Backpacker Travel Tips in Southeast Asia

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For those embarking on a backpacker trip, this is an essential guide to know that travel is always fluid and flexible, as are all the suggestions in this guide. They are guidelines to help you plan and prepare for your amazing journey, not something carved in stone. Pack your bags, get your map out, and let’s get started. The corners of Southeast Asia are full of countless places and attractions that can be explored. Of course, which places to visit will depend on your interests and time. However, after venturing through the corners of this beautiful land and talking with countless other travelers, some gems will undoubtedly be weeded out.

Backpacking in Southeast Asia is an amazing adventure that should be on every traveler’s bucket list. This part of the world possesses a certain spiritual magic unlike any other. Backpackers in Southeast Asia are likely to be wowed by the skyline of Kuala Lumpur city, wandering along rice paddies of Vietnam, trekking to remote hill tribes in Laos, getting lost in the jungles of Cambodia, relaxing on the beautiful beaches of Thailand, and marveling at the iconic temples in Myanmar. Over the years, Southeast Asia has become the backpacker’s dream destination.

Choosing the Right Backpack

Your best bet is to work with your pack loosely because as you go along you will pare down your needs and the supportive structure of your pack does not have to be tightly fastened for you to do so. This is a silly little fact that nobody told me, but pack straps are adjustable! Even after you have found the perfect fit at the store, your backpack will sway and pull on your body with the temperature and humidity changes in Southeast Asia. Do not expect to be able to maintain the perfect fit that you had while in the air conditioning in the store. Some backpacks sometimes have a little piece of plastic on the harness that has an attached cord to the hip belt. This contraption is meant to be pulled to adjust the length of the shoulder straps to better fit the length of your torso. However, this plastic piece is highly injurious to the body part over which it rests.

The backpacking backpack is the essential piece of a traveler’s gear, and many are tempted to buy one in their home country before they leave. As understandable as this is, it is generally not a good idea. You will only be happy with your pack if you spend a lot of time trying different ones on. Also, it will be much, much cheaper if you make the purchase in Southeast Asia. Even if you are not yet in a country that is famous for its fake goods, they are not hard to find and are decent enough quality for the short amount of time you will need them for. It is important to buy a good quality backpack. A cheaply made pack will quickly fall apart under the travel conditions your pack will be going through. Find a backpack that fits very well on your body. Fit is the single most important consideration. Make sure that all the straps and zippers are adjustable so that the pack can fit your body very closely, high and tight. Try to avoid any external frame pack because they are not as well suited to the kind of travel you will be doing, often too large for carrying on, and very difficult to maneuver.

Packing Essentials

Daypack or small backpack: In addition to your larger backpack, bring a smaller daypack or backpack to take with you on your day trips and to carry essentials such as a camera, water, etc. while walking around cities. Select a daypack made with lightweight, waterproof material.

Travel towel: Ordinary towels can weigh your bag down and take a long time to dry. Travel towels are super absorbent and they dry very quickly.

First-aid essentials: Small medical kits or simple medications can be bought at any local pharmacy. Things to include are travel sickness pills, painkillers, band-aids, and antiseptic cream. It might come in handy to include a light, small travel size medical kit to carry in your day pack while sightseeing. It is better to buy a non-Australian brand because they tend to have medical instructions in English and it is a lot cheaper compared to a branded medical kit.

Swimwear: Many accommodations will have swimming pools, especially popular in the tropical climate.

Hat and sunglasses: Secure a hat and sunglasses to protect yourself on the hottest days. In the sun, the local population can sometimes be seen wearing black traditional clothing from head to toe while working outdoors.

Footwear: Comfortable footwear is an absolute must. Your feet will thank you if you invest in a supportive pair of sandals or closed shoes you can walk in. At temples, you’ll be required to leave your footwear outside and walk barefoot on the marble or sandstone floors, which may be extremely hot.

Clothing: Comfort is key in Southeast Asia. Use lightweight, practical, and breathable materials like cotton and linen, with short sleeve and three-quarter length sleeve tops and shorts for daytime, traveling, or sightseeing. Also, a modest outfit is required for visiting temples and other religious sites. A wraparound skirt is very practical, and sarongs for both men and women are easily available as well. Remember, even though you might be dressed conservatively, being respectful in your mannerisms and speech is the other part of temple etiquette.

Budgeting and Money-saving Tips

If you’re like most backpackers, you’ll probably start off in Bangkok. This decision is usually based on a number of things, but primarily because Southeast Asia’s largest concentration of air traffic goes in and out of Thailand’s capital city. If you’re heading to Nepal, India, or the Philippines, your best option might be via air without needing Bangkok. While countries in the rest of the Indian subcontinent are also visa-friendly, visas throughout the rest of Southeast Asia are either offered upon entry or are so easy to get prior to entry that they’re almost a non-issue. And also, getting visas for every country you visit at home will cost you time and often more money over applying for them on the road.

