This article first appeared on Indie traveler in 2018 by Marek
If you plan to travel in Southeast Asia, then you’ve made a good choice!
Backpacking Southeast Asia is easily one of the best things you can do. The region offers more adventure than you can shake a stick at, and for the most part, it’s incredibly inexpensive.
“But how much time do you need to see Southeast Asia?”, you might wonder. Honestly, as much time as you possibly have.
My first-ever backpacking trip to Southeast Asia lasted a whopping nine months. You can spend all that time (or more!), never get bored, and still barely scratch the surface. But rest assured, it’s also entirely possible to have a fantastic experience lasting a couple of weeks or months.
Your only challenge will be in deciding where to go and how much time to spend in each place. But that can be easier said than done…
Some of the popular routes and sights around the region (link to image).
Don’t bite off too much!
This is easily the most important tip I can share about creating your route for Southeast Asia.
I know you’ll be intensely tempted to include every highlight listed in your travel guide. But unless you have all the time in the world, chances are your route is already too ambitious.
It’s usually better to focus. Think about it: do you want to see loads of stuff only very superficially (and tire yourself by continually moving from place to place in a hurry)? Or do you want to pick a more realistic number of places and then see them in a more meaningful way?
If your answer is still the former, that’s okay! Not everyone likes to travel the same way. But personally, I think it’s better to pace yourself.
I often see people asking if, say, three weeks is enough to see Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. While it’s technically possible, I don’t recommend it. You would probably need another holiday just to recover from such a hectic schedule. And when you’re frantically pinballing around the region, you’re likely to experience many places only very fleetingly.
Cutting back and streamlining your itinerary can actually improve your trip. Here are a few reasons why:
- You will have more time to truly get to know a country instead of just ticking things off a list;
- A tighter route typically means more time available to experience things, and less time wasted in transit;
- You’ll have more opportunity to go beyond just the obvious tourist hubs.
Not to mention, traveling long distances can be tiring! While infrastructure is improving in Southeast Asia and budget flights are increasingly available, it’s still easy to underestimate the time and distances involved, especially if your goal is to travel mostly overland.
Balancing your Asia itinerary
Okay, so you don’t want to stretch yourself too thin.
Apart from that, I also recommend having a nice mix of Big Things as well as small things in your itinerary.
What do I mean? Well, in your research, much of your attention will inevitably be drawn to Big Things. I’m talking UNESCO world heritage sites and iconic famous places (which are also heavily marketed). Maybe you’ll read about Ha Long Bay in Vietnam, or the temples of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, or the famous karst islands around Krabi in Thailand.
I’m not saying these places aren’t worth it. They usually are. But they are also usually rammed with tourists and drones and selfie sticks. It’s definitely cool to have some major sights in your itinerary, but it should never be an obligation, and it’s nice to mix them with some less assuming places with a more local character.
Many of my favorite travel memories in Asia are not of grand or iconic locations. I often think back just to riding a scooter through rice fields in northern Thailand, watching the sunset over the Mekong river in Laos, or simply enjoying a delicious bowl of Pho noodles at a market in Vietnam.
If you are finding it impossible to fit in all the big bucket list items, don’t beat yourself up about it too much. You route simply may not be able to capture them all. Just know that between the famous sights are plenty of smaller things you may enjoy just as much.
Now enough with the disclaimers… let me share a few actual suggestions.
Backpacking Southeast Asia in 2 weeks
Two weeks is honestly not a lot to be thinking about an entire region. You’ll have some tough decisions to make.
Some 2-week itineraries out there suggest flying everywhere and spending just two or three days per country, but I think that’s a huge waste. Consider just picking one country.
Think about what sort of activities you like and pick a country that you most like the sound of.
If you’re new to Southeast Asia, then Thailand is always a safe bet. The food is phenomenal, travel logistics are relatively easy, and you’re spoiled for interesting attractions. Check out our Thailand itinerary for a rough template for a 2 week or longer trip to Thailand. From Bangkok, you could also make an excursion into Cambodia to see the sprawling temples of Angkor Wat, though Thailand also has its own ancient temple ruins at Ayathuya and Sukhothai.
