The Best Southeast Asia Route For Backpackers: Itineraries and Tips
If you are currently planning your backpacking Southeast Asia trip, you have come to the right place.
Southeast Asia is a backpacker’s dream.
It sounds exciting and overwhelming at the same time because it is!
I wanted to share with you my Southeast Asia Route For Backpackers along with alternative itineraries and backpacking Southeast Asia travel tips.
The Ultimate Backpacking Southeast Asia Route
Southeast Asia Map
How Do You Backpack For A Long Period Of Time?
How did we do it?
My husband’s work contract had just ended, and I decided to quit my job.
We had a pretty good amount of savings, no children, were healthy, and had no other commitments.
It could have not been a more perfect time to travel for a long period of time.
Unless you are a trust fund baby, you have to get creative.
Ways to backpack Southeast Asia:
- Save money before your trip
- Get a work visa
- Find a remote job that allows you to travel the world
- Volunteer in exchange for accommodation/food
- Sabbatical leave
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Why Did We Choose A Southeast Asia 3 Months Itinerary?
Honestly, we just ran out of money, and I did not want to rack up any debt.
I would have loved to travel forever and ever.
We had approximately $15,000 saved up plus some airline miles that we were able to use.
I am all about treating myself and living my best life, but I don’t ever spend money that I do not have, especially when we were both jobless and had no plans on working while traveling.
Southeast Asia In 2 Weeks
I understand that not everyone can take off for a long period of time.
If you are coming from the US, you have to remember that Asia is 12-13 hours ahead.
By the time that you get to your first destination, 48 hours has pretty much past.
Taking flying back and forth into account plus all the other travel in between, if you only have 12 days of vacation, you really only have about 8-9 days to enjoy.
I highly recommend only going to 1 country and island hop.
Go island hopping in the Philippines!
Southeast Asia In 3 Weeks
Similar to my advice above when planning your backpacking Southeast Asia route, 3 weeks would be ideal for 1-3 countries.
Three countries might be pushing it, but if you are up for fast pace traveling then for it!
Southeast Asia Itinerary 1 Month
Ideally, backpacking for 1 month in Southeast Asia should be the minimum.
You will have a bit of flexibility and some rest time.
I recommend backpacking Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia for a 1 month Southeast Asia itinerary.
Southeast Asia Backpacking Route 2 Months
Now, we’re talking!
If you have 2 months, do not even hesitate and just go!
You can easily fit 5 countries or 8 if you are feeling adventurous.
Southeast Asia Itinerary 3 Months
- Thailand (14 days)
- Cambodia (7 days)
- Vietnam (7 days)
- Malaysia (4 days)
- Indonesia (14 days)
- Singapore (3 days)
- Philippines (30 days)
- Taiwan (5 days)
I’m working my way through writing about each country, so bear with me! I will update the links once they are ready.
If you need help in any of the countries above, feel free comment below!
Why did we spend 1 month in the Philippines?
My husband and I are both Filipinos and we have not been back to the Philippines ever since we were children.
We wanted to take our time to visit each other’s families, relatives, and childhood homes while also visiting all the gorgeous islands.
It was an excuse to eat our way through our home country–and we did just that!
From my experience in traveling to these countries, Cambodia, Malaysia, Singapore and Taiwan are countries that you could getaway with only spending less than 3 days.
Of course, you can spend a month or even a year in each of these countries, but that is my recommendation if you are wanting to check off as many as you can.
For Thailand and Vietnam, you would want at least a week.
For Indonesia and the Philippines, l recommend at least 2 weeks for each.
Unless you only want to visit Bali, then a week is sufficient, but there are so many islands to explore!
Philippines literally has 7,641 islands. Go figure.
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Where To Travel In Southeast Asia?
For a few of our activities and tours in each city, we booked them through Klook. They make it easy to plan trips and have the best deals for excursions. They also offer transportation and sim card deals.
Bangkok is where most backpackers start their backpacking Southeast Asia route—and for great reasons.
I’d call this city the backpackers’ mecca.
There are so many backpacker hostels, tours, excursions, and all the stimulating new and exciting things that will feed your culture shock.
It is a city full of life, packed with cheap delicious food, temples, and all the adventures you can only imagine.
This is where my husband and I became friends with the people from our hostel who ended up traveling with us throughout our backpacking journey in Southeast Asia.