Southeast Asia is a backpacker and flashpacker’s paradise. It’s safe, affordable, and offers a myriad of pursuits for every type of traveler. It’s also vast—stretching from the Indian subcontinent over to Australia and New Zealand and from China to Indonesia—and as such, traveling in Southeast Asia can be a bit of a chore. It’s also typically hot and wet, which can make travel unpleasant. Fortunately, a little preparation, planning, and following a few simple rules can make it the trip of a lifetime or a highlight of a ’round-the-world trip.

Navigating Transportation

When negotiating taxi fares, tuk-tuk fares, motorcycle taxi fares, or any other kind of non-officially metered transportation, there are a few tips and rules to consider. The most important is to try and get a feel for what the local price ought to be. Chat with the reception at the guest house, hostel, or hotel and get the low down on what the cost should be – chances are the driver is getting a commission off of whatever price he hits you with, if so, be sure to drive a hard bargain. If you do choose a motorcycle taxi, choose one below the age of 19 to decrease the likelihood of reckless driving, and choose one who is not listening to music on their earbuds while negotiating the roads. Always negotiate a price before sitting, and when doing so, be sure to have your backpack safe in your clutches – a classic ploy by drivers when you try haggling down the initial price is to drive out of the city or head in the wrong direction, forcing you to pay through the nose. Also, a great way to save a few dollars while simultaneously getting to know the real locals is to ask them to take you to a few of their favorite local restaurants or shops, where chances are the prices are just right. This way they make a little cash and repay the courtesy you show.

Long haul bus rides are quite common in Southeast Asia and they won’t win any awards for comfort, though they can be a great way to see the countryside outside of cities that you might not get a chance to visit for long periods of time otherwise. Just make sure you have some Dramamine and some Tylenol, a fully charged iPod, earplugs, and some sort of blanket or a warm long sleeve to fend off the cold that those pesterishly effective A/C systems might dump upon you.

Exploring Local Cuisine

Other ways of saving money regarding food and drink means that you should buy at local markets or anywhere where you don’t see that many tourists. You probably learn this after a while that the price locals pay is different. To avoid confusion when they see a Western face, the seller might give you a higher price or local price, it is best to ask your local friend to buy things for you. Sometimes, they really aren’t willing to take a penny from you if they offer you help. Also, it’s a good chance to learn the real price of things on the menu in the future.

One of the beauties of traveling all over the world, especially in Asia, is tasting different kinds of traditional food. Food and snacks here are quite cheap, usually about a dollar. Hence, it is crucial that you should try some local food in order to save money. It probably goes without saying, but avoid buying it from touristy areas, as it’s not going to be as tasty or even cheap near there. If you want to try street food, it’s better to go at night when the locals do. The food is going to be better and it will be less, say, infested with harmful daytime germs.

Staying Safe and Healthy

To help avoid traveler’s diarrhea, take a few precautionary measures when it comes to eating. First, be sure to wash your hands frequently, or at least before meals. Only drink water from sealed bottles, or purify or boil tap water. Bottled carbonated mineral water is readily available, and pours with sealed lips provide a clear indicator that the bottle hasn’t been refilled with tap water and resealed. Soft drinks and beer are also good options for safe beverages. Fruits like bananas, mangos, or any melon with an intact, unwashed skin are safe to eat, while cooked food is always best. Vegetables and salads are best eaten at high-volume stalls and restaurants with a quick turnover of items, or, better yet, served piping hot!

Illness is the last thing that any traveler wants to worry about, but be aware that food poisoning, or ‘traveler’s diarrhea’, is common among tourists in Southeast Asia. The warm temperatures and high humidity present ideal conditions for bacteria to multiply rapidly in spoiled food, setting the stage for your vacation from hell.

Staying Healthy

Keep safety in mind when engaging in any adventure sports activity. From time to time, tourists do get injured while participating in diving, rock climbing, or other extreme sports enjoyed in the region. Some of it can be attributed to inexperience, a lax attitude, and sheer stupidity, so think twice if you’re being encouraged to drink and dive, trek an overnight hike path alone, or opt out of a basic, 20-minute safety instruction session. As mentioned earlier, remember that relatively new adventure sports businesses might not be 100% regulated.

The cities, towns, and beaches of Southeast Asia are relatively safe places to travel, and millions of people visit the region each year without incident. That being said, there is no 100% guarantee when it comes to travel anywhere in the world.