Vietnam is also a good choice for a shorter trip. It’s a pretty big and stretched out country but transportation options are good, including many railway connections (with sleeper trains too). Seeing all the highlights would take at least 3 or 4 weeks, so with 2 weeks you may want to choose to see either the south or north. (Personally, I like the northern and middle parts the most.)
Backpacking Southeast Asia in 4 weeks
4 weeks gives you more to work with, but it’s realistically still too tight for hitting up all of mainland Southeast Asia. My suggestion would be to focus on the two countries that appeal to you most.
For example, you could combine Thailand with Laos. The latter is a very gentle country – it’s great for jungle and mountain trekking and visiting small rural places. If you have a keen interest in nature and cultural experiences and don’t need much in terms of entertainment or nightlife, then Laos might just be the place for you. Northern Thailand and northern Laos go together rather well, letting you travel in a neat little loop.
Or you could combine Vietnam and Cambodia, for instance. You could start in northern Vietnam, visit Halong Bay, and work your way south. Vietnam alone could take you 2,5 or 3 weeks; keep at least one week free to dip into Cambodia and see Angkor Wat and one or two other highlights. End your trip with some quality beach time on the Cambodian islands.
Of course, if you don’t want to travel strictly overland, you can easily spend 2 weeks in one country and then fly off for another 2 weeks somewhere totally else.
I’m not saying you must stick to just two countries: you could easily decide to do more or less. I’m just saying two countries in four weeks will probably give you a nice unhurried pace.
Southeast Asia in 2 months or more
2 months is the perfect minimum time to enjoy all four countries in mainland South-East Asia without having to rush.
You can follow the complete so-called ‘Banana Pancake’ trail, a well-trodden Southeast Asia backpacker route that runs through Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam.
In case you were wondering, this trail was named after the guesthouses that were all starting to sell banana pancakes back when hippies were trailblazing around this region in the 1970s. At the time this pancake breakfast offered the only relief from the usual rice-based meals. The name doesn’t make that much sense anymore, but it’s what stuck!
An example (very roughly) of what the Banana Pancake route commonly looks like. Only showing key waypoints, not smaller places.
Due to having so many flight connections, many people start their trip in Bangkok. (Though Kuala Lumpur and Singapore are also common entry points into the region.)
You can get some ideas for how to kick things off in Thailand on my Thailand itineraries page. Head north up to Chiang Mai and Pai, then head for Chiang Rai and the Laos border.
Many backpackers like to take the two-day slow boat from the Laos border to Luang Prabang along the Mekong. It’s nice to see the landscape slowly change and to get a glimpse of the locals living along the river. The boat is also a great way to meet other travelers. On my first Southeast Asia sojourn, I kept meeting people from the boat for months after.
Be sure to spend some time in northern Laos. I think it’s incredibly scenic and a totally underrated part of the region.
If you’re following the classic route from Luang Prabang down to Vang Vieng and the capital of Vientiane, it may be worth flying to Vietnam from there. While infrastructure is gradually improving in Laos, overlanding from Vientiane to Hanoi still makes for an epic 25+hour journey that you may wish to skip.
Work your way down Vietnam, then through Cambodia, and end your trip lazying on the Thai islands.
Psst, are you insured for a long trip?
Travelling in Southeast Asia can be a little adventurous, which is why it’s wise to get travel insurance. BUT… did you know that normal annual insurance plans often only cover shorter holidays and not longer trips?
I recommend checking out World Nomads, which offer flexible insurance for independent travellers with 24-hour worldwide assistance. You will be covered for medical expenses, theft, personal liability, cancellation, and a lot more. Adventurous and outdoors activities are covered, and your trip can be as long as you want (you can even extend your plan while you’re still travelling… if you really catch the travel bug!).
I use World Nomads myself and they’re my preferred affiliate partner. But even if you don’t get insured with them, be sure to get some travel insurance somewhere.
Alternative Banana Pancake route
The route above is roughly how I traveled through Indochina back in 2013 as a first-time backpacker following more or less the beaten path.
Knowing what I know now from subsequent trips (and if I had to cherry-pick), I would maybe create a different route. Below is probably how I’d do things now, with more focus on nature and rural regions, and a bit less focus on cities and the most touristy areas.