Chiang Mai is one of my favorite cities while we were traveling in Thailand.
It is the northern capital of Thailand. Unlike the bustling city of Bangkok, Chiang Mai has a lot more nature-related activities including waterfalls, jungles, and is the home to several ethical elephant sanctuaries.
Think of Ao Nang as a hub or port where you can get to all the Islands like Krabi and Koh Phi Phi.
It’s the most ideal place to recharge and plan out which islands you will be visiting.
Here, you can find all the kiosks to book your island hopping tours.
This island was one of my favorites in this backpacking Southeast Asia route.
Think white sands and pretty beaches.
I am not going to waste my time describing it because my words are not worthy.
Koh Phi Phi
Apparently, if you like to party, you have to go here…so we did?
My husband and I are not necessarily party people, but it is one of those islands that you just have to experience.
It is a backpackers must destination for anyone doing the Southeast Asia route.
This place would be ideal for solo travelers because you just meet so many people.
It’s not just for parties, I promise.
Let’s not forgot the gorgeous beaches and all the island hopping you can do.
Not as crowded and busy as Bangkok, but there are so many temples and night markets to explore.
Of course, you can’t miss visiting the northern part of Angkor to visit Angkor Wat, which is one of the wonders of the world.
You will also hear people talk about tomb raider a lot, and that is because they filmed it in one of the temples here called Ta Prohm.
You will not run out of temples to explore here.
If you are not interested in temples, I have 3 words for you:
Fifty cent beers.
This is the capital of Cambodia.
We treated this city as our rest stop, but we did not anticipate being so moved by the city’s unfortunate history.
I highly recommend it if you are not familiar with the Killing Fields history.
Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City
Located in Southeastern Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh city is something else.
Talk about a huge city that you have to experience!
I have never seen this many motorcycles as I have in Saigon.
We’re talking motorcycle riders being elbow to elbow while turning in 4-way streets.
Some of the main streets did not have traffic lights, so you’d feel like they are all just going to hit each other.
I am still dreaming of all the amazing food we ate here. There is so much history to absorb, especially from being conquered by the Khmer people, the French, and Spaniards.
Da Nang is known for its beaches and the famous dragon bridge.
I recommend Da Nang as a stop breather from the Ho Chi Minch City busyness.
Backpacking for a long period of time can take a huge toll on you and whoever you are traveling with (if you are not traveling solo).
I wrote a blog post about traveling with someone and other important tips to avoid fighting and frustrations.
Travel fatigue is very real, and Da Nang is one of the places where we took it easy and rested.
This city is so magical and whimsical!
Think riding bicycle through rice paddies, streets illuminated by rainbow-colored lanterns, night markets, and simple living.
Hoi An is very romantic and an ideal place for couples who are traveling.
We ate the best banh mi here.
Kuala Lumpur reminded me of New York City, but with a twist.
Lots of skyscrapers and high-end malls juxtaposed with a melting pot of Malay, Chinese, and Indian culture.
I am very surprised that Malaysia is not as popular as it should be.
Batu Caves, Selangor
You have probably seen a picture of the rainbow stairs.
These stairs lead to a limestone cave dedicated to a Hindu deity.
Make sure to catch one of the prayer ceremonies.
This city is the epitome of influencers relaxing in flower baths and frolicking in rice paddies.
But really, to travelers out there who want to experience pampering and self-care, Ubud is the city for you.
From Ubud, we were able to hike up an active volcano and catch the sunset.
There are three islands: Gili Trawangan, Gili Meno and Gili Air.
I would recommend visiting each island just to try it out for yourself, but we decided to stay at Gili Air.
From Gili Air we were able to join a tour and island-hop.
We free dove with turtles snorkeled and saw underwater statues.
Our daily routine went like this: wake up, drink coffee, beach adventure, watch the sunset, and eat fresh-caught grilled seafood.
We purposely avoided Gili Trawangan because it is for the party people and we wanted to just relax.
It was understood that Gili Meno are for couples and Gili Air was the quietest.
I would be lying if I say that we did not go here because of the movie, Crazy Rich Asians.
Watch the movie before you go!
Imagine an urban jungle, but without all the trash and yucky smell like NYC.
I am sorry NYC.
If you love luxury and street food, you would love Singapore.
My home country!
