trip planning checklist! For Southeast Asia, there are some essential and recommended vaccines you should look into. In recent years, there is also the COVID-19 vaccine, which is a mandatory requirement for travel to certain Southeast Asian countries. ? See our guide to COVID-19 entry requirements for Southeast Asia here.
“What vaccines do I need?” is an FAQ in our Facebook Group that is prone to be hijacked by the anti-vax brigade! Our advice? Medical questions are best answered by doctors rather than folks on Facebook. Read our vaccine guide and see a medical professional who will determine exactly what you need depending on where you are going.
READ MORE: Guide to Vaccines for Southeast Asia.
🦟 STEP 2. Do you need anti-malarial tablets?
This is another medical question that can only really be answered by experts who will determine whether or not you need them based on exactly where you are going and the nature of your trip.
In our article below, you’ll find a map of malaria risk areas across Southeast Asia which will give you an idea of whether you need to look into this topic further. In general, those travelling to the major tourist hotspots of each country need not worry.
Malaria risk mainly comes into play along certain borders, in Myanmar, East Cambodia and East Indonesia. (Of course, it’s wise to always take mosquito spray and cover up with long-sleeved tops and pants to protect against mosquito-borne illnesses whilst travelling.)
– PRACTICAL STUFF –
🛂 STEP 3. Check what visas you will need
People get very stressed about visas for Southeast Asia, but they are really quite simple. Unless you are staying in a country longer than 30 days and need some kind of special visa for work or volunteering, there are only two visas that you need to apply for in advance: Vietnam (if you plan to stay more than 15 days) and Myanmar (if you plan to stay more than 7 days). For the rest, you will receive an entry pass at the border/airport. (Note: The same rules do not apply to all nationalities.)
READ MORE: Visa Guide to Southeast Asia.
Important: Since the COVID-19 pandemic started, countries in Southeast Asia have been changing their entry requirements regularly. Make sure you’re up to date on what paperwork is needed and what tests are required in our guide to travel restrictions in Southeast Asia (updated every week).
💵 STEP 4. Plan your budget and get a travel card
How much money you spend on your backpacking trip to Southeast Asia depends on what kind of traveller you are. Are you willing to stay in basic dorm rooms and eat street food? Or do you prefer private rooms and Western-style restaurants? Do you want to do lots of activities such as diving, trekking and yoga retreats? We break down the cost of travel to Southeast Asia in our guide here whether you’re a shoestring nomad or a flashpacker.
Getting a decent bank card before you travel is one of the best ways to make sure you’re not wasting your budget on unnecessary bank charges. Digital banks such as Monzo, Revolut and Wise (formerly TransferWise) are leading the way when it comes to offering travellers a travel-friendly bank account that doesn’t charge extra fees to withdraw money from the ATM. One of the best (only if you’re from the UK) is Starling Bank, which offers a great travel card that offers unlimited monthly withdrawals without charging a fee.
- The Best Mobile Banks & Travel Cards.
- The cost of backpacking Southeast Asia.
- 28 Tips to Save Money on the Road in Southeast Asia.
🚗 STEP 5. Apply for an International Driving Permit
If you’re thinking of hiring a motorbike or a car whilst in Southeast Asia you will need to apply for an International Driving License in advance of travel. If you plan to ride a motorbike yourself, you may also consider taking a motorbike test which will certify you to drive motorbikes over 125cc whilst abroad.
If you are not properly licensed when riding a motorbike in Asia and you have an accident your travel insurance will not be valid. As motorbike accidents are common amongst backpackers, it’s wise to be prepared!
If you forgot to arrange your International Drivers Permit, you're probably not driving or riding legally abroad.
Riding or driving without your IDP means you could be fined for riding illegally. Worse still, it means your travel insurance is unlikely to cover any claims you make relating to riding or driving!
What can I do?
Rather than ride or drive illegally, check out the International Drivers Association which can hook you up with an IDP even if you're already abroad!
Don't say we never help you out! 😉
⛑ STEP 6. Keep calm and get travel insurance
While it can feel like an unnecessary expense, travel insurance is an essential purchase for any backpacker preparing for a trip. Accidents and illnesses can and do happen whilst abroad and travel insurance really can save your life (and/or your parents’ life savings!). After a lot of research and reports from fellow backpackers we now recommend three travel insurances that we believe are the most suited to backpackers to Southeast Asia.
READ MORE: The Best Travel Insurance for Backpackers.
– LET’S GET BOOKING –
🛫 STEP 7. Book your flight!
The major transport hubs of Southeast Asia are Thailand’s capital, Bangkok and Malaysia’s capital, Kuala Lumpur (also the home of the budget airline, AirAsia). Usually, if you are flying from Europe, the USA or Australia, it makes sense money-wise to book a flight to one of these hubs to begin your Southeast Asian backpacking adventure. We always use the website Skyscanner to compare the prices of flights.
READ MORE: Find Cheap Flights to Southeast Asia.
🛬 STEP 8. Do you need proof of onward travel?
Perhaps THE most FAQ in our Facebook Community – will you need proof of onward travel when boarding a plane to Southeast Asia? In short, the answer is yes. Legally, the airline staff have the power to refuse to allow you on the aeroplane if you fail to show them a valid airline ticket out of the country to which you are flying.
