Southeast Asia has long been a backpacker paradise. The cost of travel is extremely low across the region (with only Malaysia and Singapore being somewhat more expensive), travel logistics are easy, and the region is usually blessed with wonderful tropical weather.
The backpacker trail through Southeast Asia is rather well worn, having essentially been pioneered by hippies back in the 1970s. Today it’s far from an undiscovered region, and it attracts possibly the greatest numbers of backpackers anywhere in the world. While you will definitely not be the only person backpacking here, you’ll also be hard-pressed to find anyone who didn’t like travelling there.
Many start in Thailand: in fact, this seems to be many a backpacker’s first (non Western) country to travel. The backpacker trail then leads into Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia, circling back to Thailand, though some go even further by travelling to Malaysia,Myanmar, the Philippines or Indonesia.
I travelled the region for 9 months and visited every country that is part of Southeast Asia (well, except East Timor, but I hope to come back for it). Check out the following introduction posts, or scroll down for my quick take on each country.
Many get their first Southeast Asia backpacking experience here, and with good reason. Thailand can still be very cheap (northern Thailand especially), the food is phenomenal, travel logistics are easy and there are heaps of interesting attractions. That said, be sure to avoid the overly commercialized and overcrowded places in the south if you are looking for a more authentic experience. For some pointers, see my full Thailand guide.
One of the best things about Vietnam is simply witnessing the fascinating city life in Hanoi and Saigon. Ha Long Bay, while overly busy, is still one of the great sights in South-East Asia. However, know that the country has mostly very average beaches, and there is a bit of a cookie-cutter tour and rip-off culture that could leave a sour taste. Watch out for scams and dishonest taxi drivers that can ruin your mood—this is much more a problem in Vietnam than anywhere else.
Somewhat more adventurous and off-the-grid as Laos remains one of the poorest countries in the world. It’s not necessarily a country you go to for seeing a ton of attractions: much of the appeal is simply being in a remote and thinly populated part of the world. The highlight for me was the old city of Luang Prabang with its Buddhist calm and stunning azure-colored waterfalls nearby. The capital of Vientiane relatively characterless and not so worthwhile, so focus on other places. Keep in mind that Laos has very poor infrastructure, so you may have to take your time.
The temples of Angkor Wat – one of the largest ancient temple complexes in the world – is definitely the prime attraction here. Take your time at Angkor Wat and keep in mind there are lots of outer-lying temples that many people don’t go to but which have an awesome overgrown ‘Indiana Jones’ kind of feel. Cambodia can be a beach destination as well, with the island of Koh Rong being particularly worthy of the words “island paradise”. Cambodia has a dark history with genocide: the museums on this are harrowing but essential to understanding this country.
MYANMAR ( BURMA)
Go there now before it changes, as it’s only recently opened its borders to the world. You’ll still find authentic culture and a complete lack of cynicism towards tourists. Go to the temples of Bagan at sunset (a cluster of thousands of temples) for a pinch-me experience. Burmese cuisine is hugely underrated and a foodie is going to have a blast here. Take a train at least once: the creaking old carriages are something to experience.
Most tourists simply go to Bali and Lombok, but there is much, much more to Indonesia— its archipelago is wider than the United States. The country is an excellent for those who like to dive and snorkel. If you like to relax and party, you might never leave the Gili Islands. The temples of Borobodur a potential alternative to Angkor Wat in Cambodia.