Our experience in the Philippines might be a little bit unique because we had spent a whole month here.
My husband and I were both born in the Philippines, but we had not been back ever since we left when we were young.
When planning your backpacking Southeast Asia route, you can spend more time in other countries, but we took this time to visit each other’s childhood homes.
My advice is to leave Manila as soon as possible because this city is so congested and you will spend 90% of your time in traffic.
But if you decide to stay, try all the local foods!
I have never seen water this emerald blue until I got to Coron.
Hands down, the best beaches and lakes I have ever seen. White sands, sparkling blue water. I’m still not over it.
Filter? Coron said, no thank you. I’m already beautiful.
There are always questions regarding whether to go to El Nido or Coron.
We decided to go to Coron because it wasn’t as crowded.
I cannot recommend this place enough.
We did so many all-day tours that only cost $25 each day, complete with a classic Filipino lunch on banana leaves and snacks.
My husband and I got to swim with sardines and corals reefs, free dive to see shipwrecks and lagoons, play basketball on an island, and make the best memories.
Bohol is known for the Chocolate Hills.
We did some island hopping as well and I had the best time swimming with turtles, almost the same size as me.
If you get the chance, make sure to visit the Bohol Bee Farm and eat the gumamela (hibiscus) flavored ice cream.
Cebu is the city that was first colonized by the Spaniards in the Philippines.
The rich history is evident in the landmarks and dialects.
There are numerous sights and museums to check out.
Cebu is also known for the well known Filipino dish lechon and the popular dessert snack, dried mangoes.
Oslob and Badian islands were a part of the tour that we took from Moalboal with our hostel.
We got to swim with sardines and go island hopping.
Our hostel guide ended up being a professional free diver, so he gave us free diving lessons and took underwater pictures.
I will link more details here once the post is ready.
Oslob in particular is known for whale shark watching.
I have my own opinions about whale shark watching. I personally think that the way things are being done is inhumane and unnatural.
I wish I had known before we signed up for it.
See it for yourself! You do get to be about to feet away from whale sharks, which is quite an experience.
Canyoneering in Badian has got to be one of the most fun adventurous things I have ever done in my life.
If you don’t know what canyoneering is (I had no idea what it was until I was already wearing my life vest and helmet), let me warn you that it is not for the weak.
You basically have to go through rivers, caves, and waterfalls, which means that you have to hike, slide, rappel, swim, climb, jump off waterfalls, problem-solve, and whatever else you have to do to keep moving to get to the other side.
In the end, it is all worth it because the iconic Kawasan falls is waiting for you.
I doubt that Marinduque is on any itinerary out there because it is a remote island off of Luzon.
Marinduque is my mother’s hometown and where I grew up until I was 5 years old.
Very simple living and there was no internet unless you stay close to the downtown area.
My husband met my grandfather and all the relatives from my mother’s side.
The land of boba. If you do not know what boba is then you really have to go to Taiwan.
I honestly can barely remember what we did here because I am pretty sure we just ate everything we saw until we blacked out.
There was so much to do that we could have easily spent a few weeks.
This city is known as a retirement city in Taiwan because of its natural hot springs and greenery.
We could have chosen a fancy hot springs spa, but my husband and I took it to the next level and went to a $1 bathhouse where all the local senior citizens took baths.
It was the funniest experience ever.
This mountainous small town is most famous for the real-life version of the Japanese animated movie spirited away Hayao Miyazaki.
There really is no proof that Miyazaki based the movie on this place, but I can tell you that it is quite magical.
Think dense narrow staircases decked with red lanterns, all kinds of mouthwatering Taiwanese foods including the most delicious melt in your mouth Taiwanese beef noodle soup.
I’m pretty sure I gained 20 lbs. from this day alone. We ate everything that looked good (basically everything).
This town is a market place surrounding a railroad.
It is most famous for sky lanterns and souvenir shops.
You can buy your own lantern and depending on the color of the lantern you buy, there is a meaning to it.
The vendors set up the lantern for you to be able to paint each side with your wish(es).
Once you are done painting your lantern, the vendor will light up the lantern and give you instructions on when to release it; very similar science to a hot air balloon.
How To Get To Southeast Asia?
Where should you fly from?
This will all depend on where you are coming from in the world.
For us, we flew from Raleigh, North Carolina.