The ticket must be within the date that your visa expires. (So for example, if you are flying to Thailand you should have a flight booked to a neighbouring country within 30 days of entering Thailand.) The onward travel rule is a pain in the @($* for backpackers who want to be spontaneous. But don’t worry, there are ways around it.
READ MORE: Do You Need Proof of Onward Travel?
🏨 STEP 9. Book a few nights’ accommodation
When travellers ask us if it is necessary to book accommodation in advance in Southeast Asia, we usually tell them there is no need. (Please note that this is not the case if you happen to be travelling during a festival period such as Christmas, New Year, Chinese New Year or during a local festival.) In most places, hostels can be booked just a week or a few days in advance on sites like Booking.com.
The beauty of backpacking is being flexible and staying longer if you love a certain place, or moving on if a certain place doesn’t click with you! In our humble opinion, booking everything in advance can ruin this feeling of spontaneity.
However, it is a great idea to book accommodation for the first few nights of your travels so that you have time to get over your jet lag and settle into a new country. There are many amazing (and cheap!) hostels in Southeast Asia where you can feel comfortable and meet travel buddies for your onward journey! If you’re landing in Bangkok, check out this list of the best hostels in Bangkok.
READ MORE: The Best Hostels in Southeast Asia.
– LET’S GET PACKING –
🎒 STEP 10. Choose your backpack, your best pal
Your trusted backpack will be by your side for your entire adventure, so it’s important to choose wisely! We recommend that you take two backpacks with you, a larger one (40-Litre) which will be your main pack and a smaller daypack (25-Litre) which will contain the valuables that you’ll need to keep by your side at all times. There are some excellent quality backpack brands (such as Osprey and Tortuga) that make bags that are guaranteed to last your entire backpacking lifetime!
As you lug your backpack around from one city to another and haul it on and off buses, trains and planes – you’ll appreciate the need for your backpack to be strong, durable and long-lasting. So what size backpack will you take? Which brand is best? We will help to answer all of your questions with the help of 20,000 members of our Facebook community!
🩴 STEP 11. Decide what to pack
Our ultimate packing list for Southeast Asia was put together with the help of thousands of backpackers. It’s a great place to start when you’re deciding what items are a must-have and which items you can afford to leave at home.
What you pack will also depend on what season you decide to visit Southeast Asia. Does your trip fall during the rainy season? Then a rain jacket and a waterproof backpack may be a good idea! There are some items, such as a universal travel adaptor and a travel first aid kit that should be on every traveller’s checklist. Other items, such as a ukelele, depend on the traveller!
Either way, our backpacking community say that packing cubes are a great way to keep all of your stuff organised while on the road! For more advice on the best gear to take backpacking, from travel shoes to filtered water bottles, check out our collection of gear guides!
READ MORE: Travel Gear Guides for Backpacking.
– ALMOST THERE –
🗺 STEP 12. Plan Your Itinerary (loosely)
While we are big advocates of spontaneous travel and “going where the wind takes you”, it can be wise to have a general itinerary in mind which takes into account seasons and climate differences. (For example, you’ll want to avoid travel to the North of Thailand during the smoky season!) We have lots of shorter itineraries to give you inspiration, from an itinerary for a two-week holiday to Thailand to a one-month backpacking trip Vietnam. You can see all our itineraries for Southeast Asia here.
Of course, it’s a great idea to share your itinerary in our Facebook group to get feedback from well-heeled travellers. Our number one tip? Travel slow! Don’t plan to cram too many countries into a short timeframe! If you’re planning to travel the whole of Southeast Asia (3-6 months ideally), our classic Southeast Asia backpacking itinerary is a must-read! For more detailed information on each country, check out our individual travel guides.
READ MORE: The Banana Pancake Trail.
– ON THE ROAD –
🤳 13. Get a SIM card in each country
The best way to stay connected whilst you travel is to pick up a SIM card in each individual country that you travel to in Southeast Asia. In general, they can be picked up at local supermarkets and phone shops and only cost around $10-$15 US for 30 days’ worth of service.
Having a SIM card in your phone means that you can access 4G wherever you travel which comes in handy when booking hotels, using Google maps and other useful backpacker apps. Check out our individual guides for more information on the best SIM cards to get in each country.
Alternatively, you can look at getting an eSIM for travel. These cost more but save the hassle of needing to find a new SIM card each time you cross a border!
READ MORE: Phones and SIM Cards for Southeast Asia.
🚎 14. Book local transport on the go
Buses, trains and ferries can be booked easily in travel agencies and backpacker hostels along the Southeast Asian trail. There is little need to book in advance as long as your schedule is fairly flexible, give or take a day or two. If you like to book in advance online, 12go.Asia is a convenient website for booking all manner of local transport across the region.
READ MORE: Booking Local Transport in Southeast Asia.
⛵️ 15. Book tried and tested trips and tours
And finally, a small plug for our amazing booking platform! If you’re looking for a great way to meet like-minded travel buddies whilst supporting small local businesses, be sure to check out our listings of the best trips and tours in Southeast Asia!
Many of these epic adventures have been tried and tested by a member of our backpacking community so that we feel confident when we recommend them to our readers. From diving trips to treks and cycling tours, our aim is to guide backpackers in the right direction, giving them a fun, safe and unforgettable experience!