Cultural Etiquette and Respect

Dress codes are a bit less strict in Indonesia, and although clothing intended to show bare shoulders won’t be looked upon with the disapproval and even anger it can sometimes invoke in Thailand or Malaysia, plan to take off your shoes before entering a building in Indonesia or Malaysia. It can be a crass and costly mistake to go marching around the country with the soles of your shoes in the air, so remember to keep a pair of clean socks in your day bag if you’re planning on heading out for the day.

If you’re going into any temples, either in Thailand or Malaysia, shorts and shapely clothing that bares shoulders can be seen as disrespectful. Make sure that everyone in your party knows this, or you might be required to wear rented clothing or to buy colorful and often overpriced cover-ups from local vendors. You can avoid the additional cost of buying incriminating clothing by covering up in advance. Additionally, donate a few baht to temples for a bag of fish food and take the opportunity to have a very good time feeding the fish with the local children who wait around large temple ponds after their classes let out.

Dress Codes

Other listings have taken on the defamation of the Thai royal family issue as I write this, but it’s wise to understand that the Thai people are very conservative and deeply loyal to the king. No matter how democratic they might be when discussing politics and how much they tolerate personal choices regarding personal morality, they are quick to defend The Institution. The best strategy is to avoid discussing the matter unless you’re sure of your company, especially outside of the larger cities. In Bangkok, it’s even more important to put away your opinions in mixed company and keep your camera in your pocket when the king’s anthem plays twice daily in the mass transit stations.

In Thai culture, there are a number of rules to conform to, and various websites have published articles on avoiding defamation of the king. While this seems simple, in practice it amounts to far more than avoiding language that could be taken as criticism. While penalties are higher for locals, and there are many different laws that cover a variety of ways to defame the king, foreigners should know that given the reverence most Thai people feel for their king, you risk serious confrontation talking about him unless you’re quite certain of your company.

Remove your shoes when entering a temple or private house. This is very important, as showing the bottom of your feet to someone, or especially to a Buddha image and altar, is an insult in Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand.

Avoid pointing with your fingers. It can be construed as confrontational. Use a closed hand to point if you need to, and do not place your hands on your hips when you talk to people.

Sustainable Travel Practices

On the other hand, a large number of tourists pay little or even give nothing in return for the wonderful adventure they are offered. Backpackers and bicycle travelers most of the time feel much closer to people and the environment and contribute more directly to inclusive and sustainable development. Both categories give a much bigger share of the money they spend back to the local communities than mass tourists do. They are eco-friendly, leave small footprints. Often, they contribute, and actually do not just give, by sharing knowledge or their elbow grease, picking up plastic and the junk mass tourists toss away carelessly. They support community development, regional decentralized economies, and food biodiversity. It isn’t surprising that some of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia have some of the happiest people in the world. Sustainable tourism has the potential to lift many more out of extreme poverty. However, not every cyclist and every backpacker follows the principles of sustainable and responsible travel, which enhances the positive effects even more while mitigating risks and costs associated with tourism.

However, in developing countries a large part of the money paid by tourists flows back to developed countries. Foreign multinational corporations operate the lion’s share of hotels, restaurants, and attractions. Locals working below minimum wages hardly see any benefits of their labor. The story is true for many in the travel industry, particularly guides, small-business owners, and their employees. Let’s face it. In which country would you find mostly foreign multi-millionaires and foreign minimum-wage earners? Large parts of infrastructure needed to serve tourists, and not just Swallow Nests, Tiger Testes, and Elephant Tusks for tourists, are missing. Beaches, for instance, are often privately owned. To reduce plastic waste is seriously not in the interest of the bottling industry.

Southeast Asia attracts 130 million international visitors annually. The industry’s benefits are huge. It’s the single largest employer, offers higher wages and opportunities often unavailable to many, particularly women. Growing $6 trillion of travel and tourism business helps achieving World Bank’s goal to eradicate extreme poverty.

Visas, research, packing, and bookings all take time so go ahead and give it some careful thought before you jet off. Just remember to pack light, bring home a nice tan and lots of brilliant travel memories. Have a great backpacking adventure.

Backpacking in Southeast Asia is an amazing experience and can be one of the most rewarding things you ever do. Considered a rite of passage for many young travelers, it can be a cheap, convenient, and adventurous way to spend a few months away from home. You will have a chance to meet fellow backpackers from all over the globe, experience a variety of different and memorable cultures, as well as see some of the world’s most beautiful coastlines, historic temples in the jungle, and stunning mountain landscapes. But you do not have to be young to enjoy this travel modality. You can cross all of Asia by land or air, in a few months, a year or for years… it will always be worth the experience.