The easiest and cheapest way for us was to fly direct from RDU to Bangkok, Thailand.
We had a few friends who had backpacked Southeast Asia in the past and Bangkok is a good starting place because it can pretty much connect to everywhere in Asia.
In addition, Thailand is such a popular place for tourists.
I knew that even if we did not have a specific plan, Bangkok, Thailand would be easy to navigate because it is so tourist friendly and a lot of people spoke English.
Kuala Lumpur is another popular starting point.
Tips On Planning Your Own Backpackers Southeast Asia Route
Planning your backpacking Southeast Asia route will depend on three things:
Time, money, and priorities.
When traveling or backpacking, a lot of people try to pack in as many things as they can into their itinerary.
I am not saying this is the wrong way, but it’s hard to enjoy a lot of things because it starts to feel like you’re just checking off so many things in such a short time.
Before actually going, make sure that you are clear about the main things I mentioned above before going on your Southeast Asia backpacking adventure.
Some things to this about:
Are you traveling long term? Do you have to end your trip at a certain point?
Maybe you’ll change your mind in the middle of it, but as a rule, you should have a planned out itinerary if you are only traveling for a short time or an outline to give yourself something to refer to.
If you are traveling long term, it is easier to go with the flow and adjust throughout your trip.
Do you need to save up for this trip?
Do you plan on working while backpacking?
If you want to learn more on how to save money for traveling, check out my blog post.
Southeast Asia is generally cheap aside from Singapore and popular places in Bali.
I have met people who only spent less than $20 a day traveling SE Asia, while others spent $100+ per day.
For us, we probably averaged $40-$50 per day including accommodations. We LOVE food and went on all kinds of adventures.
Again, this all depends on your budget and what you are willing to sacrifice.
What are your priorities while backpacking SE Asia?
Is it to learn the culture? To meet people? To find yourself?
Having some type of goal to go back to always helps when you find yourself overwhelmed.
For us, we wanted to use this trip to strengthen our marriage and get to know each other on a deeper level.
I personally had travel insurance through my Chase credit cards.
Depending on what you want to do during your backpacking adventure in Southeast Asia, I strongly recommended to have international travel insurance.
It is good for:
- Medical emergencies/loss of life
- Car rental collision
- Trip cancellations and interruption
- Roadside assistance
- Baggage loss
When Is The Best Time To Backpack Southeast Asia?
This is one of those things that will depend on the things I mentioned above which again were: time, money, and priorities.
There are pros and cons.
Our Southeast Asia 3 Months Itinerary was from September until December, which is rainy season in Southeast Asia.
I strongly believe that this is the best time to backpack SE Asia.
You’re probably asking, why would you all go during the rainy season?
The reason behind the decision wasn’t that deep.
In August, my husband’s travel nurse assignment ended, and I also quit my job. Our joblessness aligned and savings aligned, and we went for it.
On September 3rd, we found ourselves boarding a flight from RDU to BKK.
Some of the pro’s during the rainy season:
- Less tourists
- Cheaper flights
- During the days it rained, we were forced to actually take it easy and rest
- No problem booking things on the same day or a few days before (because there were tourists)
- The rain helped cool of the temperature
Note that, just because it is rainy season, it doesn’t mean that it would rain everyday or for a long period of time.
In reality, it only rained for an hour about every other day.
The summer months are from May to September–most touristy months.
I know that summer months are usually the best time for people to travel and take a vacation, so I understand why this time is so busy.
This will be all up to you! If you love summertime and do not mind the crowd and cost, then go for it.
When I talk about holiday season, I am thinking of December and January.
Holiday season tends to be the most expensive months to buy flights to anywhere and not just to Southeast Asia.
It would also be a great time to see all the lights and how other countries celebrate or not celebrate Christmas and the New Year.
At the end of the day, it will be up to your time, money, and priorities.
Whenever or whatever you decide, I know that it will be amazing.
Getting around Southeast Asia might sound like a challenge, but once you start backpacking, you get used to the different modes of transportation.
If you take anything from this blog post, know that you will be walking a lot and you will get lost.
Depending on what city you will be in, transportation will be different.
Thailand is very walkable, but depending on where you are going, there are tuktuks, red buses (Songthaew), and boats that will take you everywhere.
If you don’t want to haggle with tuktuk drivers, Songthaews were very inexpensive.
Grab is also available which is very similar to Uber.
An important tip about Grab: unlike Uber, a lot of the drivers usually will not follow the amount that is indicated on the app.
You can “grab” a taxi and even a motorcycle through the Grab app.
Some will try to haggle with you, so please be aware of that.
Tuk tuk’s are a pretty popular form of transportation especially if you are wanting to tour Angkor Wat.
There are also taxis and Grab.
I remember just walking a lot in Vietnam.
If you are a brave soul, you can try riding a motorcycle, but unless you are an expert, I would not recommend it.
If we wanted to go somewhere father, we would used Grab.
In the country side, we also used bicycles.
We primarily walked in Malaysia and also used mass rapid transit (MRT).
Local taxi drivers in Bali are really against Grab. I know Grab exists, but it is unlikely that you will be able to use the app.
To travel around the island, we used taxis and hired them for the day.
You can also use motorcycles if you know how to ride them.
In the Gili Islands, we walked the whole time and road boats to island hop.
The best way to get around Singapore is to use the mass rapid transit (MRT) and to walk.
The Philippines is a bit tricky because it depends on where you are trying to go, there are many choices.
You can ride a jeepney, use grab, tricycle (aka tuktuk) or a bus.
Most of the islands are very walkable as well.
We walked a lot in Taiwan and used the metro trail train.
Our tour to the other city already included the bus ride.
Internet and Phone Service
The best way to get internet and phone service while backpacking Southeast Asia is to get a sim card in each country.
I am only familiar with US phones, but make sure your phone is unlocked/completely paid for you to be able to use a sim card.
It became a habit for us to get a sim card as soon as we get to a new country.
Sim cards are fairly cheap and cost between $3-$25.
Depending on what country you are in, each sim card will have a different “plan” on how much data, call, and text time you will get.
Sim card kiosks are available everywhere and you will always see signs at the airport and in shops.
There are almost always sim card tech shops downtown and inside malls.
T-Mobile (US Only)
Another option for US travelers is choosing T-Mobile as your service.
They have free international data and texting included in their plans.
This is what my husband had while I bought sim cards because my phone was through AT&T.
I do not recommend buying an international plan through other carriers. That is a recipe for growing broke. I know that some charge you $10 per day which is absolutely ridiculous.
Where To Get Cash When Backpacking Southeast Asia?
If you are traveling to Southeast Asia, you will need cash on you always.
Especially if you are traveling to a remote island, you will find out that they do not use credit cards or there is nowhere for you get cash.
To get the best exchange rate, you should withdraw some cash once you get to your destination. Emphasis on the withdraw and not exchange through the bank.
You do not need to get cash exchanged before your trip because that could get very expensive.
Where To Stay?
For this 3-month Southeast Asia backpackers route, I only booked our accommodations for the first week and pretty much winged the rest (like the true enneagram 7 that I am).
The beauty of having a long open flexible itinerary is that you can switch routes and decide to go somewhere else.
You can keep adjusting.
Depending on what kind of traveler you are, you might realize that you want to stay longer somewhere than you had originally planned.
If you only have 2 weeks, then it would be smart and make the most sense to book everything in advance.
We booked all of our accommodations through the following apps/websites:
Alternative Backpacking Routes and Southeast Asia Travel Tips
I say this all the time, but you can follow this Southeast Asia route for backpackers guide or don’t.
You do you, boo! It’s your adventure.
Everyone is different and the things you like and the way you travel might be different from me.
And that is completely okay.
Once you are deep into your backpacking SE Asia journey and checking off things on your backpacking Southeast Asia itinerary, you will learn what kind of backpacker you are.
Some people end up extending their time in one city while others discover that this life is not for them and they end up going home early.
While this is the backpacking Southeast Asia route we took, here are some alternatives:
- Stay in 1 country per month
- Laos, experience the 2-day slow boat ride down the Mekong River
- Explore the other islands in Indonesia and not just Bali
- Expand your SE Asia itinerary to Australia and New Zealand
Southeast Asia Route Backpackers Other General Planning Resources:
I hope this Southeast Asia Route For Backpackers guide and tips help you with planning your future trip.
Do you have any questions?
Are you planning on backpacking SE Asia?
Have you been to SE Asia before? How similar were our itineraries?