Some of the most important changes:
- This route leaves out Vientiane in Laos, as I (humbly) think it’s one of the dullest capitals in the region
- More focus on central and north Vietnam instead of the south (but this could be added back in if you wanted)
- Added southern Laos for a quiet Mekong river experience, in favor of the busier Mekong Delta in southern Vietnam
- Less time spent in southern Thailand, which I think can be overly touristy and less adventurous
Some of the highlights along this route:
- Do the Mae Hong Son loop for a great slice of rural Thailand
- Luang Namtha in northern Laos is an excellent jumping off point for hill tribe and jungle hikes.
- Visit the UNESCO world heritage city of Luang Prabang, known for its French colonial architecture and Mekong river views
- Go to Nong Khiaw for waterfall treks and other adventure activities. The landscape and things you can do here are similar to Vang Vieng but without the cheesy nightlife.
- A quick stopover in Phonsavan just to break up the overland journey to Vietnam
- See lush rice fields and karst landscapes around Ninh Binh. (Consider staying overnight instead of doing this as a day trip from Hanoi.)
- Explore Vietnam’s traditional capital of Hanoi, with potential route extensions into the mountainous northwest of Vietnam
- Take a cruise to Bai Tu Long Bay instead of Ha Long Bay. This takes a day longer but has much fewer crowds
- Stop at Phong Na for caving adventures. You’ll find here some of the most unique and largest caves in the whole world.
- Go to Hoi An, a pleasant town known for its colourful lanterns at night. There are some decent beaches near Hoi An where you can find your first sun & sand on this trip.
- Head to Pakse and consider exploring the Bolaven Plateau, which has some of Laos’ prettiest waterfalls.
- Chill at the riverine archipelago of Si Phan Don
- See the temples of Angkor Wat near Siem Reap
- Relax on the islands of Cambodia and/or southeast Thailand. These islands are often less commercialized than the more famous ones in southwest Thailand (like Koh Phi Phi). Or consider the Perhentian Islands in Malaysia.
Of course, there are a million ways to travel through Southeast Asia and this is just one other way. If you’re not sure how to get from point A to B, try putting the two places into Rome2Rio (though journey times are not always correct and local minivan services aren’t usually listed).
The route I suggested above is a stitching together of segments from other routes I’ve done. I should mention I’ve not done the trip from central Vietnam (Hoi An) into south Laos (Pakse) myself, which seems can be a bit tricky and possibly involving multiple minivans. Other segments do have direct connections by bus or train.
Expanding your Asia route
So far I’ve focused on the four core countries as they connect well overland. But with more time to spare or with some added flights, there’s clearly a whole other chunk of Southeast Asia to consider.
Malaysia makes for an obvious extension from southern Thailand. It’s a more conservative country with quieter beaches than in Thailand, while Malaysian Borneo has some of the best wildlife experiences and the tallest mountain in the region.
But some of my favorite backpacking destinations are actually on Southeast Asia’s periphery. I’m a big fan of Indonesia, which is hyper touristy on Bali but rather low-key and uncrowded elsewhere. I like Flores and the Komodo Islands a lot. Mount Bromo and the Ijen Plateau are amazing.
I also love The Philippines. I know, it’s a bit far removed from everywhere else, but it’s totally worth it. Rest assured, it’s a safe country and it has some of the friendliest people and best beaches and islands. I’ve heard that Palawan is getting a bit overcrowded these days, but you can’t go wrong with a trip through the Visayas or Northern Luzon, among literally countless other islands.
Myanmar is another fascinating destination, with much less developed tourism (especially outside of Bagan and Lake Inle).
Or… don’t listen to me!
So far I’ve merely shared some of the common wisdom for backpacking Southeast Asia. But maybe you have different ideas, in which case you shouldn’t let anyone tell you what to do.
Don’t be afraid to go off the beaten track and make whatever crazy route you want. Just be realistic about how much time you have, as I tried to caution in the beginning.
Not everything has to be planned out in advance, especially for a longer trip. Improvisation is fairly easy in Southeast Asia, so you can always just wing it and see where adventure